"The Minstrel Show” (ABB/Atlantic)
As the year 2005 began, I was busy closing the recording agreement between ABB Records and Atlantic Records for the services of the Durham, North Carolina hip-hop group, Little Brother. The jump to a major label was a big move for both band and label, and the first release by Little Brother on Atlantic was well worth the wait, the incredible album, "The Minstrel Show”, with its first single and video, "Lovin It”.
Little Brother ‘s music will appeal to fans of hip hop who revere the early '90s, an era that heard, among others, legendary groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest perfect their craft. Those who carry a fondness for that time and those acts have since sought newer groups, hoping to find worthy successors to place in such elite company. That generation need not search any further, because three of their own, displaying a commensurate love of that bygone epoch, have emerged as the contemporary link to hip-hop's past.
"The Minstrel Show” takes a hard look at the current state of corporate rap and r&b, with its glorification of wealth and fame, as the following "history lesson” reflects:
"In the minstrel shows of the late 1800’s, white and Black performers would blacken their faces with cork and perform as stereotypical, grossly exaggerated racist caricatures of Black culture. Fast forward two hundred years and Black people are still performing in these shows, celebrating senseless materialism, excessive violence, and blatant misogyny. Only today, they aren’t known as minstrels. They’re now known as rap stars. Chicken and watermelon have been replaced with rims and jewelry, turning hip-hop into one big modern-day minstrel show.
Such is the central idea behind Little Brother’s highly anticipated and wildly imaginative sophomore album, "THE MINSTREL SHOW.” The Durham, North Carolina-based trio of emcees Phonte and Big Pooh, and producer 9th Wonder, struck critical gold with their 2003 debut, "THE LISTENING,” a soulfully vibrant concept album that focused on a day in the life of a fictional radio station (WJLR, Justus League Radio).
Picking up where "THE LISTENING” left off, "THE MINSTREL SHOW” opens with the introduction of the fictional television network, UBN (U Black Niggers). After WJLR is purchased by UBN in a corporate takeover funded by the Atlantic Group, the station finds a hit with its new series, "The Minstrel Show,” starring Little Brother. The underlying theme is that while the group finds success and escapes their humble beginnings, they ultimately pay a price for it by sacrificing their dignity. Conceptualized like a low-budget episode of "Saturday Night Live,” complete with commercial breaks and musical guests, "THE MINSTREL SHOW” is a darkly humorous album that is equal parts soul and satire.
"To me, ‘THE MINSTREL SHOW’ is ultimately about responsibility,” says emcee Phonte. "As rappers, we have to take responsibility for what we say, and for the images we portray to our people. If not, we’re doing essentially what minstrel shows did: perpetuating negative images and reinforcing those negative stereotypes.”
Producer 9th Wonder offers a different take on "THE MINSTREL SHOW” and its role in today’s hip-hop climate: "This album is basically us holding a mirror up to our community and saying, ‘Look what has happened to our art form, look how low our standards have dropped as far as what we accept as good music.’ If we can make people at least think about that, then we’ve done our job.”
"We knew we would probably make a lot of people mad,” says Rapper Big Pooh about the album’s controversial title. "That’s just the price you pay for taking a stand. There’s a lot of craziness in hip-hop right now, and hopefully with this album we can bring about some type of balance.”