From Foreign Exchange student to teacher and Little Brother to big sibling
I was taken aback to see that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is hosting a discussion in which Phonte Coleman, along with chef Elle Simone of America’s Test Kitchen and Artists for Humanity co-founder Rob “Problak” Gibbs, will discuss pivotal moments in their lives. Not just because the event, moderated by former Dig contributor and current WBUR Engagement Producer Arielle Gray, promises to be a powerful session, but also because I happened to be there for a pivotal moment in Coleman’s life, the very day in 2004 that he met Dutch producer Nicolay, with whom the rapper and singer has since cut countless classic projects and even been nominated for a Grammy award as the Foreign Exchange.
I have followed Coleman closely, and so ahead of this week’s conversation about how the Gardner’s guests “broke through fears and challenges to invent new opportunities and change the scope of being artists in their fields,” I reached out to ask about his career arc and trajectory, from his start with the group Little Brother on through what’s up next.
Do you do many events like this? Speaking engagements, panel discussions, things of that sort? You can rhyme forever, but have you also considered teaching? Or is the microphone your foremost pulpit forever?
I don’t do a lot of them. I’ll get calls, but not really. I think as I get older I’ll have to start doing them. … Teaching isn’t really something I have an interest in. … I enjoy making music and I’m going to keep doing it until I’m out of here.
You’ve done quite a bit—the Foreign Exchange, Little Brother, appearances on countless records. At this point do you have the next couple of years kind of planned out? Or do you just kind of play it by ear?
The Foreign Exchange is definitely my 401k plan. You can sing and write songs until you’re 70. I don’t know if it’s the same for hip-hop. If you still have to rap at 70, that’s kind of sad. It’s one thing if you’re doing it for the love, but if your livelihood depends on it, that’s depressing. For me, doing the Foreign Exchange albums and doing voiceover work and my various income streams are the closest thing I have to a Foreman Grill.
When and how did you start to conceive longer-term career plans?
I don’t know if it was a plan as much as it was just taking a chance. Everything I’m doing now is something that I just have a curiosity about. Like singing songs—what is that like? And it’s the same with the voiceover work. I tell young artists all the time, Don’t be afraid to use everything in your toolbox. You never know which one could be the one that will lead to a breakthrough for you. [Questlove of the Roots] is a great example. As much as I love him as a drummer, the Questlove brand as a DJ is worth more now. He’ll tell you himself. You never know. I’ve always tried to take every opportunity that comes to me.
Do you often find yourself in a position in which you can school young artists?
I’m not the kind of person who’s like, Come to me. But when there are people who have questions, I tell them to use me as a resource. It was tough when we were coming up out of North Carolina. There was no one to follow, there was no manual to look at. We were just flying by the seat of our pants. So I tell young artists, You’re gonna make mistakes. Don’t make the same mistakes that we made.
What was it like to come up doing your own thing at a time in which the rap music on the radio was significantly different from what you were making?
It was tough, but it kind of whipped us into shape. Nothing on the radio sounded like [Little Brother]. Now you have popular artists you could point to that sound like that—you have Wale, you have Drake. You have all these groups that are fruit from our tree in a lot of ways. But not back then.
The lesson I learned was to just keep going. … I really thought [the second Little Brother album] The Minstrel Show was the end. I just wish that somebody told me it was only the beginning.
THE LARGER CONVERSATION: CREATIVE RESILIENCE W/ PHONTE COLEMAN, ROB “PROBLAK” GIBBS, AND CHEF ELLE SIMONE. THU 5.2 @ 7PM AT CALDERWOOD HALL AT THE GARDNER MUSEUM. MORE INFO AND TICKETS AT GARDNERMUSEUM.ORG/CALENDAR.