During their seven-year, four-album career, North Carolina act Little Brother never sold much, but their influence has loomed large. Ahead of the curve on issues like the importance of Internet promotion and the benefits of signing an independent deal, the trio of Big Pooh, Phonte and producer 9th Wonder remained consistently critical of hip hop’s obsession with violence and materialism. 9th Wonder left the group in 2007 and, over the course of the past year, Phonte has grown more interested in pursuing his side project The Foreign Exchange — an R&B-accented electronic duo aimed at older listeners. As a result, he and Big Pooh have announced that Little Brother’s new album, LeftBack, will be their last.
eMusic’s Ben Westhoff spoke with Phonte and Big Pooh about the final Little Brother album, their heirs apparent, and Phonte’s recent war of words with former producer 9th Wonder.
eMusic: This isn’t one of these Jay-Z retirements, is it?
Big Pooh: Nah, definitely not. That’s why we’re not doing a super big roll-out, we’re not going on a three-month world tour and we’re not doing a lot of the things artists do to capitalize on their last album. This album is basically for the fans, to thank them for listening throughout the years.
It sounds like you and Phonte are moving in different creative directions.
Big Pooh: Phonte’s in singer/songwriter mode. He’s not in rapper mode, and you can’t really have Little Brother if one of the guys is not rapping. We’re not going to do an OutKast-like double album, with him singing and me rapping. At the same time, I’ve moved further away — sonically and content-wise — from what people expect from Little Brother. My content and sound is getting more and more aggressive, by the day.
eMusic: Your heart’s not in rapping anymore?
Phonte: Pretty much. I don’t believe in just doing stuff for the sake of doing it. My best work always comes when it’s something that I’m passionate about. Once I don’t really feel the passion anymore, it’s best to just move on and go where your heart is. Otherwise you’re doing the fans a disservice.
Artistically, what do you prefer about The Foreign Exchange?
Phonte: It just gives me more flexibility to flex my muscles as a songwriter. It lets me and Nic to do our thing as a production team in terms of writing and producing songs for other artists. It gives me another lane for expression.
Where does the title LeftBack come from?
Big Pooh: That was the original title of the EP we were creating of songs that didn’t make Getback, and a few remixes. It was going to be something that we put out a few years ago, but it never [happened] so we decided to keep the title but change the focus. We only kept two songs from then, and the rest were recorded more recently.
You wanted to include an old 9th Wonder-produced song as a LeftBack bonus track, but 9th didn’t go for it and your dispute spilled out over the Internet. Are you disappointed that conflict went public?
Phonte: Yeah. It is really saddening and it is disheartening. It’s not a rap beef, it’s just about what was once our personal friendship. That’s what hurts more than anything else. I wasn’t trying to reunite Little Brother, or get more 9th beats. I don’t care about any of that…But when I feel like I’m being attacked and I’m being painted unfairly, I’m going to speak up to defend myself. If our relationship ends up getting mended, that’s fine, and if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.
You’ve been critical of mainstream rap radio, which is dominated by southern MCs. Would you prefer hip hop’s epicenter was still in New York, instead of Atlanta?
Phonte: Nah, not really. There’s a lot of bullshit coming out of New York. I just think the [worst] thing with hip-hop right now is that we’ve lost the ability to police ourselves. Nobody wants to call something wack, because they’re scared of being called a hater, scared of pissing somebody off. “I don’t want to ruffle any feathers — I just want to get my money.” It’s really taking a toll on the game on a long-term level.
How are you feeling about hip-hop right now?
Big Pooh: It is what it is. I listen to what I listen to, and if I don’t like it I don’t speak on it. I don’t give someone attention by saying, “So and so sucks.” If you do that you can bring more attention to that artist than you do to yourself.
With Little Brother’s exit, who on the scene do you see as your standard bearers?
What will be Little Brother’s legacy?
Big Pooh: That we always put out dope music, kept the music fresh, and that we were always honest. We never pulled no punches, we just told it like it was, and you either loved us or hated us for it.