By Rashad D. Grove
(AllHipHop Rumors) Phonte aka Phontigallo, is one of the most acclaimed MC’s in Hip-Hop. With a diverse discography that includes classic albums from Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange, Tigallerro, and his solo work, Phonte has solidified himself as renowned artist in the game with music that transcends genres. Last year, he released his second solo album, the remarkable No News Is Good News. Then, on March 31st, at midnight, he set social media ablaze with the release of a surprise EP entitled Pacific Time. We caught up with Phonte and talked about his latest body of work, how the time is right for Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop, his memories of NWA wrestling, and why North Carolina is such a unique place for creatives.
AllHipHop: Besides being a highly regarded MC, you are a part of one of the best music podcasts, Quest Love Supreme. How did all that come together?
Phonte: Quest and I go back to the beginning days of Okayplayer. We collaborated on some of the Roots albums and we both have a genuine love of music. I was just excited to be a part of the show. It's a dream come true to be able to sit down with musicians and artists who I actually grew up listening to and watching. We have an episode that’s coming out later featuring Phillip Bailey of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Nigga, for the first 20 minutes I was trying to get over the fact that I was interviewing Phillip Bailey. I don’t think I asked a question until a half-hour into the interview.
AllHipHop: Last year in March you dropped the phenomenal No News Is Good News**. Is this a new tradition that you’ll be realizing a project every March? What inspired you to release it?**
Phonte: Haha. I think the inspiration for me is that’s it’s all about just trying to cultivate a mood so that things go together and sound good together. And I try to make it as smooth as I can for the listener.
I was spending a lot of time in L.A. earlier in the year. I was working on a couple of TV shows, so I was out there and just doing TV stuff. Then I started cooking up with my man Julia Lewis, who produced “Can We,” along with TK Kayembe. From there, along with other songs that I had in various stages and it just turned this kind of into an EP.
I cut the “Beverly Hills” record and Like from Pac Div, Swarvy plays the bass on it and he’s from Philly, and Devin Morrison produced it together. I cannot say enough about Devin Morrison. His project comes out this week called Bussin and its f**king dope. If you like R&B, he’s the second coming of Fred Hammond and Commissioned.
AllHipHop: What made you decided to release these 4 tracks as a project?
Phonte: I just have so many ideas in my head and I think that waiting years between projects, it’s just something I can’t do anymore particularly with my solo brand. For me, taking time to wait until I have an album’s worth of ideas in a year or two won’t work. It’s just better to be more direct with the audience like, “Hey, this is a vibe I was in with the brothers and this is what we cooked up this week. Here's what we did.” It’s about keeping your audience in the moment. I'm trying to make it a little easier for my fans to follow the creative path I have in my mind. But if I come every so often and just kind of show people, you know where I’m going, it makes it a little easier to digest. I mean, just expect things to get a little weird, but I’ll never put out no bullshit.
AllHipHop: The EP features an appearance from Lalah Hathaway. How was it recording with such an incredible vocalist?
Phonte: Lalah is big sis. Lalah is somebody you know, it's so many people in the industry that you'll meet, and you become just colleagues or associates. She's one of the few people that I really do consider a friend and she’s just as gives me just a lot of game. She’s a wealth of knowledge.
Me and my home-girl Christie, were singing on “Ego.” Then I sent it to Lalah, and I told her, “Listen, I have this idea. If you like it, you can riff on it.” She was like, “Yo, I love it.” Then she texted me her verse. I guess she did it from the computer, but she texted me her verse and I was like, “What the f**k?”
AllHipHop: How was it reuniting on stage with Little Brother at the Art of Cool Festival in your hometown?
Phonte: Oh, man, it was crazy. It was like going back to the future. We haven’t been together on stage in forever. Once we got on stage, it was just like the muscle memory just came back. And it's just like you just fall into it. We just fell back into it. So, it was it was the craziest experience and I was thankful that we were able to do it in our hometown.
AllHipHop: With all the different artists who come from North Carolina from Little Brother, 9th Wonder, Petey Pablo, J. Cole, Rhapsody, and of course yourself, what makes it such a unique place for Hip-Hop music?
Phonte: I think it's a couple things. We kind of grew up in the middle. People think North Carolina is the South but we're kind of more in the middle geographically and musically, we got everything. So, the cats were coming up from Atlanta with their sound, people from Florida was bringing the booty music. It’s a lot of HBCU’s around North Carolina too. People from DC area came down here for college and they would bring that Go-Go shit. People was coming down to visit their Grand-momma from the Northeast and bringing mixtapes and then you had drug dealers playing all kinds of shit. So, where I grew up in Greensboro…
AllHipHop: Also, the hometown of Ric Flair and the National Wrestling Alliance.
Phonte: You damn right. The NWA was the real shit. Rock-N-Roll Express, Tully Blanchard, and all them. Haha.
I think it’s the mixing of a lot of different cultures with people were coming into this one place. Also, here, you don't really have a lot of distractions. You can really get into your head and figure out what your sound is and figure out what you want it to be. And that's just the luxury we have that may not exist in a large city like New York.
AllHipHop: How do you feel about “Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop” as a description?
Phonte: I think it's a blessing. I know some cats, they get mad and be like, “Yo, like, that means you old and f**ked up.” We understand sometimes they have that blowback but to me the bigger picture is no one thought the hip hop with last this long, Like, no one expected rap music in particular to last as long as it has and to be a billion-dollar industry. So, the fact Hip-Hop and rap music made it to a point to where we actually have adult rappers is crazy.
Hip-Hop is almost like a dude who just lived wild, fast, and crazy and I thought he would die at 21. But now he's 40 and trying to figure out what the f**k to do.
Hip-Hop is still a relatively young culture. It's still just trying to figure out what does middle-age rappers look like. What does older age look like? Those are questions that will be answered in the coming years. So, when I see stuff like Adult Contemporary, man, I think that's great.
When you think of other music, particularly Rock music, Rock has several categories: There’s Alternative rock, Classic Rock, Soft rock, Punk rock and more. It’s like 30 subgenres of Rock music. But when it comes to the Black shit, it’s either Rap niggas or Tom Joyner. You’re either Lil Uzi Vert or LeVert. It’s great that we can have the sub-genres like Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop. We can sell what we've been doing to a whole new audience under a new brand. It's still the same thing we've always been doing.
AllHipHop: Tell us about your work on Vh1’s The Breaks**. How was it to write rhymes for the series?**
Phonte: I didn't realize how technical being a rapper was until I wrote for The Breaks. Even though we didn’t get a second season, it wasn't until I had to sit down with an actor and coach them through everything that I realized just how technical this shit really is. I mean, like for us, (MC’s) it just comes natural. But sitting down and having to break down these complex line schemes to actors, coaching them through it, showing them how to do it, where to take your breath, and how to enunciate, I was like, “Damn, I felt like I done taught a class.”
AllHipHop: After 15 years of being in the game with Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange, Tigallerro with Eric Roberson, and your own solo work, what has been the key to your longevity and your ability to constantly evolve as an artist?
Phonte: I always tell people you have to use every tool in your toolbox. Never put limitations on yourself when you're first starting because you don't know what avenues will be available to you. I remember reading a quote from LL Cool J. He was talking about how he wasn’t feeling the idea of being in movies when he first came out because he didn't think it was possible for him. But look at him 30 years later? Now a lot of people know him for hosting the Grammys, movies, and NCIS more than his music.
You just never know where open doors will lead you to. Even now, I do voice overs for commercials and things like that. The thing with that shit, man is like, I got a call from my agent, I sent him my reel. I didn't really have a reel, I'll just sent him the skits we were doing on Little Brother albums. I didn't realize then, that was voiceover. I was just f**king around. I always say, being a musician, a rapper, or any kind of artist, it can teach you so much about other disciplines.