Little Brother Are Just Your Neighborhood Friendly Legends

By Interview by Clarissa Brooks Nov 07, 2019

Making a reunion album is a major gamble. If it’s executed poorly—or even if it’s just shrug-worthy—it becomes a permanent asterisk on a respected group’s legacy. The North Carolina trio turned duo Little Brother took that risk with “May the Lord Watch,” and they are reaping the rewards with a national tour and widespread critical acclaim.

Little Brother became heroes of underground hip-hop in the early 2000s, a period dominated by artists like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Young Jeezy. With soulful beats by then-member 9th Wonder and intricate rhymes by Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh, the group earned comparisons to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and The Roots. Formed at North Carolina Central University, LB represented the next musical movement in the state that produced Missy Elliott and Timbaland.

Also, LB was hilarious. In a time of wanton materialism and true crime stories, their perfectly timed skits skewered the repetition of urban radio, the self-seriousness of underground hip-hop and the neo-blaxploitation of TV networks such as UPN. Their debut album, “The Listening,” came out to great fanfare on the indie label ABB in February 2003. By 2007 they had been signed to Atlantic Records, exited the label and lost 9th Wonder, whose mainstream star had risen due to one of his beats landing on Jay-Z’s “Black Album.”

Most recently, Phonte has worked on projects with his Grammy-nominated duo, The Foreign Exchange, and the soul singer Zo! He has produced music for television and is a frequent contributor to the “Questlove Supreme” podcast. Pooh has branched into making solo albums, starting a distribution outlet, Common Sense Media Group, DJing and managing artists including Charlotte, North Carolina’s Lute

With such divergent paths, no one expected Little Brother to make another album. They were grown men living real lives with wives, children and bills. But after a 2018 reunion on a festival stage, Phonte announced that Little Brother would be making its first album in nine years.

“May the Lord Watch” finds Phonte and Pooh delivering some of the best lyrics of their careers. And the skits are still there. Through their made-up television station, UBN, they present send-ups of “Iyanla: Fix My Life,” “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and “Unsung.” Along Phonte’s alter ego Roy Lee, a cheesy producer who can’t actually produce, are real people such as Questlove, Jemele Hill and Peter Rosenberg having a grand time. Here, Little Brother talk about their instant classic. 

On coming back together:

Phonte: “It feels amazing. For so long it was the most improbable and impossible thing ever. Little Brother is something that’s bigger than both of us and it requires a lot of time and attention. It’s really exhausting. For a while it seemed like doing it again wouldn’t be worth the hassle, but we’ve found a way to make it work within the context of our present-day lives. It’s been really beautiful to watch it all come full circle. We had to get our shit together.”

Rapper Big Pooh: “It’s still kinda’ surreal to me. It feels like everything is happening the way it’s supposed to happen.”

On the creative process of “May the Lord Watch”:

Rapper Big Pooh: [The first track on the album, “The Feel”] was the second song we recorded. When we were making the hook we wanted the audience to know that Little Brother’s back for the listener to know. The small things matter and connect things. Even with us starting off the verse together to the words of the hook, those little things set the tone for this album.” 

Phonte: “In the past, I was the one who was in charge of final sequencing and layout. For this album, I would run every idea and concept by him, and we sat together and figured out what felt good. I just tried to sequence the record like a ride by trimming all the fat. It was show up late and leave early and tell the full complete story.” 

On threading critiques of Black representation throughout their work:

Phonte: “I think for us it wasn’t a conversation. We are just being who we have always been. It’s hot today, but we been on that shit. In terms of doing the record, that’s who we’ve always been. We weren’t being nostalgic that's just who we are.

On the breakthrough of “Good Morning Sunshine”: 

Rapper Big Pooh: “There were two definite moments for me, one being “Good Morning Sunshine,”and the other came a lil’ later in the album. I was in Europe when [Phonte] sent me the record. He sent me two texts, the first one just said, “nigga” and the second text said, “check your email.” When I went to check my email and I started playing the song, that was the moment when I realized OK we have a Little Brother record.

Phonte: “’Good Morning Sunshine’ was a moment for me when it became real. Like, ‘Yes, this is a Little Brother song. Like this is really us.’ I canceled date night to finish that song because I knew we were in the middle of something big.” 

On survivors guilt and what it means to succeed: 

Rapper Big Pooh: “I see it more in regards to self-sabotage, and seeing it more as someone who is afraid of success. You spend a lot of time asking yourself, Why me?

Phonte: “ I think for Black people survivor's guilt can show up in a lot of different ways. I think it can look like getting in your own way. It can show up in talking yourself out of situations that can be beneficial for you. I think it can also show up as anger or even as depression. It’s hard trying to live up to everyone’s expectations. It’s hard when you’re the first person in your family to ‘make it.’ You’re the first call when something goes wrong. It can be really tough.”

On the importance of humor on Little Brother albums:

Phonte: Sometimes you gotta’ slip the medicine in some applesauce.

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