Phony Ppl Talk New Album 'M?'z?-ik,' Being Co-Signed by Chance the Rapper

Phony Ppl
Ryan Jay

Phony Ppl 

The members of Phony Ppl have been jamming with each other since 2008. After years of honing in on their sound (to some degree, it’s still genre-bending), vocalist Elbee Thrie, composer Aja Grant, guitarist Elijah Rawk, bassist Bari Bass and percussionist Matthew Byas signed to 300 Entertainment and released their first official album Yesterday’s Tomorrow in 2015. Now, three years later, the Brooklyn-based five-piece inject funk, soul, jazz, and even rock into their hip-hop palette to create m?’z?-ik — a colorful album that truly lives up to its name.

“We never like to do the same thing twice,” Three admits. “It’s too safe.”

That mindset resulted in an 11-track collection where each song stands on its own, even as they all join together to create a vibrant, cohesive work of art. m?’z?-ik is an album four years in the making, as its creators spent time on the road with Kali Uchis and held residencies at New York’s legendary Blue Note, evolving as artists along the way.

Each member of the group also collaborates on other projects — Grant worked on multiple Mac Miller albums; Three has a solo project; Byas recorded with Domo Genesis; Rawk is in Princess Nokia’s band —but at the end of the day, their hearts are with Phony Ppl.

Billboard caught up with all five members ahead of the m?’z?-ik release to chat about the album, being co-signed by Chance The Rapper and Tyler, the Creator, and remembering Mac Miller.

It took you four years to write and record m?’z?-ik. Are there any songs on the album that you feel disassociated from because you wrote them so long ago?

Elbee Thrie: Some songs were sparked or completely written a while back, but there’s not disassociation because we reinvent them. There’s a song called “Something About Your Love” on this project. That song was formed, in its original state, in 2011. I think that’s probably the song that dates back to the earliest time on this project, but we reinvented it. It went through such a metamorphosis throughout the years that it doesn’t feel like we’re pulling a skeleton out of the closet when we play it. It’s a song that has a lot of life to it, interestingly enough since it’s one of the oldest. We like to keep it fun and exciting. The songs where we feel disassociated, those are the ones that didn’t make the album.

In what ways would you say this album differs from Yesterday’s Tomorrow?

Matthew Byas: We sat down and matured our sound and elevated our playing to a greater level than Yesterday’s Tomorrow, from being on the road with Kali Uchis and having to play two shows a night; the Blue Note residencies that we’ve done; really being together and playing our instruments, demoing a lot of these songs in concert for the people and seeing how they react to new elements we haven’t yet recorded on the song. A lot of practicing, and being with each other, and talking it out just allows for m?’z?-ik to be a little more mature. Not to say that Yesterday’s Tomorrow is not mature. m?’z?-ik is just mature-er. [Laughs]

Are the live versions of the demoed songs that ended up on the album?

Byas: The way that you get it on the album is similar, but it’s definitely not the same as what you’re going to get at the live show. We try to make those pretty distinct, like: I’m here, chillin’ in my favorite pajamas listening to a Phony Ppl album, and when you go to the show you don’t want to feel the same way. You want to feel like you’re at a show. You want to feel the difference. So we try to zero in on “This part is for the live set, this part is for the recording.” Us playing the songs so much live allowed us to separate those parts. When you come to the show, you come and see the show. When you’re at home in your favorite pajamas chillin’ with your kitty, that’s a whole different show, too. [Laughs]

You’ve been co-signed by Chance The Rapper and Tyler, The Creator. How does it feel to be championed by such praised artists?

Thrie: It’s pretty nice when someone who is respected in your generation, in the same field of art, is an honor. That’s really all you could ask for, someone to say “This is good stuff, what you’re doing.” Because they’re not just saying, “Yo, I know about you guys,” they’re saying, “I know about you guys and you’re making some real shit today.” That’s speaking for the times and is really honorable.

Would you ever consider collaborating on your albums, or do you strictly work just the five of you?

Elijah Rawk: Historically, the only reason why more features haven’t happened is because of circumstantial stuff — where we are, where the other person is, timing, us being on tour, that kind of stuff. For a long time it seemed to other people like we didn’t want to make music with other people, but it’s really not true. We love making music in any kind of context, with as many kinds of people and opportunities as we can. Being signed and moving forward with this album, kind of wrapping up a chapter, I think it’ll open up a lot more room and opportunity for us to work with other people.

Thrie: I think in the early years of Phony Ppl there was a drive to prove that we’re the reason why we are who we are. That’s why a lot of our early projects aren’t filled with features — we wanted to be the reason why we are who we are and why we’re sounding how we sound. Now that we have our sound on lock, internally, when we collab we know exactly what we’re bringing to the table. It just makes for a more thorough and insightful collab when you know what you’re bringing to the table.

After the album comes out, you’re hitting the road with Pusha T. What about that tour makes you most excited?

Bari Bass: It’s an exciting position to be in. We have an album that we’re proud of, and we’re ready to share it live with a lot of people. I think Pusha T is an amazing artist, and we’re definitely looking forward to touring, hopefully collaborating, and having fun.

Thrie: One thing I’m really excited to see on the road is how we can win over the people that came to see him. We want the next day for people to think, "Wow I came out for Pusha T, but the other band is kinda nice too. I want to see what they got goin’ on." We want to expand our demographic. When we went on the road with Kali Uchis, that was a sort of kind of bouquet, and now Phony Ppl and Pusha T is a different kind of bouquet. I’m keyin’ in already, visualizin’ peoples faces while I’m standing on stage. I’m feelin’ it already. We want to do the best we can do and represent Brooklyn in the best way possible.

Bass: We love the challenge of converting new fans during performances. We’ll try our hardest to win you over.

Aja, you worked on Mac Miller’s Divine Feminine and Swimming albums. How has his death affected you?

Aja Grant: I remember the first time I heard the news, it was really hard because just knowing him, he was a person that was full of life. I was in the studio with him less than a month before he passed. Just him coming up to my face, conducting like he was an opera singer when he was singing his verses, and us being the same age. That was the last person you’d think would pass away. I’m still kind of getting over it. A guy my age who I considered a hero — he respected me, I respected him — and he’s gone.

But the time we did have together — I love making music with everybody in Phony Ppl, and working with Mac was kind of the same feeling. It was like family. We made some pretty cool tracks together. RIP.

It’s so sad, and Mac seemed like such a great guy. I love hearing all these stories about him. How did you originally get connected with him?

Grant: It’s a coincidence that he was moving to New York at the time. He had tweeted if someone could play piano. I remember I was at the movies watching Star Wars, and my phone was going crazy. I looked and saw @ Mac Miller, so I thought maybe he re-tweeted something about the band, but then I keep seeing my name attached to it. So he was like, “Yo man, can you send me some piano?” He was on his way to India with his girlfriend at the time, and I was just sending him a bunch of voice memos. He was like “Wow man, these are so beautiful. I’m going to be in New York next week, come through.” I went to the studio and redid one of the voice memos, and that turned out to be “Congratulations” on Divine Feminine.