North Carolina-born rapper and producer Phonte (born Phonte Lyshod Coleman) has a lot on his plate. He co-fronts the popular chart-topping hip hop group Little Brother; he co-fronts the Grammy-nominated group The Foreign Exchange; he co-founded the record label FE Music; he’s got his eye out for talent to put on that label; he scores television shows, and co-hosts a podcast with none other than Questlove. But, Phonte knows how precarious life can be too. For as rich as the years are today, there have been lean ones in the past. And while new opportunities are grand, what counts in the long run is growth and character. These are the ideas Phonte brings to his work and his many collaborations, these are the tools with which he makes new music today.
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“At the end of the day,” Phonte tells American Songwriter, admitting a truism about himself, “I’m a studio rat. I just love creating. I just want to make music, that’s all I want to do, that’s really it.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic flipped the world on its head, it also provided the opportunity for many to slow down and take stock of their lives. The result for lots of artists has been new work. Phonte is no different. These days, he’s in the midst of making new music with The Foreign Exchange and Little Brother. He’s also working with new artists like musician and songwriter BeMyFiasco, who is one of FE Music’s new signees.
“When Nicolay and I got our Grammy nomination and Leave It All Behind was a big success,” Phonte says of his The Foreign Exchange co-founder and their second record, “we looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, we have this platform, who can we help?’”
For Phonte, working with new artists on FE Music, it’s all about letting them understand a creative life is a long haul. A debut album could be stellar, but it might not hit commercially. Touring is hard. Promotion is hard. But it’s through this hard work that Phonte has been able to make a life for himself and his hope is to offer that to others as well. In so doing, the former high school fullback football player wants to help clear the way of obstacles for his artists. Phonte knows what it can be like to be wrapped up in red tape from a major label. He doesn’t want anything to do with that anymore.
“When we formed FE Music,” Phonte says, “I wanted to create something as completely the opposite of what I came up with in this business.”
He wanted financial transparency, clear lines of communication. Seems natural, but that isn’t always the case with record labels, unfortunately. Phonte experienced it. With the early Little Brother albums, the group, which was comprised of Phonte and his co-emcee Big Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder, went through its own struggles with labels. Later the struggles became internal. Since then, 9th amicably left the group, albeit after some rough years in the mid-aughts when the trio wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye. Nevertheless, bands can have rough patches, that’s part of the process. What shouldn’t be, though, is obtuse label dealings and confusing work parameters.
“The first few years of Little Brother,” Phonte says, “They were really rough. We weren’t seeing any money from our record, we were just pretty much depending on touring to eat. So, when 2007 came around and we had fulfilled all our contractual obligations, I was determined not to go back to another label. So, when Nicolay and I did our sophomore album, we decided to do it ourselves and we ended up getting a Grammy nomination for that joint.”
The origin story of The Foreign Exchange is an interesting one. The duo began working together over the internet, before ever even meeting one another. They found each other on message boards via the music site OkayPlayer.com. The duo released their first album in 2004 and then in 2008, they released their popular and Grammy-nominated album Leave It All Behind. And their hunch of releasing the album independently paid off—literally. Just as Phonte had hoped. But while money is good, what it really means is freedom and the ability to set your own creative course.
“Music gives me an outlet to express the things that I can’t express anywhere else,” Phonte says. “There’s even things that I’ve said in my songs that my family will call me about and say, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t know you felt this way.’”
For the 42-year-old Phonte, music has always been a staple. His parents were teenagers when they had him, so he would listen to the songs they loved, which were mostly contemporary R&B records like Luther Vandross, Patti LaBelle. But at five years old, Phonte heard Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and a year or two later he went to his first rap show and heard Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and others. He was hooked. He got together with Pooh and 9th in college at North Carolina Central University. They recorded and messed around with music in the dorms and eventually put a single out. The music then took them all over the world, despite its charming, rudimentary beginnings.
“We recorded our first album,” Phonte says of Little Brother, “in our friend’s apartment on a compact computer with some PA speakers. So, the speakers were always recording in mono, we couldn’t even hear anything in stereo. We had to record, mix it down and carry it to the car to hear it all.”
More recently, Little Brother independently released its latest album, May the Lord Watch, in 2019 and it was beloved by fans and critics. While the record (the group’s first in nine years) didn’t include 9th Wonder, it was praised. (9th has since begun collaborating in groups like Dinner Party and continues to produce beats for big names.) But it was important for Phonte and Pooh to reconvene and bring some glory back to the name Little Brother, Phonte says. They weren’t happy with how things had been left and they wanted to show each other how much they’ve grown. That energy came through on the already-classic album, so much so that fans came back in droves to shows and Little Brother has since earned new fans too. Now, it’s full steam ahead for Phonte in his duo. And every other musical project he’s involved in.
“Music has always been an outlet for me,” Phonte says. “It’s the universal language. No matter what language you speak, C-major is C-major.”