Though the title is based off of an inside joke, Abandoned Theme Park fully embodies how serious Tanya Morgan takes their craft.
The past decade since Tanya Morgan’s debut Moonlighting has been a hell of a rollercoaster ride, so it’s fitting that their latest EP is titled Abandoned Theme Park. Having survived touring nightmares, label woes, and lineup changes amongst other hurdles, core members Donwill and Von Pea personally journeyed from Brooklyn to Cincinnati (with their combined forces creating the fictionalized city Brooklynati), Maryland, and overseas to land at the present moment: a fresh new release recently recorded in real time without being erratically thrown together.
Having taken a brief detour to focus on becoming stronger separately and as a unit, with Abandoned Theme Park Tanya Morgan is as potent as ever with their trademark emphasis on flows, cadences, lyrics and clever references that require multiple listens. Never taking the same creative path twice, here Donwill and Von Pea have made way for fellow Lessondary member Che Grand’s formal arrival as a producer; his beats giving them a sound that’s rooted in traditional boom-bap but also forwardly ambitious, enabling the three to create something brand new altogether.
Gearing up for the release of this winter’s highly anticipated You Get What You Pay For, Tanya Morgan discusses where they’ve been musically and personally since the release of 2013’s Rubber Souls, the new energy inspired by Che’s production, how they handle public perceptions of the group, why it’s important to honor and abandon their influences, their penchant for conceptual releases, side passions outside of working on TM, and making sure their business is in order now that they’re veterans of the game.
Three years have passed since the release of Rubber Souls and I know your next album You Get What You Pay For is complete. What made you decide to drop something new before that comes out?
Von Pea: We did the project in a month’s time, which is super fast for us. We were talking over the last couple of months about how we hadn’t put out music in so long, and we just wanted to make a new song. We started with “Clappers”, we knew Che Grand was making a lot of beats and we hit him up just so we could have a new song out. We wanted to feel the rush you get from putting out something new that you created, that was how it started.
Donwill: It happened really fast. Che sent a batch of beats and in 24 to 48 hours Von had turned around a few demos. I was just sitting in front of the computer with my mic on in the house, I wasn’t out DJ’ing or anything. He sent the demos and I’d just write on the spot and record them. Once we recorded the final versions for better quality, we were just sitting there with some songs and we decided to put out something as close to in real time as possible.
At first it wasn’t even going to be a label release through HiPNOTT with CDs, it was gonna be us throwing some shit up on the internet. The label caught wind of it and it didn’t make sense to not maximize that moment. But really we just wanted to make some music.
What have you guys been up to in all of this time since the fans last heard from you?
Von Pea: After Rubber Souls I basically moved to Europe and I was out there working with a producer named Guts and his band. Don came out and we recorded a bunch of music with Guts for his album Eternal, that took up a lot of the past two years. As cool as it was, I realized it was taking away from my creative time as a part of TM. We did that and we did The Lessondary album Ahead Of Schedule, not even realizing that Tanya Morgan hadn’t made any music.
Donwill: We don’t really separate it. When you see a De La Soul album, the single might be just be Dave rapping like “Itzsoweezee” but it’s still a De La Soul record. I look at a Von Pea album as a group project that I’m not on, I’ll promote it and tell people to go get it the same way I would if it was my album.
But going over to Europe was a fun process, that taught me a lot about making music in real time and being in the moment. Guts had two weeks to make an album, we made an album in two weeks and we toured it real quick. Since then I’ve been pretty stationary in Brooklyn, not really doing too many traditional rap shows. I’ll do music with the homies around the way if somebody hits me up to get on a song, but I’ve just been DJ’ing a lot. Being able to control a crowd with music that way gives me the same sort of rush that a rap performance stage show would.
Strangely enough I’ve been DJ’ing in this comedy space where I don’t see a lot of my music contemporaries, because I’m never at Hip-Hop shows anymore. I’m always at comedy shows and I’ve kind of swapped out a bunch of musical friends for comedian friends. The rooms have changed, but my relationship to the room is still the same. I’m still part of the performance.
Von Pea: You basically got a TV show. [laughs]
Donwill: The comedy show “Night Train” that I DJ with Wyatt Cenac is on NBC’s streaming video service Seeso. I think we’re going to be doing season two of that and I’m the DJ who curates songs and plays the music people walk on to, I’m kind of like the musical director of the show. I also took some comedy writing classes, I’ve been getting deep into comedy because if you’re gonna be around some shit you may as well learn about it. If you work in the kitchen, you may as well take some cooking classes.
On the opening song from the new EP “Enter Through The Gift Shop”, you say “This theme park seems dark, a stark contrast/to the smiley face rap shit that I’m known as.” What experiences shaped the things you chose to rap about on Abandoned Theme Park?
Donwill: It may have something to do with the comedy space I’ve been in, but I’ve been dealing with a lot of my own shit like recognizing anxiety and depression. Hip-Hop and mental health isn’t a hot topic, but it’s come more to the forefront with things like Kid Cudi going into rehab. My recent EP Stop Waiting deals with a little bit of that too, I rap about what’s immediately important to my life.
That line “This theme park seems dark, a stark contrast…” was about thorough examination. Tanya Morgan’s music has been known as quirky and fun, and even when we do heavier fare like “Worldmade” from Rubber Souls, it doesn’t necessarily get recognized as heavier fare when balanced against the rest of our catalog. I wouldn’t say people look at us as smiley face rap shit like we’re “Glee” or “High School Musical”, but we’re not making songs like “Fuck Donald Trump”.
Von Pea: We’re definitely seen as “rappity rap”, which is funny because the Lessondary album was a bunch of emcees rapping together on a super topical album. There’s songs about all types of shit on that, and we’ve touched on a lot of different things in our career so far. For us to be considered “rappity rap” guys, it’s awesome we get put in the category of guys that can rap, but people don’t often catch the things we talk about. Like Don said, he covers things like mental health and social issues in addition to saying things like “wack rappers can’t see me”.
Donwill: The other thing about our songs that may make it hard to catch is we’ll compact a world of topics into one verse. I might mention Black Lives Matter, having some brand new Adidas on and then say my bills is late and I’m kind of sad about it but life is okay. All of that will happen in one verse, compared to some rappers who will make an entire song about one of those particular topics. Some of our verses are like a stream of consciousness, which doesn’t lend itself to saying “this song is about depression and that song is about Black Lives Matter.” People say we’re just rapping, but that’s kind of an oversimplification of what we actually do.
How did you come up with the title Abandoned Theme Park?
Von Pea: We’re all in this group chat where we talk shit all day. During the conversation about doing the EP, we were talking about how we did the album Brooklynati and we were metaphorically joking that we left the city alone and everybody moved out. There are these YouTube videos where people explore abandoned places like a hospital or they’ll break into an abandoned theme park that got shut down. They sneak in to see how it’s broken down and desolate with nobody there.
As a part of the joke, I said that if Brooklynati was real then someone would break in and explore it. It was a long metaphor and a joke like so many things we do, even down to the name Tanya Morgan. So we used the name Abandoned Theme Park and our homeboy Filthy aka George Gomez from SOAP Goods Creative took a picture of one of these abandoned theme parks and put it in the group chat and we thought it would be cool to use that. In so many words, we left alone the things that we were doing before to do these other things and now we’re coming back to it.
Donwill: It’s not like some Al Bundy shit where we sit around reminiscing about the glory days. Sometimes we recount the steps of our career and think about what the future holds as well as what the present is. We don’t long for the past, but we acknowledge the past and think about if there were any missteps. You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going, it’s easier for us to think about the future when we think about the history of the group.
The theme of the EP is just as much about us leaving Brooklynati as it is about us growing into our normal lives a little more with Von moving around a bit and me being in Brooklyn DJ’ing. I won’t say life caught up to us, but we couldn’t just be two dudes riding around in a van touring the United States selling merch all the time. [laughs] We had to come back home and figure shit out.
It’s also toying with the notion of what we mean to our fans. Moonlighting and Brooklynati were these rich and robust things with maps, box sets, hats, t-shirts, and city IDs. Then when the label you’re associated with doesn’t have the resources and you can’t give fans that rich and robust experience, then what do you do? Do you fire the people that work at the Ferris wheel and have them go work at the concession stand? We were trying to acknowledge the fact that we’re very much a concept driven thematic group, we can’t avoid that. That’s how we think of ideas and how we look at our projects, it’s not like Von Pea presents Raps And Beats or Donwill Cincinnati To Brooklyn. There always has to be some sort of conceptual glue behind every project.
Von Pea: We look at our projects like movies since we’re students of how cinematic Dr. Dre’s stuff would sound and Prince Paul where everything was a concept. We would be making movies if we weren’t making albums, because we look at it as more than just putting some rap out. There’s already so much music out there for people.
Donwill: The concept is tongue in cheek where we’re saying that we do a lot of concepts and we want to be able to afford to do more concepts for you guys. You Get What You Pay For is going to be a concept album just like everything we’ve done and Abandoned Theme Park is about coming back to the concept and coming back to us being who we are.
My interpretation was that audiences abandoned the kind of music we grew up loving.
Von Pea: We were moreso pointing at ourselves. Speaking of Don mentioning that it’s good to look back and recount steps, one thing I regret is the fan blame that a lot of us did a few years ago. [laughs] For me it was a joke about us abandoning the world of Tanya Morgan which was like the whimsy that a theme park has. We were this thing and we didn’t even realize we weren’t doing it that much anymore.
Was part of the point to do away with any past ideas that people may have had of you with this project?
Donwill: Not at all. For me it was first and foremost about doing something in real time. I really like the idea of a project that exists within a month of its completion. It’s so fresh and new that when I hear it, it sounds like yesterday. It doesn’t sound like it was made a year ago and we’ve been mixing it, this was last month and I remember when I wrote it.
With the style of production, Che Grand has a very specific production sound and I don’t know if people are that up on him as a producer. This EP’s aesthetic sits apart from everything else that we’ve ever done, it doesn’t sound like any of the collaborations we’ve done with other people. Going back to the “smiley face rap shit” line, Abandoned Theme Park has more of an edge to it. It’s like the “Black Mirror” of our catalog, the beats sound kind of twisted and rusty like you might get cut and need a TB shot after you play it. [laughs]
Von Pea: For me it was like you are who your influences are. Especially with us earlier on, all that people would say was “You guys remind me of Tribe or De La” which is a great compliment; but as you grow and become more of your own artist who’s comfortable with who you are, you adapt new influences if you’re listening to current music.
This latest project is a mesh of who we’ve become and who our latest influences are. It’s not Moonlighting, Brooklynati, or Rubber Souls, it’s brand new so I haven’t had time to sit and really think about it. Like Don said I’m happy we were able to do this and put it out without tweaking it too much. It’s a perfect contrast to the full album You Get What You Pay For that we’re still trying to put out. [laughs]
Donwill: There’s a fine line between having an established sound and sounding like a parody of yourself. If you’ve done something for 10 years and people are accustomed to hearing you, then they hear something that sounds like 10 years ago with updated drums and a different synth patch, you’re not adding anything new to the conversation about yourself or anything new to the conversation in general. It doesn’t serve anyone well for us to make music that sounds like what we made in 2006, because what fun is that for anybody?
I feel like as a solo artist I try to make everything I do sound different from everything else I’ve ever done and everything the group has done. We put out Rubber Souls which was this jazzy and organic sounding album, then I put out this weird synth based glitchy thing called Don Speaks. I try go as far left as I can, then with Tanya Morgan stuff everything we’ve done up until now has a sound but it definitely doesn’t sound like a parody of the exact same songs from each album. It sounds like a different take on what we’re known for.
Von Pea: When it comes to the group, I’m always into thinking about what would be the logical next step. When we did Rubber Souls with 6th Sense, we wanted to figure out how to do an album with live instruments in our own way. We have some music that’s not out yet with producer Stro Elliot that sounds different and Abandoned Theme Park with Che Grand has its own sound. With You Get What You Pay For, at least half of the album has a little bit of a West coast vibe to it, but it all fits within our world while every project is different enough from the last one. But I love that Don goes left on his solo stuff.
Donwill: A lot of times it makes it harder for people to digest whatever I do as a solo artist, but that’s why it’s not me dragging Von along. I understand that some of my ideas are exhausting because I get tired of working on my stuff, sometimes I annoy myself but you gotta get your creativity out. [laughs]
On Abandoned Theme Park you quote everyone from Phife to Future, Tracey Lee, 2 Chainz, Kanye West and Gang Starr. Were these intentional homages?
Von Pea: One was definitely intentional of course where I saluted Phife on “Exit Through The Gift Shop.” I was born November 11th, so we were going to put it out that day having no clue that Tribe was coming back for the last time. That was definitely on purpose, the Tracey Lee homage happened because at one point it was just a long song with rapping and I added a hook to it so that it could be more than just rapping. I turned the beat on and started singing to myself because I thought it was funny. Che was like “I fuck with it” and Don said it was dope, it happened from mumbling along to the beat trying to come up with something.
Donwill: On my end there’s always an homage being paid in some respect when I write. I don’t necessarily intentionally try to shout out the people I’m inspired by that I admire, it’s just in my blood. I’m a fan and a listener of Hip-Hop, I shout out 2 Chainz because “Watch Out” is my jam. [laughs] If I’m detailing an average day in my life, the music that I listen to is going to come into play, it’s a part of me. Especially now where I’m out DJ’ing, I think in songs and lyrics all the time that aren’t necessarily mine.
Who would you say Tanya Morgan is going into 2017 and what can people look forward to in the near future?
Von Pea: The album You Get What You Pay For has been help up by mixing issues. We had to change engineers, but that’ll be out before SXSW around the top of 2017. We worked on a project with Stro Elliot and DJ Low Key in Denver earlier this year, that’ll probably be out before the summer. We had just been doing music while we were waiting on finishing this album. Our next solo projects will also be out in 2017, the coolest part about it is because we’ve been gone for a minute none of the music is rushed. It all happened organically.
Donwill: My next solo release is looking like a double EP type of deal. Lessondary member Elucid has produced one half of it, and I’m looking to work on the other half with Che Grand. So far it’s me, Che, long time Tanya Morgan producer Brickbeats, and Von is going to give me some stuff obviously. That should be around my birthday month in June and there’s also other ideas I don’t want to talk too much about yet.
As far as who the group is coming into 2017, for me I’m honestly at that stage where I don’t know who I am right now creatively. It’s a cool place to be in, because when you’re not locked into being a certain thing you experiment. I can push the button to see what happens, I can do a joint with a person I wouldn’t normally work with or make an EP just because I’m just fascinated with making things as opposed to being results driven where something has to sound a certain way. I don’t know what brought it about, but over the past year I’ve just been wanting to make things. It’s a good feeling, a lot of times when you don’t know something it can be scary and confusing, but artistically it’s about figuring it out because I know I got a lot more to make. I’m not stuck in one box or one sound right now.
Von Pea: But we promise this time the You Get What You Pay For album is done. [laughs] We’re not just saying it with 2018 coming around and we’re like “Alright, one more week!” It’s done this time.
Donwill: The saga with releasing this album has been a long one. It’s had slight rewards here and there if you’ve really tuned in and saw we were overseas doing an EP or that we released 12 Minutes At Karriem’s and You And What Army. We’ve put out music in the time between working on the album, but circumstances made it harder to get to the finish line with this album than anything else we’ve ever done.
It’s a really good album, but we’ve taken the weight of it off of our shoulders. When something takes too long, it becomes your axe to grind or your burden to bear and less about the beauty of it. Life is like that, it didn’t happen when it was supposed to happen, but it’ll happen when it should which is around February 2017. We’re not signed to Interscope and being shuffled between labels where we got shelved and our A&R got fired. We’re just two dudes who are trying to find a way to get this music to people and sometimes it’s a little more difficult than uploading shit to SoundCloud.
Jesse Fairfax is a writer for several publications including HipHopDX as well as a Tanya Morgan historian. Follow him on Twitter at @fromoldharlem