7 thoughts, feelings and reflections about the Little Brother documentary, ‘May the Lord Watch’
OPINION: The trials, tribulations and triumphs of the North Carolina hip-hop group are on full display through the lens of Big Pooh and Phonte.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
When Phonte Coleman of the group Little Brother announced in March 2022 that there would be a documentary about the group coming in 2023, like many people, I was excited. I have been a fan of the group since I first heard in 2002 when I used to use the University of Maryland-College Park’s tremendous ethernet speed to bolster my bootleg CD collection. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was downloading songs from what would be their debut album, “The Listening.” I was pretty much all in from the jump and have been through all of their albums, both as a “collective” (more on this later) and individually — in particular 9th Wonder, the group’s producer who has become a well-renowned producer, professor and DJ, and Phonte whose solo work, television work and albums as part of Foreign Exchange are basically the soundtrack to my life post-graduation from college.
They’ve also been part of my life because to know Little Brother is to also know them because of the group’s “are-they-or aren’t-they-a-group?” dance that has been happening (at least to us fans) for doggone near the entirety of the group’s public existence. The documentary, “May the Lord Watch” (which also shares the same title as their 2019 album) — released on Nov. 24 via YouTube — promised to address that very question and it did not disappoint. I would imagine most fans of the group watched the documentary and had a bunch of thoughts, feelings and reflections based on what we saw in the documentary, which did not feature 9th Wonder. I am one of those people. Here are some thoughts, feelings and reflections based on the documentary.
1. While 9th Wonder’s perspective is obviously missing, Big Pooh and Phonte DEFINITELY laid bare their issues with him and his participation in the group.
The biggest question for basically all Little Brother fans is one that centers 9th Wonder: What happened with 9th Wonder and why did he leave? According to this doc, he was basically told to kick rocks at one point because it seemed like he more or less benefited from being part of Little Brother while essentially just providing beats while he was off doing his own thing. And yes, the opportunity to work with Jay-Z (and Destiny’s Child) for 2003’s “The Black Album” was the point that seemed to more or less change everything. If you let Phonte tell it, 9th Wonder basically just provided beats for “The Minstrel Show” but the label wanted him to be included as part of the promotion. For Pooh and Phonte, though, 9th Wonder wasn’t really part of the group as soon as they started touring.
2. I remember going to see Little Brother shows in DC in the mid-2000s and while I’ve met and seen 9th Wonder DJ, I have never seen him DJ a show with Phonte and Pooh on stage.
Just like the doc illustrated, I absolutely remember being at the Black Cat in D.C. while Big Dho was DJing and hearing folks in the crowd asking where 9th Wonder was. I can imagine that being frustrating for Pooh and Phonte. Same with 9th who, it seems, wasn’t welcome at all, at one point, outside of providing beats. By 2007’s album “Getback,” 9th Wonder provided just one beat for the song “Breakin’ My Heart” featuring Lil Wayne. This documentary answered many questions folks like me had who were at the shows or who interacted with the group members but really didn’t feel comfortable asking.
3. Pooh and Phonte addressing what broke them up as brothers was as real of a behind-the-music moment as possible.
I often feel like when we get docs, we never really get the real story behind group breakups.
Not this time. I don’t have any more questions about what happened between Pooh and Phonte and why they broke up. It seems they answered honestly and sincerely and expressed their issues with one another and how they also managed to get over them. Like, I feel like if you ask ME what happened with Little Brother, I could answer that question. That’s a rare thing and I appreciate the vulnerability and honesty.
4. It’s always so amazing to me how regular celebrities are and how they react to the same things we “normal” folks do.
The more famous people I’ve met and/or gotten to know and the more interviews I listen to with artists I love, the more I realize just how much they pay attention to the same stuff everybody else does and how that stuff impacts them. The moment that brought Phonte and Pooh back together as humans was the death of Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. I’m not surprised by this because that same moment had a similar reaction for a lot of people I know personally. I even wrote about how hard his death hit me and how it made me reflect on both my own mortality but also the space I’ve carved out in the world for those who know and love me. To see his death, the death of one of the members of one of their favorite groups, be a catalyst to reconciliation (for Pooh and Phonte, at least) reminded me that they’re regular folks underneath the talent and celebrity. It’s always interesting to get that reminder.
5. This doc was really well done, and I really enjoyed it as a piece of art.
I had to make sure I pointed this out. This documentary was free on YouTube, and I still wanted to pay for it AFTER I watched it twice. It was thoughtful, considerate, well produced and really dug into the entire story of Little Brother, which is still ongoing, although minus 9th Wonder … still.
6. It’s funny how I think we (the fans) perceive Little Brother versus how the group actually exists.
I think that EVERYBODY views the group as Pooh, Phonte and 9th Wonder. EVEN NOW, after two albums without him and watching the documentary where it is quite clear that 9th isn’t part of the group (and we don’t know how he feels about it or if he considers himself essential to the group; I’d bet he does), I still think of them that way. The mural they’re standing near at the end features the three “members” of the group. That, again, has to be frustrating if you’re Pooh and Phonte who essentially have stopped viewing 9th as part of the group since they were TOURING for “The Listening” album back in 2003. According to the doc, they basically told 9th not to even join them back on tour after a certain point. Sure he was around for production, etc. on “The Minstrel Show” but I kind of feel like Phonte and Pooh would have preferred if the album didn’t read: “Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh & 9th Wonder are Little Brother,” which was clearly an Atlantic Records decision.
7. I’m appreciative that one of my favorite groups is able to have their story told and address their issues (well, mostly) while demonstrating how they’ve grown as men.
Seeing Pooh and Phonte discuss their journeys as men and as people into who they are now and how the music they now make can reflect that is something I don’t take for granted. Especially when we keep losing so many artists whose music has been essential to so many of our lives. Little Brother is one of my favorite groups, and I even got a chance to speak to them for my podcast, “Dear Culture,” and I’m just glad they’re both still around, especially after Pooh spoke about some of his health concerns. Phonte sharing his own personal traumas and how that has affected him raising his boys was also moving to me as a father. I appreciate them. And I appreciate that they not only have a story to tell but that they told it.
I’m lovin’ it.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things, 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).
Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.