If there’s a podcast out there with a hip-hop lean to it, there’s a better than 98 percent chance that I will give it a listen.
Whether it’s an interview-centric show like Drink Champs or Questlove Supreme or a show that takes a look at the life of a person of interest in the hip-hop world, like Mogul (about the life and death of Chris Lighty), I’m always looking for any podcasts that discuss and dig into the art form that has been essential and central to my life for the vast majority of my time on this here third rock from the sun.
That desire for discussion and deep dives is how I ended up listening to The Realness, a podcast by WNYC hosted by WNYC health reporters Mary Harris and Christopher Johnson. The podcast focuses on the life of rapper Prodigy, of the group Mobb Deep, who died in June 2017. Instead of merely focusing on his life as a rapper (which is far more interesting than most of us realize—something I gleaned from listening to his Questlove Supreme podcast and the tidbits of his life I’ve gained over time), they focused on how his life and art were influenced and affected by his struggle with sickle cell anemia, a disease that affects many in the African-American community.
Over six episodes, the hosts go from the beginning of his life to the ending, in Las Vegas where he ended up in a hospital, ultimately dying after choking on an egg. If you’re a Mobb Deep fan, you’ll recognize names throughout. They speak with Big Twins and Chinky, a childhood friend of his who ends up singing on several Mobb Deep and Mobb Deep-universe songs. You get convo from family members and Havoc’s mother, though Havoc is absent from the podcast, though not for a lack of trying.
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Prodigy wrote an autobiography and you can get a great, first-person oral account of his life on his episode of Questlove Supreme, which The Realness’ first episode borrowed from heavily. The life of the rapper is a draw, but the health angle is interesting and compelling. For one, the hosts do a great job explaining to you the historical arc of the sickle cell disease and its rise (and fall) in the national public consciousness, but even more importantly, rappers are getting old and it’s not uncommon to hear stories of our favorite artists dying because of issues with their health. Think of rappers like Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest or Big Pun who died at age 28.
It’s also not uncommon to hear about rappers struggling with the costs of health care after not having insurance, etc. Considering that so many of our legends are rising in age means that they’re all very likely to deal with health concerns common to the general population, like high blood pressure and heart disease. Health issues have caused rappers like Rick Ross to face those problems head on as they decide that while they enjoy their lifestyles immensely, they’d actually like to live to do so into old age and watch their kids do the same.
For that reason, discussing a rap legend (I don’t think this is in question, but for some it might be debateable) through the lens of an ailment that directly influenced the pain and anger he rapped about most is an excellent way to tell his story. It’s just unfortunate that the rest of us will have to continue telling his story for him.
My only quibble with the podcast, and it’s one that I’d abandoned by the time it was over for the sake of seeing it through, is one that I largely have about a lot of how hip-hop has gone from the streets to classrooms: It largely sounds like a story about hip-hop for white people or people who view hip-hop negatively. Granted, the audience for the podcast is very likely inclusive of people who are only listening because of the connection to sickle cell and the public health angle, but it irks me when the presentation of hip-hop has to be disclaimer-ed and presented in what sounds like a code-switched manner. It has nothing to do with the information or the execution of the presented material and information, merely the presentation of it all-around.
As I said, by the time the podcast concluded, I was over it and able to listen without focusing on the part that annoyed me since it was inconsequential and would have prohibited me from gaining valuable information about a disease that affects my own family.
I learned a lot about sickle cell, got to revisit a rapper whose music has influenced my own life and took a speck of joy at the idea of some 65-year-old white guy who has never heard of Prodigy pulling up some streaming service and listening to The Infamous for the first time. Hip-hop needs more podcasts like this for those reasons.
Keep it thoro.