MARY: You know, we started this show at a concert. And we wanted to finish with Prodigy up on stage too, but this performance, it was different
CHRISTOPHER: Right, it’s in New York. It’s in New York’s Greenwich Village at a jazz club - a world famous jazz club called Blue Note. A lot of greats have come through there. Including Prodigy’s grandfather, the sax player, Budd Johnson.
MARY: When Prodigy was a kid, his dad would take him to watch Budd play there.
MARY: There were four of these Blue Note shows in 2017. Prodigy performed with a live band. And, with two of his old friends - the rapper Twin, and Chinky, who’d sang with Mobb Deep and Prodigy on his solo projects.
CHINKY: He called me, and he was like, “yo - we doin The Blue Note.” I hadn’t been doing music seriously for a while. You know I was just doing my day job, going to school, getting all of my degrees. But if P or Hav come, you forced. You’re forced ‘cause you can’t say no.
CHRISTOPHER: Prodigy, Twin, and Chinky go back more than twenty years. Those guys are like her big brothers. So she still gets emotional when she talks about this reunion.
CHINKY: And with Blue Note, he was like, “yo, I want you and Twin to come and do it with me.” And I - just grateful like, “holy shit like - you do see me and you do hear me.”
CHRISTOPHER: This would be the last time anything like this would happen for Prodigy - where so many of his worlds converged under one roof: his artistic lineage, many of his closest relatives, and a creative family that had traveled with him for nearly three decades.
MARY: Prodigy reached WAY back in his catalog for tracks like this one - it’s called “Can’t Complain”.
CHRISTOPHER: The album version is built around a 1970s soul funk sample. But hearing a live band do it, they turned it into a whole new song.
MARY: Prodigy had been out of prison for six years at this point. Everyone we spoke to said he looked good up there. Both of his kids came. His ex wife Kiki showed up one night, but there’d been no sign of Havoc - the other half of Mobb Deep.
CHRISTOPHER: Remember, these two had been creative partners since they were in their mid-teens. They’d had their beefs with each other, which is almost inevitable after working together for that long. But at one point their relationship became so toxic, that Havoc put out a diss track attacking Prodigy.
MARY: Eventually they squashed things enough to start travelling the world again, doing the classics.
CHRISTOPHER: Even at these Blue Note dates showcasing Prodigy’s solo music, the people wanted to hear Mobb Deep.
CHINKY: And the last time, the last show - like everytime we did a show, at the end, they would always be like, Shook ones! Shook ones! Begging for it. And I’m like, P - like it’s the last show, like you gotta call Hav like... You gotta do it.
CHRISTOPHER: Prodigy finally took Chinky’s advice.
CHINKY: He was like, I called Hav. Hav is coming. He was excited. I was like, oh my God, I’m so excited…
CHRISTOPHER: And for that last Blue Note show in early June, Prodigy and Havoc got up on stage together. The band picks up that classic herbie hancock sample and mobb deep tears into “Shook Ones Part 2”.
MARY: These shows felt like a new beginning - for Mobb Deep, and especially for Prodigy.
CHINKY: And I’m sure it was special to him too, you know what I mean? Every time we did it, it was more special. He was happy. Like, he was really happy. Like, I can remember - he smiled a lot…
MARY: Two weeks after his last gig at Blue note, Prodigy and Havoc were on stage together again. This time - outdoors, in front of a much larger crowd, in Las Vegas, where it was a hundred degrees.
CHRISTOPHER: After that, Mobb Deep was supposed to fly back east to play in Harlem a week later. But Prodigy never got on that plane.
MARY: This last episode, we’re going to go back to the beginning of our story - when Prodigy was admitted to a hospital because of his sickle cell.
CHRISTOPHER: We’ll look at the last few days of his life, and ask - what happened in Las Vegas? There are still a lot of questions about how Prodigy died, especially for those who’d just seen him and thought he was in the best shape of his life.
MARY: Then we’ll go to Prodigy’s memorial - where family and his closest friends said goodbye to a hip hop icon.
CHRISTOPHER: I’m Christopher Johnson.
MARY: I’m Mary Harris. This is The Realness.
GREG: This is him in the dressing room. And - he had on like a tux. You know, he was - he was sharp, man.
MARY: Greg still has pictures on his phone from those Blue Note shows. It was the last time he got to see his little brother perform.
GREG: No hoodie, t-shirt - a suit, and some patent leather shoes. It was - it was awesome.
CHRISTOPHER: Greg and Prodigy had just started to get close again. As adults, they’d kinda drifted a bit. Greg is thirteen years older than Prodigy. And while Mobb Deep was on the rise, Greg was traveling with the Navy, so he missed a lot of their early shows.
GREG: Being overseas, and to meet people that I worked with, you know like lawyers, judges, you know that were in the military, pastors - knew my brother’s music! White people! That you would look at em and think, Nah! They knew my brother’s - it was unbelievable.
CHRISTOPHER: One reason they were reconnecting was that their mother Fatima had died. And just seven months after she passed away, Mobb Deep was in Vegas performing in that baking heat. A day later, Greg stopped by Prodigy's house in New Jersey to see him. Tasia - Prodigy’s daughter - answered the door.
GREG: And Tasia said, he's in the hospital. I had went over to the house thinking he was on his way home, and we didn't realize he was in hospital until I got there. So I called him from there, and we talked for a minute.
CHRISTOPHER: Instead of flying home to New Jersey, Prodigy had checked himself into a hospital about 20 minutes southwest of downtown Las Vegas. He was there with his bodyguard, a guy named Tim. Over the next couple of days, while Greg and his wife were traveling, he and Prodigy checked in pretty regularly.
CHRISTOPHER: So you called him in the hospital. And how’d he sound?
GREG: He sounded - winded. You know, but then I talked to him again that day, and he sounded better. You know that’s - again, normal occurrence. You know it’s bad, then it’s OK. Then you might talk to him on the phone, and he sounds (Greg imitates winded P) “Yeah.” And, it's the opioid, or it's him coming down from the pain, or it's him needing some pain medication.
MARY: On Tuesday, June 20th, Greg was alone in a hotel room when his phone rang. It was Tim - Prodigy’s bodyguard.
GREG: I got a call about 11:00 o'clock in the morning. And Tim goes, hey Greg, how you doing? I just could hear something in his voice, and it was disheartening. And I was like, wow, what's going on, man? And he said, we lost him. And I said, what? We lost him, he's gone! And for a solid - wow - 10 minutes, I just dropped the phone, and I screamed! Like I just screamed, and screamed - NO NO NO MAN NO NO NO. I can't even remember how long it was. I just screamed, and was running around the room. And I guess the housekeepers were out in the hallway because security came to the door and they said, What the heck is going on here? I'm sorry, man. My brother just passed away. I called my wife and told her I needed to see her right away. I didn’t want to tell her over the phone. I got in the car, and I flew over there. She was waiting outside, I stopped the car in the middle of the street. Opened the door, grabbed her... and I said, he's gone. I said, Chaka’s gone! And she held me, man. That was just really hard.
CHRISTOPHER: Prodigy’s death came crashing down on everybody. People were devastated. But they were also puzzled. Folks like Twins, who’d seen Prodigy through some of his worst sickle cell crises - they all say Prodigy was the healthiest they’d ever seen him. He’d been working out, he’d been eating well, and he’d found ways to fend off the worst of his sickle cell attacks.
MARY: It’s not easy to be a 42 year old rapper. But since he’d gotten out of prison, Prodigy had been prolific: three studio albums, international shows, those gigs at Blue Note. He’d put out a cookbook. He was even writing fiction. So, everyone thought: how could he have gone through the ringer for four decades, only to die NOW, on what seemed like a common hospital visit the kind of visit his crew had gotten used to?
CHRISTOPHER: Did you ask - when Tim called you, did you ask him what happened?
GREG: I don't remember. I think he, at first - you know it wasn’t really important. The important thing was that he was gone. He was dead. I've read things and listened to interviews of people saying it was from the sickle cell, and I don’t believe that was the case. It was something else other than sickle cell that killed him. It wasn’t the Sickle Cell.
CHRISTOPHER: If Greg’s right - if it wasn't Prodigy’s disease, then what happened in that hospital?
PETER: You know it's crazy. I actually was like - I heard about it in a very random way.
MARY: After the family found out that Prodigy died, news spread quickly to industry insiders. Peter Rosenberg, who's a hip hop DJ in New York, he found out when a friend texted him.
PETER: - and was like 'hey have you heard anything about Prodigy' and I said 'No not at all'.
MARY: The nurses at Prodigy’s hospital had started talking.
PETER: And he said I know this sounds crazy but like basically a family - someone in my family who's not in the hip hop works at a Las Vegas hospital - and says Prodigy just died there.
MARY: Peter spent hours trying to confirm what happened. He called Havoc, he called Prodigy’s Producer, Alchemist. None of them had heard a thing. Then Nas posted “Rest in Peace” on his Instagram.
PETER: So I went in the other room feeling very raw and emotional…. And just started playing songs and talking.
PETER ON INSTAGRAM: I couldn’t go to sleep without finding out if it was true….
MARY: Peter started broadcasting live from his cell phone.
PETER ON INSTAGRAM: So yes, it’s real. It’s real…
MARY: What time of night is this or day?
PETER: No, this is day. This is - I’m talking about if you were to go look at whenever Nas put up that post -
PETER: - this will be 10 minutes later.
PETER ON INSTAGRAM: And here we are. I saw him a week and a half ago.
MARY: The very same day, rumors started to swirl about how Prodigy died.
PETER: I think I only know what everyone else knew which is that he performed in Las Vegas. He didn't feel good. He was supposedly on the mend at the hospital and then he choked on an egg and died. It's like sort of like this sad way to hear someone passed like. I think we all agree there's a weird negative sound to it of like it's almost like embarrassing in an odd way. Like it sounds silly. It sounds like a silly way to die. And that was not how Prodigy should have died. He was a lot of things but he was not a silly guy and you like choked on an egg. Prodigy? No! Doesn't make sense.
MARY: This idea. That Prodigy just couldn't have choked to death. Almost everyone we spoke to said some version of the same thing. ‘
BENNY: You’re going to tell me that an egg - an egg beat him - that’s what you’re telling me right now.
MARY: Up in Utica, King Benny - that guy who visited Prodigy in prison every week, he got the news on Facebook.
BENNY: He lost to an egg - ‘cause he couldn’t get a fucking egg out - he couldn’t ask for help or - nothing. There's nothing that possibly could’ve went different. I’m not even jackin’ sickle cell did that shit. This n---- fought that shit well before I knew him, when he was fucking his body up - doing drugs, eating crazy, and he lived through that. I watched him get his weight up - from a fan, from him going in skinny, to me going to visit this man all this time and watching him, the transformation so you telling me now… get the fuck out of here.
MARY: It was as if Prodigy’s friends thought he was invincible. He couldn’t have choked. He couldn’t have died from sickle cell. Pretty soon, Benny, some of his friends, they tracked down a guy from Prodigy’s old Queensbridge crew, who happened to be in Vegas - goes by the name Godfather Part 3.
GODFATHER: I got the call got the call, in the morning, June 20th that something was wrong, he’s in the hospital, go find him and shit.
MARY: Godfather used to travel with Prodigy. He knew all about taking him to the hospital.
GODFATHER: By that time he was dead already, you know what I’m saying, but they just told me go up there anyway, you know what I mean? Went to speak to head nurse on the floor - they let me speak to the head nurse - you know and they were acting mad funny mad weird and shit - you know? I said want to see his room now. You know what I mean? Fuck his room at?! They was gettin’ like a little nervous nervous. Like yo bring me to his room now! You know what I mean - shit like that word. Yeah, P ain’t choke - he ain’t choke off no fucking egg. Yo, they lyin’. That gotta be - that’s a - that’s a lie, gotta be. Know what I mean? I don’t even think P ate eggs.
MARY: If you go online, there are lots of theories about how P died. That he was killed. That somehow the Illuminati - a secret society Prodigy rapped about sometimes - got to him. None of this sounded believable, but I did start making some calls. I talked to the Las Vegas Police….. the coroner's office….. the hospital where Prodigy died….. and I spoke to sickle cell experts. It turns out they had a lot of questions too.
GS: Died of what? (Choking?) Choking? C-H-O-K-I-N-G?
MARY: So to you, it raises questions?
DRV: Raises questions!? It needs immediate investigation.
MARY: There’s this one theory that physicians just kept coming back to. It involves opioids, which can make patients sleepy. They lose control of their airway. If that happens when you have food in your mouth, it can be deadly. I reached out to the hospital where Prodigy died, but they didn’t want to share any information about what took place that day. They were worried about patient privacy. In the end, the most I got was a single sheet of paper - two sided. The coroner’s investigation report. It says that Prodigy was last seen alive at 6:10 AM on June 20th, 2017. 20 minutes later a nurse returned to his room to find him unresponsive. There was a bowl of hard boiled eggs on the tray table in the room. One egg appeared to have a bite taken out of it. Prodigy was declared dead at 6:56 AM. He was 42 years old.
DR. MINNITI: But I can tell you one thing - that age 42 to 44 is the right age - when many of our young men with sickle cell die…
MARY: Does it need to be that young?
DR. MINNITI: It does not. It really does not to be that young.
MARY: Dr. Caterina Minniti runs that sickle cell clinic at Montefiore Medical Center - the place that was scaled back in 2008 - the place that cared for Prodigy.
DR. MINNITI: Actually sudden death is not uncommon at all, in sickle cell.
DR. MINNITI: Oh we really do not know. But the sudden death it’s common, and that happens in and outside the hospital many patients of mine die at home. They are found dead in their bed.
MARY: She said there are just so many ways for things to go wrong for a sickle cell patient: they can get dehydrated. They can have a stroke. They can develop a heart arrhythmia. Sometimes basic treatment protocols can actually cause a deadly crisis. Every sickle cell doctor I spoke with for this story had nightmare stories, about what happens to patients when they travel away from their personal physician. How things can just go wrong. Because patients end up being cared for by doctors who may not know anything about their disease.
DR. MINNITI: When they are away from the comprehensive care they receive care that is not appropriate and can be dangerous.
MARY: We can’t know what happened to Prodigy in Las Vegas, but Dr. Minniti says she loses one of her sickle cell patients each month.
DR. MINNITI: You know what is fascinating by Prodigy is think about it such a famous individual who most likely had access to excellent care. And that I find fascinating and also scary. He could have had unfettered access to any care he wanted. And yet the disease did not spare him.
CHRISTOPHER: As a kid diagnosed with sickle cell in the mid 70s, Prodigy got an unprecedented chance to live. In our second episode, we talked about how - right around the time Prodigy was born, black activists and doctors were bringing more attention to the disease. They forced those in power to take it seriously. And it worked. Kids with sickle cell started to live longer. Today, most babies born in the US get blood tests. Kids at risk can start antibiotic treatments like the one that helped Prodigy make it out of childhood. It’s standard care.
MARY: But as these patients have gotten older, not much has improved for them. As we've mentioned before, an adult with sickle cell is just as likely to die today as they were nearly 40 years ago." And while we know how to screen for sickle cell - and we know how to prevent it - the number of people diagnosed globally is actually growing. There is good news. There are a bunch of new drugs in the pipeline for sickle cell. But as we speak, the federal government spends about 3 times less per patient on sickle cell than it does on cystic fibrosis which is a lot like sickle cell; it's deadly, chronic, genetic, but cystic fibrosis primarily impacts white people.
MERCEDES: Okay. My name is Mercedes Muchita Thomas. And I am the mother of Havoc. But I call him Kiwan.
CHRISTOPHER: We tried really hard to get Havoc for this series. But when we reached out, he never got back to us.
MARY: So, we reached out to Mercedes - Havoc’s mom. Today, she’s a minister. Saw Havoc and his Queensbridge crew go from neighborhood friends to worldwide rap stars.
MERCEDES: - and they had all these little nicknames. I knew them as they real names. I'm saying to myself where are they getting this? So every time I see his friends I call them by they real names.
MARY: Mercedes knew Prodigy for nearly three decades. When he was a teenager, he’d stay in her apartment for days at a time.
MARY: Do you know how Kiwan responded to P’s death?
MERCEDES: He almost crashed in his car ‘cause he heard it on the phone as he was driving. Yeah. He was in a state of shock. They just - left he just left Vegas, and he was in the hospital. He wasn't feeling well before that my son said. So he - you know - he thought it was just a routine like he always do. He didn’t think nothing you know. He said he almost crashed. He had to compose himself until he got home.
MARY: Nine days later, Prodigy’s memorial service was held in Manhattan at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel. Same place they had Biggie’s viewing. (Jackie Onassis, Judy Garland, Heath Ledger, too.)
CHRISTOPHER: 50 Cent was there. So was LL Cool J and Questlove and Ice-T. They all showed up to say goodbye to Prodigy. So did droves of hip hop fans. And many of the guys that Prodigy had known since he was a teenager. But before the public paid its respects, there was a private service - with a viewing.
MARY: There was a live band. It was the same band that played with Prodigy at his Blue Note shows.
MERCEDES: And the mother of his children she eventually got in touch with me and asked me to do the opening prayer. Yeah, so I wore my clergy there ‘cause it made sense -
MARY: Yeah. Do you remember either of the prayers that you gave?
MERCEDES: No - when you pray, it just comes out you know. But I did pray blessing over the family. You know...I prayed their strength during their time of need. I prayed that God give them comfort. And my son - he couldn't even speak. And so you know I said when I spoke at his funeral, I said they were family and families have disagreements and people on the outside should mind they business. Because they were they became friends.
MARY: Was there a moment where everyone kind of - where it was especially emotional?
MERCEDES: Yeah I - Chinky she was - I had to calm her down. She was uncontrollably crying. She got up to do a song. She couldn't even do the song. I had to get a water and you know. She was the only one that was visibly upset besides my son. He didn't get up. Wild. He just sat there for the whole service with shades on, crying. So... I miss that young man. I do. I miss him. He's going to be missed. Yes he is.
CHRISTOPHER: At the service, Chinky sang a Diana Ross classic called “Missing You.” Diana sang it after Marvin Gaye died. We asked Chinky to sing it one more time - for us.
PRODIGY: Me having sickle cell — it made me a little different than other people you know what I’m saying? Because it made me be more laid back, analyzing shit. And just being like that, it caused me to - you know just be more of a thinker. So it caused me to take care of my health. When you take care of your health, you start looking at life different. And it just shapes you into a different type of person. You know what I’m saying? Do you want to be successful, or do you want to be a bum? And that's my motivation right there. I be like - wake up in the morning, I sit on the bed — those two choices: success or bum. So - “do or die.” That’s my motto, and it works for me, nahmean?
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, Matt Boyntin, Amanda Aronczyk, and Audrey Quinn. Along with Steven Reneau, Kaitlin Sullivan, Arianna Jones, and Nikki Galteland. 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. Shalene Evans a.k.a Chinky and Sam R. performed “Missing You” by Lionel Richie. Thanks to NPR for sharing audio from their podcast Microphone Check. 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.