It’s appropriate that there’s an ampersand right there at the beginning of the band name of &More, the Philadelphia soul and hip-hop duo consisting of singer Donn T and rapper Chill Moody.
That’s because &More, which has just released their debut album, Ethel Bobcat, is a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts merger of two Philadelphia musical entities.
The group will celebrate the release with a show at Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown on Friday, April 26, and will be back in town at the Roots Picnic at the Mann Center on June 1.
Donn T is a songwriter and vocalist with two solo albums to her name, 2010’s Kaleidoscopic and 2015’s The Flight of the Donn T.
Donn, whose last name is Thompson, is also a member of a Philly music royal family: Her father was the leader of Philly doo-wop legends Lee Andrews & the Hearts. Her mother, Jacqui Andrews, sang with her dad in vocal group Congress Alley. And, oh, yeah, her little brother Ahmir? He’s better known as Questlove.
Chill Moody has an attention-getting resumé of his own as a hustling indie rapper, entrepreneur, and behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. He has his own nicethings record label, clothing line, and beer — a Nicethings IPA that’s a collaboration with Dock Street Brewery.
Philadelphia councilman at large David Oh appointed Moody to a position as music ambassador for the city. One practical goal on his agenda: Making sure venues have parking loading zones out front. He’s hyped the 215 at the SXSW festival in Austin and books daytime talent at the Wawa Welcome America festival on July 4. (Formerly the Questlove stage, it’s now the Chill Moody stage.)
But though the two artists were born and raised in West Philadelphia — Donn grew up at 52nd and Osage; Chill is from 56th and Lansdowne — they had never met until they bumped into each other at the bar at a holiday party thrown by the local chapter of the Recording Academy in 2016.
After exchanging “I’m a fan” pleasantries, they suggested they should work together, as musicians meeting at mixers do.
The difference? “I really meant it, and she really meant it,” says Moody.
They first got together in the studio for “Clear,” a song released in 2017 as a Donn T (featuring Chill Moody) single.
Thompson had written an essay for a young-adult book called Behind the Song, inspired by Amy Winehouse’s “October Song.”
She was looking to record a companion piece. “My Dad had just passed, and out of that experience of grieving, I had this one song, ‘Clear.’ I thought it would be a cool thing for Chill to be a part of it.”
There was a connection. “We vibed, we jelled,” Thompson says. “We had a certain chemistry.” For Moody, it was a chance “to sound all the way Philly, to go deeper in my bag. Speak a little more profoundly in my lyrics.”
Thompson says, “I was really curious about the way we were completing each other’s sentences … I felt safe in that type of songwriting relationship. I just thought: We should be a band.”
That started to happen with “Gravity,” the next track. “That was, we’re bigger than a song. We’re an idea,” Thompson says.
That idea was Ethel Bobcat, a fictitious name for a treasured character city kids would be fortunate to have living next door, or down the street.
As hip-hop poet J. Ivy puts it in a spoken intro on the album, which is released jointly on Thompson’s D-tone Victorious and Moody’s nicethingsMUSIC: “This is a story, a testimony to a woman we all love … She prayed for us / If we were hungry, she made sure a meal was made for us.”
“There was a void in music I was feeling at the time,” says Moody, “of people not talking about the pressures of what was going on in the world. And I was also feeling a void of it not coming from the old heads, because there was no Ethel Bobcat in the neighborhood that you could talk to about your problems anymore … I can’t say things were better then, when she was around. But when she was there, at least we were talking about making things better.”
One of the first songs &More wrote together was “4Ever 1st Lady,” a tribute to Michelle Obama produced by Jake Morelli, Thompson’s guitarist husband. Donn T came up with the vocal hook — "Go high when they go low” — and sang it to Moody over the phone.
The duo first performed the song in May 2018 at the Wells Fargo Center when Obama appeared there on College Signing Day, and &More essentially opened for her. The former first lady recognized his bandmate, Moody takes great pleasure in pointing out, because she had seen Donn T on TV.
In 2012, Thompson starred in an episode of Say Yes to the Dress, the TLC show in which brides-to-be seek out the perfect wedding dress at Kleinfeld Bridal in Manhattan. Thompson, who calls herself “so nontraditional” stylewise, went to the shop at the urging of her future husband’s daughter. The episode is seven years old, but it’s often repeated, leading strangers to frequently congratulate Thompson on her impending nuptials.
Thompson’s SYTTD episode also featured an appearance by Questlove (who gifted her the wedding dress). And the fame of the leader of The Tonight Show band ever increases — the drummer is now a vegetarian cheesesteak mogul — but that doesn’t really affect their sibling relationship.
“I love my brother. I’m proud of everything he’s accomplished and that he continues our family legacy. There’s tremendous pride that I have there. But on a personal level,” she says with a laugh, “we’re brother and sister. We get on each other’s nerves sometimes.”
&More came up with their unorthodox name as the band was coming together. “We were speaking on music festivals, envisioning ourselves playing them,” Moody says. With a sound that blends elements of hip-hop, R&B, and rock, the duo imagined themselves at fests as diverse as Coachella, the Essence Festival in New Orleans, and Brooklyn’s Afro-Punk. “And if you look at the band names on the actual fliers, they all say ‘& more’ at the end.”
Moody’s given name is Eric, but he’s been called Chill by everyone, including his parents, since he was an infant who wouldn’t stop crying unless he could watch Chilly Willy, the animated penguin on The New Woody Woodpecker Show.
Early on in his rap career, though, the Millersville University graduate talked tough, going by names like Tag, an acronym for “The A-Block Gangsta,” named after West Philly’s Allison Street.
“I was rapping to gain favor. I wanted to fit in with my older cousins,” he recalls. “I was selling this, shooting that. Then my cousin was like, ‘Yo, you got to be yourself. Tell who Chill Moody is.'”
The positivity that now courses through Moody’s music as a solo artist, coupled with Donn T’s warm, soulful vocals, runs through Ethel Bobcat. On the lead track, “My Own Light," Thompson’s mother looks regal in a rocking chair in the middle of a West Philly street, playing the album’s title character in a video directed by Aaron Lemle.
On “Whoa,” a song inspired by Angie Thomas’ best-selling YA novel The Hate U Give, Donn T plays a news anchor and Moody a rapping reporter. Public Enemy’s Chuck D drops a guest verse, shouting out the album’s title character as “Mother warrior, matriarch from way back.”
Donn T says the duo settled on Ethel Bobcat because the name conveyed wisdom, but also the feline instincts necessary for survival in times of trouble.
“I liked the name Ethel, because it sounds warm,” the singer says. “And Bobcat sounded fierce. And you don’t necessarily know the bobcat is coming.
“What’s interesting about Ethel Bobcat being there in the community, and then leaving,” she says, “is that she was a savior. And who saves us now? That’s the question. And the answer to that is we all save ourselves.”