Penny Shaw has much more to his name than what meets the eye. Half of the alias is best explained broken down by its two syllables , PEN-NY.
"I express myself through the Pen and everything I write is from my experience in NY."
The other half is explained by society's perceptions of a penny's worth. Penny tell us why mentally, he views the copper coin's value as gold.
"Not only is a penny the only brown coin among silver, but each is a foundation – the beginning. One cannot get to a nickel- far less a $100 bill, without a penny. We are all on a quest to find our own worth- some more than others."
The man himself sat down with EARMILK giving us a penny for our own thoughts. We discussed his latest project, Ill City Blues, the most inspirational of OG's behind his sound and what's up next.
The lyricist's cadence sounds like he is undoubtedly rooted in New York, with a relatively laid back Cali flow on some tracks and yet a Jamaican annunciation on others. Penny touches on the hard work it took to perfect Ill City Blues, giving us a little preface to his project.
"My brain is working 20 different ways. For my last project I wrote it, recorded it, wrote it, recorded it. For this project, I wrote it, scratched it out, re-recorded it. There are tracks that I wrote the verses for 3 or 4 times to test the waters. It was a lot of work."
Ill City Blues starts with a deep raspy voice of God – think less Morgan Freeman and more old-man on the block who has been there for 40 years straight – a man who nobody's sure if he's ever had a job, but for some reason he's the most trusted source of wisdom. Besides acting as soothing interludes, the voice of Old Man Lebern serves a much bigger part in the project.
"…he was really critical for the project, without him I was trying to see if people would understand it from my perspective. I need to make sure people understand how this flows from like questions, lies, a relationship, and then finish with happier songs like “Ghetto Heaven” & “Dollar Van."
On the second track,"Questions", Penny projects a sense of bravery by putting his insecurities out front. The indie-electro instrumental production booms with seamless transitions between a laid back vocal chorus and hard spitting verses. Some other cuts like "Lies" are more straightforward about betrayal in a relationship.
Track three really sounds like those OG laid back R&B jams from the 90's. The production sounds so much like Max B's song, "I Got A Habit", that I just had to ask Penny if he took this influence from the bay. Much to my dismay, it turns out that ContraBand, the producers of the project, are vinyl junkies that are constantly searching for old samples.
Next on the tape is "Make My Move", a society driven song that Penny claims to be most proud of.
"…you know a lot of people do songs about what the police are doing, and I definitely touch on that in there but I was more like, let's talk about doing things to each other and how we can do better, and I haven’t really heard anyone take that angle on a track so I really love that one."
Penny sounds low key new age Tupac on this track. He's got a slow but steady old school production with methodical piano keys playing in the background. He even plays off Pac's words rhyming, "that would be my biggest payback to the world, revenge is like the sweetest joy next to your girl."
After laying heavy topics on listeners for the first half of the project, Penny decided to incorporate an escape tune as the fifth track. He spits harder and faster with his bars on "Patrick Ewing" than what we've heard on part one of Ill City Blues.
"Patrick Ewing is just like yo, I just want to get away from all this shit. Give me a bottle, put me around my people so I can forget about my problems and just chill, enjoy life. But the harsh reality is, you still have to face all those problems at the end of the day."
The song itself is a mix between a turn up track and an after party anthem, but the only thing we know for sure is you're faded, just no one is confident in what time it is. He even gets a little Drake with it, pulling back the production and slowing down his vocals to act as a quaalude sample on the track.
Switching up the vibe completely, "Throgs Neck Bridge" hits hard on some progressive Kdot sound. He even collaborated with female rapper Kimmy IV, giving this song a darker biggie-lil kim feel. Penny told EARMILK, "I wanted a track he could really spazz on. There are a lot of people out there who rap, but I need to let them know that I really really rap, it’s not a game."
Finishing off the album are two of the more uplifting tracks. The second to last track, "Ghetto Heaven" sounds a lot like a long lost ending to "Thugz Mansion." The production starts with an electric guitar echoing in the background, but the real gem is the pluck of the acoustic guitar that weeps into the song and carries the rhythm for the rest of the tune. He even mentions when he meets Pac, that he's going to play him this remix. There is a consistent thread of hints of Tupac and Biggie throughout Ill City Blues, so we asked him about his major influences, the OG MCs that influence his sound. Being an east coast native, Penny says he knew of Biggie first, but there were other lyricists that really made him feel something.
"There are only two rappers to me that give you that raw emotion. Pac could say a regular ass sentence and you can feel that shit. Like, “I was walking to the store” and I’d probably be like DAMN, YOU WAS WALKING TO THE STORE. So I grew to understand Pac more. It’s really Pac and DMX, the emotion that those guys have in their records is crazy to me. I really love listening to the OG sound, it's so timeless."
Speaking of timeless, Penny sound is nothing but immortal. The last track on the project, and my personal favorite, is a perfect ending to his story. The song has reggae horns in the production, a pluck from a guitar that is reminiscent of Santana and features buttery rich vocals from Iman Europe.
"My parents are both Jamaican. Growing up my pops had this huge vinyl collection, that was my first introduction to music through this old school reggae songs, and I think that’s really where my love for music came from. As I’ve developed my craft more and more, I’ll throw in a Jamaican phrase here and there."
Iman Europe and Penny linked from both recording in the same studio in NY. Initially, Iman said this track reminded her of white yachts but another homie said it reminded him of a track that would play in the back of a dollar van. So they combined the two by using the richness in the production and rooted the lyrics and flow in a dollar van feel. Penny let us in on a little secret. Every single track is going to have a video and "Dollar Van" is going to be the last one. He said, "If we did Dollar Van we couldn’t do it in the US. We would have to go to Jamaica, if we haven't already, and do the real deal."
Watch out for behind the scenes videos for each song. There will be a 12 episode series where Penny discusses his favorite songs, the producers have episodes where they are making beats for the project and other features come in and talk about the process of making the project. "I have put so much work into this project, I'm so excited because now people get the see the raw footage."
Check out the short film for Ill City Blues below: