Happy 10th Anniversary to Tanya Morgan’s second studio album Brooklynati, originally released May 12, 2009.
Brooklynati is a sincere album. It represented the next progression of Tanya Morgan, a group absolutely firm in its convictions. Released 10 years ago, their sophomore effort is dedicated to their pursuit of musical happiness and unwavering commitment to self-expression.
At the time, Tanya Morgan was a trio comprised of Cincinnati native Donald “Donwill” Freeman, Ilyas Nashid and Brooklyn resident Devon “Von Pea” Callender (a.k.a. “Skinny Biggie”) who pulls double duty as a producer. Donwill and Von pea first met through the Okayplayer.com message boards, and started sending each other the music they’d already recorded. They found common musical ground and decided to start working together. Donwill enlisted Ilyas, who rhymed with him for years, and the three began recording material. Inspired by The Foreign Exchange, who had also connected through Okayplayer, the three emcees would send each other beats and partially recorded material through AOL Instant Messenger.
Tanya Morgan’s first effort, Moonlighting (2006) was an enjoyable but unpolished debut outing. With Brooklynati, the group refined their craft, both lyrically and musically. Tanya Morgan “aims for the stars” and directly hits their target, as Brooklynati was one of the best albums of 2009.
Brooklynati symbolizes the stylistic union between Von, Donwill and Ilyas’ hometowns, where all three finally feel comfortable. All three emcees have their own distinct voices and styles, and each shine in their own right throughout the project. The vast majority of the album’s production is handled by either Von Pea or homie Brick Beats, and includes appearances mostly by like-minded artists they connected with through the Internet.
Tanya Morgan gracefully executes the “Brooklynati” concept, which, according to a lengthy oral history of the group on Bandcamp.com, they conceived during a long drive from Los Angeles to Portland. The album’s framing device is broadcasts emanating from Brooklynati’s sole radio station. As connective tissue, they include radio drops by the station’s DJs, shout outs to local sports teams, and advertisements to benefit a local independent record store.
There’s also a running gag about a reunion performance by the Hardcore Gentlemen, Brooklynati’s original hometown heroes. The crew, who sound like a mid-1990s, East Coast Stomping amalgam of Onyx and The Pharcyde, have never progressed beyond their sole hit, and are reuniting after 15 years to perform their self-titled hit 15 times. Brooklynati includes the song in question, which is a pitch perfect parody of mid ’90s not-quite mainstream hip-hop.
Tanya Morgan also went the extra mile in creating a cross-media campaign for the album years before “going viral” became a thing. The album insert features a glorious detailed map of the city of Brooklynati, and the group produced “specials” for Brooklynati Public Access, including tours of the city and a live Tanya Morgan performance at “Jurx Records,” which suspiciously looks like Fat Beats NYC
Tanya Morgan start off Brooklynati by declaring the importance of music in their lives. “On Our Way” signifies the beginning of the metaphorical journey to the city of Brooklynati, a place they’ve “seen only in our dreams” and “where we can be kings.” Expressing how they feel being constrained by what people expect of them, they vow to pursue their goals of becoming a successful group on their own terms.
“Alleye Need” is Tanya Morgan’s dedication to the role of hip-hop in their lives and their struggle to connect with their audience. Von Pea starts off with a strong verse, stating, “Tanya Morgan ain’t a popular group as usual / But I get more props and stunts as GURU / A poet like Langston, you’re hating like Plankton / Want my ingredients? Fine. Take them.” Meanwhile, Ilyas expresses the frustration that comes with trying to balance a 9-to-5 job and a rap career, rapping, “Despite the scenery, not all’s it seems to be / But you know how we can be so full of doubt there ain’t no reaching me.”
Much of Brooklynati deals with the difficulties of being an independent rap crew during the late ’00s. “Don’t U Holla” features the group and homie Germicide venting at the daily aggravations that come from low-budget touring. Partially inspired by real life touring disasters, they describe dealing with the increasingly contentious obstacles of shady show promoters, obnoxious bouncers, and the persistent drudgery of road-life. Over a sped-up loop of Johnny Pate’s “Headman,” they convey the exasperation that many independent rappers living the blue-collar hustle go through to connect with their fans, with Donwill oh so delicately declaring, “I ain’t trying to get jerked unless my girl can’t screw.”
“Just Arrived” shows the group grappling with the realities of what it means to connect with your audience. In a market where very few listeners buy physical copies of anything, everyone has become an arm-chair A&R, blogs and cultural gatekeepers try to exert control of the music, and artists are continually dumbing down their content to appeal to a broader audience, the three try to make sense of it all. While Ilyas declares exasperatedly, “If I’m on the right track, where the fuck is the train?” Donwill sounds more resigned to accepting the volatility, rapping, “As long as you learn the songs and show up at the show / Man, it is what it is, I ain’t complaining. Nope. / ’Cause it’s the nature of the biz that we’ve come to know /And if you didn’t notice it’s on the downstroke.”
Some of songs on Brooklynati are powerful in their poignancy. On “Plan B,” the members of the group attempt to envision how their lives would have turned out if they hadn’t pursued their dreams of creating hip-hop music. Both Von and Donwill convey convincing portraits of people not quite satisfied with their lives, trying to convince themselves that they made the right choice by taking the “safe” route.
“She’s Gone” hit me directly in the feels, as it’s their somber ode to the loss of their favorite mom-and-pop record stores. As someone who has spent countless hours perusing the aisles of many great local spots that have disappeared to shifting markets, I can definitely relate to the feelings of loss the crew expresses here. Donwill’s lament of “I cheated on you and it made you grow distant / Got sick of waiting on what’s other got in an instant” sum up the death of most record stores. Phonte’s soul-drenched vocals on the hook add extra flavor.
None of this is to suggest that Brooklynati is a solemn, self-serious endeavor. Tanya Morgan bring a sense of fun and occasionally outright joy to their music. “So Damn Down,” the album’s first single, has a disco-ish, party vibe, with all three emcees channeling their inner hip-hop Rat Pack personas, while “Bang and Boogie” is a rollicking, horn-driven track dedicated to their pursuit of female attention.
“We’re Fly” is the best braggadocio-fueled entry on the album, where the group along with Kay of The Foundation and Chop, floss over a copped jazzy guitar sample and shuffling drums. Ilyas kicks a double-time verse to match the complexity of the beat, while Donwill slows things down, paying tribute to Bay Area O.G. Too $hort, mimicking his delivery, if not his voice. Von Pea raps, “No, this ain't no hipster rap shit / Since I was a prodigy they told me that I rap sick / Rapping sickle cell when them kids start noticing / When I get to focusing others can't find their opening.”
Tanya Morgan allow some of their friends to get loose throughout Brooklynati. “Never 2ndary” is a thoroughly entertaining posse cut, where the crew is joined by Jermiside, Spec Boogie, Elucid, and Che Grand, all artists that they also met through the Okayplayer message boards. “Morgan Blu” features an appropriately energetic opening verse by Blu, the often enigmatic Los Angeles emcee. Over a soulful guitar sample, Blu tells the listeners to “please hold your applause ’till the homie stops recording / And hold your drawls 'till the promoter drops the 40 G’s.”
The album ends on the right note with “Forgot 2 Say,” the crew’s extended “thank you” to the people who supported them through their journey. Whether its Donwill shouting out his individual family members who always had his back or Ilyas encourage his female fans to send him “explicit e-mails” (“Of course you’re not being a groupie; you’re just being supportive!” he jokes), the group does an admirable job of showing their appreciation for their loyal audience.
Though the record industry has become even more convoluted and disparate in the decade after the release of Brooklynati, Tanya Morgan are still pursuing their dreams. Ilyas left the group on amicable terms shortly after Brooklynati dropped, but both Von Pea and Donwill have been carrying on both as a group and through solo projects. The latest Tanya Morgan album, YGWY$4, was one of the best releases of 2017. All three O.G. members of Tanya Morgan continued recording with the emcees on “Never 2ndary,” forming a loose collective and dubbing themselves The Lessondary crew. They released the pretty dope Ahead of Schedule in 2016.
Tanya Morgan have built a successful career for themselves, forging their own identity. Brooklynati’s artistic integrity is a huge part of that success. And I think it’s safe to say they’ll never hold a concert where they perform the same song 15 straight times.