Q&A: Tragedy Khadafi On Growing Up In Queensbridge, How Jail Has Changed, And Reaching The Kids In The Projects
Tragedy Khadafi is one of the last of a dying breed. Lucky for us, he dies harder than Bruce Willis. Even at 14, he was putting out musicmost notably a song with DJ Hot Day called "Go Queensbridge" that caught the attention of Juice Crew leader Marley Marl, who put the young Tragedy down with one of the most talented rap crews to assemble.
Unfortunately, Tragedy grew up hard with a heroin-addicted mother in America's largest housing project, the notorious Queensbridge As the oldest of five kids he felt the responsibility of feeding his siblings fall on his shoulders, even if doing so meant sticking people up. He was sent upstate for a robbery charge at 16.
While incarcerated in Elmira Correctional Facility, he gained what he refers to as "knowledge of self." When he came home, his music became more of a mix between detailed street sagas and sociopolitical commentary. Though he claims he never changed his name, he was known by the moniker Intelligent Hoodlum. In 1990 he released his self-titled, Marley Marl-produced debut, and the follow up Tragedy: Saga of a Hoodlum came out in 1993.
In his music, he tried in earnest to reach other project dwellers who needed guidance the way he had. Over the course of the 1990s he was on several Juice Crew All-Stars compilations, but he really regained notoriety when he hooked up with fellow Queens rappers Capone-N-Noreaga and released "LA, LA," a response to the Dogg Pound's "NY, NY." (In fact, he was on CNN's debut The War Report more than Capone was, because of Capone's being incarcerated during the making of said album.) He hopped on songs with Pete Rock and Mic Geronimo, released solo records like Still Reportin' and Thug Matrix 1 and 2, and was heralded as a lyricist with a healthy dose of reality in his raps with just the right amount of consciousness.
But the street life isn't that easy to shake. After a few skid bids, in 2006 he was sentenced to four years on a drug charge. He was released in 2010 and wasted no time getting back in the groove. He released the digital version of Thug Matrix 3 this past September and is poised to release the physical CD shortly. Trag took some time out of one of his frequent trips to "The Bridge" to talk about his life, incarceration andmost importantlyhis music.
Tell me about growing up in Queensbridge and how it influenced you.
It influenced my life on several levels. My family, my peers... our environment was instrumental in how you're affected by society and what your outlook is on society. I was affected by an environment that, hey, it's no secret is wild. Queensbridge is America's largest housing project, so you're going to have your ills. There was a lot of drugs, violence, sex, and just a lot of wild shit going on. That affected how I felt toward the establishment, and it influenced my form of expression, which was music of course.
Do you still go out there? Why if it's so bad?
I'm on my way out there as we speak. I still have friends and family there. See, I'll always have a union to The Bridge. Not the projects, because those are just buildings, but rather the people there. I can't ever forget them.
Let's talk about the Intelligent Hoodlum days. Was that just a phase?
Not at all. First off I always was, always will be Tragedy. I put out my own record with Hot Day prior to getting incarcerated as Tragedy. When I was incarcerated I gained knowledge of self. I always knew I was intelligent, and I came from something greater than what the schoolbooks taught us, but when I came home I had a deeper understanding of it. So when I came home I wanted to inform people like me about what I learned. That's why I will always relate my music to a hood perspective. It's for those kids in the dark like me. I have an obligation to reach those kids. I am of you, you are of me. I keep in tune with them. You shouldn't get to a point where you forget them. I'll never forget the pain of being physically hungry and doing things out of straight desperation. I had to feed my siblings because my mom was a heroin addict. I had to get out and get money.
So Intelligent Hoodlum addressed that contingent?
Basically. When I came home, my lyrics went from the block to universal. I believed all blacks were just ex-slaves and now hustlers. That's what I believed 'til I gained knowledge of self. I wanted to awaken my listeners to the bigger picture. That's where songs like "Arrest the President" stem. It was naïve in hindsightas if arresting the president would make things betterbut people shared that sentiment that the government is made up of crooks.
But things aren't the same anymore. Rikers is even less violent than it used to be. Will kids still relate?
Well, things have changed. Now dudes aren't trying to learn in jail. They read a thousand hood books and it's just stagnant regurgitated information. Overall, dudes aren't reading things to better themselves.
Not just in jail or in the hood but in general, people feel less and less connected to their community. You can go on the internet, take an oath, click on a button and boom, you're a Blood. The streets don't dictate things like it used to.
How were things different from that when you were coming up? How was your prison experience different?
Rikers and upstate were different back then. Initially, I was scared, of course. You walked in [Rikers] it was about boroughs and could you hold your own as a man. There wasn't this gang umbrella you could stand under for protection. Before anybody aligned themselves with you they would see how you held it down by yourself. And like I said people stuck to their boroughs. Brooklyn was like the muscle and the goons. Queens was supposedly soft and quiet. Manhattan was the moneymakers and so on. And me being from Queens, it was hardbody, but I'm a fighter and I held it down.
The second time, I just felt, like, "This is a part of the life, this comes with my lifestyle." But I realized it was costing too much time and a result it was hurting my talent. But I couldn't get the streets out my system.
Why do you think such harrowing experiences didn't change you?
I just wasn't ready to make that change. I can't even count on my hands and feet how many times I almost lost my life. I've been shot, stabbed. Mad times my life almost got taken. Mad people I had a deep connection with are gone. Marty Shady, Draws... I could go on for days.
I would have an epiphany at the moment when my life had been endangered or someone close died, but once the adrenaline wore off I'd resume my similar activities. I was in Elmira at 16 weighing 120 pounds, and I'm with grown men who weigh 270. That just didn't wake me up, though. I wasn't ready for change.
Let's get back to the music. Tell me about the Thug Matrix trilogy's most recent chapter.
The digital version is out now. We're about to put out physical CDs but first we're putting out more videos. My strategy has always been to give my core audience what they want but simultaneously showing some growth while speaking on certain political and social issues that I feel need to be addressed. My perspectives are always going to come from the streets though. I'm keeping with the Thug Matrix theme, still keeping with that street sound that my fans will check for and maybe new fans will latch on to. It's infused with some knowledge to give the people a little taste of what's to come on a bigger level.
Who is on the album?
I got beats from AraabMuzik, Ayatollah, Audible Doctor, and I got Killa Sha, Planet Asia and King David on there rapping.
Are you and Nore still good?
Yeah absolutely. He'll be on the next album and we're probably going to get up soon just to build.
What'd you think of Prodigy's book?
First and foremost I respect P as an artist. P's a visionary and a pioneer. At the same time, there were things bought to my attention in the book that weren't true. He made vague notions that he knew the people could take wrong, mainly Havoc knocking me out. I wont let that bullshit cause friction between me and Havoc, because that's my brother. That's not going to happen. I feel like P did it for shock value. Plus the stuff about Killa Black, Havoc's brother, he left too open for interpretation so that people are thinking I had something to do with Black's suicide. I got love for P, but I got to say he better than that.
Any parting words?
Yeah. There are a lot of so-called tough guys out here. It's not about tough. It's about strength. Tough is a persona, something you wear on the outside like a mask. Strength is something from within that you exude and call upon when you need it. Be strong, y'all.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.