If U Black Niggas Network, the satirical television station at the center of the 2005 Atlantic Records debut by Durham's Little Brother, had been a real cable network, the tone of the broadcast would have been much different on September 13, 2005, the day The Minstrel Show arrived in stores. It would have been as grim as the times required.
Only two weeks had passed since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, unleashing a catastrophe of death and destruction on so much of the area, especially in New Orleans. When Little Brother released The Minstrel Show, areas of the city remained severely waterlogged. The Times-Picayune still ran headlines such as "Bodies lie for days awaiting retrieval." Many of those were black bodies, of course, parochial descendants of the enslaved Africans who once danced and chanted their African rhythms in and around the Congo Square of New Orleans, ritualizing the black American music that eventually fueled minstrel shows themselves. That's what UBN might have mentioned.
There was no way for Little Brother's three members—emcees Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder—to foresee any of this, to calculate the damage Katrina would bring to New Orleans or to imagine how it would further expose the country's devilish mistreatment of black Americans.
Still, The Minstrel Show was timely. Consider its whimsical cover art: the delightful smiling black faces of three hip-hop Sambos, fresh off a big-money record deal with Atlantic. An Atlantic Ocean hurricane had washed away much of a city with a strong black core and population, produced in large part by the same transatlantic slave trade that delivered enslaved Africans and their music to that city, music directly linked to the hip-hop Little Brother now made. The circumstances were coincidental and tragic.
September 13th should have been a joyful day of programming for the founders of the UBN Network, at least. Little Brother had finally released the long-awaited follow-up to their critically acclaimed, Questlove-approved breakout The Listening, and real stardom seemed but a single away. There was little for Little Brother to be smiling about, however, as life with a big label wasn't as easy as it might have seemed.
"When we got the deal at Atlantic," 9th Wonder explained last year on the podcast The Combat Jack Show, "we used to sit at the boardroom table with Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald and they used to say, 'Well, we're going to do this with you guys.' We said, 'No. We're basically not doing anything y'all say. You gave us the money. You signed us for this. We're going to do what we want to do.'"
So Little Brother turned in The Minstrel Show that we can still hear today. They dictated the singles and held the attitude that they would do whatever they desired. When they walked back into the Atlantic offices on the album's release date, however, they met little-to-no fanfare.
"No balloons, no cake, none of that," 9th said. "Is that what this major-label shit feels like? We're supposed to have a party."
It would indeed be Little Brother's last album with Atlantic Records and with 9th Wonder. Little Brother would issue two more records, but the moment essentially marked the beginning of the end for North Carolina's last great wave of hip-hop. It was the Triangle's final hip-hop flirtation with major labels, at least until King Mez introduced Dr. Dre's Compton last month. What did they expect?
Part of Atlantic's reluctance to keep Little Brother around likely had a lot to do with the record's actual content. The Minstrel Show's agitprop cover succinctly told the story of the black musician's experience in America, from its Congo Square jazz beginnings to white performers in blackface to black musicians in blackface performing minstrel music, all the way up to the buffoonery of some modern hip-hop. But instead of creating an album that wholly addressed this cycle of exploitation, Little Brother took the subliminal route. They scattered a few skits ("Cheatin'," "5th & Fashion," "Diary of a Mad Black Daddy") across 9th Wonder's signature boom-bap magic. Explicitly rallying against the airwaves' coon du jour (Ying Yang Twinz, Chingy, D4L) would cause separatism in hip-hop. But exposing a record label for its weak character might unite everyone.
The joke was on Atlantic Records, then, not Little Brother's people.
"When I hang with them/they ask me if The Minstrel Show means I'm ashamed of them/Well, I can't say that I'm proud/but all the same/can't say I'm allowed to judge," Phonte offered by way of reconciliation on the album's follow-up. "I'm just glad to see you/'cuz truth be told/If my records never sold and I wasn't raised as bold, nigga, I would probably be you."
Last month, on the lawn of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the university treated its incoming freshman to a free "Hip-Hop in the Gardens" concert featuring 9th Wonder, Phonte and the beatmaker's rapping protégé, Rapsody. The estranged third member, Rapper Big Pooh, was not included; he and Phonte persevered for a little while, but they issued their last joint gasp in 2010. Having 9th Wonder and Phonte together on stage in Durham for a full rap show, then, would be the closest thing the area had seen to a Little Brother reunion in years. I was one of the only non-Duke students in attendance.
I made every effort to stand as far behind the crowd as I could, to not let my own hip-hop nostalgia intrude on the new students' orientation and indoctrination with two-thirds of North Carolina's greatest hip-hop group. They were transfixed by Phonte, their new hip-hop advisor. He wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with the commandment "Listen to Gangstarr," an early college homework assignment that hopefully caused less consternation than Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.
He performed "Dance in the Reign." His silly soul alter ego, Percy Miracles, made a short vocal cameo. He covered Migos' "Fight Night." He knocked out his "Lovin' It" verse. He surprised himself by remembering all of the lyrics to his verse from the Drake song "Think Good Thoughts." He made an obscure (to 18-year-olds, anyway) Michael McDonald reference. He launched a bunch of n-bombs. The Duke students ate out of his black hands.
From my old-man perch, I recalled a scene from Paul Beatty's satirical novel The Sellout, where Hominy breaks into an impromptu vaudeville sketch. "The kids couldn't tell whether he was joking or just ranting, but they laughed anyway, each finding something funny in his expressions, his inflections, the cognitive dissonance in hearing the word 'nigger' coming from the mouth of a man as old as the slur itself," Beatty writes. "Most of them had never seen his work. They just knew he was a star. That's the beauty of minstrelsy—it's timelessness." That was also the beauty of Little Brother's The Minstrel Show, alongside its unmitigated blackness and its implicit industry rebellion, all led by the master performer and rhetorician, Phontigallo.
By the time I snapped out of my literary flashback, 9th Wonder had cut off the music. But Phonte remained on stage, charming the crowd and encouraging each student to find him on Instagram.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Still not listening"