Smartening up rap

Rappers age in dog years, or so it seems. It’s not like rock, where Social Security recipients from Link Wray to the Rolling Stones cross the country year after year. Where are Slick Rick, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane? There just isn’t the same sense of tradition and nostalgia in rap’s audience.

“A lot of that has to do with record companies totally marketing records just to youth,” says Phonte, fellow rapper to MC Big Pooh and DJ 9th Wonder in the hip-hop group Little Brother. “Those are the biggest record buyers, but look at that generation — that’s the ADD, MTV, 400-channels generation. They are on for whatever is the flavor of the minute.”

Calling themselves Little Brother in a nod to rap antecedents such as Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Roots, the Durham, N.C., trio made a huge critical splash with their debut LP The Listening. Their soulful meditations on life recalled the jazzy, bubbling warmth of the Mos Def and Talib Kweli rap duo Black Star, and put a spotlight on 9th Wonder’s production skills. (Success from The Listening subsequently scored 9th Wonder a track on Jay-Z’s The Black Album, which led to work on Destiny Child’s Destiny Fulfilled.) The accompanying buzz prompted Little Brother’s jump to Atlantic Records for their follow-up, The Minstrel Show (out Tuesday, Sept. 6).

And while The Minstrel Show’s smart lyrics and playful tone are an obvious commentary on the present state of commercial rap, the songs never address the issue head-on.

“If I make a song saying I think 50 Cent is bad for hip hop, and cats see me at a party dancing to [50 Cent’s] ‘P.I.M.P.’ — which they will — then I look like a hypocrite,” Phonte says. “So it ain’t about us beating muthafuckas over the head with songs, like, ‘Yo-yo, hip hop is The Minstrel Show, yo, hey-ho.’ It’s about providing an alternative.

“This is what we think hip hop has turned into. Now what we’re going to do is let this album serve as a representative of what we think is missing in hip hop. Instead of talking about what we think is wrong, we’re gonna show them what we think is right.”

Phonte would like to see more of this attitude, rather than the backward-looking longing for the old days of “conscious rap” that sometimes grips underground rappers.

“I think part of the problem with underground rap in the past has been that so much of it has been romanticized, and we can’t go back to that,” he says. “You can’t be getting up in youngsters’ faces, looking like the crotchety old man. ‘All you youngsters don’t know, back in ’94 when we were beat-boxing.’ They have no frame of reference for that shit, so what you have to do is give them an alternative.”

But more than anything, he vows Little Brother won’t bow to pressures to pander to the youth culture like most major-label rappers these days. For him, keeping it real is keeping it true to himself.

“Y’all either gonna feel me for me, or you’re just not going to get me,” Phonte says. “If you don’t get me, that’s fine. But I’m not going to dumb myself down to get to you. Y’all niggas gonna have to smarten up.”


Friday, Sept. 9, at the Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555. The Away Team, Darien Brockington, Joe Scudda and Chaundon to open.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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