You can find Chris Mitchell hosting podcast workshops and listening to the new Phife Dawg.
“A connection is a connection, whether it happens in the real world or online” – Phonte
Whether it’s by the office water cooler, in the barbershop, or scrolling through the timeline, music always finds its way into our everyday discourse. From blogs to streaming to social media, the internet has constantly adjusted how we engage in this dialogue. One of the most significant changes was the introduction of online message boards in the mid-1990s. Message boards, also known as bulletin boards and forums, allowed Internet users to post and respond to messages on the Web. For music heads, in particular, message boards became familiar meeting places to discuss, dissect, and decode the songs and artists they loved (or hated) the most.
Forums like Popjustice, ILM, Drowned In Sound, UGHH and Okayplayer—which writers Damien Scott and Benjamin Chesna credit as having “laid the foundation for most modern music blogs and shaped the way we discuss rap on the Internet”—all had their own styles and personalities. At their core, message boards provided opportunities to gather together in communion and obsess over music-related nerdery with shared enthusiasm—sometimes directly with the very artists they admired.
Concurrent with the rise of message boards, there was a group of young, ambitious men in North Carolina who were schooled in the trade of that ol’ boom-bap. They were making a name for themselves locally by shaking hands and rocking microphones while working, studying, and trying to figure out life.
This tight-knit group of emcees and producers called themselves The Justus League. According to the cover of their N.C. State of Mind Vol. 1 mixtape, the full lineup was Cesar Comanche, 9th Wonder, Phonte, Big Pooh (Little Brother), Khrysis, Sean Boog (The Away Team), Edgar Allen Floe, Chaundon, L.E.G.A.C.Y., Median, Mike Burvick, Eccentric, and Yorel. Even though DJ Flash’s name is not listed on the cover, he is still very much a big part of the Justus League story and he has contributed scratches and cuts across the JL discography.
The collective’s never-ending work ethic, creative energy, and independent spirit helped them build their buzz from the ground up, amassing a cult following of J-League loyalists. The Justus League were also early adopters of the Internet and used the Web to listen to and learn about the music they were enamoured with. Their inquisitive sensibilities and tech-savvy led them to exploit the internet as a place where they could “find their tribe” and extend their reach beyond North Carolina.
Taking inspiration from Okayplayer, Cesar Comanche, supported by his good friend, Christopher Bushnell, created a message board called The LAWN in 2001. The board’s tagline was “where the underground grows,” and forum moderators and members alike would champion this sentiment. The LAWN flourished into a place where Justus League fans and music lovers could build relationships through music with just a computer and a modem.
But how did the Justus League come to be? Why is The LAWN so important in Justus League lore? When did this fascination with grass begin? Read on as those that lived it tell the whole story (LAWN aliases in brackets).
Cesar Comanche – Rapper, founding member of the Justus League, LAWN Co-Founder
Christopher Bushnell (CJB) – Photographer, Producer, Digital Marketer, LAWN Co-Founder
Edgar Allen Floe (EAF) – Rapper, Producer, founding member of the Justus League
Phonte (Taygravy) – Singer, Rapper, member of Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange
Kevin Langston (Akshun) – Former LAWN member
Alex Acevedo (LEX718) – Rapper and former LAWN member
Von Pea – Rapper, Producer, member of Tanya Morgan
The Beginning of the Justus League
Cesar Comanche / Photo: Last.fm
Cesar Comanche: The Justus League started in 1999. There was me, 9th Wonder, Yorel, Edgar Allen Floe, Phonte, and Pooh. Yorel and I looked up to a group called The Lower Thirds who went to NC State University. 9th and Yorel were making beats and wanted to be producers for The Lower Thirds. It was a dream of theirs. Yorel got a placement on one of their songs. I’m saying placement like it was business, but we were school kids. It was inspiring, though. After that, I understood that Yorel and 9th had become part of The Lower Thirds. One day, The Lower Thirds had this show at a local spot adjacent to campus, and they had all the members listed, but they did not have 9th or Yorel’s names up.
9th wasn’t happy about it, so he and Omotade, the leader of The Lower Thirds, got into this big debate. I’m telling you, the discussion lasted no less than 45 minutes. It was two very strong-minded people going up against each other. I was in the room with Yorel at the same time. I was saying, well, why don’t we start our own crew? I said that maybe two or three times during their whole conversation. When the debate was over, everything was cool. Later that evening, 9th called me and was like, “Yo, I got an idea. We should start our own crew.” He said, “We’re going to call it the Justus League.”
Cesar Comanche and 9th Wonder have a special relationship. Their story is one of struggle becoming a success. 9th Wonder used to work at Planet Smoothie on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, where Comanche was the manager. 9th had dropped out of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and was roughing it, sleeping on Cesar’s floor. Together, using the money Cesar had made from sales of his debut album, Wooden Nickels, they went to Best Buy and bought a COMPAQ Presario.
Edgar Allen Floe (EAF) / Photo credit: Christopher J Bushnell
Edgar Allen Floe: I went to North Carolina State University, and around 1997 is when I first met 9th Wonder on the basketball tip. He was at NC State before he transferred to NC Central University. We would hit the gym, play ball, and talk about music. We spoke about Gang Starr records and we had “RZA versus Preemo” arguments all the time. We connected through these conversations. Later on, I met Cesar Comanche while he was working at Planet Smoothie, which is a pretty popular shop out here. Anytime I’d go in for a smoothie, we would just start talking about hip hop. We realised there were some cats at NC State that made beats. We went up to the North Hall, and we all got together in dorm room 308. We met Son of Yorel and Eccentric, and they would just basically make beats from the computer. I don’t believe 9th was producing when I first met him at NC State, but by the time we all got together, that’s when I noticed he made beats. Anyway, we all had a vibe, and from there we started recording tracks.
Cesar Comanche: There was a show on campus and it was by chance that me, Edgar Allen Floe, Phonte, and Median were all on the same bill. We had still not established we were a crew, so as far as performing at the same show, that was a total coincidence. I went on, grabbed the mic and said “My name is Cesar Comanche, and the next three or four acts, we’re a crew called the Justus League.” That was it. I guess nobody else had anything else better to do so cats kind of just rolled with it.
The newly minted Justus League began recording more tracks together, performing at local shows and expanding the roster. Even though the Justus League’s musical stylings were a nod to the past, Cesar Comanche looked beyond the three points of the Triangle area with dreams of building an even bigger audience.
The Start of The LAWN
Cesar Comanche: I thought “We’re these talented individuals making music, but there needs to be more—there needs to be a whole universe.” With Okayplayer, that’s a movement bigger than the music itself. It’s a community that they built themselves, and they’ve got loyal Okayplayer people to this day. I was like, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t do that.” I didn’t know anything about actual coding, so I teamed up with Christopher Bushnell, and he’s the cat who set up the forums. He’s a very sharp and innovative businessman.
Christopher Bushnell (CJB) / Photo credit: Christopher J Bushnell
Christopher Bushnell: My younger brother, Tim Bushnell, met Cesar at a house party near NC State. He bought a copy of his first album, Wooden Nickels. Then, we saw the Justus League perform at The Hideaway, famously mentioned in the intro on The Listening by Chaundon. I think we paid $2 on a Tuesday night to see everybody in the Justus League perform right off Franklin Street in Chapel Hill and we sort of built from there. It was amazing to think that we had that degree of quality hip hop in our backyard.
Cesar Comanche: We decided to make a forum because forums were all the rage at the time. We came up with our name, and LAWN stood for Love Above Wooden Nickels. Initially, it was just going to be a message board attached to my solo artist site, which it was at one point. Then we were like, we need to make it a Justus League board and not just a Cesar Comanche board, to make the whole movement bigger.
Christopher Bushnell: Before The LAWN, my first project was Cesar’s website. I didn’t know how to code, so I went out and looked at other websites, and I harvested HTML into Notepad. I cobbled together enough to build a navigation system and build a few basic pages for show dates, merchandise, contact, and all the basic things you’d need for a website even today. The message board was something a little more adventurous, and the big question was how do we connect everybody? Remember, this is before social media was an actuality. We understood the power of technology to fuel a music engine. We had high-speed internet, and we were coming out of the Napster days. We went out and found a hosting platform. It was free for our users to sign up, log in, start debating, discussing, and analysing. You know, all the things we still do on social media now. I know the Okayplayer forums were massive, but I do have to say, we were also on the leading edge of creating an online community for music heads.
The Layout of The LAWN
Invision Power Board, a service owned by Invision Power Services, provided web hosting for The LAWN. The company’s tagline at the time positioned them as “a leading provider of site and community building products and services.” According to Cesar, the forum’s running costs were around $15 a month.
In its infancy, The LAWN had five distinct sections. They were:
Front Yard: Culture, Politics, the profound, the ridiculous and general topics
Fence Post: Fertile ground to plant beats and songs
Get Live: Show info, discussion, reviews…
Media Place: Film, online, print, television, gaming, NO NWS content anywhere
Back Yard: Pull up a chair and read threads with classic status
As the years went by, new branches would grow on The LAWN’s collective tree:
The Clubhouse: Your source for official Justus League news and information
Dual Cassette Boom Box (w/ Auto-Reverse): The music love, hate, discovery and debate… is here
Practice Field: Cricket, goatorcycling, hopscotch, pole vaulting, swimming
Tool Shed: Can’t figure out how to make something work? Feel free to ask questions here.
All of the above meant The LAWN was the go-to spot for Justus League enthusiasts and hip hop nerds. Filled with hundreds of thousands of comments by true fans from across the globe, The LAWN became a vast cache of music-related history, theory, and laugh out loud moments.
Joining The LAWN
The Justus League members immediately saw the potential of The LAWN as a way to connect with new and old fans and were keen to make use of the box fresh outlet.
Edgar Allen Floe: When The LAWN originally started, I was there. I joined as EAF, and all the other JL members and affiliates joined pretty quickly. We instantly had a small pocket of fans that just knew of us. As Little Brother started taking off, more people started coming in. With JL and The LAWN members, we had that similarity as far as our likes, so we ended up talking about anything and everything. So it could be personal things, back and forth, jokes, and all kinds of things. It wasn’t all about solely promoting new records. Of course, that was part of it, but that wasn’t the primary reason we did The LAWN. Comanche would probably confirm that he just wanted to have a forum for everybody who supported us because it was just so hard for JL to get that support—especially locally within the Raleigh-Durham area. There wasn’t a major underground scene there. We knew we had fans from everywhere, so we took it upon ourselves to figure out a centralised spot for everybody to connect, which was the primary goal.
Like the social media of the present day, each LAWN member had their own username. Usernames were sometimes ambiguous, often humorous, and always unique.
Phonte (Taygravy) / Photo credit: Chris Charles
Phonte: Taygravy was the first email I ever had. When I got to North Carolina Central University in 1997, they gave us email access and I had to make up a name for my email account. I was just like, “Uhh, Taygravy.” At the time, me and my boys used to watch South Park, and there was the episode where Chef had a song called Love Gravy. We used to laugh at that shit, so I was like, “I’ll be Taygravy. Whatever.” It was a silly thing. I’ve got to make up a name for this fucking email shit. I used it as my username on The LAWN, and 25 years later, here we are.
Users could include small tidbits of info in the username profile boxes to give people a quick yet compelling snapshot into their extended personalities. In a stroke of genius, Edgar Allen Floe, a die-hard Wu-Tang fan, took a piece of his mini-bio and committed it to wax—or in this case, digital download.
Edgar Allen Floe: On my LAWN profile, I called myself ‘JL GZA’. I added that to a collaboration with Kooley High in 2008 called Water. It was one of the first times I met Rapsody. I said: “peep the mind of a genius, JL GZA” in my rhyme for that particular song.
Keeping in line with the grass theme, the early believers of The LAWN were called Blades. The naming ceremony created a sense of belonging and let the JL fans know how appreciated they were.
Edgar Allen Floe: If I remember correctly, the first three hundred members were considered a Blade. That was kind of the first official crew that helped sprout The LAWN. We tried to recognise folks for that. Comanche was big on trying to make sure that those initial first supporters were kind of separated from the rest of the bunch that came on as we got more notoriety.
The names of the Blades and LAWN crew read somewhere between a register for one of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s Playlist retreats and the original ECW locker room. There was B-Girl (who was a Moderator), Bumrush, Kuroisoul, Mushmouf, DaveNotti, Forbes, Walter Mosely, Cori, Kosyne, Absoul85, Big Keef, Swoosh, DaKidFromHaiti, AM Flowers, Fred Sinatra, 1st Born, C Royal, MUMBLES88, Lady Ill, Crash The Slug (Editor’s note: PoW’s own Dash Lewis), D.a.i.N, and thousands of others.
Christopher Bushnell: Cesar is not a big drinker and never has been. I’ve been known to enjoy a beverage. We’d drink a Bud Ice for every 1000 members that we got. I think we did that a few times. At one point, The LAWN had to be around 5000 members.
Other prominent LAWN members included folks who have done amazing things in the world of music like Symbolyc One, Torae, Supastition, Nicolay, and Illajide from Clear Soul Forces.
The International Presence
Showing hometown pride was very important on The LAWN. Before flag emojis were a thing, the Blades repped hard for their respective countries and cities.
I was a member of The LAWN and using my artist name, Kinetik, I repped for the UK. Back in those days, physical European album releases had special bonus tracks and international versions, I would upload these songs to The LAWN for the rest of the Blades to enjoy.
Alex Acevedo (LEX718) / Photo credit: Gee Media
Alex Acevedo: Many people from the Triangle area knew each other in real life, and it was evident in how they communicated that they were cool in person. Certain regions had bigger sub-communities on The LAWN like the DMV and Pittsburgh/New Kensington cliques and my UK brethren. I sometimes felt like a bit of the lone defender of NYC. I guess New Yorkers are so biased that it’s a bit rare to see us showing love to a unit based in the Carolinas, but I would wholeheartedly defend my city on The LAWN like an overprotective parent.
Developing Relationships with the Fans
The direct to fan approach of the message board model meant that JL members could build a more authentic rapport with their fans, which resulted in more organic engagement. The LAWN also served as a platform for other artists outside of the Justus League to promote their wares.
Edgar Allen Floe: The LAWN was the first point of communication that I would have to fans. I released True Links in June 2005, and I let everybody on The LAWN know that it was coming and that they could get signed copies from me directly. I had loads of people reach out. It was instant. It was easy, in the sense that you didn’t feel like you had to pull teeth to convince somebody to support your record. It was crucial to have an outlet where people know who you are, know your music, know your personality, and know you outside of being an artist.
Cesar Comanche: We started doing ad space at the top of the forums, and I remember people were advertising their albums and their projects and stuff. Only people outside of JL had to pay for ad space. Those who did had to make a banner that fit the specs and pay a small monthly fee that lasted as long as they wanted their ad to remain. The client just messaged CJB, and we’d take payment via PayPal. It was very cool because it turned into something that ended up helping a lot of people further their careers.
The LAWN clique fostered a spirit of finding, sharing, and advocating for all things dope. In the same way that blogs like Nah Right and 2 Dope Boyz would curate new music, The LAWN members would do the same among each other. The Blades had a passionate interest in lesser-known artists and would post the music on rotation in their respective circles every Friday. Artists who got name-dropped on the threads include Emilio Rojas, Silent Knight, Keelay and Zaire, Strange Fruit Project, Splash G, Shelly B, Jozeemo, Joe Scudda, Dan Johns, The Thyrday, K-Hill, Dynas, Dasan Ahanu, and The A.L.L.I.E.S.
Kevin Langston (Akshun) / Photo: Kevin Langston
Akshun: What I Ioved about The LAWN was learning about new music and artists. The LAWN is how I discovered Oddisee and Black Milk. It’s where I got put on to Nervous Reck, who used to be rap partners with J Cole. A Dot from The Standouts was a member of The LAWN, and now he produces for a lot of underground artists like Ty Farris, Jamal Gasol, and RIM. Skyzoo was a big name on The LAWN too. I can’t forget about King Mez. He ended up on Dr Dre’s Compton album.
As an online community, The LAWN would water its grass from within. Several collaborations took place among the members through connections or mutual relationships. Justus League members in particular would work in partnership with the Blades across several of their independent releases on various labels. In Episode 146 of Breaking Atoms, Khrysis revealed that he met Low Budget member Kenn Starr on The LAWN. They collaborated on The Same from The Starr Report and Waitin’ On You, found on Kenn’s Starr Status album.
Edgar Allen Floe: Christopher Bushnell helped with the design layout for True Links. We went around Raleigh and different areas on NC State’s campus. There was an extension of NC State at the time called Centennial Campus, and we went up there, took a few different shots, took a couple of train track related shots, and Chris pieced them all together for them for the main cover playing on the idea of true links.
Floe is a producer in his own right. Under the alias of Slicemysta, he’s produced several tracks for his solo and group projects. However, when he needed outsourced heat, he went straight to The LAWN.
Edgar Allen Floe: Illmind is now a Grammy Award-winning producer, and he was also on The LAWN. I sent him a message and said, “Hey, let’s work on something,” and he was down with it. He sent me the beat for the track called I For An I. My brother, DJ Flash, always tells me that’s one of his favourite joints. I also worked with another LAWN member, Obsidian Blue, on the same project. He produced the song Timelife.
Christopher Bushnell: For True Links, one of my friends, ‘Philly’ Joe Flaherty, did the photoshoot. Joe also took the cover photograph of L.E.G.A.C.Y. for his Legsclusives project with him outside of an elevator. That was at Missie Ann Studios, where the Justus League would record. Since then, he’s started his own custom auto aftermarket product business and travelled across Europe, often taking pictures of incredible cars. I worked on a lot of collaborations with the guys. I did the Paper Gods album art for Cesar. I got to produce a remix for Land Of Hate that sampled Gil Scott Heron’s “Pieces Of A Man.”
Edgar Allen Floe: Jerry Juliano started an independent label around 2004 called Neblina Records. We connected on The LAWN, and I did a joint for his label compilation album, Definition, called the Streetwise Remix, produced by Khrysis. Jerry also signed Rashid Hadee, who produced tracks for Little Brother later on.
Christopher Bushnell: Amen is another artist from The LAWN. He also worked with DJ Forge. We met up because of the forums. One time, he came up from South Carolina. We went out, ate chicken wings and got drunk. Before the weekend was over, he and L.E.G.A.C.Y. had recorded “Fugitives.”
Akshun: We also had song competitions among the members. The Blades randomly picked rappers and producers to create songs together, and we’d all judge which song was the best. I met a lot of producers on the site like Jah Freedom, N1lla, and N-D.
LEX718: The LAWN introduced me to so many talented individuals. I owe good contributions of my early solo material to The LAWN due to connections I made within the community. Many of these relationships are longstanding. My man Buck, with whom I’m gearing up to release my second full-length album, relocated from Venice to Brooklyn. That guy is incredible. Laif called him the best producer on The LAWN once, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue. His beats are phenomenal. Next up, my bro VEX aka LR Hook. His beats punch you in the gut, and when I need that, he’s always got it for me. I need to give major props to my man Origimoz. That dude was only sixteen when we first connected, and his music was blowing away all competition. When I got an Origimoz beat, I had to be on my A-Game.
Finally, I have to shout out KingVerse, who had such a unique sound of his own. At the time, it was astonishing that I could connect with someone from Iceland over our mutual love and respect of hip hop.
The LAWN members produced many loose tracks, guest features, and albums. There were even talks about making a LAWN mixtape featuring original music from some Blades which unfortunately never materialised. However, one JL member discovered a musical talent nestled among the blades of grass who ended up becoming one of his closest friends and collaborators for the next decade and a half.
Phonte: Zo! was on The LAWN here and there. I remember his name was Musical Architect. At that time, everybody would post Little Brother remixes, which is why we stopped letting acapellas go because people kept fucking our shit up. My thing with the remixes was our joints got singing in them. So it’s easy for producers to match up the BPMs and get the rhymes laying right, and even sometimes they couldn’t do that shit. But when the singing comes in, I’m like, if this beat is not in the right key, this is going to sound like a goddamn mess.
I’d hear different remixes of “The Way You Do It,” and you know, I’m like, “Okay, I listened to the verses, so what’s this hook going to sound like?” When I heard Zo!’s remix, I thought to myself, “Ah, he gets it because everything was sitting right where it was supposed to be at.” Zo! and I met a year or so later at a show in Ann Arbor, if I’m not mistaken. We’ve ended up working together for the last 15 years doing TV, doing records, the whole nine.
Zo! (Musical Architect) / Photo credit: Chris Charles
Many other collaborations took place via LAWN. These joint efforts meant that some Blades were very hands-on with many Justus League affairs, including branding and marketing.
Tobias Rose is the Founder and Brand Strategist at Kompleks Creative which has grown into a major creative agency in Durham, North Carolina. Tobias and his team get credits for graphic design and photography work on several JL releases, including the album art for Training Day by The Away Team and 9th Wonder’s The Dream Merchant 2, as well as The Foreign Exchange’s logo.
DJ KO is the Founder of Elementality Productions. Alongside Shaman Work Recordings, he released his Picture This… compilation in 2008, which featured guest appearances from Phonte, Sean Boog, and Chaundon, as well as production from 9th Wonder and Khrysis.
Slopfunkdust is a producer whose credits include work with Cunninlynguists, Grand Agent, Truth Enola, Dutchmassive, and Mr Lif. Slop designed the first Little Brother website back in 2002 and recently shared some unearthed screenshots on Twitter. His Sloppy Chulo’s Dirty Pornstar Remix of “Whatever You Say” from The Listening is an LB cheat code. If you know, you know.
The remixes would continue when 9th Wonder remixed Kaze’s Spirit of 94 album. Kaze is a highly skilled emcee from Chapel Hill, North Carolina who has been “fluent in ebonics since Snoop smoked chronic.” The revamped album was called Spirit of 94: Version 9.0 and sounded like an entirely new body of work. The well-received project helped introduce Kaze to an even wider audience as well as help to further claim 9th’s stake as a trendsetter in remixing whole albums. The original blue-tinted CDr copy of Spirit of 94: Version 9.0 was sold in limited amounts through online stores, including www.hiphopsite.com, in 2004. Boston’s Brick Records then picked up the album and gave it an official worldwide release the following year. Kaze would later sign to SRC/Universal and release a DJ Whoo Kid hosted mixtape called First In Flight.
Growing Like Grass with the Mass Appeal
Word about The LAWN spread through blog posts, emails, and good old word of mouth. JL artists would also include The LAWN’s URL in the liner notes of some of their official releases, encouraging fans to join the forum and “voice their thoughts and opinions to promote music to a higher level.” The LAWN would find itself on the larger radar as Little Brother gained national attention. However, an unfortunate incident took place on 29th April 2002 in Raleigh involving Talib Kweli, which also got people curious about the Justus League message board.
Christopher Bushnell: I wasn’t there, so this is not firsthand. But what is for sure is that there was an incident at the Lincoln Theater involving Talib Kweli and his crew. A local promoter had arranged for him to be there. Long story short, some shit got talked, and a fight broke out. Talib was injured and fans discussed it on our message forums. Someone linked to our posts on Okayplayer, and I guess it drew attention towards The LAWN because of the sensational nature of the story. That probably expanded the people registering and knowing that we were there.
With more eyes on The LAWN, there was an increase in member sign-ups, posts, replies, and backlinks to and from other websites. JL members in particular, began to receive more interest not only in their music but their lives outside of the recording studio – meal choices included.
Phonte: From late 2004 to around the top of 2006, I was a vegetarian and, you know, I did feel good. But one day I fell off the wagon, man—I had some damn chicken. Man, that shit was just calling my ass. Like, I couldn’t say no, and I couldn’t let go. I just decided to write about it and post it on The LAWN. That shit went everywhere. That was one of the first moments when I understood that more people were listening to me than I realised. I saw that if you wrote some shit on Okayplayer, you might end up in a press release later on. But The LAWN was kind of my secret hideout. I mean, at least as secret as you can be on the fucking internet. We were a much smaller community. So I was like, alright, I’m in here just kicking it with my niggas. We’re just shooting the shit. But the moment I realised that shit was real was when I posted my review of Mobb Deep’s Blood Money album.
Mobb Deep signed with G Unit in 2005 and released their 50 Cent-backed album, Blood Money, in May 2006. Phonte, a day one fan of the group, was not impressed with the album at the time. He was never one to hold back his tongue or keyboard, so he posted his thoughts on The LAWN:
“Mobb Deep is gone. Club Mobb is what you have now. And you can either take it or leave it.” – Phonte
The internet caught fire and many major outlets picked up on the “story,” including HipHopDX. There was a flurry of replies in the original LAWN thread. Some agreed with Phonte while others took a more objective approach by listing their favourite songs. As expected, some people disagreed with Phonte’s assessment. Noone disagreed more than the late, great Albert Johnson, also known as Prodigy from Mobb Deep. Prodigy replied to Phonte in a blog post of his own, calling him “one of the members of this corny ass group called little brother.” Yes, Prodigy wrote the group’s name in lower case.
Phonte: We had another little sub chat on The LAWN that people didn’t know about where only JL members could talk. I remember going into our little side chat and saying, “Hey man, there are more eyes on us than we realised.” For me, it wasn’t about being scared, but I let everybody know that The LAWN was no longer this quiet little underground place where we could just kick it with the fans and homies. After that, I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to pull back on all this shit.”
For Phonte, it was a lesson learned about the power of his voice and reach through the internet. Thankfully, through the wonders of podcasting, Phonte and Prodigy could revisit the QWERTY-based quarrel with mature perspectives.
Phonte: We interviewed Prodigy on Questlove Supreme before he passed. I’m so thankful I got a chance to do that. I brought up my Blood Money review with him, and he was like, “Yeah, I remember. You said we got rich and stopped trying.” I’ll never forget this shit, man. He said, “I was in jail and I was sitting thinking about what you wrote, and you were right.” I told him that I never thought he would ever read that shit. Dude, we were just nerds on the fucking internet talking about rap. Who thinks that Prodigy will read this shit and is going to fucking care what we believe? That just wasn’t a thought in my mind.
On 23rd October 2007, Little Brother released their third album, Getback. After the critical success and controversy surrounding their second effort, The Minstrel Show, there was a lot of anticipation around the project. When LB announced that 9th Wonder was no longer a part of the group, The LAWN was in a frenzy with questions, comments, more questions, concerns and even more questions. 9th did produce one track on the album, Breakin’ My Heart featuring Lil’ Wayne, but it was apparent that things had changed.
Phonte: Getback was just the end for me. I was fucking exhausted, man. It was our third album, and we hadn’t had a record come out the way we wanted. Musically, all our records came out the way we wanted, but not how the record labels handled them. Our distribution was fucked up with The Minstrel Show, but you know, Atlantic took a chance on us, and I have no smoke with them at all. I think we were just a little too early for them, and they didn’t know what to do with us, so we kind of got caught in that crossfire. By the time we got to Getback, 9th’s out of the group and we’re still on Atlantic trying to figure it out. Finally, we got our release from Atlantic, which was great. Before dropping Getback, I was like, “Listen: when this record comes out, I’m finished with all you motherfuckers. I don’t owe you another goddamn album.” I’m contractually bound to no one, and that’s how I want to live my life forever.
In September 2021, Phonte and Pooh expressed their displeasure with the lack of financial remuneration received on their part for The Listening, which has already seen numerous vinyl reissues. Many LB fans protested and refused to support the releases knowing that Phonte and Pooh would not get any bread on the back end. Grateful for the show of public support, Phonte posted a video to Instagram where he beat his chest and proudly declared:
“I can wholeheartedly say I have never taken a loss betting on myself” – Phonte
This artistic streak and rebellious spirit are not new for Phonte. Mere days before Getback’s scheduled release, an incomplete version of the album leaked. Instead of throwing his laptop into the Neuse River, he took the bull by the horns and leaked the full version of the album to The LAWN and Okayplayer.
The shock and excitement were tangible and fans put their modems to work. Upon downloading the zip folder and dragging the files into their music players of choice, there was a message from Phonte himself saying, “You can’t say I don’t do anything for y’all niggas”, embedded in the genre field metadata.
Phonte: We were back on ABB Records for Getback, which is a crazy story in itself. The record was supposed to come on one day, but it got pushed back because Beni B fucked something up. I can’t remember. But anyway, the record leaked, and we all knew it was going to leak. So one of my homies hit me, and he’s like, “Yo man, the record is out.” I downloaded it for myself, and I saw it was missing a track. I was like, “Nah, this is fucked up. I mean, if people are going to download it, they at least need to hear the whole album.” So I was like, “Fuck this shit. I’m leaking it.” My thinking was we have to show our audience that we’re one of them. The same way that y’all be sitting around waiting for albums to leak so you can download it—we’re doing the same thing. I’m a fan first. I was just putting myself in the fan’s situation and thinking, “Okay, well, what would a fan want?” I’m not going to come out and tell people you’re stealing because then you sound like fucking Metallica—completely out of touch and shit. Everybody was downloading shit. I just thought it was a way to just engage with my audience and let them know if you’re going to download the album, I want you to get it from me. Let’s listen to this shit together.
Even though The LAWN was a thriving online space, Christopher Bushnell, with the support of the local music scene, saw the potential of bringing the Justus League and the Blades closer together in the physical world.
Christopher Bushnell: The LAWN made it possible to promote a connection that grew between the Justus League and our local DJ-owned indy music store called 4-4 Records. I linked 9th Wonder with one of 4-4’s founders, the dearly missed DJ Merlin who passed in 2017, to play a monthly event on the first Wednesday night of every month. It was called Skyterrain Hip Hop in Chapel Hill. The theme was Swill, Chill, and Build—it was the closest thing to an in-person version of The LAWN. We expanded a second monthly date on the third Thursday at another venue prepared to host DJs called Five Star in Raleigh. Ultimately, 9th started hosting his own event series called 95 Live, which became wildly popular. Our successful attempt to connect The LAWN community at Justus League concert performances and more casual meet and greet settings was vital in building community cohesiveness.
DJ Merlin and 9th Wonder at Skyterrain on Frankin Street near UNC in Chapel Hill in 2002 / Photo credit: Christopher J Bushnell
Like most online communities, The LAWN experienced its fair share of bickering and beef. Having seen enough, Cesar Comanche stepped out onto the grass and administered an epic G-check called “A New Day.” Cesar warned the Blades that any crazy talk could result in a board ban. The post was a polite reminder that any disrespect—whether physically, lyrically, hypothetically, or realistically—would not be tolerated.
Cesar Comanche: I remember some people had disagreements on there. Some people even said disparaging things about us. But, if something were entirely out of pocket, no matter who it was towards, then me and CJB would just shut it down because that’s not what The LAWN was about.
Christopher Bushnell: I used to get into really heated debates with Bertram Moore, who was called B Moore on The LAWN, who I’m still friends with on Facebook and The Magnificent J Ran. Looking back, though, we all shared a passion for the art form and all JL-related things. That’s what brought us together in the first place. Everyone in JL held each other to such a high standard when it came to the music and the Blades did the same thing. We loved the music so much and the Justus League were doing it in a way that we were proud of. I still am.
Alex Acevedo: I remember arguing with other Blades about trivial matters like whether Robert Horry should be in the NBA Hall of Fame to how deep specific imagery was intended to be in Little Brother’s “Lovin’ It” video.
When the news broke that Median had signed with Halftooth Records to release Median’s Relief, the excitement was palpable through the computer screen. A win for the Justus League was a win for the Blades, and we celebrated the victories together, no matter how big or small. The Blades also celebrated each other. The LAWN would host the annual Grassy Awards, where members could vote for each other in various categories.
Edgar Allen Floe: I won the first-ever Grassy Award for the most positive Justus League member. It shows that we appreciated each other’s presence in that form. Someone took it upon themselves and thought, “Hey, let’s just give everybody a shout out to embrace what this community has become.”
Alex Acevedo: Parenthood was something I was also particularly proud of as a young man with two kids when I was frequenting the boards. I won a Grassy Award one year for being The LAWN’s Best Baby Daddy.
Real community not only offers fellowship but provides opportunities to grow, share, and develop individually and collectively—The LAWN was no different. The team behind the message board were able to upskill personally and professionally and, in turn, prepare themselves to thrive in a brave new digital world.
Cesar Comanche: The LAWN taught me, at least in that era, how the Internet even worked because I was green to the Internet. The great thing about it at that time was that we weren’t bound to the algorithms. So when you posted something, and somebody came across it, they saw it. It wasn’t a thing where if your post didn’t immediately get enough attention, it got buried, and nobody would see it. I liked that aspect. It was just kind of a free market.
Christopher Bushnell: My professional career grew from The LAWN as well. I developed the social media strategy for the state lottery in North Carolina. I ran their social media for almost ten years. Back in 2008, they didn’t have anything. I convinced them to create a position for me to do that, and the rest is history. My seminal experience building The LAWN was absolutely part of why I dared to tell this multibillion-dollar operation that I could do it because we’d already built a platform of thousands of members around the world. So I knew it could happen.
The End of The LAWN
All good things must end, and The LAWN was no exception. After a while, The LAWN’s leafy threads would wither and its pastures would lose some of their lush vibrancy. Eventually, the grass no longer grew. In the summer of 2012, the co-founders turned off the servers and The LAWN was gone forever.
Christopher Bushnell: I can’t remember if there was a conscious decision to close The LAWN. I did get more into promoting bars and nightclubs and spent less time on the music side. Also, when Hall of Justus became a thing, Big Dho was taking Little Brother, L.E.G.A.C.Y., and The Away Team on tour. For me, that was sort of an inflexion point in the history of the Justus League and my involvement. I was thrilled to see that everybody was making moves and growing and expanding, but there was less of a role for me at that point, and my centre of gravity just shifted away.
Cesar Comanche: The LAWN shut down because the era changed, and it was like the message board phenomenon ended. The attention and conversations shifted towards Facebook, Twitter, and the social media we use today. CJB and I saw where it was going, and we knew that The LAWN had had its time. We felt it was better to shut it down and let it be golden. We didn’t want it to die slowly and painfully. That wouldn’t have been a good look for anybody.
This year marks just over 20 years since the Justus League welcomed their fans to The LAWN. Message boards are no longer the thriving domain of music conversation they once were. The Okayplayer boards are still active, however, and other forums like KanyeToThe and The Coli have new posts thrown up on the walls daily. Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat, founders of the Wayback Machine, developed the platform to provide “universal access to all knowledge by preserving archived copies of defunct web pages,” but using the Wayback Machine only brings up the old LAWN landing page and nothing more. With minimal proof of the site’s existence, The LAWN only exists in the members’ recollections. Nevertheless, many precious memories linger on for those who were “inside” for The LAWN’s heyday.
Cesar Comanche: Looking back at The LAWN gives me a lot of pride. It started as an idea, we did what we needed to do to bring it to fruition, and people utilised it. Whole humans are walking around now that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for that message board. Whatever we accomplished business-wise, it’s priceless when you have impacted people’s lives in positive ways. I feel very humbled to have been part of that.
Edgar Allen Floe: The LAWN was a family of like-minded folks that loved to talk, expected to see specific responses from each other and just looked forward to building online. I don’t think we expected it to become what it became either. But I’m super appreciative, and we have a lot of the Blades rocking with us even now.
Christopher Bushnell: One of the most incredible things about The LAWN was that we opened it up to everybody, including other artists from the Triangle area, South Carolina, and worldwide. By having a humane approach to including everybody and not just pumping up our crew, we created a real community, and that’s powerful. The fact that we’re talking about it in 2022 is evidence of that. The LAWN was really special. I’ll always be grateful for all the people, laughter, and music.
Von Pea / Photo credit: Hipnott Records
Von Pea: The LAWN felt like the common room in a studio. The members of the Justus League and extended fam would all kick it. I wasn’t in NC, and I knew them only from music, so it was like hanging out between songs if that makes sense. We were all eager and amped off of getting props beyond our reach at the time. All the JL music that used to leak was a blessing in disguise. Those bootleg mixtapes on Soulseek and all that? Shit. Those leaks got them a lot of love worldwide.
Alex Acevedo: It may not seem like much to people on the outside, but The LAWN was a special place filled with good people. I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it. For those who made lifelong connections on the boards, we know there was something special about it. I have Phonte’s number on my phone today. He’s one of my favourite artists of all time, and I know him because of The LAWN. It’s a beautiful thing.
Phonte: I tell people all the time, what the internet has done—for better or worse—it has just made it easier to connect. If we have a shared interest like listening to the same type of music or being into cars, we can bond over that. Whether that bonding happens in the real world or online in a forum, a connection is a connection. I don’t feel that bonds made over the internet are any less important than ones made in real life. They’re probably more substantial now because these bonds can develop relationships and business. I met Nicolay online, and we ended up going to the fucking Grammys.
Life After The LAWN
The LAWN was ahead of its time as a brand marketing tool. The Justus League showed a future generation of artists how to attract, engage, and build a following where massive numbers aren’t the sole indicator of value. With no significant label budgets or huge investment, the Justus League poured time and effort into their message board and the Blades met every call to action with fast and faithful responses. The JL crew embraced their loyal online congregation of supporters as more than just “customers,” but integral parts of the Justus League movement. By asking for feedback, responding to questions, and putting their followers first in everything, the Justus League fostered meaningful connections with their fanbase. This foresight was in motion three years before the launch of Facebook, five years before the introduction of Twitter, and at least ten years before “being social online” became a must-have requirement from labels and marketing teams.
Also, The LAWN’s approach to family was real in the feel. Today, many Blades remain connected via social media and different messaging services. As expected, many former LAWN members now have families and careers. Still, since the forum’s demise, there have been real-world link-ups and some Blades have shared milestone life events in person like birthdays and even weddings. I was fortunate enough to attend the marriage ceremony of my Blade brother, Kuroisoul, in California back in 2019. My wife and I were even asked to sit near the top table next to his family. It was an amazing experience.
The LAWN’s inclusive nature made the interactions purposeful, nurturing and, most importantly, fun. The Justus League created more than just a message board with The LAWN, they established an authentic community that helped inform a future generation’s music tastes. That’s why it still means so much to the Blades beyond wistful nostalgia. Christopher Bushnell says, with a tinge of sadness in his voice, “I would give anything to have the whole thing preserved and to have all that back.” Much of The LAWN’s legend remains present because of its absence. Edgar Allen Floe best sums it up, saying The LAWN was an “amazing place—you just had to be there.”