Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Prodigy began his career as one half of New York hardcore duo Mobb Deep more than 20 years ago. He and rapper-producer Havoc made classic songs like "Shook Ones Part II," "Survival of the Fittest" and "Quiet Storm." Since then Prodigy has worked with other producers, and often with The Alchemist, who produced all of Albert Einstein, released in June. Prodigy has also written two books and now runs an independent record company.
He spoke to Microphone Check hosts Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley about trying to get a record deal as a teenager, how to get instrumentals to incarcerated musicians and protecting his success.
MUHAMMAD: It's good to have you here, man.
PRODIGY: Alright, no doubt. Always good to chill with you Gs. You know, we go back.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, we do. It's kinda crazy 'cause it's like, it's been 20 years for you guys, right?
MUHAMMAD: And we met — was that like, '92?
PRODIGY: Yeah, it was probably like, '91.
MUHAMMAD: '91! So —
PRODIGY: Yeah, crazy how we met, too.
KELLEY: How'd you meet?
PRODIGY: Crazy story.
MUHAMMAD: I haven't read the book, but I heard you talked about it in the book.
PRODIGY: Crazy story. You probably don't even remember that s—-.
MUHAMMAD: Nah, I do remember that. Yeah, I do.
KELLEY: Tell the story!
MUHAMMAD: From whose perspective?
KELLEY: If it's already in print ...
PRODIGY: Yeah, 'cause it be like, everybody see it differently.
KELLEY: Your perspective.
MUHAMMAD: Ah, okay. At the time — A Tribe Called Quest, we were managed by Chris Lighty — may he rest in peace — and co-managed by Rush Management, Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons. They had their management office on Elizabeth Street, and we were in there, just having a meeting. Heard this "BAP!" Heard a shot. Things that run through —
PRODIGY: A gunshot.
MUHAMMAD: A gunshot. The things that go through your mind, like, "Nah, not — we in an environment that ..."
KELLEY: Not on Elizabeth Street?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, exactly. But it's Rush Management. All of a sudden [I] heard a bunch of noise. Rustling and somebody running down the stairs. And I went out the door. I was, like, yo — chasing whoever/what was shadows moving. It happened so fast. I hit the corner, and I see my brother just sitting there. And I'm like, "Why is he sitting there like that?"
PRODIGY: Yeah. Things just got crazy, man. It was a crazy incident. Somebody got shot in the office. Then it was on the radio the next morning that we shot somebody in the office 'cause Lyor didn't wanna sign us. They made up a crazy story that wasn't even true — it was actually the gun went off by mistake, you know what I mean? Then somebody got hit and it just got crazy.
MUHAMMAD: I felt like, for me — when I got around the corner, I just had a conversation with him. "What happened?" He explained it just went off, and I was really concerned — like, "Oh no what's going to happen?" He was young and I knew of them building their career. I was friends with Darren — it was Darren, right?
MUHAMMAD: Was he managing you guys?
PRODIGY: Nah, he was just helping us. Q-Tip — see this is how we got in the building in the first place: 'cause we used to cut out of school, we used to make our little demo tape at Coney Island in the projects. Then we would take our demo and we would look on the back of the labels, look for the address. Def Jam — that's what everybody wanted — to be on Def Jam. So that was our first pick.
We cut out of school, we used to stand outside Def Jam waiting for a rapper to come out, with our little Walkman or whatever. And we'd seen Q-Tip came out — after like, ten different other rappers. Couple days we'd been standing outside. People was like, "Get out of here, shorty, I ain't got time for that." Q-Tip was the only one that actually stopped and was like, "Aight, I'll give you all a listen." So he listened to our music, a few songs, and he was like, "I like y'all. Come into the office.I'mma introduce you all to some people." And after that, Q-Tip was just like, "Yo, look out for these kids, man. Look out for these little n——s, they dope." So then they started trying to set up a meeting for us with Russell and all that. Then that happened.
MUHAMMAD: So, Darren - we were close to Darren 'cause Darren worked for the management company, he was just talking about them and really excited about them. But when all of that happened, [I] was like "Man, explain why you carrying?" And he was explaining to me, "You know, its problems up in school." It was a reminder for me when I was growing up. I was wondering, "When will things change?" And I knew that they were talented.
It was like, "Oh man, this is another young black teen that's fallen victim to environment and circumstance." Messed me up a little bit. You know? Because he was upset about it — it wasn't anything intentional or nothing like that. So that was our introduction.
PRODIGY: Yeah, that was our little intro to the music industry. Crazy as it was. And of course we didn't get no deal with Def Jam after that. They was like, "Oh, hell no."
PRODIGY: But Q-Tip still showed his love and the whole Tribe did, y'all showed us love, and Chris Lighty — that was our first time meeting Chris Lighty — and he ended up managing us a few years later after that.
KELLEY: So then how did you get to Loud?
PRODIGY: We actually was gonna sign to Bad Boy at first, 'cause Puff was a friend of ours. He was just starting Bad Boy. He ain't have no artists yet, and he wanted to sign Mobb Deep first — we were gonna be the first act on Bad Boy. And then when we got that offer, at the same time we had a friend over at The Source magazine, Matty C, and he did the Unsigned Hype column and all that. And Matty had got a hold of our new demo at that same time we was talking to Puff about it. And Matty was like, "Yo, I just got this new job over at this company called Loud, and I played your music for Steve [Rifkind] and he wanted to sign y'all." So we took a meeting with Steve and then we just weighed the options of both of the offers. And we ended up going with Steve, you know what I mean? 'Cause he — I think was offering us more money, and I think that was it at the end of the day. More money.
KELLEY: Okay, understood.
MUHAMMAD: Ah, history.
KELLEY: That was a long time ago.
PRODIGY: Then right after that, Puff signed Biggie.
MUHAMMAD: So we fast forward twenty years.
KELLEY: Leave the history behind?
MUHAMMAD: No, I mean that's important, yeah. 1993 is when your first album came out, right?
PRODIGY: Yeah, '93. Juvenile Hell came out.
MUHAMMAD: That was an important year in hip-hop.
KELLEY: I agree.
MUHAMMAD: Midnight Marauders.
PRODIGY: Yeah, a lot of dope s—- came out.
MUHAMMAD: You said The Chronic, "kind of?"
KELLEY: December 22nd, 1992.
PRODIGY: End of the year.
KELLEY: Yeah. Well, Illmatic technically was '94. But it leaked in December, so we all think of it '93.
MUHAMMAD: Well, it was being cooked up.
MUHAMMAD: So, Albert Einstein. Yo, that album is dope. Like, there are a lot of albums that released same day but this joint is on repeat for me. It, to me, sounds like Paid In Full without the dance tracks. You know, the deep, Rakim songs that's — the sound is —
PRODIGY: Hardcore s—-.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, hardcore.
PRODIGY: Good-lookin', man. Appreciate it. Word.
MUHAMMAD: It's great for the climate of right now, where hip-hop is.
PRODIGY: Yeah, I definitely agree with that.
MUHAMMAD: How'd you guys come up with Albert Einstein, the title? Concept and all that?
PRODIGY: Well, I had a — when I first came home from my little vacation, I did a EP called Bumpy Johnson. And I called myself Bumpy Johnson in the rap songs. That was like — you know how rappers got little side names/code names, whatever. It was just a play on — 'cause my last name is Johnson. So I was trying to come up with a new idea like that with the name.
KELLEY: Like an alter ego kind of thing?
PRODIGY: Nah, just to be different when you drop projects. Just come up with an ill slick name. I was kind of upset when I'd seen Rick Ross dropped the Albert Anastasia EP 'cause I was like, "Damn, that was a good one for me!" That's my name; it's Albert. You know what I'm saying? It didn't really make sense for him.
I was kind of upset, like, "Damn, why I ain't think of that?" I just started thinking of what else I could use. So, Albert Einstein, that's ill. That image of him with his tongue hanging out — I kept seeing visuals of that s—-. Put it on stickers and shirts and posters everywhere. I told Alchemist about it and he was like, "Word, that's dope. That makes sense." And then you know, Alchemist — he like the alchemist, the scientist — it really all just fit together.
MUHAMMAD: You two have really good chemistry together. You go a long way.
KELLEY: And his tag — it's you. It's your voice, right?
PRODIGY: That's me saying "A-A-A-Alchemist."
KELLEY: When did that happen? Right away?
PRODIGY: Alchemist started sending his beats out to people, trying to get placements on albums and whatnot. And a lot of people would jack his beats! And just put them on mixtapes. Put 'em on mixtapes without paying for it. We were trying to think of a way to stop that, so we started tagging the beats. So people at least know who made the beat if they're gonna take it and put it on a mixtape.
MUHAMMAD: It [Albert Einstein] sounds like a movie, but everything is rugged and raw.
PRODIGY: Yeah. Al, he got a real unique sound. His sound is, like, California-raised and then he got the New York feel to it, like old school soul feel to it. You know, that Chicago/New York sound. Detroit.
KELLEY: Yeah. It's like California noir.
PRODIGY: Yeah, it's ill. Al's got a ill, unique sound to him. I definitely like the direction he going in with his music.
MUHAMMAD: What's the process? You're out here, he's in California. How'd you guys record this album?
PRODIGY: This album here was done half in LA and half in New York, in our studio in Queens. He got this thing called Rap Camp over at his crib — a big compound and all the rappers like Odd Future, Oh No, Planet Asia, Action Bronson, mad different new rappers. Roc Marci. They all be in Cali, working with Al at the crib.
I was over there working on songs, and I would end up getting on songs with Domo Genesis and getting on songs with Action and different people and whatnot. And then we picked which ones we wanted to use for the album later on. Like, Domo would take a song, use it for his mixtape, or Action would take something and use it for his album. Then I would take something, use it. So nothing was really planned like, "Aight, today we're gonna do a song for Albert Einstein album." Nah. It was just — most of the songs that we did out there in Cali, we were just recording, having fun.
MUHAMMAD: That's crazy, 'cause everything in the album sounds real consistent and cohesive. Like y'all planned it out, like it was a blueprint from top to bottom. It's just got a mood, a feeling to it.
PRODIGY: Yeah, definitely we made a lot of songs and some of them we didn't put on the album. But I think we picked the right ones that had that all, you know, gelled together. It sounded like the same feel, that same vibe.
MUHAMMAD: What does "DKV" stand for in "Lmdkv?"
PRODIGY: "IMDKV." That's Infamous Mobb Deep. Back in the days, in the songs, I used to be like, "IMD" — that's Infamous Mobb Deep. And then the KV is King Vulture because my crew — we got this thing where call ourselves vultures. You know how women be like, "Men are dogs." And we'd say, "Nah, we're vultures." We worse than the dog. We come through, we takin' all that.
Aight, I'mma give you a perfect example. At a video shoot, you know how the stylists come? With all the clothes and whatnot? Don't let us see that. We take it home. You know, sometime they be like, "No, you can't take this! You gotta bring it back." Nah, we takin' all that.
MUHAMMAD: Do they ever just go, "OK." Like, "Don't say nothing. Charge 'em. Just put it in the budget."
PRODIGY: Yeah, they probably do that. We used to be in the studio — we was young and dumb, man. And we had the budget open. Motherf—-ers were coming in to the studio ordering diapers, ordering milk. We'd bring milk home, like we going grocery shopping with the studio food budget. N——s ordering groceries, going home with bags like this from the studio.
MUHAMMAD: Y'all took it to the next level!
PRODIGY: We was lettin' our friends do it, too. Our friends would come in the studio like, "Oh yeah, they got the budget open over there."
MUHAMMAD: Yo, I know about bringing the fam, the community in to sit down and eat dinners. But yo, diapers?
PRODIGY: Word. Order some spaghetti and s—-. Milk. I gotta bring s—- home tonight.
MUHAMMAD: Y'all took it to the next level.
PRODIGY: It's over. We vultures. That's how we used to be.
MUHAMMAD: He runs a label now, you know. He's a respected gentleman.
KELLEY: Oh, I see. The shoe's on the other foot.
PRODIGY: We've grown up now. That was a juvenile way of thinking. You know what I'm saying?
KELLEY: Yeah. I do.
MUHAMMAD: I wanna ask you — on the song, "Give Em Hell" — you feel like people still take shots at you?
PRODIGY: On the song "Give Em Hell?"
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, because it's — I don't know if it sounds like you're really specifically talking at someone, or is it kinda just like a open —
PRODIGY: Nah. To me, I got a bunch of haters. Mobb Deep — and Prodigy, speaking for myself, I got a bunch of haters. From the neighborhoods that we grew up in, we had to learn how to deal with people. How to keep certain people at a distance, how to cut people off completely. So a lot of songs, when I'm writing, I'm talking to these people. Because there's a lot of people that make threats like, "When I see P, I'mma do this, or I'mma do this." So when I'm writing my songs, I'm talking to them.
MUHAMMAD: Since the success and stuff like that — I mean, really at this stage — still having to back people down? 2013?
PRODIGY: I still keep ties with them. It's a fine line you gotta walk. You gotta be careful. I can't hang out as much as I want, as much as people want me to hang out. I'll be like, "Nah, I ain't going out." They'll be like, C'mon P, c'mon, c'mon." I'll be like, nah. I'm still out there; I'm still dealing with my people. I'm still dealing with jealousy and certain things like that. Being through the situations that I've been through — getting locked up for the gun or whatever and serving the three years — it taught me how to move better now. It taught me how to not do certain things, and how to just move better — keep myself away from certain people at certain times.
MUHAMMAD: So you feel like — did hip-hop save your life?
PRODIGY: Yeah, definitely, man. It gave me a life because my life before hip-hop was just pain. Sickle cell was my life before hip-hop. I ain't really have no life — that was it. I'm growing up, that's all I knew, just being in a f—-ing hospital all the time. And then music — when I first started hearing Run-DMC "Sucker MCs" and LL [Cool J's] "My Radio," the Juice Crew and all that. I started seeing all of that. 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.
MUHAMMAD: You do anger very well. I still DJ across the world and you throw a Mobb joint on and it's just — oh man, the energy shifts in the room. I heard with some Lil Jon songs, people start turning it into a fight and whatnot. But with your songs, it gets very aggressive, but it's still that good energy. People singing the joints to us like —
PRODIGY: I've read a lot of articles from writers and stuff like that — people that write blogs and stuff like that — and a lot of people they tend to think, "Yo, how old are you now? You don't live that life no more. Why are you still rapping about what you're rapping about? Grow up already." I think most of these people — they never lived that life at all, so they can't even understand how somebody could still be rapping about that. They just don't get it.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, it's clear they don't get it. I think if they really paid attention to this album, it's not like you talking from —
PRODIGY: Just reckless.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, you're not talking reckless. A song like "Breeze," for example.
KELLEY: I love that song.
MUHAMMAD: I love that song. You can learn from it. If you 13, 15, you in the —
PRODIGY: I think I'm talking about — now, at this point in my life, I'm talking about being successful and protecting my success. Protecting — Jay-Z does that good, Nas does it good. They talk about being successful and protecting it like, yo, if you try to come and snatch my chain, you're going to have a problem getting away with that.
KELLEY: When you imagine somebody is listening to this album, what do you imagine that they're like? What else do they listen to, where they live?
PRODIGY: I don't really put a stereotype because I swear to you, I've seen people from all walks of life. Older white ladies, older black ladies. Young 17-year-old kids. Wall Street people. People from all walks of life that I seen that like hardcore hip-hop music like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, Nas, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul. Certain music, they just love that; that's what they grew up with. I just think about people that — if you listening to my music, you must really like lyrics and unique-sounding beats.
MUHAMMAD: Storytelling, too.
KELLEY: It's cool you guys are giving the instrumentals from this album through Send A Package.
MUHAMMAD: You are?
PRODIGY: Yeah — not from this album, but we might do something like that now that you say it. But we are gonna make original instrumentals.
PRODIGY: Yeah, that's what we're doing. I got a bunch of producers getting together and they're making an instrumental album. It's all original, brand new beats you never heard before.
The reason why we're doing that is because when I was locked up, that was one of the hard things for me to do — was to get beats. They can't just be like, "Alright, I'll drop a CD in the mail." It don't work like that. You can't have CDs in New York state prison. You can only have cassettes, and you can only have cassettes that don't have screws in it. And it can only come from a reputable distributor. And it has to be shrunk wrap, sealed in the shrink wrap.
So for me, when I tell Alchemist, "Yo, I need some beats," it takes six months for him to get me the beats because I have to go through a crazy process. I have to send it to a distributor, shrink wrap it for me. And it's just mad crazy, yo. I had to basically smuggle the music into jail. Luckily I know people that can shrink wrap and do all that with the invoice and all that. Luckily I knew some people to do that, but the average inmate — they don't know distributors that can shrink wrap and all that stuff I had to go through.
For your average inmate, they just rapping [over] the best of Jay-Z instrumentals, the best of Nas instrumentals, the best of whoever, you know what I mean? And it's hard for me to do that. When I first went in — in order to get music, you gotta order from the prison catalog. And the prison catalog, most of it is bootlegged music, sound like s—-. Most of it is mixtape stuff, it's just not good quality. And when you order it, it's expensive. They want like $20. I ordered some instrumentals so I could start writing, but I can't get the same vibe when it's a beat that I heard before. Like spittin' — I'm trying to write an ill new song to "Ether." It don't work 'cause Nas already bodied that. I gotta have a brand new beat to be inspired, for my creativity to come out.
So I came up with the idea when I met Chris Barrett, that owns Send A Package. I came up with the idea, "Yo, we should put instrumentals, original instrumentals in the prison catalog so people that write R&B or whatever you write, they can have some inspiration." And hear some new beats.
MUHAMMAD: Great idea. So how does it feel running a label? Artists upset with you?
PRODIGY: You know, it's not easy, man. It's not glamorous and none of that, 'cause I'm doing this all myself. I got a straight distribution deal. I just pay a 20% distribution fee, and then I get the rest of the bread. But I gotta pay for everything. I gotta pay the staff, you know, everything. Publicity, radio, I gotta do everything. Videos, studio.
MUHAMMAD: You hear that kids?
PRODIGY: Publishing splits. I gotta do all the work. It's not a joke.
MUHAMMAD: It's not a joke. Look, it's a good thing. Considering the origin of everything and where you guys began to where you are now. I think it's a great story for any kid that's out there in Queensbridge, or wherever you are. Dreaming, wanting to get away from your present world and not really thinking that there's an opportunity, that there's anything for you, you got a purpose. You do have purpose. Look at your life. Look at Prodigy's life. Let that be your guide.
PRODIGY: Yeah, I mean we traveled the world, man. Seen every corner of that world damn near. Every time I'm in these places, I'll be looking around like, "Damn, a lot of people ain't going to see what I'm seeing now." So it definitely inspires me to keep it going because I know how big we are. 'Cause I seen how big we are. I been everywhere around the world and they know who we are. That inspires me to keep going.
A lot of people may think, "Why you trying to be an independent label now? Why you ain't do that from the beginning?" My life didn't pan out like that. In the beginning, we was kids coming into the game, and we signed a regular artist deal. We made our money. We made a f—-load lot of money, like, a lot of bread. And we f—-ed off a lot of bread, too.
But at the same time, it was a learning lesson for me; I learned from people like Puff. I seen how he built his brand and his label from the very beginning and I've seen the work that it takes to get it to that point. I've seen how Jay-Z built his brand from the very beginning. They were older than us — we were the little wild kids, you know what I mean? So that was inspiring for me to be able to see all that, up front and close. When I got old enough, I was like, "Yo, that's what we gotta do!" We gotta control the business, the ownership. Own your masters, own the label. This is what we can do.
Not only that, I like doing that. I like going to the office every day and taking care of business, making phone calls. Make 100 phone calls a day, do what we gotta do. I enjoy that, you know what I'm saying? I enjoy building something. I learned that from my grandmother. My grandmother was an ill business woman. She built her business from the basement of home in South Side Jamaica, Queens.
KELLEY: She was a dance teacher?
PRODIGY: Yeah. She had the second biggest dance company in the world. Bernice Johnson Dance Studio, second next to Alvin Ailey. And she started from her basement with, like, four students.
MUHAMMAD: Was there anything that she ever told you that really stuck with you?
PRODIGY: Yeah, about ownership. She was from that era where there was a lot of racism and all that, so she was on her culture. Know your culture, study your culture. You should be proud of being black and own your s—-. Own your s—-. Own your house. Own a business. Put your money in the bank. Live off of the interest of your money. Don't spend all your money, just live off the interest checks once you got a nice stash in the bank.
A lot of stuff she taught me. Even about show business, 'cause she was the queen of show business. She was one of the original Cotton Club dancers — Lena Horne was her best friend, Diana Ross was another one of her best friends. I grew up around an ill show-business family, so I've seen every aspect of it. From the crazy-flashy to the whatever, Mobb Deep-style. I see the whole spectrum of the show-business business. I learned a lot from her.
MUHAMMAD: Were there any words — a motto or anything like that that you live by?
PRODIGY: That I live by? Do or die. That's my favorite one. Do or die. Do you want to be successful, or do you want to be a bum? And that's my motivation right there. I wake up in the morning, I sit on the bed — those two choices: success or bum. I don't know what to say. Get up and make a phone call, n——. Brush your teeth. Get out of the house. Do something. Word. That's my motto, though. It works for me. Everybody's different, though.
I think me having sickle cell — it made me a little different than other people because it made me be more laidback. I couldn't interact with playing basketball or football. I couldn't do the crazy contact sports when I was a kid. So I used to just be on some laidback, analyzing s—-. And just being like that, it caused me to be more of a thinker and think far into the future.
It made me a better business person, having sickle cell. And it also stopped me from destroying my body with drugs and alcohol and all that. You know, I dibbled and dabbled in it but having sickle cell will stop you from doing all that s—-. You gotta eat right, take care of your health. You can't f—- around. Or you will die from that s—-. You can die from sickle cell — you're not supposed to live past 40 with sickle cell. So it caused me to take care of my health, which in turn — it's like a domino effect. That caused me to be a better person because when you take care of your health, you start looking at life different. And you start looking at people different. And your actions and your thoughts different. And it just shapes you into a different type of person.
MUHAMMAD: I love you breaking that down 'cause you might not get that just from listening to your records.
PRODIGY: Nah, you definitely won't get that. But you know what? You will get that if you listen to some, but you have to listen to all of my music in order to find it, you know what I'm saying? It's in there somewhere, out of the millions of songs.
MUHAMMAD: No doubt.
PRODIGY: There's a message in there somewhere.
MUHAMMAD: Well, I'm riding with Albert Einstein. It's on repeat. I don't know what the rest of your summer — all you guys out there, what you're listening to. But we're listening to Albert Einstein. We're so happy to have Prodigy up here. Just keep doing it. I think this album, Albert Einstein, is timeless.
PRODIGY: Thank you.
MUHAMMAD: It's hard to make classics and to me, it's a classic. True artist.
KELLEY: Well, thank you so much.
PRODIGY: No problem. Thank you.