Talking to ​​Tragedy Khadafi, New York's Most Slept-On Rapper

Nas might be Queensbridge's finest, but rapper Tragedy Khadafi is Queensbridge's realest. I talked to the cult legend.

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06 January 2015, 6:20am

The year is 1997. New York rap duo Capone-N-Noreaga have just released their seminal street classic, The War Report. The city's hardcore hip-hop faithful loves it. Featured on the album, and considered to be its mastermind, is rapper Tragedy Khadafi. Tragedy, like Capone-N-Noreaga, Nas, and Mobb Deep, hails from the Queensbridge Houses, arguably New York's hip-hop Holy Mecca. He's played a part, either physically or stylistically, in all of their careers. With The War Report, it would seem like he's finally catching his big break. Things can only get better from here.

But somehow, Tragedy Khadafi's career lived up to his first name. In the 2000s, he was besieged by label struggles, legal situations, and personal demons. While he managed to get some albums out, he never quite rose to the prominence that his Queensbridge contemporaries achieved. While any New York hip-hop historian would go nuts over the guy, he seems to have been glossed over by the establishment. It's not for lack of talent—he's notoriously slept-on.

Tragedy Khadafi was born into poverty, to a single, heroin-addicted mother. After gaining hype as a teenager by releasing "Go, Queensbridge" in 1985, coining the term "illmatic" in 1988, and running with Marley Marl and the Juice Crew, he was convicted at 16 on robbery charges and sentenced to prison. In prison, he became a member of the Five-Percent Nation and changed his name to Intelligent Hoodlum. He rose to prominence in the 1990s, but struggled in the 2000s. While he concluded that decade with a jail sentence for selling narcotics, he started this one more productively, dropping albums like Hood Father, Militant Minds, and the most recent one, released on December 16, Pre Magnum Opus.

Tragedy is a man who's lived a full life. He's been to jail and had real shit happen to him but he doesn't glorify it. He's a hip-hop legend, but he hasn't had celebrity distort his experiences or his view of himself. To paraphrase from the documentary about his life—Nas might be Queensbridge's finest, but Tragedy Khadafi is Queensbridge's realest.

To find out more about his career, tribulations, and new album, I walked and talked with the MC around downtown Manhattan.

ON THE AFTERMATH OF "THE WAR REPORT"

"Of course it was good, receiving recognition for The War Report. It took a lot for us to really put that project together. Once we broke into the game with the answer record to the Dogg Pound's ' New York, New York,' which was 'LA, LA,' our record, things started moving at a faster pace for us. Before that, it seemed slow, it was grueling at times. But we always kept that focus and that belief that things were going to happen. So to see our work be compensated by recognition, especially from New York City, our hometown, it felt excellent.

"I was getting a lot of attention. I'd be going to the supermarket to buy milk for my newborn son and people would be stopping me for autographs. Honestly, I didn't really like it. Anybody that knows me, they know I like to kind of be low. I like to be like an enigma, a mystery to people.

"Eventually, I had to move out of Queensbridge and into Jersey City. I had an incident in Queensbridge where some dudes came to rob me. I got cut very badly in my arm and in my head. I took my aunt's advice, who had been telling me for months that I should move out. I had the money to move out, but my mentality at that time was 'Stay in the Bridge, keep it true to the Bridge.'

"Unfortunately, when you making a name for yourself and things start clicking, you're going to [face] jealousy. Any time you trying to make a mark, you're going to have people who come at you with that negative energy. So once I moved out of the Bridge, it was a hard transition for me, because I was so used to having those elements around me, and drawing energy from it, musically."

ON DINNER WITH RICHARD BRANSON

"After The War Report was released, I was signed to Richard Branson's label, Virgin, working on my album Against All Odds . This was around 1999. I actually sat down and had dinner with Richard Branson. It was amazing. Richard Branson was like the illest dude in the world because he's a billionaire yet he never spoke about money. Any time he made reference to money, it was more or less as a resource. And I noticed that immediately between people who had real money as opposed to people who were just hood rich. People who are hood rich, they're always talking about money. But people who have real wealth, they talk about resources and ideas.

"We didn't go to a fancy restaurant or anything, we went to some little burger joint right around Broadway and West Fourth. And no one even really noticed him. And I'm like, 'Wow, this is one of the richest dudes in the world right here.' We sat in there for a few hours just talking and I absorbed it all.

"Someone like that is in a totally different world, financially and status-wise. After that I didn't really see him too much, but I got enough out of the conversation and just being in his company to last me a lifetime.

ON FRIENDSHIPS WITH IRV GOTTI AND KENNETH "SUPREME" MCGRIFF

"There were some other people like that, high-status, that I was friends with. Of course there was Russell Simmons, who I gained a lot of wisdom from. Also Lyor Cohen. I met Lyor around the same time because I was working real closely with Ja Rule and Irv Gotti. Irv Gotti actually got me on the How to Be a Player soundtrack after they heard 'Thug Paradise.' I heard Jay-Z actually stopped the mastering session just to get 'Thug Paradise' on there.

"Another memorable meeting I had was with Kenneth 'Supreme; McGriff, the one who's been incarcerated. Very intelligent guy. He gave me a lot of good advice. Sadly he got caught up in a situation with the federal government... I was just hurt to see such a great mind have to go through so much trials and tribulations.

"One of the most meaningful life lessons I ever had ones came from Kenneth. It basically came down to, 'If you can't be used, then you're useless.' And not in the way where you take advantage of people or allow yourself to be taken advantage of, but more so in the way that we learn to be of value to each other. And taking that in a more positive way, it's about adding on and advancing each other in life, instead of just having these idle relationships."

ON BEING TORTURED AS A TEENAGER

"Way back, when I was a kid, I had been recording and working with Marley Marl and the Juice Crew. And Marley kept telling me to stay focused and hold on. And it was hard to do that when you're the oldest of five children, and you got to be the man of the house and help feed your brothers and sisters. So half of my life was recording at that time, and half of it was trying to get money the best way I could and survive.

"I wound up doing a robbery. The people whose spot I ran up in, they found out it was me. They ran up on me, they kidnapped me and tortured me for two days. They beat me up, burned me with cigarette butts. You know, sucka shit. After that they threw me in the East River. I couldn't swim either. Yeah.

"I don't even know what I thought during those two days. In my mind, I was just trying to ignore the pain, stay focused, hold on, and just believe that I was going to make it out of there.

"I just remember waking up on the rocks. When I realized where I was, I crawled my way through the park and into the street and passed out there. A car almost hit me. The car wound up summoning the ambulance and I wound up going to the hospital."

ON WATCHING HIS SON FALL OUT THE WINDOW

"Another crazy experience that changed my life was when my son fell out the window. This is around 2002. My son's mother had to work, and I had to keep an eye on him. He was about two years old. And I have a song called 'Crying on the Inside,' which basically breaks down the whole incident, word-for-word.

"I was cooking and I let the grease in the pain get hot. I wound up opening the windows and he was in front of the television because I put Stuart Little on. And I thought he'd be fine. Next thing I know, a little girl came running up the stairs, knocking on the door. She was like, 'Sir, do you have a baby?' When she said that, my heart just fell out on the floor.

"I ran down the stairs and there he was on the concrete. That's a three story fall. And I lost my mind. I literally lost my mind.

"It was funny because when that happened, me and his mother, obviously our relationship deteriorated, because she blamed me at first. Which was only right—now when I look back at it, I can't even be mad at her for the anger she felt. But there was a lot on me at the time. I had been going through an attempted murder charge, my mother was dying of HIV, AIDS. I was having a lot of money issues. I wound up having to sell my home and move back to the Queensbridge Projects to help my family and basically help my defense.

"Right after that, if you look at that time period, that's when my whole music career went void. Because I didn't even have the motivation to even create anything.

"I just started drinking, drugging, keeping myself numb. I couldn't look at my son. And the ironic thing about it is, all he had was a hairline fracture. But for me to see him on the ground like that, I had to get therapy, because when I saw him, my mind registered that he was dead. I could never get past that."

ON DEALING WITH TRAUMA

"After me and my son's mother broke up, I got in another relationship. It wasn't really good for the both of us. Sometimes two people could love each other and they could both be good people but be toxic to each other.

"During that relationship, and just going through the whole thing with my son, I kind of went on a path of self-destruction. And basically devalued myself in a lot of ways. Music was so far from my mind at that time... I didn't even think about music anymore.

"I got back into a certain kind of lifestyle that wasn't healthy. Putting myself in dangerous situations. And a lot of people didn't understand that, a lot of people looked at it like, 'He's throwing his career away,' but a lot of people aren't walking in my shoes and don't know the situations I was in outside of music.

"It's just like if a man fought in Vietnam. If he was in active duty and he was in battle, and he made it out, he's going to have scars. Mental, emotional scars. Some call it post-traumatic stress.

"Unfortunately, there's not a real clinical categorized disease for going through the struggle of life in the hood, but it's similar to going through a war, because you suffer stress traumatically. And the same way you come from a war with scars, you'll come from that particular type of life with scars."

ON GOING BACK TO PRISON

"In 2007, I ended up catching a weapons and drug trafficking charge and getting sentenced to some time in prison.

"Prison was extremely hard. I mean, I was respected tremendously in there because of what I represent to this life and to those that go through that struggle. But after having a recognized level of success and then going back into the system, it was very humbling.

"But the thing that people love about me and my lyrics, they don't come at an easy price. My lyrics and my message come from life experience. I'm battle tested. I speak this way because I've lived this way."

ON DEALING WITH ADVERSITY

"I mean, all these trials and tribulations that I've had, it gives me the fuel I need to keep going. Someone once told me, 'Yo, if you can't hold on, hang on.' In other words, hang on for dear life for life. That's what I keep in my mind.

"I was also blessed to have people around me who kept reaching for me. You know, somebody once told me, 'A true comrade is someone who sings your song back to you after you forget it.' Luckily I had people who kept reminding me of who I was, who kept trying to get me back into the studio. Phantom, my brother, my stepfather, a lot of different people. I can't even think of everyone who was a real blessing in my life who, even when I fell and slipped and went back into my little dark hole, they still kept reaching for me.

"And gradually I began to come out of it. This was a period from 2002 all the way until 2011, after I got out of jail. And today, I can honestly say I'm out of that hole."

ON HIS NEW ALBUM

"It was great to make it. It came at a time when I got the fighter in my spirit back. Like my dad said, you've never had a fight until you've fought for your life. And now I'm at a point where I'm fighting for my life, not in a negative way, but I'm fighting for my life to make my mark. It's not so much for money, but I don't want to leave this planet and my own self undone.

"It's funny because my younger brother Castro was like, 'I'm proud of you. Because the man I see before me is the same kid who was fighting to get into the Juice Crew.' And I was like, 'Yo that's exactly how I feel right now.'

"I called my album Pre Magnum Opus becauseI look at my life as a great work. Pre, that's Latin for before. So this is for my fans, my friends, my family, while I finish up my magnum opus, the magnum opus being my life. People look at someone's magnum opus and they say, 'Oh, that's the greatest work.' No, I'm looking at life as being the greatest work within itself.

"Everyone should look at their lives the same way. Your life itself is your great work. You are of value. And that's what I lost along the way, somewhere in my life. I forgot the value of my own life. So in my own way, I'm trying to tell everyone, value your life. You are your own greatest work."

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