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Music: Business, Never Personal

Hip Hop duo Little Brother goes back to the pimp that punches softer

By Mildred C. Fallen · November 29th, 2007 · Music
  Hip Hop duo Little Brother, in harmony
Hall of Justus

Hip Hop duo Little Brother, in harmony

Three days before Thanksgiving, Little Brother's tour bus heads to Dallas after leaving Houston. At 4 p.m. I call their manager, who says Phonte and Big Pooh are still asleep because they had a long night and I should call back in a few hours. Moments later, their manager calls with Phonte on the line -- he isn't wide awake but he is willing to help me "bang out this interview real quick." Between stifled yawns, Phonte's no-nonsense analysis of the music business is him "keepin' it funky" with me.

In a sense, tour life seems like the lowest denomination of funkiness. Online, Phonte often writes about Little Brother's life on the road, which includes having to "smell other people's feet."

"There's no privacy, you know what I'm saying?" Phonte says after finally letting out a good yawn. "You on a bus, 11 other niggas is there, you in a room with somebody most of the time and there's very little alone time.

That's like the thing usually that I hate the most, because I'm really like a loner type of person."

When Little Brother surfaced from North Carolina's underground in 2001, The Listening was a different song of the South. Often compared to New York City's DJ Premier, producer 9th Wonder's incomprehensibly chopped samples weren't expected from a region stereotyped for stripper anthems and the trunk-rumbling Crunk music popularized by Lil' Jon.

On their official mixtape, Chitlin Circuit 1.5, Phonte's and Pooh's blue-collar perspectives weren't those of hustlers-turned-rappers or self-proclaimed pimps dripping in extravagance. Their good-humored reflections on earning instead of spending were like sips of a cool drink from a Mason jar -- refreshing, but reminders that artists sometimes worry about starvation as much as the next man.

In 2005, Little Brother moved from the California-based distributor ABB Records to a seemingly better deal with Atlantic Records. The result, The Minstrel Show, failed to meet sales expectations, and Little Brother began looking at the front door again.

"The deal with Atlantic, we didn't fit no more," Phonte says. "Obviously they had their idea about what they wanted to happen and it didn't happen."

Their fourth CD, Get Back, is in the hands of ABB. Having been on both sides of the chicken wire, Phonte feels major labels and independents have similar potential to ensnare artists.

"Honestly, it's just two sides of the same coin," Phonte says. "It's like, 'I know I'm gon' get pimped, so let me go with the pimp that won't beat my ass as much. Let me go with the pimp that just punches me softly, you know?

"That's pretty much the difference between an 'Atlantic' and an 'ABB.' I mean, it's all some bullshit, but with Atlantic, they're more capable of doing much more evil because their power reaches further, whereas ABB is kinda limited in their grasp."

After parting ways this year with 9th Wonder over personal and professional differences, Little Brother's signature sound is unhurt and the duo still rides for the little man. Free downloads of Get Back mixtapes whet appetites before October so fans "would know some of the words when they came to shows." To them, fans reciting verses speaks louder than sales.

"While we may not have platinum albums," Phonte says, "we have a fan base we can tour to and we have people that are actually talking about us and interested in what we have to say. That's why we're able to maintain a career.

"What keeps us out there is the fact that we just run our own race. We never really worry about what other people are doing; we never really worry about catching up with trends. We kinda stayed on our own grind and kept refining our craft, venturing our path and just going from there. That's pretty much been our key to success."

LITTLE BROTHER performs Saturday at Bogarts. Buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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