Little Brother holds down the hip-hop middle ground
Little Brother holds down the hip-hop middle ground
Courtesy of Little Brother

Who's Hip-Hop?

It was a Friday afternoon on August 7, the second to last day of the Billboard R&B and Hip-Hop Conference Awards, and Little Brother -- Phonte, Big Pooh, and producer Ninth Wonder -- had already grown tired of the networking and the schmoozing that characterized the week-long event. They had driven from their home in North Carolina to Miami Beach the day before, then partied at a showcase for Dwele at the Funk Jazz Lounge that night, and now they were worn out and laid out on the hotel bed, seemingly tolerating my presence for half an hour until my interview time was up and the next journalist could trundle in to ask the same, tedious questions.

The group's seeming ennui was a stark contrast from the soulfully warm and conversational tone of their debut LP, The Listening. Since being released in February of this year, it has garnered great notices from The Source (which gave it a "four mic" review), and has won the staunch support of revered musicians like Questlove of the Roots and Pete Rock, on the way to selling 30,000 copies. In August the hip-hop bible further honored the group by giving it a Source Award nomination for independent album of the year. But the album royalties and performance dates are just beginning to come their way, leaving them with an ascendant career and little money to show for it.

"We've been in eight major publications, some multiple times. For a new act other than 50 Cent, I mean, no one else is really doing that this year," Ninth Wonder tries to explain. "But for the buzz that we received not only here, but worldwide, naw, I don't think we getting compensated for that. It may be because of record sales, maybe because of this, maybe because of that."


The Source Awards

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"There's a buzz. Motherfuckers are talking, though. But I'm trying to get this money," says Phonte.

"Talk is cheap!" Big Pooh chimes in.

Still Little Brother's inclusion among the nominees is an indicator that The Source is finally expanding its palette beyond the usual diamond-encrusted New York thugs and hip-poppers. The Roots, who for all their plaudits from music critics and discerning fans have yet to sell a platinum album, are nominated for artist of the year; another critic's darling, Jurassic 5, was singled out for group of the year. Closer to home, Trick Daddy and Trina earned several nominations, including female solo artist of the year for Trina and video of the year for Trick Daddy's "Thug Holiday." In addition, a few intriguing categories for international album of the year (with nominees like Cuba's Orishas and British MC Blak Twang) and dancehall/reggae album of the year have been added, making the awards ceremony a surprisingly well-rounded one.

"I feel like hard work just pays off," says Slip-N-Slide owner Ted Lucas, adding that he's pleased at how the Source Awards is recognizing Southern artists like Trick Daddy. "I feel like the Source Awards concentrates on the hip-hop community [as a whole]. It ain't just hip-hop in New York, it ain't just L.A. hip-hop, it's everywhere hip-hop. They recognize what Trick Daddy and Trina are doing."

If there's one subgenre that isn't represented by the awards, it's indie rap, a group much maligned by the hip-hop rank-and-file. "Let it be known -- Little Brother is not into the super-scientifical hip-hop rap, whatever you want to call yourself," bellows Ninth Wonder.

"I never expected, ever to be nominated for a Source Award," says producer/rapper El-P. The idea that an underground artist and backpacker icon like El-P should have been nominated for best producer isn't completely ridiculous, especially considering that he is frequently mentioned by everyone from MTV to Rolling Stone magazine as one of the most innovative musicians in hip-hop; his Fantastic Damage album was cited in several 2002 top ten lists; and his label, Definitive Jux, is considered the cream of the avant-garde.

But El-P's tracks are raw and strange, emitting noises that range from low-fi electro to dusty machine drum minimalism. Unlike Jurassic 5 with "What's Golden" or the Roots with "The Seed Version 2.0," he has never had anything close to a mainstream pop hit. El-P doesn't try to adhere to an artificial standard of what hip-hop should sound like. That keeps him, Atmosphere, the Anticon collective, and countless other talented acts unencumbered by commercial considerations on the outskirts of the rap industry and relative nonentities at industry functions. The Source Awards should be commended for recognizing Southern rap, international hip-hop, R&B, and dancehall, but it still has a ways to go when it comes to representing the totality of the culture.

So will Little Brother attend this year's Source Awards? A quick call to the trio's label, ABB Records, reveals that they're already booked on a month-long tour, and will be in Cleveland on the night of the ceremony. "They're more concerned about being on the road for a national tour," explains marketing director Diane Payes. "They may do a prerecorded announcement if they win." Awards are nice, but the cheddar comes first.


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