Thursday, July 26, 2007

Little Brother (9th Wonder, Big Pooh, Phonte)

Part of the new-millennium resurgence of alternative rap, Little Brother's inspirations were atypical for Southern hip-hop: classic Native Tongues outfits like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, as well as more recent torch-bearers like the Roots and Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli). MCs Phonte (born Phonte Coleman) and Big Pooh (born Thomas Jones) swapped rhymes with an easy chemistry, but the group's real focal point was DJ/producer 9th Wonder (born Pat Douthit), an old-school sampling technician who quickly established himself as a worthy heir to production wizards like DJ Premier and Pete Rock. Little Brother formed at North Carolina Central University, located in Durham. All three members had known each other since 1998, when they performed in a local hip-hop outfit called the Organization; after its dissolution in 2000, they spearheaded a 12-member crew dubbed the Justus League. The trio worked together off and on in varying combinations, until they officially teamed up as Little Brother in August 2001, adopting the name as a humble nod to their influences. Their first recording together was "Speed," a playful, down-to-earth look at the pressures of holding a day job while trying to make it in the music business; it set the tone for much of their early material. Over the next few months, they developed enough of a repertoire to start performing live around the area, and quickly earned a following. When the group made its music available for download on the Internet, a substantial buzz built far outside of North Carolina, and it eventually earned them a deal with the Oakland-based ABB Records in 2002. In early 2003, Little Brother released its full-length debut, The Listening, which won widespread critical praise that focused especially on 9th Wonder's production. The buzz helped him earn a raft of high-profile outside gigs, including tracks on a pair of multi-platinum releases: The Black Album by Jay-Z and Destiny Fulfilled by Destiny's Child. Little Brother leapt to a major label (along with ABB) in 2005 for The Minstrel Show. In January 2007, as the group was finishing up their next release, Getback, it was announced that Little Brother had left Atlantic and that 9th Wonder had amicably left Little Brother.

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Little Brother - The Listening (Feb 25, 2003: ABB)
In Little Brother's music, the North Carolina group makes a specific point to highlight the more refined aspects of mid-'90s hip-hop. Basing its 2002 sound upon the foundation previously established by the likes of Pete Rock, A Tribe Called Quest, Jay Dee, and Black Star, Little Brother makes somewhat of a political statement by applying such standards to this modern age. The Listening does an exceptional job of proving that soulful meditations have indeed retained their traditional relevancy within the contemporary realms of rap. 9th Wonder's production leads the charge with distinct drum kicks pacing larger-than-life melodic samples, which are often enhanced with sultry female voice-overs. Meanwhile, Phonte and Big Pooh dig even deeper within the hip-hop vaults as they draw upon classic routines by the likes of Rakim, Slick Rick, and Audio 2 for their lyrical inspiration. Whether engaged in storytelling, braggadocio, or simple reassurance, the rhyming duo complements 9th Wonder's varying shades of mood music with a consistent degree of skill and sincerity. The album both starts and finishes strongly, with "For You," "Speed," "Nighttime Maneuvers," and the title track serving as its most stellar moments. Despite its unavoidably derivative orientation, The Listening is a finely crafted musical document, composed by artists who want nothing more than to provide even just a glimpse of hip-hop purity within an ever-expanding maze of cultural deterioration.
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Few groups earn a major-label contract based on their producer's merits, but when Little Brother jumped to Atlantic for their second full album, The Minstrel Show, any cynic looking for a good reason would point to the increased profile of trackmaster 9th Wonder (Jay-Z, Destiny's Child). But it wasn't just 9th Wonder that made Little Brother's first album one of the best underground rap debuts of the new millennium; rappers Phonte and Big Pooh matched a smooth Southern drawl with up-North smarts. Like their influences in the Native Tongues family, the trio cast a clever eye over music and culture, sniffing out hypocrisy and greed, then dismissing them with sparkling satires. The Minstrel Show presents more of the same, expanding the palette to a host of hot topics: R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" series, which gets skewered by the spot-on "Cheatin"; exploitative urban TV stations (the album's main concept); and even the need for brand-name clothes ("5th and Fashion"). And any fans who feared that 9th Wonder's success would lead to a diluted or overly polished record have nothing to worry about; awash in '70s soul and mellow, slapping beats, his productions make the message tracks carry just as well as the humorous material.
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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

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joe said...

They are pretty good, I once watched them live and they can put a great show on stage.


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