How Little Brother Learned to Be a Family Again

Jenny Regan
Little Brother

In the case of Little Brother, nobody wins when the family feuds.   

After a nine-year hiatus, Phonte and Big Pooh buried the hatchet, releasing their new album May the Lord Watch last month. Though their relationship was once testy, nowadays, things are more tranquil. The only debates Pooh and Phonte now have are whether it's better to warm up Chick-fil-A sandwiches in the oven or the microwave.    

"I just compare it to home -- this is where I started," says Pooh about the group's return. "You can go out and travel the world, live other places, but ain't nothing like that feeling of when you go back home."  

Fueled by breezy samples, bruising punchlines, and gutsy revelations, the Durham twosome muscle their way back into boom-bap prominence with their latest release. Though longtime DJ/producer 9th Wonder's absence may leave a sour taste in the mouths of avid LB fans, Phonte and Pooh's lyrical verve outweighs the minor blemish. On "All in a Day," it's Pooh who outclasses 'Te with his blistering one-liner, "My pen used to run across the page doing suicides." 

"That is such a fucking killer line," Phonte says glowingly about his partner-in-rhyme. "The visual of what that represents as just a young writer killing yourself trying to write the best shit. That was so great."

On "Black Magic," the tandem glorify the beauty of their race despite whatever hurdles that come their way. "Black Magic' to me is being able to wake up, go out every day, and be better than who I was the day before. That's 'Black Magic' to me," details Pooh.

Below, Billboard connects with Little Brother to speak on their new album May the Lord Watch, their relationship with 9th Wonder, why Chick-fil-A is better than Popeye's, and what they missed most about being in a group. 

You guys were trending on album release day. Were you at all surprised to see everyone's reactions being that you guys last came out in 2010 when social media wasn't as popular?

Big Pooh: It was crazy, man. The last time we really worked a record, social media wasn't even birthed yet. We had MySpace, and message boards were still the thing, so you didn't get to see people's reactions in real-time. So for this record -- to put it out, and we're literally sitting there on our phones watching people's reactions song-by-song, lyric-by-lyric -- that shit was surreal. It's crazy to get that kind of feedback. 

Phonte: And it's honest. I tell artists all the time: "Do not be afraid to search your name on Twitter." Because that's where the truth is. 

But you know artists are sensitive. Some can't handle the truth.

Phonte: Then they're in the wrong business.

Big Pooh: And they don't understand that you have your extremists on both sides. "That n---a can do no wrong, that n---a can do no right." The truth is in the middle.

Phonte: I was just so happy to see that with this record, the response was overwhelmingly positive. You can't ask for more than that. And even more so than just being positive, the thing that I liked, it seemed that people get it.

I have no problems with a negative review. I've gotten negative reviews, that's just a part of the game. But it's not a problem that you have a negative review -- the problem is when you have a negative review, and they didn't get what you were going for. You're claiming that I was failing at something that I wasn't even attempting to do. But if you're saying, "Hey, I saw you were attempting to do this and I think you didn't get and it's negative, then fine."

But for this record, the people get it and they really saw what we were making for our fans. We were making what a Little Brother record sounds like in 2019, and not trying to chase '04, 05. 

'Te, you said on Twitter it was a glorious week for black people, since we got an LB album, Missy return's and Popeyes was winning again with its chicken sandwich. Did Popeyes make a comeback for you guys?

Phonte: Brother, I still think Chick-fil-A reigns supreme. I'm sorry. 

Big Pooh: Chick-fil-A is still the gang. You want Chick-fil-A on Sunday? You buy two on Saturday. 

Phonte: You hold one. You hold that hoe. You heat it up in the oven. Not the microwave. Don't you dare disrespect Chick-fil-a and put it in the microwave. 

Big Pooh: The oven helps it rehydrate. The microwave don't. 

Thanks for the tips, guys. Going back to the reunion, what did you guys each miss the most about being in Little Brother? 

Phonte: That's a good question. I think what I missed the most is rapping with someone. Like, I hate touring. I hate it with a passion. And when I would do my solo records, my solo records were more so more form than function. They were just me getting ideas out -- like if I wanted to play around with some song structures, or if I had any idea and just wanted to rap for 40 bars and tell the story in that one verse or whatever, I can do those things. But it was never meant to set up, "OK. This is the Phonte solo career. We're going on a 40-date tour." N---a, I don't wanna do that shit. I don't wanna sing these songs.

Like, my last record -- those [songs] were written to be listened to, and to experience. Once the record was done, I was through with it, and said what I had to say. With LB coming back, the thing I really missed was playing off of another partner. I missed bouncing off of each other. It's hard to be Beyoncé. Being Beyoncé is tough. Doing it on your own has its place, but I just missed really having that musical conversation.

Big Pooh: I told 'Te before when we started back talking, I don't get the same buzz anymore when I do it. After a while, and I put out a few records, it was like -- music is drugs. I'd take a hit and I don't get high no more. It's almost like I'd do it because it's what I've been trying myself to do for so long. It doesn't bring me that high.

When we do Little Brother records, it's a high. It's really releasing endorphins. It's releasing a certain energy that you get. 

'Te, how would you say Pooh improved as an MC since 2010's Leftback?

Phonte: I think Pooh has improved, because now he's fully sitting in his truth for the first time. One of the only criticisms that I had about him as an MC was that he would get to the edge of the truth, but never really go there. He always get to the point and start revealing, but he'd always pull back for whatever reason. And in the past, I'd hear it and just be like, "Man, aight. That's him." I'd never question him about it or challenge him on it.

But for this record, his writing is just lucid and clear. He has a line on this song "Right on Time," where he talked about doing Uber pick-ups and them recognizing his face. When he wrote that, I was like "N---a, that's a fucking bar."

I remember hearing that line for the first time and it really threw me off.

Big Pooh: It was like, I didn't want anybody to recognize me -- but at the same time, I want n----as to notice me. [Laughs.]

Phonte: He had lines like that. "All in a Day," he said, "My pen used to run across the page doing suicides." Like that is such a fucking killer line. The visual of what that represents as just a young writer killing yourself trying to write the best shit. That was so great. That was what I saw the most growth from him this go-round. He told the whole truth. He didn't hold back and pull back anything from the audience. He really left it all on the field. 

Big Pooh: For me, the growth that I saw from 'Te wasn't even lyrical. He's always been razor sharp with the pen, pencil, or not even writing at all. [Laughs.] I told him, for me, I really saw growth in him as a producer. I said to him, "Man, on this record, you're really going to get your flowers as a producer. Like you're masterful with this shit." I don't think people really understand the thought you put into this or how you quarterbacked the situation. I'd have my input, obviously, but how he sees things and starts putting things together [is amazing]. With the pen, ain't too many n---as seeing 'Te up and down, but just as a producer with this album, I think people are really getting to see how much he's grown since [2003's] The Minstrel Show

Ironically, in an interview with Hip Hop DX, you guys said you just now learned to finally be friends after 20 years. 

Phonte: Absolutely. You know, the first time we actually did Little Brother and when we first formed the group, we kind of just jumped into it head first. One of the things that I've always been stressing when I talk to younger artists is to get to know the people you're working with -- because you might know somebody as an artist, but you don't know them as a person. Eventually, no matter how great their art is, that person is gonna show the fuck up, and when they do, you better know who they are.

So you gotta have those conversations early where you're like, "OK. You might be nice with the rhymes and you nice with the beats and you nice with the production. We gonna form this crew." But you have to talk to each one of those people and find out what really drives them. Like, what are you in this for? What's your motivation? We're all trying to get on, but what does getting on look like to you? Does that change? In five years that could look like something else. You have to those conversations.

There would be times I saw Pooh more than I saw my kids, and you don't wanna be trapped on a submarine with a fucking dickhead. Nobody wants to work in that presser cooker situation with people they don't fucking like. Get to know those people no matter how good their art is. This was the first time we were able to really create outside of the pressure of our youth and just make it. We got to take our time and really learn each other just as men and people. They were times he'd come to the crib and record and we wouldn't even record, we just kicked it. 

Big Pooh: We ain't never kicked it [before]. [Laughs.]

Phonte: We never kicked it! Because we were always working together. It's very easy to work with someone, and it confuses familiarity with closeness. We done been around each other. We're familiar with each other, but we're not close. We're just in close quarters. So I think this was the first time we really became close, and I think that showed up in the music. 

What does "Black Magic" mean to y'all now, versus being in your 20s? 

Big Pooh: "Black Magic" to me is being able to wake up, go out every day and be better than who I was the day before. That's "Black Magic" to me. With all the shit that we gotta deal with, with being black, you gotta deal with a lot. You walk outside, everyday is a tough day in some shape, form or fashion. Something is gonna happen to you, you gonna see some shit, you gonna go through some shit, whatever. 

Phonte: This is why Black people don't do extreme sports. N---a, my life is an extreme sport. 

Big Pooh: I get all the rush I need walking outside. I gotta worry about my neighbor across the street if she gon' call the police on me, because I don't go to work from 9-5. For me, that's what "Black Magic" is. It's to be able to get up everyday with the exuberance, loving life. Yeah, I go through this shit, but I love that I get to do it again. 

You guys teamed up with superstar MCs before their primes -- like Drake on "Don't You Have a Man," Lil Wayne on "Breakin' My Heart," and Kanye West on "I See Now." Out of those three, whose evolution are you most surprised by?

Phonte: I would honestly say of the three, the least surprising was Kanye.

Big Pooh: You can see it even then. The way he carried himself. It's like he already knew. He willed himself to where he wanted to be, and you saw it.

When I first met Kany,e it was in a lobby of a hotel where a conference was taking place. He introduced himself to me, and he didn't realize who I was at first. When he got reintroduced to me 10 minutes later, and he realized who I was, that n---a rapped to me nonstop for about an hour. That hour turned into two. Two turned into four. And then it was like, "N---a, do you just wanna go to the studio, bro?" He just had this energy about him. 

Phonte: He was always the same person. People would ask us this question, like, the new Kanye versus the old Kanye -- it's the same n---a. He just has his ability to be him on a bigger platform with more resources, but it's the same guy. 

If you guys can compare yourself to any NBA duo, who would you choose and why?

Pooh: I'm not even gonna front, bro, I think we're more Jordan and Pippen. I say that because Phonte has always gotten the recognition. He's fucking phenomenal and he should get it just like Jordan, but people always missed all of the little things that Pippen did that made them great. 

Phonte: N---as weren't getting chips when Jordan was hitting 63. 

Big Pooh: Because Pippen wasn't scoring 30 every night, people discounted him. They didn't look at, "Oh, he only scoring 17," but that n---a got 10 rebounds. That n---a got 12 assists. He done guarded the best player on the other team and got three steals. He ran the point. So I compare us to Jordan and Pippen, because it took up until this album for people to recognize why Little Brother worked the way it did. You may not look at me like an MC the way you look at Phonte but there's other things that I did within the group and the reason why it worked was because I was able to say, "Yo 'Te, you got this shit n---a."

What's your current relationship with 9th Wonder? Because he posted a congratulations post on Instagram.

Both: That was bullshit!

Big Pooh: We didn't get a text in our group chat that we've had...well...it hasn't been active. [Laughs.] Real talk, if you have my number, right? Before you do all that for the Gram, say it to me first. If he was to send the text, like, "Look, man. I know we done or whatever, but I just wanna congratulate ya'll for pushing through. The record dope," and then he put that [on Instagram], it would be cool. But for you to do that and we haven't heard from you... I ain't talk to that n---a since March. 

Do you think it's also a competitive thing -- being that he executive produced Rapsody's Eve album, which dropped just around the same time?

Phonte: That ain't have shit to do with that shit, man. Very quickly, just to clear it up -- we did start this project as the three of us, together. We started it. And then, it became very clear that we just bumped on two very big issues. One was we had wildly different ideas as to what production meant. He thought of production in the sense of just beat-maker. We were thinking of production in a classical Quincy Jones sense.

To him, he wanted to produce all the beats on the album. Not only did he want to produce all the beats on the album, he wanted to refuse the right to any other producer to work on the album. So any other producer that we wanted to work with -- from Notts, !llmind, and all these brothers that helped keep the LB name alive while he wasn't in the picture -- he thought he had the right to say, "No, these guys shouldn't be a part of this." We was like "N---a, hell nah. You not making that call." The Soul Council, he didn't even want his own crew on the record.

He said, "Y'all gonna give me my spot back."

Phonte: And about that, we ain't giving you shit back. Earn your fucking spot back. Like when a n---a gets hurt and you're the star running back, the back-up comes in and starts beasting, you come out of rehab and you're not automatically back in. 

Big Pooh: You seen what happened to Le'Veon Bell.

Phonte: We gotta figure out how to work you back into this whole existing framework. We can figure it out together and have conversations as a team. We're still with you, but you're going to participate in this. You're not going to dictate a goddamn thing. That was one.

The second thing was that we both had wildly different ideas of what commitment meant. So when it came down to, "Hey, man. What if I just come out and do the festival shows with y'all, and [tour DJ] Flash do the regular shows." It's like, get the fuck out of here. You're either all in or you're out. There's no beef. It's just clarity.

During this process, it's been a real journey. Just seeing things twist and turn, it was God's time. This was something to where at the end of this process, it really just put a period at the end of our relationship with him both personally and professional. It was cool. There's no beef because it was based on a true understanding of I see who you are. Just like how I got to know Pooh as a man, I got to know you as a man, and I can accept that. In my acceptance of that, I can also say, "N---a, I'm good on that." 

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.