[READ Jesse Ducker's review of Phonte's new album No News Is Good News here]
When Phonte released his second solo album as a “surprise” in mid-March, it was a triumph for adult hip-hop. With No News Is Good News, Phonte Coleman demonstrates that an adult talking about adult subject matter with both humor and maturity can be refreshingly entertaining. As a bonus, the album demonstrates that at nearly 40 years of age, the North Carolina born and based emcee can still throw lyrical body blows with the best of them.
Phonte has become a consummate renaissance man. As arguably the best rapper/singer recording music today, he has achieved nearly unparalleled levels of consistency throughout his 15-year career. He made his name as a third of the acclaimed hip-hop group Little Brother and tours the world as one half of the Grammy-nominated soul group Foreign Exchange along with Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook of the Netherlands. What’s more, Phonte joined Eric “Erro” Roberson to form the soul duo Tigallerro. He also continues to work with his own label, Foreign Exchange Music, which releases all of his solo and group endeavors, as well as affiliated artists like Nicolay and Detroit’s Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson.
Using his distinctive voice for more than just rapping and singing, Phonte is the co-host of Pandora’s highly successful Questlove Supreme podcast. Along with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, he conducts weekly in-depth interviews on music and culture with everyone from Q-Tip to Chris Rock to Weird Al Yankovic. Besides that, Phonte has entered the world of voice acting. So it’s likely you won’t be able to escape his vocals.
I recently spoke extensively with Phonte about his latest album, his efforts to live a healthy lifestyle, his thoughts on the futility of “going viral,” his quest to find his Shrek, and so much more.
Jesse Ducker: You first announced No News Is Good News in early 2016. Then, over two years later, you make an announcement at the beginning of a week that it’s coming out that Friday. What was the reason for putting the album out as a “surprise?”
Phonte: I just had to get it out of my life. That Frankenstein Monster moment: “It’s alive!” It’s alive, it’s out of my hands. Here, take it. It’s gotta go. I’d just been working on it, and kind of mulling over it for a while. I just wanted to get it out of my life, man.
JD: How did it feel releasing it without the traditional promotional buildup?
P: In today’s music industry, we’re in an “attention” economy. So the old days of trying to do three months buildup and all this and that, I mean, man, you’re pretty much at a point now where you’ve gotta hit people while you have their attention. In that time of you trying to take three months to talk about the album, and do your build-up and press and all that shit, by the time the album drops, people have forgotten about you. You gotta strike while you’ve got ’em. You gotta say, “Hey. Now that I have your attention, the album is out now. Go get it.”
JD: It seems like the album is organized into three parts: the skills section, the health section, and the section about love and relationships. Was that a conscious decision or am I hearing things that aren’t there?
P: You’re certainly not hearing things that aren’t there. I can’t say it was a conscious decision. I just kind of wrote the record and mapped out what I wanted to talk about, kind of planning out the beats to the story. That was just kind of where it started. Definitely songs like “So Help Me God” and “Pastor Tigallo,” those were just kind of the bait-and-switch songs. Like okay, “You know, let me give you bars, bars, bars, bars.” I’m like everybody talking about fucking “bars.” Like bars, bars, bars, n****a. I’m like, alright here’s some fucking bars. So, y’all can listen to what the fuck I really want to talk about. It was intentional in a lot of ways. I was just trying to structure it like a story. You’re gonna have your rise in action, your climax, your fall in action, resolution.
JD: So what has the reaction been overall to songs like “Expensive Genes?”
P: I’ve been getting a lot of calls and texts just about people telling me it really resonates with them. Countless brothers just hitting me up like, “Yo man, ‘Expensive Genes’ made me rethink going to Popeye’s today, and now I’m eating a salad.” That just really makes me feel amazing and humbled at the same that something that you can write can have that effect on people, and really make them think about making a different choice or actually make that different choice. That’s big.
JD: So what was the inspiration for songs “Expensive Genes” and “Cry No More?”
P: It was certainly inspired by a lot of deaths in my family in the last year or two. As far as losing my dad, losing my granddad, losing my uncle. My mother had a heart attack.
JD: I’m sorry to hear that.
P: Yeah, man, she had a heart attack in early 2017. The songs were somewhat influenced by a lot of the police shootings and stuff that was on social media every day. And so, I just started thinking about what is the cost of blackness? How expensive is it to be black?
JD: So in light of all these health problems in your family, have you been taking steps to improve your health?
P: Absolutely. Knock on wood, I don’t have health issues or nothing like that. Because all that stuff, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart issues, runs in my family on both sides. I’ve been just you know changing my diet and just making changes, and then losing weight, you know what I’m saying. Small changes, but they add up to a lot.
JD: What’s the most difficult thing that you’ve had to do in order to take control of your health?
P: I did it before, but I do it now diligently, like every day, is intermittent fasting. You basically push all your meals to an eight-hour window and then you fast the other sixteen hours. So, for me, one of the hardest things has been not eating late at night. Because if I’m in the studio working or recording or whatever, you want that little snack. And so, that was the hardest thing. I’ve been doing it since January.
JD: Is it working for you?
P: Oh, it’s absolutely working. I’ve dropped the weight. I feel better. My sleep is better. It really just teaches you discipline in a lot of ways, and that bleeds over to other areas of my life. It was just basically something that me and my homies talk about, not wanting to tell our kids you’re gonna die early simply because you weren’t able to discipline yourself.
JD: Any foods that you cut out that were difficult to cut out?
P: So when me and my wife would go out to eat, I would always get an appetizer and then dessert. We’d split an appetizer, and then we’d split a dessert. And at most of these restaurants, by the time you split an appetizer, you split an entree and dessert, I mean that shit might be 3,000 fucking calories. When I go out to eat now, I just get an entree, and I always start off with a salad. I cut out a lot of bread. We don’t keep bread in the house, but I had to cut out a lot of that and try to cut out a lot of fatty food. Oh, and red meat. Because I love steak. I love steak like a motherfucker. I limit myself to red meat maybe once a week, whereas I used to eat that shit maybe two or three times a week.
JD: Have you talked to members of your family about “Cry No More?”
P: Yeah, they’ve heard it. My mother was cool. She understands that it comes from a place of love, and she understands that it comes from me just wanting the best for her. And it actually kind of made her accountable in a lot of ways. She’s like, “Everybody on Facebook’s been hitting me to get off this and that and la la la la la.” I was just like, “Yeah you do. You need to.”
JD: What was the inspiration behind “Such Is Life?”
P: So “Such Is Life” was something I had written really early, back in 2015. I originally thought that it was gonna be the closing song. This is before I had written anything else. But after I did “Expensive Genes” and “Cry No More,” I was like, “Man I’ve gotta have something to take the edge off a little bit.” Those are pretty heavy songs, so we’ve gotta take the foot off of the neck a little bit. In the context of the record, it became something that was more like a breather piece. If “Cry No More” and “Expensive Genes” are the attack, then “Such Is Life” is the release.
JD: Is there a reason that you decided only to sing and not rap on “Change Of Mind” with Freddie Gibbs?
P: I just didn’t feel it needed it. I’ve done that song a million times. I’ve been the guest rapper on an R&B song hundreds of times, and I’ve been the guest rapper on my own R&B songs hundreds of times. I’m like I don’t want to hear myself on this. With that song, I literally just thought of Gibbs. It was really just a matter of if we don’t get him, then we don’t have a song. I couldn’t hear anyone else on that part.
JD: Was it difficult to get Gibbs for the song?
P: Schedule-wise it was, because he was in the process of getting ready to go on tour, and so we had a limited window to get it done. But me and Gibbs, our relationship goes back close to ten years. It was never a question about willingness to do it, it was really just scheduling. It was like, “Man, how do we get this done.” But that’s my man. I didn’t need to rap on that. A lot of people that listen to me have a problem understanding. I’m thankful that you think I can do something very well, but just because you do it very well, doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time. I think that Sammy Davis Jr. was a great tap dancer. Do I want that n***a tap dancing on my table at breakfast? No. That ain’t the fucking place for that. So that’s the way I am with rap. There’s just certain times a rap is not called for on everything. N***as be wanting me to rap over fucking Tchaikovsky or some shit. I’m like, “N***a…everything don’t need a fucking rap, dog.” Chill the fuck out.
JD: Do you feel like you’re more comfortable rapping or singing? Or equally comfortable at both?
P: When I first started, rapping was what I saw as my primary artistic goal. That was all I wanted to do, but then once I started having more opportunities to do more music, I was like, “Well, shit. Man, I got more opportunity. I can do more.” And so for me, I think that No News is probably the most comfortable I’ve been as a rapper because I understand my place in it, and I understand where I want it to be. You know rapping to me now ... whereas it used to be something that I would just live and die by, now I look at as a tool that I have in my toolbox, and when I want to use it, I use it. But, I don’t always have to use it. And for me, at my age and where I’m at in my life, this is what being a rapper looks like. It may not be “Hey, we’re going on tour, or we’re doing that.” I don’t wanna go on fucking tour. I fucking hate touring.
JD: But you’re so good at it, man! I mean, I’ve seen the Foreign Exchange shows.
P: We’ll definitely tour with Foreign Exchange. That’s like my retirement package. I can do that shit ‘til I’m 70. Like, me and Nic? That’s our 401K. But do I want to be touring as a rapper? Like do I wanna be 50 or 60 years old, still rapping on tour? Ehhhh, probably not. I just have no interest in doing that.
JD: Yeah, I went to a hip-hop show about a month ago, and it was 12:30am and the headlining act still hadn’t gone on yet. I’m like, “I’m too old to be here and I want to be in bed.”
P: Yeah, dude, yeah. When I toured Charity Starts At Home, me and 9th Wonder had our thing. Our thing was “grown man rap time,” where we were on stage by like 9pm.
JD: Man, I’d kill to go to a show and have the headliner be on by 9pm.
P: Yeah, dude. We make music for cats with jobs and fucking 401Ks and benefits and shit. So listen, we’re gonna do this shit. And by like 11:00pm, you can be in the house, you know what I’m saying. By midnight, you can be in the God damn bed.
JD: So are you going to tour in support of this No News Is Good News?
P: I doubt it, man. I don’t know. I mean I kind of gauge it. And I have some other projects in the works, like on the TV side, and all that shit. I doubt that I’ll do a full-scale tour, because that’s just something I’m not really interested in, but maybe a couple of spot dates. Maybe that would be cool. I don’t know.
JD: So is No News Is Good News a digital only release?
P: Nah, physicals are out now. CDs are out and vinyl is coming. They’re on Amazon. They’re on TheForeignExchangeMusic.com. They’re in certain record stores. It didn’t make any sense to say, “Hey, I have this music ready now, but I’m gonna wait until I can put it out on a medium that hardly none of my fans listen to anymore.” It’s just like, dude, why am I gonna lead in with vinyl now? Like the lead time on vinyl is so fucking crazy. I mean vinyl lead time is fucking months, man. So, I was just like let’s finish it. I want this finished. I want it out into the world. And then we’ll just drop the physical products as they become available, because I don’t wanna wait on this shit, and I know my supporters don’t want to wait.
JD: So how long was it between when you finished the album and when it came out?
P: Oh, I finished the album on a Sunday, and I turned it in to my distributor on Monday, and it dropped four days later. That was it. I had to get it in to my distributor on Monday in order to make the March 2nd date. The very last song was “Sweet You,” and that was recorded Sunday night. Like I finished mixing that Sunday night, and then we mastered it Sunday night, and turned it in Monday morning.
JD: “Sweet You” is about your marriage. You say that it’s the easiest song you ever wrote. Can you expound on that?
P: I should have put an asterisk beside that. It was the easiest song for me to write, but it was because I wrote it when it was time to write it. That was another beat made by my man, Tall Black Guy. He sent me the draft of that beat, I wanna say, back in 2014. At the time he sent it to me, I didn’t have anything. I thought the beat was incredible. I was like, “Man, this is fucking dope. But I have nothing. This shit is too perfect. I have nothing to say.” It was too dope. But going through a lot of the changes I’ve been through, and then me and my wife got married. Our story was the inspiration for that song. So when I sat down to write it that Saturday night/Sunday morning, the words just came. I was like okay. I have a target now. I have a focus. And so it was easy.
JD: How long have you guys been married now?
P: We’re newlyweds. We’ve been together two years, but we got married last November.
JD: You’ve been releasing music now for 15 years, and the music industry has changed a lot during that time. What’s your favorite thing about how things have changed?
P: I guess my favorite thing that has changed for me is that you can get the music out directly. Again, I finished the record on Sunday, and it was out Friday. That wasn’t possible 15 years ago. Unless you were giving it away for free, but you know for a record to be retail ready in the span of four days, that’s pretty major.
JD: And your least favorite thing?
P: You’re just fighting a lot more for people’s attention now. It’s kind of like the double-edged sword. The fire that cooks your food can bring the house down. Because on one hand, it’s great that you have access to all this music. But on the other hand, there’s just so much music and so many choices, and it’s kind of hard to make heads from tails. It’s harder to get your message out to people. The days of “going viral,” that shit ain’t happening, not in the old way it used to happen. You’re more likely to go viral with a meme on Twitter or Facebook or something. But the notion of “My video’s on YouTube, and it went viral?” Nah, not necessarily. That just doesn’t happen anymore.
JD: How is your mindset different from putting together an album like No News Is Good News as compared to, say, putting out albums as a member of Tigallerro or The Foreign Exchange, or even the Little Brother albums back in the day? How do you approach your solo work differently?
P: For me, pacing becomes really important. When you’re working within the context of a group, like in Little Brother or even with Tigallerro, where it’s me and Erro sharing lead vocals, you have a little bit more room to play with because you’re introducing a listener to different voices. If it’s me and Pooh on a song, you hear me, they hear Pooh, or you hear Pooh, then you hear me. With Tigallerro, it’s you hear me then you hear Erro. When it’s a solo album it’s just me. My story, beats and pacing, my signing, that shit gotta be airtight. Because, otherwise I’m gonna bore the listener because they’re really just hearing one voice. So the pacing is a lot tighter. For all the records that I’ve done, my goal is to just take the listener on a ride. You want to give them a journey and just make it as seamless an experience as possible. To where you take the listener through a bunch of different emotions and at the end they come out feeling like they experienced it with you.
JD: So given your thoughts on pacing, was it a conscious decision to make both Charity and No News relatively short and to keep things moving?
P: Oh, absolutely man, hell yeah. Charity, at the time, was a little under 45 minutes. And now No News is like 33 minutes. You know a lot of that was in many ways a response to just the trend we’re seeing now. Of these cats just dropping these long ass fucking records, like everybody trying to drop these double and triple albums to game the stats on the streaming shit. And it’s like dude, I will never listen to 57 songs at one time, by anybody. Stevie Wonder could drop 40 songs from his ’75/’76 vault or whatever, and to me, he is the greatest living musician on earth. But, homie, it’s gonna take me a while to get through 40 Stevie Wonder songs. And that’s Stevie Fucking Wonder. So, any of you other n***as trying that shit: Good fucking luck. I’m sorry, bro, but in today’s attention’s economy, that is a lot to ask of anybody.
JD: Do you feel like you were able to say everything you wanted to say on No News in those 33 minutes?
P: Absolutely! Yeah. People were saying, man we wish it was longer. And I’m like, well if the worst thing you can say about an album is that you think it should be longer, then I’ve done my job.
JD: Do people still ask you about coming back to do Little Brother albums?
P: Everyone asks. Everyone asks. I mean it’s still a question I get. I’ve just accepted it as a part of it. You know, Little Brother was just my foundation. So I get that people are always going to ask for that and I’m just like, “Okay, not gonna happen. But you’re gonna keep asking and that’s fine.”
JD: But you’re cool with them, right?
P: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I owe Pooh a phone call right now. Me and him, we gotta talk about something. So yeah, me, 9th, and Pooh are all cool. We’re all good.
JD: You have a very strong fan base of people who have jobs and 401Ks. What is it about your music that resonates so strongly with them?
P: I don’t know, man. Well, the one thing I’ve heard from a lot of people is that they’ve grown with me. That is really humbling. They say that they’ve grown with me, and they say that my records and my music, they’re all kind of just bookmarks at different points of their lives. So that to me has been the most exciting thing. Just hearing people like, yo I started listening to you in like 9th grade and now I’m about to get married. And I’m like, holy shit, dude.
JD: 15 years have passed since you released your first project. What would you tell your 15 years younger self now, if you could travel back in time and talk to him?
P: I would tell him that this is just the beginning. A career is really long. And the things that you think are gonna take you through the stratosphere, it may not be that thing [you think it will be]. It may be something else.
JD: So when you look back, are you comfortable with where you are in your career now, 15 years later?
P: Yeah man, I’m good. The fact that I’m still here able to make the music that I want to make and able to make a good living doing it. I had this conversation with 9th Wonder last week, and discussed how there’s just a lot of people that came in with us that are no longer doing it. So, for me to be standing here, still striving in my craft, still having an active fan base, and still able to make the music I want to do, and provide a good life for my family, I can’t really ask for much more than that.
JD: So how did you end up doing the Questlove Supreme podcast?
P: That was kind of the brainchild of his business manager, Sean G. I’ve known that whole camp for some time. They’ve been big supporters of me. So Sean just hit me up one day and he was like, “Yo man, Ahmir’s got this show. He wants you to be a part of it, and I was like ‘cool.’” He [had talked to] Brainchild. DJ Brainchild and me had a radio podcast (“The Gordon Gartrell Show”) back in the day, before the golden age of podcasting. So they were putting Questlove Supreme together, and this is the story that was told to me. Brainchild brought me up and asked, “What about Phonte?” And Ahmir was like, “Oh Hell naw, man, we can’t get Phonte. Me and him are gonna be arguing all through the damn show.” And then Sean G was like, “That’s exactly why we’re gonna get him.” So that’s how it worked. It’ll be two years in June, I want to say. It’s been a wild ride.
JD: So beyond making music and the podcast, what else are you working on?
P: Yeah, I’m doing voiceovers. I came aboard with William Morris. I’m in their voiceover department. So, I’m a voice actor. I read for commercials and cartoons, and whatever. I just do voices.
JD: You going to do a Pixar movie?
P: Brother, listen. Listen. Man look, if I can land that motherfucker? What! Sheee-it.
JD: Would you ever go back to singing and rapping after that?
P: Probably not. Listen bro, I’d tell them motherfuckers straight up like, listen I’ve always said I’ll always make music, because music is just what I love to do. I’m always writing songs, like always. That’s just something that’s in me that never turns off. So it’s something that I’ll always do as I feel it. But for me, to make an Eddie Murphy comparison, if Charity Starts At Home was Delirious, then No News Is Good News is Raw. And I’m on the search for my Shrek paper right now. I’m just trying to find my Nutty Professor or Dr. Doolittle. That’s where we at now. I need to find my Foreman Grill, bruh.
JD: Are there other musical projects that you’re working on right now?
P: I’m just doing different hired gun shit here and there. Little stuff here and there. I think we’re going to start on Zo’s record this year. Me and Exile have been talking about having me appear on the new Blu & Exile album, which is dope, just from what I’ve heard. There’s other stuff that I can’t really say a whole lot about. Me and Nicolay, we are working on Foreign Exchange stuff. So it never really stops. Like I said, I’m always writing songs, I’m always creating something. So between that and my voiceover work, I’ve been doing stuff with Sesame Street.
JD: Oh wow.
P: Yeah, I was a rapping banana. That shit is amazing.
JD: How old are your kids?
P: Oh, my kids don’t give a shit. Naw. Them n***as is 17 and 12, they give no fucks at all. They don’t care.
JD: Do your kids listen to your music?
P: They do now. My 17-year-old is really into music, he loves it. He’s at the age now where he is starting to listen and really get it. He called me to actually talk about my record. He’s like, “Dad I want to talk about your record. I want to talk about the album.” I’m like, “Oh, okay. Cool.” So it was really dope to have that conversation with him. And then with my 12-year-old, I actually put him to work when me and Nic recently did our batch of signed CDs. My son was in charge of unwrapping the CDs and organizing them. So we sat and listened to the CD while we were out signing and everything and he was just like, “Dad, I think it's cool. I remember hearing little bits of these songs, like kind of when you were working on them, but it's cool to hear the finished product. I didn't know that's what you were doing.” So they both get it in their own way.
JD: Does the fact that they see you releasing music earn you more respect? Or do they just think, “Oh, that's my dad. He’s not very cool?”
P: Oh naw, I don't think Dad's ever gonna be cool. The closest I ever came to cool with my 17-year-old was telling him about a conversation I had with Earl Sweatshirt. That was it. He's like, "Oh my god! You talked to Earl. Oh shit, Dad, really? You talked to Earl?" But, that was it. And my 12-year-old? I'm just Dad to him. He don't care. Which is good. I like my boys to see me in that way. I mean, they just need to see me as Dad. And this is what I do, this is how I provide for us. But at the end of the day, I'm your daddy and I'll fuck you up if you get outta line.
JD: Do you approve of the music that they listen to?
P: Yeah, I'm not like one of those parents that's like, “Oh you can only listen to clean copies.” Fuck all that. My thing is I want them to be able to just share with me what's in their heads. So, I'm just like, “Look man whatever you want to listen to.” My 17-year-old listens to everything. He's a lot like me. He listens to the Beatles and Migos and then he'll listen to some Indie Rock shit. He goes all over the place. He listens to everything. My 12-year-old, he mostly listens to trap shit. So whatever the new trap shit is, he be on that. And I'm just like listen man, I just want them to share it with me. So I don't like to make choices for them. If I think something's wack, I tell them. I just want them to always be open with me and just talk to me about what it is that they consume.
JD: Okay, we always like to ask people about their five favorite albums. What are yours?
P: I would say Ice Cube’s Death Certificate. ’Cause it's fucking Death Certificate. There's a Riot Going On by Sly & The Family Stone. Prince’s 1999. Ohhhh man. I would say Stevie Wonder, but I gotta pick one that's like…I feel like most people would say Innervisions, but I'm gonna say the Jungle Fever Soundtrack. I mean it totally has everything to do with just my memories of it. My step dad, he used to listen to that record all the time. We would drive around and listen to it. And he died in ’98 and so I have more memories tied up in that album. It caught some flak because the production was very ’90s kinda New Jack Swing-y. But the songs themselves were beautiful fucking songs. "I Go Sailing" is a gorgeous fucking song. "If She Breaks Your Heart" is a gorgeous song, which is why we covered it on Leave It All Behind. I thought it was a great song that just needed to be modernized for people to get it. That's a great fucking song. Finally, I’d probably say D’Angelo’s Voodoo.
JD: I also wanted to add that I’ve put my wife onto your music and she’s become a huge fan of yours. I put a Little Brother song on the first mix CD I made for her when we were dating.
P: Yeah man! And what do cats do now? They just send their girls playlists? Is that the new? “I’m going to send you a playlist, girl.”
JD: Exactly. “Take a look at my shared Spotify profile.”
P: Yeah, straight up. Then if you make a playlist, how do you keep it private just for her? Because you know she gonna be like, “Ahh I know you ain't making no playlist for no other bitches. I thought this was just mine. I saw KC69 just share that same playlist. What the fuck n***a?”