When 9th Wonder announced on Twitter, “Little Brother is not coming back,” there wasn’t an uproar, the day continued as if he announced his grocery list. It wasn’t a surprise, it’s been known for years, 9th’s tweet only confirmed the brutal truth to the few living in denial. Another group joins the endless list of hip-hop crews that disbanded too soon. Acceptance is an emotion that hip-hop fans struggle with, deep down we are dreamers, we believe that every group will eventually reconcile like G-Unit and Bad Meets Evil. We also believe in mythical creatures like dragons (Detox), unicorns (an Outkast reunion) and whatever creature Jay Electronica is (Jay Electronica).
Personally, I have an appreciation for endings. They are necessary, a part of natural progression. It allows us to take a moment and reminisce, remind ourselves what made them remarkable. Little Brother outlasted and prospered in an industry that had no idea how to handle their avant-garde approach. When you look at Little Brother’s legacy you’ll find timeless music, trendsetting, and uncompromising risk taking. It all started in 2003.
50 Cent’s "In Da Club," "Magic Stick" and "P.I.M.P" are inescapable, after surviving nine bullets he shot up Billboard. Chingy’s "Right Thurr" and "Holiday Inn" has left St. Louis and infiltrated worldwide radio. Lil Jon along with the Ying Yang Twins and The East Side Boyz twerk anthem, "Get Low," inspired worldwide gyrating while neglecting to bleep out the word “skeet.” Justin Timberlake was crying rivers, Eminem lost himself on 8 Mile and Nelly stomped in his Air Force Ones. I was only 13-years-old at the time, but I remember how popular these songs were. What I did not know that year was that something was happening six hours away in Durham, North Carolina. Little Brother, a group that consisted of 9th Wonder, Phonte and Big Pooh, released their debut album, The Listening, on February 25, 2003. This was during a time when southern rappers were depicted as abominations that were suffocating hip-hop with their shaking of tail feathers and country grammar. Little Brother was different. The trio carried the same torches that Tribe, De Le Soul, Slum Village and Public Enemy were revered for. The radio was oblivious, B.E.T missed the memo, but history was being made.
During the 2001-2002 internet dark ages SoundCloud wasn’t around. Bandcamp wasn’t an outlet to upload albums and mixtapes. DJBooth, NahRight and 2Dope didn’t exist. Underground artists were mailing their demos and praying that a big fish would bite the bait. The internet wasn’t the golden ticket to record deals and thousands of listeners, but that perception changed with Little Brother. They are considered one of the first hip-hop acts to get a deal through the information superhighway. The music they made in North Carolina reached Oakland, California into the ears of ABB Records (Dilated People, Planet Asia, and Evidence). Like any great story, it was purely accidental (see also, penicillin). A leak of sorts led to a post on Okayplayer, a major forum for hip-hop even back then. Once posted, it became an overnight sensation. Artist in this age desire that instant glorification, to release a single and have phone calls from record labels, but back then, it was revolutionary. Little Brother is proof of the internet’s power. The whole story can be heard on 9th Wonder's excellent Combat Jack interview.
2003 was a year full of acclaimed hip-hop releases. The Black Album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin, Speakerboxx/The Love Below, The Neptune’s Present: Clones, some would call these “classics.” Little Brother’s The Listening is another album that is held in the same esteem, but unlike its contemporaries, it wasn’t made in some major label funded studio. Even though they didn’t have the money, Little Brother had passion and spent the summer and fall of 2001 recording inside Cesar Comanche’s apartment-turnt-studio. There was no recording booth, just a bedless bedroom with a couch, Cesar’s records and a computer set-up. This is the text-book definition of starving artistry prevailing. Imagine trying to mix vocals on speakers that don’t pan, or lay down bars, spitting the illest punchline and someone laughing in the background. Chaundon claims you can actually hear laughter if you listen to the acapellas from that album. It’s the same as watching a sitcom and hearing the live audience. Little Brother is a true testament that the equipment doesn’t make the rapper, but vice-versa.
The internet buzz and the acclaimed album led critics to believe that Little Brother would bring a “real” hip-hop resurgence. They are offspring of the '90s, something new and nostalgic, a blend of past and present. Their name derives from being the “little brothers” of the elders they looked up to. Praise from Pete Rock and Jazzy Jeff meant more than any radio success. This was before Nas declared hip-hop’s death, but with southern hip-hop on the rise, there was a desire to balance the glistening grillz and Lil Jon ad-libs with thought provoking lyricism. Every few years a new talent is discovered, it’s a special crowning when you are looked upon to carry the burden of supplying hip-hop its essence. Lupe would be placed on the same pedestal in 2006, and Kendrick in 2012. For a moment in time, Little Brother were the golden children from a Golden Era, how many look at Joey Bada$$ today. Hip-hop wanted Little Brother to win, a testament to their potential.
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After the success of their debut album with ABB Records, Atlantic Records jumped aboard the hype train and signed Little Brother. Many hoped that the group would be leaving the underground, stepping into the mainstream, but the transition wasn’t smooth. There was reports that B.E.T refused to air their single, “Lovin’ It” because it was too “intelligent” for their audience. This was when B.E.T had a huge influence on what was accepted and embraced, but it also shows the kind of dumbed down mindset that was affecting the industry. That’s also what makes Little Brother so inspiring. Artists today can manuever around major media blockadesy with thousands of followers, but back then you needed these companies to help extend your reach. Even without B.E.T, they overcame the sophomore jinx with The Minstrel Show, a successor that some argue is even better than The Listening. The praise came from everywhere, rave reviews from every publication, but it wasn’t enough to keep the group together. 9th Wonder would eventually depart, Pooh and Phonte would leave Atlantic and dropped two more incredible studio albums and a few mixtapes as LB, but the trio would never collaborate as Little Brother again.
9th Wonder stole hip-hop’s heart with his soulful samples and classic interpolations, his work with Phonte and Pooh was like a spaceship that broke through the industry's atmosphere, his production took him to a new galaxy and he did it all on Fruity Loops and Cool Edit. Using the computer to produce was criticized, some would even say “real beat makers” didn’t use Fruity Loops. Beat machines like the MPC was still the industry standard, some still carry those views today. While kids on message boards were arguing back and forth about “real” and “fake,” 9th Wonder was using the very program to break into the industry. The same year The Listening dropped, 9th was sitting in the studio making beats for Destiny's Child and JAY Z. He literally has a GRAMMY for Jay's “Threat,” a song produced on the same program that Soulja Boy used to make “Crank Dat.” Another case of the man making the equipment. It’s been over a decade since he surprised the beloved culture, 9th has inspired a generation of producers to not only crate dig and sample but trust in their own methods. His impact doesn’t stop there; as a professor 9th expands into educating the youth on hip-hop history. He’s taught at North Carolina Central University, Duke and Harvard. Having someone knowledgeable and able to reach the youth is important for the future of hip-hop. Speaking of the future, 9th is the label head of Jamla, one of hip-hop’s most promising independent labels.
9th brought the sound, Phonte and Big Pooh brought a charm to Little Brother that would show the next generation of rappers that they could be both exceptional rappers and ordinary men. Before College Dropout, these two were merging hip-hop heads with bluecollar workers. They didn’t have the aura that were related to rappers back then, their chains weren’t big and flashy and they weren’t bragging about the hordes of hoes – the subject matter reflected their lives and not some fabricated persona. Rappers tend to seem larger than life, living a lifestyle that only a chosen few will ever obtain. Anyone that likes Little Brother are attracted to the opposite, their music felt genuine and down-to-earth. The duo exhibited a naked honesty, while still proving to be entertaining, humorous and lyrical. The trials and tribulations of two emcees living in North Carolina proved that rap had room for such a narrative. It was a brand music that eventually influenced many, most notably one of today’s biggest rappers, Drake.
Throughout the years they’ve been able to grow as individuals, explore side-projects, prove their capabilities as separate entities. It’s impressive that Phonte used the internet to connect with Dutch producer Nicolay in a pre-MySpace era. The two would later create the critically acclaimed group, Foreign Exchange. Through email, instant messenger and traditional mail the two would exchange verses and production and didn’t meet until the completion of their first album, Connected. During this time, Pooh was working on his solo album, Sleepers. Both have survived the test of time, Phonte dropped his long awaited solo debut, Charity Starts At Home, in 2010. Reviews were so favorable I even suggested that he should be placed on XXL freshmen list. Pooh is now signed to Mellow Music Group and outputting some grade-A music. It’s also worth noting that Big Pooh was one of Kendrick Lamar’s earliest supporters. He appears on the 2009 Kendrick Lamar EP, the only rap feature that wasn’t a part of TDE.
Little Brother stood for the culture. They sought to add something to hip-hop that would be remembered, something their idols would respect. It wasn’t about money or accolades, making music they'd be proud to listen to was their only goal. Every accomplishment was achieved by doing it their way, taking no shortcuts to reach the top. Things that we accept as normal today, they did when it was unorthodox and strange. Classic albums crafted in bedrooms, record deals and touring off music posted online, beats created on computer programs, inventive rap styles, word-of-mouth marketing, they did it all, and they did it well. They came, they saw and they conquered, even if it was for only a moment in time.
It's nice to seemingly see the three on great terms now. Whatever problems existed have been resolved, the gears are moving forward. It's safe to say new little brothers are being born every day - just look at who had the only guest verse on Kendrick's new album. Rappers following in their footsteps, those who want to carry the torch of their idols, emerge from their shadows and remind the culture that it lives on. So whether you're a long time fan or a newcomer, now seems like the perfect time to do some serious listening.
[By Yoh, aka "The Yoh-Yoh", aka @Yoh31.]