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Tanya Morgan invite you to visit their town
words Rob Boffard // images Press
Hip-hop has always loved a good story, and rappers always oblige by creating characters for albums. They create life stories, tragicomedies, fictional kingpins. But you probably won’t find another group who went so far as to create an entire city.
Tanya Morgan did. But we’ll get to Brooklynati—the album and the locality—in a minute. For now, join us in another city: London. Soho to be exact, and Wyld Pitch Records to be even exacter. It’s the first time that Tanya Morgan (consisting in this case of MCs DonWill and Von Pea—member Ilyas was stuck in the states with job commitments) have toured outside of the States.
They landed around four hours ago, dropped their bags and hightailed it to the in-store showcase ahead of their Favela Chic gig later that night. So far, it’s been go, go, go. We’re only the first of many interviews. Other journalists and hangers-on clamour for attention. Sarah Love wants to film them bumrushing the crowd. Standing outside the store in a blustery spring wind, they look, frankly, a little startled by all the attention. Von Pea resembles a slightly stooped Lebron James, and DonWill rocks thick glasses with transparent frames under a custom Brooklynati fitted. Both look like they could do with a good night’s sleep.
Visit Tanya Morgan’s official website, and you’ll get this particular message. “Recently, the city of BROOKLYNATI has received an abundance of hits from people searching for a website for a musical act called Tanya Morgan. For your convenience, we have provided a link to both their website and our own.” From there, you can go to their Myspace or to the official city of Brooklynati. You can check out the restaurants, like the Wok Mei Wai Chinese joint. Or the shopping at Questo’s Instrument Shop, not to mention the OKP arcade. And you can open the map, where you’ll find an intricate street plan (Miller Crossing, Brooklynati Promenade) centred prominently around Yancey Park. This is impressive stuff.
“That’s prime real estate right there!” laughs Von Pea when asked about the J Dilla reference. “It was like an inside joke. Kind of like for people who’ve been following us for a long time, who heard [previous record] Moonlighting…We like to do a little bit extra for fans. We tossed ideas around.
Beatnik: Was it one person’s idea?
“No,” says DonWill “It was our A&R and us, we were all in a car on a roadtrip and just talking about it, and we thought, if it were a map, what would it look like, what would be on the map, and next thing you know, we had a rough idea. And we went to a guy who actually put the map together. He logistically started making it make actual sense, like how it would really have to be if it was a real place.”
As you’ve probably guessed, this city is a hybrid of Brooklyn (home of Von Pea) and Cincinnati (home of Don and Illyas). Which bits from their home towns are in there? Von Pea says he wants Coney Island. DonWill wants Grippo’s Potato Chips.
Of course, knocking around ideas and sketching a bit is one thing. Making a good album out of it is another. And make no mistake, Brooklynati (the album) is outstanding. It’s bursting with colourful characters, great stories, superb production and an overall cohesiveness that younger MCs would kill for, but it’s most important quality is its sheer imagination. How did they make the link between ideas and good music?
Initially they’re nonplussed, before DonWill opens up. “It just ended up running together really, just overlapping to the point where we knew we had a Yancey Park, so we decided to do a skit about it. And if someone said something in a song it’d have to go on the map. And if this is on the map, this is in the song. We just built it until it came together…the artwork and the music blended. I’ve dedicated a street to my cousin, and there are a few things in there that only one or two people would get. Those are my liner notes! Those were our thank yous.”
Both are adamant that some of the themes that give the album its cohesive beyond its construction ambitions were very deliberate. Besides improvisational cartography, the album is about growing up: about maturing and taking responsibility for your choices.
“From my writing perspective, I wanted to make a more topic-based album based on situations and scenarios,” says Donwill. “If you heard Moonlighting, there were songs like I’m Bad, We Be – those were straight up emcee cuts. Rapping. Whereas on Brooklynati, we have songs that are situational. I wanted to show our depth.”
“We just try to keep it about music,” opines Von Pea. “You just don’t really hear us talk about what record deals we have or other MCs, the newest hottest guy on our song. We try to keep it about quality. If you like what we’re saying as MCs, if you like the beats – it may not be a Dr Dre track, but it’s us. And we’re not gonna jump online and be like, we just signed to Def Jam!”
Don: “That’s what gets you the Oohs and Aahs. Yo, we just signed to Interscope! But if you come out and just be dope…”
Von: “Yeah, just be good. Whatever label we’re signed to, you can figure that out when you read the notes. That’s how we move.”
Tanya Morgan (and if you’ve been scratching your head about the name, rest assured it doesn’t mean anything specific) have been on the tip of rap’s tongue for a while; a lowkey crew looking to make a name for themselves without relying too much on the typical mixtape hype. The connections to Little Brother should be evident even now; when DonWill and Ilyas (formerly in the Jurkz collective, later IllWill as a duo) first hooked up with Von Pea, they were already drawing inspiration from Phonte, Pooh and 9th Wonder, even going so far as to share the same production facility.
The similarities reach into the music too, with Tanya Morgan tackling many of the same life lesson themes that the LBs take on. And in their show later on, they’ll open up with Von Sees, a Nicolay-produced heater that featured on the first Foreign Exchange record, the other member of whom was…you guessed it. LB’s Phonte.
Von explains: “We were always doing it together, but they got known first. We’re not a part of Justus League or nothing like that, but as far as coming up and making the music the same way, we all started recording on the same equipment at the same time…”
“Sorta like how A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Leaders Of The New School all had a similar thread, but it was different.” says Donwill, clarifying things somewhat. “I see how people would think that, because they were working out the same studio.”
Tanya Morgan are not a rap crew that are going to change the world. They make great music, important music, but even the most naïve rap fan would not say it’s going to crack the charts wide open. Back in the US, they’re slowly building their fanbase, and have a remix project, Sandwich Shop, coming out later this year – as well as DonWill’s solo joint Don Cusack. Because after building your own city, aping High Fidelity is the next step. Obviously.
Still, at least no matter what happens, there’s one city where they’ll always get a warm, wind-free reception, with nary a punk journalist or film crew in sight. A place with a park named after Dilla, and where the locksmith is 88 Keys…
Download Donwill and Von Pea’s new mixtape The Sandwich Shop here.