Phonte Coleman uses expletives like a graff artist uses flat black, accenting the space around his words. The father of two is enjoying what he thought would be a quiet Saturday afternoon at his home in Raleigh, North Carolina when a basketball team’s worth of kids show up at his door, lead by his eldest son. It appears that a small overnight scrimmage has ballooned into a full court press, but Tigallo puts it all in perspective the way only a father raised on hip-hop could.
“I’d rather they be here with me than be out there on some fuck shit.”
It’s this unabashedly honest perspective that has made Coleman a coveted MC, singer, songwriter and all around creative force. Whether he’s knocking rappers off of their high horses (“Even though y’all niggas might not cuss like me/end of the night y’all just trying to fuck like me…”), exposing unspoken truths about love and relationships or pantomiming The Bee Gees for a politically incorrect cartoon, he remains one of the most versatile talents in entertainment today. It’s a quality that one of his oldest friends, producer Fatin Horton, identified in him as a teen when freshman Phonte was the young gun of their high school rap group.
“When he was 13 years old he spit a verse and one of his punchlines was, ‘My name was on the list but it wasn’t Schindler’s.’ Thirteen-year-olds of any generation don’t put thoughts together like that without being highly prodigious.”
“I remember that line,” Te says with a chuckle. “My rap name was ‘Psychological.’ I wanted to be Keith Murray meets Big Daddy Kane so bad. The group was the Eternal Atoms. Eight niggas just walking around and cyphering. It was the epitome of early 90s hip-hop. We were gonna save the world and kill all the wack MCs to the 10th power.”
As with most mutants, Te wasn’t aware of his full powers as a youth. He spent the next decade or so sharpening his liquid sword as a founding member of Little Brother, releasing four albums and six mixtapes as the group morphed from a trio to a duo before disbanding all together.
In 2011 he released his solo debut, Charity Starts At Home, which serves as a master class for documenting male emotions. Recorded and released in the midst of a divorce, the exposed nerves were evident. It was hip-hop’s Here, My Dear a year before Nas’s Life Is Good. Revelatory songs like “Who Loves You More” and “Sending My Love” gave unprecedented access to the mind of the married man. “The O.Gs say, ‘Cheer up’ but wifey wants a scholar and a traveler/ Hunter and a gatherer, and after I capture her/Now I gotta put MY spear up?”
He’d been simultaneously recording with The Foreign Exchange, a group he created with producer Nicolay in 2004 where he trades rhyming about getting panties for singing them off, churning out five albums and earning a Grammy Award nomination in 2009. They’ve just released their sixth album, Tales From The Land Of Milk And Honey, arguably their most approachable album yet.
“I’m really just at a point in my life where this is the most comfortable I’ve ever been with myself,” says Te. “So much of my 20s and early part of my career was spent fighting. Fighting people’s perceptions; ‘Fuck that shit. We can rhyme. Southern n*ggas can rhyme.’ Then it was the label shit. Fighting for The Minstrel Show. Then that didn’t work and now I gotta fight to maintain and figure out my place in hip-hop. ‘Well damn, do I fit in right here?’ So I spent so much time fighting for my name, my place and internal struggle figuring out where I belong. Now I’m not fighting no more. I’m more comfortable in my own skin sittin’ on my own couch in Raleigh at 36 years old than I’ve ever been in in my life.”
In a long overdue interview with WatchLOUD, Phonte talks about the new Foreign Exchange album, becoming a meme and what it really means to be the rap game’s Rolly Forbes.
WatchLOUD: Tales From the Land of Milk And Honey. We have come so far from Connected, brother. What has inspired the direction of the new album and the growth between the various projects?
Phonte: I’ve been at this for so many years now so it’s just a thing with me where I had to stop being so personal. So much of my catalog before hand has been me writing about first hand stuff. So this time I said let’s write and sing in a different voice. Let’s try on some other skins so to speak. This record came really fast. I wanted something that was fast and loose. So many people come to our shows and they go, “Damn, this is like part comedy show, part circus, part that” but we never show that side in our records. This is the first record that is a direct line to our live show. If you come to the show and I start singing about titties or some shit it won’t be much of a surprise.
It felt good to be creating again because in 2014 I was kind of quiet. I’d been co-producing with Nic on his City Lights:Soweto project. I had melodies for days, I just didn’t have words. That’s why a lot of that stuff was heavy Afro-Brazilian Jazz influence. [skats] That was all the fuck I had. But in 2015 the words for this album just came in one or two big waves. We looked up and we had a record.
Funny you say you couldn’t find words, because Add-2 was telling me that you don’t write many lyrics down. Is that still your process?
Nah, man. There was a period from say, ’04-’09 when I would write verses in my head without paper. I did about half of Minstrel Show like that and everything that followed afterwards (Getback, SBE, Chittlin, etc). In ’09, I built my home studio and the process changed again because I couldn’t make as much noise as I wanted. So from then ’til now I’ve been doing it in various ways; sometimes I’ll write in my phone, sometimes I’ll record a few bars at a time, etc.
On the new album I hear a couple of different influences like Slave, Spyro Gyra and 4hero. A lot of different textures.
It’s funny that you mention those because those are groups I grew up listening to. My uncle was a big Spyro Gyra fan. It’s a fine line in terms of your influences. You want to pay homage to them but me and Nic very much believe you have to put in as much as you take out, if not more. If I want to do a Slave or Steve Arrington kind of song I want to put my own spin on it and stamp on it, so that it goes beyond just mimicry. In a lot of ways we wear our influences on our sleeve, but at the same time we let motherfuckers know it’s our sleeve.
This is the first Foreign Exchange cover artwork where you’re on it. No architecture, leaves or empty chairs. What prompted that?
We just wanted a different look. With the songs on the album we had a lot of 80s influences. With Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden touring with us I really liked the mixed gender band and drawing from the Chic, Soul 2 Soul and Fleetwood Mac. That was kind of the theme. I thought it spoke to the type of music that was going to be on the album.
You seem to be having lot of fun, especially in the video for “Asking For A Friend.” You actually became a meme.
Yes, my life is complete. [Laughs] I made it. I was happy [when I saw it]. If that’s what people take from it, that’s what it is. I think that speaks to the time that we’re in. We’re becoming a sample, bite-sized society. You can look at anybody from Bobby Shmurda to the “Why You Always Lyin” nigga, those little things people latch onto they go a long way in our current day media. Out of a four-minute song if all people get is me pouring coffee and laughing at the camera then you’ve survived. You made it. I’m totally happy with it. Meme it to death. I’m good.
I Tweeted a while back that Vine is like the new sampling. They’re taking so little and making so much out of it. They have 10 seconds to get this joke off and say ‘I’m going put everything into this.’ It speaks to the genius of this generation.
Totally. I read an interview about a guy who designed the Windows start up music. He was like ‘They told me I had to come up with this piece of music and I only had 15 seconds to work with. So I had to come up with a piece of music that expresses an idea in 15 seconds. So when I went back to writing songs it felt like I was working in an ocean.’ I think it’s dope to see how kids now with Vine and IG videos…they’re saying just get to the good part. Give me the joke.
Speaking of social media and humor, your Twitter bio simply says “Rap game Rolly Forbes” and you have the the “Amen” star in his choir robe clutching a microphone as your avatar. I didn’t get it at first but I looked up the late Jester Hairston (who played Rolly) and it started to make more sense. He’s a fellow Carolinian who has done way more in entertainment than people know.
I would love to sit here and say I knew all that stuff about him first, but I just liked Rolly when I watched “Amen.” He was the old school deacon nigga that had the slick one-liners. He was an old guy but nothing got past him. He was still sharp. I always liked that about him. I thought that was a real brave character to have on TV. Most old people are relegated to being the pet in the house, but he could match wits with the best of them. I just like that. Then I did what you did and looked him up. He wrote a song called “Amen” and then that song was covered by the Winstons which became the “Amen, Brother” break, which is the most sampled fuckin’ drum break in hip-hop history. So in a lot of ways he’s a guy whose fingerprints are all over the place, but you would never know it. That says it all.
So is “Body” the official “Netflix and chill” anthem?
Or Hulu and chill or Comcast and chill. Funny thing is I actually started that one and me and Shawn Stockman from Boyz II Men were talking. I kind of started writing it with him in mind because of the changes Zo! put in it…it had a Michael Jackson kind of feel, a “Human Nature” thing from a lyrical standpoint. The opening line is ‘Winter’s cold has made a mess of me’ so automatically it’s on some hurting shit. I was writing it with him in mind. I was gonna give it to Shawn but once me and Carmen did it I was like we gotta keep this record. This will be the ‘I don’t wanna go outside, I just wanna lay up with you and watch “Narcos,” nigga.’
Have you finally gotten to a point where people know you more for Foreign Exchange than Little Brother?
It’s funny. I kinda have three different fan bases. I have the cats my age that have grown with me from day one and seen all the changes. They’re like ‘This FE shit [is cool] as long as I can get a bar or verse here and there I’m good. The FE shit speaks to my life right now.’ Then I have the cats who are a little older who only know me for FE. Then I have the cats in they 20s who only know me from FE and then their older brothers tell them about LB and they’re like ‘OMG, I didn’t know.’ I kind of exist in three different worlds and that’s fine with me because that’s three different checks. I’ll take it. What has happened now is they see rhyming as part of my arsenal, verses all I have to offer.
You can definitely do things with FE that wouldn’t make much sense for an MC. For example, I’m still trying to decode “Sevenths and Ninths.” Can you break it down for the laymen?
My theory is really rusty. A chord is any three notes that are played together in unison on a guitar, etc. A C major chord is the notes C, E, G on a piano. Now a seventh occurs when you add another note on top of that chord. You can go C, E, G and then if you want to add a seventh you put a B-flat on top of that. Then it sounds like this. [Plays notes on piano] There’s a little more rub into it. That’s C major 7. Now if you want to add a ninth depending on where you put it, you can make it the octave. If you want to add a little more tension to it you can make it C-sharp. That’s kind of a clash depending on where you put the note. Pretty much a 7th and 9th, they’re just ways to add colors to a chord, to just make things sound more rich, add a lot more emotion to the chord. That’s the long and short of it. I know some stuff by ear. Nic and Zo! could break it down more. They just add so much more color and tension. A regular C chord is just boom, boom, boom. But adding a 7th gives a little bit a of dissonance. So a lot of times in relationships you need those moments of tension and things that might catch you off guard to really make your point. So when I say you need a 7th and 9th you need those real moments of raw emotion and tension in order for her to understand how much you care about her.
You and Nic dropped Connected in 2004. Now looking back you’ve got 11 years, 5 albums–6 including the live album–and a Grammy nomination. What has this experience taught you about yourself?
As a musician it’s taught me that it pays to stick to your guns. In a world where music sales are going down it becomes harder for people to keep that faith. So it definitely has been a testament to me to stick to my guns. I did a FE show back in 2012 or 2013 in Houston and Bun B came out. I reached out to him and said look bruh I’m in town. I know you’re the first call that everybody makes when they come to Houston because they wanna bring you out and all that. But I just want you to be a fan tonight. I’m not gonna call you on stage to rap nothing. I won’t even let people know you’re in the building. Bring your wife out and enjoy the show. He said sure. Afterwards I texted him and asked if he liked the show. He said he had the time of his life. He said keep being yourself. Be true to you because it’s obviously paying off. So to hear that from somebody like him it just further gives you that validation.
I’m not crazy. Even with all of those accomplishments you listed off you never are not sure you’re not crazy. With every record there is always the thought that this shit might not work. I knocked out four in a row, but can I knock down five? We all have that same fear of the blank page. You can be F. Scott Fitzgerald, that blank page is a motherfucker. So Bun was one of those people that just recharged my tank again.
As ill as you are lyrically, when you sing you touch on things that men don’t usually articulate. Or can. Fatin called you the Sean Price of R&B.
Wow. Those are big words, especially now. R&B for a lot of time it became a genre that men just tolerated. It was like “Aight, we in the car with my girl and I’ll listen to this.” So for me I thought it was important to write R&B for men. I wanted FE to be a night that you and your lady can both enjoy. I didn’t want it to be the show the guy gets fuckin dragged to. I want the man and woman to come out and enjoy themselves equally. There’s a space where you can have your love songs and still be a man. Jodeci was that group that before the “Pause” and “no homo” shit you could have four niggas in a Honda singing “Forever My Lady” and there was no questions asked about it. I remember plenty of nights playing The Show, The After Party and The Hotel, we’d bump that shit after practice. The cheerleaders were out there and we’d be singing “Freaking You” to them. Shit was lit like a motherfucker. So yeah, I try to have that masculine element so R&B isn’t a place men just tolerate and can enjoy it as much as the women.
I want to pour out a little liquor for the “Black Dynamite” series because it was like every Little Brother sketch with singing and a cartoon to go with it. The parody songs you and Zo! came up with had me in stitches.
I had a great time with it. It’s one of those things hopefully in years to come people will come to see the genius of what Carl (Jones) and the writers were doing. Some things are just not for their time. It’s funny that me and 9th were having a conversation the other day. He was talking with some of the people from Atlantic Records and they said if we would have had then what we have now in terms of the Internet, y’all guys would have been something totally different. We came into the game prior to the Rik Cordero 7D video era. “The Lovin It” video was 65K. Do you know what I could do with 65 grand in 2015? So some things are just not for the time and maybe ‘Black Dynamite’ was one of those things. But I enjoyed the experience. To record something in your room on a Wednesday and then walking downstairs and hearing it coming out of your television speakers on a Sunday. That’s something you never forget. You just sit back and say I’m really blessed.
What was your favorite song from that season?
I liked “Bi’s, Trannies Gays” because I was shocked we got away with it. But I was surprised people got the joke and it went over. The funniest ones were the ones where we were doing gibberish. Sometimes they didn’t need you to say words, they just needed a feel of the song. Like the Bee Gee’s “That’s Not a Woman” I’m doing my best Robin Gibb falsetto in gibberish. I laugh at that shit like it wasn’t even me. The ones with no words were hilarious. “Black Dynamite” was the hook-up. When your man would get on at McDonald’s you get the hook-up. And like all good hook-ups they come to an end.
Thankfully you are not done with television. You did some work recently on VH1’s “The Breaks.” Will there by more small screen work for you?
The funny thing is “The Breaks” was the second thing. The first thing was a role in this HBO series called “Brothers In Atlanta.” My man Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle who used to write for Jimmy Fallon, it’s their show. Lorne Micheals is executive producing. Maya Rudolph is in it and I have a small role in that that could possibly get bigger.
While I was working on this Dan (Charnas) hit me and asked if I’d be open to an opportunity. And I said yeah, send it to me. I’m involved [with “The Breaks”] on the music side as is DJ Premier. He’s involved with the music and I’m involved with the writing for some of the actors playing MCs. But then at the last minute I gotta text from Dan once again and he said ‘Give me a call, it’s timely and urgent.’ And that’s the last kind of text you wanna get from a producer at 11 o’clock at night. But a role opened up and he asked me if I could do it. So I did it…I haven’t even seen it yet so I don’t know how much they kept, but it went really well. The check writers were laughing and enjoying it. I’m playing a character that a lot of my fans will find fitting, hilarious and in some ways how I think people see me from afar. That guy. But I’m so not that, so playing the character was a lot of fun.
Bringing it full circle, if you could give some advice to that 13-year-old Phonte rhyming his heart out, what would you say?
I would tell him to keep working at it. Your words will take you a lot farther than you realize. When I was a kid I knew I was good, but it took cats like Fatin and the older homies to be like “Yo, you’re dope.” But to me I just didn’t want to sound bad. I was listening to Kane and G Rap, cats that are like gods to me. I was driven by this fear not to embarrass anybody. Even when we were doing Little Brother stuff the thought in my mind was “What if Pete Rock heard this? Or Jazzy Jeff?” People that I would go on to work with. When Pete Rock cosigned us I was like, who wants to be the guy that embarrasses Pete Rock? Who wants to be Pete Rock’s West Indian Archie “I forgot a number” moment? I was driven by not wanting to disappoint. So I would tell that kid to stay doing what you’re doing and don’t confine yourself to just rap music. Explore all your options.
I had a buddy tell me one time some years back “Man, in the game you gotta use all the tools in your tool box.” If you’ve got other talents use all of them, because you’ll never know what hits. Nine times out of ten the thing that hits is the thing you’re not even the best at. Who would think that Steve Harvey would be hosting a talk show? I’m sure Terry Crews thought his life would be all football but now he’s a movie star. Look at The Rock. He was a fucking wrestler and he’s killing shit right now. So I would have MC’d and got my ass some piano lessons, acting lessons…thrown myself into all aspects of art instead of just killing the mic. I’d have spread it out a little more.
That said, will we ever get another Phonte solo album?
I don’t know man. This is what I’d say to everybody. This is the best analogy I can give with my solo career. You know how you can be with a girl and everything will be going great and then she asks you the dreaded question of “Where is this going?” And up until that point things were going really fuckin’ great. But now that you’ve asked me about it, now you’re making me not want to go on with this shit. So with my solo shit, if people never ask me to rap never again, I more than likely will rap again. But the more people ask me about that shit the more it makes me not want to do that shit. So to my fans, the best way to ensure that I do another solo record is to never ask me about it ever again in life. Enjoy what I’m doing now. I’ve been working non-stop. It may not be the thread that you follow but there’s no days off over here.
Make sure to cop The Foreign Exchanges Tales From The Land Of Milk And Honey HERE and check out our Phonte Coleman appreciation playlist below: