Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, one half of hip-hop’s critically acclaimed East Coast duo Mobb Deep, has been penning hypnotizing 16-bar verses replete with unflinching, ominous rhymes since the release of the group’s raw 1995 classic, The Infamous... In 2011 the praised yet underrated Queens lyricist made a transition from crafting personal street narratives into songs to chronicling his life in the well-received autobiography, My Infamous Life.
“Once I started writing, I realized just how much I really enjoyed it. I was kinda good at it, so I kept at it,” explains Prodigy, whose script for the straight-to-DVD Mobb Deep movie Murda Muzik in 2002 was his first foray into writing sans the cushion of a hypnotizing beat.
Eager to expand his storytelling expertise beyond wax, Prodigy recently signed a deal with Brooklyn’s Akashic Books publishing house to launch Infamous Books. This new partnership allows Prodigy to release more books on his own imprint. Infamous Books will also be home to the street-lit genre’s bestselling crime scribes Miasha, JaQuavis Coleman and K’wan Foye.
The first release from Infamous Books, H.N.I.C., is a work of fiction by Prodigy himself, written in conjunction with award-winning British thriller writer Steven Savile (the man behind the storyline for the wildly popular Battlefield 3 game), that delves into loyalty, betrayal and greed set in a crime-infested urban backdrop.
“There are people living the street life who witness violence every day. Why can’t those stories be told?” Prodigy fires back to critics who question the artistic validity of these gritty tales. “There isn’t just one Black experience out here.” In between recording a new Mobb Deep album and getting ready to embark on a European tour, Prodigy took some time out to speak to EBONY.com on his new novella and publishing venture.
EBONY: What initially got you interesting in writing novels?
Prodigy: My family had a lot to do with My Infamous Life. They were the inspiration behind me starting to write. I had an interesting family life dating way back and they did a lot in their lifetime. [Prodigy’s great-great grandfather founded Morehouse College; his father was a jazz musician and his mother sang with the Crystals.] I wanted to leave a family legacy behind for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so they could capture those moments.
It always intrigued me to read other people’s autobiographies, so I always wanted to do that for my family. I also wanted to touch on the Mobb Deep story. We impacted so many people around the world with our music. I just wanted to memorialize us and immortalize us by writing a book about our history.
You shouldn’t look down on a book or a writer ’cause they chose to write about the streets. Unfortunately, some people only experience crime and violence.
EBONY: H.N.I.C. is about two friends who live a life of crime until one decides he wants out. Where did you draw inspiration for this story?
Prodigy: It’s inspired by the places where I grew up, the people I came across and the things that I witnessed coming up. Growing up in bad neighborhoods you see and experience a lot. I witnessed people getting killed and locked up, from my friends to my own family members. The life I knew inspired this book. I wanted to tell a real story about betrayal. These two characters were once best friends, and they turned on each other when they got older. I’ve seen that happen in real life.
EBONY: How would you compare your approach to writing a song to a book?
Prodigy: A song is like two or three minutes, and with a book you can spend your time with it and really take the reader to another place. When I’m doing music, I start writing the lyrics always to a beat. I always want to match the feeling of what I’m writing to the beat. If it’s an up-tempo R&B sounding beat, maybe that will have me write something about females or relationships. If it’s an aggressive beat, it may remind me of a fight in a club. With a book I’m just focused on writing an interesting story to capture and hold the reader’s attention.
EBONY: Are you able to be more reflective in your books?
Prodigy: When you are writing a book, you can go into a situation deeper and drag out the story so you have much more time to reflect about things. That can be hard to do in a song. When I was locked up [from 2008-2011 for gun possession], books helped me forget where I was. It helped my mind escape and to exercise my brain. I like the fact that it helps people leave their lives for a minute. A book can take you a week or more to read, whereas a song is just instant.
EBONY: The title H.N.I.C. has long been connected to you. It’s also the title of your first solo effort—
Prodigy: My grandmother, Bernice Johnson, built her business from the basement of her home in South Jamaica, Queens, and grew