The morning of April 22 was like any other for most of the world dealing with the present global challenges. Yet, in the face of uncertainty Phony Ppl had many reasons to smile, including a surprise radio hit. The boundless band’s new single “Fkn Around” with hot girl commander Megan Thee Stallion invaded the top 10 on the urban adult contemporary chart. A week later, the warm slice of sweet soul and funk reached the top 10 on the Billboard Adult R&B Airplay chart.
For the prodigious cinque of musicians — comprised of vocalist/writer Elbee Thrie, producer/keyboardist Aja Grant, guitarist Elijah Rawk, bassist Bari Bass and percussionist Matthew “Maffyuu” Byas — the chart triumphs cement their first taste of top 10 success on both radio and Billboard.
It’s also the first time a group has occupied the top 10 on the Adult R&B Airplay chart since 2018, when After 7’s “If I” peaked at No. 8.
“It feels amazing. We’ve been grinding for a long time and we never lost sight of who we are as musicians and people and as friends,” Maffyuu exclusively tells Rated R&B over the phone. “It’s a blessing to now see people around the world being able to enjoy and get the music that we’ve been making in our basements and in our rooms.”
In the midst of their chart glory, Phony Ppl is hard at work on their next album. The currently untitled project will follow 2018’s mō’zā-ik. The upcoming body of work could help establish Phony Ppl as a long-lasting, genre-blending act whose diversified styles are represented in true form.
In Rated R&B’s interview with Phony Ppl, the progressive geniuses open up about their upcoming album, the unexpected success of “Fkn Around,” working with Megan Thee Stallion and more.
Did you guys have any idea that “Fkn Around” would connect so strongly with people, particularly the urban AC audience, after releasing it?
Elbee: I must say no. Everything that we work on, we just take it note by note and try to make something we enjoy. It’s been proven that people enjoy it, too. We had no clue that [this song] was going to be something that the radio would be interested in or something that would be top 10 worthy on Billboard charts. It’s a blessing, honestly.
I know you guys backed Megan Thee Stallion for her NPR Tiny Desk concert last year. Was that moment together what sparked the idea to collaborate with her on “Fkn Around” or was it something else that drew you guys to enlist Megan for the record? Also, what was that experience like performing with her?
Maffyuu: We had the song done for a while before we went on Tiny Desk with Megan and performed it. Through 300 [Entertainment], we were able to connect with her…and she did her thing on the song.
Elbee: [The performance] was a very seamless process. We have to shout out Morris Hayes, our amazing musical director. We got the opportunity to work with him. We had a bunch of rehearsals with Morris Hayes and Ivan Barias. After getting the music together, we had a few [rehearsals] with Megan. From the moment she stepped into the room, it didn’t feel like, “Oh my God, this is Meg.” It’s like, “Oh, it’s this person here.” She was just chill. She just happens to be extremely talented. It was like family vibes in all the rehearsals. I can’t wait until we get the chance to perform “Fkn Around” on like a late-night Tonight Show or something like that. I’m looking forward to the future for the experiences and opportunities that this song will allow us to have.
Having collaborated with a sought-after artist like Megan Thee Stallion, are you guys seeking other big names for your next project? What’s the secret to choosing the right features for a progressive group like Phony Ppl?
Maffyuu: I know that this project we’re working on, to date, is our most feature-heavy project. We’ve been reaching out to a lot of our friends in the industry, and a lot of musicians and lyricists that we enjoy listening to. We have some verses under our belts (laughs). The process is new for us because every project before was pretty much done in-house. You might have a couple of musicians play here and there, but we never really dove into the feature pool. We always try to switch it up. The previous album isn’t going to sound like the next one. The next one is going to be different from the next one. Everything is going to be different. This time around, we’re like, “Let’s dive inside the feature pool. Let’s see what that process is like.”
The previous album mō’zā-ik contains a wide range of experiences and thoughts on love, from deciphering mixed signals to dealing with toxic relationships that can leave permanent after-effects. What is your vision for the new album?
Bari: We know that mō’zā-ik definitely had a more thought-provoking atmosphere to it. As we said before, we try and make every album have a different vibe and different energy. So this one, we’re definitely looking at a more uptempo and upscale energy — a little more movement and brighter colors towards this project versus the other ones.
Maffyuu: I know jumping into this project one thing that we definitely wanted to zero in on was more movement from top to bottom. Not all the tracks are going to be just straight fall on the floor and shake your butt stuff, but we wanted to definitely tap into the more groovy side that we all possess. We’ve been creating songs with that in mind to get the people moving and to balance the catalog out.
Elbee: As much as we’re on the quest as musicians to innovate and reinvent ourselves, the amount of trust that the fans have in you to not be upset that you’re changing your formulas for the music you make is so liberating. At the end, if they like the song, they like the song; if they don’t, they don’t. The fact that people are operating off of that directly, instead of just being scared that Phony Ppl is trying something new, means so much to us. We could never thank the people enough for being so open and wanting to explore with us. We don’t want to be stuck making the same album we made ten years ago. There are some artists that try to expand their [sound] and get crucified because it’s a tone that people weren’t expecting. It’s kind of cool that Phony Ppl has the freedom to shape-shift.
Recently, Erykah Badu said she doesn’t want to be labeled as an R&B/hip-hop artist or an urban artist, just as an artist. I know that the term “psychedelic” or “alternative” has been linked to the group. How do you feel about those subjective genre brandings? Is there a particular term for the band that you guys most identify with?
Aja: Since the beginning of Phony Ppl’s existence, we’ve always considered ourselves no genre. It’s only until recently that we got a distribution deal with 300 [Entertainment] when we actually had to be like, “Listen, we can’t create our own genre when it comes to promoting our music.” We can’t be just like, “Oh, our genre is like the genre of goddamn dinosaur or whatever.” You can’t just make up your own genre. We have to kind of compromise and be like, “Okay, people who listen to this music will kind of fall in the lines of R&B.” But we wouldn’t consider it R&B. We’re just making music because we love making music. I guess the blackness of it and some of the love songs could come out as R&B in society (laughs) but we’re just musicians.
Bari: It also speaks to our influences and they come from many different genres. Since we take every song note by note and try to approach everything from different angles, then I wouldn’t be surprised that in the future that we’re doing things from a different genre standpoint. Right now, it’s probably urban adult contemporary. We try not to have so many limitations since our inspirations come from so many different places. There are so many different possibilities for what you can do with music. We try and not close the door on that.
You guys have been providing fans all sorts of quarantine vibes with Fkn Around Fridays and the 300 Unplugged sessions. How has being physically apart yet socially together challenged everyone to take creative risks and step outside their comfort zone?
Maffyuu: The things we’ve been putting on during this quarantine time are things that we’ve kind of already had under our belt, in terms of setting up a stream or having a Zoom call with each other about any random topics. Things like Bari doing his art show or me practicing with my dad [DJ Jazzy Jay of Zulu Nation] downstairs, are things we always wanted to do. Now with the given situation, we want to make sure that our fans can enjoy this time with us because they don’t know the next time they’re going to see us perform or just even fool around with them. We just had to put the foot on the gas to like learn these things that we were doing a little quicker. Now that we’re home, we got to schedule our days. We don’t want to schedule the first half of the day and have nothing else to do. We’re making the most of it and it’s like a really beautiful time to put it all in fruition. It’s pretty seamless and it’s interesting and it’s fun. We’re all for it.
Bari: This kind of speaks to the situation as well. Even though there are hobbies and things that not only we’ve been doing but everyone, in general, has been doing, it gives you a chance to work on your hustles on top of your daily job if you can. It also presents a great opportunity to flesh out even more of your creativity and give you even more time to express yourself for everybody — not only us. It’s like life throws something at you and it forces you to pretty much adapt to it and that’s what pretty much everyone is going through and learning how to do in this process that we’re all in.
Lastly, the Verzuz battles are getting harder and harder to declare winners. It was recently announced that Erykah Badu and Jill Scott are going head-to-head in the first female edition this Saturday. Thoughts?
Maffyuu: Oh man, that’s an interesting one. It depends on what they’re actually battling for, you know.
Aja: I’m going to have to go with Erykah [Badu].
Bari: They’re both just amazing. Not only are they dope artists, they’re just amazing people and amazing presences. It’s tough for me to call (laughs).
Maffyuu: I’m going to go with Erykah [Badu]. It’s funny that we performed with both of those ladies, so we can’t really pick a side. They might hit up us and be like, “I can’t believe you. No more shows.” (laughs) But it’s going to be a very, very cool thing to watch. I’m excited about that. I’ll be there with my popcorn.
Elbee: I was taking that long walk around the park after dark and we were going on and on my cypher keeps moving like a rolling stone (laughs). It’s really hard. It’s like choosing your mom or your dad.