A New Documentary Tells The Story Behind Little Brother’s Debut Album (Video)
Little Brother is presently in the midst of a new chapter. After reuniting onstage less than a year ago in Durham, North Carolina, Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh are currently recording new music together as Little Brother. Although 9th Wonder is reportedly not producing the material, he has given his co-founders a blessing in adding to a discography that many believed had permanently ended with 2010’s LeftBack.
In a brand new documentary, all three founders of L.B. take it back to the beginning. Phonte co-produces the 11-minute doc’ directed by Holland Randolph Gallagher that looks at the trio’s debut, The Listening. In the doc’, which includes previously-unseen archival footage and words from Questlove, Chaundon, DJ Flash, Khrysis, and Cesar Comanche, the Justus League members retell their origin story, with footage from the places where it all happened.
Little Brother’s origin story involves three North Carolina Central University students, bonding over a Source magazine tucked under the arm of 9th Wonder. From three different places, the three men connected as part of a bigger collective, the Justus League. In looking back at that era, Phonte confirms something of a legend. With the Justus League, a plan was in place to record the song “Speed,” which ultimately landed on The Listening. Originally, it was intended to be ‘Te and Median rapping on a 9th Wonder track. “Median never shows up,” Phonte remembers. “And Pooh was with me. So we were just like, ‘Aight, well sh*t. I mean, me and Pooh can rock it?’ ‘Aight, f*ck it. Let’s do it.’ When we finished that song, we just knew we got somethin’.” Pooh agrees that something special landed on that tape. “From that point on, that was the birth of Little Brother.”
That song and a few that followed prompted more. With a name intact, the trio got to work on what became The Listening. The sessions for the LP took place in North Hall at the university, eventually moving to Justus League member (and ABB Records label-mate) Cesar Comanche’s apartment. Documentary viewers get to see the mostly unchanged space where L.B. cut a classic, complete with a desktop computer, Redman Muddy Waters poster on the wall, and shelves of pristine Hip-Hop CDs.
“Phonte is really brilliant at this. He will take studio jokes and transform them,” Pooh says of things like the “Make Me Hot” skit routine on the eventual LP. “I was the chisel, Pooh was the sledgehammer,” Tigallo explains of the two MCs’ chemistry. Justus League cohorts agree on the special Rap bond that Heads appreciated throughout the 2000s and now can look forward to in the days ahead.
“We didn’t sound like ‘Southern Rap,'” 9th Wonder recalls while acknowledging the three men’s speaking cadence and fashion choices. When Petey Pablo seemed like the only home-state comparison within reach to many, Little Brother stood apart from the regional peers that were dominating radio, Source pages, and Rap City.
In the documentary, Questlove acknowledges the role that his Okay Player site played for a group like Little Brother to push through. A message board built around The Roots embraced Little Brother early, as they would again with Foreign Exchange, and later, Tanya Morgan. Quest’ recalls feeling a level of accountability surrounding the group buzzing in the forums. “Who would name themselves after one of my favorite Dilla productions of all time? I was like, ‘Yo, that takes some balls to name yourself after [a peer]—even though I [learned] later that they didn’t name themselves after a J Dilla song. But that was enough to make me [consider] that they’d probably ask me on the [Okay Player message] boards what I thought about it, and I don’t wanna like bullsh*t ’em. ‘Aight, let me listen to this.’ I put it in, and I kept listening to it all night. And I kept it on rotation—even in my sleep, I didn’t turn down the volume.” Quest’, who has regularly collaborated with Phonte (as well as 9th) in music and the Questlove Supreme show, admits he was enamored. The West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native was among Little Brother’s loudest and earliest supporters with profile.
Phonte describes, “For Pete Rock, Questlove, DJ Premier—for those guys to cosign us, it was this perfect storm of just music nerds and people that were just insatiable for the kind of stuff that we were making, and other cats in our vain. Yeah, it was [explosive].” The excitement around the independent release ultimately led major labels—which possessed coveted resources and relationships during the early 2000s, to take an interest in the collective. The trio would sign a deal with Atlantic Records, where they would release another acclaimed album, 2005’s The Minstrel Show, their last as a trio.
In old video footage, L.B. shows how the Rap battleground. “Does Little Brother even stand a chance in today’s f*ckin’ current Rap climate? Let’s discuss that,” Phonte says, apparently before sitting down to an interview. In another clip, outside, the versatile MC/singer argues against the racial stereotypes permeating in the mainstream at the time. “There’s more ni**as workin’ regular jobs than there is pimpin’.” Little Brother presented three ordinary lives with extraordinary talent, who made something incredible together.
Looking back, Phonte highlights the album’s theme and its intent. “The significance of calling the album The Listening was, we really wanted to make a document. We looked at it like an event. Not just our record, but in general. If you went to a store and bought an album, you went back to your home or your car, and you sat down for the listening. You’d sit down, listen to the music, read the lyrics, read the credits, ya’nahmean? That was something that was a ritual.”
This new documentary will make many Hip-Hop Heads want to listen to the beginning of a seminal Hip-Hop story.
Earlier this year, Phonte released an EP, Pacific Time. Later this month (July 19), 9th Wonder & Murs will drop The Iliad Is Dead And The Odyssey Is Over,. In late 2018, Pooh released RPM, an album with Aftermath Entertainment producer Focus…