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The Minstrel Showis a reference to the form of entertainment from the late 1800s, early 1900s, where you had white performers performing in blackface and essentially making a mockery of black culture," says Phonte, explaining the concept behind Little Brother's new album. "We use that as a metaphor for essentially what hip-hop music has become now."
That minstrel legacy has found a home in today's hip-hop culture -- only instead of white figures like Thomas Rice acting out in blackface in front of white audiences in the role of the trickster character Jim Crow, Phonte contends that black performers are now adopting caricatured personas to sell records to an increasingly white demographic. "The new blackface is guns, drugs and jewelry," he asserts. "You feel what I'm saying? Cats feel like if they're not rapping about one of those things, you can't make it as a rapper.
"Instead of hip-hop being an instrument of power or an instrument of positive energy, it has become more of a destructive thing," he adds. "It's like, '"Im-a fuck this nigga up. I'm going to pimp this bitch.' And what is expected of rappers is to live up to these stereotypes. When all you get on the radio is one type of music, when 90 percent of the shit on the radio involves selling drugs, killing niggas, stripping or goddamn being in the club, there needs to be some kind of balance, and that is what we hope to kind of bridge."
To that end, Little Brother takes pride in making grown folks' hip-hop, or what Phonte likes to call "real music for real people."
"We're making songs for the people who say to me, 'Yo, your music has helped me get through my day at work,' or 'Your music has helped me get through a rough period in my life.'"
As the group has evolved, the three -- Phonte, 9th Wonder and Big Pooh -- have begun to take on more mature subject matter, which they believe has helped connect with a fan base that craves more substance.
"'All For You' takes a look at fatherhood," notes Phonte, referring to a track from the new record. "With Pooh, he's talking about not meeting his biological father until he was nineteen, and I'm talking about the situation with my biological father and how I understand it more now that I've become a parent."
It's this kind of depth and ambition that has made The Minstrel Show one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year. Even though the record is not scheduled to drop until next Tuesday, it's already generated controversy. Joshua "Fahiym" Ratcliffe recently resigned from his post as editor-in-chief of The Source when the magazine's co-owners, David Mays and Raymond "Benzino" Scott, allegedly demanded that he and his staff rescind the rating -- four and a half stars out of five -- that they awarded the CD.
"I applaud him for standing up for his beliefs," says Phonte. "The thing that I want to make clear, and I hope everybody understands, is that it's not only because he did it for us -- like he quit his job for Little Brother, quote-unquote. He quit his job because his beliefs were being questioned. I hope people read that as a sign, like, 'Yo, nobody should make you compromise yourself.'"
If anything, Phonte contends with a laugh, "I think Mays and Benzino might have helped us more than they realize."
Ironically, Phonte and Pooh met each other -- albeit indirectly -- via The Source. The two became acquainted in the dorms of North Carolina Central University in 1998. After clowning some of the ads in the magazine, they discovered that they were kindred spirits; both shared a love for early-'90s hip-hop and up-and-coming producers of the day such as Jay Dee. They soon found like-minded brothers in 9th Wonder and Chaundon the Back Twista, with whom they would come together the following year to form the Organization, the earliest incarnation of Little Brother. After Chaundon left for New York in 2000 (where he'd eventually resurface as part of Little Brother's twelve-member Justus League network), the three friends didn't reconvene until the next fall, when they recorded "Speed" for the 9th Wonder-helmed compilation Mr. Dream Merchant.
In August 2001, the trio adopted the moniker Little Brother and quickly earned indie-royalty status by posting tracks on Okayplayer.com, the Roots' website. It was there that the group attracted the attention of ?uestlove, who championed it to anyone who would listen. ?uest's zeal was instrumental in helping Little Brother land a deal with ABB Records, which released its stellar debut.
Released independently, The Listening earned rave reviews for 9th Wonder's tasteful sampling of old-school soul, which laid the perfect backdrop for Pooh and Phonte to trade rhymes like they were Q-Tip and Phife Dawg's literal little brothers. The question in many people's minds is whether Little Brother can maintain its integrity at Atlantic Records, its new major-label home. Phonte thinks so.
"The same shit y'all went for on The Listening -- the dirty samples, the hard drums, all of what drew you to us in the first place -- we can still do that on a major label," he points out. "Nobody who listens to this new record can say 'Atlantic made them niggas switch their shit up.' That was the biggest thing with this album, to show people that you can still make real hip-hop on a major label."
And, as these Brothers continually prove, you can do so without shuckin' and jivin'.