[Interview] Phonte talks Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange, and “Charity Starts At Home”

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Having earned a Grammy nomination for “Best Urban/Alternative Performance” as part of The Foreign Exchange, and recognition from the likes of Pete Rock and Ali Shaheed Muhammad throughout his career, it seems there’s little left for Phonte to prove. Rather than fall into complacency, however, the Little Brother emcee sounds as inspired as ever on his latest solo effort, Charity Starts At Home. According to the Greensboro, North Carolina emcee/singer, he’s “just getting started.” The Come Up Show caught up with Phonte ahead of his show in Toronto this Saturday, and he opened up about his time in Little Brother, his work with Nicolay as The Foreign Exchange, and his solo album, among other things. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: You’re performing in Toronto at the El Mocambo on November 17th. For those who have never seen your live performance before, what can they expect to see?

Phonte: It’s just a party, you know what I’m saying? Pretty much, it’s a one-stop shop. I cover new joints, stuff from my album Charity Starts At Home, I cover the Little Brother catalogue… It’s very much a retrospective [show]. I cover all bases, all parts of my career. It’s a marathon [laughs].

TCUS: [Laughs] Back in ’09, 9th Wonder called Toronto the hip-hop capital of the world. What are your thoughts on the music scene in Toronto?

Phonte: I think Toronto is probably one of the most musically diverse places that I’ve ever played. There’s a big melting pot of culture there, and I think that plays out in the music. You got cats like Slakah The Beatchild, who I’m a big fan of, cats like Doc McKinney… cats that always bring a little something extra to the table. I definitely think that Toronto is just one of those cities where all those things come together in a nice mix, and it shows in the music.

TCUS: While we’re still somewhat on the subject of 9th Wonder, I want to ask you about a tweet of his. He was reminiscing on Twitter, and one of the things he tweeted was “I’ll never forget those days Phonte was working at Blue Cross, then getting off and recording all night.” What are your memories from that time?

Phonte: Aw man! That was when we were working on our first album, The Listening. I had just graduated college, and I was working – my first job out of college was working for Blue Cross. I was working there, and you know, I still wanted to make music. I’d be at work all day, and then as soon as I’d get out of work, [I’d] call 9th like “yo, we need to get on these joints.” So then we’d go record all night, and I’d have to be back up for work at 7 in the morning. Sometimes, I’d be late for work, sometimes, I’d call in… but I wasn’t gonna let nothing get in the way of my dreams. ‘Cause [after graduating], I kinda got my first taste of the real world, and I was just like, “there’s gotta be something else for me out here. This can’t be my life, and it won’t be my life.”

TCUS: Back in 2002, you called 9th Wonder and played him a Pete Rock voicemail. Can you tell that story?

Phonte: Yeah, my man Daryl Powell – who used to work for Up Above Records in New York, he’s a real good brother – he got Pete on the line, and called my crib and was like “yo…” Damn! You know what I’m saying? I was like “what the f***?!” And you know, he thought the record was crazy. He had heard The Listening, and he thought it was stupid, and I was like “holy shit!” So I called 9th and played him the voicemail, like “n****, do you believe this shit?!” [Laughs] That was kinda how that happened, it was just one of those moments where it really don’t matter what happens after that… Pete Rock liked my shit, and you couldn’t tell me shit after that.

TCUS: [Laughs]

Phonte: That was all the validation I needed. More than money, more than any kind of Grammy award or anything. To know that somebody that I grew up listening to saw the worth in what we had created, that meant everything to me. And it still does.

TCUS: Looking back on your years with Little Brother, what memories do you cherish the most?

Phonte: I really think it was very much like boot camp. Anything and everything that you could do wrong in a recording situation, we did wrong – both personally and professionally. Any and every kind of mistake you can make as a young, new artist coming out, we made those mistakes. And we learned from them. It really made it easier for me, once I transitioned into doing stuff with [Nicolay] as The Foreign Exchange, and once we took The Foreign Exchange brand into something more than just me and him, and branched it out into a full company of its own. A lot of those hard lessons I learned in Little Brother served as cautionary tales, so I learned what not to do, and that made me a sharper businessman on that side of things. I guess, it was just the experience, man. Like when I played football in college, we used to call them freshmen mistakes. You’re gonna make them young, dumb, freshman mistakes – no matter how many books you read, no matter how many Behind The Music‘s you watch [laughs], no matter how many sob stories you sit and listen to people of how they f***ed up. You’re gonna make those mistakes; you’re gonna mess up on something, and that’s what you learn from.

TCUS: Speaking of The Foreign Exchange, it’s a very different style of music from Little Brother. Was it important to you to make something totally different musically than what you had been doing with Little Brother?

Phonte: Yeah, ’cause otherwise, why even do it? If I was just gonna make a Little Brother record without Pooh and 9th, then why do it? With [The Foreign Exchange], it was very much a concerted effort. Things that I couldn’t get away with on the Little Brother album, I could do them within the context of an FE album.

TCUS: Your first album with Nicolay, Connected, was created without you having ever met each other. How long was it before you and Nicolay finally met in person?

Phonte: Me and Nic started that album in like ’02… we didn’t meet each other until 2004.

TCUS: Wow.

Phonte: Yeah [laughs]. When the album came out, that was when we met each other. Well, you know what? No, I’m lying. We met in like ’03, because that was when Little Brother came to the Netherlands for a show. I wanna say this is like late ’03, maybe early ’04, and we met there.

TCUS: In 2009, you were nominated for a Grammy award for your song “Daykeeper”, off Leave It All Behind. What was going through your head when you found out you got nominated?

Phonte: I didn’t believe it was real. I was asleep, and my wife at the time, she came and woke me up and was like “yo, y’all got nominated for a Grammy,” and I was like “okay, word up,” and I went back to sleep [laughs]. It wasn’t until I woke up later that night and saw my phone going off that I was like “ohh shit!” That was when it kinda hit me what had happened. It was an honour. I’m glad I had the chance to experience it; I went to the ceremony. I’m thankful for the experience, it was cool.

TCUS: I’ve read a lot of different interpretations of that song, “Daykeeper”, whether it’s a love song, an out of love song, a song about addiction, or depression. What does it mean to you?

Phonte: Well, it means a lot of things to me [laughs]. But that’s one of those songs where I just like to let people take whatever they will from it. Whatever it means to you is ultimately what matters. I don’t like telling people what a song is ‘about’… it kinda ruins it for them, so whatever the song means to the listener, that’s fine with me.

TCUS: This is a fan question, and it’s kind of a two-pronged question. What’s your creative process like when you write music, and is there one place in particular where you like to write most?

Phonte: Now that I have my own studio at home, my creative process now is a lot more bit by bit. Earlier, when I was working outside of my house in another studio, I’d have to go in and bang it out all that night. I don’t have that pressure anymore, so it gives me a little more perspective. I can go up, write a verse, walk away from it, come back the next day, do another verse, edit, come back, do some more… I can kinda work on it piece by piece, instead of having to just slave in 12 or 13 hour studio sessions. That wasn’t a healthy way to live, and my health paid the price for that in a lot of ways. Now that I’m at home, I kinda have more of a balance. I don’t feel like I gotta get it all done right now. I can do a little bit, go live life, come back and do a little more, and go live life again.

TCUS: !llmind spoke about how he used to produce for producers, until he realized producers aren’t regular consumers. You made the same comparison with rapping for rappers. Can you elaborate on this?

Phonte: Basically, with rapping for rappers, I just come back to what Chuck D said: “I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin.” A lot of people have asked me, “Phonte, when are you gonna come with another solo album?” And the only answer I can give them right now is that I just don’t know. I don’t know what’s gonna happen a year from now or two years from now, but right now with the way I feel, I just don’t got nothin’ to say on that front. I think a lot of listeners and a lot of fans just don’t understand what inspires you to create. For me, I always find that my best work comes when I really have something to say. I don’t just rap to be f***in’ rapping. And that’s what I mean by just rapping for rappers. “Yo son, I’m the illest on the mic,” and “wack emcees…” N***a, nobody f***ing cares about that shit, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs] Dude, I’m about to be 34 years old. I got kids, I got real life shit happening, in real time. I have to write real songs about me.

I ain’t singin’ about no f***in wack rappers, I don’t care! I ain’t singin’ about no wack rappers, because I don’t hear them. All the bullshit that cats complain about, I’m like “that’s your fault that you’re hearing bullshit!” It’s 2012, you ain’t gotta listen to the radio! You ain’t gotta watch BET or whatever. There’s plenty of options out there! So that’s what I mean when I say rapping for rappers. In my music, I try to walk that fine line between rapping for rappers, in a sense that if you’re a rapper, or you’re a person that really studies wordplay and stuff like that, you can see that I’m sayin’ some shit, and you can admire the literary techniques, but even if you miss every punchline, every play on words, every pun… even if you miss all of that, you can still understand the general gist and feel of what I’m saying. That’s what I mean by rapping for rappers, and what I think !llmind means by producing for producers. The average person does not care about how many emcees you kill, and how many “wack emcees,” and that “I’m bringing hip-hop back.” What the f*** does that [have] to do with their life? In my opinion, you gotta give them something that they can relate to on a basic level.

TCUS: Last year, you released your solo album, Charity Starts At Home. What was the inspiration behind that album?

Phonte: Just wanting to do something for myself, for the first time. Everything that I had done up until that point had kinda been for other groups, or other brands. That was just me wanting do something for myself, so that was the meaning of the title: for the first time, giving to me instead of giving to another band, or group, or whatever.

TCUS: Your mom made an appearance in your video for “The Life of Kings”, and she steals the show. Was that a surprise to you?

Phonte: No, that wasn’t a surprise. I mean, my mom, she had been wanting to be in a video forever, and I kept telling her “no.” But finally, we got to a place where [Evidence] really couldn’t make the shoot. So I called Ev, and was just like “yo man, I think my mom is gonna rap your part.” And he was like “dude, if you can get your mom to rap my part, that would be the most gangsta shit ever.”

TCUS: [Laughs]

Phonte: [Laughs] So he was real cool about it; he loved it. And it was dope. It was a good time, we had fun shooting that.

TCUS: This quote comes from your song “The Good Fight”: “Everybody prays for the day they see the light, but the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.” Can you talk about this?

Phonte: That’s just a very fatalistic view. You think you’ve caught your big break, or you think you’re finding your way out of the darkness, but it’s just something even worse that’s coming. That’s what that quote was about: when that shining light that you see is not what you thought it would be.

TCUS: Another line from that song, you say: “Fam in my ear all day and they yellin, ‘keep it real Te, and don’t ever sell out/ What the f*** is sellin out when ain’t nobody sellin?’” Can you elaborate?

Phonte: Yeah, that’s just kind of a play on words. On one hand, it’s very much on a practical, record company, industry level. People say “keep it real,” and “don’t sell out,” and it’s just like, well how do you sell out in 2012? Nobody’s selling. Literally. Ain’t nobody selling shit, you know what I’m saying? Other than the top five n****s, like Jay, Wayne, Kanye, Drake, whatever… But other than that, cat’s ain’t really selling shit like that. So it just meant that on one hand: how do you sell out, when literally, nobody is buying records? And then on another level, [it’s asking], what does it mean to sell out in 2012? There used to be a time where if you did a commercial, you were considered a sellout. If you did something for a corporation, you were considered a sellout. But now, in hip-hop, all these things are fair game. So in 2012 and beyond, what does it mean to ‘sell out’, when people’s value means less and less?

TCUS: In your song “Who Loves You More”, you rap about praying the ends justify the means, and having to choose between making a living or having a life. Can you elaborate on this?

“Cause most of my heroes had f***ed up lives/ Coked up kids and three or four wives/ Hoes in every city, enough side bitches for three or four tribes/ From Marvin to Basquiat, it comes with a caveat/ And that’s the gospel like three or four choirs.”

Phonte: That kinda goes into what I talked about earlier, with trying to find a work/life balance. You have to make a living. We gotta eat, we gotta pay our bills, we gotta make money, but in the midst of making a living, you also have to find a life. What I see happen to so many artists is that they get so caught up in chasing the money, chasing their career [and] trying to stay afloat, that their personal lives are in shambles. Just the references I made in that song, Marvin Gaye [and] Basquiat. Brilliant artists, but their personal lives were just really in f***ing shambles. And that happens to a lot of artists, and I think that is really the meaning of a starving artist. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re starving, or that you’re broke – it can mean that, because for a lot of people, it does mean that. But more so than that, it just means that if you’re a successful artist, something in your life is going to be starved. Something else is going to starve at the expense of your art, whether it be your personal relationships with your family, whether it be your romantic relationships, whether it be relationships with your kids, whether it be your marriage, whether it be your job… something is going to starve as a result of you pursuing your art, and every artist has to find that balance, if they can.

TCUS: Back in May, Ali Shaheed Muhammad tweeted about “Who Loves You More”, asking radio stations to play it. How did it feel getting that recognition from a legend like Ali Shaheed Muhammad?

Phonte: Just like Pete Rock situation, you just can’t believe [it]. I remember [being] on my way to a wrestling match in ninth grade, listening to Midnight Marauders, and just like, “man!” Just to see that come full circle, and to see him talking about my music, it’s something that you can’t script. You can’t write it, and that’s something that money can’t buy. I didn’t even know Ali was up on my shit, you know what I’m saying? Just for him to come out of the blue like that, and show that love, you can’t pay for that, man.

TCUS: Aside from getting props from him and Pete Rock, are there any other people you’ve met throughout your career that stick out to you, like “wow, I never thought I’d meet this person?”

Phonte: Well yeah, every person that I’m blessed to have a chance to work with. Everybody from ?uestlove and the Roots to Kendrick Lamar. I remember Kendrick Lamar opening for us on the last Little Brother dates that we did. And just to see where he’s taken it, man, I’m so proud of that dude, because I really saw him on the come up. Him, Jay Rock… I remember one of the TDE cats, they reached out to me to do hooks for the record when Jay was on Warner Brother. They never ended up using them, but they shouted me out. They’ve always shown love. Just to see cats like that, from legendary cats like the Roots and ?uest and all those cats, to cats like Kendrick Lamar. Just to see the the younger generation pay homage and show that they’ve been influenced what I’ve done, it’s really a blessing, man. I’m just thankful for it all.

TCUS: Speaking of Kendrick, you tweeted awhile ago that lyrically, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is the same breath of fresh air to this generation that Illmatic was to yours. Can you explain?

Phonte: From my generation, Illmatic came at a time when The Chronic was running shit. West Coast was really running shit, you know, Chronic, Doggystyle… and those were dope records, those were incredible albums, but Illmatic came, and it was just like “shit!” It was an album that you just had to listen to. You didn’t necessarily party to it, but you listened to it, and it was just like “damn! This dude is really saying some shit!” These visuals he’s painting, you know what I mean? I really feel like Kendrick’s album is the same thing for this generation. The generation of the future [laughs], you know, 2 Chainz and that. And that’s no diss to neither one of them brothers, 2 Chainz is my man. But in an era where stuff like that is running the radio, I think Kendrick’s album speaks to the younger generation in a way that a lot of that stuff doesn’t, on a personal level. Just in the same way that Chronic and Doggystyle, they hit you in the ass and make you want to move, Illmatic hit you in the heart. I think GKMC was the same way. I think it’s hitting a lot of kids in the heart, and really making them think about where they are in life, and what they want to do. That’s really tremendous. Any art that can inspire you to look within, that’s a tremendous accomplishment.

TCUS: Looking ahead, you announced a new Foreign Exchange album due next year, what can you tell us about it?

Phonte: Uhhhh nothing.

TCUS: [Laughs]

Phonte: It’ll be out next year, but that’s all I’m saying.

TCUS: One last question, this one comes from a fan. Will we ever get episode 21 of Gordon Gartrell Radio?

Phonte: Man, me and Brainchild talked about it today, and I’m trying to get it back in January. We’re trying to kick off the new year right. I know y’all miss it, shit, I miss it. So we’re gonna try to bring it back in January. Tell everybody, go hit up Brainchild on twitter @djbrainchild, and just @ him to death, send his mentions off the rails. Just go in.

TCUS: That’s all from me, is there anything else you’d like to say to the people out there?

Phonte: I just want to say thanks to everybody for always listening to the music and supporting what I do, and for riding with me throughout the years. It’s been an incredible journey, and I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve still got a lot more to do. Thank you for listening.

TCUS: Thanks very much for your time, I appreciate it, and all the best to you.

Phonte: For sure, brother, same to you. Have a safe one.

Catch Phonte performing live this Saturday, November 17th, at El Mocambo in Toronto. Details here. For more on Phonte, check out our video interview with him and 9th Wonder.