Phonte Of Little Brother Speaks
By Andreas Hale
By now we all know about Little Brother getting a taste of the Benzino and Mays shaft over at The Source which ultimately led to the resignation of Editor-In-Chief, Joshua "Fahiym" Ratcliffe. After the shit hit the fan (once again), I decided to ask the man who was in the middle of the latest ratings fiasco to speak on what happened. What came out of this impromptu interview was one of the most insightful, honest and compelling views of the industry. All this coming from 1/3 of the group that has plans to turn hip-hop on it's collective ear with The Minstrel Show.
HHS- Phonte, explain the concept and the origins of The Minstrel Show. For many that may not completely understand where the concept came from and why it is so important.
Phonte- Basically the concept came from me, Pooh and 9th sitting around and thinking about the state of hip-hop, thinking about what music blows up versus the music that doesn't. A lot of times I'm the chief concept writer of the group and a lot of times we'll have the same idea but I'll be the one that will take it really far- sometimes too far. (laughter) That's what we came up with. It was like "Yo...The Minstrel Show!" And we was like "Fuck it let's ride."
The title comes from the minstrel shows of the late 1800's/early 1900's where you had white performers in blackface singing and dancing- essentially making a mockery of black people. The thing about the minstrel shows was that even though it was a very crude artform, vulgar, racist or whatever, that it was also the most popular form of American entertainment. In looking at that you can draw many parallels to hip-hop. Hip Hop is one of the top selling forms of entertainment, one of the most commercialized forms of music. Yet, it is also the most violent, the most misogynist, the most materialistic.....there really isn't any kind of moral center, I guess if you want to say that.
In the minstrel shows you had black people performing in the shows, but in order to be in the shows they had to wear the blackface too.
That's a pretty crazy parallel to now- you have niggas in the game who want to rap but in order to do so they feel that they have to talk about guns, or they have to talk about drugs, pimpin or whatever. That essentially is the new blackface. Niggas think that is the only way to do it. Our forefathers and performers that came before us had no choice but to do it. They had to perform in the minstrel shows, work the chitlin circuit and all that shit..... That was their only outlet. All the entertainment cats who came before us walked through the back door so we could walk through the front. And now, since black folks can actually walk thru the front door, it's like "what the fuck are we bringing to the table?"
We are in a position where we can own our own companies, make and distribute our own records so what kind of legacy are we going to leave behind? It's like you don't want your grandfather from the civil rights movement yelling at you like "Nigga, I marched for civil rights so you could make the fuckin whisper song!?!?" like "I got sprayed with hoses, chased by pit bulls, white folks calling me nigger everyday just so you can be a mothafuckin' P.I.M.P. and all this shit?" (laughter)
And I mean, I'm a fan of both of those records, but when songs with that kind of subject matter make up 80-90% of the hip hop you hear on the radio there is a problem, ya know?
This album is to bring balance to the game. Hip Hop wouldn't be hip hop if all you heard was Little Brother, Common and Tribe all day either, ya know? It needs a balance. And when there isn't a balance somebody has to blow the whistle and that is essentially what we are doing with this record.
HHS- Would you say that today in hip hop that there is a lot of Shuckin and Jivin going on?
Phonte- I think so. You can't play this game with clean hands. Everybody has to give up a little of themselves to be in this game. You should know that in hip hop you are swimming with sharks. It's nasty, it's cutthroat and when you get bit by a shark- i.e. a Source rating gets changed- you can't really be fuckin' surprised (laughter). It's like what the fuck did you expect?
I think it's a lot of cats that are scared to be themselves or show another side of themselves. We know they gotta get that money. So do what you gotta do to make that first album and sell a few million copies or whatever, and now you are set with money that should last you a lifetime. So now that your financial future is secure what else are you going to do? How are you gonna give back?
For example, I personally would be much more interested in hearing 50 Cent make songs about being a businessman than listening to him make songs about being in the club or flippin' bricks or whatever, ya know? Let me hear about the business side of this shit. Let me know what its like to deal with them white folks who hate your guts, but won't shit on you because they know that your album sales just put their kids' kids through college. I wanna know about that. That struggle, that whole dichotomy of being a successful black businessman in a world that hates and fears black men. That is more of a message that you can give to the youth.
Pretty much, as rappers we are like the new superheroes. People think that kids are just listening to these records and that's not true. Kids aren't just listening to these records, they are LIVING by these records! Real talk. Any nigga that deludes themselves by saying "I'm not a role model" or whatever is fucking crazy! Kids live and die by this shit! So what you say is going to cause them to either live or die in some way, shape or form.
I think the whole shuckin and jivin thing is more about fear. I know niggas fear losing they money but I think niggas are more scared of losing that spotlight, that fame, ya know? Niggas will do ANYTHING to be famous! (laughter). American culture feeds off of that shit. Look at all these reality shows that make famous people out of fuckin' idiots. We feed off of that stupidity. That shit is retarded. Niggas would rather be famous broke people than be anonymous millionaires, ya know? They'd rather be the nigga in the club yelling "I'm the man!" than the nigga sitting quietly outside who owns the block that the club is sitting on. That fame shit is a drug, man.
HHS- You touched on the Source thing, but before we get into that, Whose fault do you think it is for not making a change; the journalists who are scared to call a spade a spade or the artists for continuing to perform in blackface per se'? Or is it a combination of both?
I think it's a combination of both. We called the album the Minstrel Show but people thought that "yo, they callin out 50 or they callin out Lil' Jon and dissin' all these niggas" but I'm like "nah man."
The whole idea of it is that in some way, shape or form we are all at fault for this shit. We are all players in the minstrel show in some way. When "P.I.M.P." came on at a party did you get up and dance to that shit or did you sit down and say (in uppity voice): "Oh no! That's not right! This objectifies women! This is horrible!" Hell naw, you didn't! If you was like me, nigga you was dancing to it! (laughter) And if you were dancing to it and enjoying it, that's cool, just accept your responsibility and know that we all have played some part in hip hop losin' its way or whatever.
The rappers and emcees have to take responsibility in giving some kind of positive message to the kids, though. Not even about some corny "stay in school and be cool" shit. If you lived your life as a drug dealer then talk about it. But there is a difference between talking about it and glorifying it. There IS a difference. Jay-Z is a prime example of a person who simply says "I did this, this was my life and this is how I made it out of that" And I think that's why he is respected so much in this game.
On the other end, it is these journalists and magazines who at the end of the day are all in bed with somebody, some kind of corporation. But hopefully with cats like Fahiym (Now FORMER editor of the Source), maybe we can spark the revolution. Cats just calling it out as it is.
HHS: What role do the fans of hip-hop play in all of this?
The fans have to expect more and demand better. If they don't demand better then they don't get better. Shit...it's like airport food. It ain't good because it doesn't have to be good. Restaurants depend on repeat customers like "I'm trying to build a clientele so my shit has got to be on point. So if I'm working at Applebees on such and such road, I want folks to know that the steak fajitas from the Applebees on such and such road be the bomb!" Ya know? Because they are trying to build that long term customer that keeps coming back.
In the airport, all of their customers are mothafuckas that's just passing through so the shit don't gotta be good. It's like "nigga you just got off an 8 hour flight from Bangkok so I KNOW your ass is hungry! (laughter) How can you NOT eat this shit? I know its half cooked, but you gonna eat it anyway." Which is a lot like hip-hop, the shit ain't good because it don't have to be good. People are just passing through this shit like its a fad. There aren't many rappers trying to build careers. There's a new rapper every damn day. Niggas just try to hop in, get all of their money and then get the fuck out.
All these different things (fans, journalists, people) contribute to how retarded this rap shit is.... But then there's the industry in itself, the powers that be or whatever. The Clear Channels and Viacoms and shit. They run this game, man and they have to take responsibility too.
It's hard to say to a parent "If you don't like what's on the radio/tv then just turn off the radio/tv" because parents aren't with their children 24hrs a day. Unless I'm hiding my kid under a rock or locking him in the basement he's gonna be exposed to this shit. The industry has got to take responsibility for some of this shit they put out. When you have that much power and you can put ANY music video on television and play ANY song you want to 30-40 times a day, then you have a crazy amount of power that can be used as a positive or a negative. Look at it like this...
In "Super Size Me" they had a part on school cafeterias and their lunches, and one school in particular served lean cut chicken and more fruits and vegetables instead of pizzas and french fries and shit. The cost was damn near identical but they just wanted to give their kids a better diet. And in doing that the kids' behavior patterns changed, a lot of problems stopped. Studying and attendance went up, instances of Attention Deficit Disorder and such went down. So, I'm watching this shit and asking myself: "If what you feed your body can make a difference, why don't people think that what you feed your mind can make a difference too?" ‘Cause that's essentially what music is: food that subconsciously feeds the mind.
I know if I'm a nigga that runs the record business, I could choose to feed these people junk all day. But if I know that it's going to cost me the same or even cheaper to give them something that isn't as destructive then why wouldn't I give them that? If all I feed them is a diet of sex, murder, and drug sales, then why not throw some more Kanye or Saigon or Common in there to at least help balance the shit out?
There aren't a lot of kids who are able to bring their lunch from home ya know? There are some kids that are like "Fuck this I ain't eating this shit" –i.e. turning off the radio- but that's a very small percent. Most people just eat what they can because they feel like they don't have a choice. If you know that there are kids that don't really have a choice then why don't you give them the best that you can give them?
HHS- Okay lets get into the magazine shit. What happened? Give us a first person view of what went down.
Phonte- Pretty much with XXL I was told, by some of the writers when we had the listening session in New York, that our album was better than Common's album. So I'm thinking that if Common's album got a XXL, and cats is sayin that The Minstrel Show is better than that, then ours would be up there too. Truthfully though, man, I knew that they would never give us a perfect rating because a) they already gave a perfect rating to Common and if they gave us a perfect rating then people would be like "Okay, XXL is dickriding the backpack niggas now," and b)Kanye's Late Registration is coming out and I know he has a lot of fans over at the magazine.
So basically we was told by XXL that "Yo the album is dope but we don't want to give two classic ratings in a row." So either they are feeling like they already gave it to Com so they can't give it to us, or they are about to roll out the red carpet for Kanye. Either way, it doesn't matter. There's a lot of good writers and good people over at Harris who personally support niggas, so I ain't mad. It is what it is.
HHS- We all know that folks gushed over Common's album and rumor has it that they praised your album the same but then all of a sudden when the issue came out you got an XL alongside an artist like Tony Yayo; who I know had his album shitted on by many in the industry which makes your XL seem like a moot point so to speak. Then you look at the Source and Fahiym trying to show you some love and Benzino coming and basically shooting it down. So why do you think this happens. Do you think its because you are a new artist that doesn't have that big label push and money to get that 5 mics or XXL or is it that The Minstrel Show is basically mocking these people that are gracing the covers of magazines and such and by giving you a classic rating its almost like they are dissing themselves?
Phonte- I don't even think it's that deep. I don't even know if Mays and Benzino even heard the album. I don't think it got that far. I think it was more of the fact that we are a new group and not in anybody's pocket or part of anybody's million dollar boys club or whatever, not ‘heavy in the streets' or whatever the fuck... we are pretty much on an island with no alliances. Even though 9th did tracks for Jay and Destiny's Child we still don't have those million dollars alliances, ya know? We came into the game alone. Our whole career may be like that and if that's how we gotta ride then fuck it, at least we're doing it on our own terms.
The thing about it that hurt the most is that before this shit happened I was one of the Source's biggest supporters. When they gave us 4 mics on The Listening, a lot of people was like, "yo, fuck them Source niggas they wack, them mics don't mean shit anymore." And I was one of the few people who was like, "Nah, those mics STILL mean something, yo. Plenty of 16 year olds who've never logged onto Hip Hop Site or Okayplayer might give my record a listen on the strength of what they saw in that magazine. Regardless of what you wanna say about their integrity or whatever, they're still the Source. They are still one of the most recognizable brands in hip hop today. Plus, I know that just like XXL, there were a lot of good people and good writers working over there, like Fahiym and like Jerry Barrow, who now runs Scratch, so I would always try to defend them. But at the end of the day, the writers and editors are just Indians, ya know. The chiefs are the ones who ultimately make the decisions.
HHS- So what exactly happened at The Source?
Phonte- The Source man... basically Fahiym felt that the album was dope and deserved a 4 and ½ and the writer who wrote the review and alot of the staff felt the same way. But Benzino and Dave Mays just didn't agree. From what Fahiym told me, it was mainly Benzino that acted crazy about it. So basically it was told to Fahiym that this is what we do, we sign your checks and if you don't like it then get out. Fahiym was like "Aiight well then I'm out!"
HHS- Wow! How many people do you know would actually be given that ultimatum and say fuck it I'm out. Hats off to Fahiym! I mean how many writers have you heard of that would do that for something they believe in?
Phonte- Very few, if anybody man! It's just rare to find those people that have no price tag on their integrity. It's one thing to bump heads and not agree with someone but for you to try to play a nigga on some ‘don't bite the hand that feeds you' type shit...its like c'mon dawg. You ain't the only hand that can feed a nigga... Fuck outta here! (laughter)
But you know that there are a lot of niggas that are scared to stand up and be a man for whatever reason; scared to lose their money or their fame or connections or whatever. It's amazing what this industry does to people. This isn't the only story I've heard like this. I'm not just talking about The Source, I'm just talking about in general. Some of this shit will amaze you- the bullshit and personal humiliation that niggas will tolerate to stay on the "inside" of this industry. Like, how the fuck do yall niggas play yourselves like that?
I was a man before I was a rapper. I mean regardless of my career I still have to look at myself in the mirror. The day I can't do that is the day I'll stop rhyming. I'll quit altogether. When you can't stomach the decisions you make and straight play yourself...that's some sad ass shit. That's pathetic. So I just take my hat off to Fahiym. Dude stuck his neck out because he genuinely believed in niggas, man.....that's love right there. I got nothing but love for that brother. And not only because he did it over our album, because if it wasn't us then I'm sure it woulda been another group down the line. I applaud him for having the guts to stand by his beliefs, whether they be for LB or anybody.
I hope on the 13th of September that people just pick up the album and make their own decision. Or they can bootleg it when it hits the ‘net a few weeks before that. (laughter) I think that this whole situation helps us more than they realize you know? We got people talking about it. So I thank them dudes (Source). Thanks for the little bit of press. We got the wheels turning. (laughter)
HHS- Hopefully we can change this shit up...
Phonte- Hopefully so. Change isn't one big wave, its something that is built up by a bunch of little things happening and this is just the start of it.