[READ our review of Little Brother’s May The Lord Watch here]
It’s not a comeback. Or a reunion. It’s a reactivation. After remaining dormant for about seven years, Phonte Coleman and Thomas “Rapper Big Pooh” Jones have brought the legendary group Little Brother back online, and they’re reminding their audience that they haven’t missed a step with their surprise album, May The Lord Watch.
On the morning of August 19th, with little buildup or fanfare, Little Brother announced that they were going to release the album, which they recorded in secret, imminently. When the clock struck midnight on August 20th, May The Lord Watch was available on all of your favorite streaming services, and it had the Internet going nuts. The album is a logical progression for the group and an extension of their previous collaborations. It features lots of “fan service” in its connective tissue, but it is not a “sequel” to their best-known releases by any means. It’s also one of the best albums of the year.
Truthfully, the release of May The Lord Watch shouldn’t be a complete surprise. There was initial buzz in October 2018 when the group, including Patrick “9th Wonder” Douhit, performed at the Art of Cool festival in Durham, North Carolina. They were a last minute replacement after Royce Da 5’9” missed his flight, and the crew rocked the stage with their surprise set. However, it appears the seeds of their revived collaboration had been growing since 2016, when Phonte and Pooh first reopened the lines of communication after not connecting for a while. Today, Pooh and Phonte seem as content and comfortable with the pairing as ever. And they’re committed to helping May The Lord Watch reach its fullest potential.
I recently caught up with Big Pooh and Phonte, who candidly discussed the creative process of making May The Lord Watch, staying motivated to make music in their forties, and the benefits of driving for Uber to make ends meet, among many other things.
Do you both think that this reunion album would have happened if Royce hadn’t missed that flight?
PHONTE: That’s a good question. I’ll say, I think it’s possible it may have happened, but I think the sequence of events kept us from over-thinking it. Once we said, “Okay, we’re doing this,” we really just put our foot on the gas and we didn’t let up until we were finished. From the top of October 2018, up until like three weeks ago, we did nothing but just eat, sleep and breathe this album.
So how long after that first reunion show did you decide to record the album?
BIG POOH: Like a week or two after, if even that long. Phonte had the cook out at his house the next day, and I went over there and we discussed it. I came up and we just got to work, like there was no deep conversation, there was no nothing. We just have to work. That was the quintessential diving in the deep end.
PHONTE: Yeah, yeah, you just jump in or get thrown in and figure out how to swim. We recorded everything, at my house, at my home studio and sometimes Pooh would come up and we would just chill. We’d just talk, or sit and just watch a TV show or listen to somebody else’s album. We would just catch up and just kind of talk. I think that really just showed up in the performances on the record, just kind of hearing that camaraderie again. That was real.
We had to live it. So all the records we did go together. Even verses, every word, we wrote together. We were spitting our verses to each other like, “Yo, what do you think, man? What do you think of that? Like, how can we make this better? How can we throw that out?” That was really the key part of the process.
What was the process for getting the beats? Because I know you guys had established relationships with a lot of the producers for the album, like Khrysis, Nottz, Focus, etc. Did you put the word out to them that you were looking for beats for the Little Brother album and show us what you got?
PHONTE: No. Hell no.
BIG POOH: Actually, no, not at all. Once it was decided that 9th Wonder wasn’t going to be a part of it, we were just reaching out individually for stuff and we’ll get it, and we weren’t telling anybody what we were doing. We were just individually reaching out and grabbing stuff and telling them to put it to the side. Because these were people that we had working relationships with. There wasn’t a question of “What are you doing? What is this for?” It was just like, “Okay, that’s what you need, you got it.” And that’s how we started gathering the beats. Even people that we hadn’t worked with, we would just reach out to them individually and get the stuff, not telling them what was going on either.
PHONTE: There were people on the album, but they didn’t know that they were on the album until the album came out. We didn’t tell nobody.
Was it difficult to keep this whole thing on the low? How many people knew that this was going to be a Little Brother album before there was a Little Brother album?
PHONTE: Focus definitely knew. Focus was one of our chief architects that we reached out to. He helped us figure out some really big puzzle pieces in the making of the record. He filled in some really, really important gaps, so he knew. I think a couple of the singers that I worked with like Carlitta (Durand), who sang on “Everything,” she knew. Of course, Darien (Brockington).
Even before LeftBack came out, you both had established your own solo careers and other projects that you were doing. When you came back together, was it really just like, you know, getting back on the old bike, like you say on “The Feel?” Do you slip back into it, like, “We’re members of Little Brother rather than, “ I’m Phonte” and “I’m Big Pooh?”
BIG POOH: It’s definitely like getting back on a bike, but I think the time that we took to really relearn each other, creatively as men, assisted the process. The chemistry is natural, but we had not created anything together for so long that we had to relearn each other again. Our processes have changed. Not everything, but a lot of things have changed, so that time that Phonte was referencing earlier that we would just talk or shoot the s**t or just watch TV or whatever, that was necessary.
It became necessary for us to have the record sound like we were having a conversation with each other as opposed to just two different people on a record. But for the most part, that chemistry was instantaneous. It’s just like a good friend that you have that you may not see for a while, but when you all get back together, it’s like you pick up right where you left off.
PHONTE: To me, I always described it as like the difference between playing a lead guitar and playing rhythm guitar. They’re both two important skills, but me being a part of the group, it’s not about just showing this virtuosic soloing for fifteen minutes. You just land in the pocket and complement the groove. That was the thing that I thought was really important and I thought we pulled off extremely well.
We wanted the album to sound like a conversation. We wanted to sound like these were two old friends getting back together and just really conversing with each other and having the rhythm of a very balanced conversation. Not a monologue. Not someone just grandstanding and letting you say one word and then they talk for another five minutes. Just a balanced easy conversation.
How’d you guys decide to come up with the UBN concept to tie the whole thing together?
PHONTE: Once I tried to start conceptualizing the album, it had to work on all levels as we work in a real life way, and it also had to work in this Little Brother fictional universe that we created. The thought was if it’s been 15 years since all these guys came together, what is it that’s going to bring all these people together?
Usually the thing that brings people together after a long time is death. In real life, like in the real world, it was Phife’s death that got me and Pooh talking again and that really opened up lines of communication for him and me. Then in the Little Brother world, I just thought, ‘Well it has to be a death. Somebody has got to die, so who is it?’ My first thought was Roy Lee. ‘What if Roy Lee dies?’ And then I was like, ‘no, that’s not dramatic enough. There’s no weight on that.’ And then it just hit me: ‘ah, Percy.’
PHONTE: R.I.P. to a soul legend. Let us not forget the reason for the season. I know everybody wants to talk about the Little Brother album and the reunion and all that. That’s cool. Let us never forget. Always pay homage to the soul legend of Percy Miracles and the way he just changed the game forever. R.I.P. soul legend. Percy changed my life. He’s gone too soon.
He made it to 71 years old, man. That’s pretty good.
PHONTE: Yeah, yeah. 71 years old in Black life is like 139 years old to anyone else. So we said, “Okay, if Percy dies, we have to show what happens to all of these characters and show where everybody landed.” You can have skits and they’re funny, but they have to move the story forward. They’re not skits that we made just to be funny and just trying to take up time. It was a big part of building that world out.
I sat down and started plotting out skits. There was a lot of bits that I wrote that we didn’t use that were super funny, but we may end up using them somewhere else.
What are each of your favorite skits on the album?
BIG POOH: I think my favorite skit is probably the Roy Lee Inside the Producer’s Studio, and that’s actually the first one that I heard. Phonte did that one, put it together before I heard it, When I came up for a session and he played it for me, like just blind. That was the first one we had, and I said, “okay, that’s what we are going.” I knew it was on.
PHONTE: For me, definitely “Life After Black Face” with Joe Scudda. I had been writing a lot of jingles and stuff for Questlove Supreme. So the phrase, “It’s so good to be a white man again!” just came to me one night, I don’t know where, and I was just like, ‘yo, I got a story.’
The “N****s Hollering” skit is also funny. That one was a bitch to edit. I had all those vocals from different places. Jemele Hill, she’s in that one. And these two comedians, two homies of mine, Ryan Davis and Austin Hall, and then of course Caesar Comanche is on it as well. Getting all those vocals and having to cut and edit it to make it sound like they’re in the same studio was kind of tedious work. I enjoy working on all of them. Yeah, I could do a whole skit album because I just like making silly s**t like that.
So when Joe Scudda heard it, did he take it in stride? Did he know you were going to do something about him?
PHONTE: He knew we were going to do something about him, but he didn’t know what it was. The whole joke just kind of started from our group chat. We have a whole group chat with me, Pooh, Doe, Flash, just the old crew. We would just be clowning Joe. Like, “Dude, you’re really white now. Like, you are white man, like for real.” And he knows where it’s coming from. It’s coming from a real place, but it is coming from a place of love.
He really turned his life around. He’s running a restaurant. He’s running this bar in Atlanta. Him and his lady, they’ve taken trips and s**t and posting these white-ass pictures on Instagram. He’s sending us pictures of him in the group chat in these fucking outfits. It’s like, “Dude, you are so white now. Like, you are white as f**k.” I think he knew something was coming because I had to reach out to him to get the vocals, but he didn’t know and he didn’t know what it was. When they know it’s coming from a place of love, that makes the joke even funnier. Because only people who love you can really get in your ass like that.
There are a lot of songs on the album about staying motivated. Did you guys try to home in on that or is it part of the natural conversation?
BIG POOH: I think it’s part of the conversation that we were having amongst each other, and it bleeds over to the music. We’ve been in this for a while. We’ve been here since 2001, 2002, and you’ve got to find ways to motivate yourself when you’ve been in it that long.
You can take our conversation of what motivates us to make music and transfer it to so many different things. I think that’s what makes this so relatable to people, is that they can apply that to their job at the office or going to school. They can apply it to that, even though we’re telling our personal story. That’s important especially at this time in our lives. We’re 40 years old. We ain’t in our twenties no more, trying to go to the club or trying to make it. We are at a different point in our lives and it’s important to show that perspective, and I think it resonated with people off the bat.
PHONTE: One thing that was recurring for me, and I realized once we finished it and took a step back, was this was something that we had to make time for. When we first did Little Brother in our twenties, this was the only thing we had. Like Pooh said on “All In a Day,” “My pen used to run across the page doing suicides.” That was just constantly turning and turning and burning, and I think really burning ourselves out in the process, because that was all we had.
But now, 15 or 16 years later, Pooh is managing Lute and other artists. I’m doing TV work and voiceover work and Questlove Supreme. We both have families now, so this is something that we really had to make time for. The struggle for me was figuring out where this fits in my life and making room for this.
There would be some times when Pooh would get in like Tuesday night, we sit up, we talk, kick it, we’d shoot the s**t, whatever, just kind of catching up. Then Wednesday comes, and even though he’s staying at my house, he and I wouldn’t see each other again until that Wednesday night because we had so much other s**t to do before we could even start recording. He has stuff he has to do for his artists and his business and I’m picking up my son from school. It was a lot. The phrase I always use is about creating and just getting into the chair. That’s the hardest thing of creating, just getting to the chair. Just getting to the space where you can actually sit down and start creating, but you have so many other fires to put out.
I think that certainly tested our patience a lot during this process. There would be so many times when we would just be spent after dealing with all the other s**t of our day. But we both showed up ready to play and when the other one was tired or the other party was out of it, we would really carry each other through it. That just sharpened the chemistry and strengthened the bond even more.
How much did “Right On Time” reflect the reality of your situation?
PHONTE: It’s real, n***a. It’s all real, n***a. This is deeper than rap.
BIG POOH: It’s all real, man.
Pooh, did you drive for Uber?
BIG POOH: Yeah, man. The thing about this business is a lot of times from the outside looking in, people just automatically assume that, “Oh, you’re making records, you put the records out, you’ve got a lot of money.“ It don’t work that way.
PHONTE: This s**t will make you famous before it makes you rich.
BIG POOH: I just got to a point where I took a little two, three-year haul when I really withdrew. I had to step back to figure out what I wanted to do, and it’s at that time when I started managing. When you’re managing, you’re making a percentage, a very small percentage, of whatever your artist is bringing in, and I have new artists who aren’t bringing in anything. I had to do something to maintain, to take care of what I need to take care of, but also maintain flexibility. My artist went out for six weeks, I was able to go, I didn’t have to call off work. I’m able to make time for whatever I need to make time for. It was needed as a supplement to what I already was earning. The crazy thing, I thought about taking that line out of the album just because it was so personal after I wrote it.
PHONTE: That was a sign that you needed to keep it on.
BIG POOH: That was a sign that I needed to keep it on, and so I kept it on. The crazy thing is after the album came out, so many people started texting me personally and they’re like, “I know what you’re talking about man. I’ve been there. That line hit home.” You realize so many different people are going through your same situation. They just won’t speak on it. It meant so much, and it was at that point I was like, even though I had wanted to take it off, I’m so glad I left that line on because it does what we’ve always done. It’s speaking for a lot of people who won’t speak on it or who don’t know how to speak on it.
I didn’t mean any disrespect to anyone who drives Uber.
BIG POOH: It holds you down now. I mean, it’s our profitable days I hear, in these Uber streets. For anybody asking because I saw somebody ask online: my rating was a 4.96.
PHONTE: Yeah, let’s be clear.
BIG POOH: If I’m going to do it, then I’m going to do it right.
PHONTE: Man, listen. You know a buddy of mine told me that his girlfriend had an Uber ride the other night in L.A. and it was driven by a very prominent Instagram quote unquote “influencer.” Somebody with, you know, millions of followers and they were driving it. First and foremost, let me just say, like once he said that, even if he would have thought about taking that line out of the song, I would have been like, “Dude, you’re not taking that f**king line out. You’re keeping that s**t.” You would have been like, “Man, delete that.” I’m like, “Yeah, okay, I can delete it.” And I would have kept that s**t.
That was just a moment of honesty and raw truth. Like you can’t f**k with it now. We’re not dropping that. Man, come on. You know? That s**t is so real. Stories like that really speak to people, particularly in the economy that we’re living in, I mean, there’s more n****s driving Uber then you think.
So was “Sittin Alone” based on reality as well?
BOTH: Hell yeah.
PHONTE: The first verse is Pooh, he’s sitting at home looking at his phone, looking at Instagram, social media, seeing all these people having fun and wishing he could be a part of it, and my verse is the guy that is actually in the photos that he’s looking at, and showing that it’s all bulls**t. I just took a picture and it looks fun, but I really do not want to f**king be here. I’d rather be at home on the couch, like you were at home on the couch. It was just the idea of how a lot of times perception and reality are wildly different.
BIG POOH: I used to be the “go out” guy in this duo. That used to be my thing, you know, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I was in the streets. Over time, I outgrew it. Like Phonte said, it becomes something different. But every once in a while, you’ll look at Instagram, and you will see the fun that people look like they’re having and you will get a little jealous.
PHONTE: Emphasis on “look like.”
BIG POOH: You’ll get a small case of FOMO, and then every once in a while, you’ll actually go to an event and realize, man, this is bulls**t. I’d rather be home. I’d rather be at the crib.
So how did you come up with the album title?
PHONTE: The album title didn’t come out until we were probably about halfway, three quarters of the way done. The original, working title of the album when we first started back in October 2018 was Homecoming. But we didn’t really want to confuse people because there was this independent, small artist named Beyoncé with an album with the same title. We didn’t want it to interfere with what she was doing,
BIG POOH: She’s on the come-up.
PHONTE: We didn’t want to mess up the Queen Bee’s rollout. Pooh was like, “You know what? Maybe we might want to change that, brother? Let this sister live, you feel me?” But yeah, it wasn’t a title we were all kind of sold on. Then when Beyoncé came out with Homecoming, we were like, “We’re not calling it that s**t now.”
We just kept recording and working and one day I think I just texted Pooh, I was like, “I think I got the title for the album.” He’s like, “What is it?” I said, “May The Lord Watch.” And he’s like, “Man, that s**t sounds hard. N***a, this s**t sound like a Clipse album, n***a.” I was like, “Hell yeah, like that’s what it is. Like this s**t hard, n***a. This is some hard s**t.”
And we kept working on the record and then took the photos, then we put the album cover together and when we got that album cover within a week, we got the shot that we wanted. That was when it hit me. I’m like, yeah, that’s the name of the album. This is what it needs to be. So we ran with it.
What was the night you released the album like? To watch it unfold?
BIG POOH: Man, I’m going to tell you the crazy s**t. That day was a fucking monster of a day for me personally. I just got back from Switzerland performing at a festival at midnight the night before. Slept four hours, woke up, drove up to Raleigh, which is like two-and-a-half hours from Durham. We shot the “Black Magic” video during the day.
Wow, it was that quick of a turnaround?
BIG POOH: Yes, and by that night we were sipping champagne with the people that worked on the video, and Tobias, a friend of ours that’s working on some stuff for us for the album. We were sipping champagne in a hotel lobby, watching people’s reactions in real time on social media. That was a good night.
PHONTE: It was hands down like my favorite album release party of all time. That’s what an album release party should be.
One of the beautiful things about this project is that we have things available to us now doing this project that we didn’t have available to us when we did it, you know, 14, 15 years ago. Now we just have the opportunity to really galvanize all the tools at our disposal and really make it something special for somebody, for all our fans. That’s what I’m most excited about, just continuing to just build the world and making it real, so we got like a lot of stuff that’s coming. People were asking, “Is vinyl coming? Is this coming? Is that coming?” And we’re telling them like, yes, all that is coming, but our first priority is that we want to get this record right. That was it. You can have all the merch and the this and the that in the world, but if that record isn’t jamming, it doesn’t mean s**t.
Was there a favorite reaction that you got when the album was released?
BIG POOH: I don’t know if it was a specific person. Just to see how people have been responding to the album and they’ve actually been listening to it, people from all walks of life. It’s just been fascinating to see that and you know, it just makes you proud to think about it and be like, ‘I did the right thing. And not only did I do the right thing, but I did a great thing by making an album that made them feel like this was worthy of a comeback.’ Or a “reactivation,” as I like to call it.
PHONTE: I think one of the things that I was really happy to see, you know, was just the brothers I grew up listening to were bigging me up on the record. Like Pharoahe Monch hit me up on Twitter, and was like, “Yo, this Company Flow line!” That’s praise you can’t buy. Posdnuos from De La Soul texted me and was like, “Yo man, I stayed up. I just got home at 2 a.m. and I stayed up to 4 a.m. for this record man. This s**t is crazy.” You can’t manufacture that. No PR campaign is going to get Posdnuos in your text messages.
I felt like a lot of our fans that are a generation below us are saying that, “I was 15 years old when I got The Minstrel Show. And now I’m listening to this record and I’m 30. It just hits me in a completely different way, and now I’m listening to all their other music in a completely different way.” To me, that’s the biggest compliment that you can receive as an artist. And I even said on records, we always wanted to make music that people could grow into rather than grow out of. I always wanted to make music for regular good people to really live with and settle into, and you know, 20 years from now, you’re not looking back on it like, “Oh my God, what the f**k is wrong with me? I was 20 years old listening to that bulls**t.”
You don’t want it to look like it was a mistake. Like you want to be able to listen to the record and you hear it in a completely different way at 30 versus 20 or even hear it at 40 in a different way. Those little parts of the process, for me have just been priceless. Just to see the way that people have allowed our music into their lives and they’ve allowed themselves to grow along with us. It don’t get no better than that.
You mentioned before how incredibly busy you are. For Little Brother moving forward, is this going to be something you do when you feel like doing it or do you plan on committing to being “a group” from this point forward?
BIG POOH: I just tell people that we’re going to see this process through and work this album, and then we’ll see what’s next. I don’t want to say, “Yeah, we’ve got five more albums,” and I don’t want to say, “Nah, this is it.” All we can do is, you know finish what we started with, May the Lord Watch, and then we’ll see what’s next for us. That’s the best I can say.
PHONTE: For me, it was just really about making the brand active again. If we want to do something, we can. When me and Pooh first reconnected, we started talking about the possibility of doing another record back in 2016. We started discussing it then, and the big impetus for it was just, if he’s working on a solo record and he just wants to get a verse from me or if I’m doing a solo record and I just want to get a verse from him, we want to be able to do that without having this big expectation over it. Like, “Oh, you see Phonte was on Pooh’s record? And then Phonte shouted out Pooh on his record. Does that mean they’re getting back?” It’s like, dude, can I just make a song with my homeboy? Like, goddamn. I think what the record does, it kind of just takes the air out in some ways. The brand is active and anything new that we give them, people can just take it in stride and be like, “Okay, this is some new Little Brother material.” There’s not this big thing over it anymore.
When we have something new to say, we’ll give it to you. If we don’t, then we don’t. But just know that we’re still rocking again and whenever we want to jump back in it, we can do that.