Little Brother opening for Fort Minor at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Wednesday (February 1). $26.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
From the moment the members of North Carolina hiphop crew Little Brother began work on their latest recording, The Minstrel Show (Atlantic/Warner) - presented as a television-network parody concept - they realized that their incisive commentary on the sad state of contemporary hiphop was going to stir shit up.
Evidently, there were some discussions within the group about whether choosing such a provocative title, something certain to invite controversy and perhaps have a negative impact on sales, was right for their major-label debut. For Little Brother singer/rapper Phonte, it was the only way to go.
"If you ask the other guys in the group, they might not agree that The Minstrel Show was the best title," admits Phonte from his North Carolina home, "but I'm the type of guy who believes in telling the truth no matter how un-pretty or distasteful.
"Look at the state of hiphop today it's just like a minstrel show. And it's the same shit over and over again because the people in power at the labels and radio keep pandering to the lowest common denominator. Somebody needed to speak up about it, and I have no regrets that it was us that did."
As they anticipated, The Minstrel Show did prove controversial, but the surprising twist is that it had nothing to do with the album's title, but rather, with a review in The Source magazine and the subsequent resignation of the influential hiphop glossy's editor-in-chief, Joshua "Fahiym" Ratcliffe, in August.
"It all began when a writer at The Source reviewed our album and gave it four and a half mics out of five, and from what I understand, the people in charge Raymond "Benzino" Scott and Dave Mays didn't want to go out on a limb to support a group who weren't going to sell magazines.
"We had a higher rating than some other popular artist in the magazine, but Fahiym wasn't down with the idea of lowering our rating to four mics, so he quit. When word got out, everybody was talking about it."
While online bulletin boards and bloggers were all abuzz for a minute in mid-August, the Source controversy quickly blew over and vanished without a trace, leaving the members of Little Brother feeling as though a tremendous opportunity for some much-needed publicity had been missed. So was the chance to expose some of the intriguing behind-the-scenes machinations of the hiphop media. So what happened?
"When Fahiym quit, I called the people at our label and told them they needed to react to this shit, but nothing happened. This was a real controversy it wasn't like we were getting done up in blackface as some kinda publicity stunt. This was a genuine news story, so I felt they needed to get the word out. People should know what went on. But nothing happened."
We'll that's not entirely true. After all the ratings drama, Little Brother did get to do an interview with The Source. Finally, a chance to set things straight right? Wrong.
"We weren't asked anything about the whole microphone rating issue. They had some interviewer who didn't sound like she'd been working as a journalist for very long ask us some questions. It was like, "So you've got a new album out. How's it doing?' The shit was journalism 101 at best. I don't think they ever published it."
On the upside, Benzino and Mays were just canned by the Source, but it's of little consolation to Phonte.
"The lesson here is that the principles of business don't always apply to hiphop or to life. Everybody's out there trying to be a hustler and they say, 'Oh, it's just business,' but this is not business this is real life. Instead of being a hustler, why not try to be a human being for a change?"