Robeson County-born, Greensboro-raised musician Phonte Coleman has traveled all over the world, but there’s no other place he can imagine living than North Carolina. A founding member of the rap group Little Brother, as well as a member of the genre-bending music group The Foreign Exchange, Coleman appreciates the quiet, lowkey community he’s built in the state and the focus on his craft that it affords him.
Hometown life has made for an extremely prolific career that spans over a dozen albums, mixtapes and production credits on television series, including “Black Dynamite,” VH1’s “The Breaks” and “Sherman’s Showcase.” Host Anita Rao talks to Coleman about being intermittently recognized as a celebrity, his love of 1980s culture and dipping his toe into political statement-making this year with “Turn It Blue,” a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style video promoting voter registration and early voting in Georgia.
On Why North Carolina Will Always Be Home
Phonte was born and raised in North Carolina. Even after reaching success as a rapper and singer, he chose to continue living in his home state: “I've been fortunate and blessed enough to travel everywhere, almost. Nationally, as well as internationally,” he says. “There was never any place that I saw or visited that made me say: Okay, I can leave North Carolina, like this is better than me living here. We would always say, even in Little Brother, that North Carolina was the fourth member of the group. Living here just allowed us the space to really come into our ourselves creatively … I just don't think groups like Little Brother or Foreign Exchange — [or] any of the musical groups that I've been in — would be possible without me living here.”
On Work-Life Balance
When Phonte was a junior at North Carolina Central University, he found out he was expecting his first child. His first son was born just before Little Brother formalized their partnership as a group, and it began a long struggle to balance the demands of home and work. He says that it was difficult figuring out who he was as a husband, parent, and artist in his early career: “I just always followed the music. I think that was really the only truth that I had at that time. I was not very confident in myself as a father [and] certainly not confident and believing in myself as a husband. The only time I felt I got it right was in the studio or on stage. That was the only time in my life where things made sense, and I felt like I was actually contributing.” He’s since gotten better at managing his different roles and says that his eldest son also hopes to pursue a career in music, something he now has the tools to help him more successfully navigate.
On Becoming A Solo Artist
Phonte spent over a decade working within the format of groups and collaborations. Between Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange, he was accustomed to sharing space with other artists within each track. When he began working on his first solo album, “Charity Begins At Home,” released in 2011, he was stepping into uncharted territory. “At that point, people were used to kind of just hearing me in spurts,” he recalls. “[In a group], you got one verse. You got 16 bars to say all you want to say. Within a context of a solo album, you have a whole canvas to fill, and it's like [the] difference between writing a short story to now you have to write an entire novel.
He adds, “That was my first time ever making something for myself. For all the people that were like: ‘I wonder what a Phonte record sounds like,’ I was wondering the same thing … I was like: I wonder what a Phonte record sounds like. I've never made one. [It] was a process of finding my voice outside of all the brands and creative outlets that I’d given myself to … It was really kind of scary, but I learned from it.”
On Struggling For the Art
Phonte says the old cliche that great artists must suffer for the work is an idea he’s outgrown. “That's just not something I'm willing to do anymore. In my 20s, the first part of my career, I would be willing to work with people that I probably didn't like just for the sake of making great music, or put myself in situations that probably were not the most conducive for me, but it was just all in service of the music. Now, at 41, my definition of success is being able to pick and choose my battles and being able to pick and choose the people I work with.”
On Making A Reunion Record With Big Pooh Of Little Brother
For a time, Phonte and the two other original members of Little Brother, producer 9th Wonder and emcee Big Pooh, parted ways. In 2018, the group reconciled onstage at the Art of Cool Festival in Durham. Following that show, Phonte and Big Pooh decided to record and release a new Little Brother album, “May the Lord Watch,” in 2019. He says the collaboration process was much different this time around: “When we agreed to start doing it again, me and Pooh [were] adamant about [doing] everything together. Pooh would come up from Charlotte and would basically move in. We were living together. We ate together. We would go out and just listen to music. And we really had to relearn each other. That was the biggest part. The last time we recorded previously was nine years prior. We both had different experiences, and we had to allow for those experiences to speak through the music. It was like learning something again for the first time. [It was] like rediscovering someone. Just being able to look at Pooh and see how much he had grown … It was just amazing to watch."
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Coleman's birthplace as Robeson County. A previous version of this story stated his birthplace as Raleigh.