Phonte: Holding Hip Hop Accountable

The way that Little Brother’s Phonte met producer Nicolay is not that unique, after all people who meet in chat rooms are marrying each other these days. However, how Phonte and Nicolay, together known as Foreign Exchange, completed their first LP is not only unique, but has become Hip Hop folklore. When you listen to […]

The way that Little Brother’s Phonte met producer Nicolay is not that unique, after all people who meet in chat rooms are marrying each other these days. However, how Phonte and Nicolay, together known as Foreign Exchange, completed their first LP is not only unique, but has become Hip Hop folklore.

When you listen to Connected, you hear beats from the soul and lyrics from the heart. The integrity and consistency that can be found on Connected are merely examples of a philosophy that Phonte lives by. It is a philosophy that Phonte feels requires him to take responsibility for his existence in Hip Hop, and he is doing so by making dope music.

Phonte and AllHipHop have been fam since day one, so we wanted to explore the upgraded Little Brother, and get a chance to explore the Foreign Exchange album. For those who aren’t familiar with the Foreign Exchange story, how did the group come about?

Phonte: One day I was on and I saw a post from some cat trying to get people to listen to his tracks. So I downloaded some of his tracks and I thought the s**t was incredible. I reached out to him and we started emailing back and forth. He would email me a song on the computer and I would take it into the studio, record my vocals, and then send it back to him. Okay, so you heard some of his tracks, but at what point did you actual realize you could complete a whole album this way?

Phonte: It was when I saw Nicolay’s consistency. I get a lot of beats from cats, and every n*gga can come with some heat every once and a while, but it’s only a few cats that can consistently knock it out of the park. So once I saw the consistency in his tracks that’s when I knew he was for real and that’s when I knew we could do a full length together. So this has been a two-year process?

Phonte: Yeah.

AHH: So you and Nicolay linked up before The Listening came out?

Phonte: Yeah, we had finished The Listening, but it wasn’t out yet. We finished The Listening in like March of 2002 and we started working on Connected a month or so later. To your knowledge, have Nicolay’s opportunities changed since the album surfaced?

Phonte: I’m sure they will. When we were in New York, he was meeting a lot of music makers like Ali Shaheed Mohamed and they were fans of his stuff. So I definitely think doors will open for him. Right now, the main thing we’re working on is this singer Darien Brockington, he’s the cat that’s singing on “Come Around.” Yeah man, that’s an ill cut.

Phonte: Yeah, me and Nic are overseeing his project. Nic is doing a lot of the tracks and I’m helping Darien with some song writing and vocal arrangements. So will you have the title of Executive Producer on his album?

Phonte: Yeah. With 9th’s sudden and immense popularity, did there bloom any resentment in you or Pooh?

Phonte: No. We don’t have a problem with it all. It’s all about consistency, if 9th was a producer that every twenty beats he only had one or two hot ones, then I might take issue with it (laughs). But he makes beats everyday and he makes hot s**t everyday. We encourage his popularity cause we all knew that we wanted to use Little Brother as a springboard for other things. We allow each other our creative space and when it’s time to do Little Brother we just come together and we’re that much stronger cause we’ve sharpened our individual talents. Does the invaluable behind the scenes experiences you and your Little Brother brethren have been able to gain in the last three years give you more creative leverage as you move into your new situation with Atlantic Records?

Phonte: I look at the whole major situation as us upgrading to a better car. I also see it like, “Look man, we’ve always been driving this car and now that we’re on a major ya’ll can be in the driver seat, but we’re gona be in the passenger seat telling ya’ll were to go.” One thing that I hope Atlantic realizes, is that singles do not sell albums any more. People buy into movements now, you need a movement behind you. The reason people got into Little Brother was not because we had videos and because radio was blowing our s**t up everyday, people got into us at a real grass roots level. We weren’t manufactured, our s**t is organic. So if we can get Atlantic to understand that we just need to keep feeding this grass roots movement, then we’ll be successful. We don’t need to get Scott Storch on a record, we don’t need a Neptunes beat, I love Scott Storch and The Neptunes, but that’s not Little Brother. How much of the next Little Brother album, The Minstrel Show, is done?

Phonte: Except for like three or four songs, the record is pretty much done. Do you have a release quarter in mind?

Phonte: They’re talking summer of next year, that’s cool. I was hoping it would be a little earlier like in the spring. Because I was hoping we could get the record out while school is in, cause we really got to hit them colleges hard. I interpreted The Listening as the culmination of three cats passion for music, what’s the thesis of The Minstrel Show?

Phonte: As you know, minstrel shows were shows with white actors in black face performing these grossly exaggerated images of black people and really stereotypical images of black culture. So we’re just using the Minstrel Show as a metaphor for Hip Hop, cause you have a lot of these rappers that are out here performing these exaggerated images of black people. When you turn on the TV and you watch these videos, you’re not seeing real people, they’re damn near like caricatures of what Hip Hop should be. So The Minstrel Show is us listening and examining Hip Hop and saying, “Ya know, if cats don’t want to take responsibility for this s**t, if n*ggas want to keep making bulls**t records, if this is really what ya’ll want to do with this music, than f*** it let’s just go all out and make this s**t a minstrel show cause that’s exactly what the f*** it’s turning into.” It would be easy to say, “Yeah let’s blame it on 50 and let’s blame it on Lil Jon.” It’s easy to call out names, but the bottom line is that we’re all responsible for it. We are all responsible for Hip Hop being in the current shape that it’s in. We all are players in the minstrel show one way or another. So The Listening was us expressing our love for the music, The Minstrel Show is our manning up and taking responsibility for making the music. What has changed for you since The Listening?

Phonte: Just having accessibility to a lot of people and working with legends. Me and 9th went to Philly last week and we were in the studio kicking it with Jazzy Jeff and we were able to work with James Poyser. We did a song with Kane, I mean that n*gga is the reason I rap. It’s that kind of stuff. What’s your beef with sandal shoes?

Phonte: (laughs) Nah man, I got no beef with sandals. I don’t wear them in particular, but if cats want to wear sandals, that’s on you. When I wrote that verse I was just really hating that coffee shop s**t, ‘cause I was doing open mic nights and all them n*ggas was just so elitist. All them n*ggas was judging me on some ol’ ‘holier than thou’ sh*t. I was like, “Ya’ll n*ggas want the same things I want. Ya’ll trying to come up in the spot, find ya’ll a little something, and go home with her, so don’t f***ing play me n*gga.” Just cause you dress differently and I’m coming in the spot with Timbs and jeans, and you like, ‘I got this shirt from the thrift shop, it was only $3.’ Well that’s good for you, n*gga, I’m a big n*gga and they don’t make three-x’s at the thrift shop. Ya’ll skinny boys can get away with that (laughs). Did you learn a lot being on tour with Kanye?

Phone: Not really (laughs). Even though we and Kanye make similar music and we follow the same aesthetics, we would come out and perform to f***ing crickets. We got no love. It just really put things into perspective for us to go out there and do those shows in front of all those teenie-boppers. It had nothing to do with Kanye and his crew, we are all fam, it was just the crowds. It was f***ing TRL. You and Pooh are so revered for having rhymes for the average cat, as your financial situation changes what effect do you think that will have on your rhymes?

Phonte: All I can do is just be me. I think the reason people got into The Listening and why they’re getting into Foreign Exchange. is because they’re getting an honest portrayal from a real person. Whatever I’m going through is what my rhymes will be about. A poor n*gga can’t front and write rich n*gga rhymes, a rich n*gga can’t write about how much he struggling, ‘cause that ain’t real. All you have to do is speak to people on a level that they understand. A rich man and a poor man still got stuff in common. Will there be a Foreign Exchange tour?

Phonte: Yeah, it’s called the “Connected Tour” and it will run forty to fifty cities. Damn, dude.

Phonte: Yeah, that’s gona be Little Brother, Foreign Exchange, The Away Team, Legacy, and Darien and Yahzarah are coming too.