Posted by: Addison – Aug 23, 2012
In professional sports, the term “pro’s pro” is used to describe an athlete that other professional athletes look to as an example of their craft. Derek Jeter is a pro’s pro. Magic Johnson was a pro’s pro. In hip hop, that type of designation is presented a little differently. While Jeter and Johnson receive mainstream success with their rightful designation, in hip hop, some of the most noteworthy artist never receives that praise. This seems to be even more the situation in 2012, with so many different outlets and platforms for hip hop music. It presents a double-edged sword for the modern-day musician and even more so for the modern-day music fan.
However, one artist that you will not hear complain about the current state of play in hip hop is critically acclaimed rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer Phonte. “If you’re hearing bad music in 2012, it’s your fault, because you have options,” says Phonte, who came on the hip hop scene in 2003 with the release of Little Brother’s The Listening. Phonte’s career has included three studio albums with the groundbreaking North Carolina trio, a Grammy nomination with his group the Foreign Exchange, and now his first solo album, Charity Starts at Home. Throughout his career, he has entertained those in the know, with great music following a simple principle. “I just try to make classic material,” he says. “Material that cannot be dated.”
Phonte is a pro’s pro, receiving praise from legendary artist like Questlove and Pete Rock. While his music may not generate major spins on mainstream radio, he has gained a loyal and dedicated fan base that is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about his music. Phonte puts it best: “When I first starting doing this, I just wanted to go as far as I could go being me. No matter if I sold five records or 5000 records, however many records that I can sell without compromising myself and just being me, I’m cool.”
I was able to speak briefly with Phonte this week, in anticipation of his show here in Richmond this Saturday night (August 25), at the Canal Club in support of the 10th Annual Happily Natural Day.
August 25th is billed as “An Evening with Phonte.” What should people expect when they come out to support the show?
People can expect a good time. The few shows that I have done in Richmond have always been to a really appreciative crowd. Richmond has always shown me love. I want people to come out to have a good time and enjoy the music.
Tell me a little bit about your journey. I know some of the highlights, but how did you get to the place that you’re in now?
My professional career started in 2002 with the The Listening and Little Brother. We ultimately put out three official studio albums. I then moved on to Foreign Exchange with Nicolay. We got nominated for a Grammy in 2010 [in the category of Best Urban/Alternative Performance for the song “Daykeeper”. That led to my solo album, Charity Starts at Home, which was released last fall. That’s a very abridged version, but those are the highlights of my career.
You have said that Charity Starts at Home is really the first project that you felt you did totally for yourself. Explain to me the decision to put out a solo project.
Yes. Up until that point, everything that I had done and been for Little Brother or Foreign Exchange. They had been in service of a group. With my solo album, that was the first thing that was just me. My wake-up call to that is when I did a show in New York at BB Kings – me and 9th [Wonder] did a show and on the marquee it said, “Phonte and 9th Wonder.” That was the first time that I really saw my name in lights, I’d seen Little Brother in lights, I’d seen Foreign Exchange in lights but I’d never seen Phonte up there. That was a 'wow' moment. I felt like I was really out there doing it on my own.
Tell me about the timing of the solo record. Why was last year the right time?
It was just something that I felt needed to be done. Little Brother had come to an end. Me and Nicolay had finished all of our business with Authenticity. I felt like a solo album was the one challenge that I had not faced. It was the one thing that I had to cross off my bucket list. Now that I’ve done that, I have a good feeling, like, “OK, it’s done.” It’s funny because I have a lot of people asking me when the next solo album is coming out, and I really don’t know. I said a lot of shit on this album. I really don’t have much more to say on that front right now. But that is it, a solo album was the one challenge that I hadn’t done in hip hop, so…
I heard you describe the solo album process as going from writing short stories (with a group) to writing a novel. With Charity Starts at Home, do you feel you’ve said all you have to say?
I do. I feel like I’ve said all I need to say on the solo front for a while. Not to say I will never do it again – there is always a story to tell – but right now, I’m good and out of words. That’s just me; when I create, I always try to create from a place of need rather than want. I feel like I do my best work when I have something that I need to say. Otherwise, you’re just rapping for the sake of rapping, or singing for the sake of singing. I feel like if there is a message, I have to give that. If I don’t have that message, then I don’t say anything at all. That’s the way I’ve always been.
In my opinion, Charity Starts at Home sounds a little bit like a throwback for your sound. Did it feel that way to you?
There is a line on the album, “Don’t need a new style – being dope is always in fashion.” I don’t consider it a “throwback,” I just consider it classic material. It’s material that will sound good today, it will sound good five years from now, ten years from now. It will be something that can’t be dated. You know how you have certain items in your wardrobe that you always go back to – that are timeless. In everyone’s wardrobe, there is always going to be room for a black suit. Now, a throwback jersey - that may fade out. A Burberry jacket, that’s going to fade out. But a black suit is always going to be timeless. That’s how I think about music.
That seems like a trademark of your music. Has it always been a goal to make music that people will go back to?
I rarely go back to my records once I finish them. Once it’s done, I’ve listen to it so much that I’m a bit tired of it. I just want to get it to the people at that point. I appreciate people listening to it. That’s the hope, that people would want to play it over and over again, no matter how tired of it I get.
In regards to your career, you’ve had tons of critical success, do you think people should be more aware of the work you’ve done?
I don’t really think you can put a value on those types of things. As an artist, when you use terms like “should,” you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Also, you are coming from a place of entitlement. If you are not careful and don’t check that mentality – that can lead to you being very bitter and feeling like people owe you something. “Should” is not a word that I use in regards to my music. I’m just happy that I have an audience that allows me to support myself and take care of my family just by putting out what I love. When I first starting doing this, I just wanted to go as far as I could go being me, no matter if I sold five records or 5000 records. However many records that I can sell without compromising myself and just being me, I’m cool. I have a loyal fan base that supports me and gets what I’m doing. In terms of mainstream, if I make a song that breaks through – that’s great. I would accept that, but I really don’t need a million strangers in my life, dude.
You graduated from North Carolina Central. There are not a lot of college degrees in mainstream hip hop. How did your college degree help shape you as person?
College really helps you in a lot of ways. College helps you learn about time management. It teaches you how to multi-task. I majored in English, so from an artistic perspective, I approach writing songs like I did when I was writing papers. My degree helped me in that regard – learning how to organize my thoughts and get them out on paper. I had a professor that always told me that being a good writer was a sign of a being a good thinker, and good writing is a sign of clear thinking. Therefore, when you have writer’s block sometimes, it’s just because you don’t know what you want to say at that time. I carried those lessons from my educational background into my creative career.
Looking at the broad picture of current hip hop, where do you think the creativity is right now?
I think the creativity is definitely there in hip hop, you just have to look harder for it. Hip hop in 2012 is a buffet table that is 100 miles long. There is so much out there and you just have to find what tastes good to you and support that.
I do so many interviews where people just want me to bash the radio and mainstream, and all I can say is that I don’t hear it. It doesn’t come across my radar. If you are hearing bad music in 2012 it’s your own fault, because you have options. I support and buy the music I like. The music that I don’t like or doesn’t fit into my life, I just ignore it. It doesn’t affect me.
Finally, what can fans expect from you moving forward?
Right now, I’m writing songs from my man Zo. His album is coming next year and I’m working on that. Me and Nicolay [the other half of Foreign Exchange] are working to release Jean Jolly’s album. Jean is a singer that sings with us on tour. We are excited about that. And then after that, there will be a new Foreign Exchange album next year. That is it – I can’t complain.
Phonte will perform at the Canal Club on Saturday, August 25, in honor of the 10th Annual Happily Natural Day. Also performing will be Tamika Love Jones, Photosynthesizers, Nottz Raw, and Derek320. Advance tickets are avaialble at thecanalclub.com. For more information on Happily Natural Day, go to happilynaturalday.com.
Words By Marc Cheatham (thecheatsmovement.com)
Top Photo by Chris Carles