Phonte Explains Why Big Daddy Kane Is The Reason He Became An MC (Audio)
Phonte is the latest guest on The Cipher Show Podcast. For episode #146, the Greensboro, North Carolina native MC/singer spoke about the evolution of his career. A founder of Little Brother and Foreign Exchange, “Tigallo” had an hour-and-a-half discussion with Shawn Setaro on topics ranging from his “Percy Miracles” character, to making a personally raw solo debut album that he now rarely listens to.
(7:00) Phonte opened up speaking about his acting and creative role in Vh1 film-series The Breaks. ‘Te was tasked with writing lines for a 1990 MC who was not a top-ranking professional. Twelve in 1990, Phonte played “Imam Ali” in the film, but in addition to that character, penned the bars for “Joe Rock,” an MC big on shout outs, and small on dope lines. “It was difficult to be in that mediocre, middle of the road [place],” Phonte explained. “It was a tricky space to operate in, but it was ultimately good practice. It was dope.” He explained coaching the fellow actors on how to deliver the lines in a period-correct fashion, and still show effort. The coach called the process “learning through teaching.”
(12:00) After recently interviewing fellow L.B. member Rapper Big Pooh, Setaro asked Phonte if constant questions about the status of Little Brother frustrate him. The veteran replied that at this juncture in his career, he empathizes with fans loving the memory of how you came in the game. ‘Te joked that he feels better suited to deal with such questions than Tina Turner, whose career started in Ike & Tina Turner. That band would eventually marry, though Ike Turned violently abused Tina for their relationship—before the female singer left, and found great Pop success. Phonte shared that apathetic attitude in remembering some of the early fans giving him left-handed compliments as being lyrical “for a Southern MC.” The artist overall declared that he is past taking commentary like that seriously. “Whatever mental jumping-jacks you’ve got to do to get into it, I don’t give a fuck. Just buy the fuckin’ album.”
Setaro and Phonte shed light on silent Little Brother helper Gene Brown. The man helped supply 9th Wonder and the group with many of their sonic sources on LB’s handful of albums. “He was WhoSampled before WhoSampled,” said Phonte with one of his trademark laughs.
(17:00) Phonte explains how Percy Miracles may return in animated series form. He also explains that “Cheatin'” was a reaction to the mid-2000s success of acts like D4L, Jibbs, and MIMS.
(21:00) Calling back to his 2008 Zo! & Tigallo Love The ’80s EP, Phonte was asked about being informed by that era of music. Paraphrasing Chris Rock, ‘Te deduced, “People are always gonna have an affinity to the music they first got laid to.” Clarifying, he added “I didn’t get laid in the ’80s, ’cause I was four and five. But the ’80s, that was my first real taste of music.” He said he was especially drawn to the decade’s Soul, R&B, Funk, and Pop music.
(27:00) This is where the discussion got especially potent, looking at 1988 Hip-Hop. Expounding on his “The Listening” lyric (“Bought Long Live The Kane, sat down and learned every word from it”), Phonte spoke on the significance of Big Daddy Kane’s solo debut and style upon him. “I think Long Live The Kane stuck out, to me, ’cause [Big Daddy Kane] was every man. Like, Chuck D and Public Enemy, they were political. Flavor Flav was the foil; he was the comic relief in some ways. But that shit wasn’t comical. [Chuckles] You didn’t put on [It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back] to just kick back and take your mind off the troubles of the day—that just wasn’t happening. That’s not a relaxation album. So yeah, Public Enemy, they had the militant-political side locked down. Ultramagnetic [MCs] just had that—and honestly it took me a while to get into Ultramags—I was a little late arriving on that train. I didn’t catch them til’ around ’94, the Funk Your Head Up record with the ‘Poppa Large.’ Then I went back and checked Critical Beatdown. But Ultramags, Kool Keith was just that wild, off the wall persona. He’d just say anything; he was a character—in and out of the studio, as I understand. [Chuckles] They had that weird, quirky kind of [style]. Basically, Kool Keith was kind of MF DOOM—before MF DOOM [took on that name and persona], in my opinion. He set the stage for a guy like DOOM to be able to have a following. [Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One], he has one of the greatest voices in Rap, of all time. He was just so commanding on the mic. I remember hearing ‘My Philosophy’ and seeing the video…to have the beat start and then just stop [where he just said the first verse acapella]. I was like, ‘What the fuck? Is he preachin’? The fuck?’ [Laughs] That was some crazy shit! So you had all those guys who kind of had their own niche, and their own little corner of Hip-Hop. So with Long Live The Kane, that was like…I heard myself in a lot of ways. Like, Kane was the guy who was the ladies’ man, he could battle-rap, he was witty, he could give you punchlines. He was kind of the total package. Hearing Long Live The Kane, that was the first time I saw an MC and was like, ‘Yo! That’s who I want to be. I want to be that guy.’ I’m not militant, like Public Enemy. I’m not weird and off the wall, like a Kool Keith. I’m not preachin’, like KRS. But if I can say some fly shit, get the girl, and embarrass you on the mic on some battle shit—if I can do those things like Kane, yeah. It really resonated with me.”
Phonte then spoke of rapping with Kane on Little Brother’s “Welcome To Durham.” Kane’s DJ was the same North Carolina DJ (where the Juice Crew MC lived) that Phonte used upon his first performances. Recalling the 2003 studio session, ‘Te said, “I just wanted to get it right so bad. ‘Cause I’m sitting 10 feet away from my idol.”
The discussion then bled to a clinic on rhyme writing. Setaro points out that Big Daddy Kane took an admitted Grandmaster Caz influence and extended his rhymes into prolonged sentences rather than two or three bars of the same cadence. Phonte has done this too, and equated the challenge to a swimming pool game of “who can hold their breath the longest.” As Setaro cut in on lengthy rhymes from Kane and Phonte, the latter admits he enjoys playing with what he called, “How far can you go on this word or this syllable? And how creative can you be with it?”
‘Te then describes a “slant rhyme” style, that allows these verses and patterns to go, with a shifted cadence. He points to Eminem and Special Ed as great examples of the “slant rhyme” approach. Looking at his own body of work, rhyming “denouement” “training bra” on L.B.’s “Curtain Call,” he revealingly showed how he was able to match cadence and place emphasis on proper syllables. By the 40:00 mark, Phonte traces internal rhymes, another tool he uses, back to the MC half of Eric B. & Rakim. “Rakim was definitely my teacher, in terms of that.”
In the last portion of the interview, the discussion branches into other areas. (45:00) Phonte explained the upside of making obscure, and often comedic references in verses. (50:00) Phonte weighed in on the state and value of samples in Hip-Hop. (1:10:00) The Grammy-nominated vocalist discussed coming to terms with his singing abilities. (1:15:00) Closing out the discussion, Phonte spoke about the challenges when divorce and very personal aspects of his life made their way onto his acclaimed Charity Starts At Home solo debut.