INTERVIEW: Phonte on Big KRIT, his career and his latest album

by Marcus K. Dowling

 (Charity Begins at Home) is that ‘what the fuck’ experience that a lot  of legendary artists have had. This is like Common’s Electric Circus, Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear, Sly’s (Stone’s)  There’s a Riot Going On, Stevie’s (Wonder’s) Secret Life of Plants. I had to have that in order to develop.”  – Phonte

A hero to true school hip hop fans worldwide, when you ask Foreign Exchange Records stalwart Phonte about his most familiar status, he’s quick to shy from the spotlight. “I mean, it’s cool and all, but I just want to make creatively successful music. I mean, if people like it that much, that’s great, but to be called a “darling of the underground” or anything, that’s not my goal.” Phonte’s career arc is now the legacy being followed by an entire generation of young emcees. The Little Brother combination of him, 9th Wonder and Big Pooh was formulated in the dormitories of North Carolina Central University, but have had a far more impressive international impact. The mix of honest backpacker fare with soul stirring production was the foundation of the trio, and using the then nascent now ubiquitous internet to disseminate their gospel based in humility was then groundbreaking, but now is familiar. “We never had bigger or better tools than anybody else,” Phonte says. “We had great productions and content that made people believe in our message. I think people need to remember that, and also how to effectively market themselves to be successful.”

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Current album Charity Starts at Home is Phonte’s first solo work, a task that was arduous, and creates thoughtful reflection from the rapper. “It was really difficult at first to get myself in the solo mindset. Working with and collaborating with people makes the process a lot different, and adjusting to a new concept really helped me to grow not just as an artist, but as a man as well.” Cover art for the album features a For Sale sign tackily posted in a home’s front yard, a none-too subtle comment on the nature of hip hop’s crossover status. Aligning with fellow lyricisits like mixtape king du jour Big K.R.I.T. was a necessity to helping the veteran get his point across. Regarding the Mississippi native, Phonte effusively says, “Man, I have been downloading and banging his mixtapes for a minute now. I just was waiting for the right opportunity to work with him. I mean, there’s artists like Black Milk, who are like family to me, that I’ve NEVER worked with, so it was definitely a case where having someone like K.R.I.T. on this particular album made sense.”

Charity beginning at home was a key personal construct of the album as well. In recent years, the relationship between Phonte and his creative muse, super-producer 9th Wonder had become strained. Phonte was candid regarding the resolution of their issues. “I’m 99% sure this album would not have been completed if 9th and I couldn’t resolve our differences. But, we finally contacted each other, and realized that the music we could make together was bigger than any beef.” One-third of the current 12 song release features the classic soul trending sound, and lends the familiar feeling of authenticity at the  crux of the rap auteur’s top tier material.

Not in any way prepared to rest on his laurels, Phonte ends the interview with a revealing look ahead, and the type of drive required to be  lauded as a “darling of the underground.” “I just recorded with the Roots, and it felt like going back to school! Their level of perfection, how hard they work at crafting and creating that sound in the studio was amazing. I learned from that, and I learn from every experience I’ve ever had in hip hop. “