Little Brother's big `Show'

March 16, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The search for good soul food is a serious one.

When Thomas "Big Pooh" Jones and his partners Phonte Coleman and Pat "9th Wonder" Douthit - collectively known as the daring hip-hop trio Little Brother - play any city in America, they look for hole-in-the-wall joints that serve down-home food. Jones is calling from a tour stop in Detroit, where such spots are plentiful. He puts a reporter on hold to discuss his order with his road manager. The rapper can't decide if he wants fried catfish or fried chicken wings to go with the cabbage and mac and cheese. He finally settles on hot-sauced wings and returns to the phone.

"Sorry," says Jones, the group's only available spokesman. "Gotta get some grub, you know."

The food is a handy metaphor for the kind of hip-hop Little Brother produces: tasty, spicy and filling. The trio hails from North Carolina, where they met on the campus of North Carolina Central University about five years ago. And although Little Brother is a Southern hip-hop group, the threesome doesn't subscribe to current rap trends emanating below the Mason-Dixon line. In their music, you find no traces of rowdy, Atlanta-derived crunkness, no drowsy, Houston-based chopped-and-screwed stuff. "A lot of people think that Southern hip-hop is just one thing, crunk or whatever," Jones says. "But the South is much more diverse; there's more lyricism. What we do is just another portion. The South is so diverse, it's crazy."

In a sense, Little Brother, which plays Sonar Lounge on Saturday, is like the younger, unpolished Southern cousin of A Tribe Called Quest. Over full, gritty, sample-rich grooves, courtesy of Douthit, Jones and Coleman trade insightful, stingingly humorous rhymes mostly about interpersonal politics. And it's all accessible; the music exudes a down-to-earth charm. In their rhymes, Jones and Coleman aren't afraid to sharply criticize the culture they love.

The Minstrel Show, the group's latest release and its first to receive major-label distribution through Atlantic Records, is a concept album. Sort of. It's the follow-up to the group's solid 2003 debut, The Listening. Ambitious but flawed, The Minstrel Show aspires to be a dark critique of the gross materialism and lyrical inanity of today's rap and R&B.

"It's just something we came up with while we were thinking about the state of hip-hop and urban music," says Jones, 25. "You got a lot of people scared to be themselves. And there's no balance. We wanted to bring some balance."

Though the album is uneven, the concept - hip-hop as a modern-day minstrel show - is a bold one. The album is loosely structured around a low-budget variety show on a fictional network, UBN. The songs are interspersed with fairly funny skits, including one that parodies the hit R. Kelly and Ron Isley duets. "The album title threw a lot of people off," Jones says. "The record was going on with what we normally do, touching on topics that other rappers don't touch on, like relationships and absentee fathers."

The scattered lyrical topics and inconsequential skits keep The Minstrel Show from joining such cohesive, conceptual rap masterstrokes as Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) or De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (1989). Influenced by the early '90s Native Tongue Posse, Nas and EPMD, Little Brother definitely has the skills to deliver one. Here and there, The Minstrel Show is studded with gems: "The Becoming" brilliantly samples Rufus & Chaka Khan's 1975 classic, "Circles." "Hiding Place" features fiery rhymes by Elzhi of Slum Village. "Lovin' It" with Joe Scudda is the album's first single - a deep, creamy groove that folds in elements of the Stylistics' "One Night Affair."

"For the first album, we wrote everything together," Jones says. "For The Minstrel Show, we talked about the concept, then went off in our own little zones to write." The two rappers balance each other. "Me and Phonte are the ying and the yang," Jones says. "I'm more blunt and straightforward. I don't play around; I'm more edgy. Phonte is more of the wordsmith; he's the melodic side."

Underneath the smart rhymes and far-reaching concepts, the music is always funky, always soulful.

"It's something for everybody in our music," Jones says. "There's something for your grandmother, for your boss, for whoever. There's something you can grab hold of."

Check out Little Brother at Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20. For more information, call 410-327-8333 or visit sonarlounge.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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