In the Face of Adversity, Little Brother Survived

In the Face of Adversity, Little Brother Survived

On the final date of North Carolina-based rap group Little Brother's anniversary tour in celebration of their seminal debut, The Listening, renaissance man and member Phonte took the mic like an impassioned preacher and leaned forward to deliver a line that set the tone of the night: "Little Brother fans got shit to do and shit to lose." Brooklyn Bowl erupted into raucous applause made by calloused hands and limber fingers.

If Wu-Tang is for the kids, Little Brother is for the ones that raise them.

Amidst the sea of album anniversaries and the looming 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Little Brother's The Listening is a calling card for rap nerds. It marked the inception of the group which, by all accounts, seemed like capturing lightning in a bottle. Rappers Phonte and Big Pooh joined forces with producer 9th Wonder in 1998. Phonte, who would record in between shifts and breaks at Blue Cross Blue Shield, was initially asked to be a member of a separate group by Pooh but he declined. When another rapper didn't show up to a recording session, Pooh was asked to fill in after being in town and away from his native Virginia by chance. Thus, Little Brother was born.

After being one of the earliest success stories of the internet, thanks to Phonte's bright-eyed allegiance to Questlove-founded hip-hop message board Okayplayer, the trio was thrust into the spotlight before they could even process it. They landed a deal with ABB Records, an independent record label also home to the likes of Dilated Peoples and Planet Asia, eventually leapfrogging to Atlantic Records. Their sophomore record, 2005's The Minstrel Show, starkly contrasted the bombastic, pulsating bangers of other Southern rap from the time. They opted to step in front of the camera once more, building off the nervous relatability of their debut with more confidence and a killer concept.

They laid the groundwork for UBN (U Black N****s Network), a fictional network that is rife with references to Black culture and stereotypes, shining a light on the voyeuristic nature by which hip-hop is consumed and perceived by non-Black audiences and executives alike. As the group reflects on fatherhood, 9-to-5 shifts and the ever-present stress of dating, it is interspersed with the group's humble sense of humor. Most notable is Phonte's hilarious alter-ego Percy Miracles, taking all the extremes of singers such as R. Kelly and Ron Isley into one high-flying, sensual and paranoid package.

It's important to remember this came out a ways away from Kendrick Lamar's acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly or Saba's CARE FOR ME, some of the many records thrown around when the inevitable "I like rap that talks about real issues" conversation arises. Despite taking a lot of cues and inspiration from hip-hop forefathers such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, Little Brother looked like they were playing a losing game. Much like the doomed release of John Carpenter's groundbreaking nihilistic alien horror The Thing unfortunately released at the same time as the feel-good alien family flick E.T., Little Brother was at odds with music trends that would've guaranteed a radio hit. For them, that was perfectly fine.

In the following years, a lot of Little Brother's fate was left up to speculation. The departure of 9th Wonder made way for the eventual complete disbandment of the group. Like Oasis for rap fans, the 2010 breakup sent shockwaves across the community. Phonte took his time to nourish The Foreign Exchange, the experimental R&B project he has with Dutch producer Nicolay, while Big Pooh released a constant stream of solo and collaborative albums. After the sudden passing of A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg, the looming existence of one's mortality began to hang over the heads of many older rappers' heads, so the two began to repair their relationship and continue Little Brother as a duo.

Despite the name, Little Brother is not so little anymore, hitting the road for a series of sold-out shows to celebrate the release of their debut. They’ve also announced their upcoming tell-all documentary, entitled May The Lord Watch. It takes its name from the title of their 2019 comeback record, a soul-bearing endeavor that treads over the rough patches of the relationship between Pooh and Phonte as they finally learn to become brothers. Its cover depicts the two men at either end of a couch, ready to fill in the empty space between them as they continue on their journey of becoming not just your favorite rapper’s favorite rappers, but your favorite rappers as well.

On the final date of their short tour, the duo launched into “Life of the Party,” a joint from their 2006 mixtape Soldiers of Fortune. Phonte and Pooh join together to deliver the triumphant standout line that perhaps best describes the awe-inspiring drive and charm of Little Brother that has persisted after two decades: “Some n****s spend they lifetime tryna headline/ But it's so much better being your opening act.”

Below, read an exclusive conversation between PAPER and Little Brother following the 20th anniversary of their landmark debut, The Listening.

What does it feel like to support your debut record 20 years later?

Phonte: Surreal. First of all, it doesn't feel like 20 years, it feels like seven. it's a surreal moment to to be celebrating an album that we completed 21 years ago at this point, and for it still be celebrated knowing that, in this business, a lot of artists you're not really concerned with who could have had something at the top of the chart. For me, it's about thinking back on that time and how we didn't know anything, we were just kids in college going in and making music that we wanted to hear personally. After all of the trials and tribulations we went through as a group, this shit is amazing. It's surreal and it's amazing.

You mention wanting to make music you wanted to hear personally. What did that representation look like for you?

Phonte: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Well, for me, representation came in the form of wanting to show people that just because you were from the South, it didn't mean that we couldn't rhyme. We were from the South, but we could rhyme with anybody. It really was just a thing of looking at the landscape. I remember growing up in North Carolina, growing up in Greensboro, and there were a lot of transplants that will come down from New York. So that was like a badge of honor in the South. People looked at being from New York or being from the city as this aspirational thing. For me, when I started making records, I was like, "Yo, I want the same pride that people have when they say, 'I'm from New York,' I want them to have that same pride when they say I'm from North Carolina." I want them to have that same arrogance, that toughness, that tenacity to say, Yo, I'm from North Carolina," There's a joke that Pooh and I have: back in the day, we had the first little BlackBerry. If you saw a number that was a 917 number or if you saw a number that was an 818 number, like New York or LA, you would pick that number up immediately without question. Could be some money! I want people to have that same respect for a 919 number. If you see a 919 number on your phone, you need to know that's somebody from North Carolina calling in. They about they fucking business and you need to answer this phone. You need to give us the same respect that you would give any other area, New York, LA, Atlanta. That was what representation looked like to me: just wanting to represent the community and the culture that shaped me and made me the man and emcee that I am.

Pooh: I’m from Virginia, but I just wanted people to know we were dope because we weren't coming from a hotbed. We weren't coming from a place that people automatically associated with dope hip-hop. Other than gospel music, they didn't associate North Carolina with that. So we wanted to stake our claim. Nothing of that was the chip on our shoulders necessarily, but we definitely wanted to make sure that people understood It's not where you coming from, it’s the love and attention you put into it that matters. For me, that was pretty much it. As Andre 2000 so eloquently said, “The South got something to say."

Phonte: And even before that line, the line that spoke to me as a kid was the Geto Boys’ first album, We Can’t Be Stopped. First song, Willie D. said, "You know we from the motherfucking South/ Now what was all the bullshit about?/ That we had to be from Cali or New York?/ Anybody can make it that got heart." I was 13 years old. That shit changed my life. He’s right! Anybody that got heart can make it. I knew with Little Brother and with Pooh, I knew we had heart.

I think Virginia is definitely an interesting spot, and I’ve spoken to other rappers from there who acknowledged that not many people saw it as a Southern state. You were in that sweet spot, similar to Atlanta, where there isn’t as much regionality in the music so you have a wider palette.

Pooh: I always saw it as an advantage personally. I have the privilege of being from Virginia, but I’ve spent more time in North Carolina. Where we're from, we listened to everything. It wasn't, "I'm from New York, so I'm listening to New York or Brooklyn." We listened to everything. I listened to New York, Philly, Detroit, Chicago, LA, The Bay, Texas, Atlanta, Miami. It didn't matter to me. I wanted to immerse myself in all of it and see how all of it felt to me. It was like a melting pot. When I got to school in North Carolina, you have people coming from all these different places, bringing their regional music with them. So you're getting to sample experience all these different versions of hip hop or R&B or whatever it was. I always saw that for us as an advantage because we didn't get trapped into a single frame of mind when it came to making music. We were willing to borrow from all of our experiences, all of the music versus just saying “I’m from Brooklyn, this is what Brooklyn sounds like.” I believe that worked to our advantage because when we came out, they were arguing! They were asking if we were from Philly! That was like our secret weapon in a way.

"I knew with Little Brother and with Pooh, I knew we had heart."

Especially in the South, so much of identity is intertwined with music when you see the history of hip-hop there and how certain scenes and labels were born.

Phonte: For us, we were students. The South was looked at as a place of, you know, Oh, y'all backwards, y'all country. Nah, you just study! It's a slower pace of life and that just informs your outlook on things, because you have time to think and really sit with your thoughts and figure out who you are. For us, we would always say that the state of North Carolina was the fifth Beatle of Little Brother. I don't think we could have made the music that we made had we been in New York or in a crazy city with a lot of activity, I don't think we would have had the space to really carve out who we were and who we wanted to be. That gave us the time to really carve out who we were, and by the time we came into the world, by the time the world saw us, we were fully formed because we had those strong roots in the beginning.

When you say “by the time the world saw us,” when was that?

Phonte: I’d say our first album. Now let’s be clear, we had no fucking idea what we were doing at the time.

Pooh: None at all! We were just trying to, I don’t want to say “copy,” but we were trying to emulate artists we grew up listening to. We wanted to make something that we were proud of that we thought they would be proud of. I’d say the world saw us really after the second official release of the album.

Phonte: We had two release dates! I think the music was top-notch. I think it was phenomenal. But there was also this phenomenon of the internet and message boards and the beginnings of social media. We were one of the groups at the forefront of that. Then we were one of the groups at the forefront of being signed off the internet basically, not them coming to showcases and being in the studio. They just heard some of our songs on the internet. So we were at the forefront of the music industry changing at the time. We had all these things working in our favor, but it ended up not working in our favor later. In the beginning, it did. We signed Atlantic in 2004 before we released The Minstrel Show. Their internet marketing department might have been like three people or something, and now is in the hundreds. We were just at the beginning. A lot of times, I look at our trajectory and our career. We were the leaders. We were the ones that went through and we took those hits so that the Coles, the Kendricks, the Drakes could have that. Someone had to be that bridge from A Tribe Called Quest to Kendrick, And that's what we were. It's like being a fullback! It's not a glory position. At the end of the game, don't nobody want to talk to the fullback, but I think being that lead blocker is who we were as people. It was hard in the beginning because when you're young, you see these people getting opportunities, but I think over time, when I look back over our careers and look at where we are now, just as human beings, I realized that this is where it was always supposed to be. This is where we want to be, and that gives me joy and contentment.

When I think of rappers who bridged that internet gap, it’s you, Trick Daddy and Soulja Boy! Did you see it as a tool from the start?

Phonte: Nah, man. It was different. Pooh, you weren’t really on the internet. I was the one that was on the internet. I was on Okayplayer, which was the Black Twitter of 2003. That was just a place you would go to talk shit. You listen to music, talk about music, and it was brutal. If you put up some bullshit, other folks would let you know. It was a tool, but we didn't understand how powerful it was.

We kind of felt that there was something there but we couldn't really put our finger on it. I would just be seeing posts and stuff people would write, like Desus from Desus and Mero! I would just read some of the stuff he’d write like, Yo, this dude is a fucking genius. I didn't know what he looked like, he was just words on a screen and a screen name. I was like, I don't know what he's gonna do but he's somehow gonna be bigger than this. It was a lot of talent that we would see. We just knew this is a place we can go with people that kind of like us, and we just make cool shit. At that time as a rap group coming up, the problem that we had was that we had an audience that the label couldn't really see. This was even before social media so they couldn't even see followers and likes on a post. There was no way to quantify the audience that we had, and so that gave us a different challenge. At that time, we were trying to figure all that shit out in real-time. It was extremely tough.

Going back to us discussing being trailblazers or being part of the old guard, how do you feel about being called “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper?” Is it derogatory to you?

Pooh: When I was younger, I used to feel some way like, I want to be your favorite rapper! But as time went on and I've become more mature, I see it as a compliment. Our problem was never about getting respect from other artists, our problem was always our visibility with the people we could eventually could turn into fans. That was always our issue. I was taught that everything is about centering and putting your perspective in a proper place. Like I said, when you’re younger you want to be the guy. You want to be the running back but as you mature, you understand the importance of the fullback.

Phonte: I never took offense to it. I never looked at it as derogatory. I see it as you saying, this is some nerd shit. All rappers are nerds to some degree. It does require you to give me listen. I don't care if you rap about shooting people, you rap about killing or whatever, it requires some degree of nerd aptitude to just sit and think of how to make words rhyme. If you really think about it, we make words rhyme for a living. That’s some nerd shit! It's a craft. You have people that like movies and then you have people that watch films. If I know there's a person that is a Marvel fan, I’m probably not going to tell you why you should watch 8 1/2 by Fellini. I always took it as a badge of honor because I knew that, regardless of record sales, every time Little Brother puts a record out, n****s is gonna study that shit.

I read in an interview that you two said you had to learn to become friends with each other as part of the amazing journey toward getting back together. What was that like to retroactively make that shift in your relationship?

Pooh: It was after five years of not saying a word to each other. We are more mature at this point, understanding that we never took time to learn who each other really was. And so now at this point, we have to learn who we were and who we are.

Phonte: Right, and we didn't take the time to learn who we were because we didn't have the time. That was the curse of the internet. You can put up a song and suddenly it’s like, I just met these guys two years ago and we just made this song two weeks ago, like what the fuck? I just met these n****s two years ago and all we do is make music together. We don't hang out like that. It was basically like a work friendship to the max. The water cooler was expanded! So when we came back together, one thing I was very cognizant of is taking the time to learn who we were as men, and provide each other the space to be who we are. And that's something that we didn't have time for. Shit, it’s something we didn’t understand we should have been doing the first time. But we understood that when we came back together, and we took the time to actually do that. And that was the most important part of the whole process. We started back talking in 2016. We didn't record a note of music until the end of 2018. We took time to really become friends and brothers first, group members second. And once you understand that, now we can have conversations that are sometimes difficult, but we can have those conversations because I'm having a conversation with my brother. I'm not having a conversation with my group member.

That's the foundation for everything. Even if we never make another record, that's my brother for life. When you're starting this journey in your 20s, you don't have the emotional vocabulary to understand what that is and how to express that. We just wanted to make these records. We enjoy making these songs and this feels good to us, so let's just keep doing that.

You have artists now going viral with TikTok overnight. You never even had a chance to process how you felt about that! You never got a chance to grow into that. You just kind of went from here to here in an instant, and it took me years to rebuild our relationship and unpack how scary that was. People look at you and think you straight because you “made it.” Nah, it's not like that. I have all these people in my life now. These people aren't my friends. These are people who want something from me. And I still have everyday problems like you do. I compare it to building a house, right? When we were in our 20s we started building this house, but we only had 80% of the tools we needed in our toolbox. Instead, we were just focused on the bullshit like if we’re going to do crown molding or not! Meanwhile, nobody thought to look at the fucking foundation. Nobody thought about checking the roof, the plumbing, the electricity and all the structural things that hold this shit together. Instead, I’m picking out colors for the game room! We did the best we could.

"I don't care if you rap about shooting people, you rap about killing or whatever, it requires some degree of nerd aptitude to just sit and think of how to make words rhyme."

Let’s talk about your image. It’s scary to be perceived and be unable to control it. I see hip-hop as a way to transform yourself and be in control of that perception, much like wrestling. It’s why so many rappers have personas and aesthetics, but also the audience sometimes has a hard time separating the two. You don’t seem to have that.

Phonte: Yeah, that was a big reason why I just rapped under my real first name. I don't have time to create a character! It's something that you're playing, and you're only going to be able to play that for so long. One of the things I learned that really resonates with me now is that music is a game that, you know, the longer you play, the luckier you get. The only way that you're gonna play long is you have to do the things that you normally do! You are not going to get up and get dressed or whatever you have to do to become this crazy character because it’s gonna be some days where you ain't gonna feel like doing that shit. I can't be a character every day, but I can be Phonte every day! I remember when Trugoy from De La Soul just started going by Dave. In an interview, he said, “I’m just Dave,” and I understood exactly where he was coming from with that. I’m not putting on the front. This is just me, I rap extremely well and this is my job. I do my job and I go the fuck home.

Pooh: Unfortunately, my name is already taken. Tom Jones. I had to lean on my nickname! It’s what everyone from college knows me as.

Phonte, you once said in an interview it’s rare to see grown men rap. It’s almost a rarity, and you guys still manage to sound good. Over the years, you’ve embraced this “grown man rap” term, and it’s especially being talked about in recent press for your tour.

Phonte: For this whole “grown man rap” thing, we were just rapping about our lives! At this stage in our careers, I think nobody expected hip-hop to last as long as it did. Even the companies that were signing rap early on weren’t signing it because they were in love with rap, it was just cheaper to produce than disco records. It was cheaper to send three guys in the studio with a turntable and drum machine than it was to book a session for Earth, Wind and Fire. It was seen as a young man's game, because a lot of the artists that were making it were really young, which was beautiful, but people didn't understand it. I remember reading an interview with Chuck D some years ago. When he came in the game with Public Enemy, he was looked at as an elder statesman to some degree, and he was 26! At 26, I was fucking clueless. I would not put my 26-year-old self in charge of nothing. You're gonna let this fucking maniac grab a mic and let him talk to kids and give them guidance? For Chuck, he was an elder statesman compared to someone like LL Cool J, whose first record came out when he was 16.

I just think that hip-hop and rap music was just something that people didn't expect to last as long as it did. Now, there’s a framework and there’s a path. We're celebrating the 50th year of hip-hop. I don’t look at myself as a rapper, I’m a writer. Raps can be faddy, but good writing will stand the test of time. As long as you think of yourself as a writer that has something to say and communicate, you can do that as long as you feel like you want to.

On a much more somber note, it’s especially amazing you’re able to do what you do after all these years because so many lives were cut short. Black men deserve to grow old, and some of rap’s predicted lifespan must have been due to this sad reoccurrence.

Pooh: Absolutely. I definitely don't take it for granted, especially when you're seeing peers and you're seeing people you looked up to in this in this business pass away left and right. You look in the mirror and you go, I woke up today. That’s a big deal to me. We're not big, celebratory people. On my birthday, I was just cooking. But to make it to 20 years as a group and still be here, still be in top shape, still be relatively healthy and be able to talk to people such as yourself, that means something when you're watching people pass away around you. It is to be celebrated] and we have to start celebrating not just Little Brother, but our artists more, especially when they're here. This is history we’re talking about. I was not expecting to be here. I expected to live this long, but I didn't expect to have this type of career.

Phonte: I didn’t either. Between me and Pooh, I was the one who always had musical aspirations. I always had the drive to do music. But again, I never knew what it was going to look like. And I couldn't imagine that we'd be sitting here 20 years later, just discussing this. It really is surreal, beautiful, haunting, all of that. Let's celebrate ourselves because that's something that very few people in this game get a chance to do.

"This is history we’re talking about. I was not expecting to be here."

You said your early work was propelled by a drive to “make it,” whatever that may have meant to you. What is it like to then revisit that material years later?

Phonte: It’s crazy as fuck. All I hear is mistakes. I can see the beauty of it. For this documentary, I was recently going through some of the multi-tracks for The Listening and I was listening to our voices. When I had my son, who is 22, in here and I was pulling stuff up, he was like, “Y’all sound so young.” Like bro, this is the age you are right now! That was the age I was when I made that. It’s pretty, but here’s all the mistakes. I can accept that it’s beautiful, but it’s hard.

Paul Wall once told me that when he was younger, he thought the engineer messed with his voice. Nope, it was just his voice! It’s so weird listening back to yourself because we don’t sound the same out loud that we do in our head.

Phonte: Real talk, a lot of people’s biggest thing is to hear themselves for the first time. You got to get used to it. I think I just had to get used to the voice change over time, which comes with getting older. I remember asking Black Thought once if his voice was different in the older work to now, and he told me it was obviously through getting older and touring. [The Roots] toured so much that it changed the tenor of his rapping voice. Once I started talking to different people about how their voice changed over time, I began to accept it more.

Funny, because I think that all of that is what made your albums so fun! You seemed to enjoy the process and didn’t take yourself too seriously, even embodying all these characters. I think The Minstrel Show is the best example of you using these things to your benefit.

Phonte: Yeah, we just lean into it. That's factual. We used things to our advantage. I think if there's one of the cornerstones of our story, it’s not that we were super early to the internet. No, the internet was all we had. With us recording, 9th Wonder making beats on Fruity Loops and whatnot, that was all we had. We were recording in my homie’s apartment when everyone else was going to studios. It was always about making the most of what I have and then if I need more, I can go get more. But first, I want to make sure that I’ve tapped all my potential because it’s unfair for me to ask anyone to give more when I haven’t given all of myself.

One thing about your work is that it has been intensely reevaluated and acclaimed in retrospect. It’s beautiful, but I wonder if it feels weird to experience this love much later from critics.

Pooh: It's one of those things where when you're younger, you want all the smoke. As I've gotten older and matured, I've come to the point where I just appreciate that people are still talking about us with reverence 20 years from when we started. I'm just appreciative and thankful that we did something that touched people's lives in such a way that makes them want to revisit it, makes them want to talk about it and makes them want to still share it and even care with so much going on in the world. There’s hundreds of thousands of songs being uploaded every day. To still talk about this album that we did 21 years ago, I just can't thank people enough. I don’t look at it as y’all finally catching up, I'm just thankful that people care and that they still enjoy.

As you two relearn to become friends again, what would you say is the most important or surprising thing you two have learned about each other?

Pooh: For Phonte, I think the biggest thing I learned about is processes. As you can see, I have a process but it's very loose, if you can call it that. I learned about processes, especially working on May The Lord Watch. Most of the time, it was just me and him in the room. And I'm just sitting and watching him go through his processes, and watching how it's damn near the same every time. I learned that the process and the consistency of that process equaled these results and it was because he figured out his process in how to make it efficient for him. I definitely took some of that away with me. Just like he has to allow me to be free, I have to allow him to work through his process.

Phonte: I think the thing that I learned the most about Pooh is that you have to let him try it first. I constantly edit in my head so that by the time I get to the mic, it’s all there because I've edited it a million times in my head. What I learned in the process of working together is that he's a guy that just has to get it out. I have to allow him space to just get the thing out and then we sit and we say, “Alright, you want to try it this way?” I’m more reserved in some ways. He's a lot more experimental. I can just say I’m gonna put an underwater filter on his voice or whatever and he’ll be like, “Okay, fuck it!” He don’t care! An underwater filter? He’s guess and check, I measure two times and cut once, or measure 40 times. He has a freedom and a fearlessness. That is something I really admire, and it’s something that has really helped me to grow not just as a musician, but just as a man. My life is so much better and more fulfilled just as a result of our brotherhood.

​Photo courtesy of Antoine Byers