By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The cell door clicks shut, and Albert "Prodigy" Johnson is stuck inside. He tries to get used to the idea, but before long he's had enough: "Get me outta here, man! I gotta spend enough time in this motherfuckin' shit!"
Prodigy, one-half of legendary Queens rap duo Mobb Deep, is shooting a video for "Real Power Is People," an introspective warning from his forthcoming solo album, H.N.I.C. 2, at the Queens House of Detention in Kew Gardens. "Money's worthless, real power is people/Real strength is in the street where everybody's equal," Prodigy raps. "Fuck jewelry, fuck rims, let's spend on our protection." It's the first Saturday in January, three days before Johnson is scheduled to begin a three-and-a-half-year prison term for illegal possession of firearms in New York. "It's just a regular day shooting a video," he insists, after noting the filthy condition of this prison, which has been non-operational since 2002. "But at the same time, it's definitely on my mind, like, 'Damn, I'm about be in one of these motherfuckers.' I think about it for a minute, and then I snap right out of it."
He's trying not to give himself any time to think. As Prodigy leaves Queens House to deliver some last-minute tracks from H.N.I.C. 2the follow-up to his gold-selling 2000 solo debut, H.N.I.C. (for "Head Nigga in Charge")to his engineer, he's suddenly back in front of the jail, shooting a scene for another video. "We went nuts with it," says "Real Power" director Dan the Man, who's helping ensure that every track on the record has a video ready for release while Prodigy's away. "We did a video last weekend, one the weekend before that, and two this weekend. Meanwhile, we finish this video, I'm walking downstairs, and he's doing another video right there with Jordan," he adds, motioning to another director who's been shadowing Prodigy around the clock for a documentary about his last days as a free man. "We don't have Prodigy for that long, so we want to put him in different environments and have him frozen in time. So that's the work ethic."
In the final week leading up to his incarceration, Prodigy has woken up with a jagged chip on his shoulder. But he shakes off the anger and heads out from his home in Edgewater, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife Kiki and three children. All the work he's put in since his conviction three months agojoining up with indie label/technology company Voxonic Inc. as an equity holder; finishing two albums' worth of material (including a special edition of H.N.I.C. 2 featuring a cappella tracks, commentary, and a bonus DVD, all scheduled for release next summer); launching his interactive Web community, hnic2.com, and the "FREE P" campaign; filming videos for every track on the new album, and video blogging for the online hub kyte.tvhas all been leading up to this. "I gotta leave things well prepared for my wife," says the pint-sized father of an eight-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, and 16-year-old stepdaughter. "I'd be mad as hell if I didn't. So while I'm in, everything's set upall she's gotta do is call the shots. Kiki's gonna be Prodigy while I'm gone. We've been together for over 15 years. It's nothing. We can get through this."
Kiki concurs: "We're going to act like he's on tour," she says. "They'll visit me," Prodigy adds. "We'll talk on the phone. I'll write them letters. It's like a long tour, basically. My kids is smart; they don't believe in all that fairyland shit. They deal with reality."
Though he'll never feel like he's done enough, the race against time has helped to breathe new life into the 33-year-old rapper, who was in his prime at 19, when he and his partner, Kejuan "Havoc" Mujita, used their hardcore street stories to forever change the rap game alongside fellow NYC titans Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, and Wu-Tang Clan. "It was the changing of the guard," Prodigy reminisces about the mid-'90s glory days, when Mobb's cautionary classic "Shook Ones Pt. II" was bumping on Every Block, USA. With lines like "I'm only 19 but my mind is old/And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold," Prodigy transported listeners to the merciless, murderous hallways of the Queensbridge housing projects, where he migrated from Long Island as a youngster. "We were making ground-breaking hits for the 'hood and quickly becoming the most elite rappers in the world," he says.
A decade later, Mobb Deep were no longer among the world's most elite rappers, so instead they signed with one, inking a deal with superstar 50 Cent's G-Unit Records in June 2005. 50 Cent had "MOBB DEEP" tattooed on his wrist, and Prodigy had "G-UNIT" inked on his hand. But Prodigy endured his unofficial initiation into that crew the following year, when he says he was pulled over and arrested after the release party celebrating Mobb Deep's G-Unit debut, Blood Money , at the Roxy nightclub. The arresting officer, a young black undercover that Prodigy says "looked like he could be one of our friends," refused to explain why they were bringing him downtown. But on the way there, he issued a warning. "He said, 'You might as well get used to seeing us now, because we've been assigned to you guys,' " Prodigy recalls. " 'Our squad has been assigned to G-Unit, and the team in this car is assigned to Mobb Deep.' "
When he got to the station, Prodigy says, he was told he'd been brought in for failing to pay a ticket that he received for talking on his cell phone while driving a few months before. "Never in my life," Prodigy says, "have I heard of police looking for someone who has a ticket for talking on their cell phone!"
It isn't breaking news that the Rap Intelligence Unit is a specialized task force that's been targeting rappers since the spring of 1999, when Chief Louis R. Anemone, known as the "Dark Prince" of the NYPD, promoted Detective Derrick Parker to the Gang Intelligence Unit to investigate hip-hop. But the NYPD still publicly denies the existence of the task force, and after more than a month of inquiries, the department offered the Voice no formal response whatsoever. Reached for comment, spokesman Sergeant Reginald Watkins couldn't make an official statement. "I don't know of any task force that targets rappers specifically, and I've been here for 23 years," he said. "But you're going to always have police looking out for people who are in violation of the law."
I've always said, 'Listen, there's no reason to deny it anymore,' " says Derrick Parker, who now runs a private investigative agency. Scott Leemon, the attorney to rappers Busta Rhymes and Tony Yayo, who are both facing multiple charges, agrees: "Everyone knows it's there. Every time I have a rap case, I deal with the same sergeants and lieutenants, and they usually act as liaisons for the local precinct."
I don't know how they can still say that it doesn't exist," Prodigy's lawyer, Irving Cohen, laments. "But what can I tell you . . . "
Five months after that first incident in May, on October 26, 2006, Prodigy says he noticed members of the same police team waiting outside of the Show nightclub near Times Square, where he and his crew were celebrating his producer Alan "Alchemist" Mamon's birthday. After leaving Show, and not wanting to miss a parking spot near Alchemist's Chelsea apartment building, Prodigy made an illegal U-turn, and he says that officers of the NYPD immediately swooped in on him in a yellow cab. They searched his Chevy Suburbanillegally, Prodigy insistsand found a .22-caliber gun inside a box.
The Borough Crime guys in the cabs are also involved in hip-hop; those are the guys that got Prodigy," clarifies Derrick Parker. "They're the ones that are hunting the rappers at night. They know who runs with what crew; they're waiting at certain clubs, and if they see you get in a car with an entourage, they pull 'em over. . . . Prodigy's been set up before. Of all the rappers out there, he's someone who should be concerned about going out without protection."
Prodigy carries a gun. It's how he was raised. Though Albert Johnson comes from a long line of influential menhis great-great-grandfather, William Jefferson White, founded Morehouse College in the basement of his Baptist church in Augusta, Georgia; his grandfather was world-famous jazz musician Budd Johnsonit's his father whom Prodigy looks up to the most. Budd Johnson Jr. had a thing for heroin and guns, and spent much of his life in federal prison for weapons and robbery charges, ultimately dying of AIDS in 1997. "Pops was a very intelligent person, but as smart as he was, this nigga had a criminal gene in his DNA," Prodigy says. Along with his DNA, Budd passed down his love for guns to his son, who recalls spending afternoons as a boy shooting birds with BB rifles alongside his pops in the park near their home in Lakeview, Long Island.
After the gun was discovered, Prodigy and Alchemist were arrested and interrogated, though each claims he was barely questioned about the weapon. " 'We'll let you go right now if you help us get a bust on 50 Cent,' " Prodigy says the police urged him. (50, another Queens product, was famously shot nine times in 2000, rose to superstardom three years later with his multi-platinum debut Get Rich or Die Tryin', and is believed to be the NYPD's top hip-hop target because he's basking in the limelight while linked to several unsolved murders.) " 'Help us set him up. Get him to buy some drugs from you. Plant something in his car.' I was sitting there bugging. They want to bring 50 down because he's filthy rich, and they're pissed off because he used to be involved in all kinds of street shit."
They asked me all kinds of crazy questions and knew all types of stuff about rap," Alchemist says. "They were like, 'Do you know anything about who shot Fabolous? Do you know anything about 50?' It was just ridiculous." (Nine days earlier, the Brooklyn rapper Fabolous had been shot in the leg, then stopped by the police for running a red light en route to the hospital and arrested when two unlicensed, loaded guns were found in his Dodge Magnum.)
During an interview last year, New Orleans rapper Lil' Wayne, the most prolific and productive MC of 2007, concurred, launching unsolicited into the story of his own highly publicized arrest after his first-ever show in New York, held in July at the Beacon Theater, wherein both he and Queens rapper (and 50 Cent rival) Ja Rule were pulled over separately and taken in upon leaving the performance. "When they locked me up in New York, they asked me about 50 Cent, G-Unit, and no fucking gun or weed like they made it look like on TV," a heated Weezy explained during an interview for Vibe magazine. Reports claimed that both rappers were in possession of .40-caliber pistols, and that one of Wayne's associates was found flushing half a pound of marijuana down the toilet. But at the time, Wayne says the cops didn't consider that important. "They ain't ask me a damn thing about no gun or no weed. That could have been the gun that shot Kennedy, they didn't give a fuck! All they wanted to know was, 'So what's the beef with you and 50 Cent? You and Jay-Z?' "
"A number of these stops of late, they're not legitimate," says attorney Stacey Richman, who's representing both Lil' Wayne and Ja Rule. (Wayne has since been arrested for drug possession in both Idaho and Arizona.) "They'll arrest a lesser person within a well-known person's group and threaten them for information. People forget that the police are allowed to lie to youthat's a legitimate investigative technique. It's frightening and unpalatable to the public, but the fact of the matter is, they can do that."
"50 is the big man right now," says Derrick Parker. "There's a lot of homicides out here that are linked to 50's crew, and if you can get somebody like him, it's a bonus prize."
They're using Prodigy to set up someone who's bigger," says Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organizer Kamau Franklin, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he focuses on police practice in New York. "It adds to promotion, publicity, and fame within the department. But obviously, targeting 50 Cent at this stage in his life is not something that's going to stop crime."
Prodigy and Alchemist refused to cooperate with the police; Prodigy was brought up on the gun charge and faced 15 years in prison. After his trial startedand a jury was empaneled without a single black personProdigy took the plea offered by the D.A. New York Supreme Court Judge Edward J. McLaughlin sentenced him to three and a half years.
It's just after midnight on January 8 at Context Studios in Brooklyn. A few close friends sit around, smoking and soaking up the hours, while the video crew gives Prodigy one last push to the finish line. He has to turn himself in by noon today. Asked what 50 Cent's reaction was when Prodigy told him about his situation, Prodigy answers that 50 wasn't surprised. "He already knows what time it is. 50 got cameras all inside his car. It just confirmed it for him. I didn't get a chance to soup my bulletproof truck up like that yet. I was being lazy, and I got caught."
But Prodigy is far from lazy now. He's been going nonstop since the moment he woke up, shrugged off the aggravation, and faced his last full day on the outside for a few years. He was at Hot 97 by 7 a.m. for a Miss Jones in the Morning interview. Then it was off to court to handle some paperwork; to the glossy magazine XXL and the popular hip-hop site SOHH.com for more interviews; to Republic Airport on Long Island to shoot a video in the hangar in front of a handful of private planes; to the studio; and to a private family dinner at his "secret spot" with Kiki and his children, cousins, and closest friends, where he had a few sips of Grey Goose and the spicy chicken he'll miss so much. He had appearances booked on Power 105.1 and Sirius Satellite Radio, but there wasn't enough time to pack it all in. Now he's back at the studio to shoot footage deep into the morning. "Tonight, we got three more videos to shoot," Prodigy says, then recalculates. "Actually, we got five more."
He just keeps going, song after song, video after video, trying to ensure that though gone, he won't be forgotten. In this moment, he's obsessed with staying relevant, though his heyday has long passed. While Mobb's 2006 comeback attempt, Blood Money, left listeners shaking their heads as the duo chased dollars alongside 50, Prodigy's critically acclaimed indie mix tape, Return of the Mac, marked a powerful resurgence the following year, and fans hope H.N.I.C. 2 will follow suit. P will have plenty of time to reflect on that possibility, starting tomorrow.
Before heading back to the set, Prodigy is solemn yet clear about what's ahead. "I know why it's happening, and it don't got nothing to do with no cop, no D.A. or judge," he says. "When I go in, they ain't put me there. The Higher Power put me there. I realize that my job is to reach the niggas on the street, the Mobb Deep fans. Once you clean yourselfyour mind, your dieteverything else is like a domino effect. And if I gotta go to jail to make my mind and body stronger, I'm gonna be so focused. I'm just gonna be thinking of beats in my head and writing."
Albert Johnson shaved his braids off and went to 100 Centre Street ("the Tombs") later that morning to begin a new chapter of his life. But Judge McLaughlin unexpectedly granted him five more weeks of freedom, ordering Johnson back to the Tombs on February 13. Cohen had sent Prodigy's medical records to the judge to prove that he suffers from sickle-cell anemia, a fatal blood disease. Judge McLaughlin agreed to place Prodigy in a facility with adequate medical personnel and postponed his sentence until the location is settled. (Prodigy is requesting Coxsackie Correctional Facility in upstate New York.) "I didn't expect that, so it was a pleasant surprise," Cohen says. "I wasn't crazy about the trial and the rulings, but the judge seems to be understanding about making sure he doesn't suffer in prison. As it is, sickle-cell disease shortens your life."
Prodigy called the following day to express his happiness about the extra time. He was at home, watching himself being interviewed on BET's Rap City. But there was something defensive in his tone. To keep up his tough-guy image, Prodigy had told the press that the judge gave him more time to finish his album and videos, though it had been reported that his sickness was the reason for his temporary reprieve. But Prodigy says he isn't afraid of prison, much less mortality. "I'm not scared to die, I've dealt with enough," he says. "I feel like my life is gonna be short anyway because of my sickle-cell."
And though diving into his music has been therapeutic, it's his sickle-cell anemiathe very thing that's caused Prodigy so much pain, landing him in the hospital six times a year, on average, since being diagnosed at eight months oldthat's now helping to ease another affliction. It prepared him to get through five more weeks of an agonizing countdown, as well as the strength of character to make it through the time after the wait.