Little Brother and the Audacity Of Hope
I had been in the employ of The Source magazine for less than a year back in 2003 when one of my colleagues, Jonathan “Gotti” Bonanno, handed me a CD-R with the words “The Listening” scrawled on it in black Sharpie. “I think you’ll like this, J,” he said.
My office was littered with CDs waiting to be played for our monthly Record Report section, but this one moved to the top of the pile. Word of mouth is my preferred method for getting new music, and, even at ground zero for all things hip-hop, it mattered more to me than a persistent publicist.
Upon pressing “play,” I was immediately transported by the soulful knock of WJLR. Its dusty boom buoyed the earnest ferocity of the two MCs going back and forth about girls, jobs and just being dope. I wanted to find out more. Who were these guys?
Before long, I became more than familiar with Thomas “Rapper Big Pooh” Jones, Phonte Coleman and Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit, the Carolina trio of Little Brother that had become the talk of message boards. The group formed at North Carolina Central University in Durham and considered themselves the little brothers of groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Public Enemy. They released their first single, “Speed,” in 200l.
The artists I had come to depend on for clever lyricism over gritty instrumentation had been veering off into “experimental” territory around this time. Common’s Electric Circus (2002) and the Roots’ Phrenology (2002, to name just few, were the subjects of recent debates in the office — and a few months later here came this retro-respective collective defying convention.
In an industry hellbent on shoving artists into boxes of either “crunk” or “conscious,” Little Brother took those revered Gil Scott Heron samples to make comedic sketches about rappers wasting time in the studio. Before you could utter the word “backpack,” there was a middle finger to the coffee shops and open mics that dared to elevate Trick Daddy to poet laureate.
The Listening stretched the southern hip-hop borders beyond Georgia, Florida and Texas while reminding purists in the Northeast just how far they’d strayed from their roots chasing radio station approval.
But what I appreciated most about Little Brother is that they let me know that I wasn’t crazy. I’d spent my tenure at The Source championing underground artists like J-Live and The Bootcamp Clik when Nelly ruled the charts. Swimming against the tide in the music industry can be exhausting, but I firmly believed that we could advance the culture without abandoning what got us here in the first place.
2002 into 2003 was a weird time for the music industry. Everyone was trying to find their way, and when artist marketing was reduced to how many times someone had been shot and survived, Little Brother managed to make their very existence the story. The audacity to be an independent group when groups on major labels were on the decline — to anchor themselves to the sound they grew up on versus what was popular for the day — was brave and influential.
They made a label like Atlantic Records, which was going through its own leadership change, take a chance on the group, bringing them up to the “big leagues” to release their sophomore album, 2005’s The Minstrel Show.
The title, which was originally going to be N*gger Music, put Little Brother under a microscope. The conversation shifted from their sound and region to what their intentions were. Who were they talking about and what gave them the right to criticize? Interestingly, the album itself didn’t present direct condemnations of any particular artist, instead, the group presented an alternative to the art that was prevalent on the radio at the time. But the members found themselves having to explain it more than they wished.
“Maybe we could have been a bit more nuanced,” Phonte told me in 2015. Maybe instead of a sledgehammer we shoulda used a chisel.” In an interview on Allhiphop.com at the time, Bun B told the interviewer, “Love their music but who are they talking about? I like to wear chains, etc.”
“I just remember reading that shit and – first and foremost I had no idea he knew who we were – then to see him big it up and then ask if they were taking shots at me, my heart went right into my stomach,” Phonte said. “Shit, are we possibly alienating people who would otherwise ride for us?” The rappers would later become friends, but Phonte stood warned.
While critically acclaimed, The Minstrel Show sold less that 20,000 copies in its first week and would be the last album the group would record with producer 9th Wonder, who had built up a sizeable brand outside of the group producing for JAY-Z, Beyoncé and the like. LB recorded two more albums without 9th, Get Back (2007) and Left Back (2010), leaning on production from !llmind, Khrysis & Nottz, who helped maintain their sound while allowing them to grow. However, the duo disbanded entirely in 2010. Phonte continued to record and tour with his group the Foreign Exchange, and Pooh released several solo projects, including albums with producers Nottz and Apollo Brown.
But fans never gave up on the possibility of a Little Brother reunion, especially when their influence had been so strong. Drake is arguably one of the biggest artists in the industry right now and Little Brother helped put the wind in his sails early in his career. Phonte appears on the 9th Wonder produced “Think Good Thoughts” from Drake’s 2007 mixtape Comeback Season and Mr. Graham shouts them out on 2009’s “Fear” stating: “What up Little bruh? what up Slum Vill? you’re the reason I have fun still.” So, how could a group that had given the culture so much go away forever?
Well, the universe whispers in unexpected ways. The 2016 death of Phife from A Tribe Called Quest — one of LB’s biggest influences — motivated Pooh to reach out to Phonte. Tribe had gone through their own share of internal struggles, and Pooh wanted to set things right if, God forbid, something similar befell one of them.
“Yo man, whether we speak again or become close again or whatever — it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to let you know, you’ll always be my brother. I love you,” Pooh recalls telling Phonte via text in a recently released documentary on the group. “And he ended up responding back. He was like, ‘Yo. I love you too…,’ whatever-whatever, ‘Let’s get on the phone.’ And he called me. And we ended up talking for about four hours.”
The result was not only a mended friendship, but a surprise reunion performance in 2018 at the Art of Cool Festival in North Carolina. For the first time in 10 years, all three of the original members of Little Brother shared a stage. As icing on the cake, after the show, Te and Pooh went in the studio to record an album that was announced the day before it was released, May the Lord Watch.
After waiting anxiously along with their legion of fans for midnight on August 20th, I pressed play on the first Little Brother album in almost a decade. From the first “UBN” call out (their fictitious television network from The Minstrel Show) it felt like hugging an old friend after being apart for some years. They were the same height, but you could feel where time had broadened their shoulders. Their clothes were different, but they tilted the brim on their fitted just the same as they always had. They laugh as you finally release the embrace and you can’t wait to hear them fill you in on their journey since you last spoke.
The title appears to be from the Bible, Genesis 31:49: “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight.” It seems appropriate considering the years they spent apart. For the album’s artwork, Phonte and Pooh are seated on a couch dressed in black suits with black ties and white shirts. Phonte looks into the camera while Pooh stares off into the distance. They appear to be at a funeral (maybe for the dearly departed Percy Miracles), but much like the cover to the Exchange’s Leave It All Behind, it’s open to interpretation. They could just be two men waiting for Godot.
The point is: they are there together, in that moment. And just like when they dropped The Listening 16 years ago, their very presence, defying the odds, is inspiring enough. I wasn’t crazy. The fans weren’t crazy. Maybe a tad overzealous, but not crazy. But our patience and persistence has been rewarded, and for that I am grateful.
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