I had a bunch of cassette tapes growing up. I would sit in front of the radio staring at it, deep in Petion-Ville, Haiti, waiting for the right songs to come on to hit the dusty record button and dub on top of whatever was there before. I remember my older brother and I hearing "Hell on Earth (Front Lines)" for the first time. We heard the beat and instantly got pulled in.
Next thing we heard was Prodigy of Mobb Deep and the opening lines of the song. "Yo, the saga begins, begin war. I draw first blood be the first to set it off."
Both my brother and I looked at each other and hit record instantly. "Hell on Earth" was everything we wanted in a rap song without knowing it.
It was dark, it was menacing, the rapping was excellent, the hook was catchy, yet Prodigy's cadence was so cold but urgent. It was like the bad guy in the movie that never looked angry when describing all the terrible things he'd subject you to.
We were floored and couldn't get enough.
We were fortunate enough to record a version of the song that was long enough to loop the beat at the end. Inspired by Prodigy's verse, we would rap over it. We wrote over it and we would rap the lines over and over again. We eventually felt confident enough to rap our verses to others.
Our local radio station had a hip hop hour and on select days, the local DJ would have callers who would rap on the spot for him on air. Callers would either have to request a beat to rap over, or the DJ would pick one for you. One lucky day we got through the line, requested the "Hell on Earth" instrumental and rapped our verses to the best of our ability. It was an amazing feeling and my short lived rap career was born.
Prodigy of Mobb Deep, born Albert Johnson, has passed away due to his life long battle with Sickle Cell Anemia. I could not help but relive those moments and reflect on all the classic material Prodigy and Havoc, known together as Mobb Deep, has added to this culture.
Prodigy was one of the few remaining of his class. A class that is only continued in today's Hip Hop by rappers like Freddie Gibbs: the classic gangster rapper, the classic east coast MC. The brutally honest, vivid lyricism, rugged aesthetic, clear and concise voice, unrelentingly raw, and the street credentials to convince you everything he said could absolutely be true.
When Prodigy raps, "speak the wrong words man and you will get touched" on Shook Ones Pt. 2, you believe every word of it. His voice captured your attention immediately and his sharp lyricism kept it. Prodigy really lived up to his name in more ways then one.
He and Havoc made "The Infamous" at the age of 19. "The Infamous" is widely considered one of the greatest rap records ever. He was easily among the top rappers during his time like Jay-Z, Nas, Raekwon, Notorius BIG, and Ghostface Killah. You do not mention those rappers when discussing 90s Hip Hop without including Prodigy.
Besides the music, Prodigy's personality and character was bar none. He once chided other rappers on a viral video regarding what he perceived as their lack of skills; going as far to tell them to find another career ( "Go fucking paint a house").
In the same video, he went on to name rappers that he disliked. Prodigy and Havoc were one of the few in New York to take on the West Coast head on during the West vs East beef. He voiced his displeasure with Dogg Pound Gangstas shooting their video in New York, in which they kicked down The Twin Towers without any consequence, and recorded "LA, LA" as a response.
When 2Pac dissed everyone from the East coast on "Against All Odds," Mobb Deep did not take it sitting down. They recorded "Drop A Gem On Em," a vicious retort to 2Pac which quite frankly deserves more credit in the lexicon of rap diss songs. Prodigy clashed with both Jay-Z and Nas, his long time friend and collaborator. They both represented the same neighborhood: Queens Bridge.
Although history may not remember him as the victor in these battles per say, it was obvious that P left his mark and held his own. He would not back down to anyone.
Prodigy wore his bout with Sickle Cell Anemia like a badge of honor. He addressed the pain he felt daily on "You Can Never Feel My Pain" which was on his first solo album H.N.I.C., a personal classic of mine.
He discussed his struggles with candor and honesty: "1994 motherfucker I was born with pain. My moms and my pops passed it down to me". The song gave you insight into what he went through and how often he suffered. To us Mobb Deep fans, it's something we were use to and never really thought about nor mentioned. He lived through it, and continued to deliver excellent music. Truth be told, we took for granted that the disease could take him away from this earth and our time was fleeting with this remarkable talent. The time has arrived, and sickle cell anemia has finally caught up to P.
I, like many other Mobb Deep fans, have been blessed to have enjoyed his music and talent. Hip Hop will never forget Prodigy's contributions and we will forever immortalize him through his music. He will be greatly missed.
Rest in Peace Prodigy.