MARY: So where are we going to start?
CHRISTOPHER: Where should we start?
CHRISTOPHER: Let's start in Vegas.
MARY: June 17th.
CHRISTOPHER: June 17th 2017.
MARY: We're downtown and right on the strip at this outdoor stage. Thousands of people in the audience and this group has just walked out to perform. Their name —
Announcer: “Mobb Deeeeeeep!”
CHRISTOPHER: Mobb deep is this hip hop duo. It’s these two guys, Prodigy and Havoc; they were huge in the 1990s.
CHRISTOPHER: And when they come out on stage they jump right into “Survival of the Fittest” — the first few lines of that song are trademark Prodigy lyrics.
MARY: The other thing you need to know about Las Vegas right then is that it's hot like over 100 degrees, even though the sun is setting. And it’s packed.
CHRISTOPHER: Prodigy and Havoc run through a couple of tracks.
CHRISTOPHER: And then, as the Mobb I think almost always does. They queue their classic club destroying, groundbreaking song Shook Ones Part 2.
CHRISTOPHER: In that heat everyone's got their phone up. Prodigy and Havoc are rapping the songs. They could turn their mics off and do the whole song. The crowd knew every syllable.
CHRISTOPHER: It's clear at the end of Shook Ones that they left it all onstage.
MARY: So Prodigy walks off the stage and he looks happy. But you can tell looking at him that he's tired and that's a big deal because he has sickle cell anemia. And the thing about sickle cell is that when you exert yourself the way Prodigy just did: get up on a stage in the baking heat, it can make you feel terrible. Normally your blood cells are these flexible little discs they can squeeze into capillaries. They can transform almost into like a liquid, but sickle cell makes your blood cells stiff. They cut off circulation to your bones and your organs. This is what makes sickle cell really painful. But for anyone who works with P, all of this is kind of normal.
SKI BEATZ: I wasn't like too alarmed. I was like OK we got to go back to the hotel, because that's what we usually do. He’ll, you know, he might get sick we'll go to the hotel, he go to the room, take his meds and relax, and then the next morning he's up and we're gone.
CHRISTOPHER: This is their D.J. from that night his name is Ski Beatz. These guys have been working together for years.
SKI BEATZ: So I said, “Yo, I’m rolling with y’all.” You know while I was in the car with P he was like, man I don’t feel good, I might have to go to the hospital today. BUT — it's crazy because when you looked at him — P always had that crazy smile, like, “ah man! I have to go to the hospital!. I ain’t feeling good,” but he was kind of smiling like you know? So you couldn't really gauge how bad, you know — what was going on with him.
MARY: So they get back to the hotel and everyone says their good nights they go back to their rooms and that's it. Until a few days later.
KING BENNY : Everybody’s on the phone. bzz bzz bzz bzz
MARY: When P's friends around the country start getting these calls.
KING BENNY : No fucking way possible he’s dead — he’s on tour right now — he’s doing a show. I refuse to believe this shit. What are y’all talking about? In the summertime, you talking about this sunny day right here, me in here making beats? Prodigy is dead right now. Son it’s over, he gone.
PETER ROSENBERG: I couldn’t go to sleep last night without finding out if it was true.
DAVID GREENE: Albert Prodigy Johnson
HAVOC: I still can’t believe it. I just still can’t believe it.
EMINEM: Rest in peace to Prodigy. We love you homie. Hip hop loves you.
CHRISTOPHER: When Prodigy died last year, everyone was stunned. This was the death of father, a brother, a great friend — a hip hop legend.
MARY: But what we discovered was that P had had full blown medical crises throughout his career — all over the world. And those days and weeks in the hospital — lying in bed in pain — they not only changed P as a person, they changed his entire approach to hip hop from the very beginning.
BONZ MALONE: The first thing when I asked him I said ‘Yo Kid, why you wanna do this for?’.. The first thing he ever said — He said because I got sickle cell anemia…and I’m going to die. I don’t know when, at any time it could happen, so let’s get it.
CHRISTOPHER: And just in case you think you don’t know Prodigy — you know Prodigy.
MARY: He has influenced countless other artists: Kendrick Lamar, Eminem — he’s been sampled by Mariah Carey and Lady Gaga.
CHRISTOPHER: We're going to tell you Prodigy’s story. But we're also going to tell you the story of sickle cell. A hundred thousand Americans — mostly black folks — are living with this disease every day.
MARY: It's a story about race and institutional neglect. It's about who gets care in this country and why.
CHRISTOPHER: But listen it's also about an MC a guy from Long Island, New York whose influence is still felt today. To really get Prodigy's music, you gotta understand his life with sickle cell. Both of those things together.
MARY: I'm Mary Harris.
CHRISTOPHER: And I'm Christopher Johnson. This is The Realness.
PRODIGY: My life before hip hop was just pain, like. Sickle cell was my life before hip hop — you know what I mean? I ain’t really have no life. That was it. Growing up — that’s all I knew was being in the fucking hospital all the time. And then music — you know the aggressiveness of it attracted me to hip hop. Because I was angry inside. I was an angry kid because of the sickle cell, so I liked the anger in hip hop — that’s what attracted me to it, that’s what made me want to do it — it helped me get my aggression out.
MARY: So just a few months before he died, Prodigy went on Questlove Supreme podcast.
MARY: And he told this one story about how he came up in the rap world.
CHRISTOPHER: It goes back to high school — a place in Manhattan called Art And Design.
PRODIGY: My first year of high school — in my photography class, was this kid named Black from Bronx, and we got real cool, kicking it every day in class.
MARY: And one day Black says to him like I want you to meet my friend.
PRODIGY: He was like yo man, y’all both rap, y’all both about the same height, you know, Ima introduce you to him after school.
MARY: It was this guy who everyone called Kiwi.
PRODIGY: So little did I know these N----s was setting me up to rob me. I used to wear mad jewelry. I thought I was Slick Rick, dog. I used to have hands full of rings, mad chains and shit.
MARY: Prodigy actually talks about getting robbed and being scared of being robbed a lot as a kid. He even started carrying a gun to school to protect himself. But still he didn’t, he didn't suspect a thing.
PRODIGY: I was like I’m cool with Black, we cool. Kickin. He seems like a cool dude. He was like yo, y’all should make a group. I’m introduce you to him after school. I’m like, alright, bet.
MARY: So Prodigy and Black, they walk outside to meet this kid, Kiwi.
PRODIGY: And there’s a fight right in front of the school. So I’m like, we looking at the fight.
CHRISTOPHER: It’s these two kids, and one of them pulls out a knife and slashes at the other kid. But he misses.
PRODIGY: Missed him, hit his leather jacket, and like… motherfuckers like got the knife out of his hand.
MARY: And they realize — the kid who almost got stabbed? It’s Kiwi.
CHRISTOPHER: And that kid with the knife — Kiwi starts whoopin his behind.
MARY: And the crowd like flips out. The way Prodigy tells it, they actually lift Kiwi up in the air, and they carry him.
PRODIGY: I swear to God, all the way to the train station, after the fight.
CHRISTOPHER: Wait wait you can’t — we can't just go past that.
MARY: Do you think that actually happened?
CHRISTOPHER: I mean P's telling of it is that they lift him on his shoulder like he won the game.
MARY: Yeah. Like they scored the winning touchdown. Like woo.
PRODIGY: So we following him to the train station — I’m like this is crazy — after they put him down we get on the train- we meet each other, so I’m like, yo where we going? He was like, we going to Ravenswood.
CHRISTOPHER: This is the Ravenswood housing projects in Queens, New York.
PRODIGY: I’m like Ravenswood? I’m like, my grandmother’s from Ravenswood… He was like “Oh word? My grandmother’s from Ravenswood!”
MARY: Nowadays. This guy Kiwi — he goes by Havoc.
CHRISTOPHER: And it’s kinda crazy, this is the dude that was supposed to rob Prodigy — and they end up as life-long creative partners, rocking crowds all over the planet, making gold and platinum albums. This was that dude.
PRODIGY: That was it. We just got cool that day. We started making songs immediately… We just clicked. Know what I mean? We became really close friends, getting in mad trouble together…
MARY: This is where Mobb Deep started. On a train into Queens after school one day.
PRODIGY: After I met Hav and we started getting real cool, and we started being like, aight this is — this is — we got something. We made like 50 songs immediately and uh — we just started pushin’ forward with it like man you know what, fuck school. Let’s do this.
MARY: The way these two kids decided to go get a record deal —
PRODIGY: What we used to do was look on the back of the albums — aight here’s the address… aight come on let’s cut out school, let’s take the train and go down there...
MARY: — and they would stand in front of record label offices.
PRODIGY: — with the headphones, walkman and we used to just stand outside the door like this and wait for the rappers to come out — know what I mean — or whoever to come out and we seen a bunch of different rappers come out. We used to be like ‘Yo, listen to our demo tape!’
MARY: And this worked. They got a record deal when they were still teenagers.
SCOTT: I don’t know, I guess they were about 13, 14 maybe at the time — 2 little badass kids from Queensbridge —
CHRISTOPHER: Scott Jacobs is a producer who worked with Mobb Deep back in the day, and he's probably got their ages wrong. But this just shows just how young they looked.
SCOTT: I always remember P’s little line talking about something ‘bout "baby Slick Rick — Little Rick the Ruler — and in my pocket there’s a fat bag of buddha" — my first instinct is what are these 13 year old kids doing talking about bags of buddha, you know what I’m saying?
MARY: So in 1993 the Mobb releases their first album they call it Juvenile Hell.
MARY: This is a song called Peer Pressure. It's one of the biggest singles to come off of this album. It’s got this punchy energy.
CHRISTOPHER: Some pretty big name producers made the music for this album, and Prodigy and Havoc actually got a nice chunk of change to make it.
SCOTT: You know that was a big deal back then getting a major budget and blowing your budget — I remember Prodigy pushing like a Sterling, could barely see over the wheel — back in the day it had like big cables that weighed more than them — but with that said they had — they had some of the illest cats around them helping them develop that record.
CHRISTOPHER: So then they set out to actually try to sell this album.
PRODIGY: You know what I mean. Then we go off on a little promo run — we doing a in store one day in D.C.
CHRISTOPHER: They go to a record shop. Remember record shops?
PRODIGY: — and we walk into the in store.
MARY: — and all of a sudden over the loudspeakers comes this really lovely jazz piano riff.
CHRISTOPHER: The song is called The World is Yours. And the way the MC comes on the mic, boy — it’s just fire. And Prodigy and Havoc actually know this guy.
MARY. His name is Nasir Jones. But at this point everyone's just calling him Nas.
PRODIGY: Illmatic is playing we never heard it before.
MARY: And at that moment, Prodigy says they had this realization...
PRODIGY: We was like ‘Oh shit yo. You hear this shit?’ We was like pack this shit up. We went about this all wrong, you know what I’m saying? And that brought us down to reality.
CHRISTOPHER: And they realized that what Nas was doing, that was the kind of stuff that they wanted to be doing. They didn't want to just get your head to nod. They wanted to make timeless rap songs. And Juvenile Hell was noooooooot that.
PRODIGY: You know what I’m saying, ‘cause we could hear the difference. We could hear it. There's a big difference between you know the thought that was put into making writing the lyrics making the beats. He put some serious thought into that and we didn't. We were just fucking around being little dumb ass kids like you know what I’m saying like feeling ourselves ‘yeah we got a rap deal, I got a gold tooth.’ like…
MARY: Mobb Deep’s album, it only sold about 20,000 copies.
PRODIGY: Our arrogant asshole attitude — that's why the album came out like and underperformed and it was like not really. We didn't put our heart and soul. We didn't put our — we didn't understand that this shit is not a joke. Like you can't just do whatever and people are supposed to kiss your ass and like it; you've got to make timeless. You got to make some shit that stand the test of time and we didn't understand that we was very arrogant. We was very cocky on some bullshit .
CHRISTOPHER: And not long after that, Prodigy and Havoc got dropped by their record label.
PRODIGY: Yo, our hearts was broken, you know what I’m sayin’, ‘cause we was like yo this is what we wanna do with our life!... so we was like, hold up hold up hold up — no! We gotta show people who we are. We gotta tell our story the right way. We gotta put — like I said — put thought, and put meaning, put your soul, put your heart, into the music; know what I mean? Tell your story, man. And we had the attitude like you know: we not — we not — this ain’t gonna happen again. You know what I’m saying? 1000% for sure, this is never going to happen again. You know what I’m saying?
CHRISTOPHER: They decided to start over — and what they came up with — man — this album, The Infamous. That record would help define a generation of hip hop in mid 90s. If you listen to the first track — it's called The Start of Your Ending — you can hear how they've totally reworked their sound. It's a total 180 from what they were doing before.
MARY: It's slowed down. It sounds composed. It's gorgeous. It's Mobb Deep's second album. But a lot of people think of it as their first one —
CHRISTOPHER: Including Prodigy.
MARY: Yeah, Prodigy sometimes just refers to it as their first album.
CHRISTOPHER: The music on Juvenile Hell sounds like a lot of other hip hop out at the time. But the music on The Infamous, even today nothing sounds like The Infamous.
DRE: They changed — they made they made the music dark. When I hear one of their beats, I say, "damn — the lights went out! What happened! Oh my God!" It just became dark and like really gritty, and I was like, "yo — I want to hear this."
CHRISTOPHER: This is one of the first hosts of a show called Yo MTV Raps Today. This is Dr Dre.
DRE: Also known as AKA Wonka Dre, also known as Big Daddy Original Concept Dre, also known as — I don’t have all those AKAs, I'm just joking…
CHRISTOPHER: So like Dre says — yeah, the music was DARK. But man — it was also electric. This is another track from “The Infamous” album. It’s called Eye for an Eye. And when this stuff played in the club it just made people feel some kind of way.
DRE: Oh man, you wanna start beating and fighting your boy, and grabbing and jumping around — "yo! this is that thing! yo!" And women start to feel themselves! It was a different thing.
MARY: But it also sounded like they were kind of rejecting all of that bouncy energy from Juvenile Hell. Other rappers were having fun with their music.
DRE: But Havoc and Prodigy they had — they had vocals where like I said it was almost like they turn the light out of the room, and you were like, "yo I want to hear this!," and the smoke started filling up around you! That was the vibe you got. It was like, "yo this is something — this is — this is Mobb Deep!”
MARY: And when you compare The Infamous with their first record, part of what changed their sound was sickle cell.
JACOBS: The big thing about “Juvenile Hell” is — production wise Prodigy was more of the producer.
MARY: This is Scott Jacobs again. He says Prodigy’s disease flipped the roles that P and Hav had in the group. When they started out, Hav was doing a lot of the writing.
JACOBS: So Havoc was doing a little ghostwriting for P — yo yo yo you know “say it like this, say it like that.” Whatever, whatever. Go back listen to Prodigy’s flow, it’s very animated. It’s very excited. And that’s basically Havoc.
MARY: Now when they were making The Infamous, Prodigy was getting sick the same way he always did.
SCOTT: So what happens is — Havoc is home, right? But any background for any kinds of thoughts or ideas, stem from the music first.
MARY: He’s having to go to the hospital for hardcore pain relief — he’s doped up, he’s on morphine.
SCOTT: So what’s Havoc supposed to do - wait for P to get home in order to start writing? So Havoc starts to learn how to program the machines. And Prodigy, who spends most of his time on his back — right — starts writing more.
MARY: And Scott Jacobs tells a story about asking about P about hey why'd you change your flow. Why'd you change your style.
SCOTT: — He was like, ‘yo I was just laying in the hospital man. You know, I was all numbed up. And you know I was like, rather than getting all excited or whatever, he said Ima just to talk to these n---s — and that’s gonna be my style’.
CHRISTOPHER: So this is where it happens the way that P stepped to the mic — ill, slowed-down, plain-spoken flow, the one that hip hop fans came to know, even when Prodigy sampled on other people’s music. It came from sickle cell.
MARY: The infamous sold 500,000 copies in just two months. The Mobb toured Europe and the whole US both coasts.
CHRISTOPHER: And back then, when Mobb Deep went on tour, they brought the whole crew — sometimes close to two dozen heads. And on the road, all of those guys got to see a side of Prodigy that they'd never seen before.
TWINS: He was like sittin in the chair like this — ’Yo! Yo! Call the ambulance! Like this’
MARY: We wanted to get a better sense of what Mobb Deep’s early days were like. We reached out to Havoc, Prodigy's partner for so many years through his friends, family, managers. No luck so far. But there are other people who are just as close to P back then.
TWINS: Yo this is Big Twins. Queensbridge Finest, Infamous Mobb Crew —
MARY: Twins was a part of this huge crew of guys that would roll with Prodigy and Havoc wherever they went.
MARY: When did you first meet Prodigy?
TWINS: When I was like I think I was like 14 years old? We was over there by Havoc’s grandmother’s crib in Ravenswood and Havoc and P just walked up.
MARY: Twins grew up down the block from Havoc.
Twins: When they said, “Yo, we want to start this new group called called Mobb Deep”. And I was like, ‘Why it’s Mobb Deep?’ He was like, “Cuz we gonna we gonna go to the club deep!” It was over after that.
CHRISTOPHER: Twins and Havoc lived in Queensbridge Houses. This is the biggest public housing complex in the country. It was pretty rough when they were growing up. But it was also a source of mad inspiration. Queensbridge is almost like a character in Mobb Deep’s music... And Prodigy, who was actually from Long Island, a lot of people assume he’s from the Bridge, too.
TWINS: For me I thought he was kinda weird ‘cause he had a nice crib in Long Island — you know what I mean — but he didn’t want to be there, he kind of wanted to be in Queensbridge everyday — so he used to be in my mom’s crib, sleeping at my mom’s crib all day that’s where he used to be at all day.
MARY: That Queensbridge love, you could hear it in the music. But you could also hear it in the fact that the Mobb brought people like Twins up with them.
TWINS: It was perfect I used to have the whole hood in the studio — you know, just to get that energy. And when we went to the club I’m — like when we go to the club they’d get a limo and I’d say, “I’ll meet y’all there”. So I get on the train. I go to the hood — ‘Come on!’ — 35 of us and we all take the train and then Hav and P will meet us at the front door and get us all in. You know what I mean? That’s how I used to do it. I was tryna make the image.
MARY: So Twins was at the studio, he went on tour with Mobb Deep…
TWINS: — SUPER fun. You know we’d go to the club, and perform, bag some shorties, bring em back to the hotel, do what we do — you know what I mean?
MARY: When did you realize P had sickle cell?
TWINS: Um… that’s crazy… ‘cause I ain’t know for a while — I ain’t even know what sickle cell was, um I never even heard of that — seeing the pain he was in, it was crazy yo.
CHRISTOPHER: Do you remember what it looked like? I’ve actually never seen someone…
TWINS: Man — I was in North Carolina — Mobb Deep and Fat Joe and Big Pun — and P had — me and him were sharing a room and he had to — MAN. P was saying he was feeling — not feeling so well. You know what I mean, ‘cause I had brought a girl back to the room. I’m messing with her, but he’s kind of like sleeping you know what I mean?
MARY: So they go to bed.
TWINS: The next morning when we wake up? Like he breathing hard. You know what I mean, and I’m like you good?
MARY: And he says, “I need my medication I need my medicine please get my medicine”.
TWINS: And that was my first time seeing morphine. I’d never seen it. It’s — yo, the pill was like — is nothing. It’s like a grain of salt! Like — you know what I mean? It’s so strong too! So he took that. And he said I’m gonna see how long it take, you know what I mean? And then I left. I left out.
MARY: When he comes back. Prodigy's even worse.
TWINS: Full fledged. He was like sittin in the chair like this — ’Yo! Yo! Call the ambulance!’
MARY: So he’s like panting? He’s like —
TWINS: Like this — You know what I mean? He’s rocking in the chair like this — and he like —
MARY: And he says I just need you to call an ambulance, you’ve got to call an ambulance for me.
TWINS: But the ambulance took a while, so that’s when we started talking.
MARY: He just sort of sits with him and he says listen I know this isn't the time to ask you —
TWINS: I even said my bad I don’t want to ask you but how it feel, son? And he was like it feels like my bones are burning. I’m like burning? He’s like yeah it feels like my bones is on fire. I was like THAT’s what sickle cell feels like?
MARY: He said you know I think all of Prodigy's friends had this moment with him where they asked like what does this feel like.
TWINS: Nobody never seen P get sick like that. To that level. But the family, you know what I mean?
MARY: So eventually the ambulance gets there, and all the other people they’re on tour with start coming out of their rooms to see what's going on.
TWINS: Everybody start coming in the hallway — ‘cause they was like — what’s going on — and then Big Pun came in the room and Fat Joe and they seen it. They couldn’t believe it. They could not believe the pain he was in.
MARY: He is screaming in pain, but he has no way to get to the ambulance. He can't move.
TWINS: I just see them crying, they just start crying immediately.
CHRISTOPHER: So Prodigy's boys get in formation around him and they pick him up in his chair, and they carry him out to the ambulance.
TWINS: And you know Pun and them — they wanted to talk for hours after that — how he live like that — you know what I mean — I was like I’m kinda new to it too you know what I’m saying? You know, I never knew nothing about it either.
CHRISTOPHER: How did that change the way you saw P or thought about him or thought about his life?
TWINS: Oh nobody can get near him. You already know we in the club, we in front, he behind us, nobody can get nowhere NEAR him. That’s how I always was...
CHRISTOPHER: These guys were already really loyal to each other. They rolled Mobb Deep for reason. Strength in numbers to protect each other. They live by this code. Mobb Deep had a song called Eye for an Eye. “We're in this together, son, your beef is mine”. So now Twins sees his, one of his closest friends go through this attack, and he decides he's going to protect Prodigy.
TWINS: Once I knew he was sick, then it was another level of holding him down. You know what I mean? Nobody can get near him, watching everybody. ‘Cause we think something can happen to him of he get hit hard or knocked out or — you know what I mean? ‘Cause it’s — you know the sickle cell we all know how crazy it is, so — so we really treated him different after that.
MARY: One of these guys from the mob told me, “We protected him like he was the president.” And I feel like that was because they loved him, but also because they'd seen this tremendous vulnerability in him. P couldn't help it. This was his life, and I think these guys took that really seriously.
TWINS: I hate that sickle cell. I hate it, man.
MARY: Next time on The Realness. When Prodigy was born kids with sickle cell weren't expected to make it to 20.
CHRISTOPHER: And then doctors and activists took this obscure misunderstood disease and made it so urgent even the president had to pay attention.
GREG: Watching him and his pain, going through what he was going through (pained voice) and those movements — and ugh! I couldn’t feel that, man, but I felt it! You know that’s like something you can’t feel.
CHRISTOPHER: The Realness is a production of WNYC Studios - hosted by me, Mary Harris, and Christopher Johnson.
CHRISTOPHER: Our editor is Christopher Werth. We had help from Consulting Producer Kathy Iandoli and Associate Producer Eryn Mathewson. Celia Muller makes sure we’re legally in the right. Michelle Harris is our fact checker.
MARY: Jared Paul is our engineer, Cayce Means is our technical director. Our team includes Amanda Aronczyk and Audrey Quinn. Along with Steven Reneau, Kaitlin Sullivan, Arianna Jones, and Nikki Galteland (GALT-land).
MARY: WNYC’s Vice President of News is Jim Schachter.
CHRISTOPHER: Trumpeter Christian Scott wrote our theme song, and composed a lot of the music in this series. Additional music by Melanie Hsu (SOO).
MARY: Thanks to NPR for sharing audio from their podcast “Microphone Check”. And thanks to Pandora for sharing audio of Questlove Supreme. A heads up from them: you can stream their “Sounds Like You” concert online; that performance included a rendition of Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part 2” by Nas. It was recorded just a few weeks after Prodigy died.
CHRISTOPHER: Special thanks this episode to Benadara, whose initial guidance made the whole thing possible.
CHRISTOPHER: We also want to show love to Prodigy’s friends and family who gave us their time, welcomed us into their homes, and shared their memories of a man they treasure.
WNYC’s health coverage and The Realness is supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Jane and Gerald Katcher and the Katcher Family Foundation, Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.