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Little Brother exploded onto the underground hip-hop scene with 2003’s The Listening, a classic debut that won accolades from top tastemakers like ?uestlove and Pete Rock. When the group signed to Atlantic for its controversial follow-up, The Minstrel Show, it looked like it was primed to cross over from the underground to the mainstream. But the trio’s stint on a major label proved disastrous, and the album tanked commercially. Producer 9th Wonder left Little Brother before the release of 2007’s underrated Getback, for which the group re-upped with the independent label that released its debut, ABB.
Frontman Phonte, meanwhile, branched out as half of The Foreign Exchange, an ambitious collaboration with Dutch musician/producer Nicolay; together, the pair compiled an album through instant messaging and trading sound files. The 2004 debut, Connected, was one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade, a lush, seductive masterpiece that perfectly fused laid-back soul with thoughtful, introspective, melodic hip-hop. The Foreign Exchange shocked many people by picking up a Grammy nomination for best urban/alternative performance for “Daykeeper” from its 2009 follow-up, Leave It All Behind, which abandoned hip-hop altogether in favor of R&B and soul, focusing on Phonte’s singing. This year, Phonte reunited with the remaining half of Little Brother, Big Pooh, to release Leftback, the group’s fourth and purportedly final album. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Phonte about ending Little Brother, music-industry bullshit, and beefing with 9th Wonder on Twitter.
The A.V. Club: How’s the tour going?
Phonte Coleman: It’s going cool. We’re not really doing a real tour-tour. It’s just kind of spots here and there. That’s pretty much it. I’ve been ripping and running, dude.
AVC: Is it bittersweet doing these shows knowing that you’re playing for the last time with Little Brother?
PC: Not really. Me and Pooh have done rocked shows so much, and it’s not like any one of us is fucking about to die or some shit.
AVC: But it’s the last time you’re performing together as a group.
PC: Right. Though it ain’t even like that. I mean, damn, we know we’re always going to be doing more work. I’m on his record, he’s on my record. We still do work, and we’re still going to do shows. To me, it’s not really bittersweet, it’s just another chapter in the story. I really wanted to set it straight, because this is not a retirement. A lot of people are saying, “They’ll be back, they’ll be back.” Naw, it’s not that, because this is not a retirement. We never came out and said, “Yo, I’m retiring.” We’re just stopping the brand of Little Brother. It’s not like I came out and we’re saying, “Aight, we’re about to quit music. I’m about to start laying drywall or some shit, and Pooh’s about to open up a restaurant.” I think that’s why the audience doesn’t believe rappers when they say they’re retiring, because very rarely does a rapper ever stop fucking rapping. Or stop making music. We never said we’re stopping making music; we’re just ending Little Brother.
AVC: So why break up at this point?
PC: We’ve pretty much said everything we had to say. We just came to a point where me and Pooh creatively were really in different places. Business-wise, from that standpoint, I was more of an indie-type person, and he wanted to be more of a traditional label-type person. Those are just the kind of fundamental differences that we had. We’re at a point now where—whereas five or six years ago, we would have had to coexist in that area together—now we’re in an area where we can both make our own lanes and create our own paths the way we see fit. It didn’t make any sense to try to force that relationship for business reasons and end up wrecking a personal friendship over it. For me, it was much more important to maintain our friendship and let the business stuff go to the side, just to be able to remain cool and still be family.
AVC: You don’t want to wear out your welcome.
PC: The thing that I’m most proud of is that we were able to go out, if not on top, on our own terms. We stopped when we wanted it to stop. It wasn’t like cats got tired of us, or a label hung us out to dry. It stopped when we said stop. We were able to walk away on our own terms.
AVC: Leftback began as an EP. At what point did you decide you wanted it to be an album?
PC: I guess this was probably a year after we started it. Again, it was going to be just an EP with a DVD with it, and so time went on and the DVD was in production or whatever, and we were just like, “Man, okay, well, fuck it.” So a year went by, and I had done Leave It All Behind. Pooh did a couple of mix-tapes and stuff. So by that time, we looked up and it was like, “Man, all right.” That was when we had made the decision to stop doing Little Brother, because we were just in different places. That was when we were like, “All right, since this is going to be the last one, let’s go ahead and make it a full-length album.”
AVC: There are two different remixes on there. What was the thinking behind that?
PC: Again, originally Leftback was going to be an EP. I guess the original idea of it was going to be an Ice Cube Kill At Will. I don’t know if you even remember that.
AVC: It was probably the best hip-hop EP of all time.
PC: Straight up, dude. That was my thinking. I envisioned like a Kill At Will-type joint, with some new joints, some remixes. Just a little something out there. So that was the idea. Then again, after all the time passed between that and the DVD and all that business, we were like, “Well, let’s just go on and make it an album.” At the same time, I still loved those remixes, and I didn’t want to keep those remixes off just because it’s a quote-unquote album. I’m like, “Shit, it should still go, fuck it.”
AVC: What do you think you’ll miss most about being part of Little Brother?
PC: Man, I don’t know. I can’t say. I guess, in a lot of ways, just the ease of the stage show. You got to get dressed up and all that. But with Little Brother, I just wake up, throw on my T-shirt and my jeans or whatever, and just go out and perform. You’re going to get sweaty, you’re going to get crazy.
AVC: The Foreign Exchange was nominated for a Grammy. How did you find out you’d been nominated?
PC: My director of operations Amy called me, called my wife, and was like, “You got nominated.” So my wife woke me up—I was knocked out asleep—and she’s like, “Y’all got nominated.” She put Amy on the phone, and it was like, “You got nominated, you got nominated!” I was like, “All right, word up, okay.” And I was knocked the fuck out. [Laughs.] I was done. So I went back to sleep, and it didn’t really hit me until I woke up, and I saw all these calls I missed and everything. I was like, “Damn.” That’s when I guess it kind of hit me, just the gravity of the situation. “Fuck, man, we got nominated for a Grammy!”
AVC: Who were you up against?
PC: We ended up losing out to India.Arie, but it was, in the category, us, Eric Roberson, Robert Glasper & Bilal, Tonex, who’s a gospel artist, and India.Arie. Eric Roberson is a real good buddy of mine, and we talk a lot, and we’ve collaborated on a lot of stuff. Me and him were talking about how great it was just for two indie cats to be in the same category, ’cause we were both truly indie, straight doing it ourselves and everything. That, to me, was a victory, even though we didn’t win the actual trophy. Just that we were able to get there and do it on our own terms. That made me proud.
AVC: What was your Grammy night like?
PC: It was cool. We went to the joint. For me, once I found out we didn’t win, I was ready to get back on the plane and get back home and go to work. Straight up. “Okay, we didn’t get it, okay, cool. Let me get back home.” That was pretty much it. You know, man, it was cool. I’m thankful for the experience. I’m glad we did get a chance to go and see it, because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m not mad at all.
AVC: What were your experience like with ABB, compared to Atlantic? It seems like you were pretty frustrated with both.
PC: The thing about all labels is, they all got their shit to deal with. In the case of Atlantic—a major label is going to fuck you, but they got money, so the fucking don’t feel as bad, because whenever you complain or have problems, they’ll just throw some money at you and make you complacent for a while. You’re kind of just, “Okay, well, whatever; I’m gonna get me some, get my money.” But with an indie, they try to pull the major-label shit, but they don’t got major-label money. With ABB, they were just really incompetent in a lot of ways. They were not really up front with us about what they could do, what their limitations were, what the venue limitations were as a label. For whatever reason, they just didn’t feel comfortable telling us those things. I’m not saying I need to know your financial history for the past 15 years and shit like that, but if you know you can’t get records in the store, just tell us you can’t get them in the store. It was just very frustrating, man, very frustrating. It could have been a lot better than it was if it weren’t for the greed and need to try to control everything and do everything for the sake of saving a buck. They really missed out on a lot of things in the long run. It was just very, very frustrating.
AVC: Your first album and third album were both on ABB. Had anything changed by that point?
PC: Naw, naw. It was the same old shit. The only thing about it was with The Listening, we were very frustrated, but it was our first record, we just had to have a record out, and it’s all new. It’s a new experience, so you’re just happy. But by the time Getback came around, it’s just like, “Dude, I don’t give a fuck if this shit sells 10 copies, nigga, I’m done.” We were just so happy to be off the label, because that was the last record for everybody, so for me, it was a celebration. I was like, “Man, once we put this shit out, I’m free from everybody, everybody, from Atlantic, from ABB. I ain’t got to talk to none of you motherfuckers no more.” I was happy as hell.
AVC: You said in an interview, “The knowledge that I’ve gained from the fallout with Atlantic is way more valuable to me than any kind of money I could have made.” What was the most important thing you learned, being on a major label?
PC: Just that no one is going to work harder for me than myself, and that there was nothing more valuable to me than my music. You always think that, at least for me, coming up, doing it on every level, doing it from indie-indie to a major-indie, putting out records on Koch and going to Atlantic, you always think that the major label has been the brass ring in a lot of ways. It’s like, “I know that when I get to this major, they’re going to be doing this, and they’re going to give us all these perks. They got the power.” Going through that, I found that nothing worked harder for us, nothing opened more doors for us, than our music. It wasn’t really the label doing anything for us. I remember when we signed to Atlantic, and the press people, the PR people, were calling us like, “The phone is ringing off the hook for you guys. Normally we have to pitch artists to magazines and stuff, but these people are calling us for y’all. We’ve never had that happen before with a new act.”
I just saw that there is no magic wizard that’s going to come and make everything better. You really just have to do the shit yourself. And if you’re going to do it by yourself anyway, you might as well do shit all the way by yourself, so you can see all your money, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs.] So that was when 2007 came and we finished Getback; in 2008, me and Zo! put out the Zo! And Tigallo Love The 80’s record, and me and Nicolay put out Leave It All Behind, both by ourselves. I just never looked back from that point.
AVC: It seems like Hall Of Justus is a one-stop shop.
PC: Yeah. It doesn’t make any sense for me. Everything doesn’t work for everybody. The major-label system doesn’t work for everybody, just like the indie game is not going to work for everybody. It’s just about finding what works for you, and I just found, for me, that ultimately the major-label system was not going to work for me. When you know something is not going to work for you, and you know for sure, without a shadow of a doubt, then that’s when you can really move forward. Until then, you’ve still got that fantasy in your mind and shit. It’s like you spend all your time hung up on this old girlfriend and shit, but you finally meet her and her breasts hang and shit; it’s like, “Aw, the bitch wasn’t even that cute.” [Laughs.] You realize, “All right, she ain’t even fine like that, I can move on; I can really put my energy toward finding something else, because this bitch ain’t as hot as I thought she was.”
AVC: I remember thinking when you signed to Atlantic, “Wow, this is great. Their music will reach a much larger audience,” but it sounds like that wasn’t the case.
PC: Naw, it’s not, it’s really not, man. I really have to credit my man Rakaa from Dilated Peoples for putting me up on game early on. They were one of the cats that we really watched their grind, and they never forgot where they came from. They were really supportive of us early on. Me and Rakaa would chop it up. Real good brother, real good dude. He told me straight up, “Man, you know the thing that the labels do to suck you in is they tell you, ‘We give you full creative control.’” He was like, “Creative control is cool, they’ll give you creative control, but they’ve got financial control. They’ll tell you you’ve got full creative control, you can do whatever you want, you can make the records you want to make. But they’re going to tighten up the purse strings on you, so really, ‘creative control’ is pretty much an empty slogan.” It really don’t mean shit. “We’ll give you creative control, but, you know, nigga, we ain’t putting no money behind your shit.” So with us, that’s kind of what happened. They allowed us to make the record that we wanted to make, and that was very fortunate in and of itself, but, I don’t know, man, it just didn’t pan out. It didn’t pan out the way I thought it was, but I guess it all worked out for the best. I don’t have any regrets about the situation at all.
AVC: Do you think the concept and title of The Minstrel Show might have scared Atlantic a bit?
PC: Yeah, I definitely think that plays a part. That had a lot to do with it, and I think also, outside from that, it was that we came in and set up our own shop. We had our own way of doing things. Everything was in-house already. We were like, “Look, we’ve already got our own little machine that’s working for us. We just need y’all to pump it up a little bit.” We already had a guy doing artwork. We already had everything. We had our own studio time. We were really just a DIY operation, and I think a lot of people at the label company felt threatened by that, because in the major-label system, everybody is looking for their come-up. Every fucking mailroom boy is hoping to become, you know, head mailroom boy. Every fucking vice president wants to be president. Every A&R wants to be an executive. It’s just a bunch of fucking bureaucratic shit. Everyone is looking for the next come-up. So when you have a group that no one can take credit for their success, then they have no reason to root for you. It’s like, “Shit, these niggas ain’t really doing shit for me.” So we were very much, in that aspect, on an island. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to work with the label; it was just “Shit, we got some shit that’s working already. Y’all niggas just sit back and let us make you look good.” [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve said that The Listening was coming from a place of innocence, The Minstrel Show came from a place of anger and being jaded, and Getback came from a place of acceptance. To follow that line of discourse, where is Leftback coming from?
PC: Leftback, for me, comes from a place of gratitude, being thankful for the fans that have supported us, and, I guess, a place of feeling satisfied. I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished, I feel good about the music we’ve made, I’m thankful for what Little Brother has allowed me to do, and here’s to the fans, this is the last one. For me, that’s where it’s coming from.
AVC: What’s next for you?
PC: Pretty much just me and Nic are hard at work building up the FE music brand on my label/production company. I hate the word “label.” I’ve got to come up with another word for “label.” I hate the fucking word “label,” yo. [Laughs.]
AVC: It has bad connotations for you?
PC: Yeah, it does, it really does, man. So our company is our company. We just released YahZarah, her album The Ballad Of Purple Saint James, and that has been doing really, really well so far. Just from the feedback from the fans, people really seem to love the record. We got four and a half stars out of five on All Music Guide. The outpouring on that has been kind of overwhelming. I’m just like, “Damn.” So her record, me and Nic did a lot of production; I did a lot of songwriting on that one. So that’s out. Next up we have Zo!, my man, who’s the keyboard player in our band, and we also did the Zo! And Tigallo Love The 80’s joint. His record SunStorm is coming out July 27. That’s the next record we’re putting out. We’ll be shooting a video for his first single soon. After that, we’ve got a new Foreign Exchange album coming out in October. After that, next year my solo record will come out. I’m pretty much just working damn near around the clock putting the finishing touches on the projects and trying to keep the movement going.
AVC: What can you say about your solo album?
PC: I started it last year, and I kind of got into it, but once we got nominated for the Grammy, I was like, “Okay, fuck a solo album, this shit can wait. The focus is on Foreign Exchange right now. Fuck it, let’s hit them with another record.” Me and Nic had already started working on the new record anyway, but then once the Grammy shit happened, it was like, “Okay. It’s mostly hip-hop; I’m going to get back to my MCing more.” I’m still going to have some singing on it, as well, but mainly it will be hip-hop this go-around, with some singing mixed in. Ideally, I would like to make a record that shows all of my influences, from the hip-hop to the R&B stuff. I want my solo record to be a one-stop shop. If you’ve heard a lot about Little Brother and you’ve heard a lot about Foreign Exchange, but you’re not really knowing about me, you can pick up my solo record and that can bring you up to speed about who Phonte is and what he does.
AVC: Where’s Nicolay living now?
PC: He’s in Wilmington. He’s in North Carolina.
AVC: The first Foreign Exchange album, you guys did basically long distance via iChat?
PC: Pretty much.
AVC: The second one, you recorded together?
PC: The second one we did the same. We did it through IM.
AVC: Why do that instead of going the more conventional route?
PC: That’s just our way of recording. Even the new stuff now we’re doing is still the same way, where we’re exchanging files. It works for us. I’m just a fan of allowing each other our space. If Nic comes up with an idea, he can work on it in his space, and I can work on a vocal idea in my space. It’s just like the whole saying of “I don’t want to meet the cow, just bring me the steak.” I don’t want to listen to Nic play the same drum loop for five hours at a time, just like Nic don’t want to sit and watch me in the studio for four hours laying all these vocals, harmonies, retakes, edits, and all that. It’s just like, “Dude, you do what you do, I do what I do, and we’ll just bring it together.” That actually works for us.
AVC: The first Foreign Exchange album had elements of R&B, soul, and electronica, but it was pretty much hip-hop. The second one, you didn’t seem to do any rapping at all. What led to that progression?
PC: That was just what we were feeling. Everything we had done on our first record, I think we hint at on the new record. To some people, it was a surprise, but to a lot of people, it was like, “Okay, I see that.” It wasn’t really much of a shock to them. It was just where me and Nic were at the time. The stuff that he sent me, the first musical ideas, just to me said more of a soul album than a hip-hop album. When I heard the melodies and the chord changes and the structure of everything, just rapping over it felt to me like it would have been taking the easy way out. With those changes and shifts in tempo and everything, rapping felt like it wouldn’t have been a good fit. It felt like it would have been a cop-out. So that’s why we went, “Look, let’s just stay on doing what we do.”
AVC: It seems like it’s important for you to challenge yourself.
PC: Oh, totally. I’m just thinking I never want to make the same record twice. Always pushing yourself to stay challenged and stay focused, because once you stop challenging yourself, that’s when shit get wack.
AVC: You’ve said that The Wire is a huge inspiration on your writing; how so?
PC: Man, it’s just great storytelling. It’s fantastic storytelling, and I think that’s what songwriting really is. It’s ultimately all about telling a great story. With The Wire, the thing I love about it is, it shows that very often, there are no easy answers to anything in life. If you look at any kind of problem or anything of that nature, it often requires a lot of context and a lot of examination to really understand it. With the songwriting approach, I really try to approach it from that angle in the sense of writing about love or relationships or family or anything, just showing that things are not as cut-and-dried as they may be. On a song like “Breakin’ My Heart,” the song we did with Lil Wayne, so many women hit me about that record and was like, “Yo, you saying some raw shit, but I can respect it, just because of the way you explained it. It does make sense that way.” The stuff I’m saying in that verse is some pretty cold-blooded shit, but it’s honest, and it’s trying to look at it from all angles and explore the problem. It’s attacking it from all sides. With The Wire, that’s what it was for me. It was just great storytelling.
AVC: You’re very active on Twitter.
PC: You just have to show people all sides of yourself, to some degree. With music, it’s not really so much about people buying your music; they’re buying into you and who you are as a person. With something like Twitter, you can really show people other interests that you have outside of music. It gives people another kind of insight into who you are. That’s why I use it. I like to connect to people. I’ve used Twitter for everything from my personal GPS service to, “Yo, I’m in such-such city. Where’s a good place to get some barbecue?” It’s really what you make it. I have a great group of fans who have helped me out with a lot of stuff. I just ask questions, and they’ll hit me back. If used in a good way, it can be really useful.
AVC: The beef with 9th Wonder over his refusal to let the track “Star” appear on the album, it seemed like a lot of that happened via Twitter, that’s kind of how you were communicating. Did it seem strange for such an important conflict to be happening on a social networking site?
PC: Yeah, it was. I never thought that it would happen. It was almost like some self-parody-type shit. It’s just so ironic, because I can remember when me and 9th would be looking at old videos and reading interviews about why rap crews beef and do all this dumb shit and just be like, “Man, these motherfuckers so stupid. Why they doing that dumb shit?” But lo and behold, we doing the same shit. [Laughs.] So again, I apologize that the fans had to witness that. I didn’t want for it to be public or whatever. But the thing was, just like I addressed in my video, the way the shit was initially addressed. If you disrespect me in public, then I’m going to handle the situation in public. I’m going to use the same medium that you used to get at me to get back at you. To me, that’s only fair. If you call me talking shit, I’m going to call you talking shit. If you e-mail me talking shit, I’m going to e-mail you back talking shit. If you goddamn send me a smoke signal, motherfucker, I’m going to goddamn… you know what I’m saying? [Laughs.] That’s just how it is. Again, I wasn’t the first one to start throwing shots and this, that, and a third. But our problems are much deeper than rap. It ain’t got nothing to do with rap. It’s got a lot to do with loyalty, respect, and manhood. That’s some shit that’s bigger to me than some fucking rap song. So to the fans, I’m sorry, but before I was a rapper, I was a fucking man. If I feel disrespected as a man, I’m going to address that.