Alert Uncle Disney: Durham's Little Brother is helping to compose the futurist "Song of the South." They may hail from the Dirty Dirty, but the hip-hop trio's fine new Atlantic Records CD, The Minstrel Show, challenges notions that Dixie brothas are stone country-ass and that all current MCs operate in blingface.
The Minstrel Show's attempt to reverse the tide of negative images generated by the Hip-Hop Nation's cultural producers comes not a moment too soon. Last month at Spirit Square, journalist Kevin Powell delivered his "Hip-Hop Summit" which engaged both sides of Black America's generation gap and laid out a nine-point plan of youth self-improvement. Hosted by the Urban League of Central Carolinas, his lecture discussed the failures of black leadership and probed the great divide between hip-hop's party-and-bullshit Spawn of Diddy and the self-conscious Sons of Public Enemy.
Granted, today's black radicalism is mostly underground, and the members of Little Brother are hardly the Black Panthers of rap that Chuck D and company were in the late 80s. But Little Brother's sometimes lighthearted critique of the genre still subverts a milieu in which supporting the Hip-Hop Nation's potential militancy has generally been abandoned in favor of lifestyle marketing. And closing The Minstrel Show with the old-school TV dead air signal suggests Little Brother is paying oblique homage to PE's "She Watch Channel Zero." This sort of awareness, fueling the trio's satirical "biggest colored show on earth," may be as good as urban music gets today.
Endorsed by the Roots' ?uestlove, among others, these Carolina rappers are succeeding on middle ground between artsy acclaim and crass commercialism. Down with Philly's Okayplayer and Axis Music network of neo-soul and conscious hip-hop, Little Brother's Phonte, Big Pooh and 9th Wonder defy the prevalent gangsta aesthetic. As when the Native Tongues still roamed the urban landscape, the boys are injecting intelligence and exasperation with formulaic sounds into hip-hop's public dialogue. Not only does The Minstrel Show creatively illustrate Powell's arguments, it also heralds the prime time of a new radical vanguard from the South. With its rootsy thang homegrown in the Triangle, can Little Brother effectively reverse the shuffling and the damage done by ATL's ubiquitous 21st Century Sambo, Lil Jon?
Not if BET gets its way: SOHH.com reported on the network's ban of the group's "Lovin' It" video in September. Coupled with a cyber rumor mill that's circulating lists of rap acts allegedly unwelcome on the popular urban music channel, it would seem that BET, currently celebrating its Silver Anniversary, is thoroughly invested in pimping the stylized violence, sexism and classism of the game's bling merchants. However, in an era when even Roc-A-Fella Records-affiliated golden boy Kanye West can rise to international prominence by denouncing President Bush post-Katrina and admonishing his fellow diamond consumers who are unaware of the exploitation of conscripted African miners, BET (and Massa Viacom) has become permanently irrelevant with its relentless parade of sonic Stepin' Fetchits.
Little Brother, teetering on the border of the conscious rap ghetto, obviously lacks the platform of Kanye -- or the genre's other primary current articulator of a "black" worldview, 50 Cent. Still, as University of Virginia scholar Eric Lott's 1995 book Love & Theft brilliantly reinvestigated blackface minstrelsy -- the cultural arm of America's "peculiar institution" -- The Minstrel Show reckons with the dubious changing same of this land's pop culture. The disc is concerned with the dire state of a genre born in the afterglow of the 60s Civil Rights Era, its great, street-driven countercultural potential ruined by counterrevolution, crack and crossover.
But Little Brother ain't baby Hueys spouting the agit-rap that's so thrilling to white negroes. Fitting with their Southern heritage, the trio's flow and vibe are quite laid-back; their critiques of urban music are trickster-like in the time-honored tradition of Brer Rabbit. Some of the disc's most effective lyrical molotovs come in the form of the hilarious R. Kelly/Ron Isley send-up "Cheatin'," by fictional loverman Percy Miracles -- a clichéd "skeet-skeetin'" narrative rendered as the musical equivalent of the late, lamented Chappelle's Show -- and the "5th and Fashion" skit questioning rampant black materialism. Deep down in the mix, it may be significant that the group hails from the land of Monroe-born revolutionary Robert F. Williams, author of black power manifesto Negroes With Guns (1962), but the guys of Little Brother are cultural assassins deploying sly grins instead of gats as weapons of destruction against massa media and Harlem World's Good House Thugs.
These are postmodern Shine rhymes for the UPN coon sitcom and Def Poetry era, digital echoes of burnt-cork superstar Bert Williams' sad clown anguish a century later. Powell's Spirit Square lecture, coming on the heels of Rosa Parks' death, touched on the fact that our elders still expect the struggle to be expressed in the sloganeering language of the 60s and that the youngest wing of the Hip-Hop Generation needs to step up to the plate of leadership. For our local young brothers and sisters in the life, Phonte and 'nem's meta-rhymes -- which mark Little Brother lyrical descendants of rap's late 80s apogee -- and their latter-day cult nat innervisions might prove illuminating in reviving the movement.
"Not Enough," featuring the D'Angelo-isms of guest singer Darien Brockington, is a hip-hop answer to the Stones' audience-mocking "It's Only Rock & Roll." The track's introspection suggests Little Brother will never be reduced to high-tech darktown strutters crooning badonkadonk odes, doing the Buck & Wing to solicit BET favor. These Brothers and their Durham-based Justus League crew are hip-hop purists whose redefinition of the Dirty South aesthetic is long overdue. Blingface and bounce be damned: the new school of Southland mavericks has stepped into the arena.
Little Brother will perform at Tremont Music Hall with The Others and Herron, on Dec. 4, at 9pm. Tickets are $12 adv / $14 dos, available soon at www.etix.com.