The Making of Prodigy’s “Mac 10 Handle” Video and His Unreleased Horror Film
An infamous conversation with Dan the Man
To know Albert “Prodigy” Johnson was to both love and respect him, constantly keeping in mind that every day of his life was lived in pain. Having the SS Type of sickle cell anemia, Prodigy was in and out of the hospital, as the worst strain of the blood disorder would often debilitate him for days on end—sometimes weeks. A true artist, P would channel his painful rage into his music; his classic “You Can Never Feel My Pain” [off H.N.I.C.] is a testament to his unfortunate reality. However, when he joined forces with director Dan “The Man” Melamid, his pain took on a whole new form of art.
Having worked together on a few projects in the past, the pair struck gold between 2007-2008 with three pivotal videos: “Mac 10 Handle,” “ABC,” and “Real Power is People.” The duo visually channeled P’s pain into reality-based horror, even bringing to life his infamous “Keep It Thoro” punchline, “I throw a TV at you, crazy.” From P’s dramatic concepts to Dan’s camera tricks working off a very-limited budget, the two set the standard for horror-based cinematography in today’s hip hop music videos.
Admittedly, it wasn’t the first time that horror found its way into hip hop. Cut to the Gravediggaz and the Flatlinerz for pioneering rap’s ’90s horrorcore movement, as well as later artists like Necro and his Psycho+Logical-Records and Vinnie Paz for bringing their influential gore elements. However, the aforementioned—while geniuses in their own rights—made the horror overt. It was horror for the sake of horror (and still is). It was Friday the 13th while P’s was Helter Skelter: two fundamentally different ways to frighten you. The former is terrifying absurdity; the latter is real-life terror that can and has happened. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that P’s reality was scary. Death was a cloud that constantly hung over him. His art was bound to reflect that in all of its dramatic scariness, violence and manifestations of horror.
Just in time for Halloween, I sat down with Dan “The Man” to talk about our old friend Prodigy, how the two made their magic in visual form, and the inspiration their work offered to today’s legion of rappers. Dan also divulges about a horror film that he and Prodigy had in the works before he passed away.
When did cinematic horror enter your videography with Prodigy?
It obviously all started with “Mac 10 Handle” [off Return of the Mac] and then “ABC” and “Real Power Is People” [off H.N.I.C. 2] kind of almost all have a narrative through line if you play them back to back. They have a storyline where he’s paranoid in the first one, the paranoia gets even crazier, then he gets locked up. In “Real Power Is People,” he escapes—it’s kind of like a resolution in a way. I don’t know if we did that purposely; we kind of didn’t, but in doing all of these horror videos it looks that way in retrospect.
A lot of the camera tricks you used became staples for so many others down the line. How did you incorporate that horror cinema element into the product?
I definitely had a lot of influences like the horrorcore stuff that came out before—Gravediggaz, etc.—that had videos on a higher budget. But we really went on a crazy-shoestring [budget], unheard of at the time. I kind of ushered in this low-budget revolution and dug myself into a grave of these low-budget videos. It was inevitable with the advent of DSLR technology. But “Mac 10 Handle” we did on no money. Like, five grand maybe. People say it was the first “direct to YouTube” video with that in mind. I was taking advantage of a really nascent technology, which was Super 35mm adapters, that enabled you to use cinema lenses with video cameras. When I look back, it was really cumbersome and heavy and annoying, but if you look at the quality, it rivals what we do now in a way. It’s interesting in that regard. It definitely had an intrinsic beauty to it. That really is what startled people in terms of its quality; it has that shallow depth of field that you never really saw before in low-budget music videos. It was “right place, right time.” Don’t get me wrong: the videos and the concepts are great, as well. But that really was what pushed the envelope. After that, the floodgates opened with that shallow depth of field look as the adaptors got more and more popular. Everybody started using them, and it just became the look. With the advent of DSLRs, now shallow almost feels cheap in a way.
When did you first work with P?
The first time I worked with him I was shooting for Rewind DVD magazine with DJ Whoo Kid. We were doing miniature music videos there and we went for Mobb Deep [in 2003 on “We Not To Be Fucked With”]. Then he got signed to G-Unit and I was the head of the video division there. We toured Europe and parts of America together. We really bonded over travel; it was me, P, and Fame from M.O.P. A lot of the other rappers—I don’t wanna name any names—they would sit in their hotel rooms and not really go sightseeing. We would go sightseeing, eat various foods, go out to bars and after-parties together. We formed a really strong bond on that European leg of the tour. When we got back, he was playing me the Alchemist record Return of the Mac and we shot a video called “NY Shit” and that was a video pre-35mm adaptor. So that was right at the cusp before it existed. You can tell by the quality of it.
I was shooting him a lot behind the scenes, and he was always at the [G-Unit] office. We were always brainstorming and hanging out. We shot “The Infamous” (featuring 50 Cent) at 50 Cent’s mansion. When BET: Uncut shut down, they played that video during the last [episode]. That video had more butts in it than any of my other videos combined.
Both Mobb Deep and Prodigy as a solo artist always had this element of gun talk or violence in the work, but those three videos “Mac 10 Handle,” “ABC,” and “Real Power Is People” made for such striking visuals. What was the creative shift like between you and P once you reached this point in working together?
This is instance of an actual independent music video that is outside of the realm of labels. I had a very long working relationship with E1 [Records] as well at the time; I did tons and tons of videos for them. So it was very “in the family,” you know? P was family; the label had full trust. P was like, “I’m putting out Return of the Mac through E1, the budget is open, let’s go.” Even though it was funded by E1 Records, my relationship with them gave me carte blanche at the time. I mean, it was only five grand; most videos were 50-60 grand. They were an indie. So when you unshackle yourself from the video commissioner, from the president of the label, from the marketing staff, and you directly start working with the artist—and there’s no budgetary constraints per se, since our ethos was “low budget horror.”
Talk to me about “Mac 10 Handle.”
The funny story about “Mac 10 Handle” is my longtime gaffer Al Roberts actually put money into that video because he really felt strongly about the narrative and wanted to have a showcase piece for his work. When we came up with the concept it was a month prior, and it’s funny that you’re talking to me about this now, because the video was shot on Halloween.
Yeah, the reason that the video was the way that it was, was because it was done on Halloween. We went to this party called the Third Ward Party, which was a really infamous hipster Halloween party. It was out of control in kind of like an illegal space. So when you see Prodigy kind of walking around this crazy environment with people in masks, this was the Third Ward Party. We reached out to them like, “Hey, we’re coming to shoot!” They were like, “No problem.” A lot of the other ethos around it—the lyrics and whatnot—lent itself so perfectly to Halloween. All of the Halloween stores were open, we bought buckets of fake blood, we bought a couch [laughs]. It’s an incredibly visual song, and we kind of just did what P said. We tried to recapture that magic time and time again after that. It never really happened, and the reason is because that song is freakin’ incredible. It’s especially incredible when married to visuals; it’s a song that needs a visual in order to be fulfilled. That’s what really makes the whole thing really special. P’s whole style on that album was based on horror, but it really was birthed on Halloween. I mean Gravediggaz and that whole horrorcore genre was way before this and they didn’t have that opportunity to create videos like that.
I call what you made “reality horror” which is very different from what horrorcore was trying to accomplish.
I agree. A lot of what we did was fantasizing about trying to kill. Those fantasies led to very great, cinematic visuals.
But “Mac 10 Handle” definitely set that reality horror tone, even into the modern day.
I was with [A$AP] Yams and Ferg once, and Yams pulled me into the hallway and said, “Dude, me and Rocky studied that video religiously. We really went crazy studying that video.” He really pulled me to the side to specifically tell me that. He said it was a really huge influence on them.
Where did “Stuck On You” fit into all of this?
We shot “Stuck On You” [off Return of the Mac] with the 35mm film, but that was on a much higher budget with the ambition to go to TV. That didn’t have anything too crazy outside of him in a shooting range and throwing someone out of a window. Bodie from The Wire was in “Stuck On You.” That was at E1; we even shot a scene there.
Let’s talk about “ABC,” where he threw a TV at someone… crazy.
That was Peter Greene of “Zed is dead” fame and from The Mask as well! With “ABC” we expanded upon this language that we developed. Prodigy’s daughter [Fahtasia] is in that video too. That was obviously a little higher budget—from five grand that one went to about $15,000. The [TV throwing] was kind of my idea because [of the “Keep it Thoro” lyric], “I throw a TV at you, crazy.” I think a lot of people wanted Prodigy to throw a TV at someone’s head. Also, obviously hip hop has tinges of horror in it, especially when done on a low budget. I mean, he stabbed a couch.
Then it all kind of came together with “Real Power Is People.”
That’s one that people super sleep on. It’s not as horrorcore, but it has this cool torture scene. It’s in the vein, and also at the same time—on the same album [as “ABC”].
How did Prodigy conceptualize this horror element?
Well, I’m about to drop a bomb: Me and Prodigy did a horror movie that never came out. An actual short film that will never see the light of day. He was like, “Dan, I have this idea!” And that’s how it would all typically happen. Prodigy would have these visions and come to me like, “This is what I want to do.” He’d have these crazy horror themes, and I’d be like, “Great, let me try to write a script around them.” That’s how all of these videos were. He would be like, “I wanna do this, I wanna do this, I wanna do this.” I’d be like, “Alright, let me add a couple of other crazy scenes and we’d make these stories with these crazy scenes in mind. We’d sit down and edit that story down together as well. That was the work flow for these things. He would give me these challenges and I was like, “Oh my god, you wanna do what? How will we pull that off?” or “That’s a little too expensive, but we can do this?”
So about this horror film…
About two years ago, Prodigy came to me like, “Dan, I don’t wanna do any more music videos. We need to do a movie.” He had this idea for a horror movie—we shot a lot of it and never ended up finishing it.
Did you have a title for it?
The Death Trip. That was the working title. He’s not in it, he was co-directing, co-producing, and writing.
In knowing P we always saw how he constantly dealt with the torture of his illness, which seemed to have manifested itself in his work. But when you two linked up, you almost found a way to visualize his pain.
Yeah, he definitely had a lot of that anger from the pain. That level of pain would lead anyone to anger. We couldn’t even fathom what he went through. It was superhuman. It takes that kind of strength to go through that kind of pain. It was an all-the-time occurrence, like it was nothing. As long as I’ve known him, it was always like… crazy.
It always had a way of showing up.
Yeah, and in crazy places like India!
What do you remember the most about Prodigy?
I remember so much about him. What sticks with me is he was a really, really great human being and close friend. He did not have any malice in his heart. Even though he had beefs with other rappers, he had no malice in his heart, even toward those people. He was a pure soul.