At this point in hip-hop’s half-century evolution, it’s practically tradition for artists to pack their projects with guest features. But on Spaceships & Dreams, the debut album from Megan Piphus, the verses, hooks and vamps are spread among such an array of voices that it’s actually credited to a group: May & Them Pups.
Sure, emcees (spoken word specialist J Ivy and laidback Nashville rhymer Brian Brown), funk and soul standard-setters (Bootsy Collins and Anthony Hamilton) and a gospel choir appear on various tracks, but Piphus herself inhabits far more roles than Nicki Minaj did in her peak alter ego era. And Piphus’s album, like much of her other work, is aimed at kids. In 2021, she became the first Black woman puppeteer in the Sesame Street cast.
On a bop called “Make U Proud,” Piphus sings agile, theatrical lead, flanked by a chorus of voices that, she estimates, was two-thirds real, live kids and otherwise comprised of youthful voices she dreamed up. “I first envisioned a children’s choir and who the children’s choir members are,” she says. “I imagined there’s a young girl and she hasn’t fully established all of her vocal control, but has a light and airy voice. And then the next track, I thought, ‘Okay, there’s maybe a little older kid, an older boy in the choir.’”
For other songs, like “Problems & Answers” – a reassuring lesson in resilience set to a bass-heavy beat – she pulls a unique kind of double duty, singing both as herself, all feathery vibrato and elegant phrasing, and a precocious five-year-old puppet named Baby Junebug. To make it feel like Junebug is dueting with Ivy, she sat on the floor with her microphone, and positioned Junebug above her, with his own mic just for effect. “It really helped,” she says of incorporating the plush puppet into the session. “And we got very natural interaction between Junebug and J Ivy. J was looking directly into Junebug’s eyes, instead of looking at me, while we were recording.”
For Piphus, puppetry and musicianship have been intertwined since she was a bashful 10-year-old in a Cincinnati suburb. “My dad was the pastor at church and also the music minister and choir director,” she explains. “So I had opportunities to sing in the church choir and dance on the church’s praise team, but I never really felt comfortable in my own skin. When I started puppetry, I realized that I could sing through the puppet, and I felt so much more comfortable with the attention being on the puppet than myself. I really began to find my own voice and my own confidence through puppetry.”
She stuck with it through her teens, and even used ventriloquism in her valedictorian speech at the request of her high school principal. After moving to Nashville to study at Vanderbilt, she crammed in an audition for “America’s Got Talent” during spring break. She did “Showtime at the Apollo,” international talent shows and charity events too, and dabbled in children’s music, teaming up with Bootsy Collins to create songs on the basics of financial literacy for a university-sponsored program.
Though Piphus went on to complete a masters in finance and launch a real estate career, she never abandoned her performing ambitions. Three full years after sending in her audition tape, she finally heard that Sesame Street was interested, and joined the cast in 2021 as the puppeteer behind pigtailed, six-year-old Gabrielle.
Producer Sir the Baptist, a driving force behind last year’s Grammy-winning HBCU marching band gospel album, stumbled onto clips and mentions of Piphus while searching for puppet content for his own kid. “When I found out that she was the first Black female puppeteer on Sesame Street,” he remembers, “I was just like, ‘It’s time to go.’ Most of what I look for as a producer is the first of something, someone that’s required to trailblaze.”
He was even more convinced that Piphus had an album in her when he learned that she was a classically trained singer and songwriter, who also knew her way around recording software – and that she’d worked with Collins, who was willing to pitch in as co-producer (and ultimately released the album on his small label Bootzilla).
In the past, Piphus had posted videos of herself playing originals on piano and spoken of her desire to make an album some day. But she wasn’t sure what sort of project it would be. “I think I really needed help forming a vision,” she says.
The songs on Spaceships & Dreams began to take shape as Sir and Piphus got back in touch with their musical roots and playful, younger selves. As Sir puts it, they were “almost reliving our childhood moments together to write. We’re sitting down and we’re imagining so hard that we’re able to zone in into the details: ‘What color was the leaf when it was falling from the tree?’”
They built the music around bright, snappy hip-hop production and beatmaking. But over the course of seven tracks, they and Collins, who often contributed remotely, also range through numerous forms of Black musical innovation that have laid groundwork for or supplied ingredients to hip-hop: classic and contemporary gospel, doo-wop, swinging jazz and futuristic electro-funk. Piphus’s penchant for vivid articulation also lends her performances a Broadway quality.
“I did want that type of spirit that had a lot of soul, a lot of depth,” says Sir, “but also music that can be played with muppets or puppets or whatever.” He watched part of The Wiz, the all-Black musical reimagining of The Wizard of Oz with a soundtrack produced by Quincy Jones, while he was collecting inspiration. The goal, Sir notes, was creating a sonic identity that has “that rich Blackness to it, to where it stays so cultural, to where you feel like a kid again.”
“But it’s also musical enough for you as a mature adult,” he specifies, “because sometimes children’s music can just be repetitive.”
Piphus offers an example of the freedom they allowed themselves to try things: one track, a jaunty rendition of the gospel hymn “Highway to Heaven,” began with the sound of an old ice cream truck and morphed into a ragtime piano romp.
To record some of the vocals, Sir and Piphus returned to a studio at her childhood church, where, Sir recalls, both her father, Pastor Freddie T. Piphus, and her father’s longtime friend, gospel legend Donald Lawrence, helped advise the younger Piphus on which parts of her vocal range to accentuate. Finding her own expressive voice amidst the multitude of characters she was bringing to life was the greatest challenge.
“When she gets into those characters, I step out the way,” Sir relates. “Because she has a clear vision for how that personality would respond. But I’m really focused on almost restructuring the way she would naturally perform.”
Piphus has spent most of her life refining her ventriloquism technique, which requires her to speak and sing while maintaining the illusion that she’s not using her mouth. As a result, says Sir, “She had to untrain herself from not using her face muscles and bone structure, and then use it to project and for diction.”
Once they released the album in September, Piphus got gratifying feedback: “There’s a lot of adults without kids, who listen to the album, which is really cool and I wasn’t expecting that.”
But the ultimate test was playing it for her two young sons, Leo and Ty. “They are young,” she says, “but they have very sophisticated taste. Their favorite music is actually scores from films. They listen to symphony music and can hear the parts, the instrumentation broken down, and sing it back to me. So they are very harsh and honest critics.”
The track that really got them dancing was “Every Lyric Has a Home,” a funky celebration of the delight parents take in their kids. The track opens with banter between Piphus and a flamboyant Collins, and her sons also have features. “You can hear their little voices,” she says, “at the very, very end of the song.”