Phonte was singing before your favorite rapper sang!
For those who've followed Phonte Coleman since he burst onto the scene in 2003 with his partner-in-rhyme Big Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder, collectively forming Little Brother, Drizzy's pick came as no surprise. MC and critics alike have given props to Phonte's witty wordplay and Southern-tinged flow since Little Brother's debut, The Listening (ABB). But in 2004, Phonte switched things up and began to amass a new set of fans with The Foreign Exchange, a collaboration with producer Nicolay. Together the two released Connected (BBE, 2004) to critical acclaim. In 2008, they released their sophomore effort, Leave It All Behind (Hall of Justus/ Nicolay), which Phonte is currently promoting on a nationwide tour.
Phonte phoned in to VIBE to talk about how he juggles being a part of two groups, what it means to hear Drake's praises, and why everybody calls him to rap about relationships.
How much time would you say you spend in the studio a week?
It's hard to say. It could be well over 40 hours. I try to treat it like a job. It's something I do everyday, if not everyday than at least 3 or 4 days out of the week. But, it's just something that I try to do as much as I can because the way I look at it, it's like a muscle. The more you use your writing muscles, the better they get, the more trained they become. The process just becomes easier. It's very hard, once you fall out of the rhythm of it, to try and get back on the horse. So I just try to stay as busy as I can and just work on stuff, whenever I feel it.
You get on a lot of other people's projects. How do you select who you're going to work with, who you're going lend your voice to on a project?
The selection process for me has always been based on whether I like the song or not. The music industry, or should I say the traditional record industry, being in the shape it's in now, it ain't like nobody's budget is just through the roof like that. So maybe like 10 years ago, it used to be Well, I'm going to just do this shit for a check or whatever. Like, that really ain't done no more so you might as well just take the stuff that you really like to do.
What's the biggest difference when you're Phonte of Foreign Exchange versus Phonte of Little Brother?
Man, Little Brother is just straight hip hop. It's just straight up beats and rhymes for the most part whereas Foreign Exchange is just music. So if I get a track from Nicolay, my first instinct is just Ok, what would sound good over this? Would it be rhymes, would it be me singing, would it be me writing a song for someone else and producing it that way? Would it be me sharing vocals with someone? Like there tends to be a lot more thought that goes into it. And then with Foreign Exchange, Nic is a musician and he's a music fan, just like me.
Pooh would even tell you, Pooh is more of a sports fan than he is a music fan. Like he does music, he enjoys it but he's just like, Yo, whatever. But with Foreign Exchange, me and Nic are both music fans. We both kind of put the same amount of care into it and we both really do it at 110 percent. And Pooh does as well, not to say he doesn't because he really does. It's just a whole different animal when you're working with musicians.
Do you still find that people don't know that you're a part of both Foreign Exchange and Little Brother? Oh yeah, that definitely happens. I think that one of the thing's that's just interesting is like how a lot of people just really still don't connect the dots. Like with Little Brother, we were a lot more in your face. We toured a whole lot and at least with our records and stuff, we were just putting out records left and right and we were kind of in your face. Whereas Foreign Exchange, it was always kind of like a science project. We came out in '04, then we kind of disappeared and didn't come back until '08. Our faces were on neither one of the covers. It's kind of been shrouded in a little more mystery. So people haven't really connected the dots as far as Foreign Exchange and Little Brother. But as long as they appreciate the music, that's fine. For a long time, people didn't know that Mad House was Prince. As long as they know the music, it's all good to me.
With Foreign Exchange and Little Brother, does it feel like two different careers or does it feel like one career, doing two different things?
It's kind of just one career doing two different things. I just kind of view it all as just one total existence. It's like me and my man was talking about how back in the day, you had to kind of be the total package. You look at cats like Sammy Davis Jr. Even like old variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show, how actors had to be able to sing, they had to be able to dance, act, they had to do stand-up to a degree. I'm sure Sammy Davis Jr. didn't look at his career and be like, I got my acting career, I got my singing career, I got my tap-dance career. It's just a career. It's just you being an artist and just kind of exploring your inspiration and letting it take you to wherever it may lead. So, that's really how I see it. I don't see it as I'm juggling two careers so to speak. It's just I have one career, and it's just taking on two different energies.
Do you sing because you can, or do you feel sometimes rapping what you're trying to get off your chest is limiting, like in terms of its emotional connection?
Yeah, I feel that sometimes rap can be limiting. Sometimes the medium can stifle your message. I just give the example if you in the talent show, and it came down to choosing between a great rapper and a great singer, if you let the audience decide, nine times out of ten, the great singer is going to win. Like because the young people might feel the great rapper, and they'll like it and whatever, but the old people and other people that maybe don't listen to rap are going to love the great singer. And the young people can still feel a great singer too as well because it's undeniable.
You can be a great rapper and still have people not realize it, not realize the craft. Like, my grandma can hear Jay-Z and be like, Turn that mess off! But Jay's a great rapper. So for me I find that a lot of times when I choose to sing, really I just feel the track. Whatever the particular track is, it just calls for it. Particularly with the Foreign Exchange album, most of the tracks that Nic was sending me just had so much color in them and just like so much texture in them. I just felt that doing three 16s and a hook, would've been selling the track short. So I just went with what I felt the track called for. If you sent me some hard Premo shit or some hard Dre shit, I probably wouldn't sing over it, I'd probably rhyme over it. So, I really just go for whatever the track calls for.
What were your thoughts when you saw rap go the way of more melody and guys letting hooks that you can sing along to drive their records? People forget a cat like you has been doing this, does that ever get on your nerves?
Nah, man. I think that for example, particularly in the case with Drake, he has been vocal about saying like, Yo! Phonte's one of my favorite rappers. One of my boys had forwarded me an interview where he was bigging me up. We actually had done work before so for him to shout me out as an influence, I think that is big because the spotlight is on him now and he did do that. So I can appreciate that and if he wants to do some work for his album, that would be an even greater look. I don't really look at it like Oh man, they fronting on me. It's just the way things happen.
You've always seemed to be somebody who rhymes about relationships, why is that?
I just keep getting requests for it. Cats are always hittin' me up for that record. People are never like, I just need 16 bars and you're killin it. I hardly ever get that call. People always want me to rap about their relationships and stuff. I think what it is particularly now, cats is getting older and women mean something different to you in your early teens than twenties than they do when you're in your thirties. Most of your rappers now, quote on quote, most niggas are in their thirties. And relationships, that is just the universal language. No matter if you're a college student, or you just a nerd or you're the hardest murdering drug dealing motherfucker ever, somewhere there is a motherfucking woman getting on your nerves. So you can relate to that no matter where you're at in your life. There's a woman somewhere giving you grief. So when I write about that I just try to write it from a universal aspect, write about emotions that everyone has felt. And it shows because many people, you know married people from my shows will be like Thank you for writing what you write. We see that there's somebody else going through the same thing you're going through.'
Are those the records that people respond to the most, when you're on the road, in terms of coming up to you and talking about a record?
Yeah. Most of the records that people respond to, fro me it's been kind of funny, because I started off like most emcees, as a battle emcee so when I started rhyming it was just 'Imma take a nigga head off'. That was my whole aim, but the songs that I would write about life, and about life situations would be the stuff that people would respond to so it kind of took me a while to wrap my head around. I would be like, Man you didn't hear the 32 bars I spit!. People didn't care about that, it was the stuff about life and relationships that really touched them.
So for me, I just think that when I write about that, and this is a conversation that me and Nic have a lot about, in particular with the photo exchange album, I try to make R&B for men. There's not really a lot of R&B and relationship that talks from the point of a man. It's really just based on the women and men saying what they think women want to hear. When I talk about relationships, I want it to be a song that you as a man can listen to, can bump it and can sing along and you can still be a man. You feel me?
Is it as important to you to be looked at as one of the best MCs in the game?
I guess any MC worth their weight would want to be seen as one of the best. MCing is competitive by nature, so when you sit down and write a rhyme, you don't want to be like, Well I hope you would think this is okay. As an emcee, you want motherfuckers to be like, Yeah, that shit is dope. So that is definitely a goal but not necessarily a motivation, if that makes sense. Of course you want to be appreciated and you want people to say, Yo, that's dope! But when I sit down to write and do a song, I'm just really thinking about the song and just making the best song I can make. I don't really see any other competition; it's kind of like a horse, running a race with blinders on. You can't really worry about what's going on in the lane next to you or to the side. You just gotta stay focused on your lane and just running your best race. And that's kind of the same way I look at the songwriting process. I just gotta do the best me, every time out. So, if I do the best me and give my best effort, then chances are the competition ain't really gonna matter, because I'm staying in my lane and doing me, which is what nobody else can do.