The label head knew the late rapper for nearly a quarter-century.
The death of Prodigy (a.k.a. Albert Johnson) of Mobb Deep on Tuesday (June 20) drew an avalanche of condolences and remembrances from across the hip-hop community, recognizing the profound impact the rapper and his Queensbridge duo with Havoc had on the culture and music. Among those in mourning is Steve Rifkind, founder of Loud Records (and current head of talent for WAV) whose history with the group dates back nearly a quarter-century.
“I first met Prodigy when Mobb Deep came up to my offices looking for a record deal in early '94,” Rifkind told Billboard. “They had a swagger to them, they had an ‘it factor,’ they were like superstars. I remember, without hearing any music, thinking, ‘I got to sign these guys.'"
And that he did, releasing 1995’s The Infamous, 1996’s Hell on Earth, 1999’s Murda Muzik and 2001’s Infamy on his Loud Records label -- all of which were certified gold except Murda, which went platinum. Rifkind attributes the success not only to the group's lyrical and musical prowess, but something else. “None of us liked to lose. We were all competitive, and when you have two great MCs and being very competitive, everyone holds each other accountable.”
But Rifkind says his relationship with Prodigy was more than just label-artist, and in fact went far beyond. “We connected as human beings,” Rifkind said. “Prodigy and my brother had the same birthday, and we connected on a lot of things in life that weren't even music-related. He used to just come to the office and just kick it and talk about music, talk about life. His son and my older son were close in age, and we would talk kids, family, life, his sickle cell [Prodigy was hospitalized days before his death due to complications from his lifelong struggle with sickle cell anemia]. It was more than just an artist-label relationship."
In fact, according to Rifkind, sometimes his and Prodigy’s roles were reversed. “I remember I once got into a heated conversation with BMG regarding a Wu-Tang thing, and I got arrested,” the label head recalled. “And it had nothing to do with Mobb Deep. And Prodigy called me and said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re gonna risk [everything].’ He was lecturing me! He was grounded, really grounded. And I think because of his [disease], he was even more grounded.”
When I say Loud was a family, Loud was a family. We might have yelled and screamed at each other, but we always wanted what was best for the act. I just got the call the Prodigy passed, there are no words to describe the feeling that I am feeling right now. Mobb Deep was the second group to go platinum right after Wu. We not only talked music we talked about everything but all I can say right now is RIP.
Rifkind says he last spoke to Prodigy right before the holidays and that he “seemed fine.” But he spoke to Havoc on Friday, right before Mobb Deep performed in Las Vegas, and he hadn’t mentioned anything about Prodigy’s health. Rifkind said he was looking into going to that final Vegas show but couldn’t.
When asked how he thinks Prodigy should be remembered, Rifkind didn’t hesitate in his response. “A pure lyricist who made some of the best hip-hop records of all time,” he said, “and a family man.”