In 2001, North Carolina based Hip Hop group, Little Brother catapulted into underground stardom with their very first recording, “Speed.” Their first full-length album, The Listening was released in 2003 to much critical acclaim. Recorded in 2002, the album received official nods from Hip Hop legends, Big Daddy Kane, Pete Rock and Questlove, just name a few. Little Brother went on to record three more studio albums: The Minstrel Show (2005), Getback (2007) and Leftback (2010). The beloved trio (consisting of Rapper Big Pooh, Phonte Coleman and 9th Wonder) also released six mixtapes, one of which was an underground classic, The Chittlin Circuit 1.5. Read along as Rapper Big Pooh discusses North Carolina Hip Hop, Kendrick Lamar and Black Lives Matter.
[Lamont Lilly]: One of Hip Hop’s dopest groups in the early to mid-2000’s was a group that you were a vital member of, Little Brother. I can still remember like it was yesterday. Y’all brothers were like low-key, huge: The Source Magazine appearance, the record contract, the videos, the touring. That was 15 years ago, now. How did all this start and where exactly is everyone now?
[Rapper Big Pooh]: It all started at North Carolina Central University around 1998-99. We met each other by running in the same circles, eventually realizing we all had a similar connection, which was having an affection for some of the same types of music. Eventually we all started making music together, along with a few others from NCCU, as well as NC State . Eventually in the summer of 2001 we came together to record a song that would eventually become the beginning of Little Brother, as well as the beginning of The Listening.
Today, everyone remains active within the music industry. 9th and Phonte still live in the Raleigh area, while I have been living in Charlotte for the past five years.
[LL]: North Carolina Central University is the same liberal arts institution that produced (visual artist) Ernie Barnes, (actress) Kim Coles, (Civil Rights Attorney) Julius L. Chambers and world renowned fashion designer, André Leon Talley. Not to mention that Jazz great, Branford Marsalis is currently teaching there right now. Durham was also the former home of Black Wall Street. How does this history impact the area’s artistry?
[RBP]: I believe it helps by fostering creativity of all types. Even if you may not know those people, others have passed through those same halls that you do. NCCU just feels like a place where you can be you, and express yourself creatively. Once you begin to learn about the history of the city and school, I think a sense of pride is what pushes you to go out and not only be the best you, but to also elevate in whatever field you choose to step into.
[LL]: There are several new-school Hip Hop artists in NC now who have definitely picked up the mantle where Little Brother left off. There’s the sister emcee who just signed with Roc Nation, Rapsody. There’s Hip Hop’s young prince, J.Cole and the new Dr. Dre protégé, King Mez http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/raleigh-rapper-king-mez-talks-his-work-on-dr-dres-compton/Content?oid=4644967 from southeast Raleigh. I also heard Dame Dash was working with an emcee by the name of J.Gunn from Durham. The industry seems to really have an ear for North Carolina. Is there some kind of ‘Hip Hop Underground Railroad’ here, or what? What makes the talent pool so rich and prime?
[RBP]: Not to leave anyone out, there is also Lute http://www.complex.com/music/2015/12/what-we-know-about-dreamville-records-new-signees-lute-and-ari-lennoxfrom Charlotte who just signed with J. Cole’s label Dreamville in a joint venture with Interscope. There is Deniro Farrar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAinA2yp66A who is out of Charlotte and signed to Warner Brothers. There is also Jalen Santoy who has been getting a lot of looks from some of the biggest labels after his last independent release. There is A LOT of talent out of North Carolina, getting the looks that they deserve. It took Little Brother getting a look, to J. Cole http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-cooper/j-cole-hometown-hero_b_8958286.html breaking down the door, but now people are seeing worldwide and industry wide, what we in North Carolina have known all along. We got the juice!
I think North Carolina being a melting pot contributes to the richness of the talent here. A lot of people come down for college and never leave, like myself. You bring your style, musical and cultural influences http://thenewjazzarchive.com/wp/2012/01/16/coltrane/ with you and then mix it with that good ole southern charm. That is North Carolina.
[LL]: NC-based spoken word artist, Dasan Ahanu http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/music-news-reviews/article25404880.html was the Nasir Jones Hip Hop Teaching Fellow this past year at Harvard University. Two years before Ahanu it was 9thWonder. And before that, it was Duke University’s, Mark Anthony Neal http://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/announcing-nasir-jones-hiphop-fellowship (all from NC). Considering your lived experiences and the academy’s new appreciation for Hip Hop, have you ever thought about crossing over into the classroom?
[RBP]: I have actually. I have had the pleasure and privilege of being able to speak as a guest at a couple of universities including UNC Chapel Hill, as well as invited just recently to speak at a class at Penn State.
[LL]: One of the things I’ve always been amazed by, in regards to your body of work, is that you’ve worked with some of the BEST producers http://hiphopgoldenage.com/list/best-hip-hop-producers-of-all-time/ in Hip Hop, hands-down: Pete Rock, Madlib http://www.spin.com/2014/03/madlib-freddie-gibbs-pinata-interview/, Nottz, 9th Wonder, Apollo Brown, Khrysis, Black Milk. What does that feel like as an emcee? Most emcees would kill just to work with one of these individuals. You’ve worked with all of these producers, plus more. How in the hell did you do that?
[RBP]: I say it often; I’ve been blessed, man. Yes, I work hard. I believe in me and my talents, but to have so many talented, dope, and even some legendary producers that I can call and work with is a blessing.
[LL]: As an emcee, I do believe your body of work speaks for itself. Not only have you managed to remain relevant for 15 years now, your contributions to the Black Aesthetic http://www.treblezine.com/24228-hall-fame-little-brother-minstrel-show/, in general, have been absolutely priceless, particularly to those who really “follow the culture.” Be honest, Brother Pooh. Do you think you’ve received your just due?
[RBP]: Honestly, I don’t. I wasn’t the “star” of Little Brother, but we all played an important part in Little Brother being what it was. I think a lot of people didn’t want to see or hear me outside of that certain aesthetic and may have dismissed what I have done https://rapperbigpooh.bandcamp.com/album/fat-boy-fresh-35 since Little Brother, or even in the midst of Little Brother. I can’t afford to get caught up in that at the end of the day. We all have a mission; I’m no different. God will see fit when it’s my time to truly be acknowledged for my contributions to pushing music forward.
[LL]: Mello Music Group http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2015/07/mello-music-group-feature is one of my favorite labels right now in all of Hip Hop. For those who are true music fans, Mello Music Group, pound for pound, has one of the sweetest most complete sounds in Hip Hop. Period! Their sound is so lush, yet hard-hitting – intimate, but multi-layered – intentional, yet daringly creative. In-house producer/emcee, Oddisee https://oddisee.bandcamp.com/, is just as much a musical genius as Kanye West…shit, if not more. What’s it like being with Mello Music Group? Pete Rock http://www.mellomusicgroup.com/products/copy-of-pete-rock-petestrumentals-2-cd is there too, isn’t he?
[RBP]: It was dope to be with a label that allowed you to create the art that you wanted to create and supported that art. They only work with people they are fans of over there, which means a lot. That means you are going to get that extra love and attention.
[LL]: Most people just assume you’re from North Carolina, but you’re originally from Virginia. Fairfax County, is that correct? What was it like growing there up for you? Who were some of your childhood and musical influences?
[RBP]: I grew up in Alexandria, VA as well as Reston, VA. Growing up there was like growing up anywhere else, all you know is what you know. I was close to DC so that influenced what we did in Northern VA; it was almost like we were a suburb of DC. I was influenced by Go-Go bands when I was younger. I grew up listening to Junkyard Band, North East Groovers, Backyard Band http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/417780/keeping-go-go-going-in-a-gentrifying-dc/, of course Chuck Brown and Rare Essence http://www.dailyprogress.com/entertainment/rare-essence-wants-listeners-to-turn-up-go-go/article_0b8299b6-179b-11e6-9526-47da422e13bc.html.
[LL]: In sharing that, it’s almost like you’re a member of two different Hip Hop communities – the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) crew, as well as the NC crew. How do you feel about that? Do you ever feel torn, or like you have to choose between VA or NC? Where do you live now?
[RBP]: While I have always represented home, which is VA, I consider myself a part of the North Carolina music scene and not the music scene in the DMV. I think it would disrespect the cats putting in real work in that area and have for a while. I made my name in NC. VA is always home, but I became a man and artist in North Carolina.
I still live in North Carolina, Charlotte to be exact.
[LL]: Is there a difference of style and sound between the two regions? Raleigh/Durham is awfully close to the DMV https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/can-washington-dc-be-a-new-capital-for-rap-scene-report. Yet, both communities seem to have their own distinct Hip Hop aesthetic, their own cultural norms and pedagogy?
[RBP]: Styles differ from city to city, so you know different states will breed different styles and norms. I haven’t been in the DMV scene to know or understand how it moves there. I do know that the scene in the RDU, differs from the one in Charlotte https://denirofarrar.bandcamp.com/.
[LL]: You were born in 1980, a true “80’s baby.” You’ll be turning 36 soon is that correct? How long can you keep doing this? You know, earning a living as an emcee, traveling, the discipline it requires to continue creating at a high level? Judging from your last two projects, Words Paint Pictures http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2015/03/rapper-big-poohs-words-paint-pictures-ep-stream/ (with Apollo Brown) and Home Sweet Homehttp://www.vibe.com/2015/11/big-pooh-nottz-album-home-sweet-home/ (with Nottz), sounds like you’re just hitting your second wind. How long do you want to keep doing this?
[RBP]: I turned 36 back in February, working on seeing 37 now. We all evolve and I’m in the evolution process now. I still enjoy creating and challenging myself more than anything. As long as I have that joy and love for creating, then I’ll create. This isn’t just something I do; this is who I am. You don’t just quit being who you are.
[LL]: You recorded the track “Thanksgiving https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdTnkIkbQY0” with Kendrick Lamar back in 2009, when King Kendrick was still K.Dot. Even then, people could just tell that this Compton, California kid was SUPER special. How did that combo come about? Did you have any idea that the young K.Dot would become the emcee he is today?
[RBP]: I was introduced to Jay Rock http://hiphopdx.com/news/id.35649/title.jay-rock-recalls-opening-doors-for-kendrick-lamar from the TDE crew first, back in 2009 via MySpace. My manager and I took a trip out to California and to meet up with Jay Rock and the President of TDE, Dave Free, and that is when we were introduced to a young Kendrick and Ab-Soul. I had no idea the levels Kendrick would reach, but I did know he was talented, eager to soak up knowledge, and hungry. He jumped on a song of mine called “Nothing Less,” and then I jumped on the “Thanksgiving” song. We ended up doing one more song together called, “Rapper-Pooh-a-lude” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaJVJD6e3Pc and still speak to this day.
[LL]: As the self-described, “little brother of Little Brother” your personal and artistic journey has been so astonishing to sit back and watch. The little brother, who was once playing catch up, has definitely ‘grown up’ now. Your first solo album, Sleepers http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/6943-sleepers/(2005) was quite solid, to say the least. But your last two projects really reflect some serious growth – your content and subject matter, your delivery, your story-telling http://thesource.com/2015/11/12/premiere-listen-to-rapper-big-poohs-preach-prod-by-nottz/ and sense of clarity. How did you fight through the process of honing your craft and sharpening your skills? What was that journey like for you?
[RBP]: I view getting better as an artist like an athlete would. Each project or guest verse happens to be my game tape, so to speak. I’m always looking for ways to improve. I enjoy being around young, hungry, talented guys who haven’t been jaded by the industry. They have this innocent and vibrant energy about them that just rubs off on you and puts the proverbial battery in your back.
Growth isn’t always a painless process but it’s not all painful either. Highs, lows, it’s all part of the journey. I’m thankful that I was always taught to persevere and never give up on what you started. I didn’t always apply that life lesson when I was younger, but I have made sure to apply it now.
[LL]: Pooh, you’ve been making a living as an emcee for a decade and a half now. Where is the balance between sales and numbers, versus producing good music and preserving the art form? Yes, we all know you have to eat, but it’s very obvious that you also care a lot about the culture. How do you achieve them both?
[RBP]: I decided a long time ago, and this is something I tell young guys I work with, determine what success is to you. You can’t let anyone else tell you what success is or isn’t. I also decided a long time ago, the day I wake up and can’t look at myself in the mirror because of shame, is the day I need to reassess where I am as a man and artist.
[LL]: Last question, brother. As we’ve seen the Black Lives Matter http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32225-a-bold-and-brilliant-new-moment-in-the-struggle-for-black-liberation Movement elevate consciousness on a political and social level, we’ve also seen the music become more political – D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Not to mention Solange Knowles’ new joint, A Seat At The Table http://www.wmagazine.com/story/solanges-a-seat-at-the-table-captures-what-it-is-to-be-young-and-black-in-america-right-now. What is your take on the Movement for Black Lives, the national anthem, and the current resistance against police terror?
[RBP]: I don’t subscribe to any movement, personally. I just want to see us in a better place as a community, and as a country. We know what a lot of these issues are. I also know a lot of these measures were put into place for a reason, and the powers that be have been manipulating folks since the first ships http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2014/09/i_found_the_ship_my_slave_ancestors_were_on/ docked on the shores of the “new land.”
Racism is a symptom of the real problem. Power! We as a community have to take some of the power back by putting our money back into our own communities. You want to make real difference, and really get people to not only pay attention but to make some real changes? Speak with your wallet. Until we are ready to sacrifice and do that, not much will change, in my opinion.
I do love all of the music being born out of these times, though. This is what music is supposed to be about anyway. It is supposed to honestly reflect the times and evoke certain emotions in people. I applaud all of the artists that are using their platforms and art to really touch on what is going on right now. That is one of the things I told Kendrick Lamar when I called him the night his album https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/dec/18/best-albums-of-2015-no-1-to-pimp-a-butterfly-by-kendrick-lamar released. I know he is a dope rapper. I know he is a phenomenal artist. He moved all the way up to the top of my list for stepping out and using his voice and platform to really talk that real.
[LL]: Word up! No doubt! Any last words or upcoming plugs?
[RBP]: Thank you if you ever purchased an album, piece of merch, came to a show, or told a friend about the amazing music I have been a part of for the last 14 years. If you are in the RDU area on the 13th of October, see you from the stage at the MotorCo http://motorcomusic.com/event/1315247-pete-rock-supastition-rapper-durham/ in Durham.
[LL]: Thank you so much for your time, Brother Pooh. Real Talk! Much love and respect to your many contributions. To all the readers out there, you can purchase Pooh’s latest album Home Sweet Home at https://rapperbigpooh360.bandcamp.com/album/home-sweet-home. ■
NC-based journalist/activist, @LamontLilly is the 2016 Workers World Party, U.S. Vice-Presidential Candidate. He has recently served as field staff in Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, Boston and Philadelphia. In February 2015, he was a U.S. delegate at the International Forum for Justice in Palestine.