Little Brother

In the early Nineties, the rising cost of funk and soul samples chased producers right into the arms of digital instrumentation. Thus the "golden age" of Pete Rock's and DJ Premier's horn-laden sample tapestries ultimately yielded to the Neptunes' vacuum-sealed bleeps and robo-claps. While cheap MIDI technology brought about innovative rhythm structures, warmth and texture (or, in a word, humanity) became retro qualities in rap music, something to reminisce over.

Enter Little Brother, a North Carolina crew that not only resurrects the old sound but makes it relevant again. Either producer 9th Wonder didn't bother to clear his samples or Oakland's ABB Records invested in his group big-time; in any case the results are as organic as Berkeley java.

Still The Listening is no hippie rap opus -- MCs Big Pooh and Phonte drop razor-sharp verbals meant more for the streets than the coffee shops. In fact, despite a few feel-good anthems like "Love Joint Revisited," there's no shortage of attitude in Little Brother's backpack. Pooh's bitter lyrics repeatedly question the motives of the women and the rappers who surround him, while on the laid-back "The Yo Yo" Phonte jokes that virtuous MCs "get on my nerves ... I'm about to kick some Trick Daddy next poetry night." But what Pooh and Phonte (who also sings chorus hooks) lack in positivity, they more than make up for in wordplay and melody. More important, they climb inside 9th's wandering beats as discreetly as stowaways, making The Listening a transmission from the trunk of the choicest time machine on the strip.

As sci-fi fans know, however, all visits to the past portend the future. Chock-full of impressive cameos, this LP doubles as a promising preview for Little Brother's larger posse, the Justus League Crew. While perhaps commercially out of step, these emerging North Cackalacka phenoms may have what it takes to draw rap's pendulum back toward a fuller sound, reclaiming hip-hop's humanity in the process.

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Greg Doherty