“Phony Ppl started when Barry and Aja met. A year and a day old. They went on to be posters of great suns. Great pillars in the Black and Caribbean community. The parents are very proud of them. They sent them to the same school. Aja and Elbee met because Aja was requested to find Elbee in middle school by his mum. The schools liked them. They never caused problems. Matthew met everyone through a former member of the band. They went to the same high school. They had the same shirt on. That shit bonds people. The same way having the same name, or the same car does. We became friends for a while. I was just a fan of the band. I lived around the corner, and I would come to rehearsals a bunch. One day they asked me to play guitar….. and that’s …… that’s how we became THE Phony Ppl.” – Elijah Rawk, guitar player for the Phony Ppl shares in the begging of our interview.
Even though I don’t have enough evidence to support all of the statements mentioned above, I can assure you this: The way people make music is constantly evolving. You can be lucky. You can make a beat that’s the hottest thing ever. Or… Or you can be going at it since you were two years old. It goes without saying that this quintet falls into the latter.
Comprised of five of Brooklyn’s finest, Phony Ppl draws from the breadth and depth of the collective’s rich musical knowledge to create music that refuses to be hemmed down by any pre-established conventions. Formed in 2008, with an original cast of nine members, the band made their presence known by bringing their avant-guard R&B-hip-hop-funk-nova-jazz-vibe to underground warehouse parties across New York City. They released their first self-recorded album, “WTF is Phonyland” in 2009, followed by two other digital releases in 2012, ‘Phonyland’ and ‘NothinG Special’.
Organically developing a fanbase within and outside the five boroughs, time soon came to take it on tour. Joining Theophilus London on his last European Tour, over the past decade, the quintet shared the stage with other cutting-edge experimentalists such as Erykah Badu, the Roots, Travis Scott, pensmiths like Prodigy from Mobb Deep, and smashed festivals such like Afropunk and Camp Flawgnaw.
Before their last release, their critically acclaimed album, ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’, the group underwent a period of turmoil, where they didn’t know if they would have a future. From the original nine, the band was now based on the strength of its five core members, as it still does to date: Co-founders Elbee Thrie (Robert Booker) on vocals and Aja Grand on keys, Bari on bass (Omar Jabari Grant), guitarist Elijah Rawk (Elijah Austin), and drummer Matthew Byas. Even though they amicably parted terms with the former band members, this sizable reduction in cast meant that adjustments had to be made. If you pay close attention to the lyrics on this project, you can hear their ego-shedding voyage on verse, but if anything, ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’ delivers some instant upbeat, feel-good classics such as ‘Why iii Love The Moon’, ‘End of the niGht’ and ‘HelGa’.
“ Music is the biggest indication where we are. The five of us. ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’ felt like it was the five of us against the world for a very long time. A lot of the songs came out the way that they did because we got to spend more time on what we thought was the quality in the song.” – Elijah comments on the recording process of ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’.
“I know that all of us are not quitters, you know? [Yesterday’s Tomorrow] allowed us to think in a very different way. It took us reaching out to others, being frugal. That album taught us not to give up. You can always get to Billboard the next day.” – Matthew comments on the group’s personal and professional growth between projects.
External validation never meant much for this group of individuals. Considering the collaborative effort, from its band members and the community that surrounds them, to get this project off the ground, it’s overnight recognition must have almost felt like karmic relief.
‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’ landed their debut at the Billboard charts, making headlines on both sides of the American coast. It received nods of approval from other boundary-bending artists such as Tyler the Creator and Childish Gambino, televised performances on shows like ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ and a residency at the globally renowned jazz club, Blue Note.
There haven’t been any new releases since 2015, but the band has been actively performing and working with and for other artists. Aja Grand composed and produced melodies for both of Mac Miller’s last studio albums, Elijah performed at this year’s edition of Coachella with Princess Nokia, Elbee Thrie lent a verse on Snakehip’s ‘I’m not sorry’, all at the same time, as the collective joined Kali Uchis as her live band on tour, performing extensively for the past two years.
“It’s funny when we hear fans saying ‘yo drop music’. We need to leave it to marinate for a little bit. The song you’re listening to, it goes through a lot of different stages, some of them might have started 4 or 5 years ago.” – Aja comments on the band’s recording process of their new release, mō’zā-ik.
Breaking their three-year recess, their brand new album, ‘mō’zā-ik’, is out today. This project is the most accurate representation of the bands unfaltering high level of energy. Throughout 43 minutes and it’s 11 separate tracks you can hear tempo and chords from musical genres such as R&B, Hip-Hop, Bossa Nova, but when passed through the group’s shape-shifting filter, it just sounds like something that you have never heard before. Invigoratingly unique.
“The name of the project, mō’zā-ik represents this idea that we had of being a bunch of different rooms in a museum. The album is like an exhibit, and as every museum, every room will take us into a different place. Each song is a display on its own self, and, collectively is one exhibit that you’d like to visit.” – Elijah debunks the meaning behind this album’s name.
The first thing that stands out is love, and they do it with such humour and grace that might be difficult to pass on. You can hear the collective’s misadventures of falling in and out of it on ‘Before you get a Boyfriend’, ‘somethinG about your love’, ‘Move her Mind’ and ‘Once You Say Hello’ featuring trap-jazz pioneer, Masego.
You will find this four-letter word repeated in two of the track names, but the stories being told mirror distinctive realities. ‘everythinG iii Love’, the final track of this album, tells the tale of a black man shot by the police. A gripping monologue, firmly grounded in the current social-political American landscape, that poses challenging thoughts and critics on the American’s longstanding police brutality. The grave guitar and bass, piano and violins aid to punctuate and emphasise the story being told, but its narrative lends itself to personal interpretation.
From the depth of the messages imbued in the lyrics, to the broad range of musical elements in the project, in conversation the group shared their meticulous attention to detail, and their experiments with polyphonic textures added during the recording process.
“Our friend, Geo, introduced me to recording in analogue. I was at my parent’s house, recording piano, and I made a beat. I have a tape machine that has a microphone from 1921 that’s inside of it. It’s just a little thing. I wondered how it would sound If I recorded it into there. It was such a cool sound. I’ve heard it before, but you just don’t hear it today.” – Aja comments on the album’s fifth track, ‘Colours’, and how the antique feel to its sonorities was achieved.
Having been together for a decade, Phony Ppl are testament that good things indeed take time. Who knows? From the 1264 micro musical genres known to man, we might have to add another soon enough. Phony Ppl is going on a US tour next month with G.O.O.D Music’s CEO, Pusha T. For us, the rest of the world, mō’zā-ik is available on all streaming platforms.
Stream their new visual treatment for ‘Way too Far’, below.
Photography by Setor Tsikudo
Words by Catarina Ramalho