Pharoahe Monch is, without doubt, one of the most gifted emcees of all time, and held in the highest regard by his peers and a dedicated fanbase around the world. He recently took time out of his tour schedule to speak to Gingerslim about what we can expect from the upcoming new album, the story behind the Organized Konfusion classic, Stress, winning a Grammy, and more.
[This interview was conducted a few months back when Pharoahe Monch was on tour in London. It has been lightly edited for clarity].
How’s the tour been going so far? I know you always speak highly of the UK when you visit.
Yeah really, really good. Because you’ve always shown love for American hip-hop in general and international acts, but more importantly for my Organized Konfusion stuff and my solo stuff; it’s been accepted very well here.
That’s good to hear, man. It’s coming up to the four year anniversary of PTSD, and I’ve read in a couple of interviews that you’re working on a new album. Is that still in the works?
Yeah it’s almost done, just waiting for the features. It’s more of a rock fuelled album and with a band, so it’s been taking a while to put together, even though the tracks have been pretty much there. In my mind I keep adding another string arrangement, or another vocalist, or bringing in a keyboard player I want, or a sample or some shit.
Yeah right, it’s a whole different dynamic when you’ve got band.
Right. So some of the shit is straight original, some of it is interpolations of stuff and in that way it still keeps in line with hip-hop in a sense. The temperament I think is hip-hop in essence, but I think the hardcore fans who have followed me and have let me grow, they’re going to fuck with it heavy. Cos it’s really heavy bars, it’s barred out, like Internal Affairs, Organized Konfusion shit.
And what made you want to take in that direction?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for like 15 years. Right after the Desire album, I was like I’ve wanted to do heavy, hardcore, dark, evil stuff for years. That’s actually where it was going after Internal Affairs, like you can tell cos even the cover is pretty dark on that album. But then I went through so much industry-wise, I appreciated what I learned spiritually and in terms of inspiration, to get me through the legal wars with the label and then getting off the label. So Desire was about having the will to push and the people who inspire me on what to gravitate to; you know like being able to work through those moments and come out the other side. Desire was such a successful record, with the soul singers and what have you – Push was really huge – so I was kind of in a bind in terms of what direction to go cos I always want to keep changing.
So I went to my record label and I was like, “yo I wanna do this rock shit” and they were kinda hesitant, so I was like half the persona is rock, half the persona is disco and it’s launched online as two different campaigns. Cos I got records that make you dance and I got records that make you nod your head. The campaign was perfect since everything was going digital, but we just didn’t know if we could release records that fast as a label. In my opinion, how it’s being done now, is how I wanted it done back then. Get the records done, then release them. But at the time, that was the pinnacle of when they realized that records weren’t selling anymore, so they were like “we don’t even know what to do”. So me and my manager formed a company, W.A.R. Media, and we did a totally independent record. One thing he said to me was, “Your career already spanned so far, so you’ve got fans from Simon Says, some fans from Push, some fans from Organized; why don’t you just make a straight rhyme record, stand on a milk-crate and rap to the people independent”.
Well that was the W.A.R. album and it sold more than Desire, maybe not cos of the temperament of the album, but because we caught the wave when the industry was changing and I said look I need your support. I’m standing on the corner and I’m rapping for food; you decide whether you want to give me some food or not. And my fans just supported the fuck out of the record. The Still Standing track was on there, so we got some radio play cos we had Jill Scott on it and she came through to do the video, bless her heart. Yeah the Still Standing thing helped a lot actually cos we were basically touring that record for four years off the strength of a couple of songs on there. And it was very feature-heavy: Immortal Technique, Jean Grae, Royce Da 5’9″, Styles P; like with Internal Affairs, I went back to wanting to work with my favorite artists.
Then with PTSD I really wanted to speak introspectively about who I am on the inside. Ever since Organized Konfusion you know I’d been rapping from the perspective of a bullet, or an unborn baby, taking on these metaphors, so PTSD was like “no, who the fuck are you, who’s Troy?” and I wanted to talk about the emotional and mental struggle I went through when I was taking medication for my asthma.
Which brings me to now and this record is culminating to be artistically all of those things. You know I’m a huge Led Zeppelin fan, Black Sabbath fan, Iron Maiden fan, I’m a Metallica fan; so in terms of hip-hop artists who have dabbled in other genres, I still feel like I have something to contribute. And that’s hip-hop to me cos you know when I first started, I would listen to the radio and I’d say to my partner that we can do something just as good, if not better than that and add something to the culture. When you hear this new shit you’re going to think nothing sounds like this. And I think that’s hip-hop in itself or original hip-hop. It was all about coming up with a move that no one else was doing, or lettering that no one else was doing. Now it’s all just copy, copy, copy. I think for me this will be invigorating and beautiful to my spirit if the fans take to it, cos it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before; it’s a challenge.
Now I know PTSD was a very personal project for you and it’s also regarded as some of your best work; is it hard to follow on from something like that?
I’ve learned a few things about that from my solo career and even when I was in the group, cos on the first record some of the lyricism was critically acclaimed. But then we followed that with a record about just trying to be passionate about what we were going through and then we followed that with a themed record. Then later, in my solo career after Internal Affairs, it was like so how do we follow this album? I think you just have to be honest with yourself, completely; it’s a mainstay thing that has been proven to work, especially in hip-hop.
You cannot lie to the culture of hip-hop. If they see you in a video, or they see you on stage, you’re not fooling anyone; this may be a hit record or whatever, but they don’t believe it’s you. For me, I have a passionate heart for love, but I also have a passionate heart for dark music [laughs], so it might trip a lot of people out how dark we go on the record. I like horror!
Well you’ve implemented aspects of that before in your songs, so I don’t think it’ll be a massive shock to your original fanbase.
Yeah I think if you’re a true fan, you’re gonna be like “Pfft, this is not too different from shit he’s said before”. We just really tried to grab hold and drive it home fully, so if other people are not like, “This guy’s crazy, I don’t fuck with this guy”, then I haven’t done my job [laughs].
I remember the first time I heard Stress, it blew me away in terms of your flow and your rhyme structures; did it feel like that to you at the time, like you were pushing boundaries?
The culture was responsible for that song back then and I’ll tell you why. You’ve got Tribe, Brand Nubian, De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, Leaders of the New School, KMD and Souls of Mischief, all of these groups that all sound different, so the culture is really flourishing in ’92, ’93, ’94. You’re listening and thinking these dudes are fucking amazing, so then you’re looking for specific things to help you find a lane that defines who you are. When I first heard that song, I was like THIS is Organized Konfusion. And not only is it Organized Konfusion, this has to be a single. It’s obviously not what you would consider a single, even at that time, but I just knew it had to be. This was going to be the song that would cement us, whether as underground or just weird, or whatever.
Then the next step was we met Michael Lucero, the video director, who passed away a few years after – he also did the 93 ‘Til Infinity video. He heard the song and he was like “You guys need to look like stress!” In fact he’s another guy who’s responsible for my career growing. I was about 60lbs heavier than I am now, when we were shooting the video and he grabbed me by the collar and said “You’re this big fucking guy but you’re so timid. I need you to look into this camera and be huge.” It was like he saw something in my psyche cos although I was an MC, I was an introvert. So that’s when I was like, what are you doing if you’re not giving it up? What are you holding back for? So for that song we were pushing the boundaries of our own limitations.
You won a Grammy last year for your work on the Miles Ahead soundtrack. Did you ever envision something like that happening in your career?
I got a Grammy for being a part of it, it was Robert Glasper’s soundtrack. But yeah when we were working on the song in the studio, we were all kinda thinking we had a chance to slip in and snatch a win.
And was it very different working with someone like Glasper?
He’s just got that Midas touch you know? So I was like yeah I might get a Grammy [laughs].
So what’s next after the tour?
Finish the record. Finish, finish, finish. When I started it was about five years ahead of its time and I could tell with certain things people would have been like [whistles]. Now with time closing in, it’s about two years ahead of its time [laughs].
Well that seems like a good place to leave it, but thanks so much for talking with me.
Thank you, man. It was a pleasure.
Follow Pharoahe Monch on Twitter here.
Gingerslim has been a hip-hop fan since 1994 and has written for various blogs and websites since around 2006. During that time he has contributed to style43, Think Zebra, Headsknow and Front Magazine. His main interests in rap are UK hip-hop and the underground movement in America, with a focus on Rhymesayers Entertainment and the once mighty Def Jux label. He lives in Bristol and has a beard. All other details are sketchy at best. Follow him here.