Phonte Coleman has been on an incredible artistic journey since the prolific rap group Little Brother released their pivotal debut album, The Listening over ten years ago. During this time he has released more than a dozen albums between his work with Little Brother and the neo-soul collective, The Foreign Exchange. We sat down with the Greensboro native to explore the moment he stepped out of his 9 to 5 job and into a career of artistic expression.
What motivated you to take the leap and pursue a career as a professional musician?
“It was a combination of confidence, stupidity and youth. I was definitely confident and knew we [Little Brother] could make a real go at it. The stupidity came in by the way I ran through jobs and took gambles. Youth is the time to really go after your dreams. The older you get, the more you know and with wisdom often comes caution and pessimism. After seeing so much of the world and seeing how things actually work-—I don’t have that bright-eyed and bushy tailed feeling anymore. Your youth is the time to take risks and make big mistakes. The older you get, the more your mistakes will cost you. My grandmother used to say, “God takes care of babies and fools”…and I was a young fool! God took care of me as a young fool…but he won’t take care of me as an old fool.
I believe in a universal law—no matter who or what you believe in, if you believe in yourself enough to step halfway out onto that stage and let go of that security blanket, if you have enough faith in yourself, the universe will see you through other half. Now, just because it meets you doesn’t mean you will automatically be successful but I do think there is something to be said as I look back on life on my accomplishments. The things that brought me the greatest joy and reward—none of them came without some sort of risk. None of it. There was never an accomplishment where I went to another level, professional or artistically, where there was a safe bet. Everything was a wild card.
Three dudes from NC [Little Brother] were not supposed to bring back early 90’s boom-bap hip hop. That wasn’t supposed to happen. A guy from the Netherlands and a guy from NC were not supposed to make an album together [The Foreign Exchange] without ever meeting and then receive a Grammy nomination. That was not supposed to happen. You feel me? All the things that I’ve done that took me there included great deal of risk involved. In my experience, you really have to take a big chance to get to that great place you are trying to get to.
Security is something that’s for prisoners. Everyone gets so caught up in the mindset of wanting their security. You can say you want your security but that security comes at a price. The security comes at the price of your freedom. You’ll get your paycheck every two weeks, on time—direct deposit. But you will have to be exactly where I tell you to be and do exactly what I tell you to do everyday. That’s the trade off.
Once I got used to taking the leap and swinging from vine to vine I got used to living in the jungle. The trick is never looking down. If I actually sat and thought about all the balls I have in the air. All the things I’m juggling. The financial pressure I’m under as an artist. If I actually sat and thought about that I would lose my mind. I wouldn’t be able to write. Knowing how fragile all this is can make you crazy if you really think about it. I make a living off my imagination. I go in my room and I create something. Maybe people will like it. Maybe they won’t. If you really sat down and thought about every move you were making you wouldn’t be able to do anything. You have to keep moving forward. Always moving on to the next thing. The moment I look down is the moment I feel like everything could collapse.”
What projects do you have in the works right now? What can we look forward to in 2015?
“Some releases are lined up for 2015. We started recording but I can’t talk a lot about the details for that project. I am doing a lot of voiceover work for tv. I’m looking for an outlet and this looks like the next thing I really lean into. I’ve been doing some voice work for the 2nd season for Back Dynamite on Cartoon Network from the same people who write the Boondocks. Im always looking for the next thing. As an artist you can’t box yourself. You never know what’s going to hit. Whether its music, writing, speaking, voice over, or me hosting Family Feud one day. If Steve Harvey hangs it up they can call me.”