How Prodigy Changed the Game With ‘Return of the Mac’

“How dare you question my trendsetting, look at what I bring to the table,” Prodigy typed in a lengthy blog post on the now defunct HNIC2.com, thankfully preserved on Nah Right. At the time, many a reader stifled a chuckle at P’s indignant tone and the seemingly outrageous innovations he claimed to have made, like “Rapping words that don’t always rhyme,” “How I fold my bandana,” and “Websites.”

The thing is, he wasn’t entirely wrong. In hindsight, it’s clear Bandana P basically created the grassroots online promo campaign that has become a staple for independent hip hop. And it all centered on his magnificent 2007 comeback record with Alchemist, Return of The Mac.

 

It was only ten years ago, when the music industry seemed to be in a state of limbo. Streaming services hadn’t taken over yet, and the slump in physical sales was becoming a serious problem for artists and labels alike. Mobb Deep was in an even worse position than most acts at the time, stuck in the same predicament as their peers business-wise, but with the once razor-sharp creative edge in their music seemingly dulled as well.

From The Infamous to Hell On Earth and Murda Muzik, Hav and P had been on an undeniable winning streak. Their status as New York icons drew them into the coastal wars as well, when together with Capone-n-Noreaga and Tragedy Khadafi, they released “L.A., L.A.,” the answer to The Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York.” It was a rare entry into the feud from a prominent New York act, so when Jay-Z would later spit that “It’s like New York’s been soft / Ever since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings” on “Money, Cash, Hoes” (referring to Snoop’s performance in The Dogg Pound’s video) it didn’t sit well with the Queensbridge rappers. They were quite vocal about their displeasure, which in turn lead to their inclusion in Jay’s historic diss record “Takeover.”

Performing the scathing diss record at Summer Jam, Jay displayed a photo of Prodigy as a child on a huge screen at the event. In the picture, taken at a Harlem dance school owned by P’s trailblazing grandmother, he was happily dressed in tight dancing clothes. The fact that his grandmother was known there as the “H.N.I.C.” was conveniently left out of the conversation. Presented on the Summer Jam screen, the image had the intended effect, and people started questioning P’s toughness, suddenly referring to Bandana P as Ballerina P. Mobb Deep had been far from quiet during the spat, but now they needed to clap back harder than they ever had.

And then came Infamy. Led by ‘The Learning (Burn)’, a well-received single, it nonetheless turned out to be an uncharacteristically disappointing album by the duo, especially when compared to its iconic predecessors. Lacking the focus of Mobb Deep’s earlier efforts, P’s verses didn’t connect like his earlier barrage of classic opening lines, which had embedded themselves in the memory of every rap fan like the phone number of the finest shorty they’d ever met. Selling 800,000 copies in the U.S. didn’t exactly make the album a flop—but contrasting those numbers with the fact that the record ridiculing them had sold over half of that in its first week and went on to sell millions did. Infamy would be the Mobb’s last album on the iconic Loud Records label, ending a legendary run with a resounding thud.

It took three years for them to follow it up with Amerikaz Nightmare, which arrived on Jive Records and also failed to return the duo to the forefront. The title to their independent “Murda Mixtape” Free Agents reflected their status at the time, until they were snatched up by fellow Queens rapper and by-then megastar 50 Cent, to become part of G-Unit’s extended family. Blood Money, their debut on Fif’s label, did nothing to assuage fans’ fears that the Mobb had fallen off, and though not entirely unsuccessful commercially, the project was received hatefully by their core audience.

Planning to release a new solo album in 2007, Prodigy wasn’t just fighting an uphill battle, that motherfucker was trying to ice-skate uphill.

Downtrodden and almost counted out, Prodigy did what only great artists can do: he faced those demons head-on and turned adversity into great art. “I connected with one of 50 Cent’s video directors, Dan the Man, to shoot a paranoid, psychotic grimy video for my mix CD song ‘Mac 10 Handle’,” Prodigy wrote in his autobiography, My Infamous Life. “Bloody couch and mirror stabbings, hallucinations of Satan and some guy in a Michael Myers mask. No jewelry, no half-naked females, no fashion show.”

 

Flipping the opening lines to Geto Boys classic “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” for its chorus, Prodigy let his paranoia flow freely over a sample from Edwin Starr’s Hell Up In Harlem soundtrack, chopped up by Alchemist. The understated percussion provided by conga and finger snaps. meshed brilliantly with P’s voice delivering dark, brooding lyrics.

The song debuted along with its video, and it was the way its visuals complemented the track that fully catapulted “Mac 10 Handle” into everyone’s consciousness.  It couldn’t have been more removed from the glitzy, big-budget videos associated with rap at the time. Audiences were equal parts weirded out and engrossed by its claustrophobic atmosphere, bursts of random violence, and hallucinogenic lack of logic.

Prodigy himself named horror movie director Rob Zombie as a prime inspiration for the video in an interview with RapRadar last year: “His movie, The Devil’s Rejects; I really liked how grimy that is, the look of it. It’s grimy and crazy. It has a lot of shock value and I wanted to apply that to a music video, ’cause it matches my style and music.” That video, “Mac 10 Handle,” was every bit as grimy as anything Mobb Deep had ever produced, coupled with an unnerving edge that made it deliciously disturbing, elevating it to something heretofore unseen and unheard.

Of course it racked up over 400,000 views in a mere three days. With a low-budget video paid for out of his own pocket, P proved that all you needed was a good, original idea in the internet age. He created a viral video years before the words “going viral” would make every marketeer jizz in their pants.

Prodigy originally planned to make “Mac 10 Handle” the lead track for Return of The Mac, a mixtape with beats by Alchemst, released through DJ Whoo Kid to promote his next solo album, H.N.I.C. Pt.2. But the sudden buzz the video had generated attracted Bob Perry, who worked at Koch Records and had previously worked with Mobb Deep on releasing Free Agents. Perry offered him $200,000 to release Return of The Mac through Koch. P took the money and used it to finance three more videos for the project; “Stuck On You,” “NY Shit,” and “7th Heaven.” He released them weeks apart, just close enough to never let the buzz die down, but with ample time in between not to compete with himself either.

Wholly conceived by Prodigy and Alchemist without any label personnel or sales arguments in the mix, Return of The Mac received rave reviews. Built on samples from blaxploitation soul, it had an even more cohesive sound than most one-producer-and-one-rapper projects. Prodigy dared to lean into his despair and ended up not sounding lost, but like a man with nothing left to lose. There was a sense of danger in everything he said, a sense of urgency to his words, and an engrossing unpredictability lurking underneath it all. You could never know when exactly he might snap, just that it could happen at any moment.

While every gangsta rapper was trying to be yet another Michael Corleone, P was the very best Sonny rap fans had ever heard.

Behind the scenes though, Prodigy was far more calculating than most people recognized at the time. He knew the strength of his material, and recognized the power of the internet as a way to get it to his fans directly—and in a provocative manner. Instead of waiting on a label to market his work, he built the buzz himself, and attracted labels through the groundwork he was laying down himself. He registered the URL www.HNIC2.com and started blogging there, years before social media would become a pre-requisite for any professional musician.

Nowadays, when labels are looking to sign an act, they base their decision on who generates online buzz without them, rather than trying to create it for them. This approach not only saves them money, but gives them the assurance of a built-in audience. Don’t wait for the cultural gatekeepers or a marketing plan—just do something dope and original, take some risks, and build an audience by sharing it on the web. Generate some buzz and stay buzzing. It sounds so obvious, but that’s just because the way P dd it with Return of the Mac has become so ubiquitous, we barely recognize how revolutionary the concept was only ten years ago.

It was though. Prodigy pioneered the grassroots online campaign. The same thing Kanye built upon with GOOD FRIDAYS. The same thing that got A$AP Rocky a multimillion dollar deal with Sony. The same thing that turned the unknown group of kids called Odd Future into a world-conquering wave that rolls on to this day, despite the crew falling apart. The very same thing that made Chance the Rapper a phenomenon and forced the Grammy Awards to change their rules for eligibility.

All of that, and so much more, started with P stabbing a couch.

How dare you question his trendsetting?

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