It seems, at first, like an unusual pairing: Infamous, a multi-media company co-owned by Albert “Prodigy” Johnson of the Queens rap duo Mobb Deep; and Akashic Books, a small independent Brooklyn-based book publisher known for their short story collections. Together, it was recently announced, they will release a series of novellas in the genre loosely known as urban fiction under the imprimatur of Infamous Books. The first of these, H.N.I.C.—written by Prodigy himself (working with fantasy writer Steven Savile)—was just released this month. Future releases include Black Lotus from K’wan, The White House by Jaquavis Coleman and Swing by Philadelphia’s own Miasha.
Upon closer inspection, however, the relationship between these two mobile and independent companies is a surprisingly good fit. “I am a musician myself–and a Mobb Deep fan,” says Johnny Temple, bassist for the indie rock band Girls Against Boys and publisher of Akashic. Founded by Temple and two other friends in 1996, Akashic turned a corner in 2011 with the humorous “Go the F**k to Sleep,” by Adam Mansbach, which reached number one on Amazon (Temple’s two other partners had left by then, ironically because, as Temple remarks: “They had families and–at the time–I didn’t.”). The company has also garnered attention for their highly-rated “Noir” collections, centered in urban locales from Baltimore to Bombay. “We publish a lot of musicians. We’ve tried to get into urban fiction, but there is nothing like partnering with Prodigy,” said Temple. “My philosophy is: Catalog. Build your catalog and own it,” Prodigy adds. “I can do that with Akashic.”
As half of Mobb Deep, Prodigy has waged lyrical war on multiple fronts (and coasts), sparring with everyone from Jay Z to the late Tupac Shakur. A high-school dropout, Prodigy combined his ear for music (his mother Fatima Collins sang in ‘60s doo-wop trio The Crystals; his grandfather Bud Johnson was a saxophonist) with his experiences surviving sickle-cell anemia and the violent cocaine ’80s to produce a bluesy, nihilistic aesthetic that shaped the soundtrack of New York’s streets. “We used to rap real things, things that happened to us, that happened around us,” he recounted to me. “A lot of guys be making stuff up, acting like that is cool. That’s not cool to me.”
Fiction came later, while in prison. In 2008, Prodigy’s edgy lifestyle caught up to him and he was incarcerated for 3 years on gun possession. “There was nothing to do except exercise and watch 106 & Park,” he joked. Introduced to Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever–an early example of urban literature–he began to see the power of the genre. He also read books by K’wan, Ashley and Jaquavis and Miasha—artists that he would eventually approach. “I have a wild imagination,” he says, “and this gives me an opportunity to use it.”
Before fiction, however, was his memoir, My Infamous Life, published in 2011 on Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. In it, Prodigy details his early life and battle with sickle-cell anemia, his father’s heroin addiction–and some unpleasant truths about the Queens rap scene. “I was surprised you shared so much,” Funkmaster Flex told Prodigy on Hot97 in 2011, adding “you have stirred up so much. You’ve woken a lot of people up.”
A key link in the workings of Infamous Books is Marvis Johnson, who also manages Mobb Deep and Prodigy. Marvis, who owns the company Urban Audio Books, originally met Prodigy to discuss a Mobb Deep video concept. “The concept was for ‘King of New York’–it was dope,” he remembers. That video only came to fruition years later. But in the meantime, some business partners at Simon & Schuster reached out to him to work on the My Infamous Life project, and their relationship was rekindled.
“I wanted my first book to be on a major company, so it could get the push it deserved and be in all the stores,” Prodigy explains. “Now I have my foot in the door.” His vision for the book world is not dissimilar to the one he has for music: having completed a multi-record deal with Loud Records with Mobb Deep, Prodigy has now moved to releasing music independently using Infamous Records as a vehicle to go direct to his fans. “I watch how Tech N9ne’s been doing it” Prodigy noted, referring to the veteran St. Louis rapper with a cult-like following: “He practically owns his own factory.”
Marvis’ existing connections through the audio book business activated the vision that he and Prodigy shared. “I enjoyed books by K’wan’s, Ashley and Jaquavis and Miasha while locked up,” Prodigy recounted; Marvis helped make things move. “I get a call saying how ’bout a novella from Jaquavis Coleman,” Johnny Temple of Akashic said. “We did not expect to get a signed contract five days later.”
The writers that Infamous has lined up are amongst the most successful in urban fiction. K’wan–who has released books through Cash Money Content and G-Unit–says it’s not about working with a rapper. “Marvis and I have been building for a long time; I really believe in the Infamous vision,” he says. “P has a passion for this.” Jaquavis, who with his wife, Ashley, penned the best-selling Cartel series, concurs: “The first time I met P, we discussed five stories in one hour! Nobody does that.” Miasha sees something in Infamous that she missed at Simon & Schuster. “We had tremendous success there. But most of the marketing ideas—radio ads, commercials—came from me and my husband. But Marvis and Prodigy have a drive that matches mine.”
Infamous looks poised to push the envelope of the genre. “Black Lotus is a story I’ve been writing for a while,” says K’wan. “Others told me that public was not ready, due to the subject matter,” which involves the church, corruption and assassinations. “So I waited. And now Infamous is down to do it.”
Jaquavis, who hails from Flint, Michigan, said The White House is loosely based on the former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick—and the mansion where he held raucous parties. “The streets know these stories, but not many others may know,” he said, slyly. H.N.I.C., originally a screenplay, centers around two friends from Sumner Housing Project and a robbery gone bad. “I went to high school with a lot of cats from Sumner,” he recalls. “The story is based on some real-life things that happened.” Swing, by contrast, explores the underground world of swinging. “It’s some of my most erotic work,” Miasha said. “People are becoming more aware of this scene, so the timing is perfect.”
Akashic, too, feels that the partnership will be a learning experience for them: “Prodigy brings a different approach; we’ll be looking to take cues from him,” says Temple. The company that has published stories from luminaries like Haiti’s unofficial ex-pat laureate Edwidge Danticat is not shying away from the provocative material or any stigma that may follow. “I see a moral arc from hip-hop to urban literature,” he expands. “I’m thrilled that more people are getting into reading. The more entry points into literature, the better.”