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
March 1, 2011. A year has passed since Prodigy of the Queens rap duo Mobb Deep and I delivered the first draft of his autobiography, My Infamous Life, to Simon & Schuster. The hip-hop blogosphere has been buzzing since the cover hit the Web in January. Comments range from praise (Rod: "no doubt about it, P is one of the greatest to ever bless the mic. i can't wait to read his autobio. free P!!!") to hating (Ace Mike Vick Swagg: "too bad half his fans can't read lol").
Prodigy isn't reading the peanut gallery's thoughts, though. He's at the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, New York; as of March 7, he'll have served three years for getting caught with a loaded .22 handgun while making an illegal U-turn in October 2006. He wakes up at 5 a.m., when the glow from his nightlight could pass for moonlight, and continues rereading 50 Cent and Robert Greene's The 50th Law until the lights go on at 6. He takes five bites of Bran Flakes for breakfast; later, he completes his daily job, disinfecting the phones and water fountains with germicide. (See Laura Checkoway's 2008 Voice piece "Prodigys 25th Hour".)
He has one more week until his release, but he isn't counting down the days. "When you don't pay attention to time, it seems to go faster," he says over one of the phones he sprayed that morning. "I looked at it like I'm in boot camp, or like I'm a Tibetan monk meditating for three years in the mountains. This ain't home. This is just a little pit stop. Word. The only thing I might miss is the peace and quiet; being in my cell is real peaceful sometimes. 'Cause my whole life I've been rippin' and runnin', so now I had a chance to really sit down and look from the outside in."
Incarceration gave Prodigy ample time to think and to write. At night, he sat at the edge of the cot in his eight-by-10-foot cell, filling yellow notepads with his handwriting in sessions that sometimes lasted six hours. Boxes heavy with these papers were then shipped to me, and it was my job to type and edit the material within.
An envelope containing a brown suede journal arrived at my doorstep shortly before our deadline. The inside cover reads: "This journal belongs to: A. JOHNSON DIN# 08A1481." "THE 5 CARS THIS JAIL TIME WILL BUY FOR ME" is scrawled neatly and underlined like a headline, or perhaps a promise; photos of a 2008 Bentley Continental GTC Mulliner, a 2008 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe, and a 2007 Bentley Continental have been torn from magazines and pasted inside. Another all-caps mantra: "HARD WORK PAYS OFF AND THAT PAY BUYS CARS PLUS HOUSES AND LAND."
Prodigy, also known as DIN# 08A1481, filled the journal with tales of his stint in jail, although most of them didn't make it into My Infamous Life, set for release on April 19. There were too many other adventures to squeeze in: his family's rich historical and musical legacy; his lifelong battle with sickle-cell anemia; UFO sightings; episodes with Lindsay Lohan, Mary J. Blige, and Lil' Kim; and his contributions to the golden era of hip-hop. In the mid-'90s, he and his rhyme partner Havoc, who met as freshmen at Manhattan's High School of Art and Design, broke ground with the gun-riddled version of hip-hop they dubbed "reality rap," spawning instant classics like "Shook Ones Pt. II" and "Quiet Storm." At 36, Prodigy, trying his hand at being an author, is exposing the backstories behind rap battles, robberies, deaths, brawls, and beefs with Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Jay-Z, Keith Murray, Capone-Noreaga, Ja Rule, and Saigon.
"If I don't tell it, nobody's gonna tell this story," he says. "When I was young, I used to hear stories about backstage at the Fresh Fest, Big Daddy Kane slappin' Slick Rick in the face and Slick Rick pulling out a gun on Kane. Behind-the-scenes stuff that you're not supposed to know."
March 7, 2011. Albert Johnson walked out of the Mid-State Correctional Facility into a snowy morning, carrying a folder with legal paperwork, a journal with verses to 215 new songs, a Walkman, and beat tapes from producer friends. (They were recorded on screwless cassettes, which are sold through a prison catalog.) "I didn't wanna carry no bags," he says. "I wanted to walk out real light." His Queensbridge boys Gotti and Godfather were among those waiting to greet him, as was a cameraman from 50 Cent's Thisis50.com, which immediately posted a photo.
After his first meal—spicy shrimp and salmon with brown rice at Woo Lae Oak on Mercer Street—Prodigy stopped by the G-Unit office to meet with 50 Cent, who signed Mobb Deep to his label in 2005 and who last saw him during a 2009 prison visit. "Just two friends talking about plans for the future," Prodigy says. Then it was straight to Mobb Deep's Queens studio and a reunion with Havoc and producer Alchemist. That night, they recorded seven songs and, three days later, they had 16 new tracks. On March 16, "Love Ya'll More" surfaced, and on April 4, "Dog Shit," a brooding Mobb Deep song featuring Nas, leaked, to fans' collective delight. The track was the result of an hour-long phone conversation between Prodigy and Nas, in which the two put their past differences—"little street beef bullshit," as Prodigy calls it—aside.
Prodigy is eager to get back in the swing of things after losing three years to what many believe was unlawful profiling by an NYPD task force known as the Hip-Hop Cops. Lil Wayne, whose account of his arrest and interrogation by the NYPD in 2007 was eerily similar to Prodigy's, spent eight months in Rikers Island last year for gun possession; Ja Rule, arrested in his car on the same night as Lil Wayne, is scheduled to begin serving two years for gun possession in June.
So as to not tempt fate and break his parole restrictions, Prodigy spent his first few weeks of freedom recording new music and the My Infamous Life audiobook. Reading aloud, his Mid-State ID card stashed in his pants pocket, he arrives at a courtroom scene that exposes a fellow Queens rapper as a snitch and pauses, aware that his book is likely to stir up controversy and revive a few ghosts of hip-hop's past. "Whoever gets mad needs to be mad at the person in the mirror," he says. "I can't help it if what they do just so happens to be a part of my life story."
Prodigy speaks on April 20 at powerHouse Arena and on May 5 at Seaburn Bookstore