Hopscotch Music Festival: Little Brother
City Plaza, Raleigh
One year ago, a full-fledged reunion of Little Brother—the Durham hip-hop trio cherished as the offspring of 1990s true-school boom-bap—seemed more likely than it had since the group’s messy, puzzling breakup a decade before.
At Durham’s Art of Cool Festival, serendipity brought the trio of Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder together to perform on the same stage for the first time since their breakup. When Detroit rapper Royce da 5’9” canceled his performance at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park because of a missed flight, Sulaiman Mausi, who had recently acquired Art of Cool from its cofounder, Cicely Mitchell, called Phonte to ask if he could fill the slot.
Mere hours later, that conversation developed into a surprise Little Brother show with Pooh and 9th on board. It instantly became the hip-hop reunion heard ‘round the world of social media. Longtime Little Brother enthusiast Questlove wrote on Instagram, “I’ve loved a lot of y’all since I got in the music business, but the last rap group I cared for to the level of the groups I idolized BEFORE I got a record just reunited and I’m nowhere NEAR witnessing it. DAMN DAMN DAMN JAMES.”
Never mind that many festival-goers who were patiently waiting for Erykah Badu and Nas didn’t necessarily grasp the magnitude of what was taking place before them. The moment was symbolic for Little Brother, whose stage chemistry was still perfect. It was in front of this same ballpark, almost twenty years before, where they had their first group photo shoot, riding high on the praise for their debut album, The Listening.
Unfortunately, that now-classic debut would turn out to be the only time they functioned as a real unit, even though in 2005, they released a bold follow-up, The Minstrel Show, on Atlantic Records. While it also earned acclaim and featured all three members on the cover, it would be their first and last record on a major label, and it was the launching point for the drama that led to Phonte and Big Pooh’s split with 9th Wonder. After releasing two more albums as a duo, 2007’s Getback and 2010’s Leftback, a group that had once seemed like hip-hop’s most promising dissolved altogether.
In their respective solo careers, all three members established themselves as figureheads to varying degrees. 9th Wonder became an in-demand, Grammy-winning producer, Jamla Records label owner, and university lecturer. Phonte began working in television while dropping two solo albums and earning his own Grammy nomination as the front man of soul outfit The Foreign Exchange. Big Pooh, ever the hustler, dropped several solo projects, toured, and picked up three up-and-coming artists to manage full-time.
The day after Little Brother’s Art of Cool comeback, they were so thrilled about how it went that Phonte hosted a cookout at his house where he and Big Pooh began to explore a full-on Little Brother reunion. But in May, days after the Hopscotch Music Festival announced Little Brother as one of its 2019 headliners, the group issued a statement.
“I’m excited to announce that my brother Big Pooh and I are back at work,” Phonte wrote in an email to DJBooth.com. “New Little Brother music and a tour are coming soon. After conversations with 9th Wonder following our Art of Cool reunion show in Durham last year, the three of us mutually agreed it was best for LB to continue as a duo, as Pooh and I have officially been Little Brother since 2007.”
And just like that, the dream of a full reunion of the original trio slipped away. In a way, history repeated itself around the release of May the Lord Watch. But this time, Little Brother came away not only with a triumphant album, but with a stronger bond—as a duo, not a trio—than ever before.
“In the fictional Little Brother universe, somebody had to die,” Phonte says, rather matter-of-fact, seated in a spotless studio nook on the top floor of his North Raleigh home. He’s referring to one of the characters he portrays in Little Brother’s renowned skits, but it’s hard not to read something more symbolic into the statement.
In the past few years, Phonte has spent a lot of time in this studio: working on various musical projects; recording songs and skits for TV shows such as Black Dynamite, Sesame Street, and Sherman’s Showcase; and voice acting for Michael Jordan’s shoe brand and in sports documentaries.
Today, August 15, he’s just finished typing out the final draft of the credits for May the Lord Watch. A few days earlier, he and Big Pooh had posted on social media a ten-second teaser clip for the album. It featured only the logo and the harmonized tagline of the fictional TV station UBN (U Black Niggas Network)—a throwback to one of the most memorable skits from The Minstrel Show. The cover art features the duo dressed in what looks like funeral attire, seated on opposite ends of the couch, leaving an empty space between them where a third figure might have been seated. This image is especially apt because it took two brushes with death to bring Phonte and Pooh back together: one that laid open a wound and one that started to heal it.
In 2013, Big Pooh was hospitalized with a blood clot. While 9th Wonder called to check on him, Phonte never did.
“Our differences weren’t that bad to where I almost could have died and I haven’t heard from you,” Pooh said to Phonte in the new mini-documentary Homecoming: The Story Behind Little Brother’s Surprise Reunion at the 2018 Art of Cool Festival, by Holland Gallagher. “I was carrying that. That hurt me. The other shit we were going through were just petty problems.”
“When I got word that Pooh was in the hospital—on my side, I was just like ‘Damn, I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll pray for him.’ And I did,” Phonte tells the INDY. “But that was the end of it. We weren’t on good terms. In retrospect, I think that I should have at least reached out and checked in. But at that time, we did not like each other, we were not getting along, we were not friends. The fact that he was in the hospital did not change that.”
But then, in March 2016, Phife Dawg of the pioneering hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest died of diabetes-related complications. Tribe was in the middle of recording its first album in eighteen years, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. As direct musical descendants of hip-hop groups such Tribe, the loss was a major blow to Little Brother. It hit especially close to home for Big Pooh, who had recently run into Phife. When Big Pooh got news of Phife’s death, he immediately texted Phonte to try to reconcile their differences.
“Look man, whether we speak again or become close again, it doesn’t matter. I just want you to know that you’ll always be my brother and I love you,” he wrote.
Phonte replied, “I love you too. Let’s get on the phone.”
The next steps were about catching up and reestablishing their brotherhood. After all, their lives had diverged on two distinct paths, with Phonte foraying into television and podcasting (he cohosts Questlove Supreme) while performing in another popular group, and with Big Pooh still toiling through a solo career, driving Uber for extra cash, and juggling managing duties for three up-and-coming artists: T. Smith, Blakk Soul (who has a feature on May the Lord Watch), and Charlotte-based rapper Lute, who also performs at Hopscotch this year.
Over the next two years, Phonte and Big Pooh occasionally broached the subject of what a Little Brother reboot would look and sound like, and whether 9th Wonder would be involved. They even discussed touring together in support of their individual solo albums. Those conversations, however, would always end with the consensus that the whole thing would be too much of a headache. If anything, Phonte and Big Pooh hoped to get to a point where they could hop on each other’s songs without driving fans into a frenzy of Little Brother reunion speculation.
But at that cookout at Phonte’s house the day after Art of Cool, he and Big Pooh decided it was time to go for it (9th Wonder was invited to the cookout but couldn’t make it because he was out of town). The duo subsequently reached out to him, and the trio agreed to start working on a new album together. But when it came time for 9th Wonder to submit beats for May the Lord Watch, which was originally to be titled Homecoming, it seemed to Phonte and Big Pooh that the Grammy-winning producer wasn’t recognizing how much they had grown musically over the years.
Between Phonte fronting the sophisticated soul outfit The Foreign Exchange with Dutch producer Nicolay and Big Pooh recording entire solo projects over beefy production by Nottz and Apollo Brown, the two felt they had outgrown their affinity for the dirty boom-bap that 9th Wonder provided on The Listening and The Minstrel Show.
“I said, ‘Look man, I think you’re sending us what in your mind is your best Little Brother beats, but we need your best 9th Wonder beats, period. Send us the same shit you send Rick Ross or Nas,’” Phonte says. “To me, it was all a part of the process. We just had to shake the rust off. If you’re willing to work with me, I will stay through the mud with you until it’s over. We have to figure this shit out together.”
While they were waiting for more from 9th Wonder, Phonte and Pooh started combing through a hard drive of beats from other producers that Phonte hadn’t used on his second solo album, 2018’s No News Is Good News. It didn’t take long before they came across beats that they were mutually geeked about recording to.
But according to Phonte, 9th Wonder felt he should handle all the production duties on a Little Brother album called Homecoming. (The INDY reached out to 9th Wonder through his representation at Jamla Records for comment but received no replies.) Phonte says he was angry, and that he called 9th Wonder to offer an analogy about a father who leaves a family for years and then returns.
“And it’s cool. It’s great,” Phonte says. “He’s welcomed back into the family. But mom has remarried. You have a whole new family dynamic now. So you can’t come back into the family and tell the stepdaddy how many seats he can get at graduation. … Who are you to say that brothers like Pete Rock, Nottz, and Illmind, who all helped keep the LB name alive, don’t even deserve a shot or a seat at the table?”
When the three next talked, Phonte and Big Pooh say that they had already decided to use just one of the songs that they had recorded over 9th Wonder’s beats. They claim that he agreed to stand behind the album and rejoin the group, but with the stipulation that he only appear with and deejay for the group during festival shows, leaving the deejaying duties for all other tour dates to Little Brother’s longtime tour deejay, DJ Flash. Phonte and Big Pooh rejected that offer. To them, it was all or nothing. No 9th Wonder-produced song appears on May the Lord Watch.
The “kill off” is a device used by writers and directors of TV shows to end a character’s run, often to the dismay of loyal followers. On May the Lord Watch, in the make-believe world of UBN, the trope was deployed to dispatch the beloved, outrageous, Jheri-curled soul crooner Percy Miracles, a satirical character that Phonte has stepped in and out of for the length of his career. But other memorable characters from previous skits return—Roy Lee, Producer Extraordinaire (who sold all of his stock in Korg Triton, put it in Bitcoin, and became a famous trap producer); the mad black dad from The Minstrel Show (who is now trapped in an Iyanla: Fix My Life-style reality show); and the real-life HOT 97 radio personality Peter Rosenberg, who, in a perfectly believable turn of events, is now the president of the uber-urban TV network UBN.
Big Pooh says that Phonte did most of the heavy lifting on the ideas for the skits, while Phonte credits Big Pooh with carrying the album’s lyrical load.
“This is Pooh’s album,” says Phonte. “I think that this is finally going to be the record that he gets his flowers as an MC. This is the moment where people get what Pooh brought to the table as an MC in Little Brother, and also just how singular he is. He sounds like nobody. You just don’t have those kind of heavy tones in rap right now. That kind of guy that barrels straight down the middle and cuts through any kind of fucking track.”
“I’ve grown as a writer,” Big Pooh says. “I learned how to slow down and take my time and really think through the process. Writing on paper helped me with that. Phonte told me about how when he would do songs with The Roots, their former manager, the late Rich Nichols, used to want to read his lyrics in addition to hearing them.”
The takeaway from Nichols’s philosophy was to treat song lyrics as literature instead of fleeting, auditory word parties. Big Pooh does this in several spots on May the Lord Watch—most notably on “Good Morning Sunshine” and “What I Came For,” where he hits pockets of narrative brilliance.
In turn, Big Pooh believes that May the Lord Watch will earn Phonte his own flowers for arranging and structuring songs. If the album sounds sonically uniform, it’s because Phonte and Big Pooh approached the beats as a collection of instrumentals before they did any songwriting, often swapping out picks vetted from a large pool of submissions. While this was a common practice for Phonte, Big Pooh had never approached recording in this way.
“This album meant something to me,” he says. “I went into it with focus. Not necessarily because I wanted to show motherfuckers that I could rap, but because I wanted us to be at our best. I wanted to show people that even though we had that time off, ain’t shit changed, and that we could pick up better than when we left.”
In the end, they went with hammerhead beats from Khrysis, Nottz, Black Milk, Focus, and King Michael Coy. Remove the skits from the album and it’s a seamless sequence of glossy thumpers whose utility puts the spotlight on its MCs. The irony is that the magic of May the Lord Watch winds up sounding as if it were produced by one person—in the wake of one person’s attempt to produce the whole album.
“We had to show people that producers are not important. Little Brother is what is important. We are the creative spirits that drive this,” Phonte says. “Not taking anything away from the producers and what they brought to the table, because these niggas are monsters. But, again, take them same producers and put them with any other rapper, group, or duo, and you’re not going to get this.”
Phonte and Big Pooh say that while making this album, they spent more time together than they ever have in twenty years of knowing each other. Big Pooh would often drive up from where he lived in Charlotte and stay with Phonte in Raleigh for days at a time. They spent as much time hanging out and grabbing a bite as they did recording music.
“It’s really like the first time we were actually able to become friends,” says Phonte. “It’s the closest we were ever able to get to recording our first album and record in relative obscurity. No one knew we were doing this. We were able to live with each other. We lived this shit.”
“I credit Phonte with realizing that we had to make sure that we were more complementary with each other and in synch, as opposed to each person going out to get theirs,” says Big Pooh.
“I knew that there was no way that we could do that if every verse was just slaughterhouse,” Phonte adds. “On this album, I can compare it to being a lead guitar play versus being a rhythm guitar player. When it’s solo time, yeah, solo all goddamn day. But when you’re playing in a band, just carry the melody. Keep it in the pocket. It’s about you serving the band. I wanted it to be a conversation where no one over-talks the other person. It’s truly an exchange of ideas.”
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