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It was around 3 a.m. one morning in May of last year when the Wilmington-based musician Nicolay and his neo-soul band, The Foreign Exchange, crossed Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were dead tired from being on tour, and only hours earlier had played a sold-out show for fans they didn't know existed.

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12ftDwende interviews Phonte

by +FE on September 30, 2009 at 1:55 PM · Comments
Phonte Coleman is pretty much what you would get if you crossed Pablo Neruda with Carlos Bulosan, William Faulkner and Etta James: Soulful, uniquely southern, precisely half-past battle weary with open-hearted pourings that could line the Milky Way with sincerity and polish it with hard-bitten wisdom.

Phonte has no trouble reconciling his duties as a member of the fiercely loved Little Brother and the fan-favorite duo The Foreign Exchange, who are currently touring in support of their latest project, the critically lauded and publicly loved Leave It All Behind a melodic tour-de-force offering that can best be described as Post-When Everyone Shut The Fuck Up and Stopped Trying To Categorize Dope Shit.

On some truly real talk, Phonte Coleman is a hero to more than a few of us at 12ftDwende and his insight, honesty and passion have helped each of us move through dark times with the courage and joy illustrated in his craft. It was beyond a pleasure to snatch a few moments of his time and scrawl down his thoughts.

D.Scott: Something that really interests me about you...what seems to characterize your fan base, is that people hella like you: The person you are, and particularly the way you articulate things.

Phonte: Thank you, man.

D.Scott: I'm wondering when it comes to that, what makes up Phonte - your ability to really cut to the heart of issues, where does this come from? How were you raised?

Phonte: Well, my upbringing was pretty much just me and my mom. And my mom had me when she was real young - she had me with she was 15. And so, when you're growing up in a single parent household and we didn't really have a lot of money, a lot of times we were straight up broke-broke. When you grow up in that kind of environment you pretty much become a bottom-line person very easily. You know, you learn very quickly to cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of things: If we're going to the grocery store and mom only got ten dollars to spend you know "Okay, I can only get a couple chicken pot pies and some juice. That's it." You know what I mean? Like, that's just how that shit is. So growing up in that kinda environment it just makes you a real cut to the chase kinda person. You just learn very quickly to just deal with reality. And so because of that, a lot of people have criticized me of being what they consider "pessimistic" or cynical view on things. I don't really think its a cynical view, for me, I just take it as a realistic view. I'm just a bottom line kind of dude. So I guess that's where it comes from when you talk about my ability to see things for what they are; its just the environment I came up in. I didn't have the luxury to see things any other way.

D.Scott: What has your relationship been like with your mother throughout this time?

Phonte: Me and my mom, its been up and down for the most part we've been cool. Anyone who's been raised by a single black mother will tell you there's a very interesting dynamic - a very strange dynamic in a lot of ways. On one hand, its like, they love you and they protect you, you know what I mean? They want to hold on to you because you're the man in their life. So it's a very strange thing, they have trouble letting go. At the same time they feel they have to do two jobs at once, you know, they feel like they have to play the father role as well, so in the risk of trying to quote-unquote "make you a man" they can also sometimes emasculate you in the process. So once you get older, once you start defining your own manhood, y'all really start butting heads, y'all really come to clash on a lot of issues.

So for me and my mom, we have a cool relationship now. But there was definitely a time where we didn't speak, we didn't talk to each other. But I think that's just a part of it...I thought it was just me, but I talked to a lot of my buddies, they all shared similar stories of dealing with your parents. And you know, I assume its the same with any person, if you grew up in a single parent household, but particularly for black men growing up in single black households with a single black mother, its hell! *Laughs* Its gonna be some crazy shit y'all are gonna go through, so that's just part of the game I guess.

D.Scott: That's interesting because I feel something else your fans really appreciate about you are your insights on relationships between men and women. Was she really influential on developing that perspective?

Phonte: Well, I think for any man your mother plays a definitive role in shaping your views all over because your mother's your first teacher. So I would definitely say the way I grew up shaped my views all over, some for the good, some for the bad, quite honestly. But as I get older I just try to, as I mature more, I try to cut away the good from the bad. Or at least have an understanding of where its coming from - If you feel a certain way, certain emotions, you at least wanna know "Okay, well, why do I feel this way, or what happened in my life to make me feel this way?" So when I speak on men and women's relationships in my song, again, I try to come from a very honest, realistic place. And just try to make sense of it as much as I can, as everybody does.

D.Scott: On the tip of trying to figure things out, has having children lead you to exploring new things, or affected the creative choices you've made in your music?

Phonte: Well, with having kids, the main thing is just time. It's just really trying to find time between finding time for your work and time for your family and time for your career...you really don't have a lot of time for yourself. And that's just something I've come to accept. I guess that's why I put so much of myself into my music because that's really the only "me time." People are always like "What do you do in your spare time?" I'm like "What the fuck are you talking about?" Like, "I don't have no spare time!" *Laughs* So like, having kids man, for me it just means you have to work even harder because financially you got a big obligation. So for me it just made me go even harder - Not that I was bullshitting before, because I wasn't, but if I was going 100% before, kids let you go 150%, 200%.

D.Scott: Definitely. Has father affected the way you make songs, or the songs you make - like, the title track on Leave It All Behind was a type of lullaby to your sons you made after witnessing the Sean Bell verdict and aftermath, right?

Phonte: Well, I don't think directly as maybe indirectly. You know, in music, we all put our experiences into it. So I'm sure fatherhood has in some way shaped that, but I don't think its as direct as "Oh I've got kids...so I can't say 'bitches' now." It ain't THAT straightforward. But in the particular case of that song, it was inspired by the Sean Bell verdict, but very rarely do I ever talk to my kids in my songs, or make songs for my sons. I just kinda make my songs and they are what they are. And if I have a message to my children, I'll put it in my song. In the case of "Leave It All Behind", that was just one song about a world event that made me just think about my kids and the world we are leaving for them. So that was just a song that was to maybe try to give them some hope.

D.Scott: As someone a little older than myself, with more accumulated wisdom than myself -

Phonte: Not me, brotha! Not me, man!

*Laughter*

D.Scott: Well, still! Still, as a mind that I respect, where do you see things going? In my lil' ol' 24 years I feel like this is a uniquely crazy time and I'm just trying to make sense of it and I wanna know what you think.

Phonte: Yeah man, I mean. Part of me, the realistic - the real, I guess "pessimistic" person - is like "Yo, this is the worst fucking time ever, this shit is crazy." But another part of me just thinks we'll look back on this era and think "Damn, that shit was wild." I just imagine that when you look back into the history books and you read about cats getting dogs sicked on 'em and motherfuckers getting sprayed with water hoses and shit. Like, you look back on that shit and you just be like 'Damn, that shit was CRAZY." But then you talk to people who were IN that, and you never get the idea from them that they weren't gonna make it - they never gave up. They never just threw the towel down - they kept fighting through it. And that's what a part of me thinks, with everything going on, from crazy motherfuckers shouting out during damned congressional hearings, cats bringing guns to town hall meetings, and the economy just kinda going to shit...I mean these are some really fucked up times, but a big part of me believes we will look back on this and just be like "Wooooow. How did we make it through all this?"

D.Scott: On the whole theme of looking back and looking ahead, if the post-Leave It All Behind Phonte could say anything to the Phonte just getting in the booth for The Listening, what would it be?

Phonte: I would say to just not give a fuck about what people think. And to use all of his talents, don't be boxed in by anything. The biggest difference between me now and then was just that I was so focused on rapping. I just wanted to be the greatest emcee ever, that was all I did. I had probably neglected my other passion - and cats since The Listening had told me that I should sing, and I was like "Dude, I don't really sing like that. Ain't even really nothing I do." And now - Five, six years removed from The Listening - I'm getting more calls to sing on hooks than I am to rap on records. Its just kind of an interesting thing, you know? So I would just tell the younger Phonte to just go and do whatever, don't get boxed in to doing one thing. Whatever greatness inspires you to do, or whatever you can do great just do it; whether its singing, or rapping, or you act, or write children's books, or you're a fucking game show host. Anything. Whatever. Anything you can do to inspire people and help maybe make people's lives better you know, just do that.

D.Scott: What did it take for you to really commit to singing? Because even though you sang growing up and R&B was the first form of music you were exposed to, its only recently that you've really stepped into that lane. Was it some sort of epiphany you experienced under an Oregon sunset, or like...?

Phonte: *Laughs* Nah, I don't know if it was just one event. We were at the end of The Getback, we were finishing up that album, we had got out of our Atlantic deal and had also gotten out of that ABB deal. And we had for the first time in four years, a clean state. I could really just start over. Like, I had gotten out of everything: My publishing deal, everything. Every kind of bullshit legal entanglement you can get yourself in the record business we had been blessed enough to extricate ourselves from. And so with that it was like, man, I'm really free - Why not just do something different? Why not just go there? And that's what I was really feeling but I was still unsure, but then once me and Nic started working on the album and he started sending me tracks that kind of confirmed my feeling that I was on the right page because he was on the same feeling that I was on.

D.Scott: Since you're working with different tool sets, is there a different approach to crafting an album like Leave It All Behind as opposed to something like Getback?

Phonte: The same amount of time goes into it, its just from different places. In writing a rhyme, it might take you an hour or 45 minutes or whatever. But by the time you write it, you can spit it in ten seconds, you can do it in one take and its down. But in singing, a melody or a line can come to you in ten seconds, but it might take you an hour to do the song to get it where you want to get it, or you'll do a couple different takes of the melody - you'll try different variations on it. So, you know, its just different. For me, neither one is necessarily harder than the other, its just using different sets of muscles. Push-ups ain't "harder" than sit-ups, its just using different muscles, and whatever song I'm doing at the time requires different muscles, you know what I mean?

D.Scott: Right. It seems like you and Nicolay wanted to leave a lot of the imagery and the feel of Leave It All Behind open to interpretation while still evoking very powerful feelings in the music and arrangement. Like, no definitive "This song is about this and this other song is about that" - is that intentional, and more of the direction you want to head in?

Phonte: I think it really just happened to come about for this project. Me and Nic didn't just sit down and say "Okay, we're gonna do this." The only thing we knew about this record was that we didn't want to repeat the first one and so once he started sending me tracks I was like "Oh yeah, we definitely can go more left." But really dude, that was a thing that just kinda happened. But now that it has happened, Pandora's Box has really been opened so to speak, I think cats will really hear that, particularly with Nic's new project - the City Lights 2: Shibuya joint - its almost like a continuation, the next logical step from Leave It All Behind. So pretty much, for me, I just really see myself taking it forward and continuing to move in that direction. I mean, I still haven't abandoned my hip-hop shit. I'm still knocking hip-hop shit out and for my solo record I'm putting out next year its gonna be mostly emceeing...Well, I won't say that, its gonna be a lot of emceeing, I'll say that. *Laughs*

So, you know, I haven't left all my rap shit behind cause that's where I come from, but I'm definitely excited about the new stuff that me and Nic are doing.

D.Scott: Wait. Wait, I just gotta pause for a second: Its confirmed?! We're about to have a Phonte solo album right now?

Phonte: Yeah yeah yeah! Next year, I'm doing one. I'm kinda like...I feel like I wanna do one just to do one. Like I'm honestly tired of the album format. And its funny because Radiohead put out a statement a while ago and they was just like 'We're not doing anymore albums." And its funny because when I read that I'd been feeling like that for a long time. Not because I don't wanna make music, I don't want you to misunderstand me, but it's kinda just the idea the process to me of working on something for months on end; you know, sitting with it, putting it together, waiting for it to come out. And then by the time it gets to your fans, that shit is old. It's old to you. So I'm just kinda in a space now where I would wanna be more, maybe just release songs when I complete them. Or do maybe do a little EP or whatever for the weekend and do that, know what I'm saying? I dunno. But to answer the question, yeah, I am gonna do a record: We're shooting for fall of next year.

D.Scott: Man, I don't know if you have any idea, but whenever I would tell folks about this interview, EVERYONE was like "Bruh you gotta ask him if he's got some solo shit coming out!" So I'm pretty sure everyone's finna have a collective orgasm when they read this shit right now.

Phonte: *Laughs* I hope I can live up to that! I'm just getting started man, I'm only three songs into it right now. The plan right now is to do half-rhyming, half-singing or maybe more 3/4 rhyming the rest singing, or maybe one whole side of soul shit and the other just raw hip-hop shit. It all depends on how inspired I feel, but I know a lot of cats been waiting for me to get back to emceeing and I appreciate all my fans taking the journey with me with Leave It All Behind and Zo! And Tigallo and stuff like that. I appreciate them for having that faith in me and believing I could pull that off, so now its time for me to thank them for they faith in me and repay them. So I gotta get back to my raw shit.

D.Scott: That's what's up. Its really dope that you honor the relationship you have with your fanbase and just another thing people appreciate with you. Aaaand so you think you could perhaps provide any idea of the producers you'll be working with? Just a few names? Tidbits?

Phonte: Naaaah not yet! I ain't putting nothing out!! I'll let y'all know when its done! *Laughs*

D.Scott: *Laughs* Perfectly understandable! So, the second thing you made me think of when you mentioned Radiohead is the idea of artists who are also innovators within the actual industry of music. You've spoken before on Trent Reznor's genius in this regard, so I wanna know what sort of new moves are artists really going to have to commit to in order to survive in this changing terrain?

Phonte: In order to really make a statement, the only way any that anyone is going to be able to survive in this business is to really have a relationship with your fans and to let your fans know that you are in business with them and not with anyone else. They need to know that you're beholden to them and not any corporation, Proctor & Gamble, Warner Music Group; whoever. And the only way you can do that really is to say no more than you say yes. You gotta turn some shit down. You know, if you wanna go the route of just putting stuff out and doing anything for anybody and just doing this-this-and-that, that IS a model, it's a business model. But I think its a very short-sighted business model. To be quite honest, there are some cats who are like "Look, I ain't in this for the long haul. I just wanna make my money now and be gone." And I think if you posed that question to a lot of "starving artists" you would be surprised at the answers you would get, it is something to consider: You think about it, would you rather get 2 million dollars for a day, or would you rather make 50,000 dollars for the next ten, fifteen years? It's something to consider. So to the cats that do go the other way, I don't have no disrespect to them - every man chooses his own path - but for me, I think you really just have to get your fans and just keep them in your pocket.

The biggest thing that we're fighting for now, we ain't really fighting for people's dollars, you're fighting for people's time and attention. Every time somebody open up they Internet Explorer...well, I hope they ain't using Internet Explorer....

D.Scott: *Laughs* Yuh!

Phonte: But every time they open up their internet, they're getting bombarded with Youtube links, "Check Out My Free Mixtape," check out this, check out that, so when you do finally garner people's attention and you garner their good will, you gotta do everything you can to hold on to it and the only way you can hold on to it is by constantly keeping them in mind and thinking like a fan. And that's why Trent Reznor I think is just so great in what he's doing because he really thinks like a music nerd, like a music geek - he thinks like what a geek would want! *Laughs* And that's why I just have so much respect for him, on top of his music being dope, the dude just gets it.

D.Scott: Word. You quoted Nicolay once, who said that artists aren't really selling music - you're selling hope. What's one such song that came to you in a time where you really needed it?

Phonte: This was, I think...just off the top of my head, is "In Between" by Jazzanova. That was a record that I got exposed to right before we went out with Hiero for our first tour back in '03. I got turned on to it, and you know, my oldest son's mom at the time, we were living together and it was just bad. And a record on there it was called "No Use" To this day, I don't know what the lyrics are, but the hook is just "There is no use" and that just spoke to me 'cause that was just how the fuck I was feeling: There is no use in us doing this shit, it is fucking over. And so when that relationship ended, *Laugh*, I just played that joint over and over 'cause it explained exactly how I felt. It was comforting to know there was somebody who felt what I was feeling 'cause that's JUST how the fuck I felt.

D.Scott: And y'all collabbed later on, right? Did you bring it up during the session?

Phonte: I told him about it, I told him how much I loved the record, yeah.

D.Scott: We've all accepted it, for various reasons - There will never be another Michael Jackson. But I wanna hear in your words why you think that is. What it was about Michael and what's changed in the world that makes that so.

Phonte: I just think for a lot of reasons, man, I just think...There's just certain forces in this world that are beyond comprehension. Certain energies in the world that are just like "FUCK" - just beyond belief. And I think Michael Jackson was just one of those energies. The cat was just incredible in every sense of the world: Incredible singer, songwriter, dancer, just all around entertainer. From a business standpoint his loss is such a big thing, because he's the last of the mega-stars, you know what I'm saying? Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna are the last of those big 80's video stars. So he came up in the era of video and that whole kind of crazy excess, and that era is over in the music business. So the business won't be able to manufacture another Michael Jackson; they don't have the power any more to "make" stars because everyone's attention is in a million different places. Just on a purely business level, a recording artist selling 30 million physical pieces of one CD or one album, it just will never happen again. So that's just on one level.

And then just even on a deeper level. Its kinda sad...When I was in London and I was watching, we did a show at the Jazz Cafe, and the DJ was playing "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" - a song we've all heard like a million times. And people were out there dancing, singing the song and it was a happy sight but it kinda made me sad because you start thinking, who is something from our era that would make people sing and dance like that? What is a song from my era, from stuff that we're creating, that would make people just, you know, scream and you could see the look of absolute joy on their faces? And so on that level, its really sad, because there's not an energy that will be felt like that ever again. It was a hard blow. I mean, like, the best way I could put it: You know music is in trouble when the biggest rock star in America is the President. You know what I'm saying?

D.Scott: *Hella laughs*

Phonte: Barack Obama is a bigger rockstar than any rockstar. More people probably watched the State of the Union address than they did the Grammy's. Motherfuckers don't care. Just, an energy like Michael Jackson, I could talk about the shit forever. Its just something that we will never get to see again, something on that level: Someone being the most famous person in the world. We won't see it on that scale ever again.

D.Scott: Amazing. Thank you. Anybody you wanna shout out real quick?

Phonte: Ah, nah, man. Just thanks to all the fans. Thanks for supporting us, thanks for just being there for us and enjoying what we do. Look out for more music, we got more stuff coming: Me and Nic got stuff coming; we got stuff comin from Zo!; Carlitta Durand's new album is coming. Yeah, I just really wanna thank everybody for supporting us. Thanks, and come see us at a show!
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