Originally published at The Well Versed
Phonte Coleman is probably your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. And if your favorite rapper is Drake, the opening sentence is literally true. For the better part of a decade, the Phonte Coleman brand was built with the nuts and bolts of artistry: hard work, wit and dope rhymes. Whether part of Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange or guesting on another project, Tigallo consistently stole the show. On the heels of his first—and what many consider a long overdue—solo effort, Phonte chopped it up with The Well Versed about the need for a public reconciliation with 9th Wonder, the moment he knew a major label wasn’t for him and why pretty women are liabilities.
The Well Versed: Was there some significance behind naming the album Charity Starts At Home?
Phonte: All my other work has been in service to another brand like Foreign Exchange, Little Brother or working with other artists. This is my first real solo outing and the first real thing I’ve done for myself.
TWV: Had you always thought about doing a solo album?
P: Not really. It was the furthest thing from my mind. A lot of people assumed that that was always what I’d do. I never had a reason to. Between Foreign Exchange and Little Brother, I was able to say everything I wanted to say artistically. Now, it just felt like it was time for me to do it.
TWV: With the new album, you go heavy on the rapping, what was it like to go back to rapping more than you have been over the last couple years?
P: It’s more of a shock to the fans than it is to me. I hear music in my head all day. I’m always coming up with rhymes or songs. I’m always creating. To me, it’s not much of a difference, I’m just doing me. To the fans, if you don’t live in my head you don’t know what I’m thinking [laughs].
TWV: Was it always in the cards to balance rapping and singing?
P: I just took a direction and ran with it. I grew up singing. I was singing before I started rhyming. I just started rapping because it was the cool thing to do. As a young man, I didn’t want to be in church singing like the Jackson Southernaires, I wanted to rhyme like Kane or Run DMC. I’ve always walked in both worlds. In hip hop, I think people want you to stay in one lane. I grew up on soul music.
TWV: A lot of fans were excited to see you back with 9th Wonder. Did you feel that it was important to give fans a glimpse of what that reconciliation process was like?
P: With me and 9th: We made mistakes in public, so we wanted to reconcile in public. Just to show people that it’s possible to rebuild and heal. That was the lesson we wanted to show people through our efforts of reconciling and working together. It’s about being men. Some things are bigger than hip hop. Our friendship is one of them.
TWV: Has anybody come up to you to share personal stories of friend or family relationships that have been reconciled as a result of your music?
P: A guy said “All For You” made him call his pops. I had another cat come up to me with a tattoo that said “Leave It All Behind.” He told me that Foreign Exchange album helped him get through his divorce. You never expect music to affect people in that way.
TWV: For me, “Fight For Love” off Authenticity helped me get through my divorce, so I wanted to ask if there was a story behind that?
P: It was a song I wrote from the standpoint of showing the difference between how men and women view love. When you’re in a relationship or marriage, you have so many people telling you “You gotta fight for love, marriage isn’t easy.” Dude, I’m not fighting for this s**t. Either it ain’t or it is. I’m not going to fight to make you love me. You either love me or you don’t. That’s where it came from. My frustration of hearing that you gotta fight for it speech. Like what the f**k is wrong with you people? I’m not doing this.
TWV: You’ve always been very candid, was there ever a situation where you look back and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that?’
P: Not off the top of my head. In some ways I’m glad I can look back and know exactly where I was and how I was feeling. The music acts as somewhat of a time capsule. There’s nothing that comes to mind where I think, “Oh God, what were you doing Phonte?” In ten years it may be different.
TWV: Has your definition of “making it” in the industry changed?
P: I’ve learned to not let other people’s expectations get me down. I’ve stayed the same. I think back to when I was working in a call center making $11 an hour. When we were working on The Listening, I remember saying and praying, “If I can just make $11 an hour rapping so I don’t have to back to this call center, I’m happy.” If I can just pay my bills. I got to that point and I’ve made way more than $11 an hour rapping. The problems I dealt with earlier in my career was me basing my work on other people’s expectations. You could sell 90,000 records. In your mind, you’re thinking 90,000 people, got damn! If it was 90,000 people in my yard, it’d be some s**t. To the label, they look at you like you failed. I don’t need to sell 90,000 records to pay my mortgage. I can sell 9,000 or 900 and pay mine. It’s y’all that need all this extra s**t.
Always base success on what you want. If you drive a Honda Accord, be happy driving the Accord. When people come to you and say, “You’ve got money, why don’t you get a Maybach or a Benz?” F**k y’all, I’m happy with my Accord. I’ve learned to give less of a f**k about people’s opinions.
TWV: Was there a breaking point that caused you to focus on what you wanted to do and not care about others opinions?
P: My “Eureka” moment: I was in a meeting with Julie Greenwald of Atlantic Records. We were all in the meeting and she was talking about her next moves and mentioned wanting to by a TV station. I’m sitting there thinking, “How the fuck am I trying to validate my art—I’m trying to pay my mortgage and I’m about to validate my art to someone who’s thinking about buying a TV station? What’s wrong with that picture?” Julie is really cool and there are no hard feelings, but that was it. Like, I’m playing on the wrong field. This isn’t what I’m in the game for.
TWV: Looking back, was the major label experience a blessing in disguise or do you think, “I could’ve skipped that chapter in life?”
P: It was something I needed to go through to have an appreciation for what I have now. Every man has to have a really s****y girlfriend before they have a really good girlfriend. It’s the same way with the ups and downs in the game and the battles you fight. You need those battle scars, they make you stronger. I can appreciate what I have now and use my own resources to the best of my ability. You don’t look at being independent and say, “I should be major.” You look at it and say, “S**t I’m straight!” and you can be happy about it because you know what the other side of the coin is.
TWV: The monologue and the end of “Sending My Love” is hilarious and it’s something a lot of guys can relate to. Why should guys go home at the end of the night?
P: At the end of the day, nothing is free. This is straight up, real raw rap. A woman can put on a nice dress, do her make up and go to the local bar or club. Socio-economics notwithstanding, if you’re a fine woman, you can go up to a fine man and say “I just want you to fuck the shit out of me and never talk to me again.” That man will feel like he hit the lottery. He will do back flips like, “Word, that’s all you want?!?”
For men, it’s not that simple if you have any type of success or status. Any woman that wants to have sex with you is going to want something in return. You’re not going to just have sex and walk away. To those brothers at the end of the night, I relate to the struggle. Start looking at pretty women as liabilities. Instead of seeing big titties, see child support. Instead of a fat ass, see alimony. Instead of nice lips or a nice head game, see got damn family court. It’s not going to end there. That’s our burden to carry. Look at it like a dude that’s robbing you: If you get robbed on Monday, when Tuesday comes around he’s not going to say “I’ma let you chill today.” He’s going to be robbing you every day as long as he can get away with it. If you’re a successful, upstanding man, no woman is just going to want you for one night. If you’re showing her a good time and stimulating her mind, she’s not going to deal with you on Monday night and go back to the gump ass guys hollering at her on Twitter. Women are not backwards compatible. That’s not how it works.
To conclude this tirade, brothers: Think about what you’re getting into. It may look good, but it won’t end there. Think about what you got at home and ask yourself, “Can I handle two of her?” Most guys would say, “Hell nah.”
TWV: Musically speaking, you’ve worked with Drake, who says you’re one of his favorite emcees. When you were coming up, you all looked up to Tribe. How special is it to be able to work with artists that you all have influenced?
P: That’s the biggest compliment you can get. To know that there’s somebody dope that you influenced. It’s an honor to see guys like Mac Miller or Drake or Wale come up and see them pay homage to me. You can’t ask for nothing more than that.
TWV: Where are you and Nicolay looking to take FE Music?
P: We’re looking to do us. We tried to do the “label” thing. We realized that just wasn’t the move for us. We work better when we’re self-contained. People ask “Are y’all looking for new artist?” No, we’re not. FE Music is me, Nicolay, Zo! and Median.
TWV: You’ve probably gotten this a lot, but people ask. Given that you’re working with 9th, is there a chance we’ll see a Little Brother reunion? If not for an album, but maybe a track here and there?
P: It’s not going to happen. Flat out, it’s not happening. It’s over. We made our mark as Little Brother. That chapter is closed.