If you let Phonte tell it, he used to look outside of himself when making music. Now, the North Carolina Hip Hop pioneer looks within.

That key change has helped the emcee/singer evolve in the last two years. At 32, Phonte admits that his twenties were often a “me against the world” period in his life, and that he now feels ready to deliver his solo debut, Charity Starts At Home on September 27. As the title indicates, Phonte is celebrating an inward focus, on a record he quickly admits, “isn’t for everybody.”

Speaking with HipHopDX late last week, ‘Tay exudes an inner-peace while still deploying his trademark curses while making jokes. Indeed, one of the most-championed, most-dynamic artists of the ’00s seems to be hitting his stride again, and creating some of the most potent music in the last five years. In this conversation, Phonte acknowledges his growth in preparing a very important album to his catalog. The Justus League forefather also looks at his family tree with new insights and an olive branch in Hip Hop’s battle of the sexes reveals his key to success.

Phonte Explains Crafting His Solo Debut, Charity Starts At Home

HipHopDX: When you and I last spoke, with 9th Wonder and Peter Rosenberg on the phone, it was great talking to you. But I had no idea you were working on a solo project —

Phonte: I didn’t either. [Laughs] I had plans to do one, but up until the time when we spoke, I hadn’t even really started my solo record [Charity Starts At Home]. The way things came together was very quick; me and 9th [Wonder] just started knockin’ out records. At that time, when we did the interview…shit, I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do, or what the album was gonna sound like.

DX: You’ve done your fair share of projects over the years, between Little Brother, Foreign Exchange, the ’80s joints with Zo!, and so on. For you, what is it like having full creative control for the first time? So many artists these days jump right into a solo, and you’ve waited 10 years…

Phonte: For me, it was a learning process – or shall I say re-learning process. The best way I can describe it is, you look at a married couple that’s been together for 20 years or whatever. They spend all their time raising the kids, taking care of the house, just going through everyday life of marriage. Then the kids [grow up and] leave, and they’re stuck with an empty house, and they’re just like, “What the fuck do we do?” Their friends are tellin’ ’em, “Yo, it’s the time for y’all to do y’all. This is y’all’s time.” They’re looking at it like, “Who are we? Outside of the house. Outside of the kids. Outside of walkin’ the dog.” It becomes that very awkward time where [they realize] that their marriage has just been based on doing things, and not doing stuff for each other.

So for me as a solo artist, it was very much the same. Because I’d been doing stuff for so long – 10 years, everything I have done has been in service of another brand or another group, whether it be a Little Brother or Foreign Exchange. Everything had been done in service of that. I’d been giving my creative energy to that. When you sit down and strip all that away – Little Brother’s no more, me and [Nicolay] have pretty much moved away from Hip Hop altogether, and then you just sit down by yourself, you’re like, “Okay, now it’s time to do me.”

You’ve got to find yourself first. I’m so used to giving myself to other people that I never took time to give time me, nahmean? So that’s the significance of the title, Charity Starts At Home. This is the first thing in my career that I’ve ever done completely for myself.

DX: You recently congratulated Khrysis on turning 30 years old, saying “welcome to the club.” A&R’s often say, “This is your album; what do you have to say to the world?” I’m curious, for you, do you think you could have taken on this type of project in your twenties?

Phonte: Not a moment sooner. I think too much of my twenties and the early part of my career was spent on me looking outward. Now I’m just at a point with my life where I’m really just looking inward. Cats ask me, “Phonte, what you think about the Rap game?” Nigga, I don’t give a fuck! [Chuckles] “Tell us what you think about the industry…” I’m not thinkin’ ’bout that shit, dude. I’m tryin’ to take care of my kids; my mind is on other things. Lyrically, in a lot of ways, I think [the album] can be taken as about coming to grips with yourself and all of your limitations as a person. I just don’t think I could have written this record in my twenties. I was too narcissistic, and always ready to point fingers, thinkin’ the world was against me. [Laughs] Once you get older, at least in my case, you really have to start workin’ on yourself. A lot of lyrical content on the record is based on my internal struggles, just as a man. [Sighs] I will be the first to tell you, Paine, it’s not gon’ be a record that’s for everybody. People that was expectin’ rappity-rap-rap-attack-72 bars of God damn lyrical, miracle, hypothetical… nah. Fuck all that shit. [Laughs] We’ll see.

DX: Concept albums are super popular lately. Since The Listening, all of your albums — I won’t call them “concept albums,” but I think you’re a proven master of albums that execute a theme bigger than a string of singles. You said the title is reflective of what’s going on in your personal life, looking inward. I love the cover art and the real estate aspect. I’m curious as to what element that plays, in adding humor to the seriousness?

Phonte: Definitely, with the cover art, there is a story there. I don’t really want to give it all away, but nothing is on there by accident. Everything is by design. Everything there is part of the story – I will say that. It was a moment of serendipity. The guy who shot my cover art [Dipesh Prasad] is in Australia. His company is called Peche Designs. We were just kicking around ideas, going with the whole real estate angle. He said, “Okay, I’ma shoot some houses around my way.” When he showed me, I was like, “This is it. This is dope.” So I was like, “Did you do some Photoshop [work] with the number of the house? The house number is 32.” He was like, “Okay…” I’m like, “I’m 32 years old. This is it! Dude.” That house didn’t have any branches or trees blocking it [so that is why he shot that one]. This is Australia, dude – other side of the world. How crazy is that?

DX: You said this isn’t a rappity-rap album. You rap, you sing, you’ve got jokes. For you, it must have been a balance to approach that first solo, as far as your talents and approaches go. What was that like?

Phonte: It’s definitely just me being myself. When recording, you don’t want to force things. You don’t want to try to put things there that aren’t there. At the same time, I knew it wasn’t about making a Rap album or a singing album, it’s about making a Phonte album. Going back to the marriage/empty nest analogy, now I’ve got to find me. I have to make a record that embodies all that I feel is in me. My goal for making this record was to make a one-stop-shop for people who had my name. “Okay, Phonte, he’s got this group Little Brother. Then he’s got this group he sings with, Foreign Exchange. He does this, he’s done a hook here…” I knew consciously that I had to make a record that brought it all home – no play on words. I just had to make that record, where if you were tryin’ to get someone into Phonte’s music, rather than [explaining the history], just giving them a copy of Charity Starts At Home and saying, “Okay, start here. Depending on what you like from this album, I can tell you which road to go down.”

Phonte Explains Personal Growth

DX: The last 36 months of your life and career have appeared very interesting, both personally and professionally. We’ve seen artists go through those periods, whether it was 2Pac coming out of jail, Jay-Z leading to retirement or John Lennon’s move to New York. The moment I realized all this was your feature on Strong Arm Steady’s “Best of Times.” That’s carried through to everything. Flowing with the inspiration behind the album, was there a point where it all just clicked?

Phonte: Yeah. I don’t know if it was a point where I just woke up and was like, “Okay, I’ve changed.” It’s a gradual thing. You look at things you’ve done. To me, a sign of growth is if you can back on your life, whether it be 10 years ago, five years ago and if you don’t have anything that you feel you could’ve done better or handled differently, then to me that’s a sign that you’re in the same place. Everyone should get to a point where you look at past decisions or past mistakes and say, “You know what? I could’ve done this better.” At the same time, that’s not saying you have regrets. You have to learn from mistakes. You can’t get the lesson without making the mistake. You’ve got to get the bitter with the sweet. The moment for me when I noticed my growth was when I started having more and more of those moments. Most artist’s have that company line, “I wouldn’t change a thing!…That’s what made me…” Nah nigga, everybody got some shit. [Laughs]

I wanted to make a record that reflected these changes. There are a sub-set of people in this industry that are moving along the same arc as I am. When we first talked [during] The Listening, [you and I] both came in the game at the same time. The Listening represents a time where it was refreshing for everybody – it was a new thing. Nowadays you get a little jaded. You realize that the music hasn’t changed, it that’s I’m changing. My priorities, my values, my goals are changing as a man. It has nothing to do with Hip Hop. It’s very hard to have adult conversations in Hip Hop, man. I’m sure you know that. The stuff we’re talkin’ about now, and the stuff I’m talkin’ about on the record just ain’t no, “Yo, is he throwin’ shots at X-Y rapper?” Nigga, this is life-shit, bruh.

DX: Speaking of that history that you and I have — it was December 30, 2005. I was compiling Year End content for AllHipHop.com. If memory serves, I spoke to you and Pooh about your favorite albums of the year, you said Slum Village’s self-titled LP. Then, hex murda connected me with Elzhi, and he said Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show.

Phonte: Wow! [Laughs]

DX: Obviously, he was on The Minstrel Show. But that was a cool moment. He’s on your first single “Not Here Anymore.” Tell me, how from two different regions, you guys capture so much chemistry in your collaborations…

Phonte: With me and [Elzhi], there’s an unspoken [element] of competition. Not in the sense of “I’m tryin’ to out-shine you” or vice-versa, it is just that we bring the best out in each other. It’s very much an iron-sharpening-iron-type situation. I know he gone’ bring it, so I’ma bring it. Those are the type of things that really just makes you as an artist. With El, he’s just a cat that, every verse, if I see “featuring Elzhi,” I’m listening to it. I want to see what he’s doing. He’s one of the cats that keeps me inspired and keeps me on my toes. It was a no-brainer. Me and him had been waiting to hook up on something again for a while. With “Not Here Anymore”, it was, “Yo, let’s do it.”

Phonte Provides Insights To Justus League After 10 Years

DX: Right now the Justus League feels like Wu-Tang Clan in 2009, or maybe D.I.T.C. back in the ’90s, where you don’t have to put out a Justus League group project, but everyone is drinking from the same water. Everybody’s doin’ it. Looking at 9th Wonder’s Wonder Years, Pooh’s Dirty Pretty Things, Median’s Relief, Away Team’s Scars & Stripes, and so on, I know that’s both coincidental and strategic, but tell me, what do you think it does for the brand you guys built over 10 years ago?

Phonte: For me, this is a thing – again, just goin’ back to the lookin’ at your life and realizin’ growth – what we’re doing now is what I wish we could’ve done years ago. We just didn’t have the know-how then. Case and point: when we were recording as Little Brother, me and [Rapper Big] Pooh would just be doing stuff left and right. We lived in the studio! Little Brother. Little Brother. Little Brother. We finished the The Listening to Chitlin Circuit to Minstrel Show to Chitlin Circuit 1.5, it was just [nonstop]. What I came to understand years later is that we needed that supporting cast of characters to keep us out there. You can’t plant your flag and just say, “Okay, it’s all about Little Brother,” because if Little Brother goes down, then so goes the whole ship. That’s a big [part] of what happened.

Looking back now, with the understanding and insights that I have now, it would’ve been, “Okay, Little Brother. We’re gonna put your album out now. After this, we comin’ with Chaundon, we puttin’ your record out. Then we gone’ come with Away Team. We’re gonna build up the team.” I don’t think we understood back then on how much we needed those supporting players. I don’t think they realized how much they were needed. I think it was just, “Okay, Little Brother’s gonna get on, and we all gonna go to glory.” Nah, it don’t work like that. It very much has to be a symbiotic relationship in the sense that we all feed off of each other. So if one cat is not hot and another person is — if I’m not poppin’ right now but Joe Scudda got a hot record out now, then if I’m on that record, then we all keep feedin’ each other.

Now, where we’re at in terms of me doin’ my stuff and Pooh doin’ his [Dirty Pretty Things] record, and 9th [releasing The Wonder Years] and The Away Team [releasing Scars & Stripes] and 9th doing his job at [Jamla Records], that’s what I always envisioned that we would have been doing. Looking now, I wish I had the know-how then. It makes me happy, because at the end of the day we’re all still making music and we’re still doin’ it. That, to me, is a testament in of itself of the dedication of the cats. Never stopping – that’s 90% of it right there. The cat that won’t quit, nine times outta 10, that’s the cat that’s gone’ win.

DX: I’ll never forget catching Little Brother opening for Blackalicious in 2003. Amazing tour and show. You are presently touring with Foreign Exchange. What do you get from live performances?

Phonte: You realize that less is more. Over the years, I’ve learned restraint and how to pace myself. I remember, we’d go on tour, and my voice would be gone by fuckin’ night two. I’d just be so excited to be on stage. Me and Pooh would be screamin’, breathin’ wrong – all our shit, no vocal warm-up – all fuckin’ wrong. [Laughs] My grandparents had a saying, “God protects babies and fools.” We were fools back then. [Laughs]

Nowadays, it’s not jumping up and down on stage for two hours and “Cut the beat off, son! Cut the beat off! I’ma spit this accapella.” Nah, I’m not. [Laughs] Mothafuckas came to hear music, nigga. This is not Spoken Word. [Laughs] So that’s what it brings to it. I have a better understanding on how to give the crowd a full experience and not kill myself in the process.

DX: I want to bring it full-circle. Around the time you began, there was so much talk about women not buying Hip Hop, coming to Hip Hop show, and so on. For you as an artist, over these 10 years, whichever project it was – and I’m sure it’s true of this one, given your marriage analogy, how do you think you have helped the sexes share a common interest in Hip Hop?

Phonte: Damn! [Pauses] At the end of the day…I think this is true in Hip Hop…for most women, Rap is just a genre that they tolerate. It’s something that they tolerate, “My boyfriend wants to listen to Dipset. When we in the car, I’ll listen to Dipset. I’ll put up with that for my man.” There may be songs here and there that they enjoy. It is pretty much a man’s game. On the other hand, for men, R&B has become a genre that we don’t really enjoy, we just kinda tolerate [it]. The reason being, a lot of the lyrics, the posturing and the way it’s presented is very much tailored very specifically to women. It’s not like back in the ’70s when you had singers like Marvin Gaye – who did his fair share of pandering as well or Al Green or Bill Withers, who would sing about love, but would sing about it from a man’s perspective. A man could listen to it and be like, “Yo, I feel what he’s saying.” There’s nothing effeminate about it. [They sang] about love and a man could understand it. [Lately] there’s always been that line in the sand. “Aw man, my girl ’bout to get off work. She ’bout to play this God damn Trey Songz shit, God damn it. Let me go upstairs.” [Laughs] We tolerate each other.

What I’ve tried to do in the music is speak on those things that are commonalities with both sexes. Like in “Step It Up” from Getback or “Slow It Down” from Minstrel Show, we just always tried to rap about stuff that was just common ground for everybody. I always made it a point – me and 9th – to rap over music. Getting the female listener – or any listener – you’ve gotta give ’em some music, dude. You can’t just be rapping over sound. Shit, fuckin’ “Pretty Wings” by Maxwell. I read in an interview where said that’s a break-up song. “Shit, take your pretty wings and get the fuck on out of here.” But it’s got pretty music; people play that as a wedding song. With pretty music, you can say anything. [Laughs] The same thing with Foreign Exchange. The last record we did, Authenticity, lyrically, is just one of the coldest, most-cynical records I’ve ever written. But musically, it draws a lot of people in, and they understand it.

We wanted to make music that females wanted to listen to, on they ride home from work. Chill out, listen to some Little Brother. We wanted to be that group that a dude could listen to, in his car with his girl, and still keep the peace. [Laughs] Windows down. We both can listen to this. We wanted to bring couples together. Maybe they’d hear our stuff and hear a lot of commonalities in what we go through as well.

Follow Phonte on Twitter (@Phontigallo). Charity Starts At Home is available at ForeignExchangeMusic.com. Photography by Chris Charles of Creative Silence Photography.