20 years after its release, Little Brother’s ‘The Listening’ is still as good today as it was back then

OPINION: The North Carolina group’s debut album represented what felt like a return to the old guard of hip-hop.

(L-R) Little Brother members Phonte, 9th Wonder and Big Pooh attend their "The Minstrel Show" album listening party at Studio Dante August 03, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I have no idea how I learned about Little Brother. It’s possible that I read about them in some hip-hop magazine like The Source, though it’s more likely that my roommate in grad school put me up on them. He was — and still is — one of the most informed music heads that I’ve ever met in life, so let’s just give him that credit. I definitely had a burned version of their debut album, “The Listening,” well before the official release of the album on Feb. 23, 2003, courtesy of the University of Maryland-College Park’s kinda-sorta speedy ethernet connection. I downloaded most of the songs from that album while I was supposed to be cleaning data and doing regression analysis for my graduate fellowship on the voting patterns of young people. 

While I can’t pinpoint where I first heard of them, what I do remember is hearing “Whatever You Say” for the first time and being absolutely floored by how dope that beat was (even Doja Cat loves this song and Phonte’s verse). Produced by (now legendary producer) 9th Wonder (Pat Douthit) with rappers Phonte (Phonte Coleman) and Big Pooh (Thomas Jones III), I listened to that song over and over like it was the greatest song I’d ever heard in my life. The song is about, simply, hollering at women and getting curved by those women. I will never forget how hard I laughed the first time I heard Phonte rap, “So what I’m husky, the chicks still love, 3 o’clock have they ass running to Waffle House for me…” I instantly felt like I was kindred spirits with some rappers, which I think was part of the appeal of the group and why “The Listening” was both welcomed and lauded by rappers, producers and consumers alike. 

Let’s start with the sound. For three dudes from North Carolina (Pooh is actually from northern Virginia), the album was built around New York-era boom bap. The album is built around samples and drums, the essence of hip-hop, though most folks didn’t really view southern acts as having that kind of sound. Their sound was a throwback while being modern. Even the radio skits that tied a lot of the album together were throwbacks to early albums by De La Soul and others. The entire outfit — so named Little Brother because they viewed themselves as little brothers to groups like Native Tongues and Pete Rock and CL Smooth, etc. — was a modern take on an older sound that just worked. Each beat felt oddly new and fresh even though it was very much rooted in the sound of an era. 

Lyrically, Phonte and Pooh were speaking on and about topics that were familiar to me and using references that I and my crew of college-educated grads would make. They were literally the rhymes-and-life portion in a way that struck a chord for people like me. While Kanye West wrapped his early hip-hop identity around being college-adjacent, Little Brother — who met while students at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C. — were actual college graduates with jobs and problems and ideas that resembled a life I was familiar with. I wasn’t from New York City or Los Angeles. I was from down South and went to college and then graduate school and found a job and chased women. I went to the poetry shows and the club. I went drinking and hanging out. I watched the news and read the blogs and found witty ways to talk about it all. 

“The Listening” was an album that truly spoke to an entire demographic of rap fans. Even the title track, “The Listening” is a condemnation of the way folks consumed hip-hop, allowing lyricism to fall by the wayside. Thank God for 9th! I remember playing this album on repeat and being surprised when I actually bought it and found out that the version I burned was different. The album version included the song “Groupie, Pt. 2,” which I’d never heard. But MY version included “Altitudes,” which ended up on a later album, and “Nic’s Groove,” which was a song from Phonte’s project with producer Nicolay, Foreign Exchange and the album “Connected.” 

I loved Little Brother and the sound so much that I consumed any and all projects from the entire camp, including random projects like “The Story of US,” which is still one of the funniest parody albums I’ve heard. They tapped into a demographic of consumers and rap fans who loved all of the coastal projects but also enjoyed hearing music that seemed to speak to our experiences as regular cats living regular, though enjoyable lives. It also helped that Phonte was an amazing lyricist and singer, who even Drake (yes, that Drake) acknowledged influenced his own sound.

The trio (short-lived as it was; that’s a different talk show and an upcoming documentary) created a unique, yet familiar sound and aesthetic that worked for the cats in the streets and folks wandering through message boards. It was everyman rap with an amazing backdrop. And quite amazingly, set off a legacy career for all three members. Each has managed to stay present in hip-hop in various ways while still being very much part of the cultural curation of it all. They also managed to become one of the many messy are-they-or-aren’t-they hip-hop groups that have broken up which, in an odd way, has also kept them around in the consciousness for the past 20 years. As it turns out, a lot of us really, really care about Little Brother and their success as a group and as individuals. 

While their story didn’t start with the release of “The Listening,” it began for a lot of folks who were able to pick up a physical CD and then join the movement that was Little Brother. Twenty years later, that movement still exists. Every group doesn’t have a project worth celebrating  20 years later; they do, and we’re all better for it. 

Are you listening?

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).

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