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“New Years day was our first time seeing each other in two years.” – Phonte
After a somewhat long hiatus (how can you top Puffy?), Peter Rosenburg’s Noisemakers returned to Tribeca’s 92 Y auditorium, this time with a reunion of sorts–9th Wonder and Phonte of Little Brother.
I remember the first time I heard the tracks from what would become The Listening on Okayplayer and was blown away. You have to remember, the North Carolina trio broke during the “post-Shiny Suit phase” of hip-hop, where style was valued over substance and backpackers were relegated to the back of the bus. However, the sound was so different that they group started to build steam and get deals. “In October of 2003, Kanye was opening for us,” 9th quipped. But it seemed like the group exploded on the underground, as the group rose at the start of the Internet.
The origins of Little Brother started at North Carolina Central University, but the group took off only when Phonte was out of college working meaningless jobs. “Making the Listening for me personally, I was just trying to see that there was something else bigger for me,” Phonte says. “A Lot of things happened at once,” 9th Wonder added, as he talked about working with Jay-Z. “It just happened so fast. I got the call on Thursday, and I was in New York that Saturday.” After the album dropped, the trio were getting calls from everyone, touring the world and even sleeping on Pete Rock’s floor.
But the success did not come without controversy. 9th was constantly hounded by producer purists about using computer-based production, especially FruityLoops over the traditional MPC. “For me, I love for someone to say I can’t do something. My thing with FruityLoops is that I didn’t do it to start a revolution.” Basically, he couldn’t afford an MPC in college and his use of the PC predated the now common used of computer-based production. “My sole purpose was to make it sound authentic, to make it have that warm sound. A lot of producers now don’t even know what the word warm mean.” As for computer based production now, 9th says, it’s great but it allows you to hear the many bad musicians out there. “There has been a lot of success stories from computer-based programming, and all of the record that everyone says they liked are [made with] FruityLoops.”
Another aspect of their success is largely built on their connection with their fans from the jump. Before Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace, the group used Okayplayer (which Rosenburg coined the original “Black Twitter), where the first post featuring their music had 238 replies (ed note: It was this thread that motivated me to start an Okaplayer account). “Questlove was the forefather of social networking communication,” says Phonte. “In the old record industry there was a big divide between the artists and their fans. Now, you’re in bed with your fans, literally and figuratively. Y’all are a team together.” Both Phonte and 9th maintain Twitter accounts and are some of the most active musicians on the service. “[Older artists] are scared as fuck to deal [with their fans] in real time.”
One of the more interesting comparisons of Little Brother is to the “classic” hip-hop artists from back in the day like Tribe Called Quest. Phonte dismisses these comparisons and the glorification of the “golden era” of hip-hop. “There was still a lot of bad fucking music out [in the 90s]. Don’t let the older cats suck you into thinking that nothing but hip-hop manna fell from the heavens. There was some bullshit too.” Phonte adds “It wasn’t that hip-hop was better, it was that there wasn’t that many outlets for hip-hop. But kids have it harder today.”
But the question remains, for a group that everyone in hip-hop has praised–including Drake–why hasn’t the group become more popular? “The Beauty of us not communicating for four years is for us to do what we wanted. For me teaching and for Phonte to do Foreign Exchange. Phonte never wanted to be that big. We’re so music driven that it’s all we want to care about. There is so much other bullshit with being [big star], and even if the world does not know how big of an MC Phonte is, other fuckin’ rappers will.” Like Drake. In hindsight however, even when they were signed to a major label, they don’t care about not getting spins on BET. “I was getting mad about getting played on outlets that I don’t even watch.”
But what does the future hold for the group? Well, for all intents and purposes Little Brother is done. Says Phonte, “I found a new lane. I love rapping, but I hate being a rapper. RAP IS prety much a young man’s game I feel. Will Jay-Z still be rapping at 60? That remains to be seen. I don’t think I can be doing this when I was 70.”
Even though there might not be a musical reunion, the sight of seeing them on stage for the first time in 4 years was enough for the fans in the audience.