Just before 2022 came to a close, Phony Ppl ended the year on a hard-earned high. One month after releasing its third album, Euphonyus, in November, the act celebrated with a pair of nearly sold-out shows at Sounds of Brazil in Manhattan’s Hudson Square neighborhood. The five-piece band opened the sets with “Nowhere But Up,” an uptempo, feel-good track that was beginning to take off at radio.
“It’s one of those songs that’s just as easy to digest for a newcomer as a fan that’s been there for 25 shows in a row,” says drummer Matt “Maffyuu” Byas. “It invokes a lot of energy and optimism” — two things the band has in spades. Last year, Phony Ppl embarked on an 18-date Nowhere But Up tour, testing the song live long before it arrived.
Formed as a nine-piece collective in Brooklyn in 2010, Phony Ppl’s members all met in high school, and the current lineup is a tight roster of classically trained musicians, including Byas, vocalist Elbee Thrie, guitarist Elijah Rawk and brothers Aja Grant (keyboard) and Bari Bass (bass). Phony Ppl’s debut, Yesterday’s Tomorrow, arrived in 2015 as a blend of soul, R&B, jazz and rock. Its second album, 2018’s m?’z?-ik, was the first official release on 300 Entertainment following a distribution deal in 2014, development deal in 2017 and a record deal at the start of 2020.
“The way they treat one another and the democratic style in which they operate is a very unique situation,” says the band’s manager Jon Kaslow, who worked as Kid Cudi’s tour DJ and musical director before getting into management (he first met Phony Ppl through former member Dyme-A-Duzin). “Transparently, sometimes you want someone to just say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ because then a decision gets made. But that’s not who they are and that’s not what our team is.”
“The thing about Phony Ppl is we have different angles of thinking about everything,” adds Grant. “We’ve put trust in each other.”
The sunny outlook of “Nowhere But Up” not only taps into Phony Ppl at its core, but signals the return of its mainstream momentum. The band hit a stride at the top of 2020 thanks to a collaboration with 300 Entertainment labelmate Megan Thee Stallion titled “Fkn Around.” The hand-clapping groove, which they live debuted during Meg’s NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2019, reached No. 7 on Billboard’s Adult R&B Airplay chart and put Phony Ppl on radio’s radar.
Then, the pandemic hit. “Especially since we couldn’t tour, they were great about doing call-ins and Instagram Lives with program directors and DJs at stations that were supporting the record,” says Kaslow. “The band learned that radio is important and our very strong performance on ‘Fkn Around’ gave us that initial momentum.”
And though the pandemic also delayed Euphonyus longer than the band would have liked, they now see the extra time as something that improved the album. “It allowed us time to really zero in,” says Byas. “And a lot of tracks that in 2019 were considered done, we got to open those back up — and make new songs.”
Grant recalls the night that producer Ivan Barias (who the band worked with on “Fkn Around”) hit him up with the idea for “Nowhere But Up” back in 2020. “At like, two in the morning, he was like, ‘Yo, Aja, listen to this song.’ I was thinking he was trying to put me on to something and I was like, ‘Ivan, I know this song.’ I’m not that young.”
Barias had sent him “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On,” the synth-funk debut hit from mid-80’s rhythmic pop star Cherrelle. The producer then instructed him to open Ableton and play the chords, part of what Grant now calls “an experiment” during which the two jammed over Zoom. Weeks later, the band met in Philadelphia to finish recording the album and decided to add the new track. “When the music was presented, I just felt fireworks,” recalls Thrie.
But when he learned the song was built on a sample (unlike his bandmate, he was initially unfamiliar with the Cherrelle hit, written by songwriting duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) he had hesitations. “My emotions changed about the idea. ‘How can I still feel excited writing this music knowing it’s not something we created from scratch?’ ” he questioned. “But at a certain point I was like, ‘Let’s just do what we can do.’ If we were to sample something, let’s make it the best we can.”
“It keeps songs and artists’ memories alive and sends it down another generation,” says Bass of sampling. “And I think that’s a lesson that we were learning.” Adds Rawk: “It’s important that whatever we’re trying to do, our intention matches our execution.”
The end result was exactly what the band and its team had hoped for: a growing radio smash. Kaslow credits 300’s Shadow Stokes, executive vp of promotions, for getting Phony Ppl right back on the airwaves — and the airplay charts — today, as if no time had passed. “He went back and did the rounds with a lot of people. Like, ‘Hey, remember these guys that had that record with Meg? This is their new song.’ ” As a result, “Nowhere But Up” currently sits at No. 30 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay and could soon enter the top 10 on Adult R&B Airplay.
And though Kaslow admits he sent “Nowhere But Up” to some A&Rs to see about a potential feature, he believes it was important for the band to have a hit without another name attached. Still, Thrie views the song as a collaboration of sorts, citing Jam and Lewis as unofficial features. “They cleared it, but I hope that they really enjoy the song,” he says. “And they’re not like, ‘These young motherf–kers just ran with our s–t!’ ”
Soon, it will become a sprint. Kaslow is preparing to get Phony Ppl back to “a full-time touring act, both domestically and internationally.” “Phony Ppl’s superpower is their live show,” says Lallie Jones, vp of marketing for 300 Entertainment, while teasing a global tour and upcoming festival appearances.
Meanwhile, the band is brainstorming just how far its hit can go — from a 50-piece orchestral rendition to a FIFA placement to becoming an airline’s official song. Grant’s wish is a bit more simple: “I just really hope this song goes nowhere but up — and that’s the corniest thing I could say.”