It was move-in day at North Carolina Central University, an HBCU located in Durham, when Phonte saw 9th Wonder carrying around a Source magazine, the preeminent hip-hop publication of the 1990s, and asked him if he could check it out. The two started flipping through pages and noticed they shared similar tastes in the emcees that were featured. Later on in the year, Phonte would meet Big Pooh hanging out in the dorm after he spit a verse he recently wrote that Pooh thought was nice.
The year was 1998. The “Golden Age of Hip-Hop,” lasting between the years of 1988-1995, was three years in the past— though this reporter could make the argument that it lasted until at least 2001.
Regardless, incredible hip-hop was dropping left and right that year: DMX’s “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem” was released in early February, followed by his debut album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot in May and follow-up Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood in December. Jay-Z returned from his sophomore slump to release the megahit “Hard Knock Life” and Ms. Lauryn Hill left The Fugees to drop her only album to date, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, to critical acclaim.
The three students’ friendship would continue to grow. Phonte and Pooh would kick verses and hang out while 9th would flip classic soul songs of his childhood into boom-bap beats in the style of DJ Premier and other Golden Age producers. But it wasn’t until 2001 that the three recorded their first song together.
Recording at Missie Ann’s Studios in Raleigh, Phonte had just finished up a verse over a laid-back 9th Wonder beat in which he sampled “And I Love Her” by Bobby Womack and “Quiet Storm” by Mobb Deep. Another rapper, Median, was supposed to be featured but never showed.
Producer 9th Wonder explained how it went down in an interview with Complex in 2011: “So Pooh came in, and recorded the song, and we listened to the song like 18 times, and I looked at Phonte afterward and said, ‘Let’s try to be a group, man. Let’s see what it sounds like.’” And just like that, Little Brother was born.
They called that first song “Speed,” which would go on to be featured on the group’s first album The Listening, released 20 years ago on Feb. 25, 2003.
With the debut, Little Brother aimed to return hip-hop to its Golden Age form — that boom-bap, feel-good style of the mid-’90s when emcees were kicking rhymes for the hell of it and before the music industry saw they could make heaps of money from one hit song.
In fact, the group’s name is in reference to Golden Age, showing how much of an influence the era had on them. Phonte explained in an interview in 2003: “Tribe, De La, Public Enemy … were like our big brothers in the game so now we are the little brothers of that movement … carrying on the tradition of good music.”
You can hear those influences all over The Listening. Take stand-out track “So Fabulous,” for example; with the first verse, Phonte and Pooh trade bars and make references to Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operators,” and De La Soul’s “Stakes is High” over a 9th beat that samples Kool & the Gang.
On the third verse, the rappers interpolate songs and imitate the styles from four rap legends: Pooh does his best impersonation of Milk D from Audio Two and Slick Rick’s “Mona Lisa,” while Phonte takes on Doug E. Fresh and does an impeccable impersonation of Kool G Rap — lisp included. The song is likely to bring tears to any fan who’s got love for the founding fathers of hip-hop.
The album utilizes a hip-hop staple to tie it together: the radio concept (see classics such as Snoop’s Doggystyle, De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead, or Vince Staple’s FM for past examples). The station is called WJLR — Justus League Radio — a reference to the North Carolina hip-hop collective Justus League that Little Brother was a member of.
The group brought a slew of other NC emcees on The Listening for features or as part of the radio skits, including Cesar Comanche, Chaundon, Median, L.E.G.A.C.Y., Sean Boog and Edgar Allen Floe.
Other highlights of the album include “Whatever You Say,” in which Phonte and Pooh rhyme about chilling out and chasing tail unconcerned with trying to be wealthy, chart-topping rappers. “The Way You Do It” consists of a breezy 9th Wonder beat that samples “Find A Way” and “Sucka Ni**a” by A Tribe Called Quest. The emcees rap about how ill it is to perform a show and see people “mouthing your words and you ain’t even got a single out.”
Then “Away From Me” shows the rappers’ softer sides; Pooh raps about missing his brother after the two had a falling out and Phonte expresses the struggles of not being able to see his infant son due to long distance, hoping he will still recognize his father when they see each other again. It’s a touching, emotional song on an album that is for the most part light-hearted and comical.
But the real message the album is trying to convey comes from its title track. On “The Listening,” Phonte and Pooh lament about how most rappers only care about having a beat that knocks and writing bullshit rhymes that sound cool (Roll down your window and they ask what you playin’/ But don’t nobody care what you sayin’…). They long for those golden-age days where people actually listened to the lyrics.
The track’s hook says it all: “This is a message for our people chasing Benjamins/ With real rhymes and skills they believing in/ Keeping them bad tapes rolling like Michelins/ It don’t matter, cause ni**as ain’t listening…”
The rappers trade off rapping nonsensical bars in the third verse, testing that theory.
Twenty years later, that message still resonates — perhaps even more so. There is an entire subculture of hip-hop purists who don’t want anything to do with today’s rap game and only want to listen to the glory days, for better or worse.
Plenty of modern rappers have made albums trying to relive the sound — Joey Badass’ 1999, Blu & Exile’s Below the Heavens — but The Listening is arguably the only one that could be placed among those early classics as a true embodiment of the Golden Age of Hip-Hop.
So let’s pay homage to the North Carolina rap trio tha paid homage to the rappers who had so much influence on their upbringing and style — one that has inspired so many rappers to come after. In honor of this special anniversary, play the album, kick back and really listen.
Become a Nerve Member: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.