erasing clouds

Little Brother, The Listening (ABB Records)

reviewed by dave heaton

A few months ago I was at a memorable hip-hop show in Detroit, featuring Common, Talib Kweli, Gangstarr and Floetry. One thing I was struck with after the show, besides the amazing performances, was how well-versed the crowd was in classic hip-hop. Between two of the groups the DJ played songs from the past that I knew but didn't expect everyone there to know, and the crowd went wild, reciting every word in unison. I'm not talking about the groups everyone loves, like Public Enemy or A Tribe Called Quest, but the groups only true hip-hop heads are likely to know, like Audio Two, Chubb Rock, and Special Ed. These were clearly people who were paying attention to hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s, during the heyday of Yo MTV Raps and Rap City, when major labels actually put out hip-hop from artists who loved the music for the art of it.

Little Brother were clearly paying attention then, too. Not only is their sound-a lowkey with a base of soul and some jazz touches-clearly in the fashion of groups like Tribe and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, in their songs they drop allusions to the hip-hop of that era like crazy. Their track "So Fabulous," on their debut album The Listening, is an especially dense collection of references. There's imitations of lines from Eric B & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, the Jungle Brothers, Digable Planets, and so many more, including outright mimicry of the voices and rhyming styles of Slick Rick, Kool G Rap, and Nice and Smooth. And not only do the two MCs-Phonte and Big Pooh-allude to the past, their amazing DJ/producer, Ninth Wonder, does the same, throwing in sounds from the past to echo the rhymes.

But the lasting pleasure of The Listening comes from the fact that this isn't just a game of "catch the reference." Little Brother has a style of their own. They take after their forebearers but add the stamp of their own personalities. Ninth Wonder's music updates the past with a full sonic palette of fresh interpretations of classic soul and hip-hop sounds. And both MCs have serious rhyming skills and a presence that is warm, friendly, and witty, whether they're poking fun at coffee shop audiences or giving a litany of things they love. They spend much of their time on the mic battling, cracking jokes, and showing off their skills, but they're also not afraid of deep emotional terrain. "Away From Me" is a heartwrenching love letter to friends and family who are away, including those in prison and those in another part of the world. "Anybody But You" builds on that mood with touching expressions of love.

The album ends with the title track, which encapsulates the past, present and future. With the horn hook from Pete Rock and C.L.'s "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" lurking in the background as the ghost of hip-hop past, Little Brother call out to hip-hop fans who care about the state of their music while criticizing those who care more about what shoes they're wearing. It's a wake-up call for people worried about the soul of the music they love, yet it also establishes Little Brother as a crew to watch. They're genuine, they truly know and love hip-hop, and they're committed to pushing their music forward without forgetting about the past.

For more information, check out ABB Records or Little Brother's site.

Issue 13, April 2003 | next article

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds