Published Oct 04, 2011Phonte is where he wants to be. The Greensboro, North Carolina rapper of underground hip-hop group Little Brother fame (comprised of Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder) has smoothly and successfully transitioned into making waves as part of the Grammy-nominated hip-hop soul outfit Foreign Exchange (with Dutch producer/multi-instrumentalist Nicolay). Whether you prefer him as rapper or checked him out first as a singer, Phonte verifies that both sides are part and parcel of who he is and the music that he's driven to create. With the long-awaited launch of his solo effort Charity Starts at Home, Phonte gives listeners some of column "A," some of column "B" and nothing less than one would expect. Days before his headlining spot with 9th Wonder during the recent Manifesto Festival in Toronto, Phonte discussed life after Little Brother, working with producer 9th Wonder again and his career goals moving forward.
So what are some of the lessons learned post-Little Brother?
Little Brother was like boot camp for everything that's happened in my life. It really prepared me for what was to come with Foreign Exchange and everything that's come in the wake of that. The main thing I've learned is that no one is going to work harder than you, for you. I recently read an interview with [Chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group] Lyor Cohen where there were talking about 360 deals ― for those who don't know, 360 deals are where labels see all the artist's revenue including touring and endorsements ― and Lyor's argument was that these deals are beneficial for the artist because it shows that the labels would be thinking about the artist all the time. You have to be fucking kidding me: the only one who thinks about the artist all the time is the artist. You have moments of clarity in life and reading that statement ― and it's not to bash Lyor or major labels or anything like that ― was where I realized that I'm on the right track and did the right thing (in doing things independent from the majors).
Little Brother alum 9th Wonder is on the album. There were rumblings of some minor personal disagreements when he left Little Brother in 2007 ― what is your relationship like with 9th today?
Well nowadays we're closer than ever. There was a period where we didn't talk but after sitting down and really hashing out all our differences we just realized that there is just too much miscommunication and not enough talking. We both matured so much as men… and now we're at a point where we allow each other to exist as we are. There are things he may do that I don't agree with and there are things that I may do that he doesn't agree with but we allow each to exist in our own respective spaces. And I think that has made us stronger just as friends and as musicians.
His album The Wonder Years also dropped the same time as yours. Was this planned?
The reason why we decided to drop on the same day wasn't about a rivalry. We knew that we could push each other. Our fans could come to the record stores to buy both. We feel that it would be something that would benefit us both.
Professionally and personally, are you in a good place right now?
I'm where I want to be right now. I'm feeling really good in the space that I occupy. I'm glad to make music that I love and do things on my own terms. There are not many artists that can do what I do and with the freedom that I have. When you been on a major label and you've been through all kinds of label craziness you know that freedom is something that you do not want to take for granted. I've learned that lesson.
The line "I don't need the limelight/that's young nigga shit." Is this a mindset that you've always done throughout your career?
I think it's something that I've come to and evolved [into]. When I first started doing music, there really wasn't any middle ground. I grew up in the '80s and all we saw was larger than life superstars. You had to dress like LL [Cool J] or be Run-DMC. And so that's all you knew and you moved to that default artist paradigm. What happened when we kept going, we found the middle ground ― this middle class subset sort of artists that don't have the radio rotation or have crazy promo but make a living doing what they love and solely producing music. So for me I had to see what that limelight position would be. And as things moved along I realized that it was not needed at all. That's where I looked at other cats ― like a Talib Kweli or Mos Def or Tech N9ne ― I think living doing what I love just seemed more me for what I wanted in my life.
Who's your target audience?
With Foreign Exchange, it's for people who have grown with me. And a lot of people were asking why I went from rapping to singing. And for me I wanted to make music that is who I was at the time: I had just got married, had another kid, and I just saw myself losing touch with hip-hop and just not really seeing myself as a part of it that much. I was still rapping and being a part of it but that was my time to transition into something else. And so that was what the Foreign Exchange stuff represents. That's always going to be people that want you to rap more or sing more but at the end of the day you should do what's in your heart. My whole purpose was to make music that I wanted to hear and that's being my guiding light my whole career.
What can people expect from Charity Starts at Home?
It's a Phonte record. It not about if it's a rap album or a singing album, it's a Phonte. I had to make the album that I felt was a good starting point for what Phonte represents. Everything else I've done in my career has been in service of another brand whether it be Little Brother or Foreign Exchange. This was the first thing that I've done solely for me. If you know me or heard about me and don't know where to start, I want this album to be the starting place. It was a trying album for me to record. It took me a while to find my rhythm. I purposely gave myself a tight deadline on it but I didn't want to become [Dr. Dre's] Detox. I didn't want it to be something I obsess over and never let it go. I'm pleased with how it came out and hope that everyone else likes it too.
Me and 9th are doing solo touring dates together. After that, Nic and me are working on our first film score for a motion picture by Matthew Cherry called The Last Fall. It's exciting for us. After that, touring and more music. When you have a job where you can say what you want to say, there's really not more you can ask for.