From Hip-Hop To Sickle Cell Awareness, Prodigy’s Legacy Is Two-Fold
Scott Dudelson

The hip-hop world mourns the loss of one of our most philosophical emcees, a cultural exemplar gone entirely too soon, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson.

One half of the New York City-based group, The Infamous Mobb Deep, Prodigy reportedly died due to complications from Sickle Cell Disease, which affects approximately 70,000-100,000 Americans. From humble beginnings as The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” in 1992, to leaving a diverse audience shook at The Roots Picnic in Philadelphia twenty-five years later, Prodigy will always be remembered as the prolific ‘poetical prophet’ who made us feel a connection to life’s underworld.

As hip-hop culture ages, so do the people who have aided in sustaining its core integrity and who remain examples of why we must fight to protect our culture at all costs. We expect growth, maturity, and a few grey hairs when we see some of the ‘greats’ perform music from their hey days, which may have been over 20 years ago. But when they die at ages 24, 33, and 42, we pause — shocked by the unexpected loss — and we grieve along with their families and the close friends who knew them best.

What does this mean for the rest of us who were born and raised in this culture? And what can we do to make sure legacies are preserved and stories aren’t erased or lost?

“I’m not scared to die… I feel like my life is gonna be short anyway because of my Sickle Cell,” he told The Village Voice in 2008. After agreeing to a plea deal on a gun charge, refusing to snitch on rapper 50 Cent, who was, at the time, being targeted by New York City police, Prodigy was headed to jail. He knew, then, that his time on Earth was limited. Not only did he want to make sure his family was provided for, he also wanted to craft an enduring legacy that would guide those up-and-coming artists who would come after him.

Born in Hempstead, New York into a musical family, Prodigy’s fate was inscribed into a worn black-and-white composition book — he was going to be a legend. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of artists did uncredited work for that unspoken exposure, but didn’t exactly know who they were. Before linking up with Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita in high school, Prodigy dropped a few gems of his own, helping to create a style that uniquely became associated with the Queensbridge section of New York City, home to Havoc and master emcee, Nas.

The Bridge wasn’t over—it was dark, dangerous, and a spirit-shaking place to find oneself as a young Black man in New York City. Prodigy, with courageous grit, created a safer space for brothers with depression and suicidal ideation to express it, hoping someone would hear them and receive their pain.

Prodigy will remain a respected griot of rap culture. But examining the pain he lived with through sickle cell is an indictment on the medical world. 

“As a young black teen, every day I, deal
With the pressure and mixed up is how I feel
I walk the streets with a f**k you attitude
And when it comes to my peoples you ain’t half as rude
Follow the crowd or be a leader, take your pick
Now I’m smokin’ buddha Philly blunt style
A frustrated and confused young juvenile
King of the project blues so I choose
To take a piece of the action
But my sober state of mind won’t let it happen
So twenty-four-seven it’s the number one stressor
Dealin with the peer pressure”

“Peer Pressure”, 1993

With Havoc on the boards and Prodigy taking lead on the mic, Mobb Deep’s greatest gift to hip-hop culture was the unflinching portrayal of the impact of living in urban warzones on one’s self-identification and paradigms. And though they refused to compromise on their sound, opting out of the party-and-bullshit escapism of some of their peers, Mobb Deep still gave us some of the most important hip-hop anthems that every killer and hundred-dollar-biller could raise a bottle of Hennessey and two-step to. Prodigy was as much your cousin who did a three-year bid and came home to a celebratory cookout, as he was your respected griot who shared lessons scrawled on the tattered pages of his spiral-edged notepad.

He didn’t just rap about gangsters, he sipped cognac with them. And when he shared his experiences, he crafted narratives that lyrically left little room for hope, but were encouraging nonetheless.

“Yeah, this hurts.”

Dina Valentin, a 34-year-old documentary filmmaker from The Bronx who lives with Sickle Cell Disease, is struggling with the news of Prodigy’s death. Prodigy, who was open about living with the disease and regularly made reference to it in his songs and interviews, finally succumbed to the painful blood disorder in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“I have Sickle cell disease,” she shared via email. “Growing up, the people who came out about having Sickle Cell were Prodigy and T-Boz (of popular R&B group, TLC). I looked up to them immensely. Federal Funding to Sickle Cell Disease is so low compared to the amount of people affected. We’re literally dying out here.”

Foundations like The William E. Proudford Sickle Cell Fund, Inc. seek to raise awareness and improve education and research to find a cure for Sickle Cell Disease. Projected fiscal year 2017 spending is approximately $92 million, or $920 per person living with the disease — not nearly enough for a disease that primarily affects African-Americans and other members of the African Diaspora.

Dina urges us to listen to the poignant track, “You Can Never Feel My Pain,” which she used as the introduction to her documentary on living with Sickle Cell Disease Feel My Pain, entitled as an ode to Prodigy.

“I’m talkin bout permanent, physical sufferin’
You know nothin’ about that
You just complain cause you stressed
Nigga, my pain’s in the flesh
And through the years that pain became my friend; sedated
With morphine as a little kid
I built a tolerance for drugs, addicted to the medicine
Now hospital emergency treat me like a fiend
I rather die sometimes I wish a nigga O.D
Beggin’ God for help, only to find
That I’m all by my God damn self
Ay you can never feel my pain nigga”

“You Can Never Feel My Pain”, 2000

Nas, Nicki Minaj, Q-Tip and more took to Twitter and Instagram to reflect on Prodigy's legacy and his influence in the world of hip-hop.

The Author & Educator

Not only was Prodigy a game-changing emcee, he was also an author and educator. Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Cookbook (2016), written with journalist Kathy Iandoli, does more than provide interesting recipes using only foods found in prison commissaries—the book addresses nutritional apartheid and food insecurity within our nation’s prisons. Because people living with Sickle Cell Disease have to be hyper-vigilant about the food they eat, he wrote about how difficult it was to maintain a diet conducive to promoting his health. One can only speculate about how the long-term effects of being imprisoned while living with Sickle Cell and lacking access to nutritious food had on Prodigy’s overall health.

And with his final album, the political and spiritual project, “The Hegelian Dialectic,” Prodigy seemed to turn a corner into a consciousness that we hope to see happen more often among Black artists, particularly hip-hop artists: He became a teacher who sought to use what he’d learned throughout his life to enlighten his fans. Ryan R. Smith, a Philadelphia educator who teaches rap artists like Prodigy and Immortal Technique to his eager high school students, shared this via email:

“Naming the album ‘The Hegelian Dialectic’ was an act of defiance itself. Here was a rapper, who was at one point a champion of the proverbial girls, glitz, and hood strife, finally speaking truth to power. Inspired by the work of 19th century German philosopher, Georg Hegel, he was upsetting the apple cart by informing the hood about the real finesse game—the subtle, pernicious abuse of power that us used throughout the world. [Prodigy] was ‘woke’ to the omnipresent reality that poses a real threat to our very existence.”

Talented. Clever. Multifaceted. Raw. Essential. Prodigy’s early departure reminds us that we often lose sight of the importance of supporting our artistic treasures while they are still with us. We, lovers of hip-hop culture, have a unique obligation to safeguard it from the vultures and detractors who steal our style while diluting our integrity. Prodigy was as real as it gets, and we can all stand to revisit Mobb Deep’s catalog to reacquaint ourselves with why hip-hop emerged as the voice of our forgotten people.

“If ‘Pac was still alive we be on the same team” – Prodigy, “The Rotten Apple,” 2007

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