The large sign taped to the door of the Pour House was disappointing for the ticketless fans outside: “Tonight’s Show Is Sold Out.” It signified, though, that after five Little Brother albums and 15 solo projects, Rapper Big Pooh has built a core fan base that wants to see him win.
The energy at the show, in late August, remained high the entire night, as fans of Big Pooh and Little Brother were gifted with an overdue reunion: hip-hop collective the Justus League, founded by 9th Wonder and Cesar Comanche back in 1996. It had been more than 15 years since Rapper Big Pooh, Cesar Comanche, Chaundon, Phonte, Median, L.E.G.A.C.Y., Sean Boog, and Edgar Allen Floe had all shared a stage.
“We just wanted to do something special for Raleigh,” Big Pooh says. “What better thing to do than to reunite the crew?”
The full-circle moment reminded Pooh of the group’s early beginnings. Twenty years ago, he’d watched Phonte and 9th Wonder organize the collective’s show sets; now, he found himself sequencing the run of the show. The memorable moment was captured on tape for Little Brother’s upcoming full-length documentary May the Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story, directed by Holland Randolph Gallagher. Although there isn’t an official release date yet, the documentary is set to release in 2023, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Little Brother’s debut album, The Listening. A trailer for the documentary features live footage, archival clips, and interviews with members of Little Brother, Questlove, and others.
It also highlights the recent success Phonte and Pooh have achieved and gives viewers a sneak peek at the drama that led to the disbanding of Little Brother in 2010.
“COVID slowed us down, which ended up, I believe being for the best,” Pooh said over the phone. “It has allowed us to really get the correct direction for the documentary. I believe it’s going to be a different film from the one we started in 2018. But it’s a better film than the one we started in 2018.”
The trajectory of Rapper Big Pooh’s career over the last 20 years has resulted in him wearing many hats, ranging from artist to artist manager and DJ, and during the show, fans were able to witness the repositioning of his professional identity in real-time. Not only did he assist Chaundon with DJ-ing during the Justus League set, but the artist that Pooh manages—Dreamville signee Lute West—also performed.
When asked what his current dream is, Pooh shared that it is to help “other artists live out some of their dreams.” He’s been doing just that: at the rapper’s Raleigh show, North Carolina–based rappers Shame Gang and Tab-One (of Kooley High) opened.
“Me and Tab-One been trying to do a show together for a long time,” Big Pooh says. “It was just dope to have him on the bill for the Raleigh show, and I’ve known Shame Gang for a couple of years now. I just always loved his energy. He forces me to actually make sure I’m on my p’s and q’s when I come out on stage. Or if not, he’s gonna steal the show.”
To Dream in Color, released August 22 on Soulspazm, is an autobiographical concept album filled with personal stories about love, loss, insecurities, broken dreams, personal growth, and perseverance.
The project’s strength lies in Pooh’s lyrical abilities and vulnerability. He walks listeners through the financial challenges present in his upbringing and opens up about insecurities from his younger days. In many ways, To Dream in Color is a sonic time machine: listeners are transported to the days when his dreams of becoming a rapper first began. On “Changing Again” Pooh doesn’t shy away from talking about the obstacles his group Little Brother faced, from bad contracts and internal conflicts to the group’s very public breakup.
A recurring thread throughout the project is the rapper’s personal commitment to his dreams and craft without the pressures of mainstream success.
“You know, it’s different now,” Big Pooh says when asked to reflect on his decision to tell these specific stories—some of which are 20 years old. “When you go through certain situations, you don’t fully understand what’s happening. You’re just trying to make it to the other side. As I look back, it was a number of lessons in those situations that I may have missed or ended up catching a little later. I just felt it was important for me to show the process.”
Ultimately the project allows listeners to understand how Big Pooh—given name Thomas Louis Jones III—evolved into the man he is today. We live in a time in which much of what fans see on social media isn’t reality. The importance of showing one’s process often isn’t valued in an era where obtaining fame by going viral is the end goal.
Rapper Big Pooh will tell you, though, that fame is fleeting.
In “In Surround Sound” he guides us through the moments that led to him and Phonte rekindling their brotherhood and also paints an honest picture of what it’s like to be a working rapper. “Whether it was Amazon, drive Uber, drive Lyft or concentrate on my gifts … I was down but I did not quit,” the lyrical emcee raps.
Now, three years since the release of the critically acclaimed Little Brother project May the Lord Watch, and a few weeks after the release of Pooh’s To Dream in Color, which has received rave reviews on social media and on hip-hop blogs, Rapper Big Pooh says he has what he calls “a healthy fear of failure.”
According to the veteran emcee, failure has taught him grace, humility, and patience.
Following his collaboration with producer Nottz on 2015’s Home Sweet Home, To Dream in Color was originally envisioned as the follow-up album. Almost seven years later, Pooh shared on his Instagram that the “album would not have happened without Phonte telling [him] to start from scratch and make the album that [he] really wanted to make.”
Phonte also served as the co-executive producer of the album—a first for the group members. He has a big personality and charismatic aura, but rather than stealing the spotlight from Pooh, the pair’s energy seems perfectly complemented.
“I think at this point we really understand who we are and who each other is,” Pooh says. “I think that was missing earlier. We didn’t understand who the other person really was at the core. And now that we understand that, there’s a different level of respect. There’s also a different level of understanding that we have with each other that we didn’t necessarily have when we were younger. I hate how our paths played out, but I can’t lie—it’s the reason why we’re as close as we are today.”
The making of To Dream in Color was a family affair. Phonte’s role in the development didn’t involve being present in the studio or selecting beats. Instead, he focused on the big picture by making sure the creative process was as smooth as Pooh needed it to be, and he sequenced the final 10 tracks. Pooh also called on longtime collaborators Rich and J Smash of The Nukez to produce the album; his close friend, rapper Joe Scudda, made the album’s artwork; and Tre’mar is featured on the project along with Blakk Soul and Phonte’s artist BeMyFiasco.
“I just wanted to make this project, for the most part, very much insulated with people that I’ve worked with for years,” he says.
To Dream in Color also features seasoned and new talent from North Carolina, including the Grammy-nominated producer D.R.U.G.S. Beats; Westtopher; and The Mercenaries, a new producer collective out of Raleigh. After 20 years in an industry that has the potential to suffocate dreamers, the biggest lesson Rapper Big Pooh has learned is how to take his destiny into his own hands.
“Nobody is going to work harder for you than you will for yourself,” he says. “I really started to see a return when I stopped depending on labels and started handling my own business. I understand what I want out of this. I’m not concerned with being the superstar. I just want to get my message out and live comfortably—and I’ve been able to do that by going to get it for myself.”
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