Little Brother’s debut album The Listening, is, like many other seminal albums this year, turning 20. But what sets this anniversary apart is the way that project, now two decades removed, clearly marked both the end of a movement and way of talking and thinking about rap, and the beginning of a new model for breaking artists and disseminating new music.
Little Brother, the mid Atlantic trio of rappers Big Pooh and Phonte, and the producer 9th Wonder, was one of the last gasps of of what ‘90s rap fans used to call “Conscious Rap”—the descendants of the Native Tongues, Rawkus, and Def Jux groups they grew up on.With their bars larded with references to classic 80s and 90s hip hop, and songs built around exploring quotidian concerns, Little Brother was a humble, comfortable, functional Old Navy Hoodie on an early-aughts rack cluttered with Gucci, Louis, and Prada. Get Rich or Die Trying, 50 Cent’s major-label debut, turns 20 this week, too, if you need a reminder of how polarized hip hop was back then. Before blog culture achieved total dominance and the internet atomized culture, The Listening gave us occasion to take the debate over “Rap vs. Hip Hop” seriously, and maybe for the last time.
When The Listening succeeds, it’s grounded in the yearning of middle class, college-educated, earnest artists treading water. As students at North Carolina Central University who came to prominence through Questlove’s nascent rap message board/cultural movement Okayplayer, they invented the trick that Drake would build his early identity around: Openly worrying about how industry success would change their lives and the people around them before they had achieved it. And though it’s nimbler than some of the staunch “conscious” sermons that defined the early ‘90s the group nonetheless engaged in the age-old tradition of attacking thinly veiled strawmen for leading a generation astray, treading on the sanctity of HIP HOP as narrowly defined by the orthodox essentialists that came before them. In the process, became banner-holders for a kind of respectability politics in rap: Three nice, clean-cut, young men with reverence for their elders and their history as well as a vision for the future of their art.
Here, Pooh and Phonte discuss the making of the album, and how they feel now about their role in that unbearable unholy war.
You were one of the first rap groups to tap into the power of the Internet, through the Okayplayer message board—essentially going viral in a 2000s manner. What are some memories you have from that moment as you went from rapping in a dorm room to becoming international rap stars in a pretty short period of time?
Big Pooh: I think the community we were building with people that we had never seen before, it was new, going on message boards and forming this community of people that heard your music but really don’t know what you look like. And in a way that kind of hurt us when we got to the major label because they couldn’t see this audience.
Phonte: They didn’t have those metrics. We had no “follower count.”
Big Pooh: But for us, it was so unique that we didn’t look at how unique it was.
Phonte: Yeah, it was just our experience. We didn’t look at it as “this is groundbreaking, we’re the first to break from the internet.” We were just using the tools that we had at our disposal, and the internet was the tool.
Do you guys have any good stories where you went from the message boards to real life and something crazy or interesting happened?
Phonte: One thing that comes to mind is one of our first tours we did with The Roots. They used to do that Okayplayer Winter Break tour, and we did some shows with them. And I would meet people and they’re like, “I’m so and so from the boards.” And I didn’t know so many of my fans were white! I wasn’t ready for that. Because you’re talking real Black on screen, your music taste was very colored. [Laughs] Overall, I think just the idea of matching to a screen name, taking something from a virtual place and now seeing it in a real place, and then sometimes seeing the disconnect of that, was pretty crazy.
On the boards, you’re ra-ra, but in person, you’re quiet. For me, it was my first time learning how to navigate what Internet culture was and understanding that this shit is not real life. That was something that was really jarring for us, because where we come from, it’s like you see somebody talking shit on the board, like, You ready to see this n-gga? And then you pull up on them and it’s this five foot white guy with glasses, and it’s like a 180. It’s like, what the fuck am I doing engaging?
Do you think if The Listening came out now, where we have better metrics of what people are actually listening to, we’d have a better sense of the impact Little Brother made at the time?
Big Pooh: The sales of those first two albums and the impact are completely separate entities to me, even today. I always ask people like, what’s your impact versus what’s your numbers? We were ahead of the curve. So there were things that were happening, the industry was going through an unwanted transition, and obviously we got caught inside of that transition, going from physical to this new world of what [would eventually] become streaming. It didn’t equal success for us numbers wise.
I would just imagine there were at least a million coastal college kids like me who had some comfort with Napster that were listening to The Listening on a CD-R instead of the kids who went out to buy Get Rich or Die Trying right?
Big Pooh: You got to look at it like, this is coming upon the heels of people getting tired of getting fooled by singles, and they’re going to pay $17 for a CD and there’s only three songs on it that you like out of 24. Yeah, it was definitely a reckoning happening at that time. And we always point to the fact that when we were at Atlantic, there were only about two or three people in the department that handled the Internet. Now with a label, damn near your whole staff is for the Internet.
When you re-listen to the album now, are there any moments that make you cringe?
Phonte: Oh, my God. All I hear is mistakes. Yeah, there’s certainly a lot that once I listen back to, I’m like, man, I could do that better. And I won’t mention the specific parts just because I don’t want to ruin the experience for the fans.
I remember Beats by Dre [launching] and the tagline for Beats by Dre was “Hear the music the way that the artist hears it.” And I can think of no greater hell. You do not want to hear the music that way, trust me. To hear a song as the artist hears it, it’s a very masochistic kind of thing, because all you hear is your fuckups. But for me, a big part of art is just understanding that it exists. It’s a document of where you were at that time, and who you were at that time. And for us to be 21, 22 year old guys making our first record, shit, I got no complaints.
Little Brother was anointed as successors to the legacy of the Native Tongues collective, which I always thought was a double edged sword. You guys became standard bearers for typically college educated “Real Hip-Hop” types, and were placed, unwittingly, in opposition to the T.I.s and Mike Joneses of the world. When you look back, do you think that that idea hurt or helped your career?
Big Pooh: I think at the end of the day, we just wanted people to see us as cats that were dope and made good music. That was our fight more than anything. It doesn’t matter which side of the underground you decided to land on. If the music was dope, the music was dope because, shit, we were listening to 50 Cent [too], you know what I mean?
Phonte: It definitely was a gift and a curse, some of it by our own doing. [On]our first record, “The Yo-Yo,” I’m pretty much skewering the whole fucking boho coffee shop shit.
But then to do a concept like The Minstrel Show, where you’re still skewering something, it’s kind of satire, but now you’re hitting on elements of class, now it becomes an even bigger conversation and it becomes a conversation that, for me, I never really wanted to be a part of. I just thought the shit was funny, period. So we were never like who people were saying we were. We weren’t anti- gangster, anti-whatever. We was just anti-fucking whack. Just don’t be corny. And I think that was what got lost. But in terms of our positioning and how people kind of viewed us as bringing back real hip hop, that was something that we definitely leaned into at times.
Big Pooh: There was no social media, so a lot of people were able to assume shit about us, and project what we were really about onto us. That didn’t help us. The craziest thing was when we got ready to put out The Minstrel Show, and got word that Bun B was disappointed. That changed everything. I hit [label mate] Paul Wall up for Bun B’s information, and I couldn’t get on the phone with him any quicker. Had never met or talked to Bun B a day in my life, but obviously, I respected who he was. Like, I had to get on the phone to explain myself. But unfortunately, you can’t do that with everybody, right?
Phonte: They didn’t get the joke. Because I’m a firm believer in not having faith in the audience is not having faith in the art. It wasn’t that we were looking down on an audience like, you all didn’t get it. It’s over your head. No, we didn’t communicate—
Big Pooh: We failed to execute correctly.
Phonte: I think musically, if you just listen to the album, it’s there. I remember being in the Atlantic offices and sitting in meetings, and it’s just like, dude, you got to sell us a different way. Like, Trick Daddy, he used to go on Howard Stern and he’d shut shit down. It would be amazing. And it was just like, we have to do those kinds of things to show people who we are. Because if you just listen to the music, yes, that is a part of the story. If you just read an interview, yes, that’s another part of the story. But seeing us in person, we’re not these angry, serious guys. Seeing how we react, seeing that energy, that was just something that didn’t really get communicated.
The only place that really got communicated, where people got it, was when they came to our shows. But, yeah, man, it was tough kind of carrying that weight in a way that I don’t think we really asked for.
When I listen to some of the satire, particularly on The Minstrel Show**, I also think it’s really important for younger listeners to understand this was a time when comedy was** Chappelle Show, The Boondocks, Bamboozled—this perspective on racial humor that was very broad and over the top, but the points they were making were actually really subtle and cutting. I think it’s easy to lose that now when you replay it. And on that note, the “Too Intelligent” scandal is a great example of the perception of Little Brother getting in the way of the reality of the music you were making. Do you think that you guys were blackballed from places like BET, or pre-judged with the whole Source controversy? [__The Minstrel Show __was controversially downgraded from a 4.5 mic rating to a 4 by Source co-owner Benzino, leading to the resignation of the magazine’s managing editor Joshua Ratcliffe.]
Phonte: With the BET thing, I don’t recall ever getting a straight answer on that one way or the other. From my memory, I just remember waking up one day and going on the Internet and seeing, “BET says Little Brother is too intelligent.” I was like, what the fuck? I think that was more shocking due to communication with our label than anything else, the fact that they weren’t playing us and it’s like, n-gga, why am I finding out you ain’t playing this shit on the Internet, you know what I mean?
In terms of The Source, for me it was a big lesson in learning that show business is not a meritocracy, it’s a campaign. And if there was any part of me in the beginning that was very naive, this laid that to rest, just thinking that great music cures all. The Minstrel Show came out at the same time as Thug Motivation 101—which was an album that I fucking love, let’s be clear—and at the time, the talk was, “Well, we didn’t want this college group to get a higher rating than the hot guy. New guy is going to help us sell more magazines than these college n*****.” So once I kind of understood that, I didn’t take it as personal. So I didn’t look at it as a blackballing. I just looked at it as, okay, I had one understanding of what I thought the business was, and now I have a completely different understanding of what this shit really is.
Pooh, you have said that The Minstrel Show was not fun to make. Why is that?
Phonte: This is my first time hearing that. I didn’t know that wasn’t a fun album for you.
Big Pooh: No, it wasn’t, man. It wasn’t fun at all. I think for me, it was just between the pressure of what ended up being our major label debut, our own internal struggles we were having, figuring life out as a 24 year old, and things were just moving fast as fuck for me. And so you had all these different things going on, and it was just like at a point, it became work. Like, I had fun experiences, right? But it became work for me, when being an artist became a job. When we did The Listening, it was just friends going in there, making some shit. Nobody knew what we were doing.
Phonte: For me, making The Minstrel Show was fun. I loved making it. It was Black as fuck [laughs]. But selling The Minstrel Show, that shit wasn’t fun.
Big Pooh: That definitely wasn’t fun.
Making rap about rap—casting yourself as a critic—seems like a really hard balance. If you go too far, you’re scolding or preaching. And if you’re too even-handed, the critique doesn’t have any teeth. So have you learned anything over the years about making songs that work as state of the union addresses?
Phonte: I listen to a lot of comics. I think comedy and music are kindred spirits in a lot of ways. As disciplines, they’re very similar. And comedians will say stuff like , when I first started out in my twenties, all I had was dick jokes. Because I hadn’t lived any life. Like, what the fuck else was I going to talk about? And so for me, rapping about rapping, those are like dick jokes. I’m nice and nice because you ain’t lived no fucking life. You haven’t figured out how to synthesize that and communicate that story.
For me, just in my journey as a writer, it was like, okay, you can rap about how nice you are, but that is very much insider baseball to the 100th degree. Like rapping “Show Business” on Low End Theory, that was one song. It was not a whole album about business. Sure, I think you can kind of do those commentaries. And I think rap specifically is very singular in that way, in that it is very self referential. I don’t recall fucking Mick Jagger making a song about fucking Paul McCartney on some shit. But rap is different. That is what this culture was built on. But now, 50 years later, we have so many more stories to tell.
Big Pooh: You’re starting out and you’re trying to really hone into how to express yourself. All you have is I’m nice. But as you start to really develop as a writer and you develop as a person, you start to really figure out how to express yourself and express these things that not just yourself, but these things that you may be thinking about or these different topics. I’ve always been a storyteller. I wrote short stories. So for me, it was more developing that and leaning into that, into storytelling versus telling my audience I was nice. That was never really my calling.
I think what we’re talking about is a struggle some artists have faced for centuries, when you have this ordinary middle-class existence you’re trying to dramatize versus the “easier” device of the streets: the drug trade, materialism, and transactional sex to use as fuel for your art.
Phonte: Yeah. Going to work and paying bills and figuring out relationships are not as sensationalized, not as easily dramatized. If you’ve been in a shootout, you can make that compelling.
It’s like, “260” is an incredible song, but it’s riveting subject matter.
Phonte: I love that fucking song. I’m a “260” truther. I’ve heard people say, “That’s the only joint I skip on Ironman.” I’m like you’re crazy bro. What? Over the Al Green? Get the fuck out of here.
With day to day life, there’s drama there, but that drama is internal. And it requires a skill set that honestly, I don’t think I really feel like I got a handle on until I hit my 40s. I don’t think I really, really understood how to really tell that story.
I saw this interview where you walked through what sounded like the extremely annoying process of making “I See Now.” Phonte, at one point, you say “Nothing Kanye could say or do would ever surprise me.” Has that changed?
Phonte: Absolutely not. Have you been watching Internet for the last fucking three years? Kanye has always been the same person. He’s him. He’s always been that guy that just had like, crazy fucking ideas. You remember? We did the Billboard Awards.
Look at this fucking lineup. Okay, let’s just break this down, okay? This is The Billboard Awards in Miami- The Hip Hop Billboard Awards. It was the N-gga Billboard Awards [Laughs].
Big Pooh: They separated us. Separate and definitely not equal (Laughs).
Phonte: Not equal at all. Yeah. So we head down here for the Brown Versus Board of Education Awards and shit, so this is like 2003-2004. The hosts of this award show are Russ Parr, legendary radio guy, all big shouts, and Idris Elba, who’s coming off The Wire.
Phonte: So the lineup is like Little Brother, Kanye, Consequence. The headliner of this event was Jackie O, who at the time was burning up the charts with her jam, “Pussy (Real Good),” which I still enjoy to this day. So me and Pooh, we do our show. So next is Kanye and Consequence and Kanye had this screen behind him that he wanted the video to play at the same time as him doing the rhyme, right? It was this whole audio visual experience that he had curated. So he goes on stage. And I think the video cut off before he finished or whatever.
And I remember seeing him go over to the sound man. He’s all in the soundman’s face, he was really pressed about it. And the whole time I was just sitting there thinking, bro, no one cares. They’re not here to see Little Brother. They’re not here for Kanye West and Consequence. They’re here for “Pussy (Real Good) So like, literally like three minutes later, jackie O comes out with like fucking all these half-naked, body-painted dancers. No one is speaking about [Kanye’s] video. You can’t compete with “Pussy (Real Good)”. “Pussy (Real Good)” is undefeated. What are you talking about?
But when people ask about our early days working with Ye, and the old Kanye versus the new Kanye. No, that n-gga the same Kanye. Same Kanye, dog. He’s the same person. That’s all I have to say.
You guys linking up made a lot of sense, because in those early days, he had the idea of breaking the genre silos between conscious and materialists. Were you guys listening to College Dropout or Late Registration**? I’m wondering if you were taking anything from what he was doing in terms of how to approach these identities in conflict.**
Phonte: We weren’t listening to him. He was listening to us. We opened up for Ye around 2004. The Listening was out, and I had [the coveted] The Hip Hop Quotable honor in The Source for “The Yo Yo”. And I remember we were all doing an interview and Kanye was like, “Yeah, I’m out here with my dogs, Little Brother. I saw Phonte in The Source magazine. I was like, oh, man, this dude is going to get to my style before I get to it.” I was just like, okay, that’s odd. Because to me, we weren’t shooting at the same basket, dog. You’re on Roc-a-fella. You’re playing Madison Square Garden. I’m playing at the fucking YMCA. We’re not even trying to compete.
You guys were these kids that were rapping in college who made humble music, but you’ve had a fair share of drama and business related bullshit over the years. It seemed like you guys were less a group in the beginning than three friends at college who had a project they were working on that suddenly became an international hit. And your journey was to learn how to turn that into a group and a business and work with the relationships, which can be an incredibly difficult thing to do if you’re not coming into it with that idea. What do you attribute all the drama to?
Big Pooh: Just life and growing in business. I think for us, it’s no different to anybody else. It just so happened some of our bumpy turns happen in the public space via the Internet. But I don’t think it’s exceptional to anybody else, especially in the music industry.
Phonte: One of the biggest lessons that I learned is that when you’re first starting out, you really don’t know who you are, and you don’t really know the people that you’re working with or the people that you’re doing business with. And sometimes it takes time for those things to really reveal themselves, and sometimes people change? People’s needs change. People’s goals change. And so for us, for so long, the LB Garden, it was unattended, so to speak.
For so many years, me and Pooh weren’t speaking. The brand was inactive. So it took a while, but then we were finally able to get back together. And we were able to get back all our masters. And able to really put in that legwork. Because we had the time to do it. And now I think Pooh and I are just at a point where we know each other first and foremost, but above that, we accept each other and love each other for who we are individually. Now we can find a way to really make that work together and ensure that our legacy was put in proper context and that it was really nurtured and cared for in the way that it should be.