Rap artists who try to confront the ugly side of America’s racist history, whether through humor and wit or with biting sarcasm and a big middle finger, always seem to find themselves on the losing end of a battle over being “controversial.” The observant intellectual or culturally tolerant can handle where K.M.D. is coming from by putting a Sambo image on the cover of “Black Bastards,” or the observant farce of Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” where a frustrated TV writer flippantly proposes a show entirely in blackface only to be taken seriously and have the show become a hit. Unfortunately the world is not full of culturally tolerant observant intellectuals. The world is filled with racists who don’t like to be reminded just how racist they are, from the openly hostile Southern redneck to the polite snobbery of a wealthy Northerner. One would think in the 21st century that we would have all evolved to the point where all races and creeds could collectively stand in front of the mirror, look into it and acknowledge our ugly past no matter which side of the equation we fall into, and then all agree to move forward with enlightened understanding. Unfortunately when scaredy-cat record label executives and goody two-shoe Viacom programmers try to be “culturally sensitive” by scrapping albums and banning music videos, they’re in fact trapping us in a world of fiction where nothing is good OR bad, just consistantly devoid of all meaning and duller than an unsharpened pencil.
Now it’s not as though Phonte, Rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder have set out to change the world with their album “The Minstrel Show.” Nobody said K.M.D. or Spike Lee were that ambitious either – well in his more egotistial moments the latter may THINK he is but he’s still just making movies. The most shocking thing may be in the end how unshocking these things really are if people would uncover their ears and open their eyes. Little Brother are riding a delicate balance between being beloved underground favorites on one side of the tightrope, and wanting to make a name for themselves as musicians and artists on the other. Of course Little Brother are far from a naive group. The very fact they and their farce on the minstrel show form would upset uptight conservatives and leftist liberals alike provides a reverse form of promotion used since the day 2 Live Crew was “Banned in the U.S.A.” and Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity. There may have been a time when moral outrage and condemnation could get movies banned from theatres and albums pulled from record shelves, but these days the more you decry it the more you whet the public’s appetite for it, and technology can easily disseminate anything that is no longer commercially available. Of course the hue and cry are often a cover for the fact that what’s controversial isn’t always great art. 2 Live Crew have their place in history and value as entertainers, but will not go down as the greatest rappers or songwriters of all time. Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” will go down as an ambitious film, but certainly not the greatest he has made. The one case where history may prove right is in the case of artists like K.M.D. and Little Brother, who intentionally jabbed a finger into America’s uncomfortable places not only to provoke a reaction but to use that dark history as a stepping stone to musical artistic truth.
Fortunately Atlantic Records executives aren’t as short-sighted as those at Elektra were, and even though MTV may have banned their video Little Brother has certainly not been banned from store shelves. While the cover of “The Minstrel Show” is probably not as provacative as K.M.D.’s proposed figure of Sambo being lynched, one certainly can’t mistake the album’s cover or opening skit as not being very much kin to “Bamboozled,” where it was not white actors who put on blackface to minstrel but black actors themselves. If you fail to move beyond this point though you’ll never get into what a gem this album is, more like the less controversial but ultimately more thought-provoking Robert Townsend film “Hollywood Shuffle.” In other words, whether you find them to be intentional or accidental provocateurs, Little Brother are still making some damn fine music. They waste no time getting right to the heart of the matter on the aptly named “Beautiful Morning”:
“Open my eyes to a new day, spread my wings
Takin shots of the Crown cause I’m goin through things
Everybody got they hands out lookin for cream
Coattails gettin heavy cause I’m livin my dream
Tryin to school these young niggaz it ain’t all what it seem
I still struggle like you, and I still hustle just like you
But it just so happen that
Big Pooh doin what he love to do”
9th truly is a Wonder on this track, which floats delicately along a layered jazzy symphony while at the same time pulsating with good ol’ fashioned headnodding boom bap. As the song unexpectedly transitions into the snappy funky flow of “The Becoming,” it dawns on you that these North Carolina natives aren’t planning to slack up or miss a beat throughout the album. They don’t. The haunting and philosophical “Not Enough” struggles with the idea that no matter how hard an unknown rapper or group works to succeed and makes good music, it may never satisfy jaded critics (point taken). “Cheatin” at first sounds like a stereotypical R&B track, but as you pay attention it becomes a hilarious send-up of the art form that devolves into lines like “can’t think of nothin that rhymes with fifteen” and “the background singers just fucked up,” still crooned with faux heartfelt emotion. You may not recognize guest stars like Elzhi on “Hiding Place” and Chaundon on “We Got Now” as big names, but that doesn’t make their apperances any less relevant or detract from the dopeness of the presentation at all. In fact it’s the sheer willingness of Little Brother to do exactly what they want that makes statements like Phonte’s declaration that their album “shoulda been a double album commemorative disc/cause hip-hop might need us” feel less like braggadocio than straight up truth. After all how can you argue with the dopeness of his wordplay or Khrysis’ beats on a song like “Watch Me?”
“They say birds of a feather often flock together
But me and Big Pooh rock together
And if not forever, I’ma reach to the sky
and keep flyin high like we got propellers
God damn y’all boys doin it, they stop to tell us
And if God propel us, to the top, I won’t go pop
No need to act a fool in public
Cause when you, ego trip you just lose your luggage”
Now that’s deeper than Atlantis. It’s not often easy to recognize a classic as being such at the time it’s released, because history often shows us what was overlooked or underappreciated at the time it was made. This is not the case with “The Minstrel Show.” Even if you think you already know Little Brother, you’ve only just been given the smallest taste of the infinitely vast potential this triumverate really has. Here’s hoping that for once controversy will propel somebody entirely deserving to the top, because Little Brother’s album has all the right elements. Whether being silly or as serious as cancer, whether coming with jazzy swing or hard knock hip-hop, “The Minstrel Show” hits all the right notes and proves not to be a minstreling parody of hip-hop but rather as true an expression of it as you’re likely to see in your lifetime. This one deserves to be ranked with the all-time greats from the esoteric works of Aceyalone and Blackalicious to the down to earth realism of Jeru the Damaja and Nas, because when history looks back it will say “The Minstrel Show” was their equal and then some, combining the best of both worlds into one classic and controversial release.