Being born into one of Philadelphia’s iconic music families could prove daunting for an artist trying to make their own mark on the industry.
But Donn T, the daughter of the late Lee Andrews Thompson (Lee Andrews & the Hearts) and sister to Amir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson (The Roots), has always tried to remain in her “own lane” when it comes to her music. Among Donn T’s many achievements, she has penned a book, Behind the Music, and has worked with the likes of Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Common and Jill Scott. In 2010, Donn T launched her debut album, Kaleidoscope, in London — a location she hoped would create some spatial distance for her to flourish on her own.
“My heart is always going to be in Philadelphia because I’m from a Philadelphia music legacy,” said Donn T from her high-rise apartment that overlooks the Delaware River. “The Thompson name and Philadelphia meant so much, and for me I wanted to explore what that meant outside, disconnected from the city you know.”
Flying back to her musical coop of Philly, Donn T paired with local artist Chill Moody to form &More, an R&B and hip-hop group. The homegrown duo first performed together at the Roots Jam Session last year in Gramercy, New York and are presently on tour to promote their debut album Ethel Bobcat, set to drop on April 5.
Whether the duo will play at Questlove’s annual The Roots Picnic at Festival Pier in Penn’s Landing cannot be confirmed as of yet, but judging from Chill Moody’s grin, the gig is likely to become an addition to their jam-packed calendar. &More can report that they will be performing at Johnny Brenda’s (1201 Frankford Ave) in Fishtown on April 26.
Sitting on the couch next to Donn T, Chill Moody explained that unlike his musical counterpart, he has kept his feet more firmly in the city as he built his career. Appointed by City Council as Philly’s official musical ambassador, Chill Moody said he is committed to strengthening the inner-city music scene so that leaving to make it big is “a choice, not an inevitability.”
“I was the kid that sat in an auditorium in high school where they told me, ‘You know Will Smith sat in that same seat’ or ‘Wilt Chamberlain sat in that same seat,’ explained Chill Moody, who attended Overbrook High. “One day, another kid will be saying, ‘Chill Moody sat in that seat and he built stuff here. He was able to stay here, build infrastructure here, build [an] industry here and make it so you didn’t have to leave to make it.’”
Taking different routes to get where they are, the two West Philly-born artists met at a Grammy party in 2016. Already fans of each other’s music, they chatted about working together in the near future. While collaboration is common small talk among artists, Chill Moody and Donn T followed up immediately after the party, recognizing their similar sound and mission.
“Our styles are similar, in the sense that we use what we feel and put it in the music. We use what we see, what we’re around,” explained Chill Moody, who added that &More is already working on its second album. “We talk about anything from social issues to heartbreak or whatever, but we put it in the music … it’ll be a conversation that turns into a song.”
Their collaborative process can be challenging at times due to their alpha personalities but can be magical at others. In a Mad Lib style, Donn T will often send Chill Moody lyrics with incomplete phrases and thoughts for him to fill in.
Many songs in Ethel Bobcat maintain a social consciousness that veers into the political, such as “WHOA,” which satirizes the news cycle, and “4Ever 1st Lady,” which pays tribute to former First Lady Michelle Obama. But both Chill Moody and Donn T favor “Future Come Around” for its more ambiguous message that allows listeners to judge on the meaning for themselves.
“I think that’s what music should do,” said Chill Moody on imbuing larger and current themes into his work. “If you’re on a platform, you should be speaking on something worth the platform that you’re standing on.”
“And it absolutely has to now,” added Donn T. “Music has to speak to culture right now. Creativity and art [are what’s] gonna save us.”
Hanging on the wall in the living room of Donn T’s apartment is a white, distressed ampersand, a nod to the group’s name. She explained that the group’s title comes from a nickname she had for a childhood friend with an exceptionally long name, who could not speak English and had autism. Donn T still remembers the boy rescuing her as a child, after her hand got trapped underneath a weighty grate that she was trying to lift in order to retrieve a dime.
“Up until this time I was kind of his little angel,” Donn T said of the boy who would follow her around. “I didn’t know if he had the wherewithal to be able to run home and get my parents and bring them back, but he was just so clear minded. And he was like an antihero.”
The concept of the antihero or the unlikely hero is one that influenced not only the group’s name, but also the name of their first record. Both adamant about energizing and improving their communities, the duo used the fictitious character of Ethel Bobcat to pay tribute to past local leaders who would unite the people.
“[Ethel Bobcat is] the character in the community that looked out for the community and gave you what you needed when you needed it,” explained Donn T. “Whether it was a warm meal, whether it was advice. Sometimes she was political, sometimes she was just loving, sometimes she put you in your place.”
Both artists noted that today’s communities lack that type of “hero or protector” and have consequently suffered. Filling in for that absent archetype, the album is devised to guide the way and to ignite a generation to action.
“We need help, we need a savior, we some type of spark to start some type of movement within society,” said Chill Moody. “The album overall is a spark to start something, whether it might start a conversation, or it might start a protest, or might start a riot, or…”
“It might start love,” added Donn T.