For most individuals, getting sent to prison is a curse. For Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, it was a “blessing.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” said Prodigy, half of the legendary Queens, N.Y., rap duo Mobb Deep. “I was supposed to get locked up … if that didn’t happen, there’s no telling where I’d be.”
By his own admission, the 36-year-old emcee should’ve ended up behind bars a long time ago. After all, theft, guns and violence were all part of the Queensbridge, N.Y., rap game — a game he fully embraced.
As Prodigy writes in the introduction to “My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy” (Touchstone), “prison gave me plenty of time to reflect.
“When I got locked up, I got my life snatched from me, my career, my family,” Prodigy said in an interview last Tuesday, the same day his book dropped. “I had to lose everything to see how important it was, to see what I really needed to be doing.”
Fresh off a three-year prison stint stemming from a 2008 weapons charge, Prodigy has embarked on a two-week book tour that will bring him to the University of Connecticut on Monday, April 25, and to Barnes and Noble in Stamford on Saturday, April 30.
As most hip-hop fans are aware, three years away from the rap game can be a career-killer for an emcee. But Prodigy didn’t let that go to his head. Instead, he kept himself busy — reading books, fostering his spiritual side and, as he explained, “getting my priorities straight.”
As it turns out, one of those priorities was preserving his legacy. In his book, Prodigy traces his family history, writing about his mother, a member of the ’60s vocal group the Crystals; his paternal grandfather, a world-famous jazz musician; and his grandmother, the proprietor of a successful dance studio in Queens.
But dark forces shaped his upbringing as well. Stricken with sickle-cell anemia, Prodigy landed in the hospital on several occasions and struggled with pain throughout his childhood. Then there was his father, a heroin addict and petty thief who left young Albert in the car as he robbed a jewelry store.
In the book, Prodigy theorizes that the pain of his disease, combined with his environment and the people he surrounded himself with, sent him down a dangerous path — a path that led all the way to the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, N.Y.
However, along the way, Prodigy became a star. With his father serving time for robbery, he and his mother relocated to a new neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. It was 1986, and the music of LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C. blasted from boom boxes on every street corner. He immediately focused his talent and energy on becoming a rapper.
Prodigy got his first taste of fame in 1990, when he landed a guest spot on Hi-Five’s “Too Young,” a track off “The Boyz n the Hood” soundtrack. It wasn’t until high school, however, that he met his partner in crime and the producer/emcee with whom he would change the face of hip-hop — Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita.
As Mobb Deep, the duo created one of the most influential rap albums of all time, “The Infamous.” Meshing Havoc’s eerie soundscapes with Prodigy’s hyper-visual narratives, the album reflected the poverty and crime that typified the dark underbelly of New York’s urban landscape.
“We definitely put some work into it. We had to redeem ourselves after `Juvenile Hell,’ ” he said, referring to Mobb Deep’s commercially unsuccessful debut album, released when Prodigy and Havoc were still in their late teens.
But just as Prodigy’s career was taking off, so did a life of partying, stealing and fighting. Prodigy’s description in the book of a yacht party-turned-gang battle — held in celebration of “The Infamous” going gold — is exemplary of those experiences. He often carried a gun, or guns, for protection.
“That was just the way we grew up,” said Prodigy, who spent the majority of his time in the Queensbridge housing projects, where Havoc and Nas, another famous emcee, lived. “We had a good time. It was fun for us … to me, it was just where we were from. The stuff that happened in the neighborhood was just like normal.”
A little more than a decade, several worldwide tours and a string of albums later, Prodigy found himself in handcuffs after police discovered a small pistol in the compartment of his SUV. He took a plea deal, which reduced his sentence to three years in jail.
As much as “My Infamous Life” is a history of Prodigy’s prolific career, it’s also a parable of the pitfalls of thug life. Though Prodigy hopes his readers will take lessons from the book, he knows that in the end, “Everybody has to learn on their own.
“You see other people’s mistakes and act on that. That’s what smart ones do,” he said. “I was one of the hard-headed ones. I had to make my own mistakes.”
Albert “Prodigy” Johnson will discuss and sign copies of his book during a talk, “A Conversation with Prodigy,” moderated by hip-hop scholar Jeffrey Ogbar on Monday, April 25, at 6 p.m. at the University of Connecticut H. Fred Simmons African-American Cultural Center, 2110 Hillside Road, Storrs. Call 860-486-3433. Prodigy will also discuss and sign copies of his book on Saturday, April 30, at 2 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 100 Greyrock Place, Stamford. Call 203-323-1248.