On an unseasonably cool summer day in an unassuming concert yard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hip-hop returns to its essence, if just briefly. In the house of Biggie and Jay, the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival is jumping off, a corporate-backed old-school park jam, the crowd ranging from hip-hop heads to hipsters. And in the midst of it all, North Carolina’s Little Brother does more than keep the crowd feeling good.
As much as things done changed, hip-hop’s collective soul is still riding high off the rhythms of Little Brother, consisting of emcees Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder. The trio’s debut, The Listening released in the shadow of 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in 2003, is characteristic of the dichotomy Little Brother points out in hip-hop.
While the festival’s opening acts keep the casual Brooklyn crowd moving, Little Brother catches a moment in a small bedroom, modestly decorated with a futon and metal folding chairs. When asked if there was any pressure in following up such a highly regarded debut, the trio lets off a collective shrug and grin. It comes from a confidence that The Minstrel Show will live up to expectations.
“It’s the perfect time for us to drop,” Big Pooh says. “We finished The Listening back in 2002. We going to give the fiends what they want.”
Still, Little Brother is not only fielding pressure to musically surpass The Listening, but with major label Atlantic Records in tow, some fear a more commercial vibe is inevitable. But Phonte dismisses any worries. “When I go into a project it is never like, ‘Yo, this for the radio.’ It’s like, ‘Let’s just make dope records.’ And I feel that with The Minstrel Show we made a dope record. As far as getting to the radio -- shit, if Atlantic writes the right amount of checks, then we will be on the radio. That shit has very little to do with me -- or the music. “I have yet hear anyone say, ‘Y’all switched your shit up,’ or, ‘Atlantic changed y’all niggas,’ “ he says. “Going into the album, my main focus was reconnecting with those fans who bought The Listening and just reaffirming that we can make quality music on a bigger label.” Never known as a “conscious” or “political” group, The Minstrel Show may lead many to revaluate Little Brother as more than just “feel good” hip-hop. Noted historian Eric Lott defines minstrelsy as “organized around the quite explicit ‘borrowing’ of black cultural materials for white dissemination.” The Jim Crow buffoon has since been replaced with the gun-toting misogynist rapper. Same play, just a different cast of characters. “With us, coming out with The Minstrel Show is kind of a commentary on the way hip-hop is now,” says Phonte. “It’s easy to get play with songs about going to the club or pimping. As my man said, you don’t have to rock black face to make it today, but it surely helps. You don’t have to rap about guns or crack, but if you do there is bigger chance you will get on.” Hip-hop at its essence has always sought to innovate, but as big business rolled in, profit margins and tested formulas have become industry standards. “In an industry were you just have so many rappers, there can be a 50 [Cent], but it makes no sense to have a million other rappers trying to imitate 50,” says Phonte. “And they’ll get played versus Common or Kanye, who sneak in through the cracks.” That may help explain why ever since The Listening hit shelves, each member of Little Brother has been steady grinding. Big Pooh released his first solo album, Sleepers, on 6 Hole earlier this year; Phonte linked up with overseas producer Nicolay for the Foreign Exchange’s Connected LP in 2004; and 9th Wonder has been laying down beats for likes of Destiny’s Child, Jay-Z, Murs and Jean Grae. Phonte says he and the guys were just getting some things out of their systems. “The Foreign Exchange allowed me experiment outside of Little Brother and do things creatively outside the group,” he said. “We could do our solo thing, but ultimately we are a group.” As Pooh and Phonte kept their mike skills sharp, 9th Wonder has been prolific on the boards, developing a reputation as a hit-maker in both underground and mainstream circles. In the age multi-million dollar studios, 9th is a minimalist. His weapons of choice are Fruity Loops, a hundred-dollar computer program, and crate of records. Like his counterparts Kanye West and Just Blaze, 9th’s soul-infused production is in heavy demand, but he’s not worried about overexposure. "I think what separates me from other producers -- no matter how much I produce outside Little Brother -- [is that] in the end I am part of a group,” he says. “Real hip-hop heads know what we bring and what we represent. We have a love and respect for the music.” Little Brother is a family affair that is rapidly setting new spots on the table, breaking bread with underground institutions such as the Boot Camp Clik and the Living Legends. Boot Camp Clik’s Buckshot tapped 9th for his recent solo project, Chemistry. “It just felt right” says 9th Wonder. “There was instant almost natural connection. … There is always strength in numbers, and if the vibe is there, we work with anyone, no matter their place in hip-hop.” As Little Brother hits the stage for their first ever performance Brooklyn, real recognizes real, and the crowd surges to the front of the stage. The guys in Little Brother are in their element, turning this urban festival into a North Carolina barbecue. The legendary Big Daddy Kane sums it up with his line on Little Brother’s “Welcome to Durham”: “Like goddamn, I found Brooklyn in the South.”
Everyone from hip-hop aficionados to causal listeners has long proclaimed the death of the culture, but Little Brother may prove there is means to bridge the gap between big-business and true-school hip-hop -- a lofty goal for a few guys from North Carolina.