An Open Letter to Little Brother

“Now Little Brother gonna break up / Everyday I wake up”…

It was almost four years ago to the date. I was interviewing J. Rawls, and shortly before we closed our drab questions and answers, I asked the Lone Catalysts producer what records he was presently feeling. “I can’t stop playing ‘Whatever You Say’ by Little Brother.” That’s the only thing I’ll ever remember about that one… because discovering Little Brother changed my ears forever.

I had the pleasure of getting in on the mezzanine level of Raleigh-Durham’s native sons. Just days after releasing The Listening, I remember speaking to Phonte, Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder, as they ducked in a windy alley not far from the ABB Records offices, happily passing around a publicist’s cell phone. Like most new artists, the trio was hungry to talk about song meanings, about the girls they were avenging on the album, and about how much RZA, Pete Rock, and J Dilla meant to 9th Wonder – Preemo too, he added later. When my questions were up, I sensed that the group could’ve talked for hours more – and looking back, I wish they would have.

Ironically, 9th Wonder and Little Brother missed a page from their inspirations.

They had never spoken to an angry Method Man or Ghostface Killah on a rushed press day, where writer after writer tries to sneak in the question, “Is RZA on the album?” They never read the reviews that praised The Pretty Toney and Fishscale, but wondered if the albums would have been better, had RZA assumed the duties that he carried in the early days. As the Doggystyle interlude joked, Wu-Tang without the RZA may be “like Harold Melvin without The Blue Notes – they’ll never go platinum.” The bees have been swarmed by “what if’s” when it comes to RZA’s role, which undoubtedly await for Rapper Big Pooh and Phonte.

Pete Rock & CL Smooth made magic together. As an instrumental, as an accapella, and best as a homogenous blend of emotion and Tom Scott horns, “They Reminisce Over You” is arguably Hip-Hop’s best headphone record, something that dance-floors even adapted to. But alone, Pete and CL’s magic has been reduced to store-bought card tricks. Although Pete Rock holds rank as one of Hip-Hop’s hall-of-fame producers, he backed countless projects from INI to Deda, all of which lacked the missing ingredient, the main ingredient. Worse off, CL Smooth’s American Me showed an artist out of his element, settling for paper, when he had made a career rhyming on canvas.

After 15 years of hard to earn loyalty, Gang Starr folded in 2004 for what many believe to be ego as well. As DJ Premier insists the group is hardly over, Guru continues to swear he’ll never work outside of new producing partner Solar in his career. Like Little Brother, both Guru and DJ Premier had managed to sustain albums and following without each other, but the Gang Starr sound was always in tact, pointing back to the next long awaited album. Since the breakup, neither icons have lived up to the sum of their parts, and legions of fans have been orphaned.

Slum Village has fought hard to overcome the absence of J Dilla. Just as their 2005 self-titled album showed the group capable of thriving outside of James Yancey’s beats, they were presented with his death. Now Slum Village may be looked at as The Rolling Stones were considered with guitarist Brian Jones: there was the era when he was there, and there was everything else. As for Dilla, while his sound grew comfortable both in Stones Throw Records’ roster of talented artists and Common/Busta Rhymes album cuts, there was always that desire from fans to hear him rekindle that Fantastic chemistry he had with his brothers from the D.

It is my opinion that Little Brother is making a grave mistake. All three parties within the group have worn themselves thin. Pooh released a Sleepers solo album while Phonte did more feature work than Nate Dogg in his prime. Meanwhile, it seems that 9th Wonder was responsible for single-handedly making Duck Down Records sound fresher, giving Murs two cult-classics, handcrafting a Jean Grae effort that was tragically leaked, and sustaining a career hitting Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Memphis Bleek, and countless other major label artists with big dollar beats. Regardless of any A&R’s opinions on the status of the group, Little Brother ought to find a way to make time for each other, and clear the market for their albums.

What made The Listening great was that when it ended, you immediately wanted to replay the record. It was unique, in both lyrics and beats, and it earned a listener’s attention. Conversely, what made The Minstrel Show ephemeral in the marketplace was that you could get the lyrics and the beats [whether imitated or from the source] on nearly a third of all the albums released in 2005. Simply put, it was the difference between a small portion of the best s**t you’ve ever tasted in your life versus an all-you-can dinner buffet.

Hip-Hop tends to look at circumstances differently – The Main Source after Large Professor, Tha Dogg Pound without Dr. Dre, Goodie Mob minus Cee-Lo. All of these groups had great albums, and shots at Hip-Hop immortality. But egos, career moves, personnel changes, and drama pulled them from those “Top” conversations, from Hip-Hop Honors, and from our memories more often than not. Is Little Brother, the group that redefined Southern music’s integrity – a group that extended to reach U.G.K. and Mos Def fans alike, worth all that?

That same 2003 year that Little Brother broke out, I caught them on their first national tour, on a Philadelphia stop. That night, I witnessed a typically-expressionless DJ Jazzy Jeff jump around like he was hearing “Rapper’s Delight” for the first time during Little Brother’s set. Jeff hung on every lyric, every cue, every chorus like he was the newjack and LB, the 20-year veterans. The group was singing, they were dancing; there was an unapologetic 9th Wonder behind the CDJ’s because instrumentals weren’t even pressed on vinyl yet. I saw three smiling men from North Carolina who were bringing Hip-Hop back, keeping underground Hip-Hop Black, and truly creating a block party vibe without relying on reissues of classics to pull it off. A crowd, many of which was there for other acts, took to the group in minutes – putting hands in the air, and matching the euphoric attitude they saw on stage. Little Brother had the potential and the talent to be the present generation’s Gang Starr or their A Tribe Called Quest. Instead, in the wake of poor sales figurations and strenuous schedules, Little Brother might be following in the rarely revisited footsteps of The Artifacts, Organized Konfusion, Reflection Eternal…and so forth.

In the disco ball words of Thelma Houston, “Don’t leave us this way.”

Paine is the Features Editor at AllHipHop.com and can be contacted at Paine@AllHipHop.com

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