By Arman Kassam
Durham, North Carolina feels like the type of city that started breathing only moments ago. Its nominal skyline is nothing compared to the real metropolises of the South, and if you pass through the downtown, all you will see are the nascent establishments of hip entrepreneurs. Recently formed ramen joints, modern art museums, and local social justice coalitions obscure the rich history of the city — a history that I ironically uncovered only after leaving my home there.
Two important things happened in Durham in 2005. First, my mom and I moved there. Second, the local rap group Little Brother dropped their second album, “The Minstrel Show.” Critics and fans alike rejoiced at the socially conscious, technically complex and uniquely Carolinian experience produced by the trio, composed of rappers Phonte and Big Pooh and DJ/Producer 9th Wonder. They had already showcased their uniquely soulful approach to conscious rap in their 2003 debut, “The Listening,” and for the most part, the individual tracks of the two albums feel similar.
9th Wonder deserves most of the credit for this stylistic consistency (and brilliance). The legendary producer infuses his projects with a signature, time-warping soundscape that weaves in gems from the Soul era of the 1960s and 1970s. In “The Minstrel Show,” big names like The Stylistics and Bobby Womack make appearances, but more obscure names like Creative Source, a 70s R&B group from LA, pop up as well.
My favorite sample comes off of David Ruffin’s “Slow Dance” (1980), which 9th Wonder warps into an infectious brew of dazzling funk and rippling cymbals on “Slow it Down.” The spacey, addictive beat is a welcome break from the dark and biting instrumentals of today’s trap. This beat, in a way, encapsulates the thematic underpinnings of the album; it is deceptively sexy. The lovely serenade that is “Slow it Down” may be a distraction from the much larger political subject matter that the album addresses.
As the album title suggests, Big Pooh and Phonte assume the identities of modern blackface entertainers in a satirical minstrel show. The rappers are not only the emcees of the album that we listen to, but also of the imaginary black television network UBN, which dramatizes Hip-Hop culture to critique the destructive stereotypes of black people that mainstream rap music had been perpetuating since the early 1990s. The ethos of this concept album is nothing new. In fact, Little Brother’s namesake is based on the idea that conscious Hip-Hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy were “Big Brothers” in pioneering conscious rap. What is novel about this album is its overarching basis in an imaginary televised minstrel show, which makes it difficult to parse the pieces where Phonte and Big Pooh veritably rap in their own voices, and the parts where the two assume hyperbolic personas to advance their critique.
Little Brother’s critical attitude also manifests itself in the most hilarious skits I have ever listened to on a rap album (probably just as good, if not better, than Kanye’s early work). As expected, the first skit opens up the satirical television network with its own catchy intro, and the final skit closes out the programming with a B-side version of the same intro. In between are commercial breaks, audio recordings of stereotypical dads and hysterical conversations between rap fans. A handful of songs also made me laugh out loud. For example, “Cheatin’,” makes fun of the common tropes of mid-2000s R&B radio. Phonte as “Percy Miracles,” sings, “let me count the ways that I loved you girl …eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen / can’t think of nothing that rhyme with fifteen.”
But Little Brother’s overarching comical approach is occasionally interrupted by solemn lyrics. On “All for You,” Phonte dissects his father’s absence and his own absence in his child’s life: “So, Pop, how could I blame cause you couldn’t maintain / I did the same thing / … the same thing.” What once seemed like satire rapidly turns into melancholy introspection. Does Little Brother spoil their satire when they speak explicitly about stereotypes and defy the overarching comical veneer? I would not go that far, and in fact, I interpret these stark interruptions as another example of the “Minstrel Show” paradigm — as an example of rap-industry consumerism that not only feeds off of black stereotypes, but black struggle as well.
In the closing score, singers repeat the defining and chilling refrain of the album: “We’d like to welcome you to everything there is to know / This is our life, this is our music, this is our minstrel show.” Hypnotic lies that equate stereotype with fact infiltrate these final moments, and in the bonus track on the album, just when Phonte has had enough of the lies and is about to speak his mind, his mic is cut. The satirical black television network preserves the “quality” of their media by suppressing the rebellious truths of modern-day blackface. It’s no wonder that BET refused to air Little Brother’s music on their network.
Last week, I witnessed Reverend William Barber deliver a monumental speech at a packed Memorial Church. Barber, the head of North Carolina’s NAACP Chapter and the founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, was already a household name in Durham. After all, he was educated in Durham’s NC Central University and later at Duke. As I stood in line, waiting for the doors of Memorial Church to open, I had also just begun listening to “The Minstrel Show.” Coincidentally, the members of Little Brother first met at NC Central University too. But the similarities I found between William Barber and Little Brother began to transcend mere coincidence. Throughout Little Brother’s iconoclastic magnum opus, we find the rap group embroiled in a war against an entire rap industry that commodifies black stereotype, continuing the work started by the likes of Q-Tip and Chuck D. Likewise, William Barber follows in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., and not only in terms of ideology, but also in terms of a far-reaching fusion between religious and political organization. When Barber pronounced in the final leg of his speech, “nothing would be more tragic if we turn back now,” I could not help but think of Little Brother. I could not help but wonder if they saw the tragedy of dropping the torch of conscious Hip-Hop.
I left William Barber’s electric speech with pride. I felt surrounded by members of a diasporic Durham community who continue to give a small town a big voice. I felt the rise of a city — my city — whose biggest export is activism, whose greatest claim to fame is a legacy of change making.
Durham, North Carolina feels like the type of city that started breathing only moments ago. At least, that’s how it seemed to my 5-year-old eyes. When I go back home I’ll make sure to peer a little deeper, to listen a little closer. I think I’ll find the rhymes and rhythms of Little Brother still resonate throughout our nominal skyline. I think I’ll find that my city has truly been breathing since the beginning.
Contact Arman Kassam at armank ‘at’ stanford.edu.