Little Brother’s Phonte
Talk to Me
Being a man of the people has its drawbacks. Acting friendly to the press, communicating with your fans, watching your every word—it can all grow tiresome. Sometimes you just wanna spit on the cameraman following you into the strip club, punch an autograph seeker in the face and tell the media training consultant your record company hired to go fuck himself. Luckily, Phonte has his temper under control, so even when he reads blogs questioning the music and motivations of his North Carolina rap trio, Little Brother, he stays cool.
A frequent visitor to MySpace and Okayplayer.com, Phonte is no stranger to a little back-and-forth banter with the online hip-hop community. But recently things were taken to another level when Phonte wrote about a bad show Little Brother had in their home state (HERE). XXLMAG.COM’s bloggers caught onto it, and Noz was quick to give his two cents (HERE). Byron Crawford responded too (HERE), and later Tara Henley took him to task for referring to Canadian female rapper Eternia as “Tit-ernia” (HERE). Hoping that no love was lost, XXLMAG.COM reached out to ’Tay to give him a chance to vent. And with Little Brother hard at work on the follow-up to their major-label debut The Minstrel Show, Internet bickering seems to be the last thing on his mind.
With him and Big Pooh’s new Mick Boogie mixtape called And Justice For All about to drop, Phonte has his eyes on the prize. After the lukewarm reception to their last album, they have plans to work with outside producers like DJ Premier, Denaum Porter of D12, Nottz and The Alchemist on their back-to-basics follow-up Getback, due out in 2007. First!
So after all the back and forth, do you have Internet beef with XXL now? You gonna hack into somebody’s blog?
Man, for me, it ain’t even that major. [Laughs.] I know what the game is. Muthafuckas trying to get paid for this, man. It’s not about liking or disliking, agreeing or disagreeing…just as long as you tune the fuck in. And that’s what it’s about, and I realize that, so when I saw that first joint by noz, I was like, “Ehh, okay.” And then Byron Crawford came in…He’s definitely the most interesting writer on there. He can be kind of wild. He can be out of line with some of the stuff he says, but he makes interesting points at times, I’ll give him that. He is an enjoyable read. But it’s good to see people talking, and it’s good to see people thinking. I was just surprised to see it cause that much trouble, because I never really thought of myself as a voice of authority. I never thought I was making comments like, “Hello, this is your cult leader speaking. Today’s color is red.” It’s just me discussing music, just like any other fan. The shit, when your girl came at me, Tara Henley, I was like, What the fuck? That was about the whole Eternia thing, where I called the girl “Tit-ernia.”
You had performed with Eternia before. How well did you know her?
I thought we were cool. I would never joke with a female I didn’t know like that. I’m not going to assume that I could just talk about your titties. But I was thinking we was cool, and as I found out via Myspace, that wasn’t the case. But probably the most ironic thing about the whole shit happening was that I’m not even a titty man. [Laughs.] That’s the thing. I ain’t even a titty dude! I’m an ass and thigh man. For me to get blasted about referring to some titties, it was kind of amusing. That shit is funny to me, man. It just shows how much I guess perception or what people perceive you to be effects how they react. Me and Rhymefest was talking about this the other day. The audience wants the “conscious rapper” or underground rap artist to be asexual. I got two kids. Kweli has two kids.
Somebody’s getting laid.
Yeah, exactly! I didn’t get the kids from discussing the five elements! [Laughs.] We want some pussy! I hate to burst people’s bubbles, but to the female rap fans: yes, your favorite underground rapper wants to fuck you. They ask you to come to they room after the show, they don’t want to talk about the culture, they don’t wanna play you their new album, they wanna fuck. It’s just funny to see that go down.
But if they played it right, it seems like that perception could work to the advantage of the “conscious” rapper trying to get some, no?
Well, I’m married so…
What about the people around you?
Yeah, it does. The females that do come to the shows, they feel more comfortable, so they’re willing to let their guards down a little more than they would for someone else. Funny thing is, after that same show where the “Tit-ernia” incident happened at in Brooklyn, I had a white girl come up to me like, “Phonte, I just want to thank you so much for everything you’re doing for women.” Swear to God, man. Gave me a hug, kissed me on the cheek, and walked off. I don’t even know what I did for women! [Laughs.] If a woman sees females half naked in a video, they think that Nelly might disrespect them. But [in reality], they could be together and Nelly could be the coolest dude ever. Likewise, when they meet me and they hear my music and think, He’s such a nice guy, and then I say something about some titties, then they ready to throw a goddamn witch-hunt. [Laughs.] But luckily I’m married, I got two kids, so I ain’t even out there like that.
A lot of people were surprised you didn’t pull out some big surprises and get some famous names on The Minstrel Show. What was your plan going into that album?
Going into the record, my main thing was, We got to make the record to solidify the faith in the people that Little Brother is not going to quote-unquote “sell out.” We can still do us on a major label. I put myself in the position of a listener. If my favorite underground group signs to a big label, yeah, I want them to go for the glory, but at the same time, I don’t want them to lose what made me fall in love with them from the jump. On The Minstrel Show, that was kind of the plan, just to reconnect and reaffirm our vision for the fans like, the old LB that you know and love is still here and we ain’t changed for the most part. Did it work? [Laughs.] That’s up for discussion. I can’t say. I made a record that I’m proud of and, shit, that’s really all you can do.
Why wasn’t there a second single off The Minstrel Show?
The album came out in September, they put out “Lovin It’ in August of ’05. The response was cool. It just wasn’t no blow-you-through-the-roof joint, but at the same time, it didn’t get a bad response either. We got mixtape DJs up on it, we got some commercial spins. Cats was looking for it. So this album comes out this September, video finally comes out in certain places, and then the whole BET shit hits, where they say we’re “too intelligent” for BET. The video is not getting played on BET, so by this time we had pretty much exposed all of our outlets. VH1 Soul had been running the video like crazy, MTV had been running the video like crazy, so by the time when BET finally played it, it was too little, too late. By that time it was already fuckin’ December. The album had been out for two months, single been out for three.
In like January ’06, we’re getting ready to go on tour with Fort Minor and then do another back-to-back tour with Dilated Peoples, so we go up to Atlantic to talk about second singles. We were like, “Look there needs to be a second single. ‘Slow it Down’ needs to be the second single. People go crazy when we do it at shows, everybody relates to that shit.” To which they respond, “Well, we think there’s some more life in ‘Lovin’ It.’” Are you fuckin’ serious? You can’t ask the DJs to go back and replay a record that they been playing four months ago. It’s not going to happen. “Well, we think that’s what’s going to work, you guys are going to be on tour, we’re going to make it work.” So sometimes you just gotta let muthafuckas see what it is. I’m sitting in there trying to argue ‘til I’m blue in the face it’s a wrong fuckin’ move, but it’s just one of them cases where they wasn’t trying to hear niggas. They re-service “Lovin’ It” and the shit flops. So finally, around March or April, they toss out a “Say it Again” single, just to see how it does. It’s too fuckin’ late, man.
But with the new record, we just had meetings with the label and Sickamore and shit, so it finally looks like everybody’s a little more in the loop. The Minstrel Show came out at a time when the label was going through a whole bunch of changes with muthafuckas getting axed left and right because they going through the merger. Things should be better now. But I’m preparing myself for the shit storm just in case. That’s mean, but we’ll see what happens.
Somewhere along the line, it seems like actively trying to make a hit record became synonymous with “selling out.” Do you ever feel like they’re the same thing?
We got caught in a funny position. Our audience, they want you to make a hit record, but they don’t want it to look like you’re trying. They want you to make hits, but they don’t want you to fuckin’ pander to radio. Neither do we. If you were to see Little Brother featuring Omarion, you would be like, “What?” Omarion got some jams, I ain’t knocking him, but that mixed with Little Brother just doesn’t make sense in the minds of the listener. So that’s why for me, man, I just keep on making the music I can and seeing where it lands. Because the minute you try to make a hit, bro, you’re fuckin’ done. It’s a wrap. I could pay 50, 60 thousand dollars for that T.I. collabo, but would that really work for us? I’m not being rhetorical here, I’m really asking. People don’t even really have a sense about who Little Brother is. Even if I went and got a song with the biggest name, would that really work for Little Brother? Would it make sense to the average listener to see a Little Brother with a T.I.? Even though I’m a huge T.I. fan and had the chance to meet him a few times. We originally wanted to have him on The Minstrel Show, but would it even translate?
You don’t feel like rapping next to a dude like T.I. would make your own style even more pronounced?
That’s honestly one of those things where you just have to kind of make the music and see what happens. We did some shit with Bun B for the mixtape, it came out dope. I think it is possible. For this new record, Getback, we’re going to be working with some outside producers and bringing in some outside artists into the fold. There’s definitely going to be some of our peoples on the new record, but we’re also going to have more “What the Fuck?” collaborations. Some more “I never saw that coming” type shit. That’s part of the plan. I’m just all about having things make some kind of sense. Our fan base, man, they can smell a lie. They can see that shit from a mile away, so you gotta be more creative with your shit.
Why do you think a Little Brother record hasn’t gotten the type of video and radio push that some of these other artists have gotten?
There is no image connected to Little Brother. You can’t just look at cats and say, “Okay, well they dope boys,” or, “They skaters,” or, “Oh, they dress real fly,” or, “They pimps.” It’s not really an image you can identify with, it’s all about the music. None of me, Pooh or 9th are fucking any celebrities or had any high profile video shoots. We’re not from a state that really has any musical precedence in the business, with the exception of Petey Pablo. We’re not really down with any clique or any particular brand or big name dudes. Those are all the things that affect us before niggas even hear one note of music. The game now is more about affiliation and association. Shit is like high school. [Laughs.] If you don’t really have those things, then it’s going to be an uphill battle. I guess what most people don’t realize about me is that I realize all of this, but still I just keep moving forward. That’s all you can ever do, really.