WNYC’s The Realness, hosted by Christopher Johnson and Mary Harris, examines the life of Albert Johnson. Better known to the world of music as Prodigy, one half of the rap duo Mobb Deep, he, along with his partner 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 often 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 reveals why his songs have such an edge. It’s not because he was, like Jay-Z, born into a family where he felt he had to sell drugs or that he, like Nas, felt his genius was underappreciated. 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 anemia, a disorder that causes red blood cells to have a crescent, or sickle, shape. When a person is having a crisis brought on by the disease, he can have periods of excruciating pain that, over time, can cause substantial damage to his bones and keep his 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 in New York City. 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 his early struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts fuel 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—like hip-hop tracks themselves—so special: They are able to communicate what words alone cannot.
I teach a class on the philosophy of race at Oklahoma State University. In it we discuss the way hip-hop and other artforms grounded in the black experience have impacted American culture. The first time I taught it, 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 and musicologists, we have developed a language for what made singers like Billie Holiday 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. Hip-hop, however, is a comparatively young musical genre. We have not yet sufficiently 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 fully understand the music, the verses needed to be heard. This is one reason 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 on the page simply can’t.
But it does not stop there. Podcasts are also without question the best tool for understanding the art of sampling. At the beginning of the third episode, The Realness tells us about Prodigy’s distinguished musical family. His mother, Fatima Johnson (formerly Frances Collins), was a member of the classic vocal group the Crystals. His father was in a doo-wop group as a child, and his grandfather was Budd Johnson Sr., an undersung jazz saxophonist who worked with such great musicians as Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Quincy Jones. It was Prodigy’s grandfather who 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 II).”
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 Realness’ producers play the riff and then the finished beat, 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 only one example of how podcasts are ideal for breaking down complex hip-hop production. Many, many more can be found on Dissect, which each season takes on a new album and spends an episode or more on each track. (The first season was about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the second was about Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and the third and ongoing season is about Frank Ocean’s Blonde.) 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 Chipmunks. And Dissect host Cole Cuchna, who went to college to study classical music, can say all this, too. But you have to hear the song to understand what Ye is up to—and why, whatever he says about Trump, he is unquestionably a musical genius.
I could go on. Indeed, at the top of every episode, The Realness reminds us of another factor that makes podcasts better equipped than traditional radio to discuss hip-hop. Before diving into the meat of each episode, the hosts always include a note about the language, telling listeners that the series includes a lot of “F-bombs” and “N-bombs.” For better or worse, these words, too, are essential to understanding much of hip-hop, as anyone who’s ever tried to listen to the clean version of a rap LP can attest. However, these terms are not usually permitted on the airwaves, and, therefore, the work that airs is often not the artist’s original vision.
The Realness and Dissect are both relatively new—The Realness debuted in July, while Dissect started in late 2016—but they are unquestionably building upon a foundation laid by the late, great Reggie Ossé, known to the hip-hop world as Combat Jack. When Ossé launched The Combat Jack Show in 2010, he was a pioneering hip-hop podcaster in an overwhelmingly white space. Last year, he told the story of influential hip-hop executive Chris Lighty on Gimlet Media’s Mogul, perhaps The Realness’ closest predecessor, before he himself succumbed to cancer in December. Ossé expanded what was possible at the intersection of podcasting and hip-hop, and there’d be no The Realness and perhaps even no Dissect without him. With any luck, there will be many more such shows after him.