When you achieve acclaim early, like Albert "Prodigy" Johnson did as a member of Mobb Deep, it can mean living in the shadow of that past success as you age. Perhaps the most difficult turn for an artist, then, is finding a new space in which to leave their mark. For Prodigy, this meant writing and reflecting on his life and his passions with the deadpan perspective that made so much of his rapping great. It meant the same guy who once rapped "I'll throw a TV at you" penning a cookbook full of prison recipes. It meant, during what would become the final days of his life, working on a musical about the Illuminati.
A music journalist with years in the game, Kathy Iandoli helped Prodigy, who passed away Tuesday, at 42, achieve those second-act goals. Iandoli co-authored Commissary Kitchen, released in October 2016, and was helping the MC flesh out the idea for his ambitious musical. Iandoli spoke with Complex today, to talk about Prodigy's gifts and their work together.
How did you two first meet?
I met P right when he got out of prison. I conducted an interview with him and from that point we started a friendship and started to discuss the prison system, and things like that. That’s how, years later, we did our book, Commissary Kitchen.
When you spend years getting to know someone exclusively through their music, it can be surprising to befriend the real person behind those words. What surprised you about Prodigy?
In terms of his rhymes, everything about P is very intimidating. But he was one of those guys where, if he sensed that anyone around us was going to make me uncomfortable or even potentially harm me in any way, he would get protective—fast. It's not something that a lot of people do, and so it was a pleasant surprise for me. When we went on our book tour, we were at this stop and there were dudes hovering around—more for him, but he just assumed they were coming for me for whatever reason. He would stand in front of me with his arms crossed, like, “Yo, can I help you, fam?” And I’m like, No, you’re the one they want. [Laughs.] Even though his rhymes suggested the opposite, he never truly understood how much people adored him. In his rhymes, he’d puff out his chest about his lyrical superiority, but as a man, when people were in the room with him, it’d just never click. He was always that humble.
What were you working on together now?
He moved to Jersey and I live in Jersey, and he was a town away. He’d want to have these meetings where he’d send an Uber for me and then have brainstorming sessions at his house. The one thing we were planning on doing was a musical about the Illuminati and how the obsession with the Illuminati infiltrated people’s opinions of hip-hop. We were initially going to do an interactive type of musical with a company that runs The Illuminati Ball, but then we decided to take our idea to an off-Broadway situation. Tell a story with a very specific beginning, middle, and end. But [the story] began with prison; it was semi-autobiographical.
Even though his rhymes suggested the opposite, he never truly understood how much people adored him.
Many people would call him a conspiracy theorist, but a lot of what he thought wasn’t rooted in completely distrusting everything. [He was interested in] how people absorb information and what they do with that information. The thing about the Illuminati, as it pertains to hip-hop, is that many people view it as being this key to abundant wealth. And of course we don’t even know if it exists, but what P would really speak about was the idea of people using it as a meal ticket. Thinking that, if you get to Illuminati levels of hip-hop, it’ll get you something more than the information that you absorb. So the lead character [in the musical] was someone who took this information the wrong way and did something ridiculous because of it.
How far along in the process were you?
We’d had a couple of little bits about it, but he was passionate about it. He was passionate about everything he wanted to do, and that was just one of the things. This was a guy who released classic albums and had traveled the world god knows how many times—he wanted to do something more next, and he had those plans in place. He was always looking for the next way to change the world.
What do you think motivated him?
I think the clock that he was living on. I think that’s something that he always kept in mind. He knew he wasn’t in the best health. There were so many times where he felt so lucky, just to be here. Getting so many things done was a race to the finish line. He wasn’t sure if his health would lead him to have to take a rest and not be able to do what he wanted to. I think that was one of the things that motivated him, knowing that he would have to slow down.
Could you tell that his health had taken a turn for the worse in recent times?
Sickle cell is a funny thing. It can erupt and then you’re sick for a while, but then you get better. I think P certainly had his ups and downs with sickle cell flare ups, but he wasn’t on a consistent decline. This was a down where you would’ve assumed another trip to the hospital and it’d be taken care of. But as far as anything to suggest that he was on a severe decline? No. His way of life was always having to deal with this. And the amount of pain that he was in because of it...he’s not in pain anymore.
What will you always remember about Prodigy?
He had an amazing sense of humor. It was second to none. His delivery was so deadpan, his voice always sounded so serious. We would text each other the dumbest memes and there were certain things I wouldn’t think he would find funny at all, and he would hit me up with a screenshot of the meme I’d posted, like, “Ayo, Kat. LOL.” He was so funny and so sharp and so ridiculous.
He was super Internet literate, especially for someone of his generation. He’s one of the few rappers I can think of who blogged.
Mobb Deep was one of those groups that remained in the consciousness of, like, any hip-hop fan, regardless of age. So he would be referenced in a meme, something that he'd pop up in that would force him to understand really quickly. He was part of Internet culture, because Mobb Deep is such an integral part of hip-hop. I think that propelled P to really stay up on it. He had a lot of friends of the new generation; he was cool with Yams and a bunch of other dudes who would keep him aware.
What do you think he saw in you and enjoyed about your working relationship?
I think it’s because I entertained all of his crazy ideas. We were co-conspirators on his plans, and I took everything he said seriously. I think he liked that. He was a real genius, someone who had so many things that he wanted to do. The cookbook is a wacky idea, but the fact that we saw it to the end meant that he knew I took him seriously. He was my friend and I took his dreams seriously, and he allowed his dream of putting out the second book to become my dream, too. That’s something I’ll never forget.