Little Brother: Not Shuckin’ & Jivin’ Part One

“Dope beats, dope rhymes/ What more do y’all want?” –Phonte, on Little Brother’s “Not Enough” This straightforward question seems rather telltale for Little Brother’s current mood. In some ways, the North Carolina-based trio [MC’s Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder] have reluctantly been cast as Hip-Hop’s “saviors.” Amidst an industry abundant in […]

“Dope beats, dope rhymes/ What more do y’all want?”

–Phonte, on Little Brother’s “Not Enough”

This straightforward question seems rather telltale for Little Brother’s current mood. In some ways, the North Carolina-based trio [MC’s Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder] have reluctantly been cast as Hip-Hop’s “saviors.” Amidst an industry abundant in cash-out pressures, the underground darlings have made the transition to mainstream machine Atlantic Records without musical compromise. Their critically acclaimed, yet controversy-attracting, concept album The Minstrel Show, combines the everyman prose of Big Pooh and Phonte, sample-heavy 9th Wonder creations, and sharp humor to lambaste Hip-Hop’s present state-of-affairs.

However, making such a bold statement has been anything but drama-free. From inspiring staff alterations at The Source magazine to receiving airplay denial from BET, these rap lovers from N.C. have endured quite a rollercoaster ride of a record release. ‘Te, Pooh, and 9th aren’t phased, though. Firm believers in putting the music above all else priority-wise, the members of Little Brother are sticking to their genuine script. As toted the album with an ultra-rare five star review, we deemed it fit to show off our two-part feature with the other LB Fam… The past month or so leading up to The Minstrel Show’s release date has been a rollercoaster for the group, between The Source fiasco and the BET video situation. Were you prepared for any of this?

Phonte: I made it up in my mind, as soon as we finished recording the album and decided to name it The Minstrel Show that we’d have to be willing to accept what comes with those decisions. You can’t expect to come out at a time when Hip-Hop is in the state it’s in, name your album The Minstrel Show, and not feel any repercussions. I was ready for whatever. Whether it led to us getting blackballed, or stations not playing us, or n***as beefing, or whatever the f**k it could lead to. This is the stance we’re taking. I know it’s not a popular stance, so I’m willing to live and die by the things that I say. As far as everything that has happened, I’m not surprised by anything. Our situation is somewhat of an anomaly to a lot of people. To just be some unknown n***as who came out of nowhere, under nobody’s wing, and we come out talking about what’s wrong with this industry, it’s like, “What? Who the hell is Little Brother? F**k them!”

Big Pooh: I don’t know what’s in store for us after all this controversy, but hopefully it can result in a lot of people following us. It can hopefully bring some change and balance back to the music.

9th Wonder: My thing about this album is that I really want to let people know that we can say what we want and do what we want on record, as long as the music is hot. Don’t be scared to tell the truth and be yourself. Hip-Hop artists need to be leaders, not followers. Songs like the fatherhood reflection, “All For You” find you guys really opening up. Why do you think it’s so rare to hear songs like that on a wider scale, rather than just as album cuts?

Big Pooh: Songs like that are easy for people to relate to. A lot of people grew up without their daddies, so I don’t know why it isn’t addressed openly that much.

Phonte: A lot of times, these artists that are out now just aren’t that talented. That’s not to say that Pooh and I are super lyricists, but I think it has to do with A: A lot of these n***as just aren’t that talented, and B: Their scopes are so limited. They just want to rap about A and B. “Sometimes, I’ll rap about B, and then A. I might even get crazy and go B, A, B. C? Whoa, that’s too much! Let’s stick to A and B.”

Big Pooh: Also, you have to be willing to reveal that part of yourself. A lot of people only want you to know what’s popping for them. “I got money! I got cars! I’m good.” Nah motherf**ker, your life really ain’t that good! You got problems just like the next man does, and a lot of people aren’t willing to reveal that side, but Phonte and I are. You can see our good and our bad.

9th Wonder: Hip-Hop used to be an art form to speak for the people who couldn’t normally speak for themselves, from the hood or whatever. It told the troubles of the hood. Just ‘cause you may have made it and now have all this wealth, that doesn’t mean that people in your hood have made it, or will ever make it. A lot of people in your hood are having hard times with life and struggling. They want their story told to. What’s wrong with that? What makes the album so effective at speaking for the everyday Hip-Hop fan is its humor. One great example of that is the faux R&B song, “Cheatin’.” What was the thought process while making that track?

9th Wonder: It’s crazy, actually, because people think “Cheatin’” is a real serious song. [laughs]

Phonte: [laughs] Pretty much, when I did that song, I was thinking about all of the minstrelsy that appears in R&B, too. Doing that record, I was thinking, “What is the worst R&B song I can write?” It kind of put me in the mind frame of the Masta Ace Slaughtahouse approach, with that, “Murder, murder! Kill, kill!” I remember in interviews, Ace was saying that when he did that record, he played it in Germany and n***as thought that was a real song. It was so far gone that the joke went over peoples’ heads. They didn’t even realize that it was a joke, because that’s how bad the music was at the time. “Cheatin’” is along those same lines. I wanted to write the worst f**king song, but one that, if I didn’t tell people it was a joke, could be a hit. You would be surprised, though. I’m in record companies trying to tell these people, “Your audience isn’t as dumb as y’all think they are.” But, then people take “Cheatin’” serious, and I’m thinking, “Hmmm, maybe people are stupid.” [laughs] Something that seems really stupid is this whole BET situation with your video. Can you explain what exactly happened?

9th Wonder: BET is doing a great job!

Phonte: [laughs] Pretty much, the whole thing about BET saying the video is “too intelligent” got started on the Internet. To this day, we truly don’t know where that came from. We can’t say that BET did say that. Truthfully, we really don’t know. The fact of the matter is, up until this point, the video hasn’t been played on that station, but we got Atlantic working on that now. Hopefully, BET will come around and start playing the video. If they don’t, we still have the support of FUSE TV, big support from MTV and VH1. We’re just going to keep doing our thing regardless. Whatever happens with BET is whatever. The video for “Lovin’ It” is basic, just showing what a real club atmosphere looks like, not the typical extravagance that most videos include but Hip-Hop listeners rarely experience. Why do you think such a simple video isn’t getting airplay?

Phonte: Funny thing is, our original idea for that video would have made more sense, as far as not being played for controversial reasons. The original concept was crazy, but budgets were not allowing it. We were going to be playing off The Minstrel Show theme, and it was us on a sitcom. Like a fake Cosby Show set, and we were going to take all the old fonts from that show. We were going to play up the Minstrel Show characters. 9th was going to be a backpack dude named John Jansport.

Big Pooh: I was going to be the iced-out rapper, named Ice Stout. [laughs]

9th Wonder: I was John Jansport, the backpack dude. [laughs] And Joe Scudda was Murder Rob Stab, the gangsta who just kills people before he even raps.

Phonte: I was Brother Earth Seed, the conscious brother. That was our original plan, but once we found out what our budget was, it was like, “Damn. Okay, so the club scene, huh.” A song like “Slow It Down” definitely has hit-single potential, but with no video exposure, that most likely could never happen. Do you agree?

Phonte: Definitely, you’re right. It’s sad, but that’s the world we live in. Bottom line, it’s all about numbers and delivering labels a demographic. Right, but why do think that’s the case? Why is it so difficult for good hip-hop to be seen and heard?

Big Pooh: That’s because the kids run this business. They may not be in the offices making moves, but they run things.

9th Wonder: The industry isn’t giving kids what they think they need to hear. They letting kids dictate what the industry plays, and that’s messed up. That’s really backwards.

Phonte: An example of what’s going on is when dinnertime comes at the crib. Your momma brings you out a plate of vegetables, and is like, “It’s time to eat dinner.” “Nah, I don’t want that broccoli. I want a Kit Kat!” “F**k you, n***a! Eat these G###### vegetables! You aren’t getting no Kit Kat.” So, you either have one or two choices. Like, I know this is the only meal that I can have. Ain’t no meals coming from nowhere else. Either, I got to eat this healthy food or starve. More than likely, you’ll eat the healthy food, and you’ll learn to love it, but still have a Kit Kat here and there. You need that balance. With a lot of these labels and radio stations, they let kids dictate this market. It’s on some tail wagging the dog stuff. We’re grown-ups. We’re supposed to set the trends. I know teenagers are the biggest market, but I’m sure part of the reason for that is that adults who spend money don’t feel like there is anything out there worth spending money on. If you got 35 year-olds singing to 12 year-olds, then what gives? The average 30 year-old fan of Hip-Hop is like, “I still like Hip-Hop, but give me something that I can at least relate to!” It’s really our society’s fixation on the youth.