My eyes would stare in fixation at the door that stood before me. There would be days I wouldn’t see the starving faces of customers entering the restaurant; where I didn’t see the joyous merriment that transpired at their dining tables, nor the misery in the eyes of my co-workers. I only saw the door that was my exit to freedom and my entrance into prison. My vision was limited only to the obstacle that separated me from my dream; I didn’t know what would happen once I finally got through the door, but I believed in the greener pastures that awaited me on the other side. Nirvana was just a doorknob away.
Kanye’s “Spaceship” was more than just a song; it captured my perception of being an artist in a non-creative workspace. Kanye’s angst was my angst, his passion was my passion, and if his spaceship took him from The Gap, I believed mine would take me from Olive Garden. His entire career has been a testament to how artistic forward-thinking can move mountains, demolish doors, and nuke normalcy. On the other side of the spectrum was Phonte’s “The Good Fight,” a song that doesn’t value a dream over a job, but rather the importance of working for the sake of your livelihood. Phonte has always been honest and unmerciful, a voice that would rather sing of realism than sell a fantasy to listeners.
I carry the hook from Little Brother’s “Dreams” in my heart like an ancient African proverb: “Momma I got dreams, but dreams don’t keep the lights on.” It’s true, dreams don’t keep the lights on, but if you can turn that dream into something real, then the opportunities are endless.
In 2016, Phonte isn’t worried about keeping the lights on. He has reached a point in his career where the money is a thought, but no longer a worry. It’s an excellent position to be in for a rapper who released his first album as a member of Little Brother over 13 years ago. He recalled during our phone call the moment he decided to quit his job and pursue music as a career:
“Up until we went on tour for The Listening in 2003, the winter of 2003, I was still working a job. We made about $3,000 dollars—me, Pooh, and 9th came back with $1,000 a piece. That was enough money for me to pay my rent and put something on my car note. I got this month figured out, so I had 30 days to figure out the next month. That was my life from that point on. Just kinda swinging from vine to vine. There’s been times I thought there wouldn’t be any vines, but now they are much closer. Much, much closer now than they were 15 years ago. I got it figured out.”
What makes all that Phonte has accomplished so impressive is how he’s done everything without sacrificing his artistic integrity. In this business, artists conform; maybe it’s for money, perhaps it’s for fame, but there have been countless individuals that have gone against who they are for the sake of a moment. Moments they will look back on and cringe and hate what they created.
“You never want to make an artistic decision out of desperation” is a quote from our conversation that will likely stick with me for the rest of my life. He elaborated further on the importance of making music that you’re proud of, music that you won’t mind living with for the duration of your career. Being able to make music at 22 that you can listen to at 32 without being embarrassed is a form of success that all artists should strive for.
“The reason why I’ve been able to stay on course with my career, and do the music I want to make is because I never put myself in the position where shit was do or die. For anyone that’s pursuing something artistic, long as you got something that allows you to make some steady bread, I say stay in it. You never want desperation to fuel what artistic moves you have to make. Go after your dream but be practical. Don’t get dressed up before you have a date for the prom.”
Accomplishing your dream is romanticized, like the rainbow that comes after the rainfall. I used to think this way, but in reality, you deal with an even heavier downpour before the gray skies depart. No matter what your dream may be, it’s still, mostly, work, and work isn’t always a pleasure. The moment rap became work for Phonte is when Little Brother signed to Atlantic Records for their sophomore album.
“Anytime you turn something you’re passionate about into an obligation, you're going to meet it with some resentment,” he tells me, a very accurate observation on the change that occurs when your passion becomes your livelihood. The way Phonte breaks it down is by comparing the transition into music as a career to leaving your wife for your mistress, and how the dynamics of those two relationships changing will have unexpected results that will affect your life.
If your mistress was your escape from your wife, what happens when you need to escape your mistress? If music is what helps you to deal with the bullshit in life, what happens once the music is the reason for all your stress?
“I don’t think people get it when you say it takes hard work to make it in this business. I don’t think anyone has an idea of what that really means. Hard work doesn’t mean I’m not getting any sleep, that I may have to miss a couple birthdays, no nigga. It means you may be working your ass off for 10 to 15 years before you see any glimmer of a breakthrough. Are you willing to put in 10 years of hard work for your dream? When we were doing LB, we were doing LB to death. It was mixtape, album, mixtape, tour, tour, tour, tour, album, man we did that shit to death. By the time 2010 rolled around, I just didn’t have any more to give. I had to find the love again.”
Life is long. It’s hard to see a future at 50 when you’re living out your early 20s. Tomorrow may not be promised, but there’s also no telling the impact that tomorrow will have on the person you are today. We are on a long journey to old age—more of a gift than a curse—but life has a way of throwing you through loops to see if you can handle the changes.
Phonte has aged gracefully in this youthful genre, and he’s one artist who wears his maturity like a piece of fine cloth. Both Charity Starts At Home and the recently released Tigallerro, a collaborative album with Eric Roberson, are albums from a seasoned emcee who knows precisely the kind of music he wants to make, without being tempted by today’s hottest trend. You can hear a life of experience in his music. The way he approaches topics of love and life is much different than some of his contemporaries. I’d rather have that voice at times to soak in the same wisdom you would receive from like an intelligent uncle. Hip-Hop and rap need that voice.
“When you’re young starting in your career, it’s all about being the best you can be and developing that skill to be the best you can be. Once you get older, further in your career, that’s when it’s about putting yourself in the position to make the most money. That’s pretty much where I am right now. In terms of rhyming and rapping, I’m about as good of a rapper that I’m going to be. I’m always pushing to make myself better, I’m still going to continue sharpening the sword, but now it’s about putting myself in the position to make the bread and take it to another level. That’s the transition for me. At 22 it was about being the greatest rapper. Now it’s about how can I set up life for my 50’s and 60’s.”
Talking with Phonte, you get the same wit and wisdom that made him such a refreshing rapper when Little Brother first appeared. We spoke about biters in hip-hop, ageism, raising kids during the social media era, and police brutality in America. I could honestly fill pages with quotable gems and jewels.
The most important things he told me during our conversation, though, were his views on success:
“Being able to say what you want and make a living doing it. Living on your own terms. I think about money, but I don’t worry about money. That’s something that’s been years in the making. You have peaks and valleys in your career. The work I put in has been paying off and has lead to opportunities. I can say now that money is something I don’t worry about. If you can make a living doing what you love, saying what you want to say, take care of your family, and come home to a house to people that love you outside of what you do, what more can you ask for? I tell young guys all the time, music is not going to save you. It can change your life, but it’s not going to save your life. If you use it properly, it can be a tool to help your family out of a difficult situation. It can help take care of your kids. It can provide you with income to help you handle what’s going on in your life. But once you step off that stage, step out of that recording both, you still have to be you. There’s a difference between your persona and your identity. Outside of the music, outside of the job you have to ask who am I? It can not be your job. If it is you’ll be torn to fucking pieces. You have to have something that grounds you.”
He’s right. Music is not going to save your life. It can be fulfilling, and it can be rewarding, but it won’t take your soul entirely out of the furnace. I see it in many artists—I see it in myself—the aches and pains that come with losing a sense of self because of work.
Chase your dreams, conquer your goals, but don’t be defined by your work. Don’t be identified by your career. Phonte is living proof that you can figure it out later on in life. Just have the courage to turn the doorknob if you want to see what’s on the other side.
By Yoh, aka Yohtigallo, aka @Yoh31