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Phony Ppl: Rise of a Progressive Soul Force

How 2018’s most stylistically daring R&B/art-rock group went from a Crown Heights basement to international stages

phony ppl

Phony Ppl in Brooklyn.

Photograph by Christaan Felber for Rolling Stone. Styling by Ryan Davis.

“I was in trouble,” singer-rapper Elbee Thrie says, recalling the day that his band — the Brooklyn progressive-R&B quintet Phony Ppl — was born in 2008. It was Thrie’s 16th birthday, and he was grounded, stuck at home. So Thrie invited over some teenage friends from his Crown Heights neighborhood — all musicians.

“I knew something was gonna be good about that day,” insists the singer, whose real name is Robert Booker. “I called my friends to come over, and we started playing. It wasn’t even a matter of ‘Oh, what are we going to do? What is this supposed to sound like?’ We ended up recording our first song, made it up right there.”

It sounded “horrible as fuck,” Thrie exclaims as the rest of Phony Ppl — guitarist Elijah Rawk, drummer Matthew Byas, keyboard player Aja Grant and his brother, bassist Bari Bass — explode with laughter in Bari’s basement apartment in Crown Heights. “But that day,” Thrie goes on, “we were all like ‘Wooo, this is it!’ Then the next song happened and the one after that, every time we got together. We didn’t realize how diverse everything was. We just embraced it.”

A decade later, Phony Ppl — all 26 except for Bari, who is 27 — are ready for the world with mo’za-ik. The band’s first album to come out as a physical release, it is a commercially assured flow of progressive soul and art-rock reach, from the seductive hip-hop of “Before You Get a Boyfriend” to “Think Your Mind,” which has the home-demo feel of early-Seventies Paul McCartney. “Move Her Mind” suggests Stevie Wonder running a Steely Dan session; “Way Too Far” sounds like Radiohead conspiring with the rhythm-box-fixated Sly Stone of There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Mo’za-ik is also the result of a unique, committed apprenticeship. Through varying lineups that included as many as nine members, including additional rappers and instrumentalists, the core of Phony Ppl stuck to a regiment of local gigging at talent shows and clubs; formal studies at New York music schools; and the individual players’ sideman work with artists as diverse as the rapper Theophilus London and the cult-rock singer Gene Ween. Phony Ppl also made five digital-only albums; the last, 2015’s Yesterday’s Tomorrow, was a Top Ten hit on iTunes’ R&B chart.

“All the time we’ve spent on music we could have been doing something else,” says Rawk, whose primary influences on guitar are Jimi Hendrix, Steve Howe of Yes and AC/DC’s Angus Young. “You don’t even realize how long it’s been after awhile.”

“I think it was something out of our conscious hands,” Thrie contends. “When you look at the story of how we did this, what we did, that was in our hands. We decided we wanted to be in on it. But how we connected was not in our hands. That,” the singer declares, “was divine intervention.”

Thrie and Grant met in middle school. “He was a kid with a red bass,” Grant remembers. “I was on this baritone trumpet. We found out we lived two blocks from each other. It was the first time my parents would let me out of the house by myself, to go to Elbie’s: ‘Oh, he’ll be okay. They’re playing music.'”

“People ask, ‘How did you kick that McCartney thing?'” Byas says, a reference to Phony Ppl’s 2013 cover of the ex-Beatle’s winter perennial “Wonderful Christmastime.” “We knew that from when we were young.” Aja’s parents named him after the 1977 Steely Dan LP, Thrie’s father is a mixing engineer, and Byas’ dad, as Jazzy Jay, was a pioneering hip-hop DJ, appearing on early Def Jam singles. In their first years, Phony Ppl rehearsed in Byas’ father’s basement studio. He would often come downstairs with homework as well.

“My dad was like, ‘You need to check out this Bill Withers joint,” Matthew says. “‘All these James Brown records – you need to sit down and study these.’ A lot of our influences were us listening to new music that was actually super old music from the Sixties and Seventies.”

“Going to Matthew’s house was such a getaway for us,” Grant says, grinning, “because his parents would let us play music until 2 o’clock in the morning. We’d get high and jam for mad long. Then his dad would come down. He’d say, ‘Everybody stop,’ and put on something like Mandrill – so loud.”

Thrie did not start out as a singer but on bass and percussion, spending six years “getting into theory, skill and chops,” as he puts it, in programs at Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. Rawk attended School of Rock in New York; Grant formally studied composition; and Byas was a member of the ISO Symphony, the most advanced ensemble in the Inter School Orchestras of New York program, as well as working in Broadway pit bands. Bari joined the group last because “they needed a bassist,” he says. The others, in turn, “had to become the teachers, and I was the student. But we all had that optimism.

“There is no real formula for anything we do,” Thrie says of Phony Ppl’s songwriting. Then he breaks down an example: “Why iii Love the Moon,” a hypnotic ballad on Yesterday’s Tomorrow combining vintage Earth, Wind and Fire with Kaya-style Bob Marley, that began as a voice memo, recorded by Thrie with “the full life form,” before Grant added the gently staccato keyboards. “Aja had the chords; I had the concept. We actually put the first time we played it on the record. That’s what you hear, us testing everything.” Thrie smiles. “We tried to make it sound more shitty. But that’s the original tape.”

“I was listening to ‘The Light,'” Grant says of his part, referring to Common’s hit ballad from the 2000 album, Like Water for Chocolate. “I was trying to get that feel, the soul of it.” An added twist: Phony Ppl recorded the final version of “Why iii Love the Moon” at Paul Simon’s house. One summer, Byas met the singer-songwriter’s son Adrian at an arts camp, and the two became “buddies,” the drummer says, to the point that one of Phony Ppl’s early New York club dates was at Don Hill’s, opening for Adrian’s band. “He had this space at home where we could record,” says Grant, who played his keyboard lick on the older Simon’s piano.

Phony Ppl have been making the right connections in pop and hip-hop as well, for nearly as long. They have performed with Erykah Badu, are close with the Roots, backed the rapper Fetty Wap on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2015 and had mo’za-ik mixed by the Los Angeles-based producer-engineer Qmillion (Robert Glasper, Kurupt). Byas is working with Domo Genesis of the Odd Future collective; Rawk has played with Vic Mensa and Grant was a producer on Mac Miller’s 2016 album The Divine Feminine as well as contributing to the late rapper’s final album, Swimming.

But Phony Ppl have only just begun to tour on their own, in earnest. They did double duty with pop singer Kali Uchis in 2017 — backing her after opening the shows — and recently appeared at a festival in South Korea. When Phony Ppl recorded their first song at his 16th birthday party, Thrie says, “I didn’t know I was going to be a vocalist in any kind of way. And we didn’t know we were going to be doing shows, making records like this.

“I still don’t know what I can do from here,” he says, “because we’re not done growing.” But “when life put me in front of this band, I was on this cliff – either I walk back or I jump. And I was not going to walk back.”

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