True hip-hop not the norm: An interview with Little Brother

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About two summers ago, my friend and DJ for rap radio on KMOJ Disco T gave me a new CD to check out. He was in the habit of giving me the latest hip hop and mix tapes, so I was excited to find out about the new artist, Little Brother, from North Carolina. The CD was entitled The Listening, and it was probably the only CD I listened to for a whole month.

It was both creative and funny, but more importantly The Listening showcased dope beats and lyrics provided by the trio Phonte (pronounced Phontay), Big Pooh and Ninth Wonder.

Unfortunately, as with most artists who don’t murder people and sell drugs, there were no radio spins, video spots or heavy promotion for this hip hop gem. The same went for Little Brother follow-up projects The Chitlin Circuit, Big Pooh’s Sleepers and Phonte’s Foreign Exchange. These CDs went unnoticed by mainstream media but left hip hop purists yearning for more.

Then one day, while searching iTunes, I found my next fix of Little Brother; it was called The Minstrel Show. Again I found myself listening to the album repeatedly, replaying my favorite tracks like “Say it Again” and “We Got Now.”

Naturally, when I found out the group was coming to Minneapolis March 6, it was vital that I catch up with them and learn a little more about LB. I found the tour manager Chaundon at the merchandise table at First Avenue. He had forgotten about the interview we had scheduled but he worked everything out, took me to the tour bus, introduced me to the group (Ninth Wonder wasn’t there), and said, “You have 10 minutes.”

I got the pleasantries out of the way: “I’ve done a lot of interviews and I rate this up there with Rakim and The Jungle Brothers; that’s the page I’m on with y’all, so I appreciate you granting me the interview.” And then I jumped right in.

How do you feel about Lil’ Kim getting five mics from the Source and you only got 4 ½ mics? [They all seemed surprised and said so — like, okay, you are starting off like this.] Hey, he only gave me 10 minutes. I have to come out like this.

Phonte: That was just an example of the industry at its finest. A prime example of the politics behind the game and the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on. Once I found out what it was, her manager was with Dave Mays, and that’s when a lot of other shit started making sense. You know her last album before this got 4 ½ mics and it was like, what the hell… It’s just a prime example of what the industry is.

Any other thought on that?

Big Pooh: No, that’s about it. That was a good first question.

Thank you. [I’m beaming now, but I’m still trying to be cool.] Okay, you both went to North Carolina Central — was it always the plan to be an emcee? I know Phonte, you were a communications major, and Pooh, you were a history major.

Phonte: It was always the plan for me. I went to school because I had a scholarship and I figured I might as well stay in school. But I knew I always wanted to be in music and I did enjoy writing, so I majored in something that I would enjoy doing.

Pooh: I didn’t know what I wanted to do before I came to college. I didn’t even want to go to college. I got sold on going for the social aspect: “You are going to meet your friends for life, and you are going to parties.”

Big Doh: And you have done that.

Big Pooh: Yeah, I did. I’ve done that, but that is what sold me on college. But when I got there, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t mind teaching because I like working with kids, but then I started meeting these guys one by one, and that’s when the music side started and it just took over.

I read your bios and you are considered alternative music. That kind of bugged me out. True hip hop is considered alternative. What do you think about that?

Phonte: If you shooting niggas, that’s gangsta rap. Oh okay, only shot one nigga on this album instead of 10, okay, that’s alternative rap or positive. They just want to put you in a box — gangsta, conscious, or whatever.

Big Pooh: It’s all about what’s popular. It’s because we aren’t the norm, so it becomes alternative.

I know you all are probably tired of answering why you named the album The Minstrel Show, so I’m going to skip that because I read a lot about it. It’s about responsibility and a self-examination of hip hop. Is that right?

Phonte: That’s pretty much it.

Big Pooh: I like you. You did your homework.

Phonte: Yeah, you just got yourself some extra time.

[At this point, I think I’m real tight.] Thank you, I appreciate that. Okay, let’s talk about “Enough.” You say in this song what more do you want, we have dope beats, dope lyrics. And I was thinking, it’s not that people want more, they want less of what you’re actually giving them. We don’t want to think about our entertainment, just give me the beats, we want to be entertained. Is that a struggle for you? Is it frustrating?

Phonte: You just have to keep doing what you do. You know, a lot of the entertainment, like Laffy Taffy, I listen to that too when it comes on in the club, but is it in my ipod? No. Am I riding around in my car listening to that? No. But it has its place, and I can respect that. I just think a lot of the music is cool for the club, but niggas want to live in the club now. It’s like everyday ain’t the club.

Big Pooh: It’s probably a little more frustrating at times. You get to a point when you want to be more visible, and sell more, do more, but…

Phonte: There is just certain shit you not willing to do.

Big Pooh: And that’s frustrating. But at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that I can look in the mirror and say I am proud of what I did. The day that I can’t do that anymore is the day I need to look for something else to do.

I don’t know if you all heard about this, but Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar last night. To me, that shows what you were saying about the industry and where we are at, unless you like Three 6 Mafia.

Phonte: Oh, I love them!

You do?

Big Pooh: Someone sent us an e-mail on myspace and said this is probably the best thing and most embarrassing thing that happened to hip hop at the same time. You know, but I am glad that they won.

Phonte: I am, too.

Why?

Phonte: Because they did it on their own. They been in the game for 12 or 13 years, and again, this music has its place. You know, I don’t look at a porno and expect to see Goodfellas or The Godfather. I accept it for what it is. I didn’t like Hustle and Flow as a movie… You know, to see them win was more inspiring to me than, you know, the pimp shit in Hustle and Flow.

So you are not saying get rid of the other stuff; let’s just have some variety.

Phonte: Yeah, the other stuff you hear all day.

Big Doh: It’s the same thing with food. You don’t want to only eat meat all time. You know, throw some potatoes and some mac and cheese in there.

There was a little more to our conversation, and I didn’t leave before asking them to freestyle. Unfortunately, that’s where I struck out. Phonte said I was winning hard before I went there.

LB went on to rock the mic at First Avenue, Phonte gave me that freestyle I was looking for, and Little Brother reminded me of what hip hop was all about. LB, you are doing big things. Everyone else, make sure your music is a balanced meal.

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