Perhaps the digital superhighway’s most radical means of transforming Hip Hop, over the past decade collaborations became possible without emcees being in the same recording space. The members of Tanya Morgan are a less credited early adapter to this innovation, originally coming from Brooklyn and Cincinnati to form a group that pays respect to Rap’s pioneers while attempting to craft a new sound at once. In the wake of group member Ilyas taking an amicable departure from the group, Donwill and Von Pea found themselves at a crossroads releasing EPs together along with their solo projects while figuring out their direction for a third, full-length album.
Linking up with producer 6th Sense, Tanya Morgan’s newest output is Rubber Souls, an album that reaches out for their widest audience yet while playing to the tastes of their core following. Tanya Morgan and 6th Sense took time to talk about the group’s roster downsizing, their latest work and its place within today’s scene. The three have a chemistry that comes across not only in the studio but when together talking comically and candidly regarding their purpose and overall dedication towards making a positive difference within their culture.
Tanya Morgan Explain Group Changes & Their Four-Year Hiatus
HipHopDX: With Ilyas departing from the group, it’s like the group had no choice but to undergo a rebirth. Tell me about how the group has changed from Moonlighting and Brooklynati with Rubber Souls.
Von Pea: On Moonlighting we were just making a record for fun; most people make their first project for fun. Brooklynati was made with the knowledge that people are really listening this time, and with Rubber Souls things have changed so much from 2009 to 2013, but really we had this mentality in 2011 when we started it. Within those two years things changed so much from different labels and management and even a different dynamic within the group with Ilyas leaving. We were just growing and going through different things. I damn near moved out of New York, Don had a daughter—the changes you make as a person went into making Rubber Souls.
Donwill is the executive producer of the album, because this is his brainchild as far as us hollering at 6th Sense and letting him produce the whole thing. The same way Tanya Morgan started… At first it was going to be a EP or a side project, and it developed into our new album. Things always happen naturally for us, and the same thing goes with this, as different as it is from what we normally do.
DX: Though you’ve released a group EP, Von has released an album and a EP, Don has released an album and side projects as well, it’s been over four years since we’ve heard a full-length Tanya Morgan album. What has caused such an extended public hiatus being that Tanya Morgan is your main bread and butter?
Donwill: The extended hiatus was just about all of the reconfiguration. We had an album that was supposed to come out before Rubber Souls called You Get What You Pay For. We were working on it, and we were gonna put it out, but at the end of the day we put out the You & What Army EP because You Get What You Pay For was taking so long. We threw that out as a collection of songs that we were in love with but we weren’t really married to, like a man having a side-piece [laughs].
While we put out that, we figured You Get What You Pay For was next and then Rubber Souls popped up, which was like, “Oh, shit. We gotta just ride this wave since this is going.” Between 6th Sense’s schedule, our schedule and the label finding distribution, it took two years for that shit to happen. It was unintentional as fuck. Me and Von would sometimes be in a huddle like, “This is it…we painted ourselves into a corner, and if this shit don’t come out we’re stuck.” All of this year was a long conversation about how we hadn’t put out shit, and if Rubber Souls don’t come out then we’re stuck. We were literally trying to figure out how to get the album out, and we didn’t have an idea how it was going to come out. The hiatus was definitely not on some Jay Electronica trying to build mystique where we were playing chess, we were trying to figure out how to get this fucking album out and it just wasn’t happening fast enough.
Donwill Details Why Tanya Morgan Has Remained Underrated
DX: Your fans include Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Black Thought and Talib Kweli amongst others from Hip Hop’s avant-garde. What do you think has prevented the greater public from catching on up to this point?
Donwill: I say resources, because even though Moonlighting and Brooklynati were put out by labels with PR and a certain level of exposure, technology changes so rapidly, and everything is affected by technology. If we would have came out maybe two or three years earlier, it would have been a totally different story. But we came out at a time where we were figuring out the technology and the tools, so in a weird way, we’re kind of looked as an old school group by the new cats coming out. The Internet makes everything move five times as fast. We’ll drop a video, and that shit will be on page eight of a blog by 8:00 PM [laughs].
It’s about resources and exposure, and our resources aren’t necessarily that of somebody with a bigger management, booking or a label with more connections. We’re kind of just pure indie, and a lot of our resources and connections are people we know who fuck with us on a personal level. It’s not like, “Hey my A&R is cool with this person’s wife who’s working with this person; I’ll hook you two up.” It’s definitely more of an intimate connection when we have opportunities.
DX: The three of you collaborated on a Run-DMC “Down With The King” tribute song and actually received DMC’s blessing. What was it like for him to consider you worthy of carrying the torch?
Von Pea: It was my birthday that day, and that shit was incredible. Another time I went to see De La Soul, DMC came out with them, and Trugoy was on Twitter saying, “I was on stage with DMC tonight; this is amazing.” If my idol was stars-truck at his idol, and then on my birthday I got on stage with my idol’s idol, it’s just crazy at this point.
6th Sense: That was an amazing day, shouts to MICK and to DMC. I got to tell DMC how my first rhyme I ever wrote 90% copied one of his rhymes; I just changed DMC to Mikey K when I was nine years old. He’s the nicest dude ever on a human level.
Donwill: Those moments are never wasted. Even when I see Black Thought, and he’s like, “What’s up,” I never in my life have taken any of this shit for granted. For me to meet DMC, and for him to be like, “Y’all are dope…I fuck with your shit,” it takes me back to watching “Video Soul.” You can’t front on that.
6th Sense: Dude, we performed his song, and then he came up and rocked his verse of the song. We passed him the microphone. That was crazy.
Donwill: There’s no way this shit could ever be normal. Whenever Pharrell runs into DJ Premier, he starts bowing and calling him master. People laugh at that shit, but I get it. It’s not even weird to me, because inside my head I’m like, “That mothafucka might as well be royalty. I may as well call him ‘Sir DMC.’”
Von Pea: He is—that’s Hip Hop royalty. Who’s more royal than Run-DMC other than Kool Herc and them? Nobody. They’re the highest Hip Hop group, and there’s nobody above them.
Von Pea Takes Issue With Rappers Dumbing Down Content
DX: Von Pea, on Quelle Chris’ “Greene Eyes,” your verse started with, “Listening to ratchet / Music made by niggas with bachelors…feeling some kind of way…” To me, this ties into a lot of the album’s themes of introspection and maturity. Talk to me about that verse and your mind frame going into Rubber Souls.
Von Pea: That line was me catering to some of the fans we have. I come from the school of Common where you’re sending subliminal shots or being direct when you don’t really have a problem with the person. With that or when I said, “There’s no swag rappers in my top five,” I know a good amount of our fans will be like, “Hell yeah.” With maturity, the way life has changed for us. That mentality is us wanting to take responsibility for what we say and do and who we present ourselves as. If I’m not a ratchet person, I’m not gonna act like I am. But at the same time, on some J. Dilla shit, if I make underground music and I still have a chain and a Range Rover, you have to listen to me rap about that. It’s just about being who you are. I’m not naming names, but there’s more than one person that gets behind a microphone and sounds one way, and then in an interview they sound way more intelligent [laughs].
DX: Plies is supposedly really smart.
6th Sense: They say he was valedictorian.
Von Pea: He’s one of the people, and there are at least two other people that are way smarter than their music sounds. I’m not a judgmental person, but that was the truth that I felt some type of way. Even before Rich Homie Quan’s “Type Of Way” came out, what I meant was I don’t know how to feel about that. Tupac and Biggie are dead. If this is your art that you’re leaving with the world when you die, this is the impression that you left on us. I feel that should be more important to people, and it’s not. That’s a problem with me. If you want the world to think that you’re on some dumb shit just because it’s feeding your kids, God forbid you aren’t here tomorrow and you left behind some dumb shit [laughs]. Everything since the You & What Army EP has been me saying, “Who am I telling you I am as a person?” I’m not just this rapper that hates sucker emcees. What am I telling you about me as a man?
Tanya Morgan’s Influences & Inspiration Towards Rubber Souls
DX: Some people who will hear Rubber Souls won’t realize you guys actually did a similarly styled EP with live instrumentation called The Sandwich Shop in 2010. Tell me about that EP and how it came about.
Von Pea: We were on the road, and after a show we were in our hotel room talking about music. We were like, “Man, The Roots’ ‘Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’ Sandwiches EP is crazy.” Donwill said, “I was thinking about doing a freestyle to one,” and I said the same thing. Clearly the logical next step is for us to do that together, so we picked out the beats, and then we were at Don’s apartment drinking cheap ass wine, and we recorded at least half of that mixtape that night. It just came about very naturally.
DX: For Rubber Souls’ street buzz song, “For Real,” you paid homage to J. Dilla and Slum Village’s “Fantastic.” Among the many artists I’m sure you look up to, what made you all choose him to celebrate?
6th Sense: I made the skeleton of the beat maybe a month or two before we decided we were going to make the album. I just love D’Angelo. I was riding around bumping a bootleg live concert of his from Stockholm, and it went into this interlude with the “Fantastic” intro [from Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2], and I was like, “This is dope.” (D’Angelo’s) Voodoo is probably my favorite album of any genre of all time, and Fantastic Vol. 2 is definitely in my top five. I even used the same drum break that Dilla used, and I told Von and Don, “We gotta do this.” I brought my live players in, and we put a little extra flavor in it with some live horns and a violin player. For me that whole vibe is my DNA—from Dilla and Slum Village to D’Angelo.
DX: Were there any other Hip Hop albums totally done by one producer that inspired you with the creation of Rubber Souls?
Donwill: Not for me personally. Maybe 6th was thinking about records he had as a slight template; we just thought about making a record that sounded like what the Sandwich Shop EP could have been if we weren’t borrowing beats. There are several classic, one-producer and one-group albums, but I didn’t go in thinking about it.
6th Sense: There’s so many classic albums in that vein… I don’t know if any of them were an actual blueprint for what we were trying to do. We definitely had our influences in cohesive types of albums; they mentioned the Sandwich Shop EP, and The Roots are a huge inspiration for myself. Production-wise, I’m not an entire band, but I’ve always looked up to them from a production standpoint as well as other variations of The Roots like the Soulquarians and OutKast.
Tanya Morgan & 6th Sense Analyze Their Chemistry Together
DX: 6th Sense, though you’re renowned behind the boards, this is your first time fully producing an album. What was it about Tanya Morgan that made you choose to do a complete album with them?
6th Sense: This is the first time I’ve done 100% of an album for commercial release. When we first started I was completely open to the idea of producing for them, mostly because I always liked their albums conceptually and their sound. Knowing the change of the group dynamic, I challenged myself saying, “I don’t want to be known as the guy that fucked up Tanya Morgan’s music [laughs].”
Von Pea: It’s okay to be the guy that they say fucked someone’s music up, because [Dilla is] the guy they say fucked up A Tribe Called Quest, and he’s a super-duper legend.
6th Sense: That’s true, and as time went on we started working on more music and it opened my eyes more. I got to understand them more as artists. We were kind of on the verge of something special, and I wanted to make sure we saw it through to make the best album that we possibly could.
DX: Donwill, on the opening interlude you rhyme, “Go home and hook the mic up in my bathroom for sessions,” but this was TM’s first experience doing an album in a high-tech studio. What would you say this added to the experience of creating the album?
Donwill: It added a certain level of synergy; I called it like a trust fall. I would be in the booth sometimes stuck on a cadence or doing something a certain way I’m accustomed to trying to be comfortable recording around a lot of people. Then 6th would come over the intercom like, “Nah, do it like this,” and I’m like, “Fuck it, if you say so.” Personally, I don’t like recording alone, but I got accustomed to it. A lot of the early Tanya Morgan shit was me and Ilyas in the same room writing our verses and battle rapping each other on songs [laughs]. This brought me back to that feeling of bouncing rhymes off of dude and really trying to figure out things in an open space.
When I say I hook the mic up in my bathroom, I’m not really excited about it. I’m just doing it because I gotta get the verse out. But with the bigger space and the camaraderie involved, it makes it feel more like a substantial thing happening. When I record verses at home I have them, and I can listen and tweak them. At 6th Sense’s studio, I’ll record a verse and not know what I did, and have to come visit it like a friend. The bigger space added a different element and made it feel more electric to me.
DX: Von Pea, Donwill just spoke of the project being like a trust fall. You’ve been one of the group’s main producer along with Brickbeats. How did you become comfortable trusting 6th Sense’s visions for the group?
Von Pea: To be honest, 6th is just dope, and as the album went along the respect I had for him as a producer just grew. I can’t produce a band or singers, and he’s able to do all of that along with knowing plug-ins and all of the technical things beyond making a good beat. I learned that as we went along. In the beginning, it was just that he’s dope, Don has this idea, and I’m totally not against this idea—let’s try to go in and make it happen. It just got better as it went. I forget who, but someone said Kanye West in his heart is still mainly a boom-bap producer, and with his progression he brings in other producers to do what he may not necessarily be able to as a boom-bap producer. That’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with having a style. I don’t see that as a limitation if that’s your style. I couldn’t have made this record, so I couldn’t sit there and have an ego attached, because as an emcee I was too busy being excited about rapping over things that I can’t do as a producer.
6th Sense: Just to add to that, Von is dope. His nickname was “The Beatmaker.” When I was bouncing ideas off of them, it was more than just them being artists I was working with. I like for it to be a committee process, and them already having that backbone of dope beats was an added bonus.
Von Pea: The one thing I would say I couldn’t let go of that we ended up doing together, and 6th knows exactly what I’m gonna say…
6th Sense: I know exactly what you’re gonna say.
Von Pea: It was the sequencing. You know how they said Just Blaze made music to buy video games? I make albums so I can sequence them. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t give a fuck about making an album. I’d just make songs. But I love the idea of figuring out the first, last and middle songs and everything that happens on the album…I love that shit. Me, 6th and the person that mastered Rubber Souls just sat there debating everything down to milliseconds. We didn’t go to war, but it would be a friendly debate for an hour figuring out what should happen, how songs should hit and what second they should drop on. That was the only thing where I stepped in like, “I wanna do this too,” but as far as production, I told 6th Sense, “It’s your world.”
The Evolution Of Tanya Morgan’s Creative Process
DX: Long time fans will discover Rubber Souls is your most musically advanced album yet. Tell me about the difference between rhyming over beats with samples and actual, fully produced tracks.
Donwill: For me it wasn’t really that much of a difference—every album is just about figuring out what I’m going to talk about. With my attack on these tracks, I didn’t have to do much changing up as far as what I do as an emcee. But when you rhyme over a sample versus a track with instruments, it’s a certain range of dynamics where you can control certain things. There are joints where, in my mind, I decide to let the production shine to let parts of the beat bleed through if I’m in love with a horn or a bass line. Instead of trying to bar that shit to death, you might want to take a break on the fourth bar real quick. With this project, we really sat down with 6th on some of the lyrics. It was a big concerted effort to have the lyrics in the right place on these songs.
Von Pea: I agree with everything Don said, and that’s why on “The Vehicle,” I said, “I know how to take a backseat to the music.” Anybody that knows their Hip Hop history knows the deejay was number one, and the emcee went from talking about how cool the deejay was in the beginning to jumping in the front talking about how cool they were as an emcee. With that line, I was saying it’s about all of us, but this music is really dope, and we want to focus on the music more than anything. We’re not rapping nonsense, but the music is in the front seat.
When there’s a sample, my mentality is more like in the park—traditionally rapping over somebody’s record on some emcee shit. Subconsciously I feel like if a song came out 40 years ago, it had its time to shine, and I’m gonna rap over it. That’s not in a disrespectful way, but it’s been out for 40 years versus some shit we just laid down today where it’s not about me and it’s about the whole thing.
6th Sense: All I’m gonna say is this album has no samples, but it’s not sample free, and that’s all [laughs].
DX: Rubber Souls has moments that are more commercially accessible than anything you’ve ever done such as “All Em.” What made you decide to expand your sound in this way?
Von Pea: It really was natural. I think that and “The Only One” sound like commercial records. We didn’t have meetings like, “Let’s try to make a commercial record.” “The Only One” and “All Em” were just as organic as anything else we’ve done, we didnt say, “Let’s make a single.”
Donwill: If you listen to my solo album, Don Cusack In High Fidelity, almost anything that was sung on that record, I wrote all of that shit. Von writes hooks all the time, but on this record it really took a front seat on those certain songs, because it was like full immersion. We’re not gonna get on our most expansive record and not try things. We try something every record, and on this record we tried everything. When we were working on You Get What You Pay For, there was a song where we were stuck for two months trying to figure out how to make a song that focused more on the hook than the verse, without it sounding corny.
We’re both musically inclined dudes, and while Von is the producer of the group, I’m no stranger to producing. We obviously have some sort of musical knowledge where we understand what’s going on with how to make a song. So it was only a matter of time before we started to make music that sounds like the stuff we would want people to sample, Rubber Souls is about expansion.
6th Sense: To echo what they’re saying, I agree that they’re musically inclined. In the process of making the album, there were a couple of songs where we weren’t as organic in the approach and maybe trying to do something a little commercial. Those songs got scrapped quickly.
Donwill: We just wanted music that was universal—where if you don’t speak English, this is just pleasing to your palette. Even if you do speak English, I wanted to make some shit that speaks to everyone from eight to 80. Not like how some delusional mothafuckas are like, “Yeah everybody likes my shit.” I want some shit that mothafuckas just fuck with. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting your art to be accepted on a wider level. At the end of the day, I can spit 64 bars of fury and bar you to death, the same way Drake can do “Hold On We’re Going Home” and “5 AM In Toronto.” If you have that in you to do it and you don’t do it, you’re wasting your talent.
Von, myself and 6th all realized we have a lot to offer over here, and it’s not just bars like, “I’m about to freestyle cipher this bitch out for 45 minutes then go home.” No, we’re gonna try to make a song that feels like something. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me, “Your songs got me through this moment.” It’s hard to undervalue that aspect of your creativity when you know you make shit that resonates.
DX: “Pick It Up” continues the party theme of your first singles “We Be” and “So Damn Down,” but it goes left from a lot of Rubber Souls. What were you going for choosing this as your first single?
6th Sense: I knew from jump I wanted to use it as soon as I had the beat. It was actually made in the mind frame of being the first song on the album because it was so different, but we came up with a better order. It’s out there, but I’m from the Bronx, and it just reminds me of breakdancing and B-boying, while having elements of Fela Kuti, Afro-Cuban sounds and Psychedelic Rock. Musically, I knew they were gonna kill it, and it’s just so all over the place in the best way possible.
Donwill: “Pick It Up” was one of the last songs we recorded for the album. After we had three quarters of the album done, we were like, “What’s missing?” I remember getting the beat and I was like, “This is it. We gotta do something to this shit.” There was nothing like it on the album, and that’s probably why it sounds like this turning point where there’s nothing like it there. But it’s still familiar to people who are our fans already, and it’s also a good Rap record. It’s a performance record that represents a lot of the things we want to do with this record in general.
It’s a way to let people who have already been rocking with us know that we’re still making the same shit while exploring new territory. It’s always about the fan base first and making sure we service the audience that we established and built, so that they know they’re appreciated. We’re not gonna take our fan base anywhere we don’t think they wanna go, and if they don’t want to go then they’re not our fans [laughs].
The Artistic Growth & Further Aspirations Of Tanya Morgan
DX: A lot of the album’s songs emphasize personal responsibility and honesty—themes that are more grown than a lot of Rap music today. What would you say was the statement the group sought to make here whether musically or thematically?
Donwill: My statement was that we’re serious. When I say that, I don’t mean we’re conscious, I mean we’re songwriters dealing with the human experience. Whether it’s our name or our penchant for having concepts, sometimes people put us in the silly and fun, happy box. There’s nothing wrong with party raps, being in a good mood and striving for a good time. But at the end of the day—in terms of people currently making music as rappers—Von is definitely one of the better rappers period.
Von Pea: I’m the king of New York! (laughs).
Donwill: It’s not a game. The name Tanya Morgan is kind of silly, but if that shit was a product sitting next to the store brand, it’s better than the store brand. Take the name away, and if the name isn’t influencing your perception of who we are, we’re way better than a lot of people who you don’t give us credit compared to.
6th Sense: The album Rubber Souls is like a fun and relaxing way of exploring the soul. That’s the serious element to it, but it’s kind of like a journey hitting all the pockets of what the group’s soul is.
DX: If you could choose to do another group album with just one producer, and 6th Sense if you could produce another album for any musical act, who would it be and why?
Donwill: I would either go with Karriem Riggins or Twilite Tone. But I would go with Twilite Tone over Karriem, because I know Tone and what he’s capable of doing. He’s fucking amazing and not used enough, but Karriem is dope. I would want both of them. I’ve said that before several times, and I’ll keep saying it until it happens [laughs].
Von Pea: A record that I listen to vicariously wishing it was mine is Diamond District’s In The Ruff, so I guess Oddisee. If I could make any album, I would have made that.
6th Sense: Me producing an album for someone completely is a lot harder than an act having someone produce them for an album. The one person that definitely comes to mind that I’m dying to work with is Nas. I don’t know if he needs a full album produced by me, because that would be a real challenge, but I’m just dying to produce one song—let alone an album. I’d love to work with someone like ZZ Ward, and I think she’s dope.
Donwill: I would love to hear you do some non-Rap shit; for some reason I was thinking Melanie Fiona for you.
6th Sense: I’ve worked with Melanie before. We exchanged information, but I was kind of busy with this other chick Tanya Morgan, so I wasn’t able to link up with her [laughs].
DX: 6th Sense, Having heard anecdotes about the album, you’ve been described as a perfectionist. What was your overall vision for Rubber Souls, and how well would you say the final results translated?
6th Sense: I’ll take the perfectionist label, although I pride myself on allowing a lot of mistakes to stay on the record and shine through. I’m super pleased with it. It’s cohesive, and these guys killed it lyrically. A couple weeks ago, I was in the rain in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but I had our album on and I didn’t even feel like I was in traffic. So for all the commuters out there, make sure you go pick up the album. I know there’s another album coming out September 24, and there’s a joke I like to tell: Two albums are coming out that day, one of them is probably going to debut at number one to mixed reviews and the other one is Drake’s album.
Donwill: The crazy thing about that day is Tanya Morgan, Drake and Foreign Exchange drop albums, and there’s a song out there with Von Pea, Drake and Phonte that exists. It’s so weird how many connections all three acts have.