DAR Hip Hop: The Return Of Little Brother

By @TrueGodImmortal

I don't have much inspiration to write articles these days, as it is a dying artform in some ways. Musically, the new art doesn't inspire me the way it used to, and honestly, I listen to a lot more playlists than I do straight up albums. It sounds crazy coming from me, but it is the truth. A few days ago, I sat up watching the documentaries that would showcase the history of Little Brother and their reunion about a year ago on stage in their hometown of North Carolina. The story of their reunion at the Art Of Cool Festival in September 2018 came together quickly and spontaneously, and in many ways, it was right on time. I can remember being on social media that day and seeing a tweet that mentioned a Little Brother reunion performance and then my mind started to playback all of my LB memories as a fan. You know, there aren't many artists that I truly connect with in terms of their music and just everything they deliver, but Little Brother would become that group for me. Growing up, I probably related to the Hot Boys the most, because they looked like a lot of the people in my neighborhood. Sure, we might have been wearing Nikes instead of Reeboks, but the white T-shirt and baggy jeans combo was a staple in my area and Cash Money had the lifestyle we desired, the music that summed up how we lived (to an extent), and they were just raw talented rappers. That was younger True. Younger True was a bit of a troublemaker, a bit of a shallow preteen, involved with the wrong things. Thus, for me, at THAT time, I couldn't identify as much with the Commons, the Mos Defs, and those artists. Not at age 10, of course.

However, as the years began to go by, I found more and more interest in artists with different lyrical styles and other stories to tell beyond the simple street tales. When 2003 hit, I was pretty typical in what I listened to. DMX was still a regular in my CD walkman, 50 Cent and G-Unit got the most plays, and of course, Nas and Jay-Z were prominent alongside D-Block and the occasional Dipset record. I was essentially a fan from Baltimore that listened to nothing but New York rappers. Every now and then, a Philly rapper would creep in, and as a child, I was fond of the West Coast hip hop scene, on the gangsta rap level at least, which I probably should NOT have been. Regardless, around the end of 2003, I was reading XXL Magazine, when I noticed a small review from a writer who I believed was called The Chairman (his name escapes me as I write this), and he usually reviewed the underground hip hop records in his small corner of the reviews. I saw that he mentioned Little Brother's debut album The Listening, and for some reason, the title just stuck out to me. I would go on about my day after reading the short review about it, but I'll never forget the day I was officially introduced to Little Brother's music. A few weeks later, one of my best friends growing up invited me over to play video games, and he was a big underground hip hop fan. He listened to just about everything I didn't. The only artists I can remember us both agreeing on was Mos Def and Nas. However, on this day, he would introduce me to a group that would regain supreme as my all time favorite hip hop group in their short (well kind of short... comparably speaking) tenure in the rap game together. He played a song that I had never heard before, but the beat had a nice knock to it. I was playing NBA Live, nodding my head along, when I stopped and told my boy to play the song again. He ran the song back and as it started over, this time the song hit me even more. There was something about the simplicity of it and the rawness of the track that spoke to me. After one of the verses, I found myself singing along to a hook I had already remembered in 5 minutes. As I attempted to drop 50 with Tracy McGrady on NBA Live, I would sing "this world is moving too fast for me.... just too fast for me", and at that moment, I knew I was hooked.

Of course, that song was Little Brother's single "Speed" from The Listening, but that song and that moment left an impact on me that I don't think I've experienced before or since then. I mean, when I make my own music, I definitely get goosebumps and a special feeling, but listening to other artists rarely hit me in the way that this experience did. I set out at that moment to go and find The Listening in the next week or so, and surprisingly, none of the stores I went to had them. Sam Goody didn't. Best Buy didn't. FYE had one copy that was the clean version, and there wasn't a chance in hell that I'd listen to it. However, a cool feature that FYE did have at this time was that you could scan a CD and listen to snippets of it. So, even though I knew I wasn't going to buy the clean version of the album, I needed to hear the rest of it, at least in some form. So, as my friends and I sat in FYE, I tossed the headphones over my head and listened to each track, and was memorized. For me, sure, I had heard A Tribe Called Quest, I had heard of Hieroglyphics, the Pharcyde, and my favorite duo of all time was already Outkast, but this was different. I can't explain it, but something about the music, the lyricism, the honesty in every verse hit me as a fan. I would eventually find the explicit version of The Listening in a mom and pop tape trader store in Virginia two weeks after my FYE visit, while on a short trip with my mom. I remember popping in the CD and listening, and honestly, my young teenage mind wasn't able to fully understand the depth of what they were discussing on the album. I mean, with a song like "Speed", I had no work or real life experience that related to what they were talking about, but I loved everything that I heard regardless. Their creativity was amazing, whether it was Phonte's verse that didn't rhyme on "Whatever You Say", his hilarious take on "The Yo-Yo", or Pooh's honesty on tracks like "For You" and "Nobody But You", I just found The Listening to be one of the most outstanding listens in my life.

I was an instant Little Brother fan at that moment, and I kept my ear to the street (I was not computer savvy at the time despite having a shitty Black Planet profile) to see whatever they would have coming next. This is what makes my Little Brother experience so interesting. A lot of what they did and how they spread the word on their music was based around the internet and while I mildly used it from time to time, I wasn't nearly as well versed. Luckily, my boy who introduced me to their music would keep me updated, as he was a lot more computer savvy than I was back then. I remember him telling about a new mixtape that Little Brother was dropping titled The Chiltin Circuit, and he would make me a copy of it shortly after it dropped. At this time, I was going through a tough period in my life. Two of my close friends were murdered, and I had just lost a cousin that was really like a sister to me. In the midst of doing some of the stupid things that I was into, I would seek solace in music, and The Listening was a regular in my CD walkman, as was The Chitlin Circuit. I can remember sitting up listening to "Sinners", just trapped in a zone. I was so lost in the song that I couldn't even hear or notice that I had friends come by to hang out that day. I would listen to these two projects pretty frequently, usually when I was just alone chilling at home, and as 2005 began, I was in a period of life transitioning, trying to get away from the trappings of the street. Now, let me be clear, I wasn't a huge big time street guy, not by any stretch. I was active in a number of things, but with jail and death being reoccurring themes for many of those I knew, the life seemed less and less appealing for a teenager who had talent and a lot of brainpower.

As 2005 raged on, hip hop had a number of great moments come. 50 Cent dropped his Massacre album, Game dropped his debut, and Common dropped his classic album BE all in the first half of the year. As a listener, I had expanded a lot more than before, and I was listening to a lot of different music. Some may call it growth, change, or whatever you'd like to label it, but musically, I was just coming into my own. I wanted to hear different things, different sounds, different types of lyricism. I was enjoying a lot of the projects that released in 2005, but I can remember hearing the buzz that Little Brother had signed to Atlantic Records. I wasn't nearly as knowledgeable about the music business then as I am now, so I had no idea that this wasn't necessarily the best thing for the group, but I figured the world would get more familiar with the group that I thought was amazing. Phonte, Pooh, and 9th Wonder were all world class talents that needed to be heard by the rest of the world. I would hear more rumblings as I slowly began to use the internet and read hip hop forums, and I saw the next Little Brother album had an intriguing title: The Minstrel Show. I wasn't sure what to expect from an album with that title, but I knew it could be a heavy album in general. I was excited for a new Little Brother album, and I got a pleasant surprise one day when I was in a mom and pop CD store in my city. I saw a different looking version of The Chitlin Circuit mixtape, and it was being sold in the store. I thought maybe it's just an alternate cover, until I picked up the CD and read the tracklist. Some of the older songs were still in tact, but they added a few tracks as well. I bought the Chitlin Circuit 1.5 instantly and went home to listen to it. Of course, I loved this project, but one song really hit me hard. It wasn't because it was an emotional song, or because it was something heavy, it was just the beat and the lyrics combined made for something so special, it stuck with me. That song was "Nobody Like Me". The hook, combined with the verses from both Pooh and Phonte seemed motivational in essence (sorry O-Dash), and Phonte's verse especially stuck with me. After listening to that song about 15 times on repeat, I remember thinking in the back of my head that Little Brother might be creeping up on becoming one of my favorite groups, if not my favorite group at the time. Then, The Minstrel Show came.

The Minstrel Show is in a class of albums that are very rare for me. So, I have three personal favorite albums in hip hop. Those albums are Nas' It Was Written, Outkast's ATLiens, and Little Brother's The Minstrel Show, all for different reasons. In the case of The Minstrel Show, this was just an album that stuck with me at the time and was almost like the soundtrack to me leaving behind the nonsense I was involved with before. Coupled with my mother being fed up with my bullshit and venturing into a serious relationship, I was pretty much going through a life transition, mostly for the better. And during the fall of 2005, though those ups and downs with said transition, the only album I played was The Minstrel Show. Literally all day from beginning to end. There were times where I was sleeping on park benches, ducking shots, and just going through hell. The Minstrel Show pulled me through those times honestly (outside of a very supportive and positive girlfriend and stern mother of course). Whether it was the honesty and emotional flare to "All For You", the complexity of a man's mind during dating on "Slow It Down", or just the vibe that came with songs like "Watch Me" and "Still Lives Through", Little Brother was the soundtrack to my life changing. That sounds crazy as I write it, but they really were. I would actually get to see Little Brother live a few months later, as life had calmed down, and I didn't necessarily turn to The Minstrel Show for musical therapy anymore, but rather just to marvel at the genius.

There would be two mixtape releases from Little Brother over the next few years, with the DJ Drama assisted Separate But Equal being the most notable of the two, while the DJ Mick Boogie assisted And Justus For All came right around the time we learned that LB was no longer a three man front, but now a legendary duo. With the departure of producer 9th Wonder, the group had to reshape their sound to an extent and things would have to become different. I remember feeling like Little Brother would be fine because as great of a producer as 9th is, Phonte and Pooh are the true engine behind LB. You can change a producer, but you cannot change the MC. It doesn't feel the same. At all. While my love for LB hadn't wavered, I remember being slightly skeptical about their third official album GetBack. How would the departure of 9th and the remaining duo leaving Atlantic Records really affect this project. Luckily for me as a fan, Little Brother didn't lose a step. Sure, this album wasn't the creative genius that The Minstrel Show was, and it did lack some of the hunger that The Listening embodied, but this album was very very good, and almost an instant classic in its own right. With tracks like "Dreams", "When Everything Is New", "Good Clothes", "Sirens", and many more, the LB sound and brand was still very much in tact. I remember listening to "Sirens" over and over, and once again getting that same feeling I had on the other two albums. Life had changed in many good ways by the time GetBack came out, but I could still relate and understand their music, even much more so at that point than before. The album was short, to the point, and it worked. I sometimes wish the world caught on to how amazing Little Brother is, and while many more know, there are still far too many who slept on them. GetBack was a truly good album, and it showcased a new path and life for the now duo.

I remember thinking that I couldn't wait to see what was next for Little Brother after GetBack. Surely, with a newfound fire and the power of the duo working together, LB would have a fresh and new perspective on so many things, right? Wrong. LB would "break up" or in some ways take an extended hiatus after announcing their "last album" LeftBack. LeftBack released in 2010 and was a disappointment. It sounded like an album that was rushed out and put together and that went against the entire Little Brother career model up until that point. Sure, songs like "Table For Two", "Second Chances", and "Tigallo for Dolo" were great, but overall the album fell short of expectations and was a bittersweet ending to such a promising story. It seemed too sudden. Was Foreign Exchange going so well that Phonte needed to go and follow that lane? Did Pooh want to shine more for himself? As a fan, I didn't understand the reasoning, but the truth is, sometimes people grow in different directions and need their space, whether personally or musically. So, when the Little Brother breakup happened, as a fan, I was pretty saddened by it. I mean, I could only imagine this was for me what it felt like for Tribe's diehard fans when they broke up. I still supported Phonte and Pooh in the solo endeavors as a fan of course, but I always held out a little hope for a Little Brother reunion of some sort. I would get my wish some 8 years after their official separation.

Now, let's backtrack to the beginning of the article. The Art Of Cool Festival in North Carolina. This was the rebirth of Little Brother in the same place they started. It was a beautiful sight, seeing all three members of Little Brother back once again on stage, and it would be the start of something special. The energy came full circle, and the timing was just right. After that performance, I remember seeing an article that mentioned new Little Brother music and a possible tour was coming. Of course, I was excited, but I had no idea what to expect or when to expect anything. Then, about a week ago, I saw a video posted about the UBN Network that we were introduced to on The Minstrel Show and I knew what was coming. We were getting a new Little Brother album, and one that carried over the theme they put in place with the previous projects. Still, 8 to 9 years away from making music together can be tough and finding the chemistry is a challenge in itself. Could Little Brother pull it off? That was my question a few days ago and I figured in a month or two I would have my answer. I had no idea that I would get that answer some 96 hours later.

I woke up on Monday morning, went to work, and saw a post about a Little Brother release dropping at midnight. I figured it was a single. That's how you come back right? You drop a single, wait a few weeks, drop an album, and then boom, right? Well, not for Little Brother. LB would announce their newest album May The Lord Watch and they only gave us 12 hours to prepare for something so special. Now, because the album is officially just out, and most haven't had time to digest, I won't go into too many details about it. I will say however that Little Brother is back and making the best music they've made in some years, separately or together. I'd say this new album is better than GetBack, as it embodies everything I loved about the first two projects, with as almost as much synergy as those albums. May The Lord Watch is a triumphant return to form for the legendary group and my hope is that this is not the final Little Brother album by any chance. Phonte and Pooh still have so much to say as a collective and as solo artists that perhaps we can get another 2003-2005 run out of them. Regardless of what type of run we get here, it is glad to have Little Brother back making music. They are an influential group in many ways, and one of my biggest inspirations. May The Lord Watch signals that Little Brother is in a lane of their own, and they don't plan on coming over into yours anytime soon. It works. Very well. When you listen to the new album, listen closely to how loose the recording process sounds, and how well put together this project is. For a longtime fan and listener, this return is special. The music is special. The meaning behind the reunion is special. The word special sums up everything about this. My favorite group of all time has returned and they've returned with a bang. Welcome back, Little Brother. Let's hope you stay around.



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