When Mobb Deep's Prodigy died last year after a life-long battle with sickle cell anemia, his passing shocked the hip hop world. Now The Realness, a new podcast from WNYC Studios, looks at the realest New York rapper of them all, and how life with sickle cell influenced his music, his outlook, and his life. We asked WNYC health reporters Mary Harris and Christopher Johnson what they learned while putting the show together.
Listen to the first episode of The Realness:
Prodigy got the chance to live, and to form Mobb Deep, because of the work of activist doctors, Black Panthers, even President Nixon.
In his autobiography, Prodigy writes about his childhood physician’s office in Jamaica, Queens “where I hated going because it meant I was getting a penicillin shot in my butt.” When we dug a little deeper we realized the doctor P dreaded visiting was actually a groundbreaking physician: Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette worked out of an old farmhouse in the outer boroughs, but was such an effective advocate for her patients that she ended up advising President Richard Nixon on sickle cell disease.
Those penicillin shots were a big deal: Dr. Francis was giving them 15 years before a government study proved they worked. In the 1970s, physicians like Dr. Francis, alongside the Black Panther Party, petitioned the government to devote more resources to treating SCD patients; Nixon passed the “Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act” in 1972. As a result, children with this disease—children like Prodigy —were able to make it to adulthood. There’s actually a graph showing just how powerful the Sickle Cell Control Act was in terms of extending patients’ lifespan.
Increases in Life Expectancy in Persons with Sickle Cell Disease, 1910-2000. (Copyright: The New England Journal of Medicine)
Medical racism is right there in Prodigy’s medical records.
In a Brooklyn courthouse, we were able to track down 90 pages of Prodigy’s medical records: hospital visits and bone scans and blood tests from when he was releasing some of his most iconic music. They give a look inside his body, which was wearing away, the way it does for most sickle cell patients.
And in the doctor’s notes, you can see how medical professionals quietly judge sickle cell patients for seeking opioids to treat their pain. One doctor calls him “noncompliant” (a term doctors try not to use anymore, 20 years later) and writes that “the patient denies IV drug use. I doubt that very much. Patient seems to have drug seeking behavior.”
From a medical report
If you wanna understand New York hip hop in the ‘90s, you’ve gotta go to The Tunnel.
Almost everyone who was involved with hip hop in the 1990s wanted to talk to us about The Tunnel. On Sunday nights, it became recognized for a hip hop party featuring Funkmaster Flex; it was THE spot to be. Puffy was known for lining up champagne bottles on the bar when he was done with them. Prodigy was known for getting Chris Lighty—who ran the door at the time—to sneak weapons inside for him.
It’s hard to overstate just how Queensbridge “The Infamous” is.
If you’re a Mobb Deep fan, you’ve probably heard of the “thunn language,” the Queensbridge slang that Mobb Deep often slipped into. But the impact of the Queensbridge Houses—the largest public housing project in America—can be felt in other ways, especially on the Mobb’s most famous album, “The Infamous.” Roxanne Shante told us that one of the most famous lines in “Shook Ones Part 2”—“Ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks”—was a saying that was popularized in Queensbridge first. (She also told us she encouraged Prodigy’s rap partner Havoc to “go solo” rather than teaming up with P.)
The Queensbridge Houses (Metro Centric / Flickr)
Even Prodigy says going upstate changed him for the better.
Prodigy was a proud gun owner, but that habit got him into trouble. Before he even had a record deal, his gun went off in the Def Jam offices, injuring an employee. But it didn’t stop him from carrying. In 2008, he was arrested for driving around with a pistol tucked next to him. He went upstate for three years. He used his time inside to get as healthy as he could. He started eating green vegetables and working out as much as possible, and that turned out to be powerful medicine. He came out in what his friends thought of as the best shape of his life.
When he died, Prodigy was taking a creative turn we wish we could have seen him finish.
In the last six months of his life, Prodigy was performing in a new way, with a live band including jazz trumpeter Maurice (Mobetta) Brown, at Blue Note in Manhattan. You can still find videos of this performance on Instagram and YouTube, where you can see the mad creative energy on display. Just a couple of weeks after the last show, Prodigy flew to Vegas for what turned out to be his last show. In our final episode, we try to answer the question: What happened?
You can subscribe to The Realness and listen to all six episodes.