By Clayton Purdom | 10 September 2009
Tanya Morgan’s Brooklynati is shaping up as one of 2009’s best rap records, an understated affair bursting with confident, lyrical emceeing and unabashed Native Tongues production ideas. On a tour stop at Chicago’s Subterranean, the trio took a moment backstage to talk to CMG about where the album fits in at a strange time in rap. And for the record, they killed it onstage.
Cokemachineglow’s Clayton Purdom (CMG): So you guys are finishing up a tour right now? Where all have you been so far?
Ilyas (IL): St. Louis, the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky, Raleigh, North Carolina, Cincinnati, and here, right?
Donwil (DW): Yeah. It was a real short run. We do short runs, just a couple cities at a time.
CMG: It is difficult at all to translate a conceptual record like Brooklynati to the stage?
Von Pea (VP): Onstage, not really. At the end we might be like, “Thanks for visiting Brooklynati,” or “Welcome to Brooklynati.” We don’t try to treat it like a concept, we try to treat it like we’re really coming from the city. Like if Rock Ross were here he’d repping Miami and it’s not a concept, it’s just what he’s representing. So, we try to do it like that so we try to confuse people less. Actually, in North Carolina, a chick was like, “Is Brooklynati a real city somewhere?” But we try to do it so seamlessly, we want you to feel like it’s a real city so it’s less confusing.
CMG: There’s a big online push along those lines, with fake Brooklynati IDs and visitors bureau website, and the completely awesome “Hardcore Gentlemen” video. Why go the extra length to make it seem real? What’s the impetus?
VP: You know how a lot of artists try so hard to act like they’re really drug dealers, or really this lady’s man? We look at our shit like roles. Like our solo album we’re playing roles, and on Brooklynati we’re playing citizens of Brooklynati. We just commit to the role.
DW: Actually it was supposed to be even worse. We were supposed to be on some shit where like in interviews, we were gonna be in character. Like, we live in Brooklynati. “Where ya’ll been?” “We been in Brooklynati. In Yancey park eating donuts.” It just so happened that we loosened up a bit. As far as Brooklynati, for me, it’s like a state of mind. Being that I’m from Cincinnati and live in Brooklyn I kinda take both cities with me.
IL: It’s basically us wanting to push the concept forward. Nowadays a lot of musicians aren’t very conceptual. Everyone has this mixtape mentality where they just throw a bunch of hot songs together and they have no rhyme or reason being together.
CMG: I was gonna ask, is the creation of the whole Brooklynati idea a response to anything currently going on in rap?
IL: It’s not a response per se but I’d say what’s going on in the mainstream rap realm made us feel like it’s more important to do it. To carry on the tradition of our forefathers.
VP: I’m a big fan of the Roots and they always have a mindset when they put out an album. They’ll be like, “Okay this album is called Game Theory because right now we’re studying the structrue of how to survive in the game,” or “This is called Things Fall Apart because XYZ,” and what we try to do is, “This is Brooklynati because we don’t have one hometown.”
CMG: So, is Brooklynati just a combination of hometowns? Is it a more artistic alchemy?
VP: When you look at the deeper science of it, like there’s certain things like, the Brooklyn bridge, there’s a bridge in Cincinnati that’s a scale model of it.
DW:That was made by the same man.
VP: Yeah, so it’s just, symbolic connections like that. But we just wanted to tie in that there’s this Brooklyn-Cincinnati thing going on.
CMG: It’s strange, but I always think of you guys as a Cincinnati thing.
DW: People claim what they want. When we were out east, people claim we’re New York. But here they claim us as Cincinnati. I say the one thing we never got the benefit of was hometown, because we’re split.
VP: It bothers me. We’ll do a show, and they’ll be like, “Brooklyn artist Tanya Morgan.” I’m like, “No! We’re not from Brooklyn. I’m from Brooklyn.” We’re from two different places.
DW:Whoever wants to claim us, they claim us how they feel like claiming us. So if you feel entitled to us as an Ohioan, go ahead, we’re not mad at that.
CMG: Artistically do you feel a peer group from either community? Cincinnati’s Jermiside and Brickbeats were both on the record.
IL: I work with pretty much everybody’s who’s on the Cincinnati scene. I just try to school people on how to get out there but it’s a lot of different sounds in Cincinnati being it’s a Midwest city. It’s like a fusion of a lot of different styles, so there’s a lot of cats with a lot of different styles that I work with.
CMG: Do you feel any connection with the Detroit scene?
VP: Actually I ran into Invincible in Cincinnati about two and a half, three months ago. So I’m definitely gonna holler at her about doing some collaboration and music. And we met Black Milk a few times, but we haven’t come together to collaborate.
DW: It’s kinda like the underlying theme of the artist community, a lot of the artists in this era are bound to one another because we all know that we have the same struggle, whereas like before everybody had deals now nobody has deals.
CMG: That sense of community that you were just talking about. Do you feel that there’s a lack of that in hip-hop these days?
VP: It’s scene-heavy. It’s strange now. In my opinion from what I’ve seen it’s like, there’s not necessarily an underground anymore. When I was coming of age, the underground was, either you were on some Rawkus shit, or you were on some DJ Clue mixtape shit. Either you were a street underground rapper or you were a Rawkus underground rapper. But now, it’s like, you could be a street underground rapper, a Rawkus prototypical underground rapper—“real hip-hop”—you could be a “I love Kanye West” underground rapper, with hipster dudes, or whatever, and there’s so many different ones it’s like, everybody wants to be mainstream. It’s not (being) lyrical, the best (emcee). Everybody now is like, “Yo, I wanna go platinum.” It’s like, nobody’s going platinum. It’s strange for me. It’s a very strange time for me. The only thing I try to do, and we try to do, is just make good music. Because at the end of the day, your platinum albums, I mean—Tone Loc got a platinum album but nobody’s sitting going, “Yo I wanna be Tone Loc,” but there’s people that wanna be OC and he don’t have a platinum album. So we just try to move like that.
CMG: I agree about hip-hop being in a strange place. I feel like, that same division you’re talking about, where there used to be a straight-up mainstream and there used to be a straight-up underground, I feel like they’re kind of switching. A lot of mainstream rappers, like Kanye, Lil’ Wayne, T.I., whoever, are talking about how tortured they are, and on the underground you’ve got the Cool Kids and Kid Cudi and whoever talking about how fly they are. It seems like it switched in the past few years.
DW: I was watching Puff Daddy’s show the other day, where Puff Daddy was talking about how he went to the bigwigs at his label, and they want him to make these hit songs and he wants to be an artiste now, and I’m like, “You’re Puff Daddy. You’re not an artiste, you’ll never be Andre 3000. You’re Puff Daddy.” Puff wants to be a musician now! And you have underground cats that want to be Puffy.
IL: I think people are tired of labels. Not major labels, I mean being pigeonholed. Nobody likes being called “underground.” Because back in the day being underground had nothing to do with sound, it was just saying that a lot of people didn’t know about you yet. There’s people that were talking about blinging and all of that, but they were underground.
VP: Wu-Tang used to sell mad records. But now if your music sound like Wu-tang, you’re underground. Biggy used to be like, “I’m the lyrical blah blah blah,” but you can’t rap about being lyrical no more and not be considered underground.
CMG: So where do you think you fit in? That’s kinda what I think is interesting about the record—
IL: We’re “real hip-hop.”
[All three laugh]
DW: It’s true.
VP: You know what? Man, I’m not complaining because we could be called a lot worse than real hip-hop. And the term “real” is always good, but. A lot of times we’ll do a show at a nontraditional hip-hop crowd, quote-unquote, and we’ll get offstage and they’ll be like (mimes someone patting his back) “Real hip-hop!” and it’s like, “Oh, you eat tofu, that’s healthy! I’m gonna go bring in a chicken.” It’s like bringing a vegetarian dish to a potluck—
DW: “Set that shit over there.”
VP: —they know it’s healthy, it’s their way of being like I know that’s good shit, but I don’t fuck with it.
DW: If we brought a plate of fried chicken, “Oh put that on the table!” Niggas want that!
IL: They all want it!
VP: We perform at like a mainstream venue before, and it’ll be dudes that know what’s up, and know what we’re doing. And they’ll be like “Real hip-hop! Ya’ll keep doing that.”
CMG: Do you feel a need to fight that?
IL: I just hate the stigma that comes with it. They assume we don’t use the word bitch, they assume a lot about us. They try to make you angels.
DW: A lot of people try to emphasize the positive musically because their lives have so much negativity. There’s a lot of underground, conscious-air-quote rappers that have been to jail and have got the most fucked up lives but they do the music because they want to play up the good in their lives.
VP: I won’t say his name, but I met a rapper that’s considered very ignorant and he was like, (adopts pleasant voice) “Hey, what’s up man! What’s going on? You want to go to Starbucks and have a coffee?” And some of these guys that are so positive, talking about “my woman is my queen”—
DW: “Fuck this be a ho, nigga! I’m trying to cheat on this bitch, what’s up nigga!” and their homeboy have a gun.
VP: And they get on the mic and they have a black queen, blah blah blah. It’s music! I won’t name another a name, but a woman was telling me she went to a certain show with a certain group that’s considered conscious, and they sorta do like grab up a groupie, and then go in the back room with a groupie, and she’s like, “Oh, he broke my heart, I can’t listen to their music.” Don’t build these people up to be anything other than human beings. That’s why, you hear our music, we talk about sex and stuff like that, we just try to be real men. It might be a one night stand with some chick, and rap about some responsible shit the next song. Because that’s what being a real person is about.
CMG: How do you counteract those stigmas?
VP: I think just be yourself is the way to fight that. If they’re listening to the lyrics, they hear you being yourself. You listen to the Roots, and the Roots have shot people, women have been called bitches in songs, they ran a train on chicks. A Tribe Called Quest talk about “I wanna pound the poontang until it stinks,” Q-Tip has shot somebody on a song.
DW: Jay Dilla spit most of his album in a strip club.
VP: It’s just, you have to listen to the lyrics, because we just be ourselves, and they hear it.
IL: I feel like just being yourself, you eventually break that stigma. And then when you break that stigma, that’s when those same people that gave you that stigma start complaining. It’s a cycle.
VP: You can’t really avoid it.
CMG: Where do you see these trends in hip-hop going?
DW: I think it’s up to whoever’s popular. If Kanye West takes us somewhere else, that’s where we’ll be. And that’s not a good thing. Not because of Kanye but because it’s not good for everybody to follow one person. I feel like, if Graduation didn’t exist, a lot of people wouldn’t be who they are. You got a lot of people that got their style from Lupe, they got their image from Kanye, you have people that get their image from Lil’ Wayne, from Jim Jones, and it ain’t supposed to be like that. But the future of hip-hop is in their hands because it ain’t a community to me no more, it’s about the individuals.
CMG: You don’t think there’s a community anymore? Even on the internet?
DW: I think it’s not up to the artists, it’s up to the fans. It ain’t up to the artists to be a community.
IL: I’d say where the community exists, that community doesn’t have as much an influence on the mainstream as these few individuals.
DW: It’s up to the fans.
VP: Community means the record-buying crowd. They pretty much shown time and time again that they don’t want their power. Like when you have albums that drop that you know, they support it and talk about it for days online, but when it’s in stores they don’t go and show the labels that this is what they want to buy. That record buying crowd that supports the platinum artist aren’t the same people that support the independent hip hop artist. Those are the crowd that, they’re not onilne, they’re on the radio, they don’t have time to dig for their music. But the people who can dig, who can support, they just don’t. And it’s a weird paradox because they complain that nobody supports the artists they champion but they don’t support the artists they champion.
DW: I won’t say they don’t support em, but they dont do it enough. They might do it enough for us, but the label doesn’t care if somebody came to your show and wanted your autograph. They care if you sold enough records.
VP: They’re unregistered voters. They won’t go to the store they’ll just talk about you. They won’t go and literally put the ballot in.
DW: It comes down to the bottom line for the label cats. So we might sell three thousand records but the label want us to sell ten thousand, twenty thousand. We love them three thousand but for the label it’s not enough so for us it’s not enough. We’re not saying they’re (the fans) are not enough, but in the scheme of things it’s not enough.
CMG: You talk about some of this on the outro to “Don’t U Holla.”
VP: Yeah. And it’s not a diss to them because I never want somebody to think we don’t appreciate them just because there’s not a hundred more of them. Like you come to our show and there’s ten people, those ten people gonna get the same show a hundred people would’ve got, a thousand people would’ve got. Those ten people are gonna get the same show. But when it’s all said and done, we can’t do this forever based on the ten people. That’s just what it is.
CMG: Do you think that that online community could become enough of a community to sustain hip-hop?
VP: I think it’s (only for) certain people, because they did that for Drake. Drake is off the internet. Cool Kids is off the internet, Mickey Factz is off the internet. Shit, Charles Hamilton and them. Asher Roth, off the internet. Kid Cudi. The internet is what it is now so it starts there. That’s the cycle on the corner, is the internet. It’s just certain fans and what they like. I don’t think it’s the internet, it’s what certain people like. And the music we make, I feel like we attract a crowd, maybe, 30 something. Like we come from that era, and the 30 somethings ain’t on the internet. Like, Kadeem Hardison from A Different World, his daughter found us on the internet, and he loves our shit. Dwayne Wayne loves our shit, because his daughter on the internet found us. It gotta start on the internet with the kids. 9th wonder is my boy, and me and 9th were talking about it one day, and he’s like, “Yo man, I’m telling you, you gotta get the 30 somethings man.” And I was like, “You right, but they’re not on the internet and we just on the internet. We gotta get their children.”