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Photo Credit: Laura Alston

An Afternoon Playing Board Games with the Ultimate Nerds: Phony Ppl [Photo Essay]

We spent an afternoon drinking wine and playing board games with Phony Ppl, a group of eccentric musicians who are finally having their breakout moment.

Brooklyn-based group Phony Ppl could take on many different titles: artists, dreamers, musical liberators. The label they most identify with, however, is nerds.

What better place for a gathering of nerds than a board game haven? In the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan — a couple of blocks away from New York University —  is The Uncommons, a cafe shop dedicated towards all things board games. The walls are lined from floor to ceiling with, what seems like, every game in existence, the edges of the boxes fuzzed and greyed. They’ve got the classics: Settlers of Catan, Battleship, the notoriously boring Yahtzee. They’ve also got more obscure games: Dad Jokes, Spyfall, and Trump: The Game (it’s as bad as it sounds).

On a mild winter day, I met the five members of the group at The Uncommons for some coffee, wine, bagels, and hot chocolate. And, yes, we played board games.

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Bari, the bassist, was the first to arrive, wearing an all-white hoodie, jeans with a bright purple scarf wrapped and knotted around one knee, and mismatched Converse sneakers. While waiting we got onto the topic of video games; he was carrying his Nintendo Switch with him, showing me the ropes of Super Smash Bros 4. Matthew, the band's drummer, was next. He looked apprehensive at first — like he wasn’t sure he wanted to be here — but when he caught sight of the Bari's Switch, his face quickly turned to that of excitement. He went into his own backpack and pulled out his own console to join in.

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When Aja, the pianist, and guitarist Elijah came they simply smiled at his fellow band members doing what it seemed they did a lot: playing video games. By the time the lead singer, Elbee, arrived, we’d moved on from the digital games and started perusing the walls of the store for a few board games to try out. All the members took their time feeling out what was in store, picking up random games to make quip comments just to put them back again.

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We sat down at a picnic table in a side wing of the cafe to get started. We’d gone through Cards Against Humanity,What Do You Meme?, and Dad Jokes to begin with, but quickly moved on until one stuck: Drunk, Stoned, or Stupid, a game in which a prompt card asks which player in the group is “most likely to…”

“Have a three-hour conversation about space,” Elijah read off a card. Everyone pointed to Bari, before thinking again and pointing back to Elijah. Apparently, Elijah was an ardent fan of astrology. Another card asked who was most likely to think they had swag, to which Matt nominated himself.

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Watching the back and forth — the rolling exchanges that bounced freely from member to member — it was abundantly clear that the five didn’t just put up with one another. Phony Ppl grew up in the same neighborhood, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, meeting each other at various stages of their primary school careers. They had a real bond that’s been building since their elementary years. They’d even started planning their joint funeral — or, rather, their joint death.

“We should be recording when we die. Dressed in all moleskin,” Matt said. The others agreed, chiming in with their own ideas, what song they’d be playing, what drugs they’d be on. Ideas flowed freely like this amongst the five at rapid rates. All it would take was one comment, hum, playful off-hand joke to get them started. How, when shuffling through a deck, Matt could bust out singing: “Something like a phenomenon,” in a deep, angry, raspy voice, prompting laughter from the rest of the group, and they’d continue to play off that one little verse he threw into the air. “I got that from Beavis and Butt-head,” Matt said. The lyrics are actually from LL Cool J’s “Phenomenon,” but he mixed the lyrics with the rhythm, anger, and cadence of Rob Zombie’s “Demonoid Phenomenon,” which was featured on the show. They were small — these moments of creative outbursts — but served as a window with which to peer into their process. Phony Ppl is all about flow, the organic affair of combining their five separate and converging expressions of self.

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Phony Ppl have been dropping projects since 2009, when they released WTF is Phonyland? The group’s configuration was a little different back then; members had been filtering through since the band’s conception, their maximum capacity hitting nine before they pared down to the current core five. Their breakout moment came when, Six years later, Yesterday’s Tomorrow was previewed in the Rolling Stone after a writer discovered them jamming away in a New York City subway station. Three years rolled by before their latest album mō'zā-ik — their first under 300 Records — was released in late 2018. 

mō'zā-ik is a colorful illustration of the years and experiences these guys have been through together. mō'zā-ik begins with “Way Too Far,” a velvety vocalization by Elbee — a sweet deception to the energy the rest of the album exudes. The induced haze is then broken by the next two songs: “Once You Say Hello” and “somethinG about your love,” a buoyancy infused in the upbeat funk rhythm, the potent percussion a call to dance and swing. There are some standout soulful ballads embedded in the album, as well, like “Think You’re Mine,” which is reminiscent of a Paul McCartney song with layers of afro-futurist tones. “Cookie Crumble” features a psychedelic instrumental that shows off Aja’s compositional skills, with a symphony of strings that triumph the song in a trembling escalation right into the next track an instrumental interlude. Aja used these same skills when helping compose for outside artists such as Mac Miller (for whom he put together strings for songs on The Divine Feminine and Swimming.)

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Phony Ppl has been writing and recording songs for a decade. One song on mō'zā-ik, in particular, has been in the works for years. “on everythinG iii love” is a track Elbee wrote in 2014 that still has a relevant message today. “Just because I’m black / I must have been born with a bullseye / flat on my back I don’t know why,” the song begins as it addresses the pervasive issue of police brutality against black people in this country. “On everythinG iii love” bears a certain weight on Phony Ppl not only because they’re a group of black men, but also because three of the five members have previously been arrested on some petty charges. In telling their stories, Matthew, Elijah, and Elbee all had smiles on their faces, cracking jokes and conjuring up entertaining imitations of gruff police officers with too much time on their hands. But the reasons behind their arrests were clearly fueled by the brown color of their skin, an aspect of America that has made its way into one of the album’s standout songs.

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During our time together, the group made enough references to TV shows and video games to verify their claim to nerdom. And their nerdiness has been absorbed into their personal identities and, subsequently, their music. One game that came up, in a conversation with Matt, was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In the gaming world, Ocarina, which was released in 1998 for Nintendo 64, is regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time. It is also known for its sweeping soundtrack by Koji Kondo, which was created specifically with the game in mind. The compositional depths Kondo underwent to create a specific feeling of nostalgia, not only for childlike wonder and adventure, but for the very sensory experience of playing Ocarina itself.

Similarly, in an interview with NPR, Elijah described the tracks on mō'zā-ik like that of a collage in a museum: “each song on it being its own exhibit all on the same floor, but every room you walk into has a different color scheme, a different smell, a different everything about it," he said. In the same vein that the band interacts with their love of video games and how they’ve been inspired and engaged with throughout their lives, Phony Ppl has taken this high level of generational nostalgia and applied it to their music. None of their albums, from Phonyland to Yesterday’s Tomorrow to mō'zā-ik, have ever subscribed to the same formula in its creation, which makes each project uniquely different. The characteristics that remain the same, however, are the fusion of old-school jazz, hip-hop, funk, reggae, R&B, and soul that swallows up their music and makes it whole.

mō'zā-ik’s biggest hit is “Before You Get a Boyfriend.” The band’s signature unconventional style is proudly showcased in this song with the combination of upbeat jazz, hip hop, and soul. It’s reminiscent of a sound any of the five members, or anyone growing up in the '90s, would have heard blasting on their parent’s stereo system to signal the start of Saturday cleaning. The kind of music kids like them would hear and groan when young — and search for incessantly as they get older. That might be the best part about Phony Ppl’s music: like the artists themselves, it retains its youth while calling back to the sounds that made it possible. It’s the perfect exemplification of what they do best; their music is the melting pot of generations. Just like their inspirations — based on their parents’ musical taste — and their own personal interests in retro video games, the members of Phony Ppl have found a way to store relics of our society in the heart of their work, keeping the past alive while engineering the sound of the present and the future.

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