For nearly 10 years, the eclectic hip-hop quintet Phony Ppl—made up of Elbee Thrie (vocals), Matt Byas (drums), Aja Grant (keyboard), Elijah Rawk (lead guitar), and Bari Bass (bass guitar)—has been finding, refining, and redefining their musical identity. After various lineup changes, behind-the-scenes hold-ups, and a recent record deal with 300 Entertainment, the group delivered their most polished work of art to date, mō'zā-ik. Still, if you ask the band, it’s another stepping stone on their journey toward showcasing their full palette.
“Finding a sound comes from this constant trial and error,” Grant says. “Essentially, your sound is everything you’ve put out, not necessarily everything you’ve made. It’s weird, it’s in terms of what other people perceive. I don’t know if you ever find your sound until you’re done making music and you look back on the whole thing.”
Rather than attempting to issue a clear-cut definition that sums up their ever-changing sound, the band would rather spend time learning more about one another. More accurately, learn about themselves in relation to each other, while carving out space within what they call the “Phony Umbrella.”
For Grant, it’s the background embellishments that rise to the surface once you think you’ve replayed the song enough times to fully understand its scope; for Byas, it’s discovering the awkward rhythms, fully evident in the off-kilter percussion on “Either Way”; for Rawk, it’s the pocket grooves that add brilliant color to a vibrant song like “Once You Say Hello”; for Bass, it’s all about authenticity and dirtiness—dirt in terms of texture, not subject matter; and for Thrie, it’s depth, progression, and the overarching concepts that drive the songs and help shape their full-length projects.
If you separate the lyrics from the melodies on much of mō'zā-ik, you’ll find that many of these concepts tell opposing stories in the same song. Often, their production takes you to the beach even as lead vocalist Elbee Thrie sings of anxiety and faulty relationships, a wedge that makes you think twice as you listen.
“It’s about being able to understand the language of English and the language of music at the same time,” Thrie says. “ It’s fun to be a chemist and mix concepts. We like to switch it up, and ask, ‘What shouldn’t be’? Let’s try to make what shouldn’t work, work.”
Listening to a Phony Ppl album might leave listeners with mixed emotions, but attending a live show is a refreshingly joyful experience. Earlier this month, the group played several shows at SXSW Conference & Festivals in Austin, Texas, jamming out with a cheery pleasure and taking care to interact with their audience at every turn. While several showcases allowed for a full-length audit into their persona, others were tightly constrained under 20 minutes, forcing the Brooklyn-based group to compact as much of their essence as possible into a bite-sized experience.
“Getting your point across as a whole—who we are and what we do—to someone who’s never heard of us or seen us before,” Thrie says, “is definitely challenging.”
Eight years after the group was formed, Phony Ppl has become accustomed to winning over a crowd in a relatively unfamiliar environment. A busy tour schedule is part of the reason, rather than rushing out a new album, the group spent three years crafting the follow-up to 2015's Yesterday’s Tomorrow album.
“We had mad life to live, we were on tour a bunch, going through personnel changes and all kinds of stuff,” Rawk says. “It takes time to do it the right way. We all grew up with parents who were very caring, and promote caution with everything that we do, so we’ve never felt a rush with anything we want to accomplish with this band.”
The group is adamant that the next chapter in their discography won’t take quite as long to hit the market, however. Even before they finished what would become mō'zā-ik, a promise was made to jump back in the studio. Four months removed from its release they’ve kept their word.
“The creative process for this [new album] feels a little more focused and direct,” Aja says. “Instead of jamming for hours and keeping a little section, we’re locking in faster. We’re a lot more decisive.”
Part of that decisiveness stems from already having a clear vision for the future. Looking back on mō'zā-ik, the group says they placed a large emphasis on how the songs would emotionally affect listeners, while the physical effects of each song took somewhat of a backseat. Now, they’re focusing on the groove, aiming to increase replay value without sacrificing the lyrical content that made their last album resonate.
“As much as mō'zā-ik touches all of us, and it’s cool that it resonates with a lot of people, we want to have something where you can play it in almost every situation,” Byas says. “Just like Stevie, just like the people we grew up with. You’ve got to have people listening to what you’re saying, but you also want to make them move to it.”
With a new album on the way and a weekly residency at the Blue Note in New York, Phony Ppl is poised for a big 2019. Patiently, the group has waited for their story to play out, but now with added resources at their disposal, they’re hungry for more—of everything.
“More music, more videos, more life, more weed, more trees,” Thrie says. “All that. Threece!”