Brooklyn-by-way-of Cincinnati hip-hop trio Tanya Morgan, emerged over message boards and corresponding tastes. Through the magic of the Internet—-well, during relatively pedestrian Internet age of 2003 that allowed for screen name-to-screen name file-sharing over America Online—-rappers Donwill and Ilyas hooked up with producer Von Pea and churned out several hard drives worth of rap.
One theme-driven work of grainy, playful, and Native Tongues-recalling songs lead to another. There was the dynamic, verbally dense and plainly titled Tanya Morgan is a Rap Group. 2009’s Brooklynati was about a fake city. May’s The Sandwhich Shop tinkers several jam sessions from The Roots’s stint as an NBC house band into canvasses for words. Best of all is Donwill’s solo offering, Don Cusack in High Fidelity—-a concept album paralleling the narrative of Nick Hornby‘s 1995 novel High Fidelity, and more famously, Stephen Frears‘ 2000 film adaptation.
Don Cusack is self-involved to high levels but honest and mournful, and by the time it’s over, you’re rooting for the snotty protagonist. It’s an accessible manifesto for hopeless romantics and music geeks. Indignant but rarely preachy, stuffed with warm soul samples and weaving rhymes.
Donwill is agreeable, cooly distant, and always earnest. He recently spoke with Arts Desk about seeing guys he’s worked with in Sprite commercials, the generosity of mainstream cocaine rappers, and finding inspiration in John Cusack. Tanya Morgan performs at DC9 Sunday at 9 p.m.
What inspired you to write an entire concept album about John Cusack?
I based [the album] on what was occuring in my life. I was losing and finding love. The goal was to have High Fidelity completely adsorb and complement my music. I’d been a fan of the movie for several years; more than the romantic stuff, the film is about a normal person’s everyday life.
It’s weird, everything about the movie I connected with except for the random part where Laura’s dad dies. And then my dad passed. I’d been in a personal and creative rut and writing an album around the movie just worked. The idea came first.
Don Cusack in High Fidelity became available late March. It’s an indie release. What are its expectations commercially? What makes a successful venture nowadays?
Hearing back the verses on stage.
With art and commerce we have to be mindful of the way records are bought. You hear about Lil Wayne and his outlets; you see rappers we’ve worked with in Sprite commercials. I just accept those as promotional channels we don’t have.
Unfortunately, sales infiltrate the way casual fans enjoy music. They’re spoken about like sports stats. But it shouldn’t be weird that I only move a couple thousand albums when I’ve made a niche record for a select group of listeners. I know what I made isn’t designed to be big.
One of the early standouts on the album, “Championship Vinyl,” takes a memorable moment from High Fidelity where a square white guy asks about a Stevie Wonder song and gets laughed out of Cusack’s store. You recreate the scene to attack mainstream rappers. Isn’t rapping at an archetype kind of played? Why not name names?
[It’s] just not my style. We’re indie but we’re two to three degrees from these people; attacking, like, Soulja Boy would just bite me in the ass. The 50 Cent, world wrestling stuff isn’t how I was raised.
Plus it’s contradictory by nature. Rather than make “hip-hop is wack” songs I just make great hip-hop. That’s the solution.
“December 27” is the best song: introspective and universal. It’s a sad track. How does it fit into the record? Is the chorus’s chant about your father?
It’s about my dad passing, yeah. After he died, I wanted to produce the entire album myself and “December 27” was going to the be its centerpiece. I’ve made many songs about my dad being sick and losing him, but [“December 27”] was the first one I felt good about releasing. It ended up being the only song on the album I produced.
“Laura’s Song” is the excellent single. What makes a good rap love song?
It just has to be honest. It should be simple with no reaching metaphors. It has to have a great hook. It has to resolve.
On the label front, you guys have been a buzz act for at least four years. Do all those CMJ and South by Southwest showcases get pointless?
We’ve been knocking on the door. We’re hoping for a slow-burning career where we quietly sign a deal. We’re working towards becoming legacy artists so that in a decade the albums stand alone; so they don’t sound like what was trendy in 2007.
Those showcases, yeah, we just accept those as industry audiences and business trips.
What do you think of 2010’s mainstream? There’s enormous, joyfully large-sounding, and creative albums out this summer. Their advantage is their production budgets. Can you guys keep up?
Not really. But we need the mainstream rappers to do really well. Guys have been sidelined and scared to release albums. I mean Dr. Dre has been afraid to put out Detox for 10 years. This summer’s hits will give labels the confidence to put out more music.
For a group our size, we can just aim to reach our fans beyond the Internet. It’s about direct contact. Concerts and mailing lists at concerts. We make a point to thank everyone directly.
We’re so dependent on our base of, say, 15,000 fans that I only really worry about our existing fans not knowing we’re putting something out.
It’s just my personality. I enjoy socializing. When I had a day job, the message boards where hanging out. My escape. Being online involves nuanced communication I just enjoy doing.
That said, I’ve learned that if I won’t talk about it on a song, there’s no point in writing it online. That lesson has me on the verge of deleting my Facebook; I’m tired of strangers chiming in and mixing with my family and high school friends.
But why write for XXL? Don’t you worry about blurring the boundaries between journalist, artist, publicist? What purpose does it serve save for more self-serving?
I just know you have to be sensitive to readership. If XXL wants you to lend your likeness to their brand…I mean I’m not a journalist by any means, but they value and want my opinion.
That’s the thing, based on my experience, the drug rappers are the community organizers. They’re the guys giving out meals at Thanksgiving in their hometowns. The labeling is just cheap talk for fans.
I just make music. I make songs where I’m an adulterer; songs about getting head. I don’t rap about the school system.
The problem is [major] labels used to steer the ship and a&r guys branded our music and it was often helpful because the artist could just worry about recording. Now we have to self-represent and define and sell ourselves. I don’t think anything is dead or alive.
Tanya Morgan performs at DC9 Sunday at 9 p.m. with The Kickdrums. Doors are at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.