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Phonte Coleman: Music's unappreciated master innovator

UNIQUE TALENT: Music innovator Phonte Coleman

WHENEVER APPLE releases a new product (from iPod to iPad) I always think of the poor and probably depressed innovator who came up with the original idea. That genius, who spent ages creating and taking risks in order to bring something special to the world, usually gets little money and certainly no praise for coming up with the original idea.

Apple on the other hand cannot stop raking in money and accolades. Apple are more marketers and mass producers than they are innovators. Big bank robs little bank. That’s just the way it is.

I always tend to root for the little guy. Especially when the little guy is really producing the goods but getting little or no acclaim.


In music terms Drake and Kanye West are very much the sonic equivalents of Apple. Huge and globally recognised entities who shift culture, make shed loads of money and sweep up accolade after accolade (even when they release horrible albums such as Yeezus). But the originator who gets no credit for his original groundwork is none other than the utterly under-appreciated tower of brilliance known as Phonte Coleman.

I first heard of him via one of my dear friends, a purist hip-hop fan who only listened to and recommended avant garde music. Stuff only the true connoisseurs’ mess with. He told me I had to listen to this group called Little Brother.

He was so passionate about it he took me to a room in our university and burnt me a copy of their classic debut LP The Listening right then and there. I loved it.

A lot of people were drawn to 9th Wonder’s production but I found myself much more intrigued by Phonte’s unique talent. Crisp clear lyricism, heart-warming melodies, great comedic timing and impactful heartfelt stories. It was working man’s hip-hop: intelligent, brutally honest and firmly rooted in real life (hating your job, family issues, trying to get girls, struggling with your weight, etc).

ACCOLADES: Drake’s music was crafted by Coleman

What he did next should have earned him a spot in the internet hall of fame. He made (i.e completed) an album with a Dutch guy (who he had never met or spoken to in his life) over the internet - as in via email and MSN messenger (for the benefit of younger readers: MSN messenger was the Whatsapp of its day).

The LP, Connected, was an absolute classic.

The group he formed over the internet with Nicolay, the Dutch producer in question (another massively underappreciated innovator), the Foreign Exchange, remains till this day and is quite easily the best rhythm and blues group currently in the business.

Their live show is something you shouldn’t miss witnessing. Foreign Exchange has released 5 LPs in total. Not one of them is mediocre. They’re all genre leaders in terms of the quality of the artistry.


His innovative streak doesn’t stop with top-shelf hip-hop and r’n’b. He took listeners on a nostalgic journey when he released an LP of 1980s covers alongside producer and friend Zo! He recently wrote the raps for the VH1 hip-hop movie The Breaks which is now being made into a series. In addition to all this he was also half of one of the earliest hip-hop podcasts Gordon Gatrell Radio. His old Myspace blog was the stuff of legend.

Drake recently narrowly missed out on having the longest number one record in British history. A huge achievement. A few years ago when asked who his top 5 MCs were Drake, to the surprise of many, included Phonte on his list.

Many scoffed at this. And the reason why is simple: they were not listening. When asked who his influences were Kanye West admitted that he stole his style from someone in Little Brother: again it was Phonte. In fact, Phonte gave Drake his first real break in music. If there is no Phonte there is no Drake.

Phonte Coleman is a genius. A huge talent and innovator. Someone who is up there with the best of them as a rapper. And someone who is also up there with the best of r ‘n’ b musicians. I’d also rate him quite highly as a comedian and life coach too. My favourite life coaching line? “Every now and then you have to ask yourself / do you really want to win / or just look good losing”.

Phonte just released a new LP with the great Eric Roberson called Tigallerro. He will release a new solo album shortly. Buy them.

They’re worth it. And you’d be rewarding one of the true innovators, the engine builders of our culture in our time.

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