TiRon & Ayomari Are The Best Duo You Never Heard Of
Sitting in the dingy basement green room in the Brooklyn location of underground rap haven The Knitting Factory, Tiron Jeffries, better known by just his first name, takes a lingering look at the wall of signatures inked by everyone who has performed there. It is an unwritten rite of passage to sell out a show at either SOBs or The Knitting Factory in New York City to ascend to mainstream player from underground rap sensation. Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, and Big Sean among others, have all used one in a handful of Marks-A-Lot permanent markers to leave their mark on underground hip-hop history.
While looking for space to sign, Tiron suddenly becomes self-aware. “I don’t think we could be any more of a cliché right now,” he suggests to his partner, Omari “Ayomari” Allen, as he passes him a blunt the size of an average man’s index finger. “Two rappers smoking tree in a green room contemplating their future.” Ayomari takes Jeffries’ statement as a challenge. He shimmies his pants down just far enough before they fall down completely, cocks his Atlanta Braves snapback sideways, and mimes gripping a gun upright before turning his palm down as if the gun were horizontal, aimed at Tiron. “How about now you mark-ass buster,” Ayomari poses in what he calls his “California gangster” accent. “I guess I was wrong,” Tiron replies after a laugh and affirmative head nod. “People are going to see how different we are sooner or later though. We got something for that ass.”
A stage manager gives the duo a 10-minute warning, and the jovial atmosphere is overtaken by a sober focus with a tense energy. They step on stage in front of a meager crowd which doesn’t come close to filling The Knitting Factory’s small capacity of 200. The modest, self-conscious jokesters transform into confident commanders of attention. It is clear the audience knows only a few of the lyrics from their verses, but hooks become raucous sing-alongs and almost no one is still during any point of a song. Their banter between songs has the easy cadence of a stand-up comedy routine, and aptly receives a good number of laughs. But the crowd also quiets when they wish to “get deep” or share a story that inspired a specific song. The crowd is theirs on this night, and it seems it would be that way every night.
Tiron & Ayomari are not well known by any standard, but it is more than likely you’ve heard a song they’ve produced in the past five years. The duo has worked with Drake, J. Cole, Common, Big Sean, Chance the Rapper, Ludacris, Big K.R.I.T., YG, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, and even have a credit on Kanye West’s “All Day” (although West handed those out like Halloween candy). They have placements on four of the 10 rap albums with the highest debut sales weeks this year, infusing the clever multi-genre blending characteristic of their music with the popular sounds that are ruling airwaves, iPods, and iPhones. Those one or two songs on the more popular rap albums that feel experimental or like a departure for an artist could very well come from Tiron & Ayomari. The infectiously groovy synths on Ludacris’ “Get Lit” off of Ludaversal are Tiron’s. Much of the digital counterbalance to all of the live instruments on Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap belongs to the duo.
The music they create for themselves is precisely that. Though their songs are made with the intent to reach as many people as possible, it is not made to be popular. Their first self-released album as a duo, A Sucker For Pumps (2011), is what earned them notice within the hip-hop community. The duo dubbed the sound on this album “urban Americana,” pulling from multiple genres of American music to achieve a cohesiveness that has eluded many other artists. The sweeping flourishes of classical violins and grand pianos on “Her Theme Song” are situated comfortably next to Clyde Stubblefield’s (of James Brown’s band) classic drum breaks repurposed on “M.F.G.,” and 10 tracks away from the indie pop leanings of “Lot On Your Mind” – all coalescing into an intriguing and deceptively penetrating exploration of love and relationships.
Their sound evolved on 2015’s The Great New Wonderful, becoming more refined with more deliberate changes in tempo, genre, and feel, often mid-song, to create a wonderfully controlled commotion. The main unifier between the albums is the spirit and motivation behind their creation. The duo hopes that the music they make for their ears will organically resonate with people instead of adjusting their sound to meet a radio-ready standard. “I don’t understand why people just aren’t themselves in their music,” says Ayomari. “The one thing no one else in the world can be is you. If you can capture that through music, then why mold it into something that hundreds of other people can make?”
A few days after the show, Tiron & Ayomari are sitting in their makeshift New York studio space wondering if their session will come together successfully. “I kind of feel like we stole a bunch of parts to build Frankenstein,” says Tiron. “Now that we’re about to flip the switch and hit him with lightning, or electricity, or whatever I don’t know if it’s going to come alive.”
Normally based in Los Angeles, Tiron & Ayomari are in New York for two weeks to expand their sound and fan base. As every move they make career-wise, this expansion is painstakingly calculated. Combining resources from several different contacts, they’ve managed to set up a studio to their exact specifications. Creating the perfect environment is paramount as the duo often combines live and digital instruments along with the traditional element of sampling from an electronic keyboard or an MPC (music production center) – all on one song.
Currently the live instruments and seven bodies they requested from underground hip-hop/R&B jam band Phony Ppl occupy about three-quarters of the Red Hook, Brooklyn industrial-meets-creative space the band has graciously lent to the duo. The gleaming metals and colorful embellishments on the guitars, chrome drum set, and brass instruments are stark contrasts to the muted grey walls their sounds will reverberate off of.
For the sampling and digital instruments, they convince up-and-comer Thelonius Martin -- a New Jersey-based producer known for his precise sampling and ability to pick obscure loops -- to trek from Jersey to Brooklyn with his equipment in tow. He’s late, as the journey from Jersey to Red hook involves a few different train lines and toting five drum machines doesn’t quite expedite things.
Once all requested bodies and equipment are present and assembled, the atmosphere is electric…and acoustic, and jazzy, and new wave, and indie rock, and folky, and just as chaotic as all that sounds. Tiron restores order in a familiar fashion, he quiets the group and simply asks, “What’s good with everybody?” He and Ayomari start each of their studio sessions with a simple conversation, and create based on what surfaces during that conversation. “I hate when artists want to so-called collaborate with us and ask us to e-mail them beats,” says Tiron. “We need to know where your head is at, what’s been on your mind, see if can identify with it, and then capture it in the music. We don’t care if you wrote the hottest sixteen ever. If it doesn’t fit our song and where we’re at in that moment, we don’t want it.”
As conversation tends to do in a room full of men or women, even supremely talented ones, it veers to the opposite sex. Several of the artists are dabbling in the phone app dating world and trade stories which leads to them voicing their frustrations about the meaningless faux interactions that fail to result in anything short or long term. “I’ll never understand how people can settle for getting to know each other with their thumbs through a rectangle nowadays,“ says Martin. “How can you just talk to someone one day and then have them never be a part of your life?” wonders Elbee Thrie of Phony Ppl. “Why does no one ever look like their picture?” wonders drummer Matt Byas. “Let’s write it out,” Tiron suggests. “That’s what we’re supposed to do right? Let’s put it into the music.” Then and there what is to become Tiron and Ayomari’s “Numb Thumbs” begins to take shape.
The writers withdraw into themselves scribbling into notepads and thumbing lines into their phones. The instrumentalists and beat makers begin to play around with chords, sounds, and patterns for melodies. The room begins to naturally divide into two factions, but Ayomari brings everyone back together. “When me and Ronnie work we keep an eye on what each other are doing,” says Ayomari. “That way we can feed off of each other’s energy and constantly try to best each other if one of us feels like we aren’t coming correct.” After a little over 10 hours, several arguments, and many direction changes, a rough version of “Numb Thumbs” is complete. A song driven by a whomping, funky bassline laid by Bari Bass of Phony Ppl, percussive claps programmed by Tiron, an electric guitar solo from Elijah Rawk of Phony Ppl, a faint, but punctuating sample of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” from Martin, and playful, yet pensive verses from Tiron, Ayomari, and Elbie Thrie.
Knowing Tiron & Ayomari, “Numb Thumbs” will most likely be tweaked numerous times and wind up on an album three or four years from now, but it will be polished. The duo doesn’t have a specific album concept in mind, but this session seems to have left an indelible impression on their confidence in their process moving forward. “Shit,” says Tiron. “We might have to just do this in like 10 different cities and make like a traveling album or a compilation. That would be dope.”
Tiron & Ayomari haven’t always had their methods and philosophies in sync. Though they have had an inexplicable “sibling like” bond for as long as they can remember, in 2004 they were in the last year of their teens figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives. Tiron was living in Chicago with his mother, Mae Jacobs, while Ayomari was in school at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The two would develop a friendship online through YahooTalk and their contrarian attitudes toward the popular AOL Instant Messenger. Tiron moved to Los Angeles in 2005 to pursue his music career against his mother’s wishes. “It was really hard for me to let him go,” says Jacobs. “Him being so far away so young without any stability was not how I pictured him leaving my home, but he hasn’t asked me for anything since he left.”
The two continued to keep in touch through their Myspace pages after deciding to switch because they upload their music and listen to each other’s tracks. “My homies at school thought I was weird,” said Ayomari. “I had this dude in my top eight that I have never even met in person. I remember almost getting into a fist fight with one of my friends because I wouldn’t give him Ronnie’s spot [laughs].”
In 2006, the two would finally meet after Ayomari dropped out of school and moved to Los Angeles to live with Tiron and work on music. The choice baffled his family and friends, but he recalls no one being as livid as his mother, Debra Allen. “At the time I thought he had lost his mind,” said Allen. “I thought it was the most asinine decision ever made, and he had to be a goddamned fool to move in with someone he didn’t know without a job. But he was going to do it no matter how much I fought it, so I supported him reluctantly after a while.” Tiron and Ayomari would work together on three solo mixtapes that they now dub “the condiment series.” Tiron’s Ketchup (2009) and MSTRD (2010), and Ayomari’s PB&J Solution (2010) before officially linking as a duo in 2011 for their most popular and critically acclaimed album, A Sucker For Pumps.
The five years between the two meeting and their first project is an indicator of how they work as a duo today. Tiron and Ayomari work slowly, but deliberately. Almost half of the tracks on their latest album The Great New Wonderful, which dropped earlier this year, took them three years to hone and perfect. This slow-simmering approach to making music and completing projects came about only after the two rappers/producers officially became a duo. As solo artists they released three projects in a 2-year span, but working together and having equal input in the outcome made them develop the methods and ideology that they abide by today. “Working with Ayomari completely changed how I think about music,” says Tiron. “We obviously had similar tastes and tendencies, but when you have someone who thinks so much like you and is adamant about something being tweaked or changed completely, you listen more. I’ve learned a lot from him in these 11 years as friends, and I think he would say the same of me.”
It’s the last day of Tiron & Ayomari’s trip to New York. They fly out early the next morning on a red-eye back to LA. The duo has their tourist hats on instead of thinking about what’s coming up next and how fruitful their East Coast adventure was. Watching them in simple interactions is reminiscent of watching close siblings.
Tiron & Ayomari have definitely matured together as siblings do. Perfecting the creative direction of their sound has enabled them to define their goals more clearly outside of just the music itself. Although the duo is still looking to sign with a major label “if the paper is right,” they are content in staying on their own independent label, The Cafeteria Line. The two acquired a lot of hands-on experience with the business aspect of music after working with a few artists early on and not receiving their proper share of the profits. Tiron enrolled in a UCLA Extension course entitled “The Biz of the Music Biz” and passed on what he learned about licensing, copyrights, publishing, distribution, and other important aspects of the music business to Ayomari.
The life of the underground rapper seems much cooler than it actually is, but Tiron and Ayomari have managed to support themselves solely off of their music, and opportunities that arise from it, since officially becoming a duo. They have had their music placed in films and television shows, and have even collaborated with clothing brands from up-and-coming designers to denim juggernaut Levi’s, contributing songs to video lookbooks and ad campaigns.
No matter what they do, it must fit with what they would normally do as artists. After seeing so much change in the music industry both as consumers and as artists, Tiron and Ayomari understand the freedom that comes with being independent and they hold their artistic integrity to a very high standard. “Honestly the only thing record labels are good for now is marketing, and their connections with venues to set up tours,” says Tiron. “Marketing can be as simple now as a video going viral on YouTube and you riding a wave off of that. Connection with venues can be developed over time, and if you are very familiar with a venue and the type of people they want to fill their space with, that can go a long way. We don’t necessarily need to sign with a major. I think they are going to be obsolete within the next 10 years anyway.” Ayomari wavers a bit more in his conviction, but as usual they are on the same page. “I love to have health benefits,” says Ayomari. “But honestly I’m young, and if it comes down to it I can go back to working a more stable job while I do music. We’ve been lucky to just make music for this long. I’m all for the independent hustle right now if it means we have complete control over our music.”
Their business savvy has the near future busy for Tiron & Ayomari upon their return to LA. They have studio sessions booked with ScHoolboy Q, NxWorries, Flying Lotus, and Earl Sweatshirt. They will hit the studio for their own follow up to The Great New Wonderful still in its fledgling developmental stages. They have shows to attend for artists they are looking to sign to The Cafeteria Line. They have meetings for the new Cafeteria Line merchandise they want to have up on the label’s site by next spring. The final designs for the patterns and samples for their clothing line T&A must be approved in two weeks in order to coincide with the Fairfax streetwear strips winter collection restock.
But for now, all of that can wait. In this moment, they are just two of 8 million finding their way in a city that can be a labyrinth disguised as a grid. They navigate crowds on the narrow sidewalks of SoHo with DSLR cameras around their necks stopping at all of the boutiques they want to hit for some last-minute shopping. They hit Taim, the falafel spot their friends recommended back home. They walk over to the High Line and wander in and out of a few Chelsea galleries. They are slowly checking off a list about 50 entries long as they worked the entire trip and left their sight-seeing for the last minute. “We’re never going to hit everything,” says Tiron. “So what,” says Ayomari. “We don’t need to see everything, let’s just take our time and enjoy ourselves. We’ll get where we’ve got to go.”