Titled May The Lord Watch, the surprise reunion album immediately made it clear they “had their license to ill” again. But an unexpected byproduct of making the album was the close friendship Phonte and Pooh were able to build.
For weeks, Pooh would drive up to Raleigh, North Carolina from his home in Charlotte, a nearly 3-hour drive, to work at Phonte’s home studio. Often times, they’d end up just kicking it and talking about life, which organically led to the album’s sewn-up feel.
HipHopDX: A lot has changed since I’ve seen you. We’ve got a new Little Brother album, of course, which is why we’re talking.
Phonte: We have another Little Brother album.
HipHopDX: Man, congratulations. How’s it feel?
Phonte: Thank you so much. It’s surreal, man. I never thought that it would have come together like this, and I never — this album was just an example of just God working in so many ways. Everything from just the way it came together, the way me and Pooh wrote the album. This was the first time in our 20-year relationship that we really became friends.
Phonte: So much of our earlier work was driven by just trying to make it. We were just trying to figure out, “All right, let’s do this tour and do this record and the mixtape and album and tour and mixtape and tour.” We were just really just grinding it out. It felt like we were just stuck in this thing together.
But this album, it really felt like we chose to do it together and we really made it a point to really get to know each other. There were some days when he would come to my house and record. There were some days we didn’t even record nothing. We’d just sit and talk, have dinner, chop it up or watch TV together. We were just kicking it, and we wasn’t even recording music. But yet I feel like this is the first time that I really got to know Pooh as a person and we really got to have that time together. And this is probably the closest experience I would say to the first album, because we recorded this in that security.
Rapper Big Pooh: It feels good. I’ve been chomping at the bit to get this album out. We started working on it back in October, and we held the secret tight until a couple months ago when we announced the Hopscotch Festival date. Even just being able to let people know we’re working on something was a big relief, finally. I was having to do a lot of sneaking around my friends. Finally just having the music out and people being able to hear the growth and where we are in 2019 — it feels good for it finally to be out.
[Becoming good friends] was actually the best pat of making this album for me. The music is awesome. I always enjoy making music with Phonte. During this process, when we decided that we was going to write and record everything together, I anticipated us making this album a lot quicker than we did. There were times I’d go to his house and record at his crib. He had a room set up for me, and I’d get there and stay five days, but we’d only work for two. The other three we were shooting the shit, we was talking, just rebuilding that bond. That was the most time we’d spent together since we recorded The Listening.
I think it was something we needed and it reflects in the record because it allowed us to perform the record as if we were having a conversation verses, you spit your verse, I spit my verse. I had a lot of things going on during that time. I injured my knee when I was in Europe on tour and when I came back, we had to finish up just a couple of songs. Phonte was like, “Yo man, I know your knee messed up. We near the end, so you can just do your stuff down there.” I said, “We’ve got to finish it the way we started.” So I would still drive up to his house and hop upstairs, and we turned this out together.
Phonte: Plus, as an artist you never really get a chance to remake your first album. Because once you make that first album, man, it’s out the gate. Your life has changed forever. But this time it definitely felt like a reset in that this is something that we were like man, we can just record this record. We ain’t telling nobody. We keeping it low. We not going on Instagram. Like, “Yo, you in the studio?” “No.” We’re just going to keep this, we’re just going to keep this completely to ourselves.
HipHopDX: I love that.
Phonte: We’ll let people know when it’s done.
HipHopDX: Honestly, I hate when artists do that. I hate the cryptic stuff. I’d rather not know that you guys are cooking this up, and then — boom — it’s here. As a fan, I thank you for that.
Phonte: Thank you! The world has changed a lot and particularly the way people consume art and the way that people make art has changed in a lot of ways. And we live in an era where everything is content, and that’s just something that I’m just not a big fan of. So what you have is just a lot of artists just doing things just to stay in the picture. You know what I’m saying?
Rapper Big Pooh: We was talking about it last night. I said, “We mixed a little bit of the old with the new.” Now everybody tells you everything they’re doing, every step of the way, every time they’re in the studio, everything, and they just give everything away. I said the fact that we didn’t give anything away, that was the old school probably. We still used our social media when it was time to let it go and it worked. It worked better for us because we didn’t give anything away. Even down to when we put the cover out on Monday [August 19], people still were confused. Is this a single? Is this an EP? What is it? We don’t know what this is. They didn’t say anything. I had people texting me on Monday, “Yo, what’s this? Is the album or a single? What’s going on?” It was crazy.
HipHopDX: Oh I bet.
Phonte: They just make all this content just going, “Here’s my album cover teaser trailers.” Like what the fuck is that? Get the fuck out of here. You know what I mean? Just come up with the fucking album. So for me, we real boujee like that. We not doing that. That’s not our game. That’s never been our game. We will come with the music first and then we will come with all the extra shit out. But let’s get this record right. Let’s get this record right first.
HipHopDX: I wish more artists would take a page from your notebook to be honest. The other day I got a press releases about a press release about an album that is coming.
Phonte: Dude! A press release about a press release [laughs].
HipHopDX: About a press release ….
Phonte: … about an album that’s coming.
HipHopDX: About an album that’s coming.
Phonte: Get the fuck out of here with that shit! [Laughs]
HipHopDX: So you kind of touched on this already, but I love the album closer “Work Through Me.” How big of a role does spirituality play in your every day life?
Phonte: Oh man. It plays a big role, particularly in the making of this record. I mean, there were times that we hit like a lot of roadblocks during this, and let me just say off the rip, this record was the most emotionally taxing thing I’ve ever done. It was just taxing on every level because we did everything. We did everything in-house. We cleared samples … I mean, everything was on us. The hardest part was getting to the chairs.
There’s a phrase I always say about just getting to the chair, where as an artist, you have all these things in your life that are going on, whether it be your family or whether it be your job or whether it be all these things that keep you from your art. But the hardest part of being an artist, sometimes, it’s just getting to the chair. Just getting to that place where you can actually sit down and actually create.
HipHopDX: I relate to that as a writer for sure.
Phonte: Yeah. That’s the hardest part. It’s like, “Man, let me just get to the chair.” So for me, there was so much other stuff — just so much admin stuff we had to do, just a lot of things surrounding it — that by the time I actually got to the chair to be able to write, I was exhausted. And I’m like, “Man, I’m tapped out. I don’t got nothing.”
There were many times I really had to just rely on my faith and just really fall back and let the process be what it was and just have that faith of knowing, “You know what? It’s going to come in time. It’s going to happen when it’s supposed to happen and work through me Lord.” That was a mantra of mine. I was like, “Work through me Lord because Lord you don’t need to test me right now. I need you to work through me.”
Rapper Big Pooh: For me, it played a big role. I’m not a big religious person, but I’m a big spiritual person, so it definitely plays a role in my life. 2018-2019 has been tough on a lot of people. And we’ve lost a lot of people and now we’re at that age where you’re starting to see more people leave. This is gonna happen: people checking out of here, for various reasons, and so you really start to try to get yourself together if you haven’t already. That’s at least where I am. I don’t go to church every Sunday but spiritually, I definitely try to stay in tune with what I believe is a higher power to help continue to guide me because we all need some type of guidance and we all need to live by some type of code. That’s my way of trying to stay Godly.
HipHopDX: That’s an important one to me. Since I’ve seen you Phonte, my mother died in May suddenly.
Phonte: Oh man, I’m sorry to hear that.
HipHopDX: Yeah, May 11. She was ICU for like 44 days. It was just so quick and I’m struggling with that. So that song really hit me and I really appreciate that song.
Phonte: Thank you so much. Yeah, we cut the vocals for that one on the night Nipsey [Hussle] got killed.
HipHopDX: Whoa, no way.
Phonte: Straight up. We were in the middle of it, so we already had the concept of the song beforehand. Like me and Pooh had talked about the concept and just kind of started working on it. I was like, “Yo, what is the cause of ‘Work Through Me?’” We had started working on it and we’re in the studio together and he’s like, “Oh shit man, they’re saying Nipsey got shot.” We just stopped working and we were reading and just seeing all this stuff and it was confirmed. It was like, holy shit. So we ended up working later on that night. We kept working after it, but that just colored the rest of that session. It just really put a really dark and a really somber feel over that session. I didn’t know Nip personally, but to see just somebody that was really working to do so much good in his community and to see him cut down like that …
HipHopDX: It was heartbreaking.
Phonte: That was really sad. I specifically remember that was the night, working on that song when the news broke and we were just gutted.
HipHopDX: It feels like you were able to capture that feeling, you know?
Phonte: Man, thank you.
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Had an epic 3 day recording session with my homegirl @madmcferrin, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. There’s nothing like working with talented people who share the same work ethic and speak the same musical language. If you’re in Chicago, be sure to check out her set tomorrow night (10/4) at @promontorychicago with the incredible @georgia.muldrow. And tell ‘em Pastor Tigallo sent ya…lol.
HipHopDX: I noticed you co-produced songs like “Right On Time,” “What I Came For” and “Sittin Alone,” among others. How was it juggling all of that? Was it different than other albums?
Phonte: Yeah. It was different in some ways. I had always been a producer in Little Brother. I mean, I’m not a beat maker, but I produced like all the records, no matter who was making the beats. I was always very hands on in terms of producing, arranging and sequencing. The Listening — that was me, Pooh and 9th Wonder together. But everything that came after that — from Getback to Separate But Equal to the mixtape with DJ Drama and The Minstrel Show — I put those records together. That was me.
I just want to make sure it’s funky. This time around it was different because me and Pooh, we recorded this record. I have my studio in my crib and so when we sat down, before we started, we just made the decision that we were going to do everything together. We’re going to do this together. This is going to be us.
Every song we wrote together, so when he would come down to my house, he pretty much would move in. He’d come in and he’d stay in my guest room and we’d just get up and go get lunch, talk, listen to some tracks, bop some ideas around and might record something. I was also acting as engineer as well.
HipHopDX: Wow. Must feel so good to have it out there.
Phonte: I do feel so good now that it’s over [laughs].
HipHopDX: Phonte, I have to bring this up because I thought it was hilarious. You kind of handled someone on Twitter who said something like, “Little Brother isn’t Little Brother without 9th Wonder” and you’re like, “Go cry about that somewhere else.” What else do you say to those people?
Phonte: I know how to make great records. I don’t know how to make time machines. Bottom line. I can make great music. I don’t know how to make a time machine, so I’m not in charge of your nostalgia. Fuck I look like trying to argue with a nigga’s nostalgia? I can’t. So my thing is that, me and Pooh, we make this record and we made this record for the now. We’re not trying to make a nostalgia play. We’re not trying to take it back. This is the best place I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t want to take it back to a muthafuckin’ thing.
HipHopDX: Especially like when you guys were in your 20s. The 20s were hard, man.
Phonte: In my play, they fucking sucked dude. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to take it back to shit. We’re not trying to throw back. Us making this record, there are a lot of callbacks to other characters and everything, but we had to show everyone where all these characters ended up. If it’s 15 years later, you have to show, “What’s going on with Roy Lee? What happened to this guy? What happened to these fictional characters in our universe?” So it’s not a nostalgia play. If we wanted it to just be nostalgia, we would’ve called the shit The Minstrel Show 2 or some dumb shit like that.
HipHopDX: The Listening Season 2.
Phonte: The Re-Listening [laughs].
HipHopDX: Listening Again [laughs].
Phonte: Yeah. The Listening Two: This Time It’s Personal [laughs]. So for people who say that, my main thing is I’m not going to allow anybody to define what my shit is. I’m not going to allow anyone to define me. Nigga, Little Brother is whatever the fuck we say it is because this is our life.
Rapper Big Pooh: At this point, it’s pretty much the same thing. The thing is, we’ve been Little Brother. We’ve always been here. It’s not the Menudo situation where so and so left and then we slid in somebody else. It’s not that. It was three people. One person is gone. It’s two people. It’s still Little Brother. The people you hear on every record, they’re still there. We’re still here. Been here since day one. If that’s the way you feel, then don’t listen. Fine. I’m okay with it. I don’t need you telling me what I am and what I’m not. That’s something that I just don’t get. I can’t tell you how to feel, but wow, what’s people’s insistence on coming and expressing that to us?
Why do you feel you need to come to express that because the response you are going to get ain’t the one you think when you come and express that to me. Somebody hit me on Instagram a week or so ago. When I put my favorite five producers on there, I didn’t even have Phonte on there. I purposely omitted people like that. This person said, “9th Wonder made you all.” It’s like, do you realize we introduced him to the game as well? Nobody knew who none of us were. We all came in together.
Check back next week for Part 2 of DX’s Little Brother interview.