[Read Ben Pedroche’s review of Tanya Morgan’s new album YGWY$4 here]
Tanya Morgan has a sense of humor about their music that makes it feel instantly relatable. There’s the group’s name, seemingly chosen purely because it sounded like something a real person might be called, plus a lot of throwaway lines and self-deprecating raps in their songs. It makes them human. Ordinary people just like us. But don’t let that distract you too much, because this sense of fun sometimes belies just how serious group members Devon "Von Pea" Callender and Donald "Donwill" Freeman are about their craft.
The lyrics they write have a depth that can often pass unnoticed, but for those willing to dive deep into their catalog there’s a wealth of slick wordplay and top-level lyricism to be found, over some of the tastiest beats you’re unlikely to find in many other places. It’s these elements that have helped Tanya Morgan carve out a long career in hip-hop since first breaking out with their debut project, 2005’s Sunset EP.
Destined to be forever stuck somewhere between getting respect from the “underground” and acceptance from the major league, Tanya Morgan’s is a story about grinding hard to make a living off of doing something you love, while always remaining grounded, honest and true to yourself.
The duo’s new album YGWY$4 is one of their best yet, up there alongside Your Old Droog’s Packs and Billy Woods’ Known Unknowns as contenders for indie hip-hop album of the year, now that we’re more than midway through 2017.
For those unacquainted, YGWY$4 is a good entry point. Just make sure you also dig way deeper and go right back to the start. It’s worth the trip.
Ben Pedroche: The title of the new album, YGWY$4 (You Get What You Pay For), seems to be a comment on how loosely people now consume music, and the way they quickly move on to something else. Can you elaborate?
Donwill: There are a few different meanings to the title, but you’ve touched on the main one and it’s essentially that you get what you give. Time is more valuable than money, and if we can get your attention then you’ve fully invested into our art regardless to whether or not it was purchased, streamed or stolen.
Von Pea: Time is money. The title comes from a conversation Don and I had about the days of buying an album that grew on you simply because you invested your time. This album took years to complete, and people have been excited for its release, so I guess there was a first-person aspect to the title as well.
BP: Is it painful to spend so long crafting a cohesive album knowing that most listeners won't bother to hear it all the way through?
Donwill: Not for me. I just enjoy the process of crafting a full statement. I think the majority of our fan base actually enjoys listening to albums, and even if I’m wrong that doesn’t really stop me from wanting to craft them. Sequencing songs is as much fun as making them. I’m also not opposed to people picking their favorite song and running with it. The only thing I don’t like is indifference, as long as you come back for something, then we cool.
Von Pea: Nah, their loss! [Laughs] And that’s not just for us, that goes for any artist. Continue to put your all into your shit, never let your anticipation of the reaction ruin what you set out to accomplish.
BP: The term “concept album” is often vague or misleading, but it’s definitely the right way to describe your 2009 LP Brooklynati. How did the idea evolve from blueprint to full-blown fictional city?
Donwill: We really just wanted to craft an experience that would take the listener as deep as they wanted to go. If you wanted to pick a handful of songs and run with them, there’s definitely more than a few jams to pick from. If you want to become fully immersed, there’s a ton of things that you could do from generating a driver’s license to copping a Brookynati hat. As a group, when we brainstorm, we tend to hone in on our favorite idea and just keep heightening it until we’ve almost taken it too far. Like how far can we take something and still actually make it happen…that was Brooklynati.
Von Pea: For this album, the running gag was a telethon to raise money, but it’s still taking place in Brooklynati. We said we’d “stay in Brooklynati” back when we put that album out, and we were serious [laughs].
BP: It was a brave album to make at a relatively early stage in your careers. In a genre where so much of what's popular is appealing to the lowest common denominator, was there ever a fear that people wouldn’t understand it?
Donwill: By virtue of our name alone we ended up pulling in a fan base that just gets it. I guess we should have been worried about expanding and getting accepted by fringe listeners and new fans. But you know, it’s one of those things where we figured that if you could accept us being named Tanya Morgan, then you were pretty much on board with whatever else was going to happen.
Von Pea: Yeah, I never wanted to look at what we’re doing as “above.” Comic books are given to children. Gotham. Fake city. Brooklynati. Fake city. I’m still trying to figure out who shot Kendrick (Lamar) on the intro for DAMN. And he’s the most popular artist out, so if people got confused by our fake city, then they just didn’t wanna fuck with us.
BP: You are known for coming up in the digital age, from meeting on forums and posting music on Myspace, to using SoundCloud and Bandcamp a lot. Tanya Morgan is certainly one of the few groups I own a huge amount of music by, but none of it in a physical format. As a group that’s always been ahead of the online curve, in what direction do you see the industry going next?
Donwill: That’s a great question and honestly I have no idea. I know that resources for artists to succeed without labels are more abundant than ever, and while labels are still important to creating careers, they have also been put in their place and exposed in many ways. If anything, I’d say music and tech will mix more to create things we’ve never seen before.
Von Pea: I see things going in a cycle. The least portable form of music (vinyl) has made a comeback for aesthetic reasons. When we put our first album out on cassette in 2006, some people thought it was the coolest, most random and useless thing ever. But now cassettes have made a tremendous resurgence. The cloud is here to stay though.
BP: Your respective solo albums don't always have guest spots from the other half of the group. Is that a conscious decision, to differentiate them from actual Tanya Morgan albums?
Donwill: More or less, I think we’re always in the background of each other’s projects so much that we don’t even notice it. Like Von will have a line or two on my EP, or I’ll be helping him shape demos and just being a second set of ears. So it feels like I’m involved even if you don’t hear my voice on a song.
Von Pea: For years now I’ve looked at us like The Lox. People that say they want to see us with Ilyas must have missed out on The Lessondary album because we’re all on there…but that’s a sidebar. The Lox are always a part of each other’s albums as much as they will allow. I think it was a Sir Michael Rocks album where Chuck Inglish was just in the background talking on one of the skits. Shit like that’s cool to me.
BP: Any final thoughts or anything else you want people to know?
Donwill: YGWY$4 is my favorite Tanya Morgan album, and I really think anyone who has enjoyed our music will love it. Oh, also Ilyas told me to tell all of y’all out there listening that he really likes the album.
Von Pea: Please keep listening to YGWY$4. We took a long time to get it just right. We’re gonna do some solo stuff next, and then more Tanya Morgan. Also, I gave Ilyas 11 beats for his album that I think we’re all executive producing together.
BP: And the obligatory Albumism question: what are your five favorite albums of all time?
Donwill: This is a hard as question man, my current list is based on my mood and it includes Bilal’s Love for Sale, J Dilla’s Donuts, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, Threat’s Sickinnahead, and Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind.
Von Pea: In order of influence, mine are Big Daddy Kane’s It’s a Big Daddy Thing (Kane taught me what a super emcee sounds like), De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead (the art of creating a world within an album), A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders (what a perfect hip hop album sounds like), The Roots’ Things Fall Apart (Sequencing and transitions, setting a mood), and Little Brother’s The Listening (proof you don’t need a “real” studio to make an album).