“They say the shit we talk about ain’t interestin.’ We got a better chance of blowing up in Switzerland. Holla if ya hear it—‘cuz n----s ain’t listenin’…”
That line from Little Brother’s classic track “The Listening” has been ringing in my brain for a few days, and it proved to be prescient. On Saturday, September 29, that famed North Carolina trio unexpectedly reunited onstage for the first time in a decade at Durham’s Art of Cool Festival. It was a moment for anyone who’d loved LB in the 2000s, and seeing Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh onstage rhyming together with 9th Wonder reminded me of a period when I was becoming cynical about the rap industry but was so encouraged by what these guys were doing. And on a Saturday night in September, what these guys were doing hadn’t been done in a while.
Captioning a classic photo of the trio together, Big Pooh made the simple announcement on IG:
Questlove wrote on Instagram:
“I’ve loved a lot of y’all since i got in the music business, but the last rap group I cared for to the level of the groups I idolized BEFORE i got a record just reunited and I’m nowhere NEAR witnessing it. DAMN DAMN DAMN JAMES. #LittleBrotherReunion.”
And it’s somewhat appropriate that their reunion could be so unassuming. The fact that it happened on a weekend when so many rap fans’ attentions were squarely on superstars is telling—and fitting.
Little Brother’s laid-back brilliance was a welcome antidote to hip-hop’s uber-blingy early-aughts mainstream. But they were more than just counter; Phonte and Pooh were as relatable as they were clever, and 9th Wonder was the perfect producer for their observational style, as melodic and soulful behind the boards as Pete Rock—with a decidedly Y2K lushness and sheen. Little Brother represented for the kind of hip-hop fan I had always been: a lover of classic East and West Coast music who was also bred on the southern sounds of my home. They seemed like guys I’d gone to college with, and as LB dropped classic albums The Listening and The Minstrel Show to almost no mainstream notice, they also became famed underdogs in a rap game that seemed to not believe that a Little Brother could co-exist alongside the 50 Cents and Ludacrises topping the charts. They peppered their music with nods to greats of the ‘80s and ‘90s, from Doug E. Fresh to Digable Planets, and while they weren’t didactic in their devotion—it was clear that hip-hop mattered to these guys at a time when such an idea was becoming almost quaint.
That a spontaneous reunion happened on September 29 feels significant. Sept. 29, 1998 has become one of those famed days in hip-hop history—the “Last Great Release Date.” It was the day four important albums were released: Aquemini by OutKast, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life by Jay-Z, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are…Black Star and The Love Movement, the final album from A Tribe Called Quest until 2016’s We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. Twenty years later, that date is emblematic of a year that was complex and left me conflicted. Hip-hop was huge, but the heavy commercialism was making me feel detached from the music I’d grown up loving. Southern hip-hop was on an undeniable hot streak, but as happy as I was that art from my home state of Georgia was acclaimed and popular, I was also worried that the classic jazz rap and boom bap that raised me was becoming passé in an era of mainstream stardom, platinum plaques and R&B hooks. Part of why I became a fan of LB was they reminded me of how the music felt before it was centered in pop culture.
Of course, great hip-hop has never needed the charts to validate it. Little Brother may have never become mainstream stars, but their legacy is cemented. Phonte is still one of the most compelling rhymers in the game, and he’s carved an impressive lane as an acclaimed singer-songwriter while working alongside Nicolay (as The Foreign Exchange) and recording with Eric Roberson on 2016’s Tigallero project. Pooh also launched a fruitful solo career, with his acclaimed mixtapes, solo albums Sleepers and The Delightful Bars, and Home Sweet Home, his 2015 project with Nottz. 9th has his Jamla Records label and is doing Grammy-nominated work with fellow NC product Rapsody. That’s, of course, in addition to being an era-defining producer for everyone from Jill Scott to Kendrick Lamar. And Phonte’s latest, No News Is Good News, is one of 2018’s best. That’s a remarkable resume.
In 2004, Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout hit massively and reshaped mainstream hip-hop’s landscape once again. Suddenly, West was being hailed as the guy who brought Tribe-esque everymanism back to rap. Ye became a superstar almost immediately, and with his infectious production style already prominent across the hip-hop landscape, he was vaulted to the top—one of the most critically-acclaimed artists in music. And to be certain, Kanye definitely was a game-changer in terms of how the mainstream saw rappers at the height of G-Unit and Cash Money. In 2003, 9th and Kanye both had notable moments on Jay-Z’s smash The Black Album, en route to becoming two of the era’s most acclaimed producers.
But Kanye West’s image and approach had never been that much of an anomaly. At the dawn of the ‘00s, there were artists delivering soulful music helmed by legendary producers like 9th Wonder and J. Dilla with rhymes that were more conversational than confrontational. Like Kanye, aughts artists like Slum Village, Blu & Exile and LB were born of a lineage that was part Tribe, part Pete Rock & CL Smooth, with rich musicality—street-reflective but not gangsta, song-driven but not shiny, some raunchiness and lotsa real talk. Unlike West, they didn’t storm the charts or scale the heights of pop superstardom. A decade earlier, that wouldn’t have meant that you were ignored; and, to wit, these artists were some of the most beloved of that era in indie rap circles. With the chart-topping obsessions of the early ‘00s rap industry, so much greatness existed at the margins.
Popular culture elevated Kanye as a rap unicorn—the Polo-wearing genius who cut through a sea of supposed thuggery to connect with Black and white suburbanites alike. But Phonte and Pooh were right there. 9th Wonder was right there. What should have been recognized as a wave was reduced to one guy’s image and voice. And we’re still much too preoccupied with that image and voice, in a completely different way. But once again, we should be looking at the other dope stuff going on.
Whatever Mr. West wore and said on Saturday Night Live this weekend, whatever unnecessary album he promised and didn’t deliver, it’s all become a sideshow. That circus hasn’t yielded any memorable music—only increasingly-embarrassing trending topics. And we all kind of know that now. But there’s dope stuff going on. Some cool hip-hop shit happened last night. Some history happened last night.
And it wasn’t anywhere near Studio 8H.