“I used to be cold and emotionless. I think my disease, sickle cell anemia, made me that way. I now know that good is the correct way to be. You have to choose a side.” This flat, affectless statement, made early on in Albert “Prodigy” Johnson’s My Infamous Life, sets the tone for his memoir, which takes us on a tour through the recesses of one of rap’s darkest minds. As Prodigy, one half of the Queensbridge duo Mobb Deep, Johnson is known for some of the most nihilistic, bleakly compelling gangsta rap music ever made. “There’s a war goin ‘on outside no man is safe from,” he rapped wearily on “Survival of the Fittest,” a song off of their era-defining 1995 masterpiece The Infamous. It served as a statement of theme, and the heaviness in Johnson’s voice let listeners know that he knew intimately of what he spoke. All of rap’s blackest nights of the soul are his.
On My Infamous Life, we finally hear, in sometimes-excruciating detail, the life’s experience that gave rise to this worldview. There are stabbings, shootings, bodies flung off of project roofs. There are nights spent locked in hospital closets while he screamed for pain meds for his sickle cell anemia. But there is also disorienting privilege, courtesy of his formidable grandmother Bernice Johnson, who founded the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Harlem. She briefly sent her grandson to a private school for arts and music where drugs and guns freely exchanged hands in the cafeteria. Johnson narrates these dizzying dips and turns with chilling matter-of-factness, treating a horrifying story in which he and his young partner Havoc accidentally shoot a Def Jam employee in the stomach with the same bemused tone he uses to tell us about the time Emmanuel Lewis started break-dancing in his parents living room.
Johnson finished the book up while serving out the remainder of a three-year prison sentence for gun possession. Now that he’s out, he has hit the studio and the promotion trail hard, to make up for lost time. He recently stopped by the eMusic offices to talk with Jayson Greene about the process of writing the book, when he first realized he was good, and learning to channel a lifetime’s worth of pain and anger into something positive.
Early in the book, you say “I never liked people in my business – this book is a damn miracle.” What was the defining moment for you where you decided to let people in, to share your thoughts and life experiences this way?
I just think it was something important for Mobb Deep fans – to see what was really going on. People have heard a lot of stories and speculation about us throughout the years, and I wanted to address some of them. I also felt like it was important to tell people about my family history: the deal with my moms and my pops in the music industry and my grandmother and my grandfather. I also wanted to talk about dealing with my health issues, how those have transformed me, and even just my spiritual issues, how I have grown spiritually as a person, you know what I’m saying?
Your lyrics are some of the rawest rap lyrics ever written. Some people might say you’ve been telling us all about your business for years. How did this feel different?
In a four-minute song, you don’t get too personal, you know? The book is a little bit different; I address issues that certain people might be embarrassed about. There were a lot of stories that got taken out of the book by my editor, because the book was crazy long. It was probably about 600 pages. A lot of stuff came out that I was upset about; certain fights that I had where I lost, that sort of thing. I wanted to show my vulnerabilities, that I’m not this thug rapper and nothing can happen to me…It’s not like that. Shit happens in life, you know what I’m saying?
One of the things you left in was where you talk about one of the most embarrassing side effects of sickle cell anemia, which was bed-wetting. You even note that it’s something no other rapper would dare admit, let alone talk about it openly. Did you hesitate before including that kind of stuff?
To tell you the truth, nah. Because that was my whole idea for the book, to let people see the real shit. There was nothing that I wanted to hide. It wasn’t like, “Damn, should I be sayin ‘this, should I not be sayin ‘this?” This is just what it is, you know? I’m not ashamed of that shit. I’m a man, you know what I’m saying? I feel proud of myself, I can hold my own. I’m not ashamed of anything in my life, except for a little bit of negativity where I might have hurt people. Also, once people see I’m putting things like that in the book, they can know the rest of the book is authentic.
Your family history was a big surprise for me, and I imagine it will be for a lot of Mobb Deep fans. Your grandmother, who founded the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center; your grandfather, Budd Johnson, who played with Billy Eckstein, Dizzy Gillespie, and Quincy Jones; your mom, who was in the Crystals. You mention in the book, even, that your great-great-great grandfather founded Morehouse College. When did it really dawn on you in your life, just how serious your family’s history was?
When I was writing the book! Growing up, it was just normal for me. But when I was writing the book, it hit me. It’s just crazy when you see all that shit together in one place.
At one point, you say “I grew up on both sides of the tracks. I know what it’s like to be around suburban privilege and poverty.” That was poignant, especially with your grandmother owning an enormous school. Was it odd growing up in Queensbridge Projects with a millionaire grandmother?
Not really, because my grandmoms ‘money…we didn’t see too much of the benefits of my grandmoms ‘money, you know? It was two different worlds. When my parents split up, that was just that. My mother was still cool with the family, and my grandmoms loved her grandson. She put me in private schools, made sure I had a good education. But my grandmoms, she didn’t really get along with my moms; she ain’t want my father with my mother in the first place. As I got older, and reality started to set in, I would look around at my grandmoms ‘stuff and think, “My mother doesn’t live like that.” It made me kind of angry at my grandmoms sometimes: Why are we living like this over here, and on weekends I’m living rich? But when I got older, I understood. I understand what that was about. It was just two different lives. Sometimes people just don’t mesh.
You talk about your natural inspiration when you write a verse, like you could feel a higher force guiding you. Did you feel the same sense of ease with this?
Yeah, definitely a little bit. Especially when it came to the point where I was talking about certain things I felt people could really learn from, to better their lives. Spiritual issues, or health and diet. Things like that, I feel like it was meant to be. The words just came flowing out of me.
What’s your goal when you’re writing a verse as opposed to when you are writing something like this book?
My goal when writing a verse is to say the hottest shit I can say within the small time frame of 16 bars. To come up with the illest words that you never heard next to each other. Shit like that, you gotta do it fast. That’s the difference. In a book, you’ve got time to spread it out; you can leave a little hint in the beginning and then come all the way back to it at the end. It’s a much different process.
When you talk about writing The Infamous you say that you and Havoc wrote for yourselves and your friends, and that you decided early on that “if the hood loved it, then the world would love it.”
Yeah, a lot trends started in my neighborhood, you know what I mean? A lot of trends started in jail. And then it leaks out into the hood, when people come home from jail, and makes it way into the culture. All the hip-hop trends – the way people dress, what they say, certain particular styles in hip-hop – it all comes from the hood. When you’ve got these people that are trendsetters and so powerfully influential in the world, and then they’re the same people saying to you, “Yo, this song is hot right here, son!” You’ve got to take that as something serious. That’s an important opinion right there.
How old were you when you realized that your culture was going to be a taste-making culture? That the slang you made up with your friends could be taken nation-wide?
It was probably real early on, before I even came to Queensbridge. I remember watching Run-DMC’s video “Rock Box.” That’s what that whole video’s about: You see that little white kid sneaking into the club to see Run-DMC. That right there is the perfect example of how rap, the hood, influenced everybody in all cultures in the world.
You talk about the process of refining your sound with your producer Havoc after Juvenile Hell. I found it interesting that you basically taught Havoc how to program beats and work a sampler, and he taught you how to write verses. In both cases, the student ended up taking more naturally to the skill than the teacher.
Yeah, man, definitely. With Hav, I just showed him how to sample, how to sequence, and how to work the equipment – just where the wires plugged in and all that. I had just learned how myself maybe a month before. I was up all night, reading instruction booklets, going crazy trying to put it together. Then I taught Hav how to do it, and he just…that’s another instance of a higher power right there, when he was making beats. It was like it was meant to be. I used to look at him, like, “Yo, this dude don’t even see me standing here no more. Nothing exists except for him making the beat.” And the same thing with him showing me how to make my rhymes better, how to do the right flow and say the right words. I just really took to it and ran with it.
You talk about working on your craft a lot after you battled Nas and Cormega in those early years. What was the first verse you remember writing that you felt was as good as your idols?
It was probably this song we had called “Patty Shop.” Right after Juvenile Hell came out and flopped, we started working on the music full-time, and that’s when I really started to get better. That shit hit me hard, like, “Yo, our shit flopped.” That hurt my heart, you know? I was thinking, “This is what I want to do with life, and you’re trying to tell us that our label dropped us and we’re bums now, we’re always gonna be nobodies?” I wasn’t tryin ‘to hear that. Plus, Nas was out with Illmatic around that same time. We didn’t get to hear Illmatic beforehand; Nas probably played it for people in his block, but we ain’t get to hear until it was in the store. So when we heard that shit, we was like this [puts head in hands]. He just took it to another level. He was like God, you know? He just made our shit sound and look just stupid. We said to each other, “We really gotta sit down and come up with something real.” It was around that time that I wrote “Patty Shop,” “Shook Ones,” and I could hear it, automatically. As soon as we started making beats, and kicking rhymes, I thought, okay, now we’re talking.
You air out a lot of your rap feuds in the book. You guys existed through a particularly volatile period in hip-hop; the East Coast/West Coast rivalries, Tupac, Biggie. You were at the center of all of it, but your perspective in the book is very detached, like it was happening near you instead of to you.
Some of the stuff, for example, with the Noreaga situation [Noreaga is savagely beaten by several people in Prodigy's camp], it’s like that because I’m telling what I’m seeing. I wasn’t actually involved in the physical fight. I was just there. Other than that, that probably comes from me just not givin ‘a fuck. I’ve just got a nonchalant attitude towards certain things: “He got shot? And? What else happened?” You just get used to some crazy shit.
There’s a lot of pain in tragedy in this book. What was the hardest thing to revisit?
Maybe some of the pain with the sickle cell anemia. Just to think about some of the situations I went through when I was young; I’d be screaming in pain in the emergency room and they would literally lock me in back room because they were telling me to be quiet. Like I could control my screams of pain, you know? Nurses calling security on me, telling me they’re going to kick me out of there if I don’t quiet down. And I’m just going crazy. I’m 12 years old, you know? I started yelling “Fuck you, all I want is my pain medication.” And they take mad long to give that to you sometimes, because they want to see if you’re a junkie. It makes sense, but it’s also like, “You have my medical records since I was a baby.” If I don’t get my medication when I’m in pain like that, bad things can happen. I could have a heart attack; I could have a stroke. Looking back, I wished I had a camcorder. I could have sued the shit out of that hospital. That was hard to relive, because that shit makes a lot of anger. A lot of that pain, like I said in the pain, it made me a real angry person growing up.
Do you think that’s what made your childhood so violent? Your upbringing had a lot of turbulence and poverty, but also arts and music and private schools. Did sickle cell anemia help make you darker?
I was very angry, because of the pain that I had to deal with since I was a baby. As I got older, and I learned about God and spirituality, those questions started arising: “Why is God doing this to me?” I didn’t really understand, so I just said “Fuck everything.” That was my attitude towards everything, and a lot of that has to do with my sickle cell. I had to learn to not be angry, to use it for something positive. It took me a long time to learn that shit.