Awon & Phoniks: Knowledge of Self

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Photo courtesy of Mason Strehl

Photo courtesy of Mason Strehl

Two years after the release of their debut album, Return to the Golden Era, Awon & Phoniks are back with their sophomore release “Knowledge of Self”. Released on their Don’t Sleep record label, Knowledge of Self carries on Phoniks and Awon’s tradition of delivering thought-provoking lyrics over a classic boom bap soundtrack.

Knowledge of Self is produced entirely by Phoniks and features appearances by ADaD, NorCal Nick, Heeni, Ivan Ave, Rodney the Soul Singer, Hex One, and Dephlow.

Awon and Phoniks spoke to The Real Hip-Hop about their aim to rhyme for a reason, plans to take their act overseas, and their new album, Knowledge of Self.

TRHH: Was there every any doubt that you two would get back together for another album?

Awon: Nah. Not at all.

Phoniks: Shortly after we recorded the first one we started putting together our record label, Don’t Sleep Records, and it was just assumed that we were gonna release our next album under our label.

Awon: That’s basically it. We just immediately got to work. There was great chemistry and that evolved into business.

TRHH: How is Knowledge of Self different from Return to the Golden Era?

Awon: For me Return to the Golden Era was darker. The vibe is different with Knowledge of Self. We basically wanted to create an album that wasn’t centered around myself or past stories completely. We wanted to make an album that was more conversational and open for anybody to experience. Instead of making an album with a direct fine-tuned concept, we wanted to make something that was positive, palatable, and enjoyable for people. We wanted to talk to people instead of talking at them. Sometimes you listen to Hip-Hop and feel like you’re being chastised.

TRHH: Did you convey to Phoniks that this was the direction you were going in, or did you just get the beats from him and that’s what came out?

Awon: Nah. We talk about a lot of things, actually — especially musically. When we collaborate it’s a full collaboration. We recorded it together so he and I were in the same space to have that energy bounce off. We definitely wanted to bring a different vibe.

Phoniks: Also with some of the songs I’d give Awon a beat, he would record verses to it, and I would get the song back and build a different beat around the lyrics to fit the vibe of the track. It was kind of both ways – we’d do the lyrics and the beats first.

TRHH: How’d the single “Summer Madness” come together?

Awon: That was a record that I had the concept for, for years. Right now it was a great time for it with violence up in Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit. As well as all the police violence that’s been going on since 2013, well, really before then. It caught national attention in 2013 and we started seeing more incidents of that. That’s what inspired that record. The summer times brings along a lot of bodies when you’re in the inner city as well we start to see a lot of violence around the country. I wanted to just talk about it and have an open discussion with people just to see how they felt and it resonated. I’m happy about that.

TRHH: I’m from Chicago and I remember being a kid and dreading the summer time. Most kids look forward to the summer because school is out, but where I’m from it means people are gonna die. Why is that?

Awon: I had an older brother tell me a long time ago that in the summer time violence is regional. It’s concentrated in certain places and in places that are more aggressive with more aggressive climates and contrasts, the violence is more prevalent. You look at the northeast and the concentration of violence during the 80s – it’s cold and rigid. You look at Chicago – it’s cold and rigid. Then the summer time comes and the weather is perfect and people get crazy. They come outside and when people come outside in the third largest city in the country it’s gonna get wild. So many people, with so many attitudes, so much competition to survive, and it’s also an epicenter of poverty.

You have extreme wealth where you have stadiums, and then you have slums where people can’t even afford to go to those stadiums around them. It creates anger and frustration and it spills onto the streets. The news almost perpetuates it by almost kicking people when they’re down because in those communities where there is violence there are also people that are working hard, every day folks that don’t oblige it or condone it, but they kind of get tossed into one group based on the way it’s reported on. I think it’s very cyclical. Look at New York – a couple bodies, end of the summer, Indian summer, and Labor Day parade. It’s just not anybody getting hit, you got somebody that works for the government getting hit. It’s everywhere and nobody is immune to that cycle.

TRHH: Concrete Confessions is one of my favorites on the album. I appreciate the line about Chicago in there. Talk about the inspiration behind that song.

Awon: That song was a beat flip. It became one of my favorites as well. The inspiration behind the lyrics was just retrospective looking at all of the people I lost and looking at the loss of the drug wars. When you think about the war on drugs you think about the glamorous side of things. You might think about Freeway Ricky Ross, but what about those guys who are just out there on the streets hustling? I wrote it from that perspective of the bottom-level dealer who is just trying to get money to have fun and to validate himself but it comes at such a high cost that he’s like, “Yo, it ain’t for me.” It’s like the innermost thoughts of a guy who made the decision to hit the streets and made the decision to get out because he saw that damage that was coming to other people. It’s that full 180 of when somebody participates in the negative behavior but comes out a better individual. That’s why I wrote that joint and I hope that people come away seeing that there is a lot of positivity to it. Phoniks actually structured that record to be more positive and uplifting.

Phoniks: I think it was originally three verses. On of ‘em was more from a negative perspective and we ended up moving that to give the track an overall more positive vibe. The Mic Geronimo sample on the hook was something that I wanted use. I just love the way that loops so I wanted to use that on the record.

TRHH: Listening to you talk about it almost reminds of Reasonable Doubt. Jay-Z would give you the glitz but in the end there is a moral to the story.

Phoniks: Right. With most of Awon’s songs he might say some wild shit in his lyrics but almost always at the end there is a positive message in it. If he’s talking about some wild shit that he did back in the day the ending verse would be like, “But don’t do that. Learn from my mistakes.” It’s usually a positive flip on a negative song.

Awon: Yeah, that’s something that I got from the era of Hip-Hop that I grew up listening to. You always learn from that era or generation that’s older than you. All of my friends are older than me. I came up listening to my uncles and aunts, as well as my parents. You learn from those emcees. I learned from Rakim and Kane and I learned from Jay and Nas as well — even B.I.G. When you listen to those records they felt the same way. Listening to “Everyday Struggle” from B.I.G. it was real and you felt like you learned something. It’s like, he went through a lot and I might not wanna go through that. His girl ends up getting killed and he ends up going to jail – it’s real somber. Even though that record has energy on the beat it was somber and a reminder of the game. I came away from that always wanting to convey that same type of thing. When you look at Reasonable Doubt and a song like “Regrets” Jay is divulging his innermost thoughts about something he was doing. Jay went on to be that way his entire career. A lot of people don’t recognize that. I appreciate you recognizing that.

TRHH: No doubt. I saw Jay-Z on the Howard Stern Show years ago and Howard asked him, “You must have made a lot of money selling crack?” and Jay was like, “Nah, I actually didn’t’ I would have been better off working at McDonald’s.”

Phoniks: Really?

TRHH: Yeah.

Phoniks: That’s funny ‘cause I heard people say shit like Jay was already a millionaire before he sold any records.

TRHH: Well, he’s said that in records [laughs]. On the show he said it wasn’t worth his time. The time you put into it, the fear factor, and the amount of money he made wasn’t worth it. I wanna hear somebody tell that story on a record. That’s the life of the average drug dealer.

Awon: On average you make about 8-9 dollars an hour. At the most $13 per hour. It’s not like the 80s. The 80s was a time when people did come up. I feel like drugs was the scapegoat for all the black community’s suffering. It’s like the bone that was thrown at us like, “This is destructive, but it’s also payback because y’all gotta be a part of this economy too.” Drugs ran the economy of the U.S. Miami was built on drugs. You look at Detroit and BMF – if you take away BMF from Detroit, you take away BMF from Atlanta. Now you have economic peril. When you take away drugs along with political corruption you have whole cities crumble. That’s the problem that we’re having in America today. I’m not advocating drugs, but with gentrification they’re saying they don’t want that type of undercurrent in their cities.

Now everybody wants to conform to this new way of life which is millennial’s. The millennial generation wasn’t brought up with the same harsh conditions as the generation that preceded them. Crack babies had it real rough. One day their mom and dad is home and the next day they’re gone for a week on a coke binge and you’re getting raised by grandma. Millennial’s are a part of mom and dad being home and having their shit together. They’re a part of the economy and they might have bought a house. The late 90s saw a great increase in communities now everybody got Jordan’s, microwaves, poverty looks different. You go through the hood and there’s flat screen TV’s and all types of crazy shit during Christmas. They got the most boxes. They realize that consumerism is a way to keep people down and keep the economy going. We’re much stronger consumers now than we ever were, so you don’t need the drugs.

TRHH: You’re going real deep on this. Does that play into the title of the record?

Awon: For me it does. Golden Era was the perspective of a young wild cowboy that was just out there. Knowledge of Self is just me today as a married man and a father. I just want people to know that they can be themselves completely and not have to conform to norms to feel validated. That’s what Knowledge of Self is about. It’s always mathematics to it. It’s no secret I was born in Brooklyn and a lot of my influence comes from the Nation of Gods and Earths in my rhymes, but it’s also about people being people. One of the things that I have is younger brothers that are 10 and 13 years younger than me. Their perspective is different from mine, but because they’re my little brothers I get to understand them a little bit more. They had it a little bit better than I did so they think differently. My parents were established with them, so they don’t know a lot about the hardships that I incurred in my earlier life. So I wanted to make something that could reach a person like that and say have some knowledge of self and for them to wonder what is that, how do I get that, how do I achieve that? It’s a record about individuality and not conforming. We continuously stress the independence. We don’t want your record deals, we don’t wanna be a part of your industry, we wanna do our own thing. I think that’s gonna be the new economy – people doing their own thing and breaking away all of these chains. In order to do that they end to understand their identity.

TRHH: Speaking of the label, you guys released some pretty cool vinyl. Talk a little about the vinyl release of Knowledge of Self.

Phoniks: Since I’ve been 15 and started making beats it was always my dream to have my stuff on vinyl. Now every release we do it’s definitely a focus to get it out on wax. What we’ve been doing is collaborating with other vinyl labels. We’ve done three releases for our label so far and we’ve collaborated with a different label or distributor each time to do the wax. This time we did it with Dusty Platter which is a jazz-hop kind of label out of the UK. They did some cool stuff, it’s gonna be transparent blue vinyl.

Awon: The jackets are done heavier to accommodate Phoniks’ artwork because he designs everything. Throughout all of our projects there is also that personal touch of his design which is a very important part of what we do. Don’t Sleep, in our releases have similar themes embedded throughout the art work. Phoniks is the mastermind behind all that so I credit him a lot when it comes to the way our physical merchandise and products look.

TRHH: What’s your background in art, Phoniks?

Phoniks: I went to the University of Maine and I focused on graphic design there. I’ve just been into art and a computer nerd since I was 12 years old. I’ve literally been using Photoshop since I was 13. Since we started putting out all these records two years ago and I started doing art a lot more I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better.

TRHH: Are you guys gonna try and tour with this record?

Phoniks: We’re trying to. We’re getting e-mails pretty steadily of people saying, “Hey, we like your stuff, would you be interested in coming out here?” We get offers out of Europe; it’s just a matter of planning out the travel. It’s a little more different with me and A being in different parts of the country.

Awon: It seems to me that that’s going to happen. I’m confident about that, it’s just getting the right situation and getting with the right people and dealing with the travel. It’s something that we wanna do.

Phoniks: We definitely wanna make it over the Europe in the next year.

Awon: Yeah, because that’s where we have a lot of fans and our style of Hip-Hop is received well over there. It’ll definitely probably be Europe first and then try to break through in the states. The States is more festival-centric now as opposed to the individual shows. That’s something that I’m noticing as well – I wish it wasn’t that way. Usually everything is jumping out west – the Midwest and the West Coast. The East Coast is very uptight and corporate right now. We gotta get things back to an independent, innovative front over here. Everybody is just poppin’ in the Midwest and the West for some reason. It goes in cycles, you know?

TRHH: Yeah. I talked to Redman maybe five years ago and he was saying how it’s so much better for Hip-Hop in Europe.

Phoniks: If you talk to DJ Premier or any of the 90s cats they all say that Hip-Hop is best preserved overseas. That’s where they make all their bread now. That boom bap style is what’s prominent over there.

Awon: Especially in Germany. Germany is doing that to death right now. It’s just poppin’ over there. Paris too. Red Bull just did a documentary on the new scene in Paris. It’s a lot of creativity coming out of Europe and good music. We have our first European feature with Ivan Ave from Oslo, Norway on the album.

Phoniks: That’s like my favorite emcee right now, honestly.

TRHH: What do you hope to achieve with Knowledge of Self?

Phoniks: We want the record to be respected by fans. We want it to be critically acclaimed and we want to continue to grow our fan base and our brand.

Awon: I would second that. We’d like to receive critical acclaim from our fans, our peers, and critics alike. We’d also like to see growth and development. That’s where my expectations lie – making great music for people to enjoy. That’s the whole reason why we do what we do. We’re public servants, basically.

Purchase: Awon & Phoniks – Knowledge of Self

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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