Asking artists to describe their own music is one of the most pointless things you can do. Try it for yourself and see. If an artist is delusional, derivative or just plain wack, he’ll answer quickly—comparing himself to a revered contemporary or a figure from music history who is widely accepted as great. Those are the posers.
If the artist is at all worth his salt he will undoubtedly be “sensitive about his shit” (see: Erykah Badu’s monologue from “Call Tyrone”). He will tell you that his work is very difficult to describe and will scoff at any comparison because, of course, he is incomparable and his music wholly original. Those are the (understandably) pretentious ones.
I never directly asked the members of Brooklyn’s Phony Ppl “to describe their sound” or tell me who they considered their contemporaries because after about a dozen listens to their official debut Phony Land (stream it from start to finish above), it became apparent that any attempt to slap a label on what they do—outside of the nebulous “Brooklyn Soul” categorization they’ve given themselves— would be too reductive.
“To some people we’re a hip-hop group, to some people we’re a band, to some people we’re a gang of producers, to some people we’re R&B,” says, the soft-spoken Elbie Three who co-founded the crew with his childhood friend Aja Grant. “Looking at it I realized that it’s cool that people can see us from different angles,” he says pulling his dreadlocks away from his face and into a ponytail. “They can take what they want from Phony Ppl.”
And there, without pretense and with wisdom that belies his age (19,) Elbie answered the stupid “how would you describe your sound?” question that music journalists always ask, even when we think we’re not: Music is simply what you get from it.
Listening to recently released Phony Land, I got hip-hop, I got jazz, R&B, electronic music, jazz fusion and alt rock from the music as well as the impression that this nine-member collective of instrumentalists, singers, rappers, composers and producers were on to something.
Comprised of the aforementioned Elbie Three (vocals, keys), Aja Grant (keys), Dyme-A-Duzin (vocals), Sheriff PJ (vocals), Bari Bass (bass, Aja’s older brother), Elijah Rawk (guitar), Ian Bakerwoman (guitar), Maff Yuu (drums, percussion DJ), and Temi O (saxophone) they range in age from 19 to 21 and exhibit a familial chemistry one rarely sees in a group this large. Their name has no deep meaning it’s just a name Elbie pulled out of the air when Dyme had a solo gig and needed a name for the crew as his backing band.
There’s camaraderie, brotherly bickering, collaboration and healthy sibling rivalry amongst the crew—but there’s no clear pecking order. Everyone’s opinion is valued in the creative process.
“I relate everything to soccer—you have to learn how to play as a team in order to achieve one goal and that one goal is a good song.”
says Bari Bass, the group’s resident sage, space cadet and smooth-talker. “So if everyone is trying to score the same goal we’re gonna end up working together, passing the ball and moving into the right spaces.”
Phony Ppl usually engage in this sonic soccer games at “Casa De La Phony,” their home base and rehearsal space in an unassuming two-family house in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The place is actually member Maff Yuu’s home and his dimly-lit and slightly messy bedroom, where most of the interviews took place, doubles as a makeshift pre-production studio. For the time being the basement of this building might be more famous than Phony Ppl, that’s because Maff Yuu’s dad is Jazzy Jay, the legendary Zulu Nation DJ and world-renowned record collector. The basement houses the hundreds of thousands of pieces of vinyl and was featured in the 2001 DJ culture documentary “Scratch.” According to Maff Yuu, Jay is their harshest critic and most passionate teacher: “My father brings all of us in a room, plays us a record and then tells us what we need to do to sound like that [laughs].”
These “Jazzy moments”, when Jay exposes Phony Ppl to the diverse music of yesteryear, are occasions when old school hip-hop pioneers interact with the now school of young artists. But inter-generational exchanges like this are rare and as is often the case, the youth are misunderstood and/or ignored by their elders. Conscious of this nonsense, Dyme-A-Duzin, (Who recently signed to Warner Bros. As a solo artist) and Sheriff PJ the reformed thug of the group, penned an S.O.S. for their peers called “Save Our Generation.” “We tried to relay a message” says Maff Yuu between puffs of a Marlboro Red.
“Instead of it being this pop song or about getting all this money or all the bitches and all of that we wanted to talk about what’s going on in our society as young men and saying we basically have to save our generation from going downhill, from being…”
He trails off. “From being cunts! Somebody had to say it,”chuckles Sherriff PJ finishing his bandmate’s thought. “I freestyled it,” says Dyme. “That was one take. It was like ‘this is how I feel about how things are going on.’”
“Save Our Generation” punctuates an album where many of the songs are light-hearted flirtations with the fairer sex or declarations of artistic independence. But Let Dyme tell it they’d be remiss if they didn’t address the harsher realities of young Brooklyn kids like themselves. “I walk around New York every day seeing gangs of kids [and I think of that] line in the song: ‘We just roll in gangs ‘cause we all are scared.’ It’s like dude you know you’re with these guys because you want to be a part of something.”
Luckily for members of Phony Ppl the “something” that they’re a part of is as great as the music is hard to describe.
For more exclusive photos of Phony Ppl, check out our album on Facebook.