My introduction to Mobb Deep, Prodigy, and the world of gritty, grimy hip-hop came in the form of an interlude. Well, technically, it was a prelude—“The Infamous Prelude,” from the duo’s undeniably classic sophomore album.
“The Infamous Prelude” wasn’t the first Mobb Deep record I had heard, but it was the first time Prodigy spoke to me with his unique mix of realness and fatherly insight. Maybe ‘fatherly’ isn’t the best word, though. Sometimes Pops has to assume the role of “moral captain” and map a course of ethical direction and that’s not what Prodigy gave me. He’s more like the uncle who showed me the places where those rules fall short and are superseded by statutes of loyalty, respect and ugly truth. True friends share music that speaks to them, and after a dear friend gave me a sampling of the Mobb’s music, I had to follow the gutter drain.
Being alone in my quiet, safe neighborhood in rural South Carolina and listening to tales of murder, deceit and larceny grander than any movie I’d watched was difficult. I was confronted with the easiness of my existence. Not only that, but I listened to someone who was speaking in an undeniably cool way. Cool in a way I could never be. He makes a point on “The Infamous Prelude” to tell us that he’s not trying to convey the persona of a “tough” guy, one who projects a facade of the streets for social clout. He’s definitely got the gat on him, but he’s speaking for his fucking self.
Honesty found in the streets is unlike any other. I’ve been to many social gatherings that cover a wide-ranging level of status in this world and have yet to find a cocktail party or soiree where this kind of honesty is revered. It’s not judgemental and overbearing or widely accepting and easily forgiving. It recognizes that most of what we say and do are bullshit. We operate under the assumption that people are the image they put forth, but a surface analysis destroys that premise. Ninety percent of the time I think I’m motivated to do something because of this “acceptable” reason, only upon close analysis to discover myself being led by that reprehensible impetus. But, according to Prodigy, you live and die by this honesty and I imagine he upheld this sacred tenet until his last breath.
Prodigy cuts through the fake with “A lot of these so-called 'rap niggas' / Ain't never seen no parts of that shit.” Ain’t never seen no parts of that shit. Fresh off detailing his drug use, weapon carrying, and propensity for looting, that indictment rang in my ears like the sound of a gunshot. He was talking to me. No, I’m not one of those people pretending to live a life that is based in the streets, much less one actually doing it. He wasn’t speaking to me directly, but his statement applies to more than just phony gangsters. He’s astutely analyzing a large portion of his audience and telling them they’ve never experienced the struggle of a person forced into life-or-death situations to make ends meet.
I’ve never known what it is to be forced into criminal activity to feed your family. I’ve never felt the mixture of exhilaration, disgust and confusion that comes with running up on a rival in his home. I’m thankful I don’t have to deal with the complexities of that life and I’m full of respect for those who do.
I’ve known a few of them in my lifetime, though, most of which came after I landed my first restaurant job. I quickly made friends with a guy in the kitchen, we'll call him Steve. Steve is a former crack dealer and survivor of the Reagan-era War on Drugs. He and I bonded over our mutual interest in the consumption of much less serious drugs and, as is common in inebriation, we shared life stories on his front porch. As I watched him point out the places he used to stash rocks on the steps and listened to him come dangerously close to admitting he’d shot a man, I couldn’t help but notice the archetype. He carried the same blunt honesty as Prodigy, even delivering his stories with the rough kindness of the Queensbridge Houses bard. Like The Infamous One, he was a “skinny motherfucka” who didn’t want to be perceived as crazy—because he wasn’t—and could quickly flip the switch and act out some “high school shit.”
I was familiar with Mobb Deep’s discography by that time and cycled through it whenever I wanted a taste of the gritty life, but the personality of a man like Prodigy is something that needs to be experienced. Although I was never able to meet Prodigy, and never will, I feel as if I’ve known someone who embodied that spirit of cutting truthfulness and endless hustle. In a way, it brought a human level to my relationship with the rapper. I only knew him through speakers, but it’s easy to pump up musical figures to a level that’s beyond our reach. We give them “God-like” status and never believe that people in our waking life can embody those same principles. Meeting an incarnation of that street mentality made it real for me.
Not everyone is meant to see the life that Prodigy lived, few can stomach it or survive it. Great rap can be filthy, stomach-churning tales that make you lose faith in humanity. Prodigy was different, though. He brought a beauty to the criminality of his music, a presence that made you look past his objectively deplorable details to see the struggle, pain and joy underneath. It set me on a path listening to “criminal” music. I know I’m not the only one. Without Prodigy, there would be no 21 Savage, Tee Grizzley, or YSL Gunna.
Prophets are sent to signal the way and guide people according to higher principles. Maybe Prodigy was drawing me a map after all. Only this one took the care to note the changes in terrain. The path may be mountainous and rough, but it can still lead to a worthy destination.
“I’m finished with what I have to say, y’all can continue on.”