My favorite story about Prodigy is one that gets at the heart of who he was. According to multiple accounts, when Prodigy and his homie Havoc met Nas they were planning to rob him. It was a set-up. But P got to talking to Nas and quickly realized that he was cool and more importantly, that he was a real MC, so he changed his plans and said nah, we need to make music with this dude. The story shows P was truly the grimy street dude he claimed to be, that he was smart enough to recognize real, and that, when forced to choose between his two biggest go-to’s, P put the music first. Why rob a great MC if when you can befriend him and rhyme alongside him?
Prodigy roared in as half of the Infamous Mobb Deep and became a critical part of hip-hop in his era—a symbol of New York street realness and the modern black man-child who’d been hardened by the warlike conditions of the era of crack. He was the fearless street soldier who could smell your cowardice. He was also a mic killer who shined on hip-hop classics like “Shook Ones Pt. 2,” “Quiet Storm,” and “It’s Mine.” In so many ways Prodigy had us stuck off the realness from the first time we heard him. Allow me to recount a few of my favorite moments from his music.
His voice was gritty, his flow was smooth, his pen game was brilliant. He was the son of two professional singers—his mom was in The Crystals and his dad was in The Chanters—but he was truly the son of Queens. He was raised by the crack-infested Queensbridge projects of the ’80s and ’90s, and in his rhymes he portrayed himself as someone who’d seen it all and been through it all. He could convey a depth of pain that you usually only hear in the blues. He swerved from the cinematic visions of a sharp poetic mind to bold promises of violence of a cold heart—a peek at the anger inside a man who mastered how to live in one of the most hellish corners of this country.
His rhyme in “Shook Ones Pt. 2” is a classic of the “I’m tougher than you” genre. Where so many MCs rhyme about how they’re a better rapper, P dispenses with all that and just rhymes about how he’s better than you in the street game. He says he’s fearless in the streets and won’t hesitate to kill anyone he needs to. The sound of his voice makes you certain he’s for real. “For all of those who wanna profile and pose,” he says, being poetic and lulling your ear to sleep with a smooth internal rhyme, before destroying the calm he built with this very visual and very violent message: “Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone.” If you weren’t scared of him before then, now you are. He sounds like Mike Tyson saying, “I try to punch the bone into the brain.” But P’s specificity makes it so much iller.
And a moment later he says, “You all alone in these streets, cousin. Every man for they self in this land, we be gunnin.” It’s a threat—it’s meant to scare you—but there’s also this: He too is all alone and isolated from the world. This rhyme is a threat to an undefined “you” to whom he addresses directly but you don’t think he’s talking to you the listener; so many songs are spoken to a nonspecific you that the audience understands is not meant to be them. Through most of “Shook Ones Pt. 2,” Prodigy is targeting this nonspecific you, but then at the end he shifts and the effect is chilling.
First he drops this powerful line that’s never far from my short-term memory—“Gettin closer to God in a tight situation”—and then, as if he’s been telling us a story that’s now over, he turns to directly speak to you, the actual listener: “Now take these words home and think it through. Or the next rhyme I write might be about you.” It’s as if he ends the rhyme looking directly into the camera—or rather, looking through the camera at you and telling you, ‘Hey, you can really, truly be next. I’m just letting you know.’ So ill.
Prodigy’s verse in “Shook Ones” is filled with gems. “My gunshots’ll make you levitate,” is so visual. “I’m only 19 but my mind is older” is the man-child’s credo. I also love how he created rhyming words and/or phrases that no one else would have thought of. In “Eye for an Eye” what leaps out is great metaphors like “All jeweled like Liberace,” but I love the following part where he tells his audience a little tale: “Over a three-pack, it was a small thing really, yeah / But keep letting them small things slide and be a failure / If I’m out of town one of my crew’ll take care of ya / The world is ours and your team’s inferior / You wanna bust caps I get all up in your area / Kidnap your children make the situation scarier.” I love the way a story emerges there that gets more and more frightening as we go on but what really blows me away looking at it now is the rhyme pattern. He rhymes “really, yeah” with “failure” with “care of ya” with “inferior” with “area” with “scarier.” These are not relationships you’ll find in a normal rhyming dictionary but a real MC makes unexpected choices and knows how to make words rhyme in a way no one else could. Prodigy was all of that.
My favorite Prodigy rhyme was in the original “Quiet Storm”—the album version, not the Lil Kim-featuring remix. On the album it’s three verses from Prodigy and no one else—Havoc does the chorus—and it’s genius. There are threats, visuals, metaphors, and a bluesy piano line in the back. I could write a book about the song, but what really kills me is the second verse where he speaks twice about childhood—once about his own, and then about others.
First, he speaks of his father—his pops—and most rappers don’t rhyme about their dads; more often there’s disdain for someone they didn’t know, so we’re already in fresh territory. “He taught me how to shoot when I was 7,” Prodigy says and then lets us see what that was like for him. “I used to bust shots crazy, I couldn’t even look, because the loud sound used to scare me.” Sharp, evocative details that really paint the picture of a young boy getting tutored in how to use guns by his father. What a perfect scene to show us the origin of the Prodigy we know now; the ur story of the superhero he’s become. He concludes, “I love my pops for that,” which is stirring because he speaks so much about having a cold heart that when he mentions love it really resonates. In hip-hop, it’s all too rare to hear a man say he loves his father. And the joy Prodigy takes from being mentored by his father is something he continues to carry with him. He rhymes, “I spent too many nights sniffin coke, gettin right, wasting my life, now I’m tryin’ to make things right.” How? By taking care of the next generation. He wants to make money so he can “do things for the kids, the little Dunns. Build a jungle gym behind the crib so they can enjoy youth. CBRs and VCRs, ATVs and big-screen TVs.” He wants his kids to have a better childhood than he had, to know comforts that he never did. This is the dream most people have: to provide their kids with a better life than them. I just can’t think of many rhymes that express that universal sentiment in a more interesting and memorable way—this is the part that gets sung loudest when this record comes on. And to have that sweet sentiment come from a self-described cold-hearted street soldier in the middle of a foreboding, bluesy song about street life is so powerful.
I was honored to have interviewed him in Brooklyn at a great bookstore in DUMBO called PowerHouse Books when he released his autobiography, My Infamous Life.
In the book and in our interview, he talked a lot about how sickle-cell anemia really shaped him as a person. He said it caused him so much debilitating physical pain throughout his childhood that it made him consider suicide and it made him angry at God, and that, he said, is the root of the anger you hear in his rhymes. We can only hope that he is at peace now. Prodigy, one of the great MCs of his generation, a classic NY rapper, will be missed and never forgotten.