CHRISTOPHER: Prodigy comes from a super artistic family.
PRODIGY: My moms was, like, walking down a street — somewhere — I don’t know if it was Queens, or wherever she was at.
CHRISTOPHER: His mother’s name was Fatima Johnson. But she performed as Frances Collins after she got a totally random shot at the music business.
PRODIGY: And somebody had stopped her and was like, hey! Can you sing? And she was like, No. And they was like, you sure? We need an extra member for this group, because one of the members had dropped out.
MARY: Francis was being recruited to join The Crystals. They had hit songs like “Then He Kissed Me,” or the “Da Doo Ron Ron” - and when you listen to them you can really hear how they set the standard for girl groups in the early 60s.
PRODIGY: So, they convinced her to do it. She was only 18. They convinced her to do it, and she became part of the group, and went right on tour. It was just like random.
CHRISTOPHER: Prodigy’s GRANDMOTHER - Bernice Johnson - ran that dance school in Queens, New York.
MARY: Her students became TV stars, danced with Alvin Ailey — choreographed for Michael Jackson. And her son - Prodigy’s dad - he was in a kid doo wop group called The Chanters.
CHRISTOPHER: And then, there was Prodigy’s grandpa.
PRODIGY: My grandfather's name Budd Johnson. He was big into jazz and like a big band.
MARY: Budd Johnson Senior was a sax player. He toured with Dizzy Gillespie. He was in a big band with Quincy Jones.
CHRISTOPHER: And, he wrote and recorded his own stuff. Like a song, called “Dirty Old Man” - he released it in 1974, the same year Prodigy was born. Just listen to Budd lay into his horn.
MARY: When Prodigy was a kid, he got to meet all these jazz greats when Budd would have them over to the house. Sometimes Prodigy would get to see his grandfather play live. He loved it, even if he didn’t always appreciate what he was hearing.
PRODIGY: I just didn’t get it when I was a kid. Probably like — yeah — in high school when I first started making beats - then I understood, like, the power of my grandfather's music. ‘Cause we would sample a lot of jazz records. You know what I mean? And he left me — like — his jazz record collection. And we made a lot of the — first album “Infamous” and — “Juvenile Hell” from my grandfather’s records.
CHRISTOPHER: Like a lot of rap songs back then, Mobb Deep’s most famous track “Shook Ones Part 2” is made of several different samples. And one of the elements they pulled from his grandfather’s collection is a gentle, minor key riff. It’s lifted from a Herbie Hancock song called “Jessica.” Havoc chopped and twisted it beyond recognition. But it’s there - the melodic backbone of a classic hip hop beat. So with all of this talent - right there in one family - it almost seems inevitable that Prodigy would go into the family business, like he was born to be an entertainer.
MARY: But Prodigy’s success - the kind where other rappers drew on him for inspiration - didn’t come easy. Especially when you remember that he was constantly fighting through that pain, from sickle cell. It could have worn him down.
CHRISTOPHER: But, that’s not Prodigy’s story. Despite his sickle cell - or maybe, because of it - Prodigy became a tough kid. And when he discovered rap music as a teenager, that toughness turned into such clear-eyed confidence and determination, that Prodigy knew exactly what he wanted to do: he wanted to rock the mic.
MARY: In this episode, we’re going to tell you two stories about how Mobb Deep’s toughness and focus showed up from day one.
CHRISTOPHER: Then, we’ll take you to this club that was everything about the New York rap scene in the 1990s, and show you what it looked like when all of Mobb Deep's tenacity started paying paid off. I’m Christopher Johnson.
MARY: I’m Mary Harris. This is The Realness.
PRODIGY: We were making groundbreaking hit records for the hood, and quickly becoming the most elite rappers in the world. Responsible for creating one of the best eras in hip hop history - the 90s. Nas, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang Clan, Biggie, and Jay-Z - a changing of the guard.
CHRISTOPHER: Our first story goes back to the earliest days in Mobb Deep’s history. This is back when Havoc and Prodigy were out hustling for a record deal, and they realized they also needed - a manager. So, they brought on Prodigy’s mom. She’d learned a lot about the music business, when she was singing with The Crystals. OK — so: 1992, Prodigy and Havoc, were about 18 years old. And they’d been been working the clubs, and the industry parties — whatever it took.
PRODIGY: We did a talent show, right? It was like a New York City — some talent show New York used to do all the time.
CHRISTOPHER: Mobb Deep had been competing in a statewide talent contest. And they were doing pretty well. After the first few rounds, they got put on the bill for a show.
PRODIGY: And we had auditions, rehearsals, or whatever it is. And we going through our song. And our song got curses in it.
MARY: OK, their song was called “Ahh Shit!”.
PRODIGY: The chorus of the song go - “ahhhhh shit! - here we go yo! - ahhhh shit! - here we go yo!” That's the whole chorus. So we put it on. We like doing our shit, and they’re like, stop the music! Yo, you can't curse in this talent show. We like, what? They like, you can't curse…and we walked off. My moms was like, What's wrong with y’all? So she sat us down like right after that, she was like, you can't do that. You can't — you can’t disrespect people like that! Just take the curses out!
CHRISTOPHER: Now, Prodigy and Havoc were in this face-off with Prodigy’s mom - 2 kids who’d hardly made a dent on the rap scene, versus a woman who’d toured with Diana Ross and The Supremes. But these kids - they just leaned in.
PRODIGY: We was like, yo listen: we're going to stick to what we do. You know what I mean? We don't want nobody trying to change us. If you not going to follow what we're saying and believe in us to the maximum and fuck everybody else, then we can’t work with you no more.
MARY: And that was it. Prodigy and Havoc fired Prodigy’s mom. They were so sure, so determined, so totally positive that their way, their sound could and would prevail.
PRODIGY: We were really hard-headed. We were really just stuck on what we were doing. Tunnel vision.
CHRISTOPHER: Here’s Prodigy with about 25 years of hindsight.
PRODIGY: We wasn't trying to hear nobody. We had something that didn't really exist — like you know what I’m saying — it was like the vibe that we had. You know? Just the energy, and the words, and the style, the slang - everything was just, it wasn't nothin like that.
CHRISTOPHER: This attitude wasn’t entirely out of the blue. The early 90s was an era of independent rap labels, indy rap radio, and successful independent artists.
MARY: So it’s not totally crazy for two hip hop upstarts like Prodigy and Havoc to think - we’re gonna do this our way. Mobb Deep had an almost obsessive sense of how great they wanted to be.
CHRISTOPHER: Which gets us to our second story. Around the same time they fired Prodigy’s mom, remember that Havoc and Prodigy would stand outside of record companies with their demo tape in a Walkman, waiting for artists to walk out so that they could get them to listen. And back then, their favorite label was Def Jam. This was home to some big acts like Run DMC, LL Cool J...
MARY: ...Yeah, the Beastie Boys used to ride their bikes around the offices.
CHRISTOPHER: So Mobb Deep, they’re hustlin’. And they finally get someone’s attention at Def Jam.
PRODIGY: They set up a meeting for us with Russell Simmons. So we go to the office to have a meeting with Russell...
CHRISTOPHER: Simmons co-founded Def Jam. So, this meeting was a big deal. The plan was for Havoc and Prodigy to go to the Def Jam office, and someone would take them just around the corner to Russell’s house. But - there’s a problem.
PRODIGY: I had the gun on me. You know what I mean — the little one-shot Derringer I had bought.
CHRISTOPHER: Prodigy’s holdin, not a big gun but still.
MARY: Before they went to Russell’s place, Prodigy hands the gun to someone at Def Jam. They quietly tuck it away in a desk drawer.
PRODIGY: I had left it in the Def Jam office ‘cause I ain’t want to bring a gun in Russell’s house. Walked around the corner, went to Russell’s crib. Russell's a no-show. They like, Oh, Russell got caught up.
CHRISTOPHER: So they went back to the office, where they met with a totally different executive. And he says to them - you guys are too young, your music is too filthy, I can’t do anything with you. Thanks, kids, but no thanks.
PRODIGY: We was like, what the fuck is wrong with this dude? He didn’t understand the music. We was like, aight fuck it! We wasn’t mad or anything. We was like, aight, on to the next label! So we go downstairs. And — before we leave — you know they had all these posters hanging up in the office. They had like the “Great Adventures of Slick Rick” framed. They had like Big Daddy Kane shit, everybody’s shit framed in there. They had the ill De La Soul Is Dead post. I wanted to hang it up in my room, you know, that was that back in the day shit - hanging shit up in your room and what not.
CHRISTOPHER: So, before Havoc and Prodigy leave, they ask a guy at Def Jam for a few of those posters. And while he’s in the back, Havoc goes into the desk drawer.
PRODIGY: So Hav, get the gun out the drawer, and he points it at me. I’m like, yo, chill son that shit got — you know what I mean — that shit got bullets in it! He’s like, I’m just playing, calm down. I’m like, chill, don't point guns at people. So my man comes back with all the posters. He like, yo - here. He put the posters down, then Hav pointed the gun at him, like, yo — give me them posters, nigga!
CHRISTOPHER: Ok — now — take a deep breath.
CHRISTOPHER: Havoc accidentally pulls the trigger and he shoots the guy in the stomach.
ALI: We were there in the office and I heard the firing of a gun. And so, we all kind of had this perplexed, like, “was that what we really heard?,” sort of expression.
MARY: Ali Shaheed Muhammad was at Def Jam that day. He’s with the rap group A Tribe Called Quest.
ALI: Everything kind of just went in a slow motion like it was so slow motion.
PRODIGY: Hav drops the gun - we’re both like, o shit! What the fuck?! Like we in shock! You know what I mean?
CHRISTOPHER: Hav bolts out the door, and runs downstairs.
PRODIGY: We’re running up the block, I hear somebody screaming behind me: “Stop them kids! Yo, stop them kids! So I’m like, I look…
CHRISTOPHER: And it’s Ali — in hot pursuit.
ALI: So I hit the corner and I’m running up, approaching, and I see Prodigy.
MARY: Ali catches up to him, sits right down next to Prodigy...
ALI: And I asked him — I’m like why are you carrying a gun? And he's explaining to me that there were people in school that was threatening him.
PRODIGY: My first year of high school, there was this gang called the Decepticons… and I used to come to school in the morning. And I used to see people come to school — my friends coming to school faces spliced open like, you know what I’m saying… I'm like, yo, what the fuck happened to you son?! And they like, yo, the Decepticons caught us in a train station! I'm like, yo, them niggas ain't cuttin' me like that, dog. I’m buying a gun right now. ‘Cause I dare a nigga to try to cut me like that... So that's when I bought my first gun, because of that.
CHRISTOPHER: Back on that sidewalk in the middle of Manhattan, Ali says that sitting next to Prodigy, and hearing his story — his heart was broken for this kid.
ALI: Knowing that he had to walk around with his backpack with a firearm — it just made me feel like, man, his life is so messed up. And I'm doing everything I can to try and comfort him and tell them that it's going to be alright. A situation like that — it can completely ruin your life. And it can shape you into a different person.
MARY: But for Prodigy and Havoc, this incident did the opposite. After they got famous, this story became proof that, Mobb Deep was real. It became part of the Mobb’s lore.
CHRISTOPHER: As for the guy that Havoc shot, he survived, and he agreed to just let the whole thing go. And Prodigy and Havoc just kept hustling.
CHRISTOPHER: From firing Prodigy’s mom, to surviving the fall out after the Def Jam shooting, and all along the way, cursing out anyone who tried to change them, Mobb Deep set their course. As for Prodigy, because of his sickle cell, he expected to die young. His condition gave him a sense of urgency, this incredible drive to succeed. And it paid off. Mobb Deep became stars during what’s now considered the golden age of hip hop.
MARY: And back then, there was one place you wanted to be.
PRODIGY: Oh my God, Jesus Christ. This was the Mecca of all clubs, the best club that ever opened in America.
CHRISTOPHER: To get a real snapshot of New York’s rap scene in the 1990s — a scene that Mobb Deep was rapidly becoming a part of — we can’t let you go without taking you to one last place. It’s a place that tells you a lot about how the music business worked back then.
MARY: It was down in Chelsea, right by the West Side Highway, a club called The Tunnel.
CHINKY: The Tunnel. My God. That club was like the most amazing club of my lifetime.
CHRISTOPHER: This is Shalene Evans. But that’s not what most people call her. Most people call her Chinky.
CHINKY: I was given that name by my dad. A lot of people ask me that question because of the slant in my eyes —
CHRISTOPHER: She met Prodigy when she was just a teenager. She sang on Mobb Deep's songs, and she was the only woman in their massive crew. And when that crew rolled, it definitely rolled to The Tunnel.
CHINKY: The Tunnel is my generation’s Studio 54.
TUNNEL: What’s up y’all, this is Cherub. And I am at The Tunnel Sunday night like we do every Sunday only today is...
MARY: So for a long time The Tunnel had been known for its techno and house dance parties. And then in the early 90s around 1993 the guy who owned it said, “why don't we try a rap party?,” and this is kind of a big thing because rap parties at the time — dance parties they were known to get kind of violent. And so it was a little bit of a risk. And he said OK well we'll do this on Sunday night because then if I make a little money it's just kind of bonus and hopefully nothing goes wrong. And this place became the epicenter of hip hop in New York.
CHINKY: So, what you do when you get to the block of the tunnel, right, you get out your cab. You scan the line first to see if you can cut it. OK, then, the line is the party, OK? ‘Cause half of this line is not getting in. So you might as well party on the line.
CHRISTOPHER: And as soon as you got through the line, and the security, and you actually got through the front door — you'd just get swept up in the energy.
CHINKY: Man, it’s mayhem! It’s just people everywhere. And it’s so huge! It literally looked like the space of a train tunnel. It looked that big.
MARY: 80,000 square feet. Massive. There were actually train tracks down the middle of the dance floor because it used to be a space where freight trains were.
CHINKY: And there were little com- like little compartments, rooms in the tunnel. You would find a new one every time you went to this damn club — and these rooms used to have shit goin’ on in em.
CHRISTOPHER: Like what?
CHINKY: Sucking, fucking, snortin’, smokin’, this that. The bathrooms in the tunnel were co-ed and there were bars in the bathrooms!
CHRISTOPHER: Shut up!
CHINKY: Literally, you could come out the stall, grab a drink — right — every inch of that club, it was a party.
PRODIGY: This was the Mecca of all clubs, the best club that ever opened in America...we would be in that spot every Sunday like church. We ran through The Tunnel like we owned it.
MATTY: The Tunnel was like the Amazon of nightclubs.
CHRISTOPHER: Matty was what’s known as an A&R man for Loud Records. And for folks like him, The Tunnel was all about business.
MARY: He helped Mobb Deep get a deal for their second album, “The Infamous.”
MATTY: Yeah I mean The Tunnel was kind of like an extension of the office for me and for most of the artists on Loud.
MARY: Part of Matty’s job was to do whatever he had to do — wherever he had to do it — to make sure everybody knew about their music.
CHRISTOPHER: And back in the mid-90s, if you worked for a rap act - if you were in a rap act - and you wanted to be taken seriously, you found your way into The Tunnel.
MATTY: Pretty much every big name group came through The Tunnel as kind of a way to debut if they were really on that level.
CHRISTOPHER: Puff Daddy and Biggie and their whole entourage were up in there.
MARY: Puffy was actually known for lining up champagne bottles on the bar when he was done with them.
CHRISTOPHER: Nas was there, and The Wu-Tang and their enormous clan. Even former NWA heads — guys all the way from Cali — would head to The Tunnel.
CHRISTOPHER: One thing that made this club so important to groups like Mobb Deep was a DJ named Funkmaster Flex.
CHINKY: Hold on, Funkmaster Flex? Not A DJ. The DJ! He had The Tunnel popping all the time, are you kidding?!
MARY: Back then, Funkmaster Flex was one of the hottest DJs in NY.
CHRISTOPHER: He worked at a radio station called Hot 97. Which is an institution for bringing new talent and veteran MCs to the air. Getting Flex’s attention could really help make an artist.
CHINKY: When Flex dropped the Mobb in The Tunnel, it was mayhem. Half of the club is kinda like doing the slam dance thing — pushing and grabbing and — I was too little for that shit, so I’m going to the other side — the shit was dope though like. It was like — you just got this feeling that came over you ‘cause you was apart of it. Like, I was a part of it, you know what I’m saying?
MARY: For Mobb Deep, it had been a three year slog to get to this place — making money, traveling the world, fans everywhere. Havoc and Prodigy were celebrities.
They had good reason to celebrate at The Tunnel.
PRODIGY: This dude named Chris Lighty — a well-known manager and party promoter — ran the door.
CHRISTOPHER: And with that fame and success, Prodigy’s feeling that he needed to do whatever it took to protect himself — it was at a whole other level.
PRODIGY: We got so comfortable with him, and one night, I pulled him to the side, and gave him a gun to sneak in. He did it. One gun became 2, 2 became 3. And the next thing you know, I was handing him book bags full of knives, shanks, screwdrivers, guns — other sharp and blunt objects. Chris handed the bags off to me in the bathroom, and I passed the tools out to the boys. Try to understand: number one, we’re famous. And number two, every hood in the tri-state area was in that club and it was dangerous.
MARY: Prodigy’s relationship with guns would cause him trouble over and over again. Sometimes, it even collided head on with his battle with sickle cell. That’s next time, on The Realness.
CHRISTOPHER: The Realness is a production of WNYC Studios — hosted by me, Christopher Johnson, and Mary Harris.
MARY: 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. And Michelle Harris is our fact checker.
CHRISTOPHER: Jared Paul is our engineer, Cayce Means is our technical director. Our team includes Merritt Jacob, Amanda Aronczyk, and Audrey Quinn. Along with Steven Reneau, Kaitlin Sullivan, Arianna Jones, and Nikki Galteland.
CHRISTOPHER: WNYC’s Vice President of News is Jim Schachter.
MARY: Trumpeter Christian Scott wrote our beautiful theme song, and composed a lot of the music in this series.
CHRISTOPHER: Additional music by Melanie Hsu.
MARY: Thanks to Buck Fifty Productions for sound from Prodigy’s audiobook. 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: 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.