Tanya Morgan could talk hip-hop all day long. Unlike most artists that answer interview questions with their eyes fixed on the nearest clock, TM fully embraces the opportunity to build on their beloved culture over an hour’s worth of phone-time. The reason: TM members Von Pea, Donwill and Ilyas are just as much fans now as they were when the group first assembled over four years ago, when Brooklyn native Von Pea and Cincinnati’s Donwill met through Okayplayer message boards and began collaborating over the Internet.
First catching the underground’s attention with their 2006 debut, Moonlighting, Tanya Morgan has since gained an ever-growing fan base that stretches beyond those nostalgic for the Native Tongues. The threesome pushed themselves creatively on their critically-beloved Brooklynati (released this past May), pairing the music with fake city complete with its own website and governing body (?uestlove, for instance, is Brooklynati’s mayor). Currently prepping for a nationwide tour, as well as working on solo albums for Donwill (February’s conceptual Don Cusack in High Fidelity) and Von Pea (2010’s Pea’s Gotta Have It), Tanya Morgan linked with XXLMag.com to discuss everything from the confusion caused by Brooklynati to “D.O.A.”
XXLMag.com: Brooklynati has been out for a couple of months now. How has the process of working this album compared to that of Moonlighting?
Ilyas: Well, Moonlighting came together through us just doing songs casually. For the fun of it, and then when we finished that collection of songs, we thought, “Oh, this is dope.” Recording Brooklynati, we were more familiar with each other as artists. You can hear that the chemistry has evolved. The Moonlighting campaign was a learning experience for us with the label, especially since we used the name “Tanya Morgan,” and we go into certain stores around the country and see our album sitting in the Soul section, because they didn’t know that we were a hip-hop group. But this time, we made sure that we had pictures of ourselves on the cover of the album [laughs]. We can’t have it sitting in the Soul section again.
Von Pea: As far as the album’s concept, it’s been tricky. It’s like this: If you feel a movie knowing that it’s CGI and not actually real robots tearing up the city, then it shouldn’t be so hard for you to accept that there’s a fake city attached to a rap album. A lot of people don’t always want to use their imagination when it comes to hip-hop.
XXL: Do you think that’s a sign of the times?
Von Pea: I do, as far as music goes now. You don’t really have Missy Elliot out right now doing creative, bugged-out shit. You don’t have an OutKast or anything like Stankonia right now. It’s just not as dangerous as it was before. By “dangerous,” I mean, forcing you to use more of your imagination. Now it’s just, “Okay, this is creative because I’m telling you that it’s creative.”
XXL: So the whole Brooklynati concept went over more heads than you expected?
Von Pea: In some ways, yeah. I was running into people at first, saying, “Man, I went to the Brooklynati website and I didn’t know what was going on!” If you read the first page, it clearly states that the idea is a “fake city.” So what’s difficult? If you go to a city of Brooklyn website, it’s not gonna be like, “People come here looking for Biggie Smalls, and here’s Biggie’s website.” [laughs] People really said, “I don’t get this Brooklynati thing—does it mean ‘Illuminati?’”
Donwill: Once the album came out, people got it. But before, I know that Von and I would be in Brooklyn scared that we were about to fail so hard. We felt, maybe this was the biggest inside joke in the world and we just didn’t know [laughs].
XXL: Don, you recently released “Tribute to DJ Quik and Kurupt,” which I’m sure caught a lot of people off-guard. People probably assume that you’d drop a Native Tongues tribute instead.
Donwill: Man, listen. [laughs] I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio—I grew up on Quik. I could recite his whole first album to you right now. BlaQKout [DJ Quik and Kurupt’s album] is amazing. DJ Booth hit me asking for a freestyle, and I told him that I was gonna do it over that “9x’s Outta 10” beat. I literally wrote the rhyme to the beat, but nobody could get the beat. I couldn’t loop the beat up, so I had to find an alternate beat. Quik and Kurupt both heard it and said it was dope, so it’s cool to get respect from that side of the table when we obviously get lumped in with that side of the table.
XXL: Do you think that people see Tanya Morgan as Native Tongues lovers and nothing else?
Von Pea: Yeah, and the funniest part about that is, if you listen to the Quik and Kurupt album, they’re talking about partying, drinking and having sex. And we love all of that, too. [laughs] Even our single, “So Damn Down,” every verse has some innuendo in it about being with some chick. It’s all the same thing, everyday guy shit, but one person has more of a G-funk production style and our shit is Native Tongue-influenced. But we’re all after the same open bar and the same chick [laughs].
Donwill: What’s so cool, though, is that we have so many fans in Cali and Los Angeles. We were on tour with Hiero last year, and just walking down the block we’d see all kinds of people shouting, “Tanya Morgan, motherfucker!” One time, we were in Atlanta and this dude had on a long T-shirt and dreads, you would’ve thought he was a D-boy or something, to be stereotypical. But then he came up to us and told us that he loves our shit. I was like, “You listen to us?” [laughs] I would’ve thought he only listened to Jeezy and that’s it.
XXL: That’s the great thing about hip-hop—you can’t put into one box.
Von Pea: When people think of neo-soul rappers or even backpackers, they automatically think, “This is pretentious, some corny dudes that rap all intelligent because they know some college words.” They know who Farrakhan is, so they think they’re better than the next man. But, really, we’re all just partying and want to be dope. The same way that [Big Daddy] Kane, MC Ren and Scarface all wanted to be nice. We’re just three dudes who want to be seen as “nice,” and also want the women [laughs].
XXL: Don’t we all.
Donwill: [Laughs] Absolutely. Hip-hop has become “one thing” when it used to be “everything.” It used to be cool to have your own style, but now you have to Auto-Tune-sing the last fourth bar or some shit.
XXL: Speaking of which, are you fans of “D.O.A.”?
Ilyas: Well, actually, let me break down a little history [laughs]. Don and Von did a podcast way back where they talked in Auto-Tune the whole time, and it was hilarious. And then, also, I did a song called “My Auto-Tune song,” and it had a video with 3D-animation graphics of a character that looks very close to a certain artist, whose name I won’t say out loud.
Donwill: And before Jay-Z, there was a project on RappersIKnow.com called “Death of Auto-Tune,” which was the same thing. The underground is always a little ahead of the curve. But Jay-Z is a franchise, so [underground efforts] don’t affect as many ears as Jay-Z does. When he says “Death of Auto-Tune,” then all of the sudden Auto-Tune is over!
XXL: So is Auto-Tune really dead now?
Ilyas: Nah, because, honestly, the backlash on it within the Internet world, the young’ns were saying, “We think Auto-Tune is hot—you’re just old.”
Donwill: It’s all strategy, though. You can’t just come out with a dope song no more. I truly believe that—and not to start talking about everybody else—when Kanye put out 808s & Heartbreak… I personally feel that, in addition to him wanting to do it, he was thinking, “I’m going to buy myself some time by putting out this weird album. Even if it don’t work, it’s gonna be a big deal when I come back to rapping.”
XXL: Everything is premeditated to you, then?
Donwill: To a certain degree. That’s what “Death of Auto-Tune” is—something for people to talk about tomorrow. Just realize that we’re huge Jay-Z fans, though. It’d be real cheap for us to come into this interview saying, “Fuck X, Y, Z. Dude is wack.” [laughs] People would only talk about the interview and not our music. Because it’s like, “The spotlight’s on you for things you’ve said, so now what? Is the music dope?”
Von Pea: Hopefully, with us, people can turn around and discover that our music is dope. —Matt Barone