“Hit him with the blue steel,” rapper Phonté says conspiratorially to his cohorts, Rapper Big Pooh and 9th Wonder. Rest easy, though. The only shots letting off here—on the steps of Chidley Hall dormitory on the Durham, N.C., campus of North Carolina Central University—are the ones being taken by a nearby photographer. “One, 2, 3...,” Tay counts off as the three turn their heads toward the camera, Zoolander-inspired “blue steel stares” affixed to their grills. The shutter clicks, and the fellas fall out laughing, their faux-male-model moment immortalized.

Loose and relaxed, the members of the hip-hop trio Little Brother have every reason to enjoy themselves. After all, seven years ago, when the former NCCU students roamed these very dorm hallways, the idea of making music professionally was all a dream. Today, Phonté Coleman, 26, Thomas “Rapper Big Pooh” Jones, 25, and Pat “9th Wonder” Douthit, 30, find themselves on the fast track. Their last album, 2003’s The Listening, was one of the most widely heralded independently released debuts in recent memory. Now the positive word of mouth on their provocatively titled, and far more ambitious, major-label effort, The Minstrel Show, has them standing on the verge of full-fledged mainstream recognition, and potentially, commercial success. Nonetheless, Chidley’s redbrick facade serves as an apt symbol of their earnest beginnings—something the three friends have never strayed far from.

“They asked us if there’s anywhere else around here to take pictures,” says Phonté, recounting the photographer’s desire for a more conventional “hip-hop” backdrop. “But it’s only so many places.” The outgoing MC then sums up the LB m.o. in short, sweet order: “I mean, we gotta do us.”

Just being themselves might seem simple enough for a North Carolina­–based crew making noise in this, the South’s undisputed hour of rap glory. But Little Brother is something of an anomaly—an unabashedly Southern rap group that sounds little like its hit-making Dirty-Dirty neighbors. (Or for that matter, the bulk of its up-North colleagues, so many of whom have been getting stylistically tipsy off crunk juice.) “The biggest thing we run into when we meet people is that they just can’t believe that our sound comes from here,” observes 9th Wonder, who, as in-house producer, is the man most responsible for Little Brother’s sonic boom bap. “They’re like, ‘So where y’all from, Philly?’ Nah, North Carolina. ‘What?!?’ It’s like the new wave of fans think only a certain type of sound comes from the South.”

True to the group’s academic backgrounds (Phonté double majored in communications and journalism, Pooh and 9th in history and education), the quality that most separates Little Brother from today’s casual rap listener is a sense of history. These are hip-hop traditionalists, students of the game whose textbooks have titles like Long Live the Kane, Mecca and the Soul Brother and Midnight Marauders. Fusing proudly unpolished, sample-based production with a casual confidence and down-home charm reflective of their sub–Mason-Dixon Line roots, Little Brother landed a deal with revered indie ABB Records back in 2001, after their demos (as posted on the hyper-active hip-hop message board Okayplayer.com) got the Internet going nuts. One of the group’s biggest boosters was The Roots’ skins-beater Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who heard LB’s debut single, “Whatever You Say” and famously gushed: “I’m so friggin’ jealous of Little Brother. Hip-hop the way I love it—tight beats, on-point lyrics? What!!! I made 4,887,234 people listen to ‘Whatever You Say’ at gunpoint and I DON’T EVEN OWN A GUN!”

74.XXL/200/lilbro2.jpgThe funky drummer’s exuberant cosign made Little Brother an instant cause célèbre on the subterranean circuit. Upon the release of The Listening—a joyously down-to-earth long-player that celebrated life’s simple pleasures (“Love Joint Revisited”), lamented the stress of balancing work and music (“Speed”) and challenged the complacency of its listeners (the title track) with an effortless, post­–Native Tongues panache—Little Brother sped to the head of the underground class. The LP moved 35,000 copies (strong numbers in the indie world) and tastemakers and hip-hop purists across the planet pegged Little Brother as rap’s tribe called next. By the time Atlantic Records inked the L brothas to a two-album deal last year, the hype had eclipsed everyone’s expectations.

Reconvening at Dillard’s, an old-school soul food cafeteria (slogan: “We Feed Durham”), the hungry trio discusses the benefits and baggage of the H-word over healthy servings of mac n’ cheese, black-eyed peas and banana pudding.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says the, yes, bear-like Pooh. “On one side, the hype can help you, because you can draw people in that might not know about you. Like, Yo, why everybody talkin’ ’bout these Little Brother cats? Let me see who they are. But then, hype can build you up to be more than what you are.”

Phonté jokes: “They’ll build you up as God and then when they find out you’re only Jesus, it’s like, Oh, so you just walk on water?”

Everyone joins in now, clowning, exaggerated blahzay-blah intonations and Southern twangs colliding:

“You returned from the dead? You did that?”

“Oh, I thought you created this world.”

“Did you have to take a rest on the Sabbath?”

But if Little Brother downplays the hype of being labeled saviors of “real” hip-hop, the group isn’t exactly shying away from the responsibility. Consider the issues raised by The Minstrel Show. Whereas The Listening’s structure simulated the fantasy format of a fictional underground hip-hop radio station (WJLR, in homage to LB’s talented Raleigh-Durham clique the Justus League), the new LP awakens to the nightmare of WJLR being bought out by corporate interests and converted to the UBN (“U Black Niggas”) television network. UBN’s big hit is a variety program, The Minstrel Show, whose popularity parallels the state of Black music, and specifically hip-hop, today.