Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The death of the rapper Prodigy raises a few questions: Is “the hood” over—and why did we ever need it to begin with?
What anyone remembers most about rapper Prodigy, who died last week from sickle cell anemia-related health complications, was his undying allegiance to “the hood.” At first, this was a specific reference to Queensbridge Houses, a housing project notorious for mayhem and murder throughout the 1980s. Other than his Mobb Deep rap group partner Havoc, Prodigy had few peers who could match him note-for-gruesome-note in detailing the hood landscape in the most lurid fashion. In “The Start of Your Ending (41st Side)” from their seminal 1995 album The Infamous, Prodigy warns:
I used to drive an Ac and kept a Mac in the engine
Littles painted it black with crack sale intentions
To blow up the whole projects, we the infamous
Our sons will grow up to be murderers and terrorists
The “41st Side” is a reference to the south half of the mammoth Queensbridge projects, found on 41st Avenue in Queens, opposite the north half located on 40th Avenue. The fealty Mobb Deep swore to this location was perhaps best summarized in the line from Havoc from their classic ‘95 song “Survival of the Fittest,” where he raps “no matter how much loot I get I’m staying in the projects, forever.”
Mobb Deep had picked a side, the hood, just as America had picked hers, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. President Bill Clinton chose incarceration over directly repairing the problems that pushed so many black youth into by-any-means-necessary survival attempts to begin with. It was a choice he would later regret, as his prison play pushed marginalized African Americans even further away from the Clinton-liberal agenda, setting his wife up for failure in 2016. The damage had been done: Clinton’s ‘94 crime bill was not the start of the ending of the hood, but it certainly helped accelerate its demise, mainly by locking black youth up in volume, devastating thousands of families and communities in the process.
It seemed ridiculous to some that Mobb Deep was choosing to throw their lot in with the place that America feared and resented most—Jay Z would later mock Mobb Deep’s hood obsession when he rhymed, “I don’t be in the project hallways, talking about how I be in the projects all day. That sounds stupid to me.” But what Mobb Deep had sworn allegiance to was not so much the criminal activity of the hallways, but rather the security, the community bonds, and the integrity of the people held prostrate under America’s police boots.
This might have been a natural choice for Havoc, who grew up in the Queensbridge projects, but it was less so for Prodigy, who did not. Prodigy was born and raised in Hempstead, farther out in Long Island, New York. His parents and grandparents were famous dancers and musicians—among them, his mother Fatima Frances Johnson, a doo-wop queen in The Crystals, the group that sang “Da Doo Run Run” and “Then He Kissed Me.” His great-great-great grandfather founded Morehouse College, the HBCU that Martin Luther King would later attend.
Hempstead was a suburbia made black from white flight and segregation. But it was nothing like the menacing hood portrayed in Prodigy’s early songs. Prodigy (real name Albert Johnson) later moved to Queensbridge as a teen, but he wasn’t there long. Shortly after tasting rap success, he settled in a mansion in a small town called Pomona in Rockland County, New York, all the while still reppin’ the hood thoroughly on albums like Murda Muzik and Infamy.
Why Prodigy’s hood affinity stuck despite him having a less-than-thorough connection to it is baffling, especially when considering the fact that the hood was no longer the Survivor island he made it out to be in his rhymes. Queensbridge was and remains the largest housing project in the U.S., but it holds that distinction today by default, because almost every other housing project has been downsized dramatically, if not completely eliminated, thanks to the mixed-income engineering of federal Hope VI policy.
Also, Queens (and New York City by extension) is far from the murder megalopolis that it once was—and it had already become that way by the time Prodigy picked up a mic. In 1995, when The Infamous took off, New York had already dropped well below its violent peaks of the late 80s/early 90s, and was ahead of her peer cities in this regard as well.
Those crime rates just kept dropping in New York City, as did the crime content of Prodigy’s albums. Today, when you hear Donald Trump talk in macabre terms about the state of the “inner city,” you’d think maybe he just got too stuck off the realness of Mobb Deep’s early albums. But that “realness” is even less true today than it was in 1995. Violent crime is at its lowest rate since 1991. This is as true for Queensbridge Houses as it is for the city. Before a man was killed there in May this year, the public housing projects went well over a year without a shooting—not just without a murder, but without a bullet so much as grazing another person.
When crime began decreasing in certain parts of New Orleans in recent years, the credit was handed to the dismantling of the public housing projects there. The nationwide drop in violent crime has similarly been attributed, in part, to gentrification. The same can’t be said for Queensbridge Houses, though, which remains fully intact. Whatever answer it found to violent crime, it found from within.
Prodigy continued to pump out album after album, both before and after he did a three-year stint in jail for gun possession, at a feverish rate, as if any day might be his last. And such dark fatalism did indeed hover over him—but not because he was a young, black male subject to homicide, but because of his sickle cell disease. Yet while he wasn’t so quick to claim the hood in his final years, he remained suspicious of those disassociated with it. As he rhymed in “The Good Fight” from his final album The Hegelian Dialectic:
Time to go, time to go and embrace the next
Plane of existence, but I ain't finished
I serve a higher purpose, don't become nervous
Writers listen to my music and criticize me
But they ain’t have to survive the shit that I’ve been
Subjected to, they on the outside
Where it’s safe to watch and look alive
Prodigy’s death seems to track with the death of the idea of “the hood,” especially wherein that idea signals poverty, drugs, crime, and death. None of those ills are gone for good, of course, but they are, by and large, no longer the demarcating features of neighborhoods in many places. The hood didn’t do itself in, but we can count at least thirteen reasons why it lost its life, among them: mass incarceration, over-policing, the foreclosure crisis, the eviction crisis, the renters’ crisis, the redistribution of poverty into the suburbs, and many others.
Even the language of hip hop has transitioned from “hood” lingo to a more granular “trap” lexicology. While “the hood” referenced a more expansive community of sorts, the “trap” usually references a single house.
“There's always going to be a hood,” says Marc Lamont Hill, the freshly installed Steve Charles Chair in Media, Cities and Solutions at Temple University’s media and communication college. Before this he was a professor at the college, Morehouse, founded by Prodigy’s ancestors.
Hill is also a co-author of the book Gentrifier, which looks at the many ways that previously black and brown neighborhoods have been changed by forces outside of it and within. “We have to not just think about how people in the quote-unquote hood are acted upon, but also the ways in which we create meaning and craft community for ourselves,” he says. “So even against the backdrop of gentrification, job flight, capital flight, white flight, etc., the hood has always meant more than that. It wasn’t just some social scientist’s construct. It was about our rituals and practices and the way we conceptualized ourselves and our world.”
These are the elements of the hood that seemed to also fascinate Prodigy, apart from the drugs and gun shit, and that kept him and many others loyal to the idea, even if the physical connections were tenuous. Stripped of its more sensational features, the hood was still a place where certain subsets of a racial minority could develop and hone their own cultural and religious practices, free of any imposition of other people’s mores on them.
And while that’s all true and worth recognizing, the fact can’t be escaped that the hood—or “the ghetto,” as once known—was the product of hostile forces. The ghetto was not created as a cultural preservation project; it was created to separate and suffocate. This was true for the original ghettoes created in Italy to contain the Jews in the early 1500s, and which continued to contain them for centuries afterward. It was most certainly true in the ghettoes of Hitler’s Germany. And it was no less true of the black ghettoes of 20th century America, no matter how much racial solidarity and neighborliness might have come from them.
In Mitchell Duneier’s book Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea he writes:
In failing to contrast places such as Warsaw under the Nazis with the famous ghettos of the early modern era, social scientists missed a golden opportunity to develop a way of thinking about the ghetto that does more than highlight the amount and consequences of segregation. They missed a chance to give due recognition to the variations in both human flourishing and social control that are found wherever people are restricted in space. Just as certain moments in the history of the black ghetto have produced environments where inhabitants have grown personally, developed strong ties of solidarity, and produced a rich cultural life, recently it has been recognized that now there is far less flourishing and more extreme forms of intrusive social control than ever before.
Stuffing people of shared skin color and ethnicities into pockets of the city may have helped nurture pride and model neighbors within those quarters, but it also made it easier for outside forces to gerrymander, stop-and-frisk, incarcerate, and pollute black and brown people to death. That simply can’t be denied. The hood is just two-faced like that.
Prodigy recognized long ago that the negative consequences of the hood outweighed the benefits. Native Queensbridge residents forced him early on to stop repping their hood, since he wasn’t from there. But by that point he had already moved on to a more globalized notion of solidarity with marginalized people. The internet, social media, and his own ability to move about the nation and world more freely as an artist put him in contact with far more people with shared interests, beyond Queens.
Noticeably, many of hip hop’s newest prodigies are coming out without placing their native hood front-and-center in their own promo materials. Twenty years ago, if you would’ve told Mobb Deep that one of the top rappers would be a former actor from Toronto of mostly middle-class, Jewish background, you might’ve caught a beatdown. But today’s rappers are less concerned with how well they perform for their hometowns; your performance on the online streaming service Soundcloud is the only thing that matters. Rappers from Queensbridge aren’t even repping Queensbridge anymore. And when it comes to hood/trap life, rappers like Vic Mensa are reminding people painfully that such stories are nothing to play with, given actual lives are stake.
This sounds like heresy for the Mobb Deep generation, especially those who can’t shake the group’s ethos of “Fuck where you at, kid, it’s where you from.” The generation today is following another logic, though, one that ironically echoes the wisdom of another legendary Queens rapper, Rakim, who said in his 1990 song “In the Ghetto”: