In the beginning, there was Tanya Morgan. And Tanya Morgan was good.
Comprised of gifted Cincinnati rappers Ilyas Nashid and Donald “Donwill” Freeman, along with equally talented Brooklyn, N.Y., MC/producer Devon “Von Pea” Callender, Tanya Morgan was hailed as one of Hip Hop’s brightest young groups on the strength of two EPs (2005’s Sunlight, 2008’s The Bridge) and three excellent full-lengths (2006’s Moonlighting, 2008’s Tanya Morgan is a Rap Group and 2009’s stellar Brooklynati). The group became a huge underground favorite teetering on the brink of a mainstream breakthrough. Press outlets from Spin and XXL to The Onion and Los Angeles Times heaped praise on the trio’s releases. The members recorded with Drake, and they even became celebrity characters in the NBA 2K11 video game.
Immediately after Brooklynati, Tanya Morgan’s three rappers took a break from the group format to fly solo. Ilyas’ work ended up venturing the furthest afield from TM’s usual territory. The Prelude, Ilyas’ aptly titled 2009 mixtape, hinted at the shift he envisioned for his own projects, which were so different in tone and execution that he even adopted a new moniker: i-El.
“(Tanya Morgan) had established our brand, but it was a double-edged sword,” i-El says over lunch at Clifton café Sitwell’s. “We were put in a box. In the music industry, especially when you’re a grassroots Hip Hop group, people pat you on the head and say, ‘We appreciate what you’re doing. It’s true, genuine music and we like your integrity.’
“At the same time, given the business model of mainstream Hip Hop trying to integrate with Pop culture, it’s like, ‘We can’t do anything for you.’ We plateaued out, so to speak. As an individual, my style of music, what I wanted to bring to the table, I couldn’t fit inside that box we created. It was time to branch out.”
The Book of Elijah is i-El’s sophomore step toward establishing his unique sonic identity. The brief but potent mixtape offers another elucidating piece of i-El’s diverse musical puzzle, a transitional link revealing a glimpse of a picture that he admits is constantly changing.
“The Book of Elijah isn’t a farewell but an explanation to Tanya Morgan fans, like, ‘That was Ilyas of Tanya Morgan — that’s a different character/monster altogether,’ ” he says with a laugh. “As much support as they gave us, I felt like I owed them an explanation. For future i-El fans, it gives them a point of reference of what I came from.”
While he sees a clear delineation between The Prelude and The Book of Elijah’s new benchmarks, i-El also recognizes that the new direction requires a new approach, artistically and commercially.
“The Prelude was me sticking my toe in the water to see how it felt to step into this new identity,” i-El says. “And it felt good. I put it out pretty much the same way the group would, but because I want to be an artist of a certain caliber, there were other things to take into account, like the mixdown, how I market it and how I’m branding myself.”
That realization hit home when i-El fielded fan messages from his MySpace page after dropping The Prelude, giving the MC insight into how he was being perceived. He was dismayed to find so many zeroed in more on how he looked, not how he sounded.
“All these new people had never seen me before and a lot of them said, ‘I saw your image and I thought your music would sound (like something completely different).’ What frustrated me was that it did sound more like I looked, but I was afraid to go all the way with it back then,” i-El says. “I figured how I wanted to present myself visually, but with the audio I was concerned with what Tanya Morgan fans were going to think. You can’t half-step into something new, you have to go all the way.”
Along with a desire to develop his own distinctive musical identity, i-El’s recent spiritual journeys have also influenced the direction of his solo work. The Book of Elijah’s “I Saw God” isn’t focused on religious implications (“I feel like the Bible is a symbolic language; I don’t take any of it literally…”), but rather a spiritual observation about events surrounding his inner illumination.
“My son was being born and I was dealing with all these stresses,” i-El says, “and in the process, I began to see different things but I couldn’t really articulate it. That awakening led me to a series of revelations — I started studying Carl Jung — and I was probably going through a minute psychosis, because it was this reality-shattering, eye-opening thing.”
Those Jungian explorations began with an odd experience at i-El’s parents’ home. Late one night, he heard strange sounds coming from a closet. The source? An old, errant Walkman music player had started playing for no apparent reason.
“Underneath the Walkman was a Carl Jung book about individuation,” i-El reveals. “I flipped to a page and it said something about what I’m going through — the first steps of individuation, awakenings and your perceptions — and I really got into that.”
As i-El dug further into Jung’s ideas, he made some startling conclusions that led him to identify a dark, murky part of his personality that had long been hidden away.
“I reverse diagnosed myself and I realized this dark figure I’d seen all through my life in dreams is what I’ve now defined as i-El,” he says. “It was like my shadow self. I realized a lot of issues in my life were a result of suppressing that part and not allowing myself to be whole.
“I realized, as an artist, it was more than me needing to step out and be a soloist. For my personal development as a human being and for me to guide my children toward a better understanding of themselves, I have to go through this. I don’t know where it will lead but, honestly, I don’t care because it feels good to let it out.”
The Book of Elijah represents i-El’s attempt to put all of the issues brought to light in his voyage of self-discovery into a musical context. His personal revelations have given him the opportunity to bring some weightier, uncommon subject matter to Hip Hop and lead listeners to think about their own lives.
The MC sought to make a deeper connection with his audience and, in turn, help them make a deeper connection within themselves. But i-El didn’t want the music to come off as being sanctimonious or preachy, so he worked hard to find a balance.
“(I thought), ‘How can I take this content and make it entertaining?’ Make it where somebody might not even know what they’re taking into their mind, but it gets the wheels turning somehow,” i-El says. “Nobody’s really done it in this medium before. A film can do it — or a scholar or a philosopher — but I’m defined as a rapper. How do I present it in a way where it’s entertaining but I don’t seem like I’m belittling something that I see so much value and importance in?”
Besides Jung, i-El has also examined various mythologies (Greek, Roman, Egyptian), explored Joseph Campbell’s myth interpretations and seen how those ancient legends have been drawn for today’s audiences.
“One of the masters of presenting great content in a great package is George Lucas,” i-El says. “The occult symbology in the Star Wars films — as far as self discovery, awakening, dealing with the shadow, rebirth — is (presented) in this vastly entertaining package. The Matrix is the same concept. All great trilogy movies go through the process: a character accepting their destiny as the archetypal hero figure, confronting their own darkness and going through a death/rebirth of sorts. You see the theme of the resurrecting man/god over and over, and ultimately i-El represents my take on that same archetype.
“It was weird for me to arrive at that — the stuff I was writing unconsciously was following those trends but it didn’t make sense to me. I had to sit back and live life a little bit and step away from art and take in what’s going on around me. I had to ground myself in reality, because it’s easy to go out there on the spiritual side and I didn’t want to turn into a complete loon. I feel like I’ve achieved a nice balance where it’s time for me to step forward.”
In addition to his fresh solo direction, i-El also began his own production company, LFO (Live From Ohio), a vehicle for himself (he’ll be shooting a video at Mynt Martini downtown soon; check www.i-El.net for details), as well as other local performers. Like with his music, LFO won’t be confined to the obvious promo tactics.
“I’m shopping pilots to local networks for a sketch comedy show I’m working on, we’re doing music videos and I’m trying to get my first short films going,” i-El says. “I almost have a split personality. There’s Ilyas, the director and editor that sits at his computer (and is) a super techie geek, and i-El, the artist. It’s fun to wear two different hats.”
With Ilyas’ ongoing internal examination and focus on musical life as i-El, Von Pea and Donwill will continue Tanya Morgan and build on the group’s success. I-El contributed to a couple of tracks on the most recent Tanya Morgan release, You & What Army, and the door remains open for future collaborations. But for now, i-El is resolutely focusing his creative attention on solo work.
So what does i-El hope to accomplish with his music? He wants nothing less than a complete change in the direction of Hip Hop.
“Right now, I feel like mainstream Rap is awful and grassroots Hop Hop has become too stuck up,” i-El says. “The mainstream is doing whatever, without any thought of integrity, and the underground is scared to step out of this box of what they feel Hip Hop is.
“Hip Hop was formed in rebellion to buck all the trends. Now it’s become taboo to step outside the trend. It’s frustrating. It took me a minute to digest. I always knew how I needed to present myself, but I had to get the courage to do it. Some of the videos I’ve done as my i-El persona, they pushed the limits a little here and there, but the next ones are gonna be no holds barred. And I’m prepared for the backlash that I might get. It’s something I have to do. It’s necessary.”
Carl Jung’s concepts have long inspired artists
BY MIKE BREEN
Though he doesn’t have the level of name recognition enjoyed by some of his peers (including his former cohort Sigmund Freud), Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung’s impact on the world was so immense it’s difficult to measure. Like Freud, Jung’s revolutionary theories shaped the fundamental way we look at our world and ourselves. Though best known as the founder of analytical psychology, Jung was also a pioneer in dream analysis, concocted numerous other still-used concepts and theories (like the archetype and the collective unconscious) and recommended a spiritual approach to treating alcoholism years before Alcoholics Anonymous built its 12-step, “higher power”-based program.
Because of his broad influence on society, it’s no surprise that Jung and his ideas have been a continual source of inspiration to artists. For an artist on a journey of self-examination and discovery — such as Cincinnati Hip Hop performer/writer i-El — Jung’s philosophy can offer new perspectives, something that often comes through in subsequent creative endeavors.
Because of the appeal Jung holds to those in touch with their artistic side, evidence of his work surrounds us even if we don’t always recognize it. Here are just a few examples of Jung’s influence infiltrating art and pop culture.
• One of America’s greatest artists, abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, famously underwent Jungian therapy in an effort to control his drinking and depression. Jung was one of the earliest proponents of “art therapy,” whereby artistic expression is used to work through emotional issues. The influence of Jung’s work (particularly the “archetype” concept) on Pollock was key to the artist’s developing, instinctual style and later masterworks. Jungian philosophy also inspired the Surrealist movement.
• Legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini began studying Jungian ideals in the early ’60s, something film historians directly credit for his shift away from the “neorealism” style popular in Italy in the ’40s and ’50s. His interest in Jung’s theories of archetypes and a shared, universal unconscious were prime forces behind some of his most notable films, including 8 1/2, where Fellini mixed dreams and flashbacks with reality to explore on screen the inner turmoil of the main character.
• Jung’s place in the pantheon of Pop cultural history was sealed when he appeared amongst the icons on the cover of The Beatles’ 1967 landmark album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That’s him in the last row, standing next to Edgar Allan Poe.
• In 1983, Rock band The Police took one of Jung’s concepts and made it the title of what would become one of the biggest albums of the ’80s, Synchronicity. The kick-off track, “Synchronicity I,” was likely the first hit to use the phrase “Spiritus Mundi,” William Buster Yeats’ term to describe what Jung called the collective unconscious. The track “Synchronicity II” features two parallel scenarios connected solely symbolically — Sting told Time magazine that the song was inspired by “how Jung believed there was a large pattern to life, that it wasn’t just chaos.”
• Jung’s latest appearance in the zeitgeist comes in the form of A Dangerous Method, the new David Cronenberg film based on Jung and Freud’s topsy turvy relationship. The movie — starring “It” boy Michael Fassbender as Jung — has already received numerous awards, even though it was just snubbed by the Oscars. The film, in a true moment of synchronicity, opens in Cincinnati this week and is also featured in this edition of CityBeat.