Stuck Off The Realness Prodigy made up half of the hugely influential hip-hop duo Mobb Deep, but spent his life in excruciating pain due to a debilitating disease called sickle cell anemia. On this episode, the hosts of WNYC's The Realness podcast chronicle Prodigy's struggle with the disease, share the story of how the disease was discovered, and explain how black revolutionaries pressed their communities (and the President of the United States) to do something about it.
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Stuck Off The Realness

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Stuck Off The Realness

Stuck Off The Realness

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is out this week. So late last year on the podcast, during one of the Songs Giving Us Life segments, we remembered the life of Prodigy from Mobb Deep. And for those of y'all who don't know, Mobb Deep was a big-ass deal in the 1990s. They had this bleak, gritty sound that, in a lot of ways, would come to define East Coast hip-hop for years to come. This very dope instrumental you're listening to right now, that's from their song "Quiet Storm."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOBB DEEP SONG, "QUIET STORM")

DEMBY: So it's the late summer of 2017, and Prodigy is performing at this concert in Vegas. And he's not feeling too well, so they rush him to the hospital. But he never comes out. At the age of 42, Prodigy of Mobb Deep was dead. And we should say, Prodigy was no stranger to hospitals. He spent a lot of time in them growing up because he was often in excruciating chronic pain.

He has a disease that a lot of folks might know colloquially as sickle cell, but the medical name is sickle cell anemia. It's an inherited disease, and there are hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. who have it. Most of them are black, although there are lots of people of South Asian descent and Arab descent who have it, too. And as it happens, September is Sickle Cell Awareness Month. That's why we're bringing you an episode of this podcast that we really dig from WNYC. It's called The Realness. It's a six-part look at the life and death of Prodigy. Episode 1 introduces P as an artist and shows how his rap career was, in a lot of ways, shaped by this disease that he had.

We're actually going to play you the second episode. It's about how sickle cell anemia came to be discovered and how people mobilized to do something about it. It's a story about race. It's a story about medicine and politics and activism. It involves an American president. It involves political revolutionaries. But to tell that story, I need to turn it over to the hosts of The Realness, Christopher Johnson and Mary Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, everyone. Just a quick heads up - The Realness contains some strong language.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON STAIRS)

JOHNSON: What's up, big brother? How you doing, man?

GREG COLLINS: I'm good, man. What's going on, brother?

JOHNSON: Nice to meet you, man.

COLLINS: Ah, you too, man. What's going on?

JOHNSON: I was, like, lit. Where do you want me at?

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNSON: Prodigy has a big brother. His name is Greg Collins. And he's much older than Prodigy, so he actually remembers the day his baby brother was born.

COLLINS: That was my buddy, man. He was - you know, I took to him right away because, you know, I never had a sibling. You know, you got guys who had older brothers. You know, and you wanted to be an older brother.

JOHNSON: What did y'all call him when he was born, first of all?

COLLINS: Well...

JOHNSON: Not Prodigy, of course.

COLLINS: No, of course not. His father's name was Albert Jackson Johnson III. I think it was the third. Anyway - so when they were naming my brother, my mother said, oh, no. We're not naming him no Albert Johnson. And she wanted to name him T'Chaka. They kind of, I guess, worked together. They came to a middle ground and said, well, we'll name him that, but we can put T'Chaka, you know, in there. But we used to call him Chak (ph), Chaka (ph), you know, Chaki (ph). You know, that's what he was called. You know, nobody ever called him Budd or Albert. He was Chaka - you know, T'Chaka. And we called him Chaka for short, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLLINS: I used to always try to do things with him because I wanted that interaction, as my only sibling, my only brother. Yeah, I always tried to take him with me wherever I went, you know, when he could. Because of his condition, though, I didn't get to do that a lot because I had to be very careful.

JOHNSON: I'm wondering if you ever saw him have an episode. Yeah? Can you tell me about one time?

COLLINS: Many times, many times. There were many times I took him to the hospital. When I had my own family, he used to come and visit me. And he had - I think it was twice he had episodes. I had to take him to the hospital. The pain just seemed so excruciating. Like, you're wondering - I couldn't feel pain like that. Watching him and his pain, going through what he was going through - and just those movements. I couldn't feel that, man. But I felt it. I couldn't feel it, but I felt it. Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: Prodigy had countless experiences just like this, ever since he was diagnosed as an infant in 1975. Back then, children with sickle cell anemia weren't expected to make it to adulthood. They might not even survive their first few months.

MARY HARRIS, BYLINE: But Prodigy? He made it. He was born at a breakthrough moment in the history of sickle cell. After decades of neglect, the country really started to pay more attention to this disease.

JOHNSON: We're going to leave Prodigy's story for a moment and go back to a period in time when a group of doctors, black radicals and even Hollywood stars took a misunderstood disease and turned it into one of the most urgent social and political issues of their era.

HARRIS: I'm Mary Harris.

JOHNSON: And I'm Christopher Johnson. This is The Realness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: The doctor always told me all my life, you got sickle cell. It's nothing you can do about it. You're not going to live past 40. That's it. I never thought, like, I'm going to die when I hit 40 'cause that's what they said. But definitely, the pain that I was going through made me off a little bit, you know what I'm saying?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome to "The Mike Douglas Show."

JOHNSON: Back in the 1970s, one of the most popular daytime TV programs was "The Mike Douglas Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And now, here's Mike.

JOHNSON: It was hosted by an ex-big band and nightclub singer, and he'd have all kinds of celebrities onstage with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

MIKE DOUGLAS: That was pretty good, wasn't it, huh? How about my band, Joe Harnell and the Band?

ALONDRA NELSON: This "Mike Douglas Show," which was filmed in Philadelphia, was watched by millions of people every day.

JOHNSON: Alondra Nelson is a sociology professor at Columbia University, and she's actually written about one specific episode in February 1972.

NELSON: And this particular week, it would have been watched quite a lot because it was guest hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

DOUGLAS: John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHN LENNON: Hello, hello. Hello - is the mic on?

JOHNSON: On this show, they've got Vivian Reed, the actress. They've got this sketch comedy group called The Ace Trucking Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character) Where do you think you're going?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As character) To a drive-in movie with Betty Sue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character) The one that was out here last Saturday?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As character) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As character) Hey, she's all right.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: And in the midst of all that, John and Yoko and Mike Douglas, they turn to something really serious.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

DOUGLAS: There's a disease in our society today that is a major concern, sickle cell anemia. And it affects a special segment of the society. Here is a young man who is a medical student and is working on being a leading authority in the field. Meet Donald Williams.

(APPLAUSE)

JOHNSON: Donald Williams had been working with the Black Panther Party. He'd been helping them test people for sickle cell in the Oakland, Calif., area. And when he walks out onstage, he's wearing a suit, and he's carrying a black briefcase full of his medical books.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

DOUGLAS: You really came prepared (laughter).

DONALD WILLIAMS: Well, I'm primarily a student. I have to keep my books with me...

DOUGLAS: I see.

WILLIAMS: ...So I can study.

HARRIS: So he settles into his chair and jumps right into this really thorough, detailed explanation of what sickle cell anemia is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

WILLIAMS: Sickle cell anemia is a disease of the blood. It's an inherited disorder. It's the only way it can be contracted - or cannot be contracted. The only way it can be gotten is through heredity. OK? It occurs primarily in blacks. It occurs in some Jewish populations. It occurs in some Turks.

HARRIS: And Mike Douglas, you can tell he is struggling to keep it entertaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

WILLIAMS: The trait occurs when the person has only inherited one gene from one parent for production of hemoglobin S, which is the abnormal hemoglobin in sickle cell.

DOUGLAS: And boy, you fellows with those medical terms, you really...

NELSON: Talking about sickle cell anemia is not good television. It's not sexy. It's not interesting. And it was clear, certainly a few minutes in, that Mike Douglas is a little bit uncomfortable because he's a TV man, and he knows this is not good TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

DOUGLAS: Now, what is your goal?

WILLIAMS: Our goal is to educate the entire black population in this country about sickle cell - what having the trait means, how it's passed on, how a kid gets the disease.

YOKO ONO: So you can prevent it in a way.

WILLIAMS: You can prevent it only if you prevent people with the trait from having kids.

LENNON: From falling in love, right?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, sure.

HARRIS: This interview is important because it's one of the best examples we have of this pivotal moment in the 1970s, when sickle cell became part of the national conversation.

JOHNSON: It had come a long way since the disease was first discovered in the West in 1904. That's when a doctor was looking at some blood under a microscope, sees these, quote, "peculiar and elongated red blood cells."

KEITH WAILOO: And what he theorizes is that this isn't just some kind of anomaly: it's an actual new disease.

JOHNSON: This is Keith Wailoo. He's a history professor at Princeton.

WAILOO: It's really from the 1910s through the '20s and '30s that clinicians start to identify these sickle-shaped red blood cells as being linked to particular kinds of painful episodes and painful crises and, then, early childhood mortality.

HARRIS: A lot of physicians might not have been putting a kid's blood under the microscope. So when they saw kids with sickle cell come in, they might not have even known it was one condition. They would see kids coming in with pneumonia and meningitis because sickle cell wrecks your immune system.

JOHNSON: There's also something called hand-foot syndrome. And basically, it makes babies' fingers and toes swell up, and it hurts so bad that sometimes babies will suck on their fingers and toes just to make them feel better. It's a really common symptom of sickle cell. But back in those early days, doctors may not have really known that. Researchers were just starting to figure out how this disease worked, inch by inch.

WAILOO: And then, in comes somebody like Linus Pauling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINUS PAULING: After some years, at the end of the war, I learned about the disease sickle cell anemia.

HARRIS: Linus Pauling won the Nobel Prize twice. He's a chemist. He's often considered one of the founders of molecular biology.

WAILOO: And what Linus Pauling and his team of researchers theorize is that there can be such a thing as a disease that's caused by a molecule.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULING: Could it be possible that this disease, which seems to be a disease of the red cell because the red cells in the patients are twisted out of shape, could really be a disease of the hemoglobin molecule?

JOHNSON: The hemoglobin molecule is a part of the red blood cell, and it moves oxygen all over the body.

HARRIS: Pauling saw this glitch in hemoglobin. It made the blood cells change shape from round to more of a crescent or a sickle.

JOHNSON: And those sickled cells, they don't move through the body as smoothly as round cells. Instead, they stack up in a way that blocks the flow of blood and oxygen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULING: Nobody had ever suggested that there could be molecular diseases before, but this idea popped into my head.

HARRIS: Pauling's discovery was pretty incredible.

WAILOO: What it said is, we need to think about diseases as maybe happening at the level of small, molecular dynamics rather than at the level of infections and viruses or bacteria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: But there was also a big problem with scientists like Pauling. It was all in the way they talked about sickle cell patients.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULING: I believe first that heterozygotes should be identified.

JOHNSON: Heterozygotes is the term Pauling used to describe people who had the sickle cell trait, who might pass it onto their kids. And he had some thoughts on how to stop the spread of this disease. And honestly, they're horrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULING: If two heterozygotes marry one another, they should have no children in my opinion.

WAILOO: In a fairly kind of naive comment, he says, well, maybe we can find a way to tattoo on the forehead people who have the sickle cell gene. And you put a tattoo on another person's forehead who's also a carrier. And then he argues that they see each other, and they see that each of them carries this gene. And maybe they will avoid falling in love with each other; that is to say that they themselves will recognize the danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULING: If they want to marry one another, they should probably be sterilized so as to be sure that they would have no children.

WAILOO: He was just trying to think through, how do you actually solve this problem knowing what we know about the mechanisms of inheritance? But this is a good example of how sometimes scientists can be callous because they are narrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: This kind of scientific approach, this cool, callous theorizing, this wasn't going to be enough to save lives. That was going to take a different kind of fight in the communities where sickle cell was being lived and treated. That would have to be a fight advocating for people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WAILOO: Sickle cell disease sees a very gradual two-decade transformation as a high-profile cultural phenomenon.

HARRIS: It started in the 1950s with the civil rights movement.

WAILOO: And then there's a real turning point in the late 1960s with the Black Panthers, who essentially argued that not only is this our disease, not only is this a statement about what it means to be black, but we need to determine our own future by spreading information about it, by educating ourselves for it and by raising funds to actually support the health and well-being of our children.

JOHNSON: The Black Panthers created a national sickle cell screening program. They would test people everywhere - at churches, at clinics, at community education rallies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBBY SEALE: I'm sure we tested over 4,500 people for sickle cell anemia last night.

JOHNSON: Party Chairman Bobby Seale helped lead the charge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEALE: And I think that the voter registration is running neck and neck with it.

WAILOO: So it really becomes part of that broader dynamic that's very much part of the late 1960s rise of black power.

JOHNSON: The Panthers made the problem of this one disease, sickle cell anemia, about something much bigger. They made it about the exclusion of black people from mainstream medicine.

NELSON: And moreover, about their concerns for how health care and its - and the neglect of health care is a way of doing harm to black communities, right? Not only is it, you know, a kind of benign neglect. They accused it of being a kind of genocide.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: The Panthers also wanted people with the disease to understand that they were entitled to the best care.

NELSON: That they deserved research into their disease, that they deserved scientists - our best scientists putting their efforts into trying to uncover, you know, or to discover a cure for the disease. And so they've really helped to change a national conversation about the disease.

JOHNSON: There was this huge groundswell in the 1960s and the early '70s that turned a spotlight onto sickle cell anemia. The Panthers didn't do it alone. There were TV shows and movies about it. Major athletes and actors were talking about their own struggles with sickle cell. Black folks were really taking ownership of this disease. This is not unlike what a lot of communities would do in the '80s with HIV and AIDS to own this disease and to own the people who were going through it and to protect them as ours.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Brothers and sisters, peoples and human beings alike, it's good to see you here tonight. We running a kind of revolution that involves our very lives. And it involves us feeling what we call people's power starting in the heart of the black community to the Chicano community...

JOHNSON: And then the next step was to get that critical mass of understanding and put pressure for change on people who actually were in positions of power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Presenting to you the president of the United States.

HARRIS: In his 1971 State of the Union address...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: My fellow Americans...

HARRIS: ...President Nixon had been talking about overhauling the nation's health care system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: I will offer a far-reaching set of proposals for improving America's health care and making it available, more fair to more people.

HARRIS: He was even talking about universal coverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: America has long been the wealthiest nation in the world. Now it is time we became the healthiest nation in the world.

(APPLAUSE)

HARRIS: It's not like sickle cell was on Nixon's agenda. His inner circle didn't really understand what the disease was about. But because of all this social and political pressure, it was clear he had to do something. So a year after that speech, he signed the Sickle Cell Control Act (ph) into law.

JOHNSON: It dedicated $155 million to the research and treatment of this disease. It also created a whole network of sickle cell care centers all over the country.

HARRIS: The Panthers and others, they saw this as a pretty cynical ploy by a president who otherwise wasn't doing a lot for their neighborhoods.

NELSON: One thing you might say is that that Nixon strategy was an attempt to co-opt the narrative of black activists like the Black Panther Party about the state neglect of African-American communities, right? So this then becomes a way to say, no, we're actually not neglecting your communities.

JOHNSON: But someone on Nixon's team knew enough to find the best people working on the disease and recruited them to advise the president. One of those experts was a doctor who figured out a way to treat babies that kept them alive. And she used that same technique to prolong the life of the small, frail boy from Long Island, N.Y., who everyone called T'Chaka.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: Growing up with sickle cell, you know, it was kind of different for me, man. You know, it made me real angry at God, you know, for making me go through that pain. I was a kid. I didn't understand why I was going through that because I was tired of that pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING))

PRODIGY: Pain and I got real close in those early years.

HARRIS: Prodigy doesn't talk about sickle cell a lot in his autobiography, but he does talk about how sickle cell changed him as a kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: Ever since I was born, I was at the hospital at least four to six times a year with sickle cell every year sometimes for a week, sometimes even up to a month.

HARRIS: He tells one story in particular about this hospital visit. He was about 4 years old at the time. His grandmother was there with him. She was watching over him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: I was sleeping hard for a few hours. And when she tried waking me up, I wouldn't open my eyes. She called the doctors to check on me, and they said I was just sleeping. She called their superiors, and they said the same. But my grandmother, a Southern, strong-willed female from the old school, knew better.

JOHNSON: His grandmother was Bernice Johnson, and she was a force - a powerful, super influential business woman who owned a well-known dance studio in Queens, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: She told them that the next person that she was going to call would be her lawyer if they didn't wake me up immediately. They went into a frenzy, finding that all my vital signs were deadly low and I was slipping in and out of a coma. Grandma saved my life.

JOHNSON: It's something that's so many sickle cell patients run up against - not being trusted, not getting care. And what we've learned from talking to a lot of people in Prodigy's life is that his survival depended on a huge network of people - his grandmother, his mom, neighbors and friends.

HARRIS: And there was also his pediatrician, Dr. Yvette Francis-McBarnette. She was instrumental in making sure Prodigy made it out of childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: Dr. Francis had her own sickle cell clinic in a house on Farmers Boulevard in Jamaica where I hated going because it meant I was getting a penicillin shot in my butt.

JOHNSON: Dr. Francis was a pioneer. She'd started practicing in the 1950s when mortality for kids with sickle cell still hung around 10 years old. In the 1960s, she opened a clinic in Queens, N.Y., where she treated children with sickle cell. And by the time Prodigy was born in 1974, the Nixon White House had appointed Dr. Francis to help with its work on sickle cell.

HARRIS: And when Dr. Francis looked at kids like Prodigy, what she saw was that they kept getting those infections, and that would cause them to get really sick, sometimes even die. The primary thing that goes wrong with sickle cell - your blood cells getting stuck in your vessels - has this effect on your immune system. It actually blocks off your spleen, which means that when you get sick, you get really sick. When you get a cold, it can easily become pneumonia. And so she and other doctors like her start thinking, how can we prevent infections in these kids? And the way they did that was by giving these kids antibiotics, shots of penicillin. And it seemed to work.

ELLEN MCBARNETTE: Remember that it was uncommon for those with sickle cell to live past their teenage years when Mom started medicine. And she was helping kids who - it wasn't clear if they would survive.

JOHNSON: Dr. Francis died in 2016. But her daughter, Ellen McBarnette, she actually worked at the clinic.

MCBARNETTE: And she was doing her best. And she didn't know when she first started helping kids survive past 20 (laughter) if they would survive to 25. Would they survive to 30? This was groundbreaking.

JOHNSON: Dr. Francis started using antibiotics in this way 15 years before the wider medical community acknowledged just how effective it is. And largely because of this treatment, Prodigy is among the first generation of kids born with sickle cell who - it's almost like this sidewalk gets extended out in front of them very slowly. And if you look at a graph that charts life expectancy for people with sickle cell anemia over the past century, the line on that graph spikes right around the early 1970s. This is right around the time that Prodigy was born.

KERRI EDGE: I think our favorite game was tag in the dark. Someone's it. You choose who's it.

HARRIS: Kerri Edge grew up with Prodigy. They met because when she was still a toddler, she started taking dance classes at his grandmother's dance studio. And just like his brother, Greg, she calls him T'Chak.

EDGE: Every Saturday pretty much he was there hanging around, getting into trouble (laughter).

HARRIS: What do you remember about T'Chak?

EDGE: He was quiet, funny, a real boys' boy, you know, very mischievous like Spider-Man.

HARRIS: Did he - did you see him have an episode as a kid?

EDGE: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. It - I mean, it had to have been excruciating pain. I've never seen anyone scream like that - ever. He appeared to know that it was going to be painful and that there was nothing that he could do but take the pain. He could - it didn't seem - he couldn't stay quiet. I felt like I was supposed to stop it and didn't really know how other than to just go get an adult.

HARRIS: Kerri and her mom were part of this extended family that took care of Prodigy when he was little. They'd go to the hospital when he was there. They'd take shifts and watch over him.

EDGE: I learned very early that he was not to be alone.

HARRIS: Tell me about that.

EDGE: Chak can't be alone. I mean, he could be alone, but he can't be, like, completely alone. There has to - you know? It's...

HARRIS: Why not?

EDGE: Because something can happen at any moment.

HARRIS: All of this going in and out of the hospital, all of these awful experiences he had while he was there - it all just began to take a toll on him.

EDGE: Around the time he was 12, he was getting fed up with it, and he also started removing himself more. And I noticed that he became less friendly. He was never rude to me, but I could see him being rude and short with people. And my conversations with him didn't include so much laughter anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: Growing with sickle cell, you know, it was kind of different for me, man. You know, it made me real angry at God, you know, for making me go through that pain. I was a young kid. I didn't understand why I was going through that. And I wanted to kill myself, you know what I'm saying? I ain't even want to live anymore because I was tired of that pain. It's, like, so painful - I was just - I was, like, 12 years old, and I wanted to kill myself. My mother came in my room, and she saw me in the closet trying to cut my wrists with a steak knife, you know what I mean?

JOHNSON: But at the same time Prodigy was going through all of this - at the same time he was feeling like he couldn't live with this pain, he was also discovering hip-hop.

HARRIS: He heard how LL Cool J growls on the mic on "Rock The Bells."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THE BELLS")

LL COOL J: (Rapping) LL Cool J is hard as hell. Battle anybody, I don't care who you tell. I excel. They all fail. I'm going to crack shells. Double-L must rock the bells.

JOHNSON: He heard Run-DMC's classic track "Sucker M.C.'s" - all drums, hard, in-your-chest kick and snare.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUCKER M.C.'S")

RUN-DMC: (Rapping) Two years ago, a friend of mine asked me to say some MC rhymes. So I said this rhyme I'm about to say. The rhyme was def, a-then it went this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: When I heard those songs, that just changed everything in my life. I used to play the songs for my mother - like, yo, Mom, check this out. Matter of fact, I used to say Rakim's rhymes to my moms and act like I wrote it.

JOHNSON: Rap music spoke to the anger he says he felt because of his condition. And all of the fire and the aggressiveness of the music - Prodigy loved it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRODIGY: I was like all right, this is what I want to do. It was just a vibe. You just feel it. You know what I mean? You could feel this is what it's supposed to be.

HARRIS: He says hip-hop saved his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: Next time on The Realness - Prodigy wasn't just born at a pivotal moment in the history of sickle cell. Mobb Deep came of age during one of the most electric moments in rap music. We take you inside the golden age of hip-hop and one of New York City's most epic nightclubs.

SHALENE EVANS: There were, like, little compartmental rooms. You would find a new one every time you went to this damn club. And these rooms used to have shit going on in them.

JOHNSON: Like what?

EVANS: Sucking, fucking, snorting, smoking, this, that - every inch of that club, it was a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: The Realness is a production of WNYC Studios, hosted by me - Christopher Johnson - and Mary Harris.

HARRIS: Our editor is Christopher Werth. We had help from consulting producer Kathy Iandoli and associate producer Eryn Mathewson. Celia Muller makes sure we're legally in the right. And Michelle Harris is our fact-checker.

JOHNSON: Jared Paul is our engineer. Cayce Means is our technical director. Our team includes Amanda Aronczyk, and Audrey Quinn, along with Steven Reneau (ph), Kaitlin Sullivan, Arianna Jones (ph) and Nikki Galteland (ph).

HARRIS: WNYC's vice president of news is Jim Schachter. Trumpeter Christian Scott wrote our beautiful theme song and composed a lot of the music in this series.

JOHNSON: Additional Music by Melanie Hsu.

HARRIS: Thanks to Buck Fifty Productions for sound from Prodigy's audio book. And thanks to Pandora for sharing audio of Questlove Supreme. A heads up from them - you can stream their "Sounds Like You" concert online. That performance included a rendition of Mobb Deep's "Shook Ones Part 2" by Nas. It was recorded just a few weeks after Prodigy died.

JOHNSON: We also want to show love to Prodigy's friends and family who gave us their time, welcomed us into their homes and shared their memories of a man they treasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show for this week. To hear the rest of the story, go to therealnesspodcast.org or subscribe wherever podcasts can be found. Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team. I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.

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