When Phonte Coleman, one of two emcees in Durham hip-hop act Little Brother, opens the front door of his DJ's home in North Raleigh, he's visibly tired and stressed. As he shuffles his bare feet across a hardwood floor, he struggles to hold his eyes open. In just 11 hours, he'll fly to Hawaii with DJ Flash and Rapper Big Pooh for a secret MySpace-sponsored show. He has family in town, and he's been running errands and recording all day in preparation for the trip.
But 15 minutes later, Coleman's eyes are wide open. He's laughing, singing and clapping to the sounds of his memories: Boyz II Men, Usher, Jodeci and other essential '90s sex jams. Standing alongside Flash in a small bedroom converted into a DJ studio, lined from ceiling to floor and wall to wall with battered vinyl singles and hip-hop posters, Coleman displays the same charisma when talking about music that he does in making his own music. In fact, after our mix of 12 songs was done, he wanted to hear more, despite the settling dusk outside and his encroaching flight time. He downloaded R. Kelly's "The Zoo"—"I'm your sexasaurus, baby"—and kept singing and laughing.
PHONTE COLEMAN: Oh, Jesus. [Laughs.] Well, I saw 'em live once. I was in seventh grade ... the Greensboro Coliseum. It was the tour with Boyz II Men, Jodeci and Hammer as the headliner. They did a good job. ... At the time, when this came out, I really did like the song, but now—I find with a lot of Babyface stuff—the syrup is just a little too thick. They're some good memories to this. This wasn't even the coldest song on the album, though. I wasn't even fucking with this one. The shit was "50 Candles." That was the ballad on that album. I used to get it in doing phone-bone off of "50 Candles." But this shit here, they played it on the radio too much. I used to hear it a million times, and I was just like, "If y'all never play this shit again, it'll be too soon."
DJ FLASH: High school, baby.
PC: Yeah, notice how old he is? He was in high school, and I was still in middle school. [Laughs.]
DJ: I was a sophomore in high school. Like he said, phone-boning, all that good stuff.
PC: God damn.
DJ: I still rock this in the car!
PC: This was my freshman year at Central, and in the dorms, they gave us cable. We got cable that year, so we used to get Midnight Love on B.E.T. So you can take your cakin' to new levels: You used to cake on the phone and listen to music. Now you can cake and watch videos with your girl. ... This was a solid joint, another phone-bone classic.
DJ: I had just gotten to North Carolina when this came out, when I met who I'm with now, y'know what I'm saying? [Laughs.] I was going back and forth, and this is one of my very special songs.
PC: This is when R&B was kind of getting fucked up, though. This was when like "Splackavellie" and all that shit started coming out. "It's like Romeo and Juliet/ Hot sex on the platter just to make you sweat." ... '97-'98, R&B was just in a funny place. But this was one of the ones that was like a well-written song.
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