Watching Out for 'Little Brother'

In a society where the vast majority of hip-hop is portrayed as diamond-encrusted chalices and derogatory comments instrumented with mass-marketed beats, it's difficult to actually find something with more musical sustenance. Bordering the coastline of mainstream and underground are hip-hop gurus like The Roots, Common and Mos Def, but to find something even more socially poignant and poetic, hip-hop heads (both wannabes and experts) have to dig deeper. Enter the group Little Brother.

Originating from Durham, N.C., the trio of Phonte, Big Pooh and DJ-producer 9th Wonder deliver throwback tracks that meld classic soul, jazzy wit and modern street sense. The three first crossed paths in 1998 at North Carolina Central University. After kindling a friendship based on their diverse musical tastes, they, along with 12 other MCs, formed the Justus League. While still maintaining their relationship with their group, in 2001 the three became a unified group named Little Brother. After a considerable amount of radio play, they soon went beyond the borders of their hometown and created a buzz in the organic hip-hop community.

Going against the popular "dirty south" grain, Little Brother gives something a bit more attainable for the common man. In exchange for iced-out "bling," they wow audiences with insightful wordplay and rhetoric that blows other rap acts out of the water. Their first album, "The Listening," gave them the credit they deserved. While Phonte and Big Pooh honed their skills as a true artistic hip-hop act, 9th Wonder became known as an ingenious producer by working with more commercial acts like Jay-Z and Beyonce. Even so, the three remain as one of those groups that base their reputation on atypical talent and word-of-mouth popularity. In other words, if you truly like music of this nature, you are bound to stumble upon the marvel that is Little Brother.

To up the ante with their feel-good banter, they released "The Minstrel Show" in 2005, which was the primary showcase of their recent tour stop in San Francisco. Serving as a tongue-in-cheek commentary to the current state of hip-hop and R&B, the three created a collection of tracks that are just as good (if not better) than their debut LP. In a "Saturday Night Live" sort of setting, Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder take a crack at the absurdity in R&B and the superficiality found in hip-hop. Little Brother metaphorically commentates on the platinum chains and money-hungry endorsements through the regrettable vaudeville theme of "white faces painted black." Each of the tracks are still intertwined with their blatant rhyming skills, but this time it hits a whimsical nerve when it comes to the world of commercial hip-hop.

Having followed their career since their first album, I don't think they would want to be known as celebrities -- because that's not what they seem to be seeking. I have seen this group evolve into something that should be in the hip-hop forefront. It's organic and it actually adheres to the roots of hip-hop. Unfortunately, the world is too preoccupied by some of the rap rubbish that plays on mainstream radio (granted, there are times when I voluntarily listen to that rubbish.) With that said, there is a slim possibility that this will make it to the CD players of those naive people who claim to know everything about hip-hop. My obsession with this group will fade out if their talent is hunted and killed by commerciality, and then served to the trendy world of Paris Hiltonites. Yes, it may have happened to the Black Eyed Peas, but I seriously doubt that Little Brother will jump on that bandwagon.

It's one thing to own their albums, but it's a totally different mentality to see them in concert. I was excited to see them not because of their status, but out of respect for the progressive hip-hop movement they're participating in. Unlike other artists (i.e., Kanye West, Nelly, Ludacris) who are constantly in the public eye, I seldom see consistent pictures of the trio. Sure, I have all their CDs, but for some odd reason, I just never paid attention to their appearance. But Little Brother's music gives them their image -- which is the way it should be.

While standing in the crowd of mixed ethnicities awaiting the hip-hop festivities (which also included performances by alternative rap peers Defari and Dilated Peoples,) I noticed "less-than-legal" puffs of smoke erupt from sporadic areas of the crowd like geysers. The diverse fans gave me a hokey feeling of unity, considering I am a Southern boy who is used to monochromatic crowds at hip-hop concerts.

The energy they exuded onstage exceeded the amount contained in their CDs. Translating hip-hop music to a live stage performance is a difficult task. It's not like a rock concert, and it's not as visual as those Cirque-de-Celine-Dion shows, because to maintain interest, the action-based lyrics need to hook an audience. Not many people can pull off a cohesive performance, but Little Brother gave a remarkable performance that gave justice to their name.

There are many other acts -- Talib Kweli, Jean Grae and J-Live -- that lie in the same vein as Little Brother, but they are very hard to find, and that is a shame. Sure, the stuff that passes itself off as hip-hop on the radio is enjoyable to listen to on a two-dimensional level, but once in a while, it's good to grasp on to lyrics that actually take more than an ounce of thought and give justice to the hip-hop culture. With Little Brother, it's like a breath of fresh, noncommercialized air.


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