Lawrence ware podcasts and hip-hop opinion

The Realness from WNYC is hosted by Christopher Johnson and Mary Harris, and it examines the life of Albert T’Chaka Johnson, who was born in the Long Island section of New York City on November 2, 1974. Better known to the world of music as Prodigy, one half of the rap duo Mobb Deep, he along with Havoc, was responsible for the classic albums The Infamous, Hell on Earth and Murda Muzik. They made waves in 1995 when they released Shook Ones (Part II), a classic track that remains one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.

Prodigy was known for his ability to tell gritty and oftentimes nihilistic stories grounded in the black experience of what Cornel West calls the underside of the American democratic experiment, and The Realness beautifully and empathetically tells us why his songs have such an edge.

It’s not because he was born into a family where he felt he had to sell drugs like Jay-Z or that he felt his genius was underappreciated like Nas. Prodigy’s struggle was more personal, and it took his life on June 20, 2017 at the age of 42.

Prodigy was in elementary school when he was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, a red blood disorder that causes hemoglobin in the cells to have a crescent, or ‘sickle,’ shape. When a person is having a crisis brought on by the disease, they can have periods of excruciating pain which, over time, can cause substantial damage to their bones and keep their immune system from working properly. The majority of people with the disorder in the United States are those of African descent, and for many years, children born with the disease were not expected to live beyond the age of 14. This began to change in the 1970s, just when Prodigy was coming of age. And although he was able to live longer because of breakthroughs in medical research, his painful condition made its way into his music.

His delivery is sometimes brusque. His subject matter is often disturbing, and early struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts daily fuels the nihilism that permeates his music. The Realness allows Prodigy’s music to do the work of telling his story, and it highlights what makes podcasts special: they are able to communicate what words alone cannot about bout what makes hip-hop unique.

I teach a class on Philosophy of Race at Oklahoma State University. In it we discuss the way art, grounded in the black experience, has impacted American culture. The first time I taught it, we spent two weeks on hip-hop, and I learned quickly that we could not just read rap lyrics and talk about them. The reason why was obvious once I thought about it carefully.

Thanks to generations of music critics, we have developed a language for what made singers like Billie Holliday and Nina Simone special. We have words that can describe what Whitney Houston was doing with her voice and why we are unlikely to see another like her anytime soon. However, hip-hop is a comparatively young musical genre. We have not yet developed the language we need to communicate what Rick Ross is doing with his voice that elevates his music beyond the pedestrian (even when some of his lyrics leave much to be desired). Or why Slick Rick’s playful and mischievous inflections are a critical part of why his stories work so well. It was a disservice to the art and to the students to read hip-hop lyrics, and I discovered that in order to get a fuller understanding of the music, the verses needed to be heard. That’s why podcasts are perfectly suited for hip-hop criticism. They allow us to hear the way verses are delivered and are, therefore, able to communicate what makes the music special in a way that words alone cannot – but it does not stop there. Podcasts are without question the best tool for understanding the art of sampling.

At the beginning of episode three, The Realness tells us about Prodigy’s distinguished musical family. His mother, Frances Collins, was a member of The Crystals. His father was in a doo-wop group as a child, and his grandfather was Budd Johnson, Sr., an underappreciated jazz saxophonist who worked with great musicians like Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Quincy Jones. It was Prodigy’s grandfather that introduced him to Herbie Hancock’s Jessica, a song that contains a minor key piano riff he would later use as an element in Shook Ones (Part Two). It’s hard to communicate in words how that soft riff is layered over with bass, snares and other samples to create the sonic backdrop for Mobb Deep’s breakout classic, but the podcast producers play the riff and then the finished beat, thereby allowing the listener to understand both how the riff was sampled and just how talented one has to be to draw from so many different styles of music to create a singular, cohesive sound. This is but an example of how podcasts are perfect for breaking down complex hip-hop production. For example, as was discussed on Episode two of the second season of Dissect, I can write that Kanye West samples Chaka Khan’s “Through The Fire” in College Dropout’s “Through the Wire.” I can even say that he pitches her vocals up four semitones and makes Chaka sound like a lost member of Alvin and the Chimpmonks – but you have to hear the song to understand what Ye is up to … and why, despite what he says about Trump, he is unquestionably a musical genius.