Phonte, 9th Wonder & Peter Rosenberg: The Brotherhood
In their first interview together in years, Little Brother's Phonte and 9th Wonder talk about their reconciliation, their new catalog moment with Lil B, and Peter Rosenberg's Noisemakers this week.
In the first 48 hours of 2011, something monumental happened for Hip Hop.
Phonte and 9th Wonder, the former Little Brother bandmates, six years estranged from friendship and collaboration, told the world that they "squashed it." While the publicity associated with the reunion may have stood in the shadows of earlier public venting and tension between the two parties, it was arguably the most unexpected alliance in Hip Hop since Jay-Z and Nas dapped it out on a New Jersey stage in 2005 - not long after 9th and Phonte stopped speaking to each other.
On April 6, Peter Roseberg will host a Noisemakers event at New York's 92YTribeca, where Phonte and 9th share the stage for the first time in six years. The intimate discussion will look at their years apart, their reconciliation and the evolution of Little Brother.
Last Tuesday, Phonte, 9th and Peter spoke publicly for the first time, to HipHopDX about the moments leading up the event, the reconciliation, and the pair's first new musical creation, "Base For Your Face" with Lil B and Jean Grae. It's more than music, as the pair say that this is all about manhood, and truly a public demonstration to their fans on how to work through things and improve relations.
Brothers had to work it out.
HipHopDX: This is really iconic. Honest to God, I feel like my parents got back together. I know that's hyperbole, but shit. I'm really excited about this event, for Hip Hop. Tell me, with a platform and an opportunity like Noisemakers, what's your attitude going into public, town-hall meeting, sort of, like this?
Phonte: [Laughs] Well, me and 9th [Wonder], it was somethin' that we both talked about at the top of the year, once we sat down and finally hashed out all of our differences and worked out everything. It was just really unfortunate that we had both acted out negatively in public, so we felt it was only right to do somethin' positive in public. Noisemakers was the perfect platform; me and Peter [Rosenberg], we go back years and years. We go way back. It was somethin' me and 9th could do in the public eye as a way of makin' amends to our fans for actin' out the way we did. Also, havin' someone like Peter, who has been there from the beginning in a lot of ways, to [moderate], it was brought it all to a circle.
DX: Every year, the Hip Hop news cycle at the holidays is very slow. Waking up after New Years Day to what you guys said in a public setting was really inspired. I kind of woke up with the attitude of, "Man, 2011 is gonna be great!" because of you and 9th. How much of that happening was an age-old new year's resolution?
Phonte: Um, I would say some of it definitely was a new year's resolution. It was the start of a new year. Just the idea of starting the new year fresh, starting it with new, fresh, positive energy, that's always appealed to me - not bringing old beefs or old transgressions or old problems into a new year, that's something that I've always tried to do. Even more so than that, I think me and 9th both got to a point where we could humble ourselves in order to hear what the other person had to say. I don't think that 26 year-old Phonte and 30 year-old 9th, I don't think we could have this conversation. Where we're at now in our lives, it happened the way it was supposed to happen.
DX: Peter Rosenberg asks amazing questions. I truly look at him as an amazing peer as a documentarian in Hip Hop and as a journalist. Phonte, how ready are you, during Noisemakers, for that question you don't expect?
Phonte: You kinda just gotta prepare yourself for anything with Peter. [Laughs] Anything from wrestling references to whatever, I've known him for a while and that's one of the things that I like. I think one of the big misconceptions about artists is that we don't like to answer tough questions or questions that make us think or questions that put us on the spot. I think that's largely untrue. If you talk to most artists, they get tired of doing interviews 'cause every interview will ask them the same shit. When you're in a situation with somebody who goes way back with you and they know your history and they know your personal ups and downs, that gives the audience a certain insight. They can ask certain questions that gives a lot more context to an artist's situation that the average interviewer just can't do. So for me, I look at it like Inside The Actor's Studio, only we're musicians instead of actors.
DX: Peter, how'd you find your niche in having these amazing conversations with artists that you look up to like we all do?
Peter Rosenberg: Thank you for the nice question, because for the last week I've been beating myself up thinking I'm a shit interviewer after all the shit I took over my Odd Future interview last week. I'm really excited about this [Noisemakers event]. I've kind of avoided talking to Phonte and 9th over the last few weeks, so we can have a real nice catch-up conversation. In the case of these interviews, sometimes I have the advantage of being in a spot now where I see artists all the time. Every six months when they have something to promote, I see them. Or I've been watching them on their entire come-up and have been developing a rapport with them. In some ways I think I get to cheat, by just having a relationship and being a deejay in addition to an interviewer. In the case of Phonte and 9th, we really met as peers. I was a part of a crew [Low Budget] that was associated with their crew [The Justus League]. I was really just a deejay in a crew that was friends with their crew. We all sort of admired each other's work. We met on a cool, friend level.
Honestly, sometimes I think I'm under-prepared and rely a little too much on my rapport. I look up a lot to Nardwuar for example, someone who really does a lot research and challenge myself, even in this interview, beyond the stuff I know personally.
DX: Peter, in a lot of ways, we're used to seeing events like this with Minister Louis Farrakhan. [Laughs] Common, Ice Cube, Farrakhan. Now it's Phonte, 9th Wonder, Peter Rosenberg. Ludacris had the record, "I Do It For Hip Hop," I know that this is personal, but it's also public, how much of this, in your own words, is this for the culture?
Phonte: Truth be told, very little of it - to be real. As I stated when I made my first statements about it when we first reconciled, "this has nothing to do with music and everything to do with manhood." That's really what it was about. Me and 9th, before we ever [made] any music together, we were friends first. So us reconnecting together, when we first sat down and started talkin', it wasn't about, "Yo, can I get some beats for my album," or "Yo 'Tay, I need a verse for this," it was just us catchin' up as friends and as men and rebuilding the brotherhood that we had lost. Hip Hop was just a bi-product of that. We are in the process now of doing stuff for my record and I'm doin' stuff with him and his artists in the [It's A Wonderful World Music Group] camp, but this was just about us reconciling as men, and us just havin' to grow the fuck up first. Hip Hop really didn't have a major role in it, 'cause Hip Hop didn't play a major role in our friendship, to begin with.
DX: Peter, from your role and perspective, how much of this is for Hip Hop?
Peter Rosenberg: More than anything, this is sort of personal. In my conversations with 9th and 'Tay separately, and I bump into 9th more than I bump into 'Tay, I really wanted them to be cool. The last time I saw 9th [before the reconciliation], I hate to liken it to marriage again, pause, but it's like having divorced friends. Every time I'd see one of y'all, I'd naturally end up mentioning the other and I'm not trying to [mess things up]. I know neither would expect that I'm not trying to be friends with the other, but I'm like, "Man, this is stupid." When you meet two people who are so like-minded or for lack of a better word - righteous, like good, good people, it just always felt like, "Man, this shouldn't be like this." The music part for me was always secondary 'cause I just knew them as buddies. I just wanted things to be cool with them. I'm kind of honored that I get to play a role in that publicly. It makes a lot of sense. On a totally selfish level too, it's a dope Noisemakers that's gonna get underground [Hip Hop] people salivating, and for me, it's super easy. Like, I'm comin' off of the Diddy Noisemakers, where I'm stressin' the fuck out about having to knock Diddy's socks off and do a show that's in a different place than Noisemakers typically is. For me, this is a great win, 'cause I can be not at all nervous, 'cause I'm sitting there with two old friends to chat.
DX: If I'm not mistaken, this is your first 2000s-era Noisemakers - not a group or artist from the '90s or '80s.
Peter Rosenberg: Yeah. This is definitely the [newest] artists that we've had, in terms of when they've developed as a group.
DX: You get that Terri Gross Fresh Air content in your interviews. When you created the Noisemakers platform, what was your initial goal?
Peter Rosenberg: Just to document history, because Hip Hop is not documented properly. We have magazines and websites and TV featurettes, but there is no Hip Hop Hall of Fame. There is no place where you can go to learn the whole history, and with Noisemakers, it would become a legitimate reference point for the future. [I had hoped that] a lot of the stories and facts that we end up knowing in Hip Hop would come from this series. I'd like to eventually create a DVD series or something where this is the spoken history of Hip Hop. It's there and it's documented. That was the main thing.
DX: Phonte, I think it's interesting that in the living history of Little Brother and Phonte and 9th Wonder, that you guys first collaborated again on a track with The Pack's Lil B. That is so not what I would have ever expected, especially since interviewing you guys together close to nine years ago. We saw what 9th told VIBE, but what did "Base For Your Face" mean to you?
Phonte: For me, "Base For Your Face" was giving my fans a curve-ball. It was very similar to what [Little Brother] did in 2007 when we did the track ["Breakin' My Heart" ] with Lil Wayne for Getback. I just always believe, as an artist, that you always have to keep fans on their toes because the minute that they think they have you figured out, then it's over. The minute they know what you're gonna do [next], they lose interest. You always have to be two or three steps ahead of 'em. So with the Lil B situation, it was just a thing about me wantin' to make a dope record with somebody that my fan-base wouldn't normally expect me to collab with, for one. For two, by workin' with somebody like Lil B, that gets me to a younger generation of listeners that I probably could not get to on my own. So with me, Jean [Grae] and 9th doin' a record with Lil B, that was really unexpected and it fucked with a lot of people, somethin' I just like to do. [Laughs] Beyond all that, it was a dope record, and something I can be proud of. That's what it was about.
DX: 9th, since I first interviewed you guys in 2002 or 2003, through to our conversations this year, you've always spoken about the role models both in music, but also in the black community and black music community. What kind of example do you think this event and this reconciliation sets for a generation or culture of people to see two men work things out after years of tension or animosity?
9th Wonder: One thing me and Phonte always wanted to do, even in the beginning of [Little Brother], looking at all the Vh1 [Behind The Music episodes] and reading the Rap [magazines], we said, "Man, we'll never [break up on a bad terms]." We'll never break up or do stupid stuff or whatever. I think that us talking at the beginning of the year, in a lot ways, sealed that up. I think if we never talked, I think we would have straight turned our back on that whole ideology. It's never too late for anything. I think that's one of the biggest teachers too: it's never too late. There's a lot of young boys - especially young black boys runnin' around with a lot of anger in 'em and don't know how to deal with it. Whether they have somethin' against their dad, whether they have somethin' against another dude, they just don't know how to deal with it. I'm hopin' that the younger generation took that from us: how to deal with what's goin' on inside and things of that nature. When it comes to Hip Hop, that's somethin' that's kind of foreign. Beef permeates through Hip Hop: [highly publicized] songs are made. When people reconcile, it's not a big deal. The beef was a bigger deal than the reconciliation. That's one thing we wanted to do too: we wanted to make the reconciliation a big deal, not just for us, but for the cats who's watchin' us. I think Noisemakers is really gonna seal that up, because we haven't been on stage, together, in six years. It's been a while.
DX: Phonte, I've championed you as a songwriter and a lyricist since the beginning, and I know I've been critical at times too. I have to say, last year, you were writing some of the most amazing verses of your career in joints like the feature role on Strong Arm Steady's "Best of Times" or LB's "Tigallo For Dolo." It's been six years for you guys, for you to be working together again on music, how does it feel artistically, to know that you've advanced so much within those six years?
Phonte: It just feels good to know that me and 9th are both getting better in our craft. When we first started this, I remember we'd go in the studio for hours, just cuttin' records and writing. When you first start out you always dream of the day when you "make it" and things aren't as hard as they are when you start out. The reality of the situation is that it only gets harder. The only thing harder than making the team is staying on the team, and keeping your position on the team. Now it's like even though I've grown a lot and I've experienced a lot and grown a lot more as a songwriter, the work is more than ever. I'm doing way more work now at 32 [years old] than I was at 22. With that, it really makes you focused and makes you cut all the bullshit out of your life and get down to work. Me and 9th had sent some records to a couple cats in the game [laughing] - I ain't gonna call nobody out...when me and 9th Work, generally it's a quick turnaround time. He sent me the "Base For Your Face" record, and within a couple hours, he woke up to my verse and an acapella. We did a record with Terrace Martin - I did vocals on it, rhymed on it, and that was another one-day, two-day tops [experience]. When I work with a lot of younger cats in the game, like I just did a hook and a verse with Mac Miller, he was like, "Man, y'all turn around [music] quick." People without kids and families and wives, they don't understand how free time they truly have. For me being in the position that I am now of trying to maintain family, trying to maintain a business, trying to keep the house together and staying creative, that means I have no personal time. So when it's time for me to do something, I gotta jump on that shit and do it then and do it right. So where me and 9th are as men and independent business owners, it really makes us a whole lot more focused.
DX: 9th, I'm curious to know where Rapper Big Pooh fits in all of this. I know this Noisemakers event is about you and Phonte, but this largely affects the history of Little Brother. Pooh's remained quiet, what can you say about his role and place in this?
9th Wonder: We always wanted [Rapper Big] Pooh to have his space. Whether together or apart, we always wanted Pooh to have his space. No matter what, through the success that Phonte's had and through the success that I've had, to be honest with you, in the confines of Little Brother, Pooh was always seen as the third person. To be honest. That was to everybody. Within Little Brother, we always wanted to prove that he was his own person. Always. That's just the dynamics of a group. Me and Phonte, we were always all about the music. We wanted Pooh to be stronger musically as well. In order to do that, amongst two dudes who know music like that, you have to have your own space. We don't want to musically clog him or anything like that. That was the biggest thing for us. Even now, with me and Phonte reconciling, we still wanted it to be about me and 'Tay. Even when we was beefing, we wanted Pooh to have his own space then. It hasn't changed. Speaking from me, it hasn't changed. If he's gonna have his own space, now's the greatest time to do so.
Phonte: Yeah. For him, he's still working on records. He's got a new project [Fat Boy Fresh, Volume 1] coming [on April 5]. It's just a time for him to really find out who he is and really define himself outside of Little Brother, because he's the only one, of the three of us, that hasn't had the chance to do that. 9th was able to go and produce records for big artists and build his own brand. I was able to build Foreign Exchange and F.E. Music and become viable in the R&B and Soul market and tour, and make a name for myself doing that. Pooh has just kind of always been at the mercy of what Little Brother was doing. He never really had a chance to do him. Now he has that chance. That's really what it's about.
DX: This is a careful interview, and as a fan, I'm just excited for this Noisemakers. Before we part, is there anything you want to say that you haven't?
9th Wonder: I'm happy to be a part of this thing we call music, and especially this thing we call Hip Hop. I think next Wednesday [April 6] is gonna be a monumental day for all of us. Me and Phonte talk all the time, we stay on the phone for like two hours every time we get on the phone. One of the things we always talk about is how you couldn't have scripted this, even if you wanted to. [Laughs] I'm lookin' forward to it, not only for me and him, but for the fans. A lot of fans wanted to see [this happen], from this generation - just like I want to see Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth on stage together.
Follow 9th Wonder (@9thWonderMusic)and Phonte (@Phontigallo) on Twitter