'Culture Vultures Come In All Colors': After A Crappy Record Deal, Southern Rapper Phonte Started His Own Indie Label
Phonte, of music group Little Brother, tells Blavity about his fight with ABB Records and why he's betting on himself.
October 04, 2021 at 5:37 pm
Multi-hyphenate entertainer Phonte Coleman has had quite a celebrated career over the past two decades. The North Carolina-based rapper/singer/producer/podcast host has been a member of two successful music groups — Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange. He's also a co-host of the Questlove Supreme podcast and an indie record label co-owner, and he's even been featured as a rapping banana on Sesame Street.
Talk about range.
But with many success stories, there's always a moment when a rising victor has found themselves woefully slept on and underestimated. For Coleman, there have been quite a few. One such incident, from the early days of his career, recently found him needing a little help from fans.
"The ask to the fans is to not stream The Listening and do not buy any ABB [Records] vinyl for The Listening or The Minstrel Show — we do not see a penny from the sale of any of those recordings," Coleman told Blavity.
Wise words from Phonte pic.twitter.com/awdbTglJhM
— connis ® (@connis02139) September 23, 2021
If that ask sounds familiar, it's because songstress Anita Baker took a direct-to-fan route earlier this year while in a battle with her past label for the rights to her masters — her efforts would later prove to be successful, according to Uproxx. Comedian Dave Chappelle used that method to strong-arm Viacom for the rights to Chappelle Show, Blavity also reported. Coleman admits the rap duo was somewhat inspired by these asks to reach out to their fans in a similar fashion.
Coleman contended that he and groupmate Rapper Big Pooh have not been paid any revenue from album sales for The Minstrel Show and The Listening, and he also said they haven't seen a royalty statement from ABB Records since 2004. Once a trio featuring fellow musician 9th Wonder, Little Brother reunited in 2019 as a duo with 9th Wonder relinquishing any rights to work in which he was featured.
The trio of college friends, who met in the late '90s at North Carolina Central University, signed a deal with the Black-owned, Oakland-based independent music label ABB Records in 2002. According to the group, they were paid a $2,000 advance to split among the three of them.
"It wasn't a good deal," Coleman recalled. "But, I can respect even a bad deal if you honor that deal."
He continued that bad deals in the music industry are as old as the industry itself, citing cases where rock and roll legend Little Richard infamously saw his work repurposed for white audiences via Pat Boone. In more recent times, hip-hop darling Megan Thee Stallion has not only spoken out about a bad record deal she experienced during her rise to rap royalty, but she also sued the label, according to Pitchfork.
Last year, the "Hot Girl" artist requested an end to her contract with 1501 and at least $1 million, as well as alleged the label committed fraud, among a variety of civil rights violations. The Daily Beast reported that although Megan's projects amassed $7 million in revenue, she was only paid $15,000. While some may be shocked that such a popular artist could be experiencing such blatant deception, others may recall TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes giving the now-famous breakdown of what a bad deal can do to an incredibly popular music group.
"This is how a group can sell 10 million records and be broke," Lopes said before explaining the ills of the trio's unfortunate contract that left each of them bankrupt.
Little Brother's contract story varies only slightly.
Little Brother released The Listening in 2003, followed by The Minstrel Show in 2005. Shortly thereafter, they announced their departure from ABB Records and have since been quiet about any issues they have had with label owner Ben Nickleberry Jr. According to Coleman, both he and Rapper Big Pooh have spoken with Nickleberry over the past few years about money owed to them from the projects to no avail. But when ABB Records recently released The Minstrel Show on vinyl, the two rappers made their battle known to the public.
In retrospect, Coleman noted that there were a lot of issues with ABB Records, but that as a young man who was interested in making music, he took them with a grain of salt.
"Before the vinyl re-pressings, the thing that we just kept noticing, and this goes back to 2004 when we did The Listening, there was always a problem with distribution," he said. "People were not able to find our music, and when we would talk to Benny about it he would never really give us clear answers."
Coleman insisted the only reason he and Pooh have decided to publicly address the situation is that they easily obtained the masters to projects from every other label to which they were signed.
"When Pooh and I got back together in 2019 and we did May the Lord Watch, we oversaw it from top to bottom. We were essentially our own label, and we ran it seamlessly and we got the first No. 1 record of our careers," Coleman said. "That was such an exhilarating feeling and it was a feeling of validation, like, 'Damn, we could have been doing this s**t ourselves the whole f**king time!'''
Coleman said the two then began to rebuild Little Brother's infrastructure.
"Once we had the infrastructure in place, then it was like, 'You know what, some of these old records, I think it's up, I think it's time for some of these rights to come back to us,'" he said.
By early 2021, the two had obtained the masters to all of their projects except the ones on ABB Records.
"We had no problems with anyone else. So when people say, 'Why now?' — this is why. This is the first time we had the time to really just address our back catalog and just clean up all of that old business."
Throughout the public conversation, Coleman said people seem to be surprised to learn that Nickleberry is Black and that ABB Records is indie.
"People talk about culture vultures in the game — listen, culture vultures come in all colors," Coleman said.
Coleman said he and Pooh have been blessed to have great careers and, for the most part, don't feel too hindered by their early choices that led to the situation with ABB Records. However, had it not been for that, they might not have learned the joys of doing things for themselves in the way they have done over the past few years.
"I ain't never lost betting on myself," Coleman said.
It was a math equation that sealed the concept for Coleman. After teaming up with Dutch producer Nicolay to form The Foreign Exchange and releasing their BBE Records album, Connected, in 2004, the two received a deal agreement that would offer a $20,000 advance. Coleman said he sat down and ran some numbers to see what it would take for the two to release their next project on their own. They released the completely independent album, Leave It All Behind in 2008 and earned more than the advance offered to them following their debut. And so +FE Music was born out of a desire to help other artists obtain such success.
"The deals are largely in the artist's favor," Coleman said of +FE Music, which has a handful of artists on its roster.
"Me and Nic just thought, 'Okay, we have this platform now, who can we help?'"
Artists on +FE Music receive financial statements each month.
"I wanted to create an environment that was the complete opposite of the game that I experienced," Coleman said. "Our mentality is, it's not just about, 'Let me put you on,' it is about, 'Let me give you the game so you can put yourself on.'"
Among +FE Music's recent releases is BeMyFiasco, whose debut album, Where I Left You, is set to be released on Oct. 15.
— Phonte (@phontigallo) September 29, 2021
Phonte isn't the only member of Little Brother sowing into other artists' careers. Rapper Big Pooh is managing and executive producing an artist named Lute whose new album was released on Oct. 4. The rap duo teamed up as producers on two singles, which also feature Little Brother.
I watched my brother @RapperBigPooh EP this album for two years while also recording and touring with @LittleBrotherNC. Salute to him and to @lute_west9 for a beautifully introspective record. Sequenced by yours truly. #Goldmouf
— Phonte (@phontigallo) October 4, 2021
All in all, it's been a wild ride Coleman said he's happy to be on.
"I never thought my career would take me where it was going and I never thought that I would have some of the opportunities that have been presented to me. It still just feels amazing and I'm honored and blessed anytime I get to work with my musical heroes," Coleman said.
Among those musical heroes is his podcast co-host Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson of The Roots.
"Ahmir brought me into his creative circle and always did right by me. Even now, if I see I got a text from him or something, the 15-year-old kid in me that cut school to buy Illadelph Halflife will never not be amazed by that. The relationship that I've formed with him has blossomed into a friendship that has far exceeded anything I could imagine, that a musician I looked up to would even see the value in what [Little Brother] was doing — it's a dream come true."
While on the positive end of things these days, Coleman didn't miss the chance to liken the music industry to predatory payday loans and a casino.
"All this s**t is a gamble. There are no guarantees in the music business. Being independent is poker, there's a level of skill involved. Signing to a major — that s**t is roulette."
As an artist who has worked every angle of the business and held every type of deal from indie to major to his own, Coleman warns young artists that a major music deal will make you famous a whole lot quicker than it'll make you rich.
"Your name and face will be all over everything and you won't have a dollar to your name," Coleman said. "If pop success is not on your radar, I can't sit here in good faith and say that a major deal is going to be an advantage to you."
Coleman, however, wants to be clear about one thing overall: while he and Rapper Big Pooh are seeking their masters, the issue with ABB Records is by no means a setback to either of their careers. Aside from the valuable lessons learned, they've each had wonderful experiences along the way.
"I thank God that the ABB situation hasn't ruined me," Coleman said. "There are a lot of artists who haven't had the same good fortune, and they deal with a dishonorable label and it breaks them. Although, let's be clear, every day is f**k ABB."