Little Brother got a raw deal. The Durham, N.C. hip-hop group authored a string of albums full of innovative, left-of-center boom bap starting with 2002’s The Listening, a self-prescribed “classic album motherfuckers couldn’t find.” Atlantic Records released their 2005 sophomore album, The Minstrel Show, a savagely witty critique of modern hip-hop culture whose message was as biting as its beats were banging. While their work was critically lauded for its pairing of salient, introspective rhymes and state-of-the-art tunes provided by in-house beatsmith 9th Wonder, it ultimately struggled to find the financial success it deserved.
Little Brother eventually parted ways with both Atlantic and 9th Wonder, soldiering on as a duo for one more album, 2007’s Getback, before announcing they were calling it quits. They released a brilliant sendoff earlier this year in Leftback, not quite an odds-and-sods collection but not quite a fully conceived album. Leftback’s final track, “24,” cuts out seemingly in media res, damaging and swift as the life of the group itself. Here, Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh look back on their legacy and ponder the next step.
The biggest question on everyone’s minds is: Why? Why pack it in after eight years of hard work?
Rapper Big Pooh: We just came to a point as Little Brother where we felt it was time to move on. In order for our work outside of the Little Brother brand to get a fair shake, an official ending had to be made. In order to continue having the type of personal relationship outside of music that we have with each other, an ending was necessary.
There has always been a palpable frustration in your music, on songs like “Not Enough” and “Can’t Win for Losing,” especially. Do you feel like Little Brother had a tougher time making it in the music industry than some of your peers did?
Pooh: I can’t speak on anyone else’s struggles, but I do know we have had our share. I know some of them struggles also made life a little easier for those that came after us. There is no resentment, though. I believe we went through everything we went through to be exactly where we are today for a reason.
Phonte: I wouldn’t go as far as to say we had a “tougher” time than anyone else did. The game is the game. We had our victories and losses just like anyone else has who’s ever worked in this business.
Other artists have used their retirement albums to eulogize themselves at length, but outside of “Curtain Call,” there’s barely any mention that Leftback is your last album. Leftback is business as usual. Why is that?
Pooh: This isn’t a retirement. We are not retiring from making music. I am not about to leave music and become a carpenter. Tay isn’t about to leave music and become a teacher. We are moving on to another phase in our musical careers. We just wanted to share some new music with the world as we moved on past Little Brother.
Phonte: We wanted to leave, not make an exit.
Your music tends to strip away modern rap’s obsession with materialism to talk about more mature issues. “After the Party” in particular is a brutally honest take on the much-celebrated club scene. Would you say that’s been your mission, injecting realism into the picture?
Pooh: A lot of people are scared of listening to the truth. They prefer listening to music that offers some sort of escapism, and if that’s what you want to do, then do it. Our goal has always been to speak for those that are just like us while sharing our personal stories.
Phonte: I think our main goal was to always tell our truth and represent who we really are. If I was a guy who lived his life in the club poppin’ bottles every night, I would write about that and approach it with the same level of skill and passion that I do all my other rhymes. But that’s just not me; it’s not my lifestyle. I can only write what I know.
You often get tagged as “conscious” rap. How do you feel about the distinction? Is there a such thing as “unconscious rap?”
Pooh: People love labels. If your music isn’t this, then it’s that. The crazy thing is, the content most would associate with “conscious” rap is not what we rap about. I think we got that title more because of the sonic background of our work. In my world there’s only two categories. Either your music is dope or it isn’t.
Little Brother has always worked with a talented group of producers, from 9th to Khrysis to Illmind to Zo! to Nicolay. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you are dying to collaborate with?
Pooh: DJ Premier, DJ Quik, and The Neptunes.
Pooh, Earlier this year you rhymed over Black Milk instrumentals on The Purple Tape. What else do you have in store for us?
Pooh: A project with the homie Roc C. The group’s name is the Young Americans. No title for the album yet, but the mixtape called The Audition is available. [Find it here]. My solo album, Dirty Pretty Things, is near completion, as well. We’re looking at an early 2011 release.
Phonte, the last time you stepped out on your own, you shifted gears, singing instead of rapping on the Foreign Exchange’s Grammy Award nominated Leave It All Behind. What’s next for you?
Phonte: The new Foreign Exchange album is called Authenticity and will be out on Oct. 12 via my and Nic’s +FE Music imprint. And we’re also busy working releases from YahZarah and Zo! as well. My solo album will drop next fall. [Find more information here.]
What’s your advice for the next generation of kids trying to make it as rappers?
Pooh: Love it or leave it alone. Know your history. Respect your craft.
Phonte: Rap because you love it, not because you want to get rich.