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.
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 it into one of the top dance companies [the Bernice Johnson Dance School] in the world next to Alvin Alley. She was a strong-minded, strong-willed woman. All her friends called her the H.N.I.C., and they gave her a mug with those letters on it for her birthday. When I was a little kid, I use to ask her what that meant. She told me the history of how racists would call a successful Black person the H.N.I.C. It stuck with me, and as I got older, I knew I wanted to name my album that.
EBONY: The street-lit genre continues to grow massively, and these books are landing on best-seller lists. What are your thoughts on those who think these writers aren’t serious and these books reinforce stereotypes?
Prodigy: You shouldn’t look down on a book or a writer ’cause they chose to write about the streets. That doesn’t mean every one of these street-lit books is good. Just like not every book about any other subject is good. Not everybody who picks up a pen is a good writer. That doesn’t mean the whole street-lit game is terrible. If I like to write and have that talent, why can’t I write about what I’m experiencing and seeing? Unfortunately, some people only experience crime and violence. If you’re not from that world, you may not be able to relate and your opinion doesn’t matter, really.
EBONY: These subjects introduce reading to a demographic of people who may never have picked up a book.
Prodigy: I meet a lot of mothers that come up to me and say, “my son started reading because of your book,” and that hit home for me. I remember the first book I read that my mom gave to me was Malcom X’s autobiography. I was interested because it was his life and that got me into reading. I wasn’t interested in reading before that. I could understand how kids get excited to read my books, if they are into Mobb Deep’s music. That’s a blessing to me and the best feeling ever. That’s what I do it for. If you do a good job writing a story, you should also be able to grab any reader. Everybody is not into hip-hop, but they may be still be into the book.
EBONY: Can we expect a love story?
Prodigy: That’s already in the works, of course.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.