- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Little Brother performs at the Trocadero in Philly.
Philadelphia. Two white guys in a gleaming white Corvette splashed with streetlights, top down and blaring with bass.
"Get low, get low, get low, get low/ To the window, to the wall/ 'Til the sweat drops down my...."
The sound is instantly recognizable as crunk music, a recent Southern signal that's been at the top of the charts for three years running. This is minstrel show music, pure and simple.
Better yet, this is the song, "Get Low," the hit off of Lil Jon's third album, Kings of Crunk, that helped launch the entire crunk phenomenon, firing the sound straight from the South and into hip hop and Top 40 charts nationwide in 2002. Lil Jon's last album, 2004's Crunk Juice, landed at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, the national chart that tracks total album sales. Some of the subgenre's protégés have even surpassed his numbers.
Crunk is big, way-low bass lines--throbbing, shaking, repeating--and hyperactive choruses--shouting, calling, repeating--all smothered in explicit sexual sensationalism that moves way beyond innuendo, metaphor or any other device musicians have used for a century to talk about sex without being censored for it.
In the early '90s, the gangsta rap of N.W.A. was the hot topic along with its sexed-up bedfellow, epitomized by the controversial 2 Live Crew, whose 1990 hit "Me So Horny" led to several lawsuits in the Deep South.
Those controversies turned a good bit of the world off to the possibility of liking hip hop. Or at least the world over 30. But that generation's kids and grandchildren consumed it en masse, embracing it as an extension of the abandon and rebellion felt in punk rock. Fifteen years later, the Deep South is the Dirty South, and crunk music--swarming with talk of guns, pimps, bitches and brawls--is the sometimes mindless progression of that need to lash out. The South, an innate sucker for doing things with a loud mouth, is crunk's epicenter.
But four blocks down on Arch Street on this steamy Friday night in Philly, there's a new Southern hip-hop sound in town, straight out of Durham, moving by bus across America and into Canada on an ambitious 35-stop, six-week run.
It's Little Brother, the new power sound of the South, the new guys with a shot at major success in hip hop by doing things a bit differently. Little Brother raps about what it means to be young, black, talented and true, not young, black, talented and stereotyped. Really, Little Brother--a name they choose because they thought it looked good on paper--raps about Little Brother.
And, all the while, they maintain one thing: They're just being themselves. Or, in LB parlance: "Around here, real respects real."
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Phonte and Pooh backstage
Little Brother is the chief breadwinner of the Hall of Justus Music Group, a financial extension of the Justus League, a hip-hop squad beatmaker 9th Wonder started with rapper Cesar Comanche while at N.C. State in 1999. At first, it was a loose collection of emcees and producers coming together to push hip hop in the Triangle, attempting to build a scene around what has proven to be one of the most densely talented and organized hip-hop circles in the South. They rapped on one another's tracks and set up shows and weekly and monthly hip-hop nights across the Triangle. As the scene was building enough to carry its own weight, people naturally started pairing off, forming groups and making records. Most of the Justus League came together at N.C. Central University in Durham.
Phonte--a Greensboro native and, naturally, a communications major--was set to rhyme over a beat made by 9th Wonder. Median, another rapper from the Justus League, was supposed to be the second emcee.
"I came up and 9th was doing a song with Phonte and Median, but you couldn't find Median. That was always the case--you may see him some place, but you couldn't find him," laughs Big Pooh, a northern Virginia native who studied history at N.C. Central. After graduating, he took the train from Charlotte to work in the Triangle with JL. "So Phonte said, 'Well, let's throw Pooh on there,' and we sat down and wrote the song 'Speed,' and we finished it."
They all sat in Phonte's car--at that point, he was the only one with a car--and listened to the track for a solid hour. They discovered their own chemistry and hit the ground running as Little Brother, recording in Raleigh and Durham and honing a sound that defied the hip hop of the minute. No one in the Justus League seemed to be aiming for commercial success on its terms. The music was being made on their terms, and Little Brother--with Phonte and Pooh's pragmatic, dynamic and analytical rhymes rapped over 9th Wonder's beats built off soul and jazz samples and playful computerized drums--epitomized that ethic.
Their full-length debut, The Listening, was released in 2002 on ABB Records, a small but ambitious Oakland hip-hop label. The Listening was the label's 38th release, and it created the strongest buzz yet. Hip-hop heavyweights like Jurassic 5 and ?uestLove--the drummer for The Roots and something of a cultural savant who runs the online hip-hop haven okayplayer.com--signed on as fans.
The notoriety and aim of the Justus League only grew from there. National tours with longtime veterans like Dilated Peoples and Hieroglyphics followed. Their video made MTV.
To date, the crew has released dozens of mixtapes, compilations and full-length albums. In 2004, the entire League crossed the country on the Connected Tour, in support of all of its previous releases and Connected, the debut from The Foreign Exchange, a sort of electronic pen-pal album with rhymes recorded in Durham by Little Brother's Phonte and beats by Nicolay, a producer in The Netherlands. Financially, the tour was a bust.
"Some real facts: The first tour we did with everybody, the Connected Tour, we had no big records out, no real radio play, nothing. Me, Tay [Phonte], Pooh and 9th fronted the money," explains Big Dho, the Hall of Justus manager since 2003. "I got no money, neither did they ... When I say no money, I mean none, nothing, zero. I came back with like 47 cents in my account."
But the tour provided critical exposure to a nationwide audience, offering a different strain--or, rather, breed--of Southern hip hop apart from the dumbed-down, unit-movers of Lil Jon and the ilk. It was also a wake-up call and a warning sign of things afoot. Little Brother soon signed to one of America's largest labels, Atlantic Records, for its sophomore album.
Finally, parts of the industry seemed to recognize that crunk music and mainstream hip hop of the moment were boring--monotonous, thematically bankrupt anthems that started to prove as disposable as some of their makers--and there had to be something in place when the masses started to realized how superficial it had become. Little Brother--a major talent with major things to say and a sound that appealed to new fans of hip hop and people that grew up in New York in the '80s alike--was being called up out of the South for a chance at the spotlight.
It was time to man up.
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Gentry, the Justus Leagues tour manager, unloads outside the Trocadero in Philadelphias Chinatown.
"Dog, I keep hearing the same crunk music, and I'm just like, 'What the fuck?'" says DJ Chubby Chub, a New York native and rising Boston DJ, standing outside of the WBOT 97.7 studio. "I'm fucking sick of crunk music."
Chubby Chub is talking to Little Brother, who arrived in Boston from Philadelphia by bus just over an hour ago, climbing in a black Suburban 20 minutes later to come do an interview with Chubby. He's explaining the frustrations of his job, lamenting DJs who no longer DJ by scouting new talent, but instead heed the trends already built nationwide.
"I can't stand the fucking followers out there," he tells Little Brother, Dho and their Atlantic radio promotions manager in the Northeast, Dwight Willacy. "That's not me."
WBOT is a new station in Boston, and Chubby prides himself on its success. It's obvious that he has been no small part of it. His Cadillac Escalade--polished and top of the line--is a laughable dichotomy with his station's building, a tin-construction, industrial warehouse just outside of the city in Quincy, Mass. He stands inside the burgundy backdoor, sliding a disc into his Apple laptop and talking hip-hop shop. He's burning a track from a group in Providence that he's hot for, telling Pooh and Phonte that they should give it a try. He burns the instrumental, too, telling them that--if they like it--they should record a verse or two over the beat and send it to him. It will be an exclusive that only he can play.
Chubby is WBOT's music director now, answering only to the programming director. He constantly keeps his ears open, listening for new sounds that he thinks he can break to Boston. That's what his real pride is.
"You will not hear it here unless it's hott, I promise," he yells several times an hour, on air and off.
That's the reason Little Brother is here today. He likes what they're doing, and his enthusiasm only increases when he realizes 9th Wonder is Little Brother's third member, the man behind the beats. 9th Wonder doesn't tour with Little Brother, opting instead to stay in Durham and make those beats.
Inside the studio, Chub plays four cuts off of The Minstrel Show, Little Brother's second album, released just four days earlier. He quizzes Pooh and Phonte before and after each song and talks to them about their roots.
The songs don't actually play. This is a taping. Showtime tonight at Boston's Paradise Club is 9 p.m., and Chub goes on too late in the evening for Phonte and Pooh to make a live appearance. Or so someone thought. Dho is frustrated when he realizes that they could have easily done a live interview with Chubby and made the show, with only a bit more coordination. He steps outside to make a phone call.
In this drywall production booth, Chubby is his own engineer, having everyone check microphone levels before he swivels and records the interview onto a computer sitting in the corner.
After the interview, he asks Phonte and Pooh to do several drops--"Yo, this is Phonte, representin' Little Brother. You're listenin' to..."--for the station. Phonte flubs his drop for DJ Reggie Beas twice, pronouncing the g as a z.
"I don't know why I'm fucking that shit up," he exclaims, exasperated until he realizes that he even wrote Reggie's name wrong on a group photograph.
Pooh nails the Reggie Beas drop, and Chubby spins to save the interview on his computer. Now it's his turn to be exasperated.
"I think I lost the interview," he says, staring at the monitor with a blank face. "Oh well, the second time's a charm."
Phonte takes his Cincinnati Reds coat off, getting down to business and knowing he better make it count in round two. He and Pooh seem frustrated that they'll have to answer many of the same questions again, which may be the reason Chub unloads his secret this time around.
Throughout most of the visit, Chubby drops hints that he used to be in a hip-hop group, too, that he understands the grind--an overabundance of promotions chained to an always looming lack of funds--that comes with a record deal.
Then, midway through taping two of the interview, Chubby says it: "Yeah, I was on Atlantic, too."
Phonte suddenly looks up. Now, it all makes sense: "What group?"
Chubby--imminently cool, knowing his is the full house--grins, folds his hands and eases it out: "Original Flavor."
Now this is more than just another radio spot. "You kiddin'? Oh, we gotta talk later," says Phonte, now completely into this. "Ooooh, boy."
Chubby just nods and laughs. Back to the interview.
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Little Brothers tour bus passes through Chinatowns gate, outside the Trocadero.
By now, Little Brother is past being star-struck. After all, 9th Wonder has produced tracks for multimillionaire hustler and rap impresario Jay-Z and for Destiny's Child, the pop-soul group led by Jay-Z's girlfriend, Beyonce Knowles. He's made beats for De La Soul--the NYC trio that helped shape the straight-up hip-hop sound that Little Brother reinvents--and an entire album for Murs, one of the best rappers on one of New York's hottest properties, Definitive Jux Records.
But Original Flavor was a second-generation hip-hop prototype, a launching pad for the career of Jay-Z and his rap-redefining Roc-A-Fella Records. Jay-Z, one of the most powerful men in hip hop for years, is now the president and CEO of Def Jam Records, a label that began--much like the Justus League--in a dorm room before it launched the careers of legends like RUN-DMC and LL Cool J and new torchbearers like Kanye West and Method Man. Jay-Z is perhaps the most powerful black man in entertainment. His old pal Chubby Chub has lived history, and he's got lessons.
"I'll be honest with ya. You're gonna get lucky to get overnight plays with most DJs. When stations hire programming directors that don't know music, shit gets fucked up," says Chubby, as Phonte, Pooh and Dho listen. Willacy, their radio man up here, listens, too, knowing what's coming. "That's gonna be your problem."
He's talking about radio play, explaining that most jockeys aren't willing to take chances on hip hop if it doesn't fit neatly into the lock, stock and barrel flow of the mainstream. He's disgusted at what they will take chances on, though. Today's guff is "Laffy Taffy," an extraordinarily inane song with a Casio-tone melody and an absurd hook--"Girl, Shake dat Laffy Taffy/ Dat Laffy Taffy/ Shake dat Laffy Taffy/ Dat Laffy Taffy."
Yesterday, Phonte and Pooh did more than two hours of radio interviews at the New York headquarters of Atlantic Records.
"Every DJ we talked to yesterday was asking about that song," reports Pooh. "I haven't even heard it."
"They liiiiked it?"
"No, they hated it, can't stand it," Pooh says, laughing.
"You remember when you got that little keyboard, and niggas was hoping they could play 'Inspector Gadget?'" Chubby asks, not even smiling now. "That's what this shit is. That nigga is terrible."
None of them understand it, except perhaps Willacy. He sees it just like he sees crunk music, the craze of the popular hip-hop world for the past two years: It's his job.
As Chubby puts it, Little Brother may be a much tougher sale than "Laffy Taffy." They are decidedly non-trendy.
"There are a lot of cats out there that want to see something different," Phonte tells Chubby on air. "There needs to be something to set that balance back, do something else."
"If only Kanye West and Common and Little Brother were getting played, we'd need that crunk music to offset this stuff," adds Pooh.
It's crunk and its ilk that Little Brother targets with the provocatively titled The Minstrel Show. According to Phonte and Pooh, it's not just whites that paint their faces black to entertain and profit these days; it's blacks, too. They act like exaggerations of themselves to fit into race roles and sell records, Phonte and Pooh agree. In fact, The Minstrel Show is based loosely on an episode of Saturday Night Live, the songs occasionally interrupted by skits and commerical. The show is the hit of the satire station, UBN--"U Black Niggas Network, Channel 94, Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill."
But Little Brother makes hip hop built on a doctrine of reality, of being real, of letting the person define the music, not vice versa in some crunk cult of personality. This is neither hip hop about gangstas, guns and girls, nor is it "conscious rap" characterized by social commentary, knit sweaters and incense. Phonte and Pooh rap about the difficulty of fatherhood and fiscal responsibility. They rap about relationship trauma and family drama, not women and killin'.
And that's most of the problem.
But Chubby isn't full of complete gloom; he has success stories, too.
He's broken several new artists in this market and helped them sell lots of records. It's not a boast for Chubby. It's an offer to help, if he can. When Fat Joe, the Bronx rapper who cashed in big last year with "Lean Back," released True Story, he was ready for the mainstream. It was the first album from his crew, The Terror Squad, since its other co-founder Big Punisher died in 2000. Chubby begged his programming director to get the lead single in rotation. It happened, and on the strength of that single, True Story peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200.
An essential tenet of Little Brother and this entire Justus League movement, though, isn't to sit around and wait. Instead of waiting for commercial radio to pick up a single, they're hitting the road in the rock band mold, taking it to the people and giving them every chance available to decide. It seems that--given the choice between working hard, staying true and failing versus waiting around, selling out and making millions--they've already chosen the former. After all, this is the Justus League's second time packed in a tour bus. Plus, their extremely hard work seems to be paying off. Two days from now, the Billboard 200 will reveal that The Minstrel Show was the 56th best-selling album in America that week, moving 18,000 copies in its first week.
Everyone says goodbye to Chubby. Cell numbers and well wishes are exchanged, and we climb back in the Suburban. Talk radio is playing, and football scores blast until the driver, Manny, flips the dial just as we approach the Callahan Tunnel. Back to WBOT 97.7, shifting effortlessly between Jeezy and Jon and Kanye West and Common.
But, by then, it might as well be Creed. They pass out like dominoes, 200 yards into the tunnel. Phonte is on the driver's side in the second row, his head covered by the hood of a Cincinnati Reds jacket. He leans against the window, his hand tucked under his eye. Beside him sits Big Dho, his head bent back uncomfortably, a gray leather headrest the only thing between his neck and a 90-degree angle. Pooh props his elbow on the hulking plastic cupholder and leans his shoulder against the third-row window.
Phonte, Pooh and Dho don't wake up until we turn left off of the exit ramp on the other side of Boston in Woburn. For the next 16 hours, the suburb's Comfort Inn is the headquarters for Little Brother and its Justus League movement.
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Justus League members L.E.G.A.C.Y, Sean Bugg and O-Dash enjoy their off-nightand Budweiserin Philly.
Back at the hotel, Dho is ready to talk. We're both hungry, and the McDonald's down the hill is the closest option. Dho--like the rest of Little Brother except 9th Wonder, a tall, athletically skinny guy who looks far younger than his actual 30--is not little at all. He's light-skinned, a gentle, joking giant whose simultaneous toughness and tenacity glares off of his arms in a series of tattoos.
"The Pain in Life" reads his lateral left forearm in two-inch-tall block letters. Just below his right wrist, "628"--his hometown area code--is etched in a moderate calligraphy. Dho was raised in Connecticut, but he moved south when he got into trouble.
"Those are the people I'd spill blood for, jail time, anything. That's my family, 628. I don't want to downplay it by calling it a gang or nothing like that," he says. "But I got in some trouble and my mom was worried, so she told me she'd buy me a car if I moved down here."
In a sense, the entire Hall of Justus movement is Dho's North Carolina 628. He makes it clear that he would go to the end of the line for them, and by now he has several times. Dho says that, as a manager, he must be comfortable sacrificing his last dime for the movement with the expectation that it will boomerang, maybe even multiply.
"Nobody can ever say we didn't earn what we got. I mean, you can hate all you want but none of y'all had to do that same shit. You might have had to grind, but I can give you stories for days of shit we had to go through to get where the fuck we are," he says. "And we're not there yet. We get to the major and we still got more obstacles. That's God's plan, to make us earn every dollar we get. This is a job."
Dho is immensely serious. He oversees this entire operation with penetrating, no-bullshit eyes, calling shots like he sees them and always demanding the best for and of his movement. In between bites of a fish sandwich, fries and an apple pie, he's passionate about what this all means. He says hasn't seen his family--a wife and two kids in Durham--much at all since April, and they now live in a house he has paid for but hasn't seen. His grandmother was at the show two nights ago in New York. She, of course, was proud of her boy, whose crew was onstage in front of an electrified capacity crowd at B.B. Kings, a Times Square 1,000-seater and one of the best venues in the city. But she cried.
"Shit is tough, B. I saw my grandmother for an hour. I haven't seen her since Christmas of last year. She's getting older, and I may not get to see her anymore. I need to see her," he says, talking about how important it is that he's now able to send his family and relatives money.
But for Dho, this work is a dream he never dreamt. He never had intentions of managing in the music business. Instead, he was simply running a studio in Durham as a hobby, teaching and coaching--football, softball, tennis--at Shepherd Middle School to pay the bills.
In mid-August, he was in Los Angeles with Pooh, making the final edit of the group's first video behind The Minstrel Show. The video was for "Lovin' It," the first single, an ultra-smooth verse exchange pulsing off of a sample by the Stylistics--the Philly soul group that sang "You Are Everything" and "Make Up to Break Up."
"I wanted the cut to be more personal to the group, more of their personality to come out," Dho says. "If you see them, you see the video and vice versa. Most people, you see their video and you know they don't live like that. All them don't live in no mansion with all them fuckin' girls and shit. That's a lie."
As soon as Dho and Pooh returned to North Carolina after the video was done, Dho stepped off of the plane and into his van, driving straight to New York to meet with Atlantic marketing director James Lopez and Atlantic president Julie Greenwald to make sure the label was ready to post enough money to support Little Brother's ambitious Commercial Free Tour.
"I had to meet with them, find some money," he remembers. "And as soon as I did, I came down here, got ready for the tour and left."
More than once, Dho has gone in the red just to give the Justus League movement what it needed. So why is this job--largely thankless, sleepless, nameless--worth it for Dho?
"When I see Pooh bought a Lexus, he got a townhouse, when I see Phonte pay for medical bills out of his pocket, I see 9th bought a brand new truck with cash... " he says, stopping mid-sentence when his phone rings.
It's Gentry Simms--Dho's right-hand man, a Mister Do-It-All, everybody's best friend--calling. Everybody's ready to go to the club. All in all, there are 13 people--several acts and a crew. Dho opted to bring the rest of his groups out for this tour instead of just Little Brother, using their rising national star to give the others--The Away Team, Darien Brockington, L.EG.A.C.Y., Joe Scudda and Chaundon--a moment in the spotlight.
We're out of the door in 45 seconds. Back up the hill, they're waiting for us beside the bus. A head count--Is it 13 now? Yeah?--and we're off.
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Phonte, DJ Flash and Pooh on stage at the Trocadero
For some reason, the drive to Paradise Rock Club in Boston takes more than an hour, but we pull up around 7:30 p.m. The club's doors are opening, and there's already a healthy line. Chaundon--a Justus League emcee who just released a classic new mixtape and has one of the best guest spots on The Minstrel Show, introducing a song like a game-show host with "If you didn't know, you're listening to the biggest colored show on Earth"--unloads the merchandise from beneath the bus and rolls it into the club. Several minutes later, Gentry appears in the bus, a stack of cash in one hand and all-access badges in the other: Each person gets a $15 "buy-out," a daily allowance for dinner and whatever else they can afford.
In the back of the bus, Pooh and I do an interview. This is the first time we've sat down since The Minstrel Show was released, but we last talked in February, weeks before Little Brother's last sold-out show at the Cat's Cradle and several weeks after the release of his first solo album, Sleepers.
Sleepers--and especially its daring first track, "I Don't Care," in which he rhymes "I'm sick/ No antidote to prescript/ You with a nigga who flip, go all out/ And there ain't no chance in this world I'm gonna stall out"--was obsessed with the negative fallout of his hip-hop success.
Before and after the success of The Listening, people doubted Pooh's abilities, claiming that he was the weakest link in LB and should be replaced. Some negative reviews plagued the success of the record, but still, Sleepers was a welcome exorcism, an on-the-record exercise where Pooh--at 25, the youngest piece of LB--sharpened his wit and fortified his confidence. It worked, as on The Minstrel Show Pooh sounds comfortable and experienced, delivering some of his most confident moments yet.
"I learned that I had to channel my anger and frustration. Before, all I was thinking about was 'Motherfuckers don't like me. They don't want me in Little Brother anymore.' Then I would end up fucking up, and they would have every right to say that," Pooh, now a Cary resident, says, smiling and sitting on one of the couches in the bus' rear lounge. "Now I just laugh. I know I ain't going anywhere. I just want to thank all of those people for motivating me. They done turned me into a beast."
Dho slides the door open 20 minutes into the conversation, holding a cell phone and saying that he and Phonte need to do a radio interview for DJ Commando in Omaha, Neb. Commando called Dho's phone and thought he was talking to LB. Dho was live on the air for a minute before Commando realized Pooh and Phonte weren't ready. Pooh talks to him first, just as Phonte stumbles in, still buried beneath his red hood. He slumps in the seat, leaning over. Pooh shoots him a worried look.
Pooh finishes his end of the interview, turns the speakerphone on and passes Phonte the phone. Phonte doesn't move a muscle, but--almost automatically--it's as if he's cured of the cold that's pestered him all day.
"What's poppin', Commando?" he says, talking to the DJ like they're friends from back in his hometown of Greensboro or his adopted homestead of N.C. Central. "Oh, we're out here on the road, in Boston, ya know. I'm just trying to fight off this cold before the show."
The usual litany of questions follows: What about this single? How is the road treating you? What advice do you have?
Little Brother just finished a four-day press-junket/ radio-interview/ in-store marathon in New York, and the signs are showing. Pooh tells me that the New York run was the most tiring thing he's ever done. Phonte looks like he needs a mother's love and a few days of sleep.
But DJ Commando lays on the compliments, gushing about LB and The Foreign Exchange: "Y'all got a phat album here, dog. This shit is raw."
Phonte says thanks, but something he said earlier in the interview still weighs heavy in the room. When Commando pops the advice question, Phonte, 26, elaborates on Pooh's answer, adding in a somehow upbeat way, "Keep working. Very seldom is this about talent. It's about perseverance."
If that's what it takes, Phonte, Pooh and everyone else on the bus seems to come standard with it. Be it for perseverance or talent, 300 fans--white, black, college age, working class, men, women--are already inside, two hours before the music starts. Sometime after 8 p.m., a girl in the front row--dressed in American sorority syndicate with big pearls, a sleeveless shear blouse covered with flowers and tight jeans--screams "I'm 'Lovin' It,'" punning off the first LB single. Closer to 9, she turns to the guy beside her, saying "Oh, c'mon. I'm ready to see them." He agrees: "C'mon, dogs."
As new guys in the business who happen to be doing things a little differently and making it work, Little Brother is in high demand. Their ambitions fill their schedules with activities to put them where they want to be, and a growing legion of fans demands the best onstage. But, sometimes, one side has to wait for the other to stop moving--temporarily, of course.
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- With a smile like this, the Pooh tag just fits.
The day before, the ambition-pursuing side of the movement is tardy for Philadelphia. After their show in New York on Thursday, LB returned by tour bus to their four-day headquarters across the river in New Jersey. Phonte and Pooh were due back at Atlantic Records around noon on Friday to do several interviews, and Dho needed to take care of some business. They hoped to be on the way to Philadelphia for the night's show at the Trocadero by early afternoon.
Around 5:30 on Friday, Gentry and 10 of the guys are still in New Jersey, waiting. Finally, Pooh, Phonte and Dho return, and the drive to Philadelphia begins, three hours late. At 8 p.m., they have just pulled up to the club. Doors are already open and people already filing in. Tonight, Little Brother is set to open for Blackalicious, a California duo who released a major label debut in 2002 before moving to Anti--the Epitaph Records imprint that houses Tom Waits and Daniel Lanois--for their new album, The Craft. Little Brother has an hour to load in, get set and take stage. After waiting all day, the other Justus League acts won't perform. They're actually excited.
Chaundon is doing his load-in ritual and making sure everyone has backstage passes. Gentry climbs in a cab with Phonte to go check into the hotel, and the rest of the crew stands in front of the club or drifts inside to the green room.
Sean Bugg--the emcee of The Away Team--and Joe Scudda--a guest on The Minstrel Show who performs onstage with LB every night and whose debut is being produced by Pooh--stand in the streets of Chinatown, scoffing at the smells and sights. They're the only two white guys now on the road, but they're not being singled out. This isn't a huddle. It's a conversation. As such, L.E.G.A.C.Y. --a Justus League solo artist with recent streaks of gray in his black hair--joins them, adding his typical flair.
"This ain't Philly. This is Beijing, Tiananmen Square, Budapest. This is Little Fucking Tokyo," says L.E.G.A.C.Y., a different sort of Justus League emcee. He sports a rock 'n' roll persona onstage and offstage, backing everything with brash confidence and a punchy one-two wit.
To wit, the first thing he could tell me when I joined the tour the day before was, "You can call me L.F.B. now. Ask me why," he says, referencing his new acronym for Little Furnace Boy, smiling and answering the question before I can ask it. "Because I'm hott!"
L.E.G. --or L.F.B. --eventually relents, admitting that the colorful Oriental arch above the bus is beautiful. But he doesn't want any of this damn food.
"Yo, I need a cheesesteak like right now," he says, bummed to hear the closest stand is some six blocks away. They filter inside one or two at a time, all inspecting the green room. O-Dash--an emcee and the tour's one-man filmcrew--joins them. L.E.G. laughs at the beer selection for the night, noting that not only is it Budweiser--"This piss tastes like beer"--but that it's hot, too. An assistant at the club wanders upstairs with a stack of eight meal cards for a restaurant down the street ("Is it good?" Sean Bugg asks three times). Apparently, the assistant isn't familiar with this movement, and he doesn't know that more than a dozen people are waiting.
"Nah, actually we need 16," L.E.G. remembers.
"God damn, that's a lot," the assistant stammers. He hands these eight off and scampers out the door.
At least two members of the League aren't worried about eating right now, though. Twenty minutes before the show, Pooh and Dho are still asleep on the bus. Ten minutes before LB's 9 p.m. set time, Pooh's stumbling down Arch Street, away from the Trocadero's entrance and back toward the bus, rubbing his eyes and turning and waving to a group of fans that yell, "Hey, yo, Pooh." He's been out of bed for 10 minutes, and he needs to be onstage in 10 more.
The Philly set is something of a bust. The Trocadero is an old theater with a balcony hanging nearly to the mid-floor soundboard. With three free-standing sides, its stage is more like a peninsula than anything, and--with LB in one of its few opening slots this tour--things are cramped onstage. DJ Flash approaches the riser and gets the crowd moving, welcoming LB to the stage and ending his own brief DJ set by telling the crowd to get their L's--symbolic, of course, for LB--in the air.
Pooh and Phonte come onstage with their L's up, and most of the room responds. Immediately, Flash drops a beat onto the tables and LB hits it, spinning into verses and on top of hooks, leading the crowd in chants and eventually getting several of them to dance, or at least sway. Phonte and Pooh are masters at reading crowds and pulling the proper energies into place--a straight soul chorus here, a freestyle there, an a cappella version later, some spirited stage banter now.
"Y'all niggas sitting up there thinking this is prayer meeting or something. This is a hip-hop show. C'mon," Phonte teases, toying with the people in the balcony (especially those sitting down) just before he dedicates a song to the people up front.
Even with their experience, they can't win the whole crowd, and the 45-minute set doesn't deliver on the usual LB goods. When they leave the stage, they're hungry, and Pooh, Dho, Phonte and Claudia--his wife, eight months pregnant--decide to find something.
"That was our worst..." says Pooh to Dho, walking in the back of the pack. "Well, I won't say it was our worst show, but that wasn't good."
They settle on China King, a place two blocks down that promises "Chinese & American Food." Phonte, a vegetarian, orders tofu, but Pooh knew he wanted General Tso's chicken before he stepped inside.
Even though the show was a miss, no one lingers on it. They simply note what was wrong, laugh it off and move on, knowing that they did what they could with less-than-favorable circumstances. In fact, it's amazing how lighthearted they all are. Dho is full of jokes.
Paradime--one of the tour's DJs, a smiling, joking, Asian, hip-hop fanatic who tries to study for his real estate exam on the bus--shows up with Gentry and Darien Brockington, the one they privately call the movement's "sex symbol," especially since he sings LB's soul hooks both on album and onstage. Pooh and Dho turn their comic energies exclusively to the trio, sitting two tables away. Pooh explains to me that he, Dho and Phonte--and apparently, for tonight, I--are The Compadres. Dho dubs Gentry "Slash"--like Kordell Stewart--for all of his talents.
"But those three niggas right there deserve each other," notes Dho, laughing at them and sweeping them together with his left hand. "But they need a name."
A few proposals fail, but eventually, Dho settles on "Almost Famous." Pooh loves it, and Dime thinks it's a riot. On the road, there has to be a place for humor, because--aside from joking each other and laughing--there's so little time to relax. It's an antidote for bad nights and repetitive questions, and it comes welcome and easy.
Back at the bus, Claudia hugs everyone goodbye. She's going back to Durham.
Sitting in front of a stairwell that leads upstairs to several apartments beside the Trocadero, Joe Scudda explains his interest in the music business. A Georgia Bulldogs icon on his cell phone prompts him to talk about his childhood and his family in Fuquay-Varina. His father didn't understand his son's music, not until they sat down and discussed what Joe wanted from it all.
"He wanted to know what I wanted to get from this. And I love doing what we're doing, going all across the country and seeing these people. I told him that if I can make enough to live off of, maybe 40 grand or something, I'm happy," Joe says, puffing slowly on a cigarette and switching between a cell phone and a Blackberry.
Khrysis--the producer for The Away Team--paces around, sitting down occasionally to tap something into his Sidekick, the League's other handheld messenger of choice. Chase Flow, a young Philadelphia rapper with an ear for most of the Justus League acts, freestyles to Sean Bugg for 10 minutes, uninterrupted. Sean just listens, staring straight at him, Sidekick in his right hand, beer in his left. A couple of people fish for their bags beneath the bus.
Phonte comes outside and rips open a massive plastic bag of white T-shirts he just bought in New York. He pulls off the sweaty one he's been wearing since the show, and throws the rest of the bundle--maybe 20 in all--back below.
By now, the bus is loaded and everyone is ready to settle in for the night. They will leave for Boston at 8 a.m. Another Trocadero assistant comes back outside and asks for the driver, explaining that there was a misunderstanding and the bus has to move one block for the rest of the night. The driver, Perry, is already asleep in the hotel, but he's back in 10 minutes, sipping coffee and climbing on. He doesn't just look tired.
Brockington eventually sets his mind on the walk, and he disappears down the side street behind the club. Sean Bugg says goodbye to Chase Flow, and Scudda and Khrysis climb aboard before Perry gets behind the seat. Everyone seems to have reached a quiet consensus about Philadelphia tonight: Some tour dates deserve to be over.
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- For Phonte and Claudia (in background), time alone on tour is rare, but late-night Chinese food isnt.
If this is a slightly wasted night for the Hall of Justus movement and for Little Brother, they probably had it coming. After all, the night before, 10 of them--including 9th Wonder, who joined the crew for most of the New York stay--took over Times Square from the stage of B.B. Kings. At the fourth annual CMJ Showcase presented by New York promotions company Room Service, the Justus League headlines, owning a bill that includes the veteran J-Live. Little Brother was opening for him two years ago. Now, he's opening for them and asking 9th about getting some beats.
This is truly a Justus League and Little Brother crowd, and they're high off of the new album. They're the only crew with a dressing room to themselves, which isn't exactly saying much since at least 14 of them are sharing 100 square feet. Backstage is as busy as the rest of their NYC week. People spill out of the green room and into the hallway that leads up to the stage. Paul, a big, burly security guard, is having none of it: "If you're not performing or you don't need to be here, get out."
Some are above the tossing, like Casual from Hieroglyphics, the Oakland hip-hop crew that took Little Brother out on its first national tour. He smokes a small joint near the end of the club's long underground hallway, and one guard considers saying something to him. Another realizes that is a very bad idea.
"This is some real hip hop, Little Brother, and that's coming from all of Hiero. It's crazy--this good hip hop from the South, even," Casual tells me later, just before he finds a spot to watch the show. "I hear them on the mic, havin' fun and killin' it. And it makes me wonder why I gotta sound so serious all the time."
Another longtime LB supporter, Fahiem Ratcliffe, mills around backstage and in the dressing room. Until August, Ratcliffe was the editor-in-chief of hip hop's top magazine, The Source. When it came time to review The Minstrel Show, he stood by his writer's 4 1/2 out of 5 mics review. When Source chiefs Ray "Benzino" Scott and David Mays insisted that it would get only four mics, Ratcliffe resigned. Like Little Brother, he'd rather preserve his own integrity and work than settle for the easy success. The day The Minstrel Show was released, his extensive interview with LB was released through America Online's Black Voices.
"Right now, rap is in a state of imbalance, and Little Brother represents a welcome alternative," says Ratcliffe, who joins LB onstage for most of its set. "[The Source] had its reasons and they were mostly political, but sometimes money isn't everything. I'd do the same for anyone."
Ratcliffe and Casual stay, but every 15 minutes a security guard checks for passes. Even MTV--cameras and all--can't get back to do an interview. Little Brother has to go meet them on the bus, parked in front of the club on 42nd Street.
Under B.B. Kings' awning, a line of about 50 Little Brother fans is waiting to get into the sold-out show.
One is DJ OhSoKool, a longtime fan and Harlem native who has had Little Brother on his WHCR show, but they couldn't make the connection this time.
"Once the majors get a hold of you, it's tough," he says. "I know they're so busy. You can hear it in Phonte's voice on the phone. He's running ragged, ready to get home and do nothing."
He and his friend, Claude Spencer, are waiting for tickets; Phonte couldn't get them on the list. In fact, all of LB's North Carolina friends in town for CMJ couldn't even get on the list.
Back inside, Dho makes the last-minute decision to cut the three Justus League opening acts--Darien Brockington, L.E.G. and The Away Team--a song short. The sold-out, jam-packed crowd is tired and anxious, and--coming offstage--everybody agrees. The Away Team doesn't know how to own the crowd yet, and--even after NYC duo Smif N' Wesson hits the stage to join them for "Come on Down"--it seems as though they still have a bit to learn about holding an audience.
But not Little Brother. When they hit the stage in New York only two days after the release of The Minstrel Show, the crowd goes into hysterics and LB's maturity as a live act shines.
"I know B.B. Kings is a nice place, but did you come for a hip-hop show or a rap show?" Phonte quizzes the crowd halfway into the set. Almost everyone knows the right answer is hip hop. He does his soft-shoe imitation of a rap show, and then tells them what an LB hip hop show is all about. "Y'all ready to get fuckin' dirty? Get nasty? Get sweaty? OK."
The crowd doesn't stop moving the whole time. They sing along, chant along, clap and scream. Any droopy eyelids have adjusted. Toward the end of the set, Phonte disappears, but a character dressed in a bright blue suit and gold-plated chains returns. It's Percy Miracles, the fictitious soul legend that serves as one of the stars of The Minstrel Show. He delivers "Cheatin'"--a hilarious but wildly catchy dig on Ronald Isley and R. Kelley--to a hungry crowd. Percy and the crew wave goodnight. Tonight, the Justus League owned a section of New York. All the work, the lack of sleep and the bevy of fans came together, and it was pure energy. Tonight, LB seemed to hit stride, to man up right up to the biggest, toughest music town in the world.
After the show, Phonte--soaked in sweat and smiling--changes out of his Percy Miracles get-up. Everyone chats and smiles, happy with the outcome. Autographs are signed, numbers are exchanged and bags are packed. They slowly migrate to the bus, Pooh wondering on the way what time they need to head into the city in the morning. Dho thinks noon sounds fine. Pooh wants to head in around 10 a.m. He's running low on T-shirts and needs to shop. He's been sweating a lot this tour.
But that's about six hours of sleep, and that's if he's lucky.
This is the dream, no doubt.
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Dho doesnt wear his feelings on his sleeve, but he wears them well.
Like New York on Thursday, Boston is hot for the Justus League and Little Brother on Saturday.
"How many of y'all got Project Mayhem?" L.E.G. asks the crowd, referring to his debut. To match his on-album cinematics and his real-life witticisms, L.E.G.A.C.Y. sports the most unorthodox stage presence of the entire League. He wears a black, metal-spiked punk rock belt, but he's constantly tugging at the back of his jeans, even though they don't fall down. He walks to an edge of the stage, and then prances--holding his pants, no less--to the other side. Crowds love it.
When he pops the question, the most unlikely face in the crowd--a middle-aged white man in the front row with a white Polo shirt and a khaki hat--is the most excited.
"Yeah, right here," he screams, pumping both fists in the air.
"Some of y'all motherfuckers are lying, I know," L.E.G. retorts at no one in general.
If anyone is lying, it's not the guy in the front row, who sang along with Darien Brockington during his three-song set and raps along with every other JL act--L.E.G., The Away Team and Little Brother--for the next two hours. He knows every joint off of every mixtape, and he mimics every flip off of The Minstrel Show, which by this point has been out for only five days.
Before the show, a local record store hired to sell The Minstrel Show inside the Paradise Club passed out 60 bracelets to people who bought the album for $15. Those 60 people would be allowed to meet Little Brother and get the album signed after the set. Ten minutes after Little Brother says goodnight, the line stretches nearly across the stage. Chaundon is managing a sizeable queue at his merchandise table, flinging Justus League mixtapes and tour shirts at people for $5 and $20 a pop, respectively. The stagehands clear the monitors, and Joe Scudda signs autographs and gives everything he has to flirting with a pretty girl in a yellow shirt. Dime and Gentry--Almost Famous, almost always smiling--throw paper towels at each other and at me. Chaundon convinces Dime to get to work hauling boxes back to the bus.
Sometime after 1 a.m., we're all on the bus. Phonte is still sick, and the exuberant façade he's had to muster for four hours has exhausted him. He collapses across the couch in the bus' back room as soon as he climbs the stairs, and everyone else crowds onto the parallel couches in the front. Just after a headcount and just before we pull away from the Paradise, Pooh stands near the entrance of the front room and congratulates everybody.
"Tonight was our first show in a college town--because that's where we're at, right near Boston College--since the album came out, and they responded," he says, nearly everyone smiling and nodding along. Somebody claps, somebody hoots.
Everyone sits down and watches the highlights from a busy college football Saturday. Dho, sipping on his favorite grape-flavored Vitamin Water, laughs with Sean Bugg about Xavier Lee, the black quarterback Florida State is benching. Dho calls Bugg a racist when he defends the skills and poise of white starter Drew Weatherford, and somebody eventually jokes with Joe--now standing in the doorway, without her phone number ("Man, she was fine.")--about the same thing. They don't ignore race around here. Pooh mentions the white guy in the front row tonight and talks about how he could only laugh when he saw the white guy rapping along to the word "nigga."
"I was just like, 'OK, I got ya. That's cool," he smiles.
Bugg thinks tonight was The Away Team's best set all tour. People responded. Khrysis disagrees, and they dissect most of their shows, trying to figure out why one--say Chicago or New York, or the unexpectedly packed San Diego--was better than another.
Innocently enough, DJ Flasha--a mild-mannered, shy guy who morphs almost entirely onstage--offers a suggestion to Bugg: "I think Dho has said it before, but y'all should think about dropping some House of Pain into your set."
Dho and Flash offer the advice because--much like The Away Team--early '90s Boston trio House of Pain was known for its partying proclivities and big-fun, not-so-serious hooks. Bugg couldn't disagree more.
"I don't want us to be labeled like that," Bugg says defensively.
"But that is what you're about, B," says Dho, now looking at Bugg.
Suddenly, it gets loud. It's obvious that this is about more than a mid-set sample and that it's been brewing for some time.
Bugg accuses Dho of trying to tamper with what he wants The Away Team to be, but Dho maintains he's just trying to help pique the interest of a target audience. Bugg is accusing Dho of watching too few Away Team sets to know what works, but Dho defends himself by explaining that he's seen enough to know. Bugg thinks that using "Who Shot Ya" from Notorious B.I.G.'s posthumous third album gets the crowd going, but Dho thinks that the sample is ridiculous.
"Look Bugg, onstage, you're a white guy, an Asian guy and a black guy. No one is going to believe that," Dho yells. "You're not going to fucking shoot anyone."
"But that's not the point. The crowd is responding, man," Bugg counters. Both of them are irate, exasperated and exhausted by this point, and everyone but Paradime and Khrysis slip out quietly as soon as the bus stops moving. Even Phonte wakes up, 20 feet away. He slips past, his eyes half shut. For the third time, Dho makes his point: "They're not responding to you, B. They're responding to that familiar beat. Target your audience, dog."
They finish the argument at the bus door, and Dho storms toward the hotel. Bugg stands outside, double-fisting Corona now. Dho sits in the hotel lobby, the glow of the computer screen his only light as he checks his e-mail.
He may be up all night. Sometimes he does that, not able to sleep beneath the weight of the tour and the pace of success. Maybe he'll go back to the bus and play Madden or his favorite, God of War, on Playstation2. Upstairs, his team is asleep. Or their eyes are shut, at least. For a group this busy, there is no real sleep or rest. There are only pauses before the next interview, show or wake-up call.
Maybe it's Phonte's line from "Beautiful Morning"--which, today, is Pooh's favorite verse--that helps all of them do it: "And if I had to go back, I wouldn't change a thing/ Wouldn't re-cut it, re-edit, or change a frame/ 'Cause it would not be fair, to turn my back on the struggle/ When that exact same hustle got me here."
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- After Dhos lesson about scoring big with the ladies, Joe Scudda escapes for a cigarette.
Meet the men
Little Brother and the entire Commercial Free Tour play the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro on Friday, Oct. 7. Tickets are $14 in advance and $16 on the day of the show. Little Brother will record tracks for a live release at The Record Exchange at 2302 Hillsborough St. in Raleigh on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 3 p.m. The Minstrel Show is available now in stores everywhere.
From Little Brother's The Minstrel Show
phonte: We spent the last year writing rhymes doing shows and chopping records
And traveled all around the world to spread the message
'Cause ain't no rest for the weary when it comes to my team
We only sleep on December the 32nd
DJ's dissin' the album before they check it
Dealin' with their managers and program directors
And even though I try not to stress it
Sometimes it feels like a waste of time and not worth the effort
Big Pooh: Naw but I won't let it
Put a block on my team's hustle for a second
Pooh be keep it rushing, as long as Tay and I on the mic
And 9th is on the percussion, these fronting dudes can't say nothing
It was only time 'fore we finally spoke out
Plenty cold nights ahead I suggest you get your coats out
No time to stand here lips poked out we 'bout to closeout that stored up doubt
And keep it moving
(Hook) Darien Brockington:
Seems like whatever I do
It's not enough for you
I paid the cost and gave you my all
But you still want more
I'm still standing right here
But it seems so unfair
That I sacrifice and give you my life
But you still want more
Phonte: Been a long time comin'
But damn we just made it
So much to discuss so frustrated
Yes, I must say that the industry lost touch
Radio better play this, 'cause Tay's style is nuts
And y'alls is just dated
It's history in the making
And now I'm making my name for those who hate that I'm
Staking my claim just like Nationwide
Radio, them suckas never play us
Took our wax to the station and they straight played us
That's how the game got contaminated
And now they sayin' we're at fault like the San Andreas
Pooh: And still trying to play us
But not spin the record or disc
I got a fire burning deep that will not be extinguished
I mean this from the depths of my soul
People no more mind talk let my heart take control (ohhhhh)
(Hook) Listen to this, just listen to this
Uh, right now, we gettin' it right now and now we gonna give you what you want
Just listen to this, just listen to this
I'm talking you, you, you, and all of you in the back
and in the middle in the front, come on
- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- Phontes wife Claudia, eight months pregnant and still keeping pace, says goodnight to everybody on the bus before heading to the hotel and home. Pooh, in front, and Dho, in back.
Pooh: Homey, this here is pain
I'm speaking on this pitiful thing
That's now forever stained in the banks of my memory
You probably like, 'they running this, b'
But naw, I'll doubt we'll ever be
It's funny cats don't remember me
And don't think 'cause we all here that it's gonna be all we
Or all love, it's all bugged
Trying to mask them emotions with pounds and hugs
No more I say gotta make 'em pay
'Cause I'm tired of getting stepsonned in the worst way just wait
Them chips on my shoulder getting stacked
When my pockets catch up Pooh's never turning back
Phonte: Yo I ain't never heard a act to blow and go global
Then come back home and still be called local
And when we onstage the people they all front
Dope beats, dope rhymes what more do y'all want (shout it out)