Issue #42: Getback by Little Brother

November 14, 2016

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Getback by Little Brother
Released On October 23, 2007
Released By ABB Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford

It’s really strange to me that most people have never heard of, or never will hear of, the single most important rap group on the planet, post-2000. It’s fitting that after A Tribe Called Quest’s triumphant return, we also examine the best album from their little brothers – Little Brother’s Getback. You’re probably asking, “Why is this group I’ve never heard of so important?” Well, not that long ago, there was a time when the internet was only used for a small handful of things — free music, porn and… well, that was pretty much it. Society at large, especially the music industry, hadn’t yet realized the capabilities of the web and treated it as a playground for “extra stuff.” For ancillary benefits like contests, or additional photos of your favorite artists that didn’t make the album’s liner notes. Around the same time (2000-ish), Little Brother (proclaiming themselves as the “little brothers” of golden-era greats like Tribe, Gangstarr, De La Soul, et cetera) began posting their freshly recorded demos to underground hip hop message boards and early file sharing sites like Sound Click. They quickly caught the ears of industry heavyweights and gatekeepers like Questlove and Pete Rock. Word spread like a grease fire that the next big thing had arrived, and they were everything we’d hoped for. I’ll spare you the details, but the group parlayed their organic internet buzz into an indie deal, and then to a major label deal in just a couple years. The point is, they were the first. Little Brother laid the blueprint for how rap artists would release music, build a fan base, and garner attention from labels for the next decade-plus. Their influence is undeniable. Just ask the giants of today like Drake (citing Phonte as “one of the best rappers of all time”), Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole, all of whom list Little Brother as a direct influence and inspiration. Little Brother are the Tribe Called Quest of the internet era.

Louis C.K. says it takes 25 years to make a standup comedian. It’s an amalgamation of time, pressure, refinement of skill and, most importantly, life experience. For me, this is what makes Getback the best Little Brother album. Most fans will point to their debut The Listening as the obvious choice. Others will hail their rebellious major label debut The Minstrel Show. Both are incredible. Both were ground-breaking. Both were prequels to Getback. After producer 9th Wonder’s very public, very dramatic exit from the group after The Minstrel Show, and the group subsequently being dropped from Atlantic, Phonte and Big Pooh had, to put it mildly, been through some shit. They started from nothing, made it to the mountaintop, and were unceremoniously thrown back down to the bottom before planting their flag at the summit. They were told by B.E.T. that their lead single was “too Intelligent” for the network’s ring-tone hungry audience. Without their super-producer, they were finished. Nobody gave them a chance. And so we have Getback.

Phonte and Pooh didn’t abandon their beloved “every-man” aesthetic; they added new dimensions to it: frustration, anger, contempt and vengeance. The album’s opener “Sirens” is a prophetic “Wake Up” call to the next generation, both socially and musically — “I refuse to be hip hop’s pallbearer / had to tell my son, cut that bullshit off / them ain’t videos ni__a, that’s psychological warfare / 20 different variations of the same face / designed to keep your broke ass in the same place.” And sure enough, ten years later, trap music and prescription cough syrup has a stranglehold on everything. “Can’t Win For Losing” is nothing short of a scathing, introspective manifesto summarizing the group’s motivation and journey from underground sweethearts to major label outcasts. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The rest of the record, aside from a horrendous Lil’ Wayne guest verse on “Breakin’ My Heart,” is bursting with the rich concepts and self-deprecating humor that made the group so beloved in the first place:

Good Clothes:” What rapper do you know that gives an honest assessment of their struggle to maintain a fashionable wardrobe? Shit, one of the hallmarks of hip hop is to brag about how “fly” you are at all times, not the opposite.

After The Party:” What rapper do you know that makes a song about being rejected by women? You would think that rappers are required by law to boast about how successful they are with the opposite sex.

Two-Step Blues:” What rapper do you know that makes a song about being tired of the club, and instead hangs out with the “old folks” at the V.F.W. or the Elk’s Lodge? Rappers aren’t supposed to leave their natural habitat: the club.

Step It Up:” What rapper do you know that makes a song about reaching a point in a man’s life where dating requires a certain level of maturity and sophistication because “these hoes ain’t impressed by Applebees no more?” Rappers don’t need help with the ladies. Ever.

And then there’s the production. Yes, 9th Wonder is a great producer/beat maker, and we all miss him as an equal third of the group, but Little Brother made damn sure that Getback would feature the best collection of beats they’d ever rapped on. Getback knocks harder than any other Little Brother album, thanks to an all-star lineup including Illmind, Nottz, Hi-Tek, and Denaun Porter. This was of course to quell fans’ concerns about 9th Wonder’s absence, but I’d also like to think it was to troll 9th, though I’m sure the group would never admit it. One of the ways I’ve always judged an album as a classic is asking “Can you play it all the way through without skipping a track (save maybe one misstep)?” I’ve been playing Getback all the way through, minus “Breakin’ My Heart,” for ten years straight. I can’t say that for any of their other albums. Now, we just need that Little Brother reunion album and tour.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Rap’s little brothers carrying on the tradition of good music.

I’ve recently been working on a theory of hip-hop as both an antidepressant and anxiety reliever. It helps me feel powerful in weak moments, confident when I’m a little shook, and inspires me to put foot to pavement and start fighting. The past week has seen a bounty of black superhero music. I needed to feel caped up this weekend, more than I have in a very long time. From the vicious new Run The Jewels single, to Common’s tear-jerking Black America Again, to the triumphant return (and exit) of A Tribe Called Quest, Getback was a welcome weapon to add to that musical arsenal. If Common and ATCQ have an unattainable mythical vibe, there’s something workmanlike to Little Brother. It’s relatable, everyman rap. It goes down real easy, is highly quotable and has a sort of gentle, universal humor to it. I was thinking that a couple of these songs are the kinda joints that I’d play on my phone, after having a couple beers with someone from across the aisle, hoping to elicit a subtle head nods and a good natured “that’s funny right there.” And I’d probably start with the mini-masterpiece that is “Breakin’ My Heart.” I wish 9th Wonder had still been a major part of the group at this point –my eyes light up whenever I see that he’s behind the boards on a track — but he makes the most of his one joint here, bringing the classic boom baps and chirped up soul samples he perfected with Yeezy. Plus we get a verse from Wayne (smh) at the height of his Da Drought 3 prowess. Y’all, talk music this week with someone you don’t normally agree with, listen to something you never normally would. There are certain truths that are right and wrong in this world, but there’s still a ton to be gained by understanding other people’s perspective. Art is a pretty painless way to give that a try.

Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist

I know who Little Brother are — friends of mine started talking about them a whole lot in the mid-2000s, and I knew they’d carried forward the lyrical complexity and rich soul/jazz-inflected production style that had marked my favorite hip hop artists throughout the ’90s. In particular, people talked about the genius of the group’s producer, 9th Wonder, who’d caught some ears with his high-profile work for Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, and more. However, despite taking note of the frequent praise I heard from fellow hip hop fans, I never really delved into Little Brother too deeply. Now, getting an album of theirs through Off Your Radar seems to provide the perfect opportunity. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, as limited research indicates that 9th Wonder was in the midst of leaving the group during the creation of Getback. Ultimately, he only produced one song on this album, but all of the behind-the-scenes tension that must have been part of Getback‘s creation is totally belied by the smooth, easily flowing final product. This album has quite a mellow vibe overall, and while the group’s MCs, Phonte and Big Pooh, deal with serious subjects on several of these tracks — notably powerful opener “Sirens” — the sonic feel created here is much more laid-back than you might expect from the politically aware lyrics that show up from time to time. Bucking the then-current hip hop trend toward clicking, minimalist post-Neptunes beats, this album is full of mellifluous soul samples and knocking funk beats that carry forward the more layered, multi-faceted sounds of the best late ’90s productions (think DJ Premier, or RZA). With Phonte and Big Pooh talking quite a bit about everyday struggles anyone who’s ever worried about how they were gonna make ends meet will totally understand, the result is a simultaneously soothing and relatable listen, one that will provide much-needed relaxation after a long day at work. God knows I’ve needed that kind of thing for a while now.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Chuck D. called hip hop the “CNN of black America,” but Little Brother bring more than just the news. Turn the channel and you get fashion advice (“Good Clothes“), relationship troubles (“Breakin’ My Heart“), and the aspirations of youth (“Dreams“). On Getback, you also get the sound of those dreams shattering as this classic album was somehow denied that status in the wider world. Commercial failure adds a layer of melancholy to the whole affair, as you listen to one tight-as-hell beat after another, with main man Phonte delivering line after flowing line with intelligence, humor… and usually both at once. He has a distinctive nasal voice that perfectly bridges the urban and the country, north and south, reminding me a little of Pusha T in his younger days. Little Brother are North Carolina people, after all, which is not so far from Virginia. Another reason my mind went to Clipse is that Getback seems a little out of time — in fact, it might not have sounded out of place in the ’90s. The cover photo even echoes Mobb Deep’s classic Infamous debut. Nothing wrong with homage, though, especially when you pay tribute to the best. But at this late date Getback just sounds like straight gold, heartfelt and funky, and my only problem with it is the freaking nine years it took me to hear it. If you’re unfamiliar as well, that clock is ticking for you starting… now.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

After being denied coverage for being “too intelligent,” Little Brother double-down here with plenty of genre-bending themes and topics.

Here’s the thing: A lot of times, rap albums are too long. Like, I get it, you have a lot to say and you got a lot of cool beats and have a lot of cool collaborations and stuff. And then you gotta do the skits. So it’s totally understandable to have an album stretch out to 18 or 19 tracks. This album doesn’t do that and even if it wasn’t an incredibly listenable album, I would love it for that. There are 11 songs and the skits aren’t their own separate tracks. Little Brother already have me on their side because of what the album doesn’t do, and then we get into what it does do. In many ways, it reminds me of all of the things I love about Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout: It has clever, thoughtful lyrics about the highs and lows of their life experiences, delivered with humor and eloquence. There are several great points made. My favorite, I think is from the first track, “Sirens:” “They tryin to blame this rap shit for all of our ills / Like I can stick you up with a mic / Like I can rape you with a verse or use a verb as a knife / Like before Kool Herc, everything was alright / Like y’all wasn’t callin’ black women hoes befo’ ‘Rappers Delight‘.” It’s a fantastic album that I will be listening to for a long time to come. It has me excited to begin exploring the rest of Little Brother’s discography. I just love when an album does that.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

It’s been a rough week, and to be honest, I was looking for a fight song on Getback to help me sort out some of my thoughts. Instead, what I found was a much needed hopeful message in most of these tracks. Little Brother was going through some shit around the time of this record, but they found ways expressed their struggles with a sense of humor. While this serves as only a temporary distraction for me, it’s a good one. Everything will eventually be alright again but for now we gotta get up.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

Little Brother… is harmony, something that’s very much needed today.

Due to very obvious circumstances, I have been out of it this week, searching for comfort in Chance’s positivity and power pop chords. We all grieve differently, and I recharge and reflect through music. I waited a little too long to listen to this week’s selection, Little Brother’s Getback, because I was so wrapped up in my own emotions and wanting to only hear what I had experienced before. I was enjoying the record until a line from “Breakin’ My Heart” stood out to me: “We’re better together than further apart.” It’s like Phonte knew what I was going through, even though he was talking about a romantic relationship. I was all in. In the next track, “Good Clothes,” there are some cute lines about clothing, then this, “and you, the big girl with the low-rise jeans on / Got the fat hangin’ over the side,” in tandem with the end of this is “better go to Lane Bryant,” in a smooth R&B voice, and then I just lost it laughing. I replayed it a couple times to make sure it was real. The other songs on Getback cover a wide range of issues, but the duo never loses its biting humor and grounding in reality. “Step It Up” talks about dating a woman and wanting to take her somewhere classier than Applebee’s, like PF Chang’s. “And if you can’t afford it / You can still do things to show you ain’t on no dumb shit / Take her to a gallery, museum or some shit,” Phonte raps. “Two-Step Blues” involves partying hard… with a group of old men at the Elk’s Lodge: “Somebody’s uncle is the bar now they clever / Cause he drinkin all the drinks that he should be givin out / Somebody momma up in here, she tryin to turn it out.” I love Big Pooh’s imagery — it feels like a very real experience that these dudes actually have. I knew of the group because of producer 9th Wonder‘s involvement, but he left Little Brother before Getback was recorded. I still like the production of this record — the Marvin Gaye sample in “ExtraHard” is so catchy — and guest Carlitta Durand (also from Durham) can belt some big hooks. This album delivered to me exactly what I needed — it’s amazing how each OYR pick has the ability to do that.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Back when Arrested Development was still airing — during the last season of the original run, when it went meta with the in-show “Save Our Bluths” campaign — my sister dutifully tried to convince me to start watching. I didn’t, which seems dumb now, because it turned out to be one of my favorite TV shows ever. The Arrested D parallel comes to mind for three reasons: 1. Kellen recommended Little Brother to me years ago, and while I gave them a quick listen, I didn’t truly dig in, 2. The quality is there, in the sense that Getback is evidence of something good that should have continued for longer than it did, and 3. You can feel the “Save Our Bluths” uncertainty in the lyrics. “I don’t know how much more I can take” in “Two-Step Blues.” “I got dreams, but dreams don’t keep the lights on” in “Dreams.” “Can’t Win For Losing” is even more explicit about Little Brother’s balancing act on the edge of major label success: “Gotta show the people we can keep it tight / Deep down though felt something wasn’t right / Gotta keep pushing despite.” But you’re rewarded with a beautiful moral if you stick around for the benediction that starts “When Everything Is New.” Phonte talks about how the members of Little Brother “do not quit” when faced with adversity. “That’s just life, dog, you know what I’m saying? You gotta get up. You gotta keep doing your thing.” Self-confidence in the face of uncertainty. That’s what I’ll take away from my week with Getback, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Labels in rock music and producers in hip-hop. These are two things that, for the life of me, I just haven’t paid much attention to over the years. God only knows where it comes from and if I had the chance, I go back a decade and start telling younger, dumber me to get my head in the game and pay attention to the extraneous information. I’d have a lot more knowledge about great music, that’s for sure, instead of having to play catch-up all the time because I only kept an ear out for Sub Pop and J Dilla. 9th Wonder being as prolific as he is, I should have been into Little Brother far before Phonte’s guest verses on The Roots’ How I Got Over piqued my interest. Luckily, that was enough for me to dive into Little Brother around that time, starting back at the beginning with The Listening where I found myself blown away by the Stereolab samples (sue me — I thought Cobra was a great record). Getback was a perfect record for me back then, completely ignorant of who was behind the tracks and the turmoil that preceded this release. I followed it with the same mindset that I did their first two records, which I’ll believe a lot of fans at the time were simply unable to do. I will say, years removed from it, I still don’t hear too much of a difference between the 9th Wonder produced records, and the ones made after his departure, but that’s by no means an insult to 9th Wonder and by all means a compliment to the sonic vision Phonte and Big Pooh had in Little Brother. It’s even more impressive considering the scrutiny, setbacks, and pressure the duo faced leading up to the record. One false step and they would have tarnished the legacy of their first two records, but Getback as a whole not only avoids missteps, it practically tap-dances around traps and cautions, flaunting the duo’s unbelievable skill, cohesion, and relatability. Even more impressive, it does all this while avoiding the trends of the time, the overly complicated verses and baseless singalongs, providing the listener with a sound that would please rap fans of the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, and especially today.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
The View From This Tower by Faraquet
Chosen By PJ Sykes

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Matt Green, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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