Be careful what you say around Elbee Thrie. He might be recording you.
“Let’s say I have somewhere to go,” he says. “I’ll just record the audio of my trip from point A to point B.”
You won’t know he’s recording.
“It alters if people are conscious that they’re being recorded.”
But the musician doesn’t do much with the recordings. He just enjoys them himself, and “appreciates.” “If you listen, people will talk,” he says. “Things will happen. Life will happen. I just capture that sound.”
Life is happening right now for Thrie. And much of that life has to do with sound. He’s the 20-year-old frontman of Phony Ppl, the Bed-Stuy collective of rappers and musicians who create a jazzy, funky, fluttery sound built upon beats that recall early Tribe. His band will spend the summer in a three-month-long residence at Brooklyn Bowl, and he’ll release his debut album, 53,000, on May 30.
But right now? Thrie ain’t recording; he’s bouncing. On a recent afternoon at Brooklyn Bowl for soundcheck, he sports a purple Patagonia fleece, skinny jeans, and brown sneakers. A cassette tied to a string dangles around his neck, his long dreadlocks gathered in a loose ponytail. Music swallows him, and he hovers from one side of the stage to the next. He stretches out his arms, twirls, and leans his head back. “I feel sorry, I feel sorry for myself,” he smoothly croons. He and the rest of the band are seemingly lost in the music. But suddenly, he stops: “Cut that,” he says, chopping at his neck with his hand. He tells the sound guy to adjust some levels, add some reverb, and they’ll try it again. He wants to get this perfect. He wants to get this right for the night.
This moment, and the evening’s performance, may seem like beginning of a lengthy career, that time in a few years people will point to and say, “This is when it began.” But the reality is, Elbee Thrie’s been preparing for this since he the day he was born. Or at least since he was two. “My mom told me I was too little to actually pick up a bass guitar,” he chuckles as he remembers. “I was so small, I’d leave it in the stand and play it upright.”
In the greenroom of Brooklyn Bowl—a tiny, attic-like space with crooked walls that make standing upright a challenge—Thrie sits by the window, explaining his upbringing, sunshine lighting up his face. His bandmates tuck themselves in the opposite corner of the room, sharing raucous stories with each other about tour life, but Thrie is in a different state. His demeanor is reserved and smooth, not unlike the way he carries himself on stage. A vegan now, he chooses words carefully, precisely, aware of not only what he reveals, but how it’s conveyed.
Speaking slowly, Thrie tells me about when his parents separated when he was six. It was a challenge, he notes, and his father moved to Long Island. His mother eventually remarried, and Thrie kept his nose to the ground… or, well, the piano. “I always wrote. I always had ideas,” he says. “I remember being a really young age, like six or seven or eight, and just making up things on the piano.” Thrie went on to attend special music programs through Julliard on the weekends. When speaking about his childhood, more than one person around Thrie throws around the term “prodigy.”
But marital issues between parents often bring struggles for children, and it was no different for Thrie. His home life was rigid and religious, and he even played drums at church. He broke out of that when he ran away at age 16. And even though he was only gone for seven days, “It was so relaxing,” he recalls.
He took the revelations of his time free of responsibilities, and refocused on studies and music. Thrie spent most of his high school career at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, a place that has birthed other rising stars in the hip-hop game, such as Joey Bada$$ and the late Capital STEEZ. He began working on Phony Ppl there, and reflecting on that time has taught him much about himself.
“It’s like a snake shedding a layer,” he says, looking out the circle window. “And just growing. How do I feel about it? I feel like I see the growth, me then versus me now. I’m still growing. I’m not on top of the world. I’m still learning. I’m still here in this journey.”
The journey of Phony Ppl is just starting, but Thrie is confident while remaining humble, not easy for someone just out of his teens. He speaks about where his ideas for music come from, sounding years wiser still. “I create music at the speed I live life,” he says. “I can use my imagination, but when there’s something that I’m really feeling, I want to flip that into some audio. That’s part of the push. Some pain. That’s the gas, the fuel.”
Elbee Thrie’s ‘53,000’ is out May 30
Catch Phony Ppl the first Wednesday of every month at the Brooklyn Bowl this summer.