Last month, news broke that hip-hop cult favorites Little Brother will reunite, sending late 20s and early 30s rap nerds like myself into a frenzy. Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh alongside DJ and producer 9th Wonder would spend the 2000s influencing a number of rappers that would later be some of the top names in the game today. Their working-class and soulful approach to their music evokes thoughtful lyricism and relatable content that would spread to the likes of fellow North Carolinian J. Cole, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake. While the full trio will not make a formation, Phonte and Pooh will continue to carry the LB name without 9th Wonder going forward.
Despite their early critical acclaim, Little Brother never achieved the commercial heights that would put them in the pantheon of other influential groups. They would be shunned by both their label and media conglomerates like BET, who banned their video “Lovin’ It” because it was deemed “too intelligent” for their audience at the time. Adversity aside, Little Brother’s fingerprints would permeate into the fabric of rap’s complex core, opening doors to vulnerability and blue-collar raps into a mainstream audience.
“I never wanted to rap something I couldn’t live. That’s just my driving force. If I can’t live it, I ain’t gonna rhyme it,” Phonte would explain in an interview with Ebro. “You have to talk about things that you know. I feel like if I write something and you can listen to my album and hear yourself in a piece of it, then I’ve done my job as an artist.”
To commemorate the return of the group, I buried myself into the discography to restore the feeling of boom-bap soul loops, deep cuts, and songs about being tired of working minimum wage. This is more of a primer opposed to the best LB songs here, so no need for arguing. For newbies looking to get into their music, check in and enjoy and to the oldheads, just go back into the nostalgia of a good time in high school and college:
1. “The Way You Do It” [The Listening, 2003]
The first time I heard 9th Wonder flip the sample of The Tony Rice Unit’s “A Child Is Born,” it felt like I was experiencing a Samurai Champloo fight scene when the strings crept in. An ode to the fans that have supported them in the beginning, “The Way You Do It” also pays tribute to their rap forefathers A Tribe Called Quest, putting a spin on the “Electric Relaxation” hook. It feels like I can hear this song on any hipster black dramedy of these days.
2. “I See Now (feat. Kanye West & Consequence)” [The Chittlin’ Circuit, 2004]
Little Brother always had a penchant of mixing reality raps with humor, so an anticipated collaboration with up-and-comer Kanye West poised to be a match made in Heaven. Long before Kanye completely broke down in a chaotic tailspin as we know today, he was a witty one-twoo rapper/producer extraordinaire in the making. “I See Now” showcased Ye in his most lovable: conflicted over a relationship with a plus-sized woman as Pooh, Consequence, and Phonte add on with tales with money-hungry women and baby mama drama.
3. “All For You (feat. Darien Brockington)” [The Minstrel Show, 2005]
Hearing songs about fathers can be rare in hip-hop unless it was kicking in a sample of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” On The Minstrel Show cut “All For You,” Pooh and Phonte reflect on the men that were barely in their lives but still showed love to them. The latter’s verse would have Phonte repeating the sins of his father, as he “did chores, did bills, and did dirt/But I swear to God I tried to make that shit work,” only to come back to an empty house. It’s a song that aims for them to be better than the men that came before them.
4. “Speed” [The Listening, 2003]
Man, who would have thought to rap about slaving through a 9-to-5 would sound so fire. One of LB’s earliest singles that were leaked prior to the release of The Listening, “Speed” is a lyrical tour de force detailing the process of living check to check. The never-ending hustle and sacrifices to ensure you can provide for your loved ones is a topic we all know too well, as it has your mind racing to make a way to achieve your goals. Sometimes, it is okay to rest yourself during the paper chase, but for Phonte, he flexes his flows in ways that haven’t been done in quite a while.
5. “Lovin’ It (feat. Joe Scudda)” [The Minstrel Show, 2005]
This is the song that led to the controversial decision of BET banning the video because it was deemed “too intelligent” for their audience, Looking back at it, I don’t see anything that is wrong with its satirical presentation but apparently, the executives at the time didn’t think it was commercially viable. From the backpacking kids with walkmans, earthy women with sage, and the blinged out posers, the video represented the trends of hip-hop that were popular at the time (and still are). Nowadays, it would be easy to see a video like this on BET today. Too bad they don’t play videos anymore.
6. “Think Good Thoughts (w/ Drake & Elzhi)” [Comeback Season, 2007]
The balance between grinding late hours in the studio and making time for relationships has been a focal point in LB’s music, which also been influential in the rise of one Aubrey Graham. Over a decade ago, Drake was shaking off the remnants of child acting after starring in the teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, and pursuing a music career full-time. His 2007 mixtape Comeback Season was an ode to backpackers everywhere at the time, freestyling over J Dilla Donut beats and Kanye West instrumentals. Around this time, he fawned over the soulful chops of Little Brother and cited Phonte as an inspiration in his development as an artist. He would collab with the group on two tracks on the tape, with “Think Good Thoughts” as the most notable. Along with a feature from Elzhi, Drake gives us a sample of what was to come of him in the years to follow.
7. “Breakin’ My Heart (feat. Lil’ Wayne)” [Getback, 2007]
Getback was the beginning of the end of the Little Brother everyone knew. By the beginning of 2007, 9th Wonder parted ways with Phonte and Pooh and the group also left Atlantic Records following the commercial failure of The Minstrel Show. Creative differences aside, the duo still were putting paws on the rap game with the third studio album without their signature sound. 9th Wonder makes one appearance on the album with a collaboration that probably stopped time in 2007, as Lil Wayne came through on “Breaking My Heart.” Weezy was the cooking like fish grease as one of the mainstream’s hottest rappers at the time and Little Brother was still seen as the champions of the underground. I’m sure a lot of hip-hop heads weren’t too keen on the idea before but it turned out to be a pretty good song and Wayne has always been a rapper’s rapper.
8. “Life of the Party Remix (feat. Carlitta Durand & Skillz)” […And Justus For All, 2007]
Little Brother linked with Gangsta Grillz for their 2007 mixtape …And Justus For All, showcasing their short-lived collective The Justus League. One of my favorite tracks on here was the remix to “Life of the Party,” which featured two of my home state’s premier talents: Nottz and Skillz. Skillz, prominently known for his end-of-the-year rap ups, delivered a comically-charming verse of a woman curving him because he doesn’t look like the “average” rapper. The ending two bars always seem to have me in tears.
9. “War” [The Chittlin’ Circuit, 2004]
While a number of Little Brother fans would be privy to the main album releases of their discographies, some of 9th’s best beats happened to be saved for mixtapes. The Chittlin’ Circuit intro “War” is Phonte and Pooh doing what they do best: rap their ass off in one-two combo bars while making references to Nikita Koloff and the infamous Booker T promo against Hulk Hogan.
10. “The Life Of Kings (Phonte, Big K.R.I.T., & Evidence)” [Charity Starts At Home, 2011]
By 2011, Little Brother was officially disbanded but the trio all kept in touch and still showed love to each other. As if the stars aligned for a reunion almost year later, Phonte and 9th Wonder both had solo albums releasing on the same day. As their respective albums, Charity Starts At Home and The Wonder Years, approach their release period, it was revealed that Phonte and 9th were working together again. Phonte would appear on a couple of tracks on the producer’s album and 9th would share some beats on Phonte’s solo debut. One was a collaboration featuring LA veteran Evidence and a Southern newcomer in Big K.R.I.T. in “The Life of Kings.”