Joe Budden, Phonte & the New Age of Veteran Hip-Hop Success
Jay Z’s robust, hyenic laugh emits from my car's speakers as I weave and swerve through the afternoon traffic from Hell. Sweat pours as the sun beams, but my mind is lost in the song and not the heat of Hades. I’ve heard the infectious chuckle hundreds of times, my lips still crack a smile as he playfully sends a big "fuck you" in Kanye’s direction. “Last Call” just sounds like better days, simpler times―when all that mattered was Roc-A-Fella artists and Sean John jeans. The final song on College Dropout is a classic hip-hop outro, filled with timeless lyrics, unforgettable humor and inspiring history. Ye closed his debut album with the story of his humble beginnings, the steps to his stardom and all the people who played a role in helping him reach that point.
Hip Hop, not the culture but the man born Kyambo Joshua, was one of the head A&Rs at Roc-A-Fella, the person who started the management and production company Hip Hop Since 1978 and the first person Kanye mentions on "Last Call." Hop gave Kanye a chance, brought his style of soul-sampling to the Roc roster. To leave him out of Kanye’s story is like leaving Mark Pitts out of J. Cole’s. Playing “Last Call” felt fitting on this afternoon, the song to soundtrack my encounter with the man himself. Meeting with Hip Hop felt like having a chance to shake hands with history; someone who saw the glorious past and glamorous present from the days of Kool Moe Dee and Rakim to the current era of Kendrick and Drake.
We sat in Augustine’s for almost four hours discussing, debating and laughing about the culture that bonded us together. It was way more than just knowing about '90s hip-hop, he was well-versed in current web shows and albums. Despite being much older than the 18-year-old who A&R’d for the Roc, his passion for hip-hop hasn’t wavered. He told me things I knew, things I didn’t and presented perspectives I’ll continue to carry on my journey as a music journalist.
What stuck most in my conversation with Hip Hop is his resolve to continue being a part of the culture. His eyes are set upon new horizons but outside of A&R. Hip Hop isn’t just a nickname, he’s immersed the same way that I am, the same way so many are, and it left me with a sense of calm. I know the feeling of attachment that can be felt for a role, spending so many years occupying a space that it becomes more than just a job title but a sense of purpose. Meeting with Hop was a reminder that our roles can be temporary, that job titles are of the moment but our love for rap and hip-hop can be eternal. There's no finish line, the story is one that continues even after your name has been engraved in history.
As the guard changes due to a new generation of ambitious puppies joining the seasoned big dogs, there’s room to coexist and also room to enter new territories. It’s an important realization to have as a young creative, knowing options exist outside of the space you occupy.
Joe Budden having a job at Complex was initially perplexing. Outside of a huge payday, I couldn’t wrap my mind around why he'd want an office job as a cultural commentator and not an artist. He already has a popular podcast, why continue down this road of being a social media personality? It took an episode or two before the answer presented itself. Watching his spirited discourse with DJ Akademiks gives a glimpse of someone who has hip-hop embedded in their genetic fabric. You can hear it; the way he attacks topics is like Westbrook driving into the lane, a fixation born from spending many years tangled in the culture’s web.
Joe is a rapper who is old enough to be featured on Clue tapes but young enough to have found mixtape success through Datpiff. He was signed and dropped from Def Jam, survived the internet age independently and returned to the majors with Slaughterhouse―it’s been 14 years since the release of his debut album and he’s still a voice of relevance. You don't have to like Joe Budden, but he is a dinosaur that survived multiple meteor showers. Without agreeing with his every point or his aggressive style, I enjoy hearing the views of someone who has seen all sides of being a rapper in various ages of the genre.
Budden’s role on Everyday Struggle is no different than retired players becoming anchors at ESPN―men and women who gave their lives to the game and even after their jerseys hang from the rafters they simply pivot into a new position. Analyzing instead of playing, using their insight to give nuances to viewers who never touched the court. Charles Barkley doesn't have a championship ring but his Hall-of-Fame career is more than enough reason to see him on TNT discussing the latest and greatest players.
Akademiks saw hip-hop through YouTube; Joey saw it from the streets, the offices, the tour buses and the internet. His albums may not sell, and he may never have another big hit, but the knowledge he’s accumulated throughout the years has value in an age of information and debating. We need more artists to find avenues to present knowledgeable commentary that's relevant to the times.
The power of the podcast has been beautiful to witness through the guise of veterans. Combat Jack went from hip-hop attorney and Source editor to being a voice who has a platform to tell the tales of legends, seasoned veterans and spirited newcomers.
N.O.R.E., even after Capone-N-Noreaga and a successful solo career, will be saluted from Brooklyn to Bangkok for Drink Champs, one of the most insightful and entertaining podcasts representing hip-hop to the core. The War Report was an East Coast hip-hop must-listen in ‘97, Drink Champs is a hip-hop podcast must-listen in ‘17. The 20-year gap didn’t change the voice, it just adjusted the format to reach people. History is being documented through a new medium and some of our best cultural documentarians are players who have spent decades dedicated to the game. Being respected, having stories and being connected to the culture's pulse can put you in the forefront of commentary without chasing charts and battling the trap kids in Auto-Tune. Having a voice in hip-hop doesn’t begin and end in the recording booth. Taking the essence and applying it to other mediums can breed success.
During my recent phone conversation with Phonte, he spoke proudly about his contribution to VH1’s hip-hop series The Breaks. What started off as a TV movie about hip-hop in the '90s was able to expand into a full series due to incredible viewership and high demand to continue the story. Phonte was sought out by director Dan Charnas to write rhymes and coach Antoine Harris, the series' leading actor. Phonte was also given a role and the responsibility to write all the raps and battle raps in the film, an opportunity that was presented to him because Dan Charnas had been a fan of Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange.
Phonte isn't the most famous emcee, but if you could direct deposit respect and admiration, Phonte would have a net worth rivaling that of Tony Stark. Writing rhymes for a television show wasn’t what a young Phonte had in mind when he started to pursue a career in rap, but the excellence of his past opened up a lucrative chance in his much later future. A new path opened. A path to keep his name and talents connected to hip-hop without being the emcee. From Empire to The Get Down, television sees the power of hip-hop's pop culture dominance right now; if other directors follow the footsteps of Dan Charnas and seek out hip-hop authenticity, more doors will open for wordsmiths who made a big enough mark to be remembered. Behind the scenes is where many artists can flourish without compromising their artistry. It may not pay off at the moment, but great art has a chance to always pay off in the future.
"He hit me up and was like, 'Look man, I have this opportunity, and this is what it is.' I was like, 'Yeah, man, let’s go.' It was really fast. We started working in the summer, and the movie aired on Monday. But I was such a huge fan and supporter of 'The Big Payback,' and I knew that the people who were involved in the project—from Dan, to DJ Premier, to [director] Seith Mann, along with Mack Wilds—really wanted to get it right. They really wanted to portray that world accurately and were really invested in doing a good job." - Phonte, 'Beats and The Breaks: Talking to Phonte Coleman about his work on VH1's TV movie'
Mass Appeal's magazine folded in 2008 after being a staple in hip-hop dating back to 1996. The magazine was resurrected years later and even received a six-figure investment from Nas. His reasoning had to do with respect and what Mass Appeal meant to hip-hop. Anything that dies in the culture isn’t final; there’s always a chance for a second coming when there’s meaning behind the platform.
Stretch and Bobbito are hip-hop pioneers, their Columbia University radio show was a launching pad for legends. What they did hasn’t been forgotten—just look at the title of their 2015 documentary: Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives. For a new generation of hip-hop fans, the documentary exposed the hard work and dedication of two legends who were at risk of being unsung in an era where radio's position in music has changed immensely. Now, two years later, NPR has announced that Stretch and Bobbito will be given a podcast to discuss hip-hop music and more. They may have aged in the years that have passed but what they mean to hip-hop hasn’t changed. 19 years away means nothing when your contributions are timeless. Their time in the present is almost a reward for all they did years ago, returning to bring back that feeling once more.
The beauty of hip-hop is rooted in its connection to people. From the rappers to the A&Rs, being meaningful to the culture is to be meaningful to countless lives. Plaques, numbers and acclaim have a place in the entertainment business, but what you put into the culture can also be equally impactful. What you do today might not make the most money, earn the most streams or feel as if it’s rightfully respected, but putting something meaningful into the art form can open up endless possibilities.
We create for today, but tomorrow is where the seeds of our labor truly sprout. To love hip-hop is to be in it for life, whether immersed or apart. We all are fans when the day ends, impacted by something we heard or saw, and hoping to impact someone else with our contributions.
Don’t stop contributing, it’s our duty to fill the books of history with our names and to grow with the very art that ties us all together.
By Yoh, aka Stretch and Yohbito, aka @Yoh31