Not long after their white GMC van crossed the eastern border of Vermont in late February, the windows became snow globes. The rapper Chaundon, driving since the crew of five left Cambridge, Mass., at 6 that morning, continued north, toward an afternoon show in Burlington. He couldn't see much, but in a span of 10 minutes he spotted two wrecks along Interstate 89. Taking heed, he dropped his speed, moved to the left lane and tightened his grip.
"We started to spin, from the left lane to the right lane, and then we hit the railing. After we hit, I'm like, 'Y'all all right? Y'all all right?'" he remembers. He had yet to consider that the van now sat perpendicular to interstate traffic, stranded outside of a small Vermont town called Randolph.
In the passenger seat, the rapper Joe Scudda finally awoke. Jozeemo, another rapper sitting behind Chaundon, was awake and alert. Beside Jozeemo, the crew's longtime manager and career multitasker, Big Dho, slept, as did Rapper Big Pooh, a founding member of Little Brother, the Triangle's best-selling music group of the last decade. For a moment, everything was calm.
That's when Chaundon peered past Scudda through the passenger window. He knew they were going to die.
"His eyes got about this big," remembers Scudda, making silver dollar shapes with his index fingers and thumbs. "He let out the scariest, most horror-movie scream I've ever heard: 'Oh shit, a truck!' I look out of the window, and there's an 18-wheeler. The grill just keeps getting bigger."
They lived, of course; the same slick roads that caused their spin slowed the oncoming 18-wheeler. Even though the grain truck hit them squarely on the rear door, the five tour mates sustained only minor injuries. Dho still experiences mysterious pain in his right arm, and Pooh temporarily wore a neck brace. They did the show that night and flew home.
But bigger than any gig or insurance premium, those 10 seconds in Vermont cemented those in the van as more than friends or fellow artists. They became, on impact, family.
"Jozee's forever good," sighs Big Dho on a Friday afternoon. "That nigga saved my life. Forever good."
Jozeemo, the crew's newcomer, recognized that the truck would likely crush the door where Dho was leaning his head. A mammoth champion battle rapper whose career was delayed by two years in federal prison for gun and gang charges, Jozeemo reached across the aisle and pulled the much larger man toward his chest. When the truck hit, Dho's skull rammed into Jozeemo's face, causing his teeth to julienne his cheeks. Blood poured down his face and across his clothes. The man who'd sent him money in jail, however, was safe.
For the past several years, Dho has managed his artists with the slogan "Loyalty is Royalty." It's scrawled on white boards in recording studios, and he claims it's his next tattoo. That mantra was steeled by bitter experience. During the last six years, disloyalty has corroded his crew, turning an army of artists that included up-and-coming hip-hop favorites Little Brother, 9th Wonder, L.E.G.A.C.Y., The Away Team and Joe Scudda into whimpering, fractured cartels that have largely slipped from public favor.
Big Dho is an appropriate nickname for Mischa Burgess, a 35-year-old divorced father of three. He uses almost every inch between the bench and the table of a Chili's bar-side booth, and his forearms—as thick as the average man's thighs and covered with tattooed images, slogans and area codes—lean heavily against the tile. But it's not only his size that fits the handle. For the better part of the last decade, it appeared that his company, a sprawling record label and management group called Hall of Justus, might turn Dho into a hip-hop kingpin. He had negotiated a major-label deal for his flagship group, Little Brother, and he had more than a dozen artists lined up for spotlight turns should Little Brother succeed.
Dho's emotions aren't insignificant, either. He boasts an infectious laugh, the sort of quick-paced, wide-grinned chuckle that charges a room. When he talks about the aunt who helped raise him and who began losing her battle with cancer as he drove Little Brother through the mountains of Washington state in 2003, he seems one memory away from tears. But he's also an authoritative businessman. In a bellow meant to shake the frame, he'll tell you why you're wrong, how long you've been that way and what you can do to make it right.
When he talks about Little Brother co-founder Patrick "9th Wonder" Douthit, that's the persona he takes. 9th served as the trio's producer from 2001 to 2007. Until last year, Dho insists he tried to remain friends with the Grammy-winning beat maker, even if their business relationship was done. But after the wreck, 9th Wonder called only Joe Scudda—well, almost.
Just before midnight, 9th Wonder tweeted for the 57th and final time that Wednesday: "@rapperbigpooh, @bigdho, @jozeemo, @joescudda and @chaundon get better fellas ... come back to NC safe and sound."
Dho's face clinches: "He twittered a message? Get the fuck outta here. That's what really killed my relationship with him. It's nothing now. It ain't no anger. I'm hurt. I'm a grown man. I can admit that."
He looks down at his cheeseburger and up again. As though the toil of the past decade hangs like weights from the corners of his mouth, he frowns: "It's not what I thought it was gonna be, man. I never woulda thought that it would be this way."
Last week, Little Brother issued Leftback, the album they're calling their final one. Instead of throwing a traditional hometown concert, the band—officially, the duo of Thomas "Rapper Big Pooh" Jones and Phonte Coleman—rented Dolce, a roomy, fashionably appointed club just off Raleigh's dancing-and-drinking epicenter of Glenwood Avenue. The night's $20 cover was just that—a cover. No one performed, and attendees didn't get a signed copy of the record unless they bought it earlier in the day.
The anemic crowd of about 100 mostly local, very well-dressed fans mingled on the dance club's lower level, shaking hands and exchanging stories beneath the kinetic hip-hop mix of DJ Flash, Little Brother's longtime touring deejay. No one really danced downstairs, and upstairs there was even less movement. The band's two-dozen VIP guests lounged on white couches or against the walls, gazing downstairs, waiting for the customers to turn the night into a legitimate party. When Phonte and Pooh arrived after midnight, the scene remained largely the same—a swirl of daps, hugs and congratulations.
Less than five years ago, Little Brother seemed to be one hit single away from stardom. They were already hip-hop and Internet famous, having innovatively used online message boards to find fans and a record deal. Defiantly vintage, 9th Wonder's sample-heavy, steady-snare beats nodded heads, while the chemistry between Phonte and Pooh gave old-school hip-hop lovers a lyrical option to the crunk music of the moment. In 2003, the best that Lil Jon could do was tell us to get low. Phonte, however, landed one of rap's best bits of blue-collar empathy: "Another day to face, I'm share cropping in this paper chase/ Take a deep breath and clear my database/ Beltline got me rushin' like Baryshnikov/ Pushin' 80 miles per hour to this call center."
And in a genre that often considers the live show a nuisance or afterthought, Little Brother concerts were ecstatic marathons with special guests and smart banter, all led by two husky dudes who generally seemed to be having the time of their life.
"There was no A Tribe Called Quest present. There was no Pete Rock present. That type of vibe wasn't present in hip-hop, and here's a group that's making it fresh," remembers Chapel Hill rapper Kaze. He rapped with Phonte before Little Brother existed, and he was the first person to pay 9th Wonder for a beat. "Phonte and Pooh gave you that Tribe back and forth, like Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, and 9th was reminiscent of the Pete Rock and DJ Premier thing. It made you feel like, 'This is classic. This is hip-hop.'"
But that single and that conquest never happened. Released Sept. 13, 2005, the group's major-label debut, The Minstrel Show, tanked. It sold 18,000 copies in its first week and barely more than 100,000 copies overall. By comparison, 50 Cent's 2005 album, The Massacre, sold 4.8 million copies. While their rise had been sudden—within two years, Little Brother moved from a Triangle posse sleeping on couches in a small Durham home to a movement getting large blocks of ink in the country's biggest music magazines—their descent was slow and torturous.
First, Phonte and Pooh fell out of favor—and out of touch—with 9th Wonder. They parted ways in 2007, the same year they left their major-label home. And tonight, in this dance club, where a bottle of water costs $5, Pooh and Phonte will finally leave each other, at least as Little Brother. Friends have been lost, and differences have been discovered. The climax came a month earlier in a Twitter battle between Phonte and 9th Wonder. Writing about 9th Wonder's departure from the group, Phonte told his ex-bandmate to "tell your side of it or shut the fuck up." It was a Saturday afternoon's pathetic entertainment. What once looked like a possible tidal shift in hip-hop had devolved into self-parody.
Any attempt to explain why Little Brother is breaking up in 2010 starts to feel like J.B. Bury's History of the Later Roman Empire. The Irish historian dismissed several classic models of how the world's greatest superpower had collapsed, eventually concluding that there really was no easy answer, only several complications and contingencies that contributed to a steady, distended decline. At least as far as anyone cares to admit, there was no central Little Brother scandal—no sexual drama, no financial fight, no deep-seated animus. No one can even agree on who quit or who was asked to quit, let alone exactly why.
"I didn't leave Little Brother. I was asked to leave," 9th Wonder said last year. He refused to be interviewed for this story, saying that the media had exacerbated—and maybe even caused—the breakup. "I was told, 'You do 9th Wonder, and we do L.B.' It wasn't, 'What's up, fellas? I ain't with it no more.'"
In any event, Little Brother fell to a series of pragmatic and philosophical differences that seem to trouble all bands. 9th Wonder couldn't tour or record late at night, though his trademark beats were keys to the group's success. Phonte and Pooh could tour without him, but sometimes they weren't sure that he even cared. Situations were mishandled, and feelings were sometimes mismanaged. Mostly, though, it seems that three friends stopped communicating their ambitions. Every wound festered.
"Goals change," says Pooh. "Sometimes you can make your individual goals work for the benefit of the whole group. Sometimes you can't. But you have to let us know where you're at all times mentally, or that's when the disconnect happens."
Before he was called 9th Wonder, Douthit, who transferred from North Carolina Central to North Carolina State in 1995, linked groups of Durham and Raleigh hip-hop upstarts. Together, they formed the Justus League, an inclusive alliance of about two-dozen people who wanted to build a scene in their own backyard. They would host shows, throw battles and make records. In most cases, music was the strongest, if not the only bond between them.
"Pretty much, it was, 'This group of people perform in this dorm room, so that's going to be a crew.' There was no other thought put into it," remembers Cesar Comanche, who co-founded and named the Justus League in 1999 during a phone call with Douthit. "You were around people when you were putting on a show or recording. When your encounters are limited to those kinds of things, you don't know each other as people."
That's one of the reasons Little Brother was different. Fitting for its playfully fraternal name, Little Brother was, first and foremost, a trio of friends. Douthit and Jones were sports-obsessed cutups, while Coleman and Douthit were both North Carolinians from rural towns, addicted to music history and tradition. For the first 18 months of their friendship, Coleman didn't even know Douthit made music.
"When I first met 9th, I didn't even know he made beats. We listened to a lot of the same music. We were reading The Source together. It was, 'That's my man. P is a funny nigga,'" remembers Coleman. "The whole 9th Wonder thing? No, me and Patrick was cool. The whole Little Brother shit came later."
In hip-hop, a producer most often makes beats and submits them to artists or managers who listen and pick what they like. The beat maker and the musician negotiate a price, and the producer moves on. The band hires someone to record their raps and someone else to mix the parts—the vocals and the instrumental—together. It's a casual, case-by-case relationship.
Little Brother was one of the rare groups that claimed an in-house producer. 9th Wonder would craft the beats, and Phonte and Pooh would sort through them, picking the music that meshed with their ideas. Late at night, they'd all meet in Comanche's Raleigh studio or in a downtown Durham business office they called The Chopp Shop, making records until the wee hours of the morning. Ask anybody involved, and those sessions were the most fun they've ever had making music.
"The way Tay and Pooh used to write, they used to go in the car and listen to the beat. They'd come upstairs when they were finished and record," says Chaundon, smiling at the memory as he sits alone on a large couch in his Morrisville townhome. "We were college kids, so we're all sitting on the couch. The microphone is on the wall, and they're like, 'Shhh, be quiet, be quiet.' We're listening to the punch lines, trying to hold in the laughter. At the end of the day, we were just kids trying to make dope music."
Trouble is, a lot of people agreed they'd done exactly that. Their talents were suddenly in high demand. Little Brother needed to tour in support of The Listening and to expand its reputation. 9th Wonder joined them for a time, deejaying behind the emcees every night. In 2003, though, Jay-Z's representatives came calling for a 9th Wonder beat. He'd have to skip the next tour. Everyone in the Justus League says they agreed it was an incredible opportunity for the team. Dho would deejay. 9th Wonder would stay home.
But they never returned to the original formula, even when it was time to begin making their second album—their debut for Atlantic Records, their first shot at legitimate fame. 9th Wonder engineered a handful of the tracks and told the group he was done with their trademark late-night sessions. Christopher "Khrysis" Tyson, who'd risen through the Justus League ranks to become their second in-house producer and engineer, would record the rest of the album. 9th Wonder needed to be at home with his family.
Phonte, who wasn't married then but lived with his girlfriend and child, understood. Growing up requires adjustments, he says, and that was a grown-man decision he could accept. But 9th's signature sound started showing up on dozens of records each year. Phonte and Pooh figured that, by skipping Little Brother's sessions and tours, he had plenty of time for collaborations.
"For me, it was, 'Why do we have to keep asking a group member for their participation in a group project?' This is a severe problem," says Pooh. "When you're in a group, everybody has to be willing to sacrifice the same things. When you're not willing to sacrifice the things the other two are sacrificing, the other two are going to look at you funny."
For a time, Little Brother became a quartet of trios, something Pooh calls a charade: On tour, it was Pooh, Phonte and DJ Flash, a Raleigh friend Dho pulled away from a day job and a family. In business meetings, it was Pooh, Phonte and Dho. In the studio, it was Phonte, Pooh and Khrysis. But in the press and in each album's liner notes, it remained Pooh, Phonte and 9th Wonder. That was the version of Little Brother Atlantic Records wanted to sell, and that became the central conflict—work given versus recognition received.
For instance, the music video for "Lovin' It," the lead single from The Minstrel Show, opens with 9th Wonder and DJ Flash shaking hands and cracking the lid on an old-fashioned turntable. Though the video is ultimately just a glorified take on a live show, Flash—who scratched records for Little Brother nightly—disappears after five seconds. 9th Wonder backs the group by himself.
And months before The Minstrel Show was released, Atlantic Records flew 9th Wonder to London for one day to do press behind the record and, ostensibly, to perform with Little Brother for a night. Pooh and Phonte wouldn't have it. The second he climbed onstage they knew audiences from Omaha to Belfast would start demanding the original trio. They banned him from the show.
"That's just kind of a recurring thing that we had with him—'Dude, you're either in this shit all the way, or it's nothing,'" says Phonte. "If you're going to tour, you got to tour. I don't have that luxury. Pooh don't have that luxury. It was nothing that was meant to hurt his feelings. It was just a business decision."
The remnants of Little Brother and artists who still work with 9th Wonder, like Kaze and Khrysis, agree that this was the crux of the problem: 9th Wonder was never again in all the way. He would stop in only for The Minstrel Show sessions that included famous guests. He couldn't be at his own group's late-night sessions, but when hip-hop's biggest names came calling, he would meet them on their own terms. And when it came time to work on the band's third LP, 2007's Getback, Pooh and Phonte began to expect that he was sending them his dump-bin beats—stuff that he'd had sitting around for years, picked over by everyone else. Pooh insists he'd heard all the material before.
So Little Brother put one 9th Wonder beat on Getback. The three college friends parted ways via conference call during January of 2007. Aside from a run-in at an airport and a few short conversations through online instant messages, they haven't spoken since.
Last summer, Big Dho sent all three an e-mail, demanding friendship.
"I said, 'Fuck a 9th Wonder. Fuck a Rapper Big Pooh. Fuck a Dho. Fuck a Tay or a Tigallo. I'm talking to Patrick. I'm talking to Thomas. I'm talking to Phonte. This is Mischa talking to you. I want to get back to that. Fuck music,'" says Dho. "9th just responded to me and said that it was over—the friendship, everything. That shit hurt."
If you can call it that, the album-release party at Dolce Tuesday night is finally winding down. Rapper Big Pooh and Phonte have said hello and now goodbye to most everyone in attendance. Phonte spots Pooh in the thin crowd and tells him he's ready to head to the car. Beneath a light drizzle, a group of fans loading into a Ford Explorer asks for autographs and for a few words on a video camera. Pooh and Phonte oblige and lean in close to one another.
"Them two is legends right there," says one zealot, still waiting outside the car. He points to Phonte and Pooh, their backs turned. "Legends."
They walk the block, cutting jokes about an upcoming show in California and a video they've just released for Leftback's first single, "Curtain Call." Phonte unlocks his car and they climb in.
Back in 2005, on The Minstrel Show's soulful "Slow It Down," Phonte rapped, "I'll scoop you up in my Porsche—sike/ You know I got a Nissan/ That I'm still paying for, still got a lease on." That rhyme was for his big-money major-label debut, the record people thought might make Little Brother rich. Nearly five years later, he's still got a Nissan, now with a baby seat and an array of food crumbs sprinkled across the back seat. He mutes NPR, plugs his iPod into an adapter and pushes play on "This Could Be the Night," a new track he's making with Detroit-based producer Zo!
It's a fun number about drinking and dancing, and Phonte and Pooh nod along hard to the beat. Phonte quietly sings a bit of Darien Brockington's verse, and Pooh smiles slightly when it's time for his guest spot. His recent material has been edgy, tough-guy stuff, but here he plays the part of master entertainer: "Let your hair down/ Let's go!"
While they were still finishing Leftback, Pooh stopped by Phonte's home studio in Raleigh to record this verse. It seems carefree, focused entirely on celebration. For the past several years, that's what Little Brother lacked. On Getback, those once joyful late-night sessions began to turn into suicide missions, pushing past dawn. As Khrysis puts it, Little Brother had to prove they could succeed without 9th Wonder and without a major label. It became work.
"The night we finished the album The Listening, I drove back to Durham, and I sat in my car listening to it until the sun came up. I knew that my life was about to change," says Phonte, sitting in the Nissan alone now, his smile fading. "Once you start seeing some success, it does change you. It's just like any other kind of business: The more you learn about the industry, it can really take your love for it away and beat your spirit out."
That's the silver lining of this Little Brother breakup, of Pooh and Phonte no longer calling themselves by that name. After a decade of making raps, they decided they wanted to depart as friends rather than to force their mounting creative and commercial differences into a compromise—and end up hating each other for it.
Phonte had figured out how to make a comfortable life for himself and his family with his own Grammy-nominated, cyber-soul project, The Foreign Exchange, and by working with artists on his new label, +FE Music. He's mostly singing now, while Pooh's rap has only grown more menacing. Pooh's still hoping that his verses can translate to some larger success.
"We're still friends. You just saw us kicking it, but from that perspective, I knew that if we kept trying to make it work as a business, we were going to ruin our friendship," says Phonte. "I'd already been through that with 9th, and it wasn't worth me losing another friend."
Meanwhile, 9th Wonder has moved from being a mere producer to, these days, being something of an enterprise. He leads the True School Corporation, a multimedia company devoted to celebrating and preserving hip-hop's cultural legacy, and he now teaches at Duke University after an extended stay at the helm of N.C. Central's Hip-Hop Initiative. Red Bull is one of his corporate sponsors, and in just the past two years he's supplied beats to Ludacris, Erykah Badu, Nas & Damian Marley, Wale, David Banner and Sadat X. Two weeks ago, he released his fourth full-length collaboration with California underground favorite Murs.
He owns two record labels, too, Jamla and The Academy. They're stocked largely with young, local talent. Each month, the labels throw a showcase at a local club. 9th Wonder spins records, and each act—whether the firebrand female emcee Rapsody, the Justus League veteran Edgar Allen Floe or the preppy outfit Actual Proof—gets three songs.
Last month at The Brewery in Raleigh, the showcase had the feeling of an organization looking for energy but not quite finding it. The rappers constantly pleaded with the crowd of about 60 to get its hands up, to chant the hooks or to dance. 9th Wonder remains hopeful.
"I understand the division that was created. It was like, first the Fat Boys break up, and now this? Now what?" 9th Wonder said last year, admitting that he felt a certain responsibility to build a new hip-hop scene in the Triangle, to restore the same energy that served as Little Brother's all-important cradle. "It kind of died when we went our separate ways, but it can come back. As long as we stay here and keep representing this area and this state, it can happen."
But sitting in his house set back in a North Raleigh subdivision on a Sunday afternoon, DJ Flash argues it could have already happened—and that it probably won't now. Flash is a plainspoken Midwesterner. He confesses to a short temper, but he's mostly hilarious, with a disarming V-shaped gap between his front teeth. A father of two, he compares this situation to a bunch of bickering children who can't see past their priorities to be collaborators, let alone pals. Their division, he thinks, prevents a lot of talented people from working with a whole lot of other talented people.
He remains friends with all of them, at least. Pooh and Phonte were at his house for a barbecue last week, and 9th Wonder will be here in a few hours. He's often considered inviting them over the same week.
"All of them are like my brothers. I'm cool with everybody," he says. "But what if we were all together? That's what really burns me up. What if both camps were together? We would have a little empire right now. But, man, everybody just really fucked it all up."
Correction (April 29, 2010): Mischa "Big Dho" Burgess has three children.