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NY Hip-Hop: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Hip-Hop artist Prodigy spoke at the University of Connecticut's African American Culture Center on the Storrs campus.

Around a hundred students and fans gathered in the African American Culture Center in the University of Connecticut's Student Union Monday night to hear hip-hop artist Prodigy of the duo Mobb Deep talk about the music industry, hip-hop music and his new autobiographical book My Infamous Life.

While waiting for Prodigy to arrive, the audience got a music history lesson from Dr. Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, Associate Dean for the Humanities at UConn. Ogbar, born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, has developed courses, lectured and published articles on such subjects as black nationalism and hip-hop and is the author of novels such as Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap and The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts and Letters

Waiting for Prodigy was just as entertaining and compelling as the core presentation. Ogbar engaged the audience with his research on the emergence of rap music as being a creative outlet and alternative to violence in the Bronx and Brooklyn in 1970s. He discussed the four pillars of rap music: the deejay, the emcee, the break dancers and graffiti art. He explained that graffiti art was once a means to paint over the violence, poverty and dysfunction of the Bronx with positive images of enjoyment.

Ogbar even had a few in attendance singing along as he held up an audience member's phone to his mic and played a track from Mobb Deep's second studio album The Infamous (1995). 

Prodigy, 36, was born Albert Johnson in Hempstead, NY to a family of dancers and singers. Being immersed in show business at such an early age, Johnson said he felt an inclination to become involved in the music industry. 

Johnson focused on the keys to being successful in the industry stressing the need to stay focused and healthy. Having been diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, Johnson said he could physically feel less pain from the disease when he refrained from drugs and alcohol. He also maintained that keeping active and having a healthy diet combined with ceasing substance abuse all contribute to a clear, focused mind. Without complete focus and organization, Johnson said his career would suffer. 

Another key to success is actually learning the rules of the industry said Johnson who, at 17 years of age, was signed to a record label but then shortly dropped to dismal record sales. Johnson attributed the flopped record to his focus on short term gains instead of longevity or quality music. It was at this point Johnson said he thought, "We've got to get back to the lab; we've got to try again."

It was in the lab that Johnson and Kejuan Muchita, a.k.a. Havoc, Mobb Deep MC record producer, created their successful studio album The Infamous, which  debuted at number three on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart in 1995. The album's style is categorized under the "hardcore hip-hop" sub-genre.

Johnson discussed what he called a growing "paranoia" that resulted from an incident in which he was pulled over by the police and, thinking he might get dismissed faster, showed the officer his album. It was then that Johnson said the officer pulled out a list from his back pocket and started reading off names, asking Johnson if he knew any of them.

Concerned by these events, Johnson asked a former FBI agent and acquaintance to investigate on his behalf. He said that the agent uncovered Derrick Parker, a detective instructed to establish a a unit with a team and budget with the purpose of surveying various artists in the hip-hop industry. 

Johnson said his paranoia was validated all the more when, in 2006, he and DJ/Producer Alchemist (Alan Daniel Maman) were pulled over in Johnson's car by the police. Johnson said he was arrested and brought to jail because he had a gun in his car. During interrogation, however, Johnson said the police agreed to "forget about the gun" if he would provide them with information on rapper Curtis Jackson a.k.a. 50 Cent. Johnson said he was told by the police to plant drugs or a gun in Jackson's car and then give them a call. 

Johnson said he immediately told Jackson that he should be careful because people were trying to set him up and that Jackson responded, "Yeah, I know that."

My Infamous Life, which describes the violence Johnson experienced in the streets of NY and the state of the hip-hop industry, was released on April 20 as a part of a book tour in which Johnson will be giving talks in cities throughout New England. Johnson will be back in Connecticut on April 30 in Stamford to speak at Barnes & Noble, 100 Greylock Pl. from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

My Infamous Life is available for purchase online and in all major book stores. 

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