Little Brother had to grow up quickly. The North Carolina group made waves in independent hip-hop with airtight beats and rhymes on its 2003 debut, The Listening, a high watermark rapper Phonte would go on to describe on the followup, 2005’s The Minstrel Show, as “a classic album motherfuckers couldn’t find.” Phonte, his partner-in-rhyme Big Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder jumped the chasm from internet and underground notoriety to a mainstream-label deal before the move became the most well-trodden career path for rappers. Through rhymes about sticking to their guns and interludes sending up consumerism, The Minstrel Show posted prescient criticism of hip-hop culture from inside the scene. The base loved the album, but the partnership with Atlantic Records didn’t succeed at growing the group’s profile. Minstrel Show only got one video, the plainly ironic party-rap scene staged for the lead single, “Lovin’ It,” that BET inexplicably refused to play. The album stalled out low on the Billboard 200, and the group left Atlantic.
2007’s GetBack saw Phonte and Big Pooh soldier on as a duo as 9th departed to produce and cultivate other artists, like the gifted North Carolina native Rapsody. The turn in the group’s good fortune drew out a certain gloom in songs like “Can’t Win for Losing,” “Breakin’ My Heart” with Lil Wayne, and “Dreams,” where Phonte darkly sings, “Momma, I got dreams, but dreams don’t keep the lights on.” The same year, the group guested on a song by Canadian actor Aubrey Graham, who’d begun moonlighting as a mixtape rapper under his middle name, Drake. In two years, most working rappers would kill to have songs with Drake and Lil Wayne on the résumé. (The Drake connection is a point of interest this week, as the Toronto star was honored by the New York Times for having been instrumental in merging rapping and singing in modern hip-hop in this decade, and Little Brother fans — and Phonte himself — were quick to point out that Drake learned a lot of that from Phonte.) Little Brother was ahead of its time, but prescience isn’t necessarily a road to riches. In 2010, the duo split; Phonte and Big Pooh would spend most of the rest of the decade releasing a string of solo and collaborative albums separately.
Over time, the story of Little Brother settled as a great idea that suffered for thinking a few paces ahead of the music-business structure that received it. The busier Pooh and Phonte got, the more a reunion looked like a pipe dream. The group’s newest chapter is a perfect sequence of unlikely windfalls. After an impromptu reunion gig, the two found themselves reconnecting alone as friends and, for the first time in years, sparring partners on record. This summer’s May the Lord Watch is an improbable comeback on several fronts. It’s the rare reunion record that preserves what made the group great in its original run, from wizened raps to euphoric soul chops underneath to skits that reprise characters and concepts from The Minstrel Show, without sounding dated or grouchy. Lord Watch is a function of personal growth and musical refinement, but it wouldn’t work unless the spark between both players had successfully been rekindled.
On a late August afternoon in the Vulture office, I can hear the creative chemistry. In person, Pooh and Phonte flesh out each other’s ideas and finish each other’s punchlines, same as they do on record. We spoke about Little Brother paving new career paths at the dawn of the digital era and returning after nearly a decade apart to find a legion of admirers in unexpected places.
When you spend a decade working on solo stuff, different projects, and other groups, is it tricky getting back into the old working process or is it like when visiting a college friend and slipping back into patterns?
Phonte: It was the closest experience for me to doing our first record, because we did it in obscurity. Once you make your first album, your life is never really the same. After that, everyone is either anticipating your next record or they’re always tracking to see what’s going to come next. No one even knew we were working on this. There’s people on the album who didn’t fucking know they were going on the album.
We were able to spend a lot of time together just bonding. We recorded the whole album in a home studio. I would go up there and be like, “All right, I’m here for four days,” and the first day, we never worked. We shot the shit. We listened to other music. We watched TV shows. I must say … I must thank the R. Kelly Good Morning America interview for getting us through.
Big Pooh: That supplied so much.
P: So much comedy! There were so many times in the studio where we’d be tired as shit, just out of it, and we’d pull clips of that interview. [mocks R. Kelly’s voice] “Hey, guys, use your common sense!” “They say I got five, 11, 50 girls!?” That shit deserves an Emmy. Are you shitting me?
Talk to me about coming at the legacy with a fresh perspective. There’s something in the album for the old fans, but the angle feels modern.
P: Our idea was, “What does Little Brother sound like in 2019?” We ain’t trying to take it back because, n—-, I don’t want to go back there. You don’t want it to be like you’re asking someone to tune into season 12 of a TV show. You mean to tell me I gotta watch 11 seasons of some shit … to get this shit? Hell no. In putting the production together, we really wanted to encompass what we sound like now and that certain feeling that people look for in Little Brother records. But at the same time, we were very adamant that this wasn’t a nostalgia play. If we wanted to make a nostalgia play, we could just remaster our old shit and go and perform the old shit.
One of the big conversations we had early on was that if you’re going to do a “comeback” record, you have to show that you still have something to say. It’s not a money grab for us. We’re doing this seriously because we want to, not because “If we don’t do this record, I’m gonna lose my house.” We could really focus on getting it right rather than looking at the financial windfall.
How have you managed to get older in rap without getting grouchy in it?
BP: Don’t nobody want to hear nobody stand up on no soapbox preaching, man. The game changes too fast. You can be mad at kids for doing certain things they’re doing, but it was motherfuckers mad at us for doing shit we were doing, and there were motherfuckers mad at them before that. It’s just how things evolve. We’re not gonna complain about what we feel is not right. We’re just going to show you what is right from our perspective. That’s what we do. We do the work. We put good tape out, as the saying goes.
P: I look at records as where we are now. I like to think of ourselves as giving young rappers a look around the corner. I would like us to look at someone like [2020 Grammy Best Rap Album nominee] YBN Cordae, and for Cordae to look at us and say, “You know what, I’m 21, 22 now, but there’s a lane for me if I want to do this at 40. There’s a way I can do this, still have bars, still do me, still be authentic, and not be corny. I can grow older but not necessarily get old.” Hip-hop is still a relatively young art form. We’re still figuring out what it means to be an older rapper. People always point to Jay-Z, like, “He said …” N—-, he rich. That don’t count. Rich n—-s can do whatever. If Warren Buffett wanted to drop a rap album, he could do it. You’re gonna listen to it. Everybody wants to hear from a rich n—-. If that ain’t your station in life, you have to go at it another way. Hopefully we can give a blueprint to show that you can mature, you can grow older, and you can be true to yourself but not be crotchety. There’s a way you can settle into that moment and still be dope and be profitable and have things to say.
When trap started taking off, there was this impression that all of a sudden you couldn’t necessarily have a huge career off just meat-and-potatoes bars and beats, but there’s a lot of art in this decade, yours included, that’s showing how you can keep an audience without chasing the pulse of the mainstream.
P: Boom bap is like a white T-shirt and black jeans and a black leather jacket.
BP: That’s a staple.
P: There’s an outfit you got in your closet that’s like, “N—-, this ’fit gonna get off in 2019, and it’s gonna go off in 2039.” Now, that throwback jersey you bought from ’02? That’s outta here.
BP: I think people mistake being successful for what’s trending. If you’re not doing what’s popular now, then you’re not successful.
P: No industry works like that.
BP: I may not be doing the most popular thing, but I still can be very successful doing what I’m doing. So yeah, trap is still the sound, but there’s successful artists that don’t do trap. Trap is what’s put in front of you, but this is the playlist era. Everybody has their own radio stations that they personally curate every day. I know people that you never heard of with millions of views, millions of plays.
That’s kind of freeing. You used to have to rely on one outlet but now everyone is their own outlet, and you just have to make sure you reach enough people to sustain yourself.
BP: It’s about discovery. What are you going to do to set yourself apart to get discovered so people can listen?
P: I was doing press last year for [sophomore solo album] No News Is Good News. The dude interviewing me was like, “Tell people where we can find your album.” I was like, “N—-, y’all got my album! You got a phone in your pocket? You got my album!” I’m just trying to guide you to it. It’s like U2. You got that iPhone? It’s there. [laughs] I’m not trying to hear goddamn Bono in the carpool. These motherfuckers had spyware on my phone.
You were one of the early rap groups to make good on an internet following, but I feel like when you got to the crossroads to pivot into the mainstream, the pathway hadn’t been paved yet. The labels couldn’t figure you out. Did it frustrate you seeing artists come along after The Minstrel Show and have an easier time with that?
P: It was a little frustrating, not that we were frustrated with those artists that came after us like Lupe and even more modern people like J. Cole, Kendrick, Drake, all those guys in that lane. [We were] lining up first to be second. To be the first one through the door is a sacrifice. We ain’t get the glory, but we were the lead blockers that cleared out the hole. Now, there are resources available to us that just weren’t available back then. We only had, like, two videos in our whole career.
A lot of us were mad about that.
P: We came on board before what I call the Rik Cordero era, where n—-s started shooting shit on a [Canon] 7D, when it was literally just a 7D and a laptop playing the song, and from the outside, it looked like damn Funky Finger Productions. At the time, when we were on Atlantic, we shot out first video for “Loving It” for $65,000. You can shoot a goddamn movie for 65 G’s now. But at that time, there was no Instagram even. Me and Pooh have this conversation all the time: What is the value of a video? Videos used to be a way for your audience to see you, because artists were inaccessible at the time. But now, you see me every day. I’m on IG stories, n—-. I’m on goddamn Snap. I’m on Twitter. Is it worth it me paying $10,000 or whatever to shoot this video, or do I just let some bars go in my car? Which one has more value than the other in 2019? I really can’t say one is more valuable. So yeah, it was frustrating at first, but now, all this shit is a wasteland now. Everybody’s just trying to figure this shit out and make some noise, so the playing field is somewhat level now.
How different would rap history be if we had a way to track the music people were listening to but not necessarily buying a few years earlier than we learned to? There’s a big gap between the start of the digital era, when the streaming sites pop up, and when the charts start tracking them. I’m wondering if we would have different movers and shakers in power now.
P: People say, “Beyoncé’s the biggest star ever, bigger than Michael Jackson, bigger than whatever, whatever.” All love to Beyoncé, but you’re talking about two different eras. Thriller sold like 30 million copies.
Well, they didn’t have a way to bootleg it.
P: Let me be clear about something: that’s 30 million n—-s that got up and left their house. There was an investment. This is not the same as your six-year-old streaming “Old Town Road” all day on their phone. There’s a deeper level of engagement there. It’s like … homie, we got to talk apples to apples. What constitutes as engagement now versus what did back then? So yeah, it would be a lot different, in terms of what gets streamed or consumed versus what actually has staying power, what actually indicates investment. Me and Pooh know a lot of cats that have the streaming numbers, but these n—-s can’t sell out S.O.B.’s.
BP: You killing it with these streams, but would people really go out, if they had to, and buy the record? Times are different because you’re just leasing music now. You don’t even own it. Most people don’t download songs. They download the stream but not the album. I’ve seen the number breakdowns. We have a joke: Is this old math or new math?
P: Y’all out here juking the stats. “We got a platinum-selling record!” Really? Old math or new math? It’s more transient. They ain’t sell but 900 copies, but they’ll have 10 million streams.
Do you think that major labels have gotten better with cultivating hip-hop talent than they were in your situation?
BP: Hell naw! The day of the A&R who actually does anything but push papers — and I know there’s still some good A&R’s out there, so I don’t want to trash everybody — but the day of the A&R as we know it is dead.
P: Strippers are A&Rs now.
BP: They see what’s popping. They sign it because it’s already popping. They have the movement. They already have the buzz and the foundation. It’s like, “We’re just gonna put some money into what you’re doing already.” That’s why, if you’ve noticed, a lot of acts don’t even sign straight to the label. They’re signing through production companies. So the label is doing less but taking more.
P: So, to answer the question … is it better than it was back then? Nah. This shit is worse.
BP: We got caught right before the transition. It’s crazy because we didn’t even have an A&R.
P: We had finished Minstrel Show, turned the record in, came in [to the label’s office] for a meeting.
BP: [And that’s when] an A&R checked in with us. Labels … first they were fighting [the internet], and then they found a way to win.
They found where the money was.
BP: They gon’ always do that.
There’s a line in your new song “All in a Day” that goes, “Shoulders tired from holding my sons / And my hands are tired from holding my tongue.” Talk about starting this group to carry on a tradition, and then watching your own influence filter down into another generation.
P: It’s like genetics. You and your wife could have a kid, and this kid comes from both of you, but you don’t know what they’re going to take from each parent, or what is coming out of the bloodline. “Where the fuck did you get them green eyes from? Are you the mailman’s kid?” “Oh no baby, my great great granddaddy had green eyes.” It’s sort of like that. We made these records not knowing where they would land when we were younger, and now we’re seeing the offspring, again like a Cordae or a Drake or like the homie Casey Veggies.
Are you hearing people come out of the woodwork now that there’s a new album out?
P: Oh boy. What a difference a rollout makes. It’s like, I didn’t even know y’all were listening. In the past, cats were somewhat loath to give us those props, because they don’t want to show their hand. They don’t want to show where their Frank Lucas connection is. They don’t wanna show where they get the dope from direct. They don’t wanna give up the plug. But this go-round, cats are way more generous, and the feeling that they’re expressing is, “Man, they’re happy to have y’all back.” I’m like … “I didn’t know y’all n—-s knew we were gone.” This time I feel very different. The outpouring of people hitting us up … that shit is wild. When you let art go, you don’t know where it’s gonna go.
This interview has been edited and condensed.