It’s 6 p.m. and Midtown is gridlocked with commuters trying to escape from New York. As office lights dim and commercial properties empty, the business of music doesn’t cease, not at 1290 Avenue of the Americas. I’m in the Atlantic Records building about to meet up with North Carolina’s hip-hop trio Little Brother. Back in the 1950s, before the building formerly known as the Sperry-Rand was erected, the block was lined with jazz hot spots and Rat Pack haunts like Toots Shors, where Marilyn Monroe sightings weren’t uncommon and, over drinks, the Yanks and Sox owners actually swapped Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams for a day.
What do sauced-up baseball owners and data-processing manufacturers have to do with Little Brother and the price of hip-hop in China? Well, like major league baseball, Atlantic Records is in the business of selling hits, and with their new recording contract, Little Brother can say good-bye to ABB Records because they’ve just been traded to the majors. And as for Sperry-Rand, well they made calculators, the kind Atlantic’s numbermen love and will have at the ready for the release of Little Brother’s second record, Minstrel Show, this fall.
Twenty-eight flights up, I’m escorted through the frosty glass doors and greeted by Big Doh, the group’s manager and de facto big brother. Not as menacing as Suge Knight, or even Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant, you can still tell that behind the warm smile is a guy ready to do anything and everything for Little Brother. “This is Big Pooh,” he says introducing me to the baby-faced rapper, followed by his partner in rhyme Phonte and DJ/producer 9th Wonder. I’m compelled to find out what it’s like being on Atlantic’s legendary roster, with players that are the titans of black music from the Stax/Volt dudes to…Ray! “The day I met Ahmet Ertegun I didn’t know what to say,” Phonte admits. “It still amazes me that we’re a part of a label with such a rich history of black music.”
Roaming the halls in search of an interview spot, the guys only stall to say goodnight to one of the more attractive female employees, but for the most part, even as we enter a bonafide boardroom, they’re talking about the meeting they just had. “Just a little parent-teacher conference,” 9th Wonder tells me with benign sarcasm. When I ask him who’s the parent and who’s the teacher, he scratches his head quizzically. “[The label is] used to babysitting artists,” he explains, “and they have a hard time when they see an artist that knows exactly what they want to do and where they want to go.” Is there trouble in paradise already? “It’s no big deal,” reassures Pooh, “we just had to tell the label that we’re not worried about what the single is, and we’re not interested in following any trends. They bought us for us, and even if the shiny suit era of hip-hop came back [à la Mase] we’re not going to do it.” “I compare it to going out with a girl,” Phonte sets up. “You say, ‘You’re incredible baby, but if you would only lose, like, 20 pounds.’”
You may be thinking the boys waived their “integrity” rights when they signed the devil’s contract, but Phonte (or Tay, as he’s called) insists that the indie world isn’t any better. “Even indie labels have a problem with artists who’ve got their own agenda, and we took a look at the whole [DIY] thing, but we never really wanted to be champions of the underground anyway.” They fit the bill pretty well, though. They originally got signed after posting a demo they produced in their dorm room (Pooh gives a shout out to “308, NC State! North Hall!”) on ?uestlove’s Okayplayer.com; Bay area indie ABB loved it and issued it as LB’s debut. And when LB rapped, people took notice–The Listening was one of the most anticipated releases of 2003.
In free agent fashion, the boys made a separate four album deal with Colorado Rockies short stop (more baseball?) Desi Relaford’s Six Hole Records, which has released music from other members of their Justus League crew (L.E.G.A.C.Y., Away Team) as well as solo albums from Pooh and 9th Wonder (Sleeper and Dream Merchant V.1, respectively). Pooh’s release showed off a strong solo voice, while 9th Wonder’s productions–which often fetishize Pete Rock’s take on soul–hold up no matter who spits on the track, a skill which led him to produce beats for TheBlack Album (after which Jay-Z recommended him to produce a track for Destiny’s Child).
Little Brother is prolific. Capable of dropping multiple projects at any time, you can see how they could be too much for any one label to handle. Phonte also has a side project (an internet collaboration) with Dutch producer Nicolay called Foreign Exchange (their Connected album was issued by BBE last year), while LB just released their “mixtape,” Chitlin’ Circuit 1.5, on Fast Life/Koch. Some feel the artist mixtape is passé, but Phonte defends the collection of unreleased and side-tracks, calling it a “stopgap between releases.” “Just something to keep the fans at bay,” confirms Pooh. But let’s not underestimate the content of CC 1.5; deep within guest appearances by Kanye West and Big Daddy Kane lay some of the most urgent and concise lyrics Little Brother has to offer. The title alone refers to the frustration of playing “rinky-dink clubs,” says Phonte, and on “Yo Yo” he raps, “I can’t fuck with no coffee houses…I’m about to kick some Trick Daddy!” The tao of Big Pooh seems to be the perfect balance of “indie hustle and major muscle,” but it appears both camps ain’t getting it, and the lyrics show signs of resentment. “People were like, ‘They’re conscious,’ comparing us to Common,” Phonte laments. “I’m saying, don’t put us in a box. There’s no tellin’ what we’ll do…we can listen to crunk if we want!”
Little Brother isn’t too hard to figure out, according to Pooh. “If you actually listen to the words, you will know us before you meet us,” he reveals. “Writing is our therapy. We put so much of our lives on the record, some of us more than others.” “Yup,” Phonte confirms. “All my failed relationships, everything goes in.” Sibling rivalry isn’t one of their problems; they’ve already agreed that their audience benefits from any personal and stylistic differences they have. Pooh explains: “I bring the street side, not shooing niggas and selling drugs, but in the boom bap beat. Tay likes to do a lot of melodies and sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m tired of all that singing shit!’ But that’s just our differences as emcees.”
Pooh had another thorn in his side as well, for as close as he and Phonte are, it still hurt when people pitted the two against each other. “I heard people saying I wasn’t as good as Phonte,” says Pooh. “I always compared it to being Scottie Pippin playing with Michael Jordan. For a while Pippin ain’t get the credit he deserved, but that’s because he was playing with the greatest muthafucka to ever play the game, so of course he’s gonna get overlooked.” Phonte insists that their yin and yang “makes for a better group,” because they’ve got a screamer and a whisperer (or singer). “I think with this record, they’ll appreciate Pooh for Pooh,” he suggests. “I was playing the record for one of my boys the other day and he said, ‘Yo this is y’all’s Low End Theory.’ That was the A Tribe Called Quest record where Phife got all his props, and my friend was like, ‘If niggas ain’t feelin Pooh after this? [They’re crazy.]’”
Sound of Now
As a producer, 9th Wonder is in the catbird’s seat–he gets to stretch his computer wizardry (with layers of lost R&B) while capturing two wordsmiths. “A lot of these artists coming out don’t have the chops to pull off a song without clichés, but we don’t have to worry about that,” he says proudly. “Only a few groups could pull off rhyming to my production on Minstrel Show, and they’re all from early ’90s.”
“It’s a natural maturity, man,” Pooh concludes. “We completed The Listening on March 13, 2002, and it’s muthafuckin’ June 2005, so of course we’ve advanced production-wise. We’ve been around the world, you know what I’m saying? So niggas been through a lot and we got a lot to talk about!”
State of Grace
These Wolfpack alumni rep Cacalac lovely.
If you want to understand Little Brother then you should take a ride across I-40 to Raleigh/Durham, as North Carolina is practically another member of the act. “Our lyrics have small little hints that only a North Carolinian would know,” reveals Phonte. “Like in ‘Love Jones,’ I say ‘I’m playing for big stakes not some Angus Barn.’ Too bad I’m a vegetarian now,” he jokes, “but that’s the best steakhouse, and now that I can afford to eat there I can’t go!”
But don’t confuse NC State with the dirty dirty South. “We’re below the Mason-Dixon Line,” says Pooh, “but we’re not really the South. We’ve got four ACC schools here so it’s a melting pot of north and south.” They’re not as booty-club oriented as their neighbors but, as 9th Wonder tells us, “we’ve got other things on our record.” They rap about E House, Morrison, and Hinton James, or as Phonte quips, “the Holy Trinity, emphasis on ‘ho.’” Phonte endorses the Cats Cradle and the Local 506 as the hip-hop venues to check out. “You can always catch an open mic night or what not.”
The guys also spend a lot of time with their Justus League (a crew of about 18), not to be confused with their A&R/management team Hall Of Justus; a few J-Leaguers belong to the Hall of Justus, including L.E.G.A.C.Y. (“a words man,” says Pooh) and the The Away Team, who are “a Gangstarr combination of a dope producer and MC.” But the LBs aren’t the only ones who can carry some weight in the state, as Phonte knows, namechecking “21st Records, Redout Entertainment, Bloc Farm, and the Butta Team,” and even Petey Pablo, whose “Blow Ya Whistle” is making some noise behind them. “I don’t really consider those cats as competition,” he says with confidence. “We’re all working to shine some light on our state, so it’s all family, y’know.”