BACK TO GOLDEN BARS & BREAKS: AWON & PHONIKS

By SUNEZ

Awon (Top) & Phoniks (Bottom)

They tell us time marches on and yet it cannot stand in this softened stance.  With weak limbs that are held by the bass of whimpered 808s and arms that move flaccidly with wildness via exaggerated bars of bottom-top journeys, I do not know this culture being.  Being something other than itself it thrives with a flesh of content that uses escapism to whitewash itself.  A counter-culture now subbing, masked as mass, pops its head into charts with eyes of urban cliché, the lust of minajufactured curves and trap comfort coyness trilled to the tempo of coon bows thrown.

So we welcome the educated youth countering the crimes against music. Portland, Maine’s Phoniks, who still samples history through dusty study, has a precociousness for the melancholy thoughts in the horn, the pensiveness of the piano and the thickness of the snare.  Then there is the Fort Greene, Brooklyn statesman of mastered composition, Awon, who still fulfills the elements of the rhyme case by case.  You would never know they were returning to the Golden Era—Boom Bap as we know it today—if the contrast of harmonic horrors haven’t infected us so viciously.  It is the starved listener who is returned to where they, Awon & Phoniks, have known no other home.  A cultural home I, this writer, has written all my manuscripts and hone this one here.  This, the sharing of thoughts on two of its sincerest and illest talents from their origins to their music making ethos to their making of their debut LP, Return To The Golden Era.

SUNEZ: Awon, on Return To The Golden Era, you were going back in time bringing a story forward to this day and with Phoniks, your precociousness in quality of sound intrigues and I wonder what the sound will become.  Let me hear your history brothers.

AWON: I don’t remember having an awakening to Hip Hop. I just had it in my life. I was born in ’80, now I’m 33 (years old).  By the time I am 4 and 5 years old, music is in my ears.  I’m hearing Hip Hop. I lived in Fort Greene (Brooklyn) with my Moms. We was in the projects and honestly because my Grandma had six kids, we got two apartments. That’s how they combined the shit. It was like ten people in the crib. Out of them ten people was my two uncles, one who was seventeen years older than me and the other who was thirteen years older than me.  Then my aunt is only ten years older than me.  So at the time being a little kid, they’re teenagers so obviously they listening to Hip Hop.  Their friends are MCs. My oldest uncle, Jashim—one of his homeboys was Just Ice and they called him Justice. He used to come through.  I’m not aware of this.  My aunt went to Sarah J. (Hale High School).  That was one of the places where all of the girls went so the MCs would go there.  Like [Big Daddy] Kane would peak his head through there.  Biz [Markie] would go through there.  My aunt knew them so when we went to Albee Square Mall as a little kid they were approachable because of her.  The Beatbox was right in front of me. He taught me how to do the shit.  Dana Dane is from Fort Greene so when they were out in the courts playing ball, he was out there with a 40.  That shit was there.

Catching the train was an adventure.  The graffiti and all the writing on the walls.  When you’re from my community the level of communication that Hip Hop gave you immediately understood.  For me, first it was my household, then it was the trains and actually understanding the art.  MCing didn’t come first. For me, it was drawing.  Graffiti for any child is ‘Wow! It’s a colorful world.’  I hated it when they brought out the white elephants and changed the trains.  The burners wasn’t up no more.  The tags on the inside—you couldn’t stop that shit.  I actually got to go to Jams cause of my aunt like the Fila Crew outside doing DJ tricks with sneakers on their heads—just wild shit that this next generation never got an opportunity to do.  All of my shit just comes from being a part of the culture. I never had to get in or an initiation. I just lived that shit.

My uncle would wake me up at night and say, ‘it’s on.’  What he meant with “it’s on” was we was either listening to Red Alert or Chuck Chillout. I forgot who it was but one night he was listening to the radio and “Magnificent” from Special Ed broke. And they ran it back two times.  We’re going crazy hearing it.  Those are the experiences that crafted my life.  My father’s side was totally different.  They were all DJs but they were Reggae DJs.  They came from Barbados so I saw sound systems as big as me. Those visits with him were totally different because their culture was different than mine.  I could stay up all night because somebody was having a party at the basement.  It would go from the Dancehall with the Barrington Levy’s to Calypso—which I didn’t care for.  But music in general was a part of my life and the same thing was there—DJs and records.  It easily related back to my experience in Brooklyn.  I just came up in a legendary place and a legendary time. It was instilled from being a tiny kid until now. I’ve dedicated my whole life to this shit.


SUNEZ:  Tell us about the life that makes the content of this album, Awon.

AWON: In my era, you had to grow up fast because the Crack Era was happening at the same time as the explosion of Hip Hop.  As a kid I had to retreat to music because I was a prisoner in the projects. I couldn’t just leave and play alone.  As you know, living in New York City, you was going outside with somebody supervising because something was about to jump off. I’m not going to sit back and say the conditions was crazy because the conditions in New York City then was fucking crazy. New York was a left over war zone. They just rebuilt the shit and gentrified it. When I was coming up it was abandoned buildings everywhere.  When we went uptown to Crown Heights then to the Bronx.  To really get to that answer, part of my retreat was because that I had people in my family that was on the wrong side  of that game.  Not the smokers but the opportunists that was getting that money.  They knew what time it was. My mom told me before I was born and she was pregnant, she was tied up and robbed. Then they moved to another crib. My uncle got tried. Dudes came to the door and shot up his man.  And they just kept going.  None of those things saved them.  Of course, I got aware to what was going on. I’m just a kid seeing people come through.  People leaving work, money being exchanged.  I’m seeing all of that and as I got older I made a conscious decision of ‘Fuck it!. They’re getting money. Why not I be a part of the game?’  Then it was different. Now I’m listening to Biggie Smalls. I got my Tims and I’m 14. I’m wise beyond my years so I’m hanging with older dudes.  I can never forget my man.  He just looked at me one day and said, ‘I’m hearing you talking and it just seems like you’re frustrated. You just need to get this money.’ And he gave me my first package. Put it on my arm and said, ‘Go out there and get it.’  I might of thought he was doing me a solid, a favor?!  But he was actually leading me down the path of fucking destruction.  But I was unaware to that because I was blind.  A lot of my early life—I went from an honorable student loving Hip Hop to being incarcerated at 15 years old, taking that up North trip.  Came home at 17 I was a better criminal. Came back doing the same shit.  This time we’re really on the block, really out there.  I’m not talking the bottom of the barrel but 8 Balls, flippin that to get 8 on a quarter.  To get that half, to get that ounce. You know, sneaker money every day.  You just at the bottom of the barrel.  You just on the block. When I talk about crack funk. That’s a smell you can’t dismiss.  It’s the smell of cocaine and balls cause you got your work. You just stink all fucking day.  You smell like cooking, like crack.  When you on that block, those fiends, they light up right there in front of you.  So all of that shit and some of the shit that torments me in my own life.  Like serving my Moms’ friends.  My Moms was no smoker but she was sociable so she talked to everybody in the community. Her friends’ kids is my friends but I didn’t care.  I ain’t give a fuck.  It was just about getting that cream.  That shit is just crazy. Even though I came from all of that and my parents did all the right things to get me out of that.  I still got back into it just because, again, hanging with older heads and the influence of older cousins.  All of that shit leads to nothing.  Even as an adult I was still out there doing dumb shit.  I’m not even thinking about my kids or the consequences. I’m just thinking about the dollar.

All of that shit changed when my cousin was murdered.  All of the shit that I did I never thought, I have a cousin with me, all these people younger than me living in my crib and I’m setting a bad example.  And I lost him.  He wasn’t able to leave that shit alone when he should’ve.  I was. I said, ‘Man, I got kids. I’m getting married. I found love. It’s time to change my life and focus on this music a hundred percent.’  But he didn’t have anything to fall back on so he was like, ‘Fuck it!’  He didn’t have anything to fall back on.  When his life was lost it took a part of me because I felt someways that I was responsible for it.  When you know who you are and you know the consequences, when you have any ounce of understanding, you’re responsible.  You know better it’s your obligation to do better.  That’s why I’m revealing all this shit about my life so that I can help somebody else not make the same mistakes and suffer the same torment that I go through with mentally with some of the things I’ve experienced. It’s masked with a little bit of wordplay and delusions of grandeur but at the end of the day these are my stories.  Stories of people that I love or that went through hell due to this lifestyle.  I just want people to know this life is for the birds.  For all those bird ass niggas out there promoting it and not giving you the whole nine.

Nice and smooth with the artifacts.  Saxophone cuts in my ear pausing the silence.  She saying things with a peak of how bad it gets and oh! how badder Awon bought to get. Funky guitar talks bassfully quick instigating her horns.  Bassman getting louder cuz Biggie just turned the fucking block of St. James to meet his corner.  This is before Diddy barges in on Ready to Die to pop it with stolen Pete Rock samples in his hands and trained trickery developed at Harrell’s Uptown. BIG knows he can’t pitch pop combs to me so he looks in my ear with a hand on my shoulder, “I know how it feel to wake up fucked up. Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell.” I shake my head but he gotta tell me again with his snare friends and break troopers.  Snares sand the surface to let me relax and the Bassman clears the path through it all.  And lady horn the whole time was just telling us Awon got a story to tell too…”Get Yours” is the track.  Phoniks the producer orchestrating…

SUNEZ:  Tell us your origin story in Hip Hop, Phoniks.

PHONIKS: I got into Hip Hop when I heard a Masta Ace song in a video game.  And I went to the record store and bought Disposable Arts.  That was my first Hip Hop cd I bought and I was like 12 or 13 years old.  It really turned me on to Rap and I sought to seek out music like that.  And I just wasn’t into the music that my friends were into.  I’d be on the school bus listening to Liquid Swords and stuff like that.  Then one day I realized that they were pulling these beats out of old records.  I didn’t even know.  I thought MF DOOM was playing all that on a keyboard.  I didn’t even know what sampling was. When I learned that I went nuts and I had to figure out where all the samples were from.  I started watching videos on YouTube, around 2005-2006, of people making beats on the MPC and stuff.  That’s what kind of sparked my interest in everything.  Then I saved up enough money and ordered the MPC online.  I remember I used to read the MPC manual every night like it was my favorite story. I been making beats ever since.  I knew how to work it since I got it and been working it since..

SUNEZ:  How long before you made a beat you were confident enough to share?

PHONIKS:  It took me a long time.  I made a lot of wack beats before I figured it out.  I’d say about five or six years.  At the same time I didn’t realize until I started linking up with artists that beats we used on the Awon and Phoniks album were shit that I made four years before and I thought was wack at the time.  I needed other peoples’ ears to say it was dope for me to even see it. So I guess working with Awon definitely helped my confidence.

SUNEZ: How’d you get with Awon?  The different artists you come across why him?

PHONIKS:  I really keep up with underground Hip Hop. I don’t listen to the radio or anything so to find something I really have to look for it. I found this producer Soul Shaft and I was listening to everything he made.  He did a bunch of beats with Awon.  So I had that in my ipod for a few months and I was thinking one day how difficult it would be to reach a dude like Awon. He’s not Jay-Z so he’ll probably answer his own emails.  So I shot him an email with a link to one of my beat tapes.  He immediately hit me back and we been working really well together since.  I attribute everything to Awon for giving the opportunity for someone making beats in their bedroom. [laughs]

SUNEZ: [laughs] The perspective of MCing

AWON: I’m a student of the culture so when I say golden era it’s very technical. I’m not speaking the 80’s era, ‘87-‘88, but that 93-96.  That era is very technical. I hate to be technical but I’m a technician in the booth.  [For example], Biggie was a technician of melody where he would rhyme every third bar.  Where usually you’d rhyme on the two and the four, he was fucking you up on the three. His style you can’t bite it because you already know that’s Biggie’s shit.  That golden era is very technical. So I was very technical in the way the rhymes were layered.  And it’s always been that way.  MCing has always been very competitive.  A lot of what you hear today is not technical.  Just because you put a bunch of fucking words together, even if its big words, doesn’t make you a great MC.  You have to be able to do that shit and maintain melody and cadence at the same time. That’s when you’re an MC. The first time that’s really displayed was Rakim.  [Big Daddy] Kane took it another level.  Kool G along with him did the same thing but just in a different melody.  So now we got melody with the MCing.  So in the 80’s it’s getting technical but by the 93, here comes Nas and that’s when shit got through the roof.  That’s when we hear MCs rhyme with four syllable words.

PHONIKS:  That’s the multi-syllabic rhyme schemes.

AWON: Exactly.  That’s what I came to like.  But like you mentioned my tempo is a mid tempo between 90 and 94. That’s where I’m the best at.  That’s a comfortable tempo for me to express multi-syllable rhyme schemes consistently.  That’s also a way I’m able to have melody within the cadence.  The new shit that comes from the new millennium just keeps up with popular slang and with street etiquette.  That’s what I get from a lot of rappers.  You want to emphasize different things but all you get from this new millennium is an emphasis on different words.  We’re still at that place of the 90’s.  The production is only different.  I don’t think it can go any further in terms of technicality with almost everything being done.  With Hip Hop you don’t want to reinvent the wheel you just want to come with better content.  The conversation has to be better and relevant.  I don’t think I took anything from the new millennium.  I think everything was just from being a student of the culture of my favorite MCs of the era.

In fact, when I got these beats from Phoniks I emptied out my phone and car. I went back home and grabbed all of these cds from the 90s.  I just wanted to listen to good music. I got Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, Mecca and the Soul Brother, 36 Chambers, Ready To Die, Illmatic—all of that was in my car.  So again, I hear these beats from Phoniks then Mecca and the Soul Brother—I’m like ‘Aww man, this is an omen. I gotta be doing this!’  Anyone from the new millennium like DOOM—DOOM is nothing new.  He is doing what he did in the KMD days.  People think this is new.  This is everything about Hip Hop that’s right.  Even his technique the way he layers tracks on his beats.  That was a technique done in the 80’s.  I just have a lot of respect for people that respect the culture.  No disrespect to anyone new but a lot of people throwing out the word classic.  All of these high praises for people doing what they’re supposed to do.  That’s a shame that an MC doing what they supposed to do—I just felt like I was supposed to be doing this.  You got guys that do this and they are really thinkers and they don’t get the praise.

SUNEZ:  Boom Bap wasn’t called Boom Bap back then.

PHONIKS: People just regurgitating what journalists say…

SUNEZ: Indeed!  And truth is it’s not easy making a Hip Hop beat.  It isn’t just a “90’s setting” the way today’s pop rap songs are easily programmed.

PHONIKS:  In 2013, it’s hard to find Jazz and Funk samples that haven’t been used yet. A lot of the really dope stuff has been touched.  That’s really part of the difficulty.  Finding samples that you can make classic sounding beats like that haven’t been done from people that have been digging for the last twenty years.

SUNEZ:  I was thinking of that today.  A young brother sent me tracks that all had familiar samples.

AWON:  It’s definitely the unwritten code not to use what someone else has used.  Not to say that I haven’t used something that’s never been touched before.  If something has been done before I’m going to flip it differently.  I’m not going to loop it the same way. I’m going to chop it up or use a different track or something.

SUNEZ:   What type of beats you look for Awon?

AWON:  Before I got with Awon I was kind of being pushed into this subgenre.  Now I’m not a fan of subgenres. I don’t believe in a subgenre on a genre of music.  But anyway, I was being put in the subgenre of Jazz Hop and I was on instrumentals where some were live and some weren’t.  A lot of Jazz styled beats and my first LP [Beautiful Loser] was in that category.  I got my first opportunity to go to Japan and work with the Soul Students.  I favored Jazz because I learned a lot about the culture, Jazz musicians and I kind of fell in love with it.  So Jazz was always my thing but if a beat is dope no matter where it comes from your instinct is to want to touch that beat.  As long as the beat is refreshing and innovative and coming from a creative point of view I’m willing to do it.  I don’t like doing cliché stuff. It has to be Hip Hop.  Nice mid tempo, nice drums, nice knock, well thought out sample.  I could tell even if I don’t know what they’re sampling. I could tell if they don’t appreciate the artist they’re sampling.  If you don’t really love the song you’re sampling—I’m not saying you have to love the song you’re sampling but you have to be knowledgeable about it. That will help you flip it. That‘s what gave the Golden Era so much love.  [DJ] Premier really knew the records that he was sampling.  Pete Rock the same thing. Large Pro. Q-Tip. They knew exactly what they were looking for.   Today you got people that don’t know anything about the records they’re taking.  So we have a very confused culture.  That’s what brought about a lot of lawsuits and a generational divide with artists that hate Hip Hop.  They’re taking our records and not even showing love. Back then Q-Tip reached out to Weldon [Irvine] and Weldon reached out to him.  Premier made lots of relationships with the artists he sampled.  Then when they chopped it up it was a way that made the music better.  They were students of the music.  So I prefer when the producer is a student of their craft and comes to me with a complete understanding of what he wants me to do as an MC.  I’m not the type of MC to tell the producer exactly what to do.  Sometimes when they do that it comes out corny. Some of my favorite MCs pick the records and they’re dope like Ghostface [Killah] but they know the records.  He picks his own samples a lot of the times.  He brings his own records so I want to do that.  I can respect it because he knows. If you don’t then it’s not worth it to do it. So I prefer beats from knowledgeable cats and not from those experimenting, playing around in their role and not serious about what they do.  That’s the best answer I can give. I definitely don’t want trap beats, nothing like that.  We have a fine line today of what’s being defined as Hip Hop music.  What’s being called Hip Hop is not necessarily Hip Hop is more R&B and Pop based.  It’s definitely not what I would consider Hip Hop.

SUNEZ:  My favorite song on Return To The Golden Era was “Blood in Blood Out.”  It’s a classic and is a signature song on the album.

PHONIKS:  That’s really my favorite song. I’m definitely a sucker for pianos and that was one I couldn’t chop. It was like the smoothest loop that you could hope for.  Then Awon really put his soul on that and told a personal story on it.  That really made the song authentic.

AWON: That’s my favorite joint too.  It’s 100. That’s real.  Those events really happened.  That first verse is me really just going in on myself about where I’m at in my own life kind of being conscious of my flaws.  The second verse was really my regrets.  Who I called my brother was really my cousin who was murdered.  We were raised like brothers.  That really happened and again it just left a huge impact.  The last verse is about my cousin. He really was in the street, was the hustler.  He was a guy that was our age.  We were the same age but he just lived a little faster than I did so I was intrigued by his life.  He ended up being a user.  At the time, we’re young, I’m still in the streets halfway. I’m fresh, looking right. He out bummy, doing things that a user would do.  Like, ‘yo, come get me, Son!’ And I’m taking him to the store and he’s stealing. I’m like, ‘Yo! I got money! Why is you stealing?’ Just really wilding out…

He became an addict and it was hard to deal with.  I still love him but I remember looking up to him.  He had his own crib. He was the man and I saw the game take him down.  He was an addict of the worst drug to be an addict of—heroin.  One day he was just gone.  He overdosed and his wife found him.  So when I say “Blood in Blood Out” the game took him in and took him out.  My other cousin that was murdered.  His mom had to know that he died with a gun in his boot and drugs on him so immediately she feels like they’re not going to [investigate] his murder because he’s a casualty of the [drug] war.  It’s “Blood in Blood Out” because I led him the spot that showed him how to move grams.  I showed him where we was getting money, told him there’s money out here and I led him to that spot.  He even caught a bid at that spot at sixteen.  My lifestyle I put that on him.  Today, my little brother is going through some things and it’s just a cycle that doesn’t end.  The cycle my little brother is in now is painful because he’s looking up to what we did and there seems to be no end to it.  I tell him you can’t lead your brothers down the shadow of death.  You’ve gotta be bigger than that because now he’s influencing his younger friends.  So it’s “Blood In Blood Out” and this is a message to not do that.  You don’t lead them down the valley and when you see them down you don’t kick them.  You pick them up.

The whole underlying theme of the album is that crime don’t pay.  We’re losing lives out here. Everything relates to the internal fight we have in our communities across the nation with this chasing of wealth and the need to root for the badguys in the community.  This never works out.  That was one of those songs that really showed that.  Phoniks’ beat was the perfect marriage for it.

When life was hell ethics were lost and reconstructed as standards in some young music with old things in it.  The better the sample, the stronger the bars, the tougher the verses, the fatter the purses.  When money gave hell platinum roads for yearning, the golden standards in the tracks started hurting.  So Awon and Phoniks announce a return to places they never left where MCs can learn from and producers that make sounds out of Herc’s nature and Bambaataa’s principles.

Do the Knowledge to the Return To The Golden Era Review HERE

Twitter:  @AWON1988  @HookedOnPHONIKZ