Jun 10, 2010 - 11:51 PM
When word got out earlier this year that Little Brother was breaking up, it was bittersweet. Fans would get a new album, Leftback, but at a cost: the album would be their last. Emerging from North Carolina in 2003, the then trio is credited for resurrecting rap with The Listening. On display were throwback beats and honest, witty, intelligent rhymes that earned them respect from backpackers and mainstreamers alike. While their name was meant to honor the Native Tongues crew as their younger siblings, it was clear from the start that Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder were a breed of their own.
In their seven-year career, Little Brother dropped four albums and a couple mixtapes, along with solo projects from Big Pooh and Phonte's Foreign Exchange collaborations with Dutch producer Nicolay. While 9th Wonder left the group in 2007, a break up between Phonte and Pooh was unexpected. In April, they dropped their final album. To commemorate the sad occasion, they toured select cities, but the vibe was far from mournful.
On May 28, they rocked their final show to a sold-out crowd at San Francisco’s The Indepdendent, with Getback and The Minstrel Show t-shirts peppered throughout the venue. The Bay Area played a significant role in Little Brother’s career. Oakland-based label ABB put out Little Brother’s first and third LPs, and their first national tour in 2003 was with Hieroglyphics. While it isn’t their hometown, the crowd showed so much love for them you’d think they were batting for the Giants.
Of course, before Little Brother steps on stage, we have to go through the usual hip-hop show formalities. DJ D-Sharp warms up the crowd by playing rap classics (OC’s “Time’s Up,” Dilla’s “Fuck the Police,” Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache”). It kinda bugs me out to hear a DJ scratch and beat juggle. Remember vinyl, kids? At the end of his set, he jumps from behind the tables and performs his single, “Definition of a Star” with Tony Vic. Before leaving, he makes a plea to support local music. Ironically, the crowd doesn’t seem to heed his words when opener Richie Cunning hits the stage.
I know we’re all here to see Little Brother, but chill, Richie Cunning is nice on the mic. One of the city’s best kept secrets, Richie Cunning spits sharp lines that ooze orange and black over dusty boom bap bangers. SF heads are notorious for their city pride, and Richie Cunning epitomizes that. He makes clever references like “the Zen Buddha of the N-Judah," raps about hopping trains and flips Journey samples. After a few songs, he senses the crowd’s apprehension and jokes, “You gotta get through me first, and I’m an uncooked appetizer.” The crowd might not have went nuts for him, but Domino and Dan the Automator give him props after his set, so if my co-sign ain’t enough, this should validate his skill.
At about 11:30, Little Brother step on stage. Like Fight Club, the rules at a Little Brother show are simple. “Rule #1: This is a muthafuckin’ party,” Phonte says. “Rule #2: This is a muthafuckin’ party.” If you haven’t seen them live, Phonte and Pooh are the size of linebackers. Together, they have an impenetrable stage presence, though Phonte is clearly more animated. They get “Curtain Call” out of the way early, so there’s no more reminders that this is the last time we’ll see them on stage together as Little Brother, and run down their classics. It’s all there—“The Yo-Yo,” “Whatever You Say,” “Slow It Down,” “Say it Again,” “Sirens,” “Step it Up,” “Life of the Party”—presented to the full house over a nearly two hour set.
They sign autographs while rhyming and crack jokes in between songs—Phonte’s voice is going out, and he knocks himself for sounding like Mo’nique in Precious. At one point, some drunk broad crowd surfs to get on stage, where she stumbles, trips over a speaker and falls. The look on Phonte’s face is priceless as he steps back and continues to rap, trying not to laugh his ass off. Later, they pay respect to Guru and freestyle over “DWYCK,” then sing the Diff’rent Strokes theme song.
Caught up in the excitement of a dope show, which is rare these days, I almost forget that this was the end of Little Brother. As they did their call-and-response with the crowd: “When I say ‘Little,’ y’all say ‘Brother.’ When I say ‘Ain’t no,’ y’all say ‘Other,” all I could think was, “Damn right.”
Zoneil Maharaj is not the father. He is, however, editor-in-chief of Oh Dang!
Jayne Liu is a freelance contributor to Oh Dang!