Meet soulful Southern rappers Little Brother. North Carolina crew traffics in conscious rhymes -- minus the moralizing

With their second album, The Minstrel Show, North Carolina hip-hop trio Little Brother are speaking to an emerging generation of disenchanted rap junkies. ”The new black face is jewelry, rims, guns, misogyny, and drugs,” says Little Brother rapper Big Pooh, 25. ”Even though that’s part of black life, that’s not all there is to it. You got people raising their sons and daughters, going to school, working. And we just wanna bring that balance back to the music.”

Rounded out by MC Phonte and producer 9th Wonder (Destiny’s Child’s ”Girl” and Jay-Z’s ”Threat”), the group’s mix of soulful beats and dark humor is a galvanizing antidote to the crunk anthems and ”screwed-and-chopped” jams that now dominate the genre from below the Mason-Dixon line. ”We don’t sound like a Southern group from 2005,” says 9th Wonder, 30. ”We sound like a Southern group from ’93 ’cause we grew up on Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Geto Boys, and N.W.A.”

In fact, Little Brother, which its members formed in 2001 as undergrads at North Carolina Central University, was loosely conceived as an homage to their musical heroes. ”We’re following in the footsteps of those who came before us and made great records, but we’re also finding our own niche as we go along,” says Phonte, 26. And he’s right: Rather than mimicking their like-minded predecessors, Little Brother have crafted a witty concept album that not only lampoons contemporary rap and R&B but also explores practical matters like relationships and fatherhood.

”Black music now is in bad shape because everybody wanna be in the club,” Phonte continues. ”If you’re at a club and a girl with a big ass is throwing it on you, the DJ could play the Smurfs theme song and that would be the club banger, like, ‘Yo, he dropped that Gargamel! It’s off the chain!’ Anything [sounds good] to a bunch of half-drunk [people] in a room with the lights off.”