Tanya Morgan: Hip-Hop Fantasy Land

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A none-too-girly trio gives birth to a hip-hop fantasy world.

“There’s a quirky kind of edge to us,” says Von Pea, offering his best explanation for Tanya Morgan's self-created mythology. Take the group's name; seemingly devised on a whim, it refers to a woman that doesn’t exist. The three say they hail from Brooklynati; much like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, it’s an imaginary hometown that pays homage to the group’s dual stomping grounds of Brooklyn and Cincinnati. At their website, brooklynati.com, a hip-hop geek’s fantasy is brought to glorious life, with mythical locales such as Yancey Park, Questo’s Instrument Shop, and Tiggalo’s House of Worship.

Brooklynati, the group's new album, arrives three years after their 2006 debut, Moonlighting. On that first release, Von Pea, Donwill, and Ilyas drew effusive praise from the OkayPlayer crowd for their zippy, off-the-cuff rhymes; their unpretentious approach to hip-hop seemed to capture the art form’s playfully musical essence. But Moonlighting sold fewer copies than expected as Loud Minority Media’s then-distributor, onetime Bay Area rap giant ABB Records, folded. Loud Minority has since re-organized under a new name, Interdependent Media, giving Tanya Morgan a real shot at indie rap fame.

On Brooklynati, co-produced by Von Pea and beat-maker Brickbeats, the group tries to fulfill that promise with lush hip-hop soul and cameos from Phonte, Blu, and many others. “Moonlighting was essentially the demo tape that got us a record deal to make Brooklynati,” says Donwill, who explains that Tanya Morgan worked on Brooklynati for three years. Instead of relying on first-take vocals, the group re-recorded tracks to draw out their best performances. “We employed a technique that a lot of rock artists use—and I don’t know if rap artists do it like that—[where] we went in and re-did all the songs, because we understood that this was a time capsule.” He compares the process to “having
a baby.”

Brooklynati contains excellent nerd-rap fiction—one of the album’s highlights stars “Hardcore Gentlemen,” a made-up group that mimics the overwrought growling of early ’90s horrorcore acts—and plenty of real-life drama, with rhymes about surviving as starving artists (“Plan B”) and arguing with flaky concert promoters over money (“Don’t U Holla”). Tanya Morgan still performs the crazy freestyle sessions that made Moonlighting so great: Check “Never Secondary,” a cipher with their Lessondary crew. But the group’s zany, freewheeling spirit seems more tempered this time around, perhaps a result of seeing the industry as insiders instead of, as Ilyas puts it, “from the outside looking in.”

“Conceptually, this album is about life,” he says. “When you listen to the songs, there’s a lot of narrative—like, ‘What if I didn’t have a record deal?,’ or ‘These promoters are shady,’ or even, like, ‘Now that we put out an album, you’re [automatically] going to want another album because the internet is so saturated with music.’ It’s about life in 2010.”

MP3: "So Damn Down"