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Little Brother talks latest album, disagreements with 9th Wonder, Jemele Hill skits on their project and more

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Phonte and Big Pooh open up about what went wrong with them and 9th Wonder, transparency on songs, Jemele Hill joking skits from their latest album, and much more. Peep the convo here.

Setor Tsikudo

For "Studios Sessions," we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.

From a fan's point of view, seeing Phonte, Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder -- at the group's founding grounds of North Carolina -- perform on the same stage for the first time in more than a decade at the 2018 Art of Cool Festival was the start of a Little Brother reunion. If you were looking from inside the Native Tongues descendant group, you'd think the same thing and you'd both be right. Then, the studio sessions took place...

"9th Wonder didn't want any other producers on the album. Pete Rock [and] The Soul Council, he didn't want them on the joint," Phonte revealed. "We were like, nah. You don't get to dictate that. You come back to participate. You don't come back to dictate."

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Phonte and rapper Big Pooh open up about what went wrong with them and 9th Wonder, transparency on songs, and the missing Jemele Hill jokes.

The sessions for May The Lord Watch were more than 15 years after your first ones for your debut, The Listening. What was the dynamic like in the studio for these new ones?

Big Pooh: We had to learn each other again, creatively. This is our first time recording an album where Phonte is the engineer. It literally was us two in the studio for 90-95% of the time. It was just us learning each other, we really got to figure out the ebb and flow of how each one of us created. It had been nine or ten years since we had created anything together. Honestly, we relearned each other as men. We spent a lot of time doing shit other than making music. We would be listening to music, talking about life, watching TV shows.

That focus on relearning each other as men comes across in how transparent this album is about your lives. Pooh, on 'Right On Time,' you rapped, ‘Doing Uber pickups, they didn’t recognize the face.’ Was that from a real-life experience?

Big Pooh: Yeah, that was real life. That was definitely during my down period. We were always honest in our music and honest about where we were in life. For me, as I was writing it, that was a turning point in my career, where I was uncomfortable putting that much out there, but this is a truth that needs to be told. Because I was uncomfortable, it resonated with so many people. I had artist friends hit me up like, ‘Hey, man. That bar touched me. I know the struggle.’ They were almost thanking me for saying what they had to go through, as well...

Phonte: ...and maybe they didn’t have the courage to say it.

The album was recorded at your home, Phonte. What were the benefits of recording it at your house instead of a studio?

Phonte: Recording it at home gives the music a lived-in feel. Like Erykah Badu said, 'We were able to 'record to a lifeline and not a deadline.'' So, if I had to take my son to school or pick my son up from school, I’d be like, ‘Aight. Let me go get him.’ Or if I wanted to run up the street and get us some sandwiches, we’ll just sit at the table and eat them. We were not treating this album as a thing that we have to do outside of our lives. We were just going to naturally incorporate it into the natural flow of our lives. That’s something you can do at home versus if you’re at a studio where somebody is keeping time and there are other engineers. We’re going to talk about life. If I had a bad day or something was just stressful, that’s going to come out in the music. I can go upstairs and get that shit down (laughs). If I’m pissed about something, I could record this verse right now.

So, with getting back into the groove of things, what was the quickest song y’all recorded for this album?

Phonte: ‘Everything’ was the first song we recorded for the project and then, ‘The Feel.’ I think both of those were done in two days. We were just firing off.

When in the process of making the album, was it apparent that you both weren’t recording it with 9th Wonder?

Big Pooh: That happened quick.

Phonte: Yeah, that happened in December. It was fairly quick into the process. It was just a thing where it really came down to two really big issues that we saw that made it an untenable situation. The first big thing was we had very different ideas about what production was. We did start it with the three of us and there was, in the beginning, us saying, ‘OK. We’re going to do this. Let’s do this as a unit. We’re back in. Let’s go.’ 9th saw production purely as being the beat-maker. I saw production as more of a Quincy Jones orchestrator and arranger.

9th felt he should do every beat on the album and started sending us tracks. There were some that hit. A lot of them didn’t. It wasn’t that the beats were bad, they just weren’t moving us. He felt entitled to make all the beats and didn’t want any other producers on the album. The thing about it is, [Little Brother] has been a group without 9th longer than it’s been one with him. So, if you’re coming back to this thing, you have to honor what that thing became in your absence and then, figure out together how do we mix the old of what people know and the new of what a lot of people know.

He didn’t want any other producers on the album. Pete Rock; The Soul Council, his own squad, he didn’t want them on the joint. We were like, 'Nah. You don’t get to dictate that. You come back to participate. You don’t come back to dictate. That ain’t happening.'

Big Pooh: Yeah. That can’t happen.

(Clockwise) 9th Wonder, Rapper Big Pooh (in grey), Phonte at Art of Cool Festival on Sept. 29, 2019
(Clockwise) 9th Wonder, Rapper Big Pooh (in grey), Phonte at Art of Cool Festival on Sept. 29, 2019

Phonte: The second big point was we had very different views of what commitment meant. In the beginning, it started off as, ‘Yo, man. I’m here. I want to be a part of everything. I want to be here for it all.’ Once he saw that he wasn’t going to do every beat on the album, then it became, ‘OK, when we do these shows, what if I just do the festival shows and we have DJ Flash do the regular shows?’ Nah. Halfway in is all the way out. To have your devotion to something be contingent on how much glory you’re going to get out of it, that really rubbed us the wrong way. The last conversation we had, I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. Keep the tracks that you did.’ We scrapped his songs and were like, 'We’ll just rebuild this shit from scratch all over again.'"

Wow. Just so we're clear, there were songs recorded with you two over 9th Wonder beats for this album?

Big Pooh: Yeah, we did three records.

Phonte: One was good. Another one, we thought was good. Then, the other one was just like, ‘Ehh.’ The thing about it was, the ones that we thought were good, they were only good at that time. Once we finished the record, and went back and saw what we created, it was like, ‘Nah. That wasn’t it.’ It was only good because we didn’t know better was capable, once we got to better and great. But, there ain’t no beef. There’s just clarity.

The thing about both of you that I’ve noticed throughout your careers are that you’re both historians. When this sort of situation happens in your group, how do you contextualize it within music history? Have you done that?

Phonte: Hell yeah! It gives it context. You understand why these niggas broke up.

Big Pooh: You really understand.

Phonte: It’s hard to explain that to an outsider. To an outsider, all they know is the music. They don’t understand...

Big Pooh: The different dynamics. The personal relationships. People used to say to me all the time when we weren’t together or talking, ‘Man, y’all need to just put y’all differences aside and give us another Little Brother album.’ I’m like, ‘Dawg, it ain’t that simple. This wasn’t just a business transaction. This just wasn’t somebody I saw at the office every day.’ We had to live together (laughs).

Phonte: (Chuckles) Straight up.

Big Pooh: I spent more time with him than I spent with my own family, so it wasn’t that simple. I had a line where I was like, ‘Now I know why my favorite groups…

Phonte: ‘I used to sit and obsess why my favorite groups were a mess.’

I can’t believe you just remembered that line randomly.

Big Pooh: (Laughs) Yeah, me too.

Phonte: (Laughs) When you mix shit, you hear an album a million fucking times.

Pooh: But, that line was real. I knew what we were going through at the time. That was right before we broke up. I’m at all my idols like, ‘Yep, I can see that. I can see that happening. Yep.’ When you’re in it, you start to see why certain things happened. Once we got mature enough, it also helped us see how to prevent certain things, as well.

Parts of the album I loved were the skits. When did making those skits come in the album-making process?

Some of them got made after we finished the album. The very first one I made was the ‘Inside The Producer’s Studio’ with Questlove. Amir and I did that one. I had already written out all of the skits and set them up where I know where all the bits are. In every skit, you’re finding out what happened to a character. That’s just something I learned from working in TV and writing for TV. You can have jokes, but you have to hang them on something real. Your jokes still have to move the story forward and still have to tell us something about the characters.

My favorite skit was ‘Niggas Hollering’ with Jemele Hill, Austin Hall and Ryan Davis going back and forth with one another. How was that done?

Phonte: That one was a couple of hours of editing. It was probably like two hours.

Pooh: Trying to find the right parts to make it make sense.

So, there are extra leftover parts. What are some missing parts?

Phonte: Jemele said something about LeBron. She was like, ‘Everyone thinks LeBron is the best. But, he ain’t better than [Michael] Jordan. Jordan went bald first. He’s even the king of balding (laughs). That shit was funny, but if we put it in there, it was going to make it too long. Then, you lose the funny.

Were there moments during the making of this album where y’all were impressed by the other’s bars?

Phonte: Yeah, my favorite bar from Pooh from this album was when we recorded 'The Feel.' He had a line in there where he says, 'Woke to see a sunrise/ I hope to see a better me through a son's eyes,' and I was like, ‘Shit.’ Throughout all of our years of recording with each other, Pooh was always a guy who would get you close to the edge of the truth, he would almost go there, and then he’d pull it back. In the past, I would hear it and just be like, ‘Maybe that’s where he’s at’ and I would never challenge him on it. On this record, when he’s dropping lines like that and 'my pen used to run across the page doing suicides,' I was like, ‘He’s there now.’ I don’t have to push him or nudge him. He’s fully telling his truth.

Pooh: I got to a point where I just didn’t give a fuck (laughs). I did the RPM project last year. Focus and I were talking about it, so I did it. I was at a point where I was good. I was like, ‘Aight. If I don’t do any more records, I’m good.’ When we started this process, I made sure when I started writing, I wasn’t thinking about omitting things. I was just putting down what was coming to me. Then, I’d go back through and think about taking shit out or changing shit. Then, it was like, if I remove it, what am I going to replace it with that’s going to make me feel the same way? It was nothing.

Rapper Big Pooh (left) and Phonte (right) in New York City on August 30th, 2019
Rapper Big Pooh (left) and Phonte (right) in New York City on August 30th, 2019

Let's go back 15 plus years ago. What were the sessions like from The Listening?

Phonte: I’m trying to remember them (laughs).

Pooh: All of them shits ran together. We would record sessions with four or five people in the room and the mic would be in the middle of the room. We [would] have to tell everybody to be quiet while we record.

Phonte: Bootleg as fuck.

Pooh: Even in the acapellas, you can hear people coughing, moving and stuff in the background.

Phonte: If you get The Listening acapellas, you’ll hear doors opening and closing. It was like Wu-Tang’s first album.

What was the most memorable session?

Pooh: The only session I remember individually is ‘Away From Me.’ That was the night before 9/11. We recorded that at Big Doe’s house. I’m still at school [at North Carolina Central University]. I remember going back to the dorm about four or five in the morning. I’m just falling asleep around six. I decided I wasn’t going to the nine o’clock class and my roommate woke me up like, ‘Yo, Look at this shit.’ I was like, ‘I know you didn’t wake me up to see them demolition the fucking building. He was like, ‘Nah, bruh. That’s a plane.’ Obviously, I was up from that point. So, that song will forever be etched in my memory because that was the song we recorded the night before 9/11.

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