Return of the Mac: 2011 Prodigy feature (The Source)

Forward: One of my favorite features that I wrote in my career was on Prodigy (below); he was fresh from doing a bid. (I was also at his going away show.) P was upbeat and changed in the way that doing a stretch can do to one’s self. He was monitoring his diet more than I’d ever see him doing in the past (something that ebbed and flowed, and would continue to do so through the remainder of his life). And he was working with a vengeance. I met with him in the Financial District just days after his release and he was recording his audio book. It was a small, cramped studio. It was so bugged out to hear that voice, animated, reciting passages from his book. In conversation P could be short and full of uknowhatimsayin’s. Yet, here, he was reading his book like he rapped. Full of verve, enunciated, punching in. At that point, he had maybe 10 songs finished, from only being out like three days. Then, a week, maybe 10 days, tops, passed. I went out to Ozone Park in Queens, where he was recording music. Now this place was more familiar, in terms of the Mobb Deep vibe: crew, smoke, drink and P in his glory. I asked how many records he had at that point and the number surged past 30. That was completed songs. Prodigy had half songs also available just ready for Havoc to add rhymes to. Hav couldn’t keep pace! Ha. P played me “Dog Shit” featuring Nas. Ahhh, man, so New York. And with the dunn language all in the mix. Later, I asked him why he didn’t record with Nas as much. P then told me a story about Nas–how he always thought Nas was the coolest dude. He then cracked a half-cocked smile and said he’d be happy just hanging out with Nas more. I’m glad I got to build with P time and time again. He was as real as it gets, for bettor or worse. And he’ll be missed.

***

Prodigy’s been here before. The veteran Queensbridge rapper is standing inside the booth in a nondescript Manhattan recording studio 10 floors above a busy downtown street on a warm March afternoon, headphones on and sporting a white T-shirt, black jeans and patent leather kicks with Nike stained in blood red on the mid-soles. But instead of reciting rhymes, the Mobb Deep front man is punching in words for the audio book version of his forthcoming autobiography, “My Infamous Life” (Simon & Schuster).

 

The tome is top priority for Prodigy since his release from prison 10 days ago. The book is not only P’s first project in three years, but the 308-page memoir completes a transformation for the man born Albert Johnson 36 years ago. Physically, his once scrawny frame has been upgraded to a stockier chassis through pen calisthenics and, mentally, his vices–including alcohol, drugs and fast food–have been abandoned in order to provide him clarity: financial stability for his family and the immortalizing of Mobb Deep are his present goals.

 

“I was running around with a gun on me everyday,” P says of his life prior to him slowing down. “I ain’t want to kill somebody but  I was ready to kill somebody everyday. That shit was like a  real wake up call. That’s how I seen it, for everything: business, my health, my family, my wife, my kids, relationships, certain networks with people, everything in life, just do it better and get it together.”

 

In October 2007, Prodigy was sentenced to a three and a half year bid by a New York judge after he pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a firearm. The plea stemmed from an incident the year before when P and The Alchemist were pulled over by the NYPD after attempting to celebrate the producer’s birthday. Prodigy made an illegal U-turn outside of Alchemist’s apartment building and police pounced on his vehicle.

“Growing up we lived that life. We did everything you hear us talking about in our rhymes. We don’t have to do that anymore. We’re living a different life,” Prodigy.

What wasn’t known then, however, and is now revealed in P’s book is that there was a specific threat against the rapper that caused him to carry a weapon with him more often; although holding was customary for the H.N.I.C. when he hit the town, he says. Mobb Deep’s 2006 union with G-Unit brought cars and money, but it also beget increased scrutiny. 50 Cent nemesis Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff allegedly took umbrage with P’s line on Return of the Mac’s “Rotten Apple” where he spits, “If ‘Pac was still alive we’d be on the same team, we got bigger fish to fry than that bitch Supreme.”

 

According to “My Infamous Life”–where P dishes on old beef with CNN, a dalliance with Lil Kim and complex relationship with Nas, among other things in the coming of age tale–his statement was in reference to the the former drug lord’s reported hits on 50 and 2Pac/Mobb Deep ally E-Money Bags.

 

“I had some drama and street level shit,” P admits, his affect tightening up. “A lot of people were popping shit and making threats. So, basically, that’s why I was carrying a hammer. I’m not out to hurt nobody, I do my music, I’m in the studio. Growing up we lived that life. We did everything you hear us talking about in our rhymes. We don’t have to do that anymore. We’re living a different life.”

 

Prodigy’s 2008 incarceration eventually put an end to all the threats and also capped a turbulent four-year period for the punishing rapper that saw him finally rebound from the “Summer Jam” body blow Hov delivered and Mobb Deep drown in the excess of their new 50 Cent-fueled lifestyle; during P’s time away, Hav also went to rehab for alcoholism.

 

“During that time before he was about to go in, I was battling the problem with alcohol,” Hav says. “And shortly after, I went and took care of the problem. My family did an intervention and they sent me to a facility in Miami.”

 

 

Prodigy’s never been here before. He’s standing behind the microphone in his Queens studio ready to spit a rhyme he wrote six months ago behind bars to a beat he just received from The Alchemist the night before. After 18 years of of providing the soundtrack to the underbelly of New York City, P and Hav have to show that their grim formula works in an era where Drake openly admits to being inspired by Winnie the Pooh for an album title and Yung Berg’s relieved of his jewelry as often as Obama is questioned about his birth certificate.

 

It’s been three weeks now since his release from prison and he’s already recorded upwards of 45 news songs for the next Mobb Deep album, still untitled, and a solo EP he’s planning. Nas has already contributed verses to two songs (he and Prodigy have spoken often the past 21 days, P says) and calls to Rick Ross and Lil Wayne have been out for future collaborations.

 

“I got a lot to prove, Hav does too,” says P, ensconced on a leather couch inside the studio lounge, his dark denim jeans, black Wallabees and a matching Infamous hoodie making him look more sinister that he did days ago. “Mobb Deep does, period. It seems like every album that we put out we’re trying to prove ourselves again. It seems like every album we got the doubters that say we can’t do it again. But I got that mentality where we’re trying to make history like how nobody else ever did it in history.”

 

The QB duo are currently free agents. After 50 severed his G-Unit ties with Interscope Records, Mobb Deep were contractually released from their bind to him as a result of the loss of distribution. Prodigy says he and 50 spoke often while he was doing time, both over the phone and once in person (50, along with Al and Cormega were some of his upstate visitors). They’ve recently discussed the idea of the he and Hav rejoining Gorilla Unit, but for now, Prodigy is focused on creative freedom.

“I just want us to really make incredible history. Permanent, serious history in rap music where you can’t have a conversation without talking about us,” Prodigy.

Their last album, 2006’s Blood Money was widely criticized for being “too G-unit,” a charge P readily accepts now after listening to the project in prison and noticing the abundance of features, though he refutes the notion that 50 forced the sound onto them.

 

“We were all having fun making music together,” Prodigy explains. “We never took the time out to be like, hold up, stop everything–you on too many songs over here, you know what I’m saying?”

 

That type of oversight won’t be a problem moving forward, P promises. He credits Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Eminem’s Recovery albums with artistically reinvigorating him. In prison, he even turned into an avid “106 & Park” fan after a fellow inmate,  “Young Fresh,” pushed him to take notice of the next generation of rappers.   

 

“He was like, ‘P, yo, you got to snap out of that shit, it’s a new world’,” he recalls. “Talking to him and being around him made me realize you got to pay attention to what’s going on.”

 

“Fresh,” it turns out, wasn’t only an advisor but he eventually turned into a confidant for P. Prodigy opened up to Poughkeepsie prisoner when weeks turned into months and he hadn’t heard from Havoc nor been visited by his partner. He considered breaking the group up and going solo.

 

“Yo, I was pissed off,” Prodigy remembers. “Hav will tell you. I was real mad. I couldn’t stop talking about it.”

 

“I was still trying to get my life back on track,” Havoc, sober for three years now, says about the ordeal. “To make sure my financial situation was stable because he was gone. I was trying to get my whole mental thing on track. I know that it was times when he wanted me to come see him more but the love was never lost, it was always there. But just like he was in prison, I was in my own prison.”

 

Havoc eventually visited P towards the end of his bid. And just like when they met in high school, hung on the block in Queensbridge or battled music industry bullshit, the two managed to turn conflict into harmony. And now that Prodigy’s penned a future best-seller on the chaos of his childhood days, he’s hellbent on the next task: ensuring a more mature Mobb Deep can leave behind a legacy better than anything he could write.

 

“There’s always a challenge,” he says, leaning up as he pounds his right fist into his left palm. “There’s always something that you could compare yourself to and try to make yourself better than that. That’s how I see it. I just want us to really make incredible history. Permanent, serious history in rap music where you can’t have a conversation without talking about us. That’s how I’m trying to make it.”

###

Addendum: Below is the last time I saw P, last April, in 2016.  It was backstage at Blue Note in NYC. He and Havoc were performing The Infamous… backed by a band. Prodigy introduced me to his son and then I saw that Havoc was also with his son. I just had to have my video guy take a snap of the moment. P was a hero to me. I’m gonna miss him. Rest in power, thun.

 

Empire Recap: “Sound & Fury” (Ep. 310)

Our beloved “Empire” is back for its mid-season premiere (season 3, because I know with more breaks than what’s in Q-Tip’s crates it’s hard to keep track) after a doozy of a first half featuring Cookie’s new boo, Jamal’s new monster and Lucious’ old tricks.

In “Sound & Fury,” the drama arrived early and cooked often. The episode’s namesake peaked when the Lyon family visited Jamal in rehab. Instead of the visit being about Jamal, things quickly became about Cookie and Lucious, as usual. The two titans were jawing back and forth, until an iso shot of Jamal displayed anguish across the young singer’s face as he drew inward and the voices of his parents became nothing but that sound and fury.

The theme was also triggered when Empire acts Ness and Tiana appeared at an Inferno promo show. (Lucious promotes his albums with promotions ahead of promotion #because.) The two singers trade vocals when pettiness ensues and mics are cut, turned back on and then Xzhibit’s Shine Johnson gets his Don King on: “Back up, let them fight!” And what a fight it was. 

But perhaps here, as always the case in this family saga, the sound and fury don’t exist as a pair much as they repel in a unit. For instance, when Lucious is boxed in by Cookie’s move to bring out the Head Lyon’s momma, the Empire co-CEO pivoted by endorsing his ex-wife’s new boo’s candidate in the New York mayoral race. He also offered a bounty for information leading to Angelo DuBois’ arrest for past transgression. Sound and fury might as well be signal and noise. Or Trump and tweets.

Speaking of tweets, the buzz on the bird messaging system will be about the epic, seven-minute and two-story studio showdown between Lucious and Cookie (with her bat) over… his appointing Anika as Empire’s head of A&R, over the pain of non-relationship and over the scars of their past relationship.

“Are you trying to erase me, Lucious,” Cookie asks, with Taraji P. Henson giving us all of the Lyon matriarch’s 17-years of pain. “You built this company on my back. And you just gonna give it to that bitch?”

The same drama that propels them higher as a company also fuels them forward as a family. So it’s no surprise that as Cookie looks at the blood trickling down Lucious face that the two embrace in a passionate kiss. Cookie stops short of giving up her shortbread, though. 

“Uh uh, no. I said I was done with you,” she says, nearly shivering in her refusal. “I meant that.”

Maybe a truce was called for without a kiss. However, an inferno always boils hot. And without an imminent threat on Empire, there’s no need for them to join forces (yet). They’ll be at each other’s throats until an outside party tries to slit one of them. Then, it’s on and they form like Voltron.

*****

Before we go and do a favor for a friend of Lucious’, some thoughts on the line(s) of the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Tongues: A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul take different approaches with their latest albums

Just For Men, the affordable hair coloring product, can do wonders for an aging man. Apply liberally via a comb through and Silver Fox tresses suddenly become fully-restored follicles. If only there was such an elixir for aging rappers.

Hip-hop, however, has always been a young-man’s game as evidenced by early ‘90s prodigies like a Nas and affirmed more recently by acts such as Rae Sremmurd, Young Thug and Chance The Rapper, to name only a few.

Yet as the culture of rap begins to grey we find rappers who are well into their ‘40s, including Jay Z (46), Eminem (44) and Nas (43), still relevant if not productive. These titans of spit are exploring the boundaries of legacy, leveraging their prowess in business deals and touring extensively — in Jay’s case, in a mixture of configurations (Beyoncé and Jay Z, Jay Z and Justin Timberlake, album anniversary one-off performances) — in hopes of becoming the Jimmy Iovine or Rolling Stones of hip-hop. It’s a strategy that’s safer to one’s reputation than making new music, where an awkward flow or dated production choices can prove to be damning, relegating an MC to obsolete status.

Which brings us to A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, two groundbreaking New York rap groups who served up classic albums with a healthy sense of self-awareness, righteousness and funky beats.

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Behind The Story: Papoose Married Remy Ma (2008)

papandrem

Back in 2007, the Remy Ma/Makeda Barnes-Joseph incident and subsequent case was a big deal for me. I covered the trial for MTV (and later XXL) on the professional level and then, on a personal level, I had a good relationship with Remy. Back in 2006, I used to run the streets in NY a lot, Home, Guesthouse, Lotus, as far as clubs and the burger spot where the shooting went down was also a normal late-night destination. So, it wasn’t unusual for me to run into Remy around town.

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Review: “Batman v Superman” … v Fun?

Saw “Batman v. Superman” last night. Minor spoilers ahead. Movie was meh. Ben Affleck was solid (and potential there, though, he really plays Bruce’s jingoism all the way. ‪#‎gop‬), Henry Cavill’s performance was as stiff as his hair (wow that hair!), Amy Adams/Lois Lane character is criminally underdeveloped and the film overall could use a much stronger plot (or an actual one, rather than serving as a 2-plus hour Justice League intro) and a lot more humor—particularly in post Christopher Nolan (maxed out seriousness to full potential)/Iron Man (LOL)/Deadpool (ROTFL) era. Brief highlights: Wonder Woman (you will cheer or you have no pulse) and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luther threads (GQ/Esquire approved; may have found my summer look….).

Damning review by the NYT, here.

Quick Thought: Kanye and Kendrick’s “No More Parties in LA”

Behind The Story: Shyne Remains In Custody… (2009)

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This is one of my all-time favorite pieces I wrote for MTV News. I followed the Shyne case for a long time and found a particular fascination by how every year rumors would arise that he’d be released. Brian Hiatt, a great writer and current staffer at Rolling Stone used to be a reporter at MTV prior to my tenure. He wrote the definitive account of Shyne’s sentence, which essentially translated into the rapper doing 10 years behind bars. Over the years I’d cover Shyne’s court appearances and was personally excited the first time I saw him because he was like a unicorn, growing into this mythical figure. Long story short: the day he was to be released, he wasn’t. His lawyer was confused. I didn’t know what was going on. Then, I remembered I had the Vibe issue where Shyne graced the cover in his prison jumpsuit. I left the 1515 office and darted back to Brooklyn and back. I used the info on Shyne’s uniform to call around (maybe first to the prison, then to the feds and finally immigration). Got the scoop about his whereabouts and his potentially being deported. The story did crazy numbers, got picked up on TV by E! and the radio by Hot 97. All in a day’s work.

LINK

Five Favorite Albums This Year

In no particular order, these below are my personal five favorite albums that I enjoyed listening to in 2015 when I took off my critic cap. That distinction is important, to me at least, because Kendrick’s album is obviously incredible and I’ve written about it and listened to it a ton, I just don’t revisit it as a leisurely experience as much as say Rocky or Drake. I also was big into FKA twigs’ M3LL155X, but I didn’t play it as much as I wanted. This was a great year for hip-hop and R&B, in particular, just an onslaught of releases (an essay I badly wanted to write, yet sadly didn’t get around to…) that I’m still trying to consume. To that end, list.

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Quick Thought: What show would Adele’s “When We Were Young” fit in for a scene?

Adele specializes in Starbucks music (music for people who think they love music, but don’t really; used to maybe, but only like now, if you’re buying a CD at the latte store. #digress), however, with that said, this song, as trope-y as it is, makes me want to write an episode of a drama series just so I can place “When We Were Young” in a scene. As heavy handed as that would be. Think the Ray J scene of him buying that house for Princess Love. Or, in The Good Wife, Alicia having a flashback about Peter (or better yet, Will!). Too obvious for The Affair, but the right placement? Man….