Tanya Morgan on their new record, the decision to go forward as a duo, and their rap roots
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In an era in which immediate Internet ascent and nebulous “buzz” are viewed by many as career apotheosis, Tanya Morgan represent the triumph of the slow, steady grind. Formed out of the amoebic stew of the Okayplayer message board world in the early years of the last decade, the team of Von Pea, Donwill, and Ilyas quickly became a favorite among those in corners of the Web who believed that hip-hop’s been sliding downhill since Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” in 1996.
Due to their influences (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the artists on Rawkus Records) and laidback bent, the Brooklyn- and Cincinnati-bred group was an unlikely candidate to be polarizing. But much of the last decade of hip-hop criticism and message board mongering has been spent drawing lines between those who viewed nostalgia as an inherent evil and those being dragged kicking and screaming into the new era.
Accordingly, Tanya Morgan’s early work channeled the Native Tongues and the Lyricist Lounge set, and when they failed to create anything as strong as A Tribe Called Quest’s “Low End Theory,” a vocal minority immediately and wrongfully dismissed them. Conversely, their admirers championed them as torchbearers of a flame that they never asked to carry. But quietly and stealthily, they’ve evolved into one of the finest groups of their generation.
2009’s “Brooklynati” was hailed as a minor classic in quarters as varied as their Okayplayer stomping grounds, XXL and the Onion’s A.V. Club. Even Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed dean of American rock critics, praised their “soul and smarts.” But in 2010, the group seemed to take its biggest step forward, with Von Pea and Donwill releasing solo offerings that established them as legitimate solo artists in their own right.
Like many still-evolving groups, occasionally the members’ individual personalities were absorbed into a faceless whole. But on “Pea’s Gotta Have It,” the titular rapper sketched a poignant and eminently listenable concept record of growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-’90s. Donwill’s “Don Cusack in High Fidelity” riffed on the John Cusack film, with Don offering his own tale of romantic foibles. They were the sort of efforts that showed substantial artistic growth and engendered high expectations for their forthcoming third full-length.
Simultaneously, the onetime trio has become a duo, with Ilyas sitting out the forthcoming record and tour dates. In the interim, Donwill and Von Pea have kept up their relentless road schedule, coming to the Roxy this Sunday night, along with The Young Americans (Big Pooh and Roc C) and The Hall of Justus. In advance of the show, they spoke to Pop & Hiss from a tour stop in San Francisco.
Pop & Hiss: So what’s the current status of the new record?
Von Pea: We’re like 10 songs in. Right now, they’re in the demo phase. We have 10 to 15 more to do before we’re a go yet. It doesn’t have a running theme or a concept yet. However, based on our experiences performing, we know that we’re going to have to get in front of people and play these songs without apologizing for not having a guest, or trying to explain what the songs are about.
Donwill: We wanted to make an album based on emotion and feeling, as opposed to one overarching concept.
What was the story behind the decision to keep going without Ilyas?
Von Pea: Ilyas still lives in Cincy, and myself and Don now live in new York. We’d have to do shows and appearances and record without him. It led to us doing a lot as a duo, and all three of us, not just the two of us, made the decision that he’d sit this album out. There’s a good chance he’ll come back for the next one though.
You guys were part of the first wave of groups forming over shared interests and musical tastes over the Internet. There’s been a variety of stories I’ve read about how you guys originally decided to become Tanya Morgan. How exactly did it come about?
Von Pea: It was us, Foreign Exchange, Little Brother, and a couple other guys, and we were all on Okayplayer -- this was before the blogs and before MySpace. So we decided to put music on Okayplayer to share with the other artists, in an effort to get a footprint in the game. It was through necessity if we wanted to work together. None of us had the money to go to North Carolina or Cincinnati, and certainly not the Netherlands.
Don: It was a bunch of people interested in the same kind of music. A person’s kind of interest and musical taste is important, and it was a place where we could discuss snare drums and studio gear. We were all just trying to find cost-effective ways to record our own material, and that’s what led to me and Von talking in the first place. We’d sit around and discover production tools and discover that camaraderie.
Has it been difficult to build an actual, real-life fan base out of that niche of the Internet?
Von Pea: A lot of people don’t realize that you have to treat the two as completely different entities. It’s like being big in Europe or something. You have to simultaneously attempt to build with blogs and social networks, while playing shows and winning fans in real life.
You’re known for dense and concept-driven material. Has it been difficult to get a fair look in an environment that often rewards prolificacy and simplicity?
Von Pea: Attention spans have dropped. It’s like that for any artist and it means that we’re going to appeal more to people that are music nerds. But we don’t think about our music in terms of who we’re going to appeal to. We just worry about making it good.
Donwill: It’s kind of like we’ve been making concept-heavy material in a content-driven market. Our last projects have been so heavily conceptual that every time we drop a project, people return to our back catalog. And it’s definitely dense, but I think that’s to its credit. We don’t have 10 albums that are trying to do the same thing. Every time anyone asks me what my favorite is, I’m always inclined to say the last one.
You both seemed to have improved significantly over the last few years. Was there a moment where it felt like you’d taken a substantial leap forward?
Von Pea: I feel like “Brooklynati” changed things for us. It introduced us to a lot of people, and with the solo material, it’s a point of pride to show that we can do it alone. We picked up fans who may not have known Tanya Morgan before, but do now. I definitely feel like we’re at the peak of our creativity.
What inspired you (Donwill) to write an album based around “High Fidelity”?
Don Will: I bought the movie in college, and it just has the overall themes that I could relate to: a music snob who has trouble in love. I’d always thought about doing a soundtrack for a project, and I settled on the idea of what it would be like to redo that movie from my point of view.
Von, one of the things that struck me about “Pea’s Gotta Have It” was the way in which you successfully captured the feeling of growing up in Brooklyn, surrounded by this vibrant rap scene. What was it like growing up for you there, and did you realize at the time that you were around something special?
Von Pea: I never realized it at the time, because it was my local scene and I didn’t know any better. But being a teenager and falling in love with hip-hop, I wanted to capture what it felt like to be in that environment and want nothing more than to be like the dudes I heard on the radio and saw on TV, who grew up right around the corner.
Over the last half-decade, New York’s got a lot of criticism for trying to chase trends, and you hear a lot of New York rappers making Southern-sounding records. But it seems like in the last year, your record, Homeboy Sandman, Das Racist and Roc Marciano all made albums that repped completely different parts of New York, but were true to a sort of regionalism that it had been lacking of late. Do you think that sort of localism is returning to the city, albeit in very different forms and manifestations?
Von Pea: Yeah, and I think it’s super necessary. Homeboy Sandman and Roc are definitely offering a diverse slate of New York life. They definitely don’t sound alike, but it’s more than just the tired selling drugs and popping bottles stuff that people had been trying to do for too long.
Why do you think people were making those shiny pop records that seem totally alien to the old New York sound?
Von Pea: They were just trying to copy whatever’s selling, and I don’t really think that’s cool.
Donwill: As a guy who moved to New York, my observation has been that a lot of the scene in New York is confused wth the people that come here to try to make it. They come to get “put on,” and the sounds get jumbled up. Lately, you’ve been getting pure projects like Sandman or Roc Marciano, or Fresh Daily, or Das Racist. They make music that sounds like it comes from a person who grew up in New York, rather than people just trying to get the attention of tastemakers.
You guys were often criticized in the past for sounding too much like your influences. Has it been difficult to transcend that or has it been just a natural evolution of the sound?
Von: You have to be a fan of yourself and if you’re a fan of yourself, you’re going to get tired of doing the same thing other and over again.
Donwill: Early on, I’d say I was making music with my eyes closed. I wasn’t trying to rap like Pos from De La Soul or be the new Little Brother. It’s only once you get out into the marketplace and get compared when you notice. It’s like when a child takes their first steps, no one’s paying attention. It’s only when someone’s like, “you’re walking,” when they fall. I never got caught up in thinking my fans will like this or they won’t like that, you can’t cater to anyone but yourself.
You’re often described as underground artists, but does that word mean anything anymore?
Donwill: I think it describes the stature more than the sound. I think indie is a better phrase. When people think underground, they think boom-bap.
Von Pea: But then, Kanye does that sometimes, and you don’t think of him as underground. We get a certain amount of love in different circles. We’ll do a show opening for Fabolous, and then we’ll do a show with the guys from Little Brother, and we’ll get props in both crowds.
What have you guys been listening to lately?
Von: I’d been playing Dom Kennedy a lot a while back, but then it got really cold. So I’m going to say Danny Brown, a lot of Danny Brown.
Don: My iTunes is on shuffle constantly, so it’s hard to pick one person. But I do listen to a lot of Danny Brown a lot, and Lil B. I really like “Ellen Degeneres” a lot. I wouldn’t say I’m a cult follower. I’m not wearing a chef’s hat, but I’ll find myself watching a lot of his videos on YouTube.
Von Pea: Funny you mention that. In addition to the new Tanya Morgan record, I’ll be producing a record for Elucid. And I’m also going to do a full-length with Danny -- a sort of Jaylib meets Ghost and Raekwon type thing. It will be a concept thing for a certain type of rap nerd.
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-- Jeff Weiss