When you mention lyricism within hip hop, it’s actually physically impossible to not say the name “Pharoahe Monch”.
A 20+ year veteran in the game, Pharoahe bends the English language to his will in a way that most other emcees could only dream of. This is the man who Eminem called “ahead of his time,” after all.
The man has influenced some of your favorite emcees of all time, and continues to push the boundaries of what we thought hip hop was capable of.
Please enjoy a very special edition of our Indie Spotlight series with the man himself Pharoahe Monch, and be sure to look out for his upcoming album P.T.S.D. dropping April 15th.
In this first part of a special two-part Indie Spotlight (when you have a chance to pick a brain like his, you gotta run with it!) we discussed quite simply, the art of hip hop, and quite simply the art of being an recording artist.
Rarely do you have an artist able to articulate the qualities and the process of what separates the truly great artists from the rest, but Pharoahe was able to do it for us and it’s one of the most fascinating interviews we’ve ever been privileged to be a part of.
– What puts Kanye, Tech and 2Pac in the same category?
– What does Pharoahe Monch think of ¡MAYDAY!? (And what does Wrekonize think of Pharoahe?)
– Has hip hop hit the creative ceiling?
Read below for all this and much more.
If I were to introduce your music to a friend of mine and was going to make a mix of five songs, what songs should I play him?
In preparation I wanted to talk to one of your peers to get a better perspective so I talked to Wrekonize of ¡MAYDAY!, who I’m sure you know about being that you were on the “Death March” remix. He said if he had one question to ask you it would be if you and Prince Po knew how far ahead of its time the music was when you guys did those early records as Organized Konfusion.
Well, we kind of had that mind frame in the sense that in the era we got down it was so cultural and it was so heavy. There were still kids writing and tagging and the dancing was a big part of it in the school that we went to. All the cultural aspects were there, so when we decided to be a part of hip hop and become emcees and make music we still felt like we owed it to ourselves and the culture to try and elevate and come up with a style or content that could push the envelope a little bit.
I think that kind of happened naturally because we wanted our peers and we wanted the people who we consider our heroes to recognize and acknowledge us and to know we existed. So one way to do that is to push.
Coming into the game like that, I think that we were just trying to fit in and push some of the boundaries as well.
Yeah, we knew on some of the records that we were definitely taking risks. That’s another thing, there’s a risk factor there that we benefited from and we suffered from as well, if not being right in the moment sometimes. That’s dope too, and I think we were willing to take those risks and take those chances of being nerds and being ahead of the time and whatever you want to call us.
That reminds me of Velvet Underground, who didn’t push a bunch of units at the time but are one of the most groundbreaking bands in history. What kind of quality control would that put on the music? Would you discard a song because it wasn’t on some next shit or did the next shit just kind of happen spontaneously?
A lot of it was spontaneous. When we shifted into Organized Konfusion and we were working with Paul C, he had got murdered and we were kind of tossed into a position where we had to finish our entire album on our own and were thrown into the midst of production. Although we had a major deal, we were just getting on and getting our own equipment.
We would literally go into the studio with crates of records figuring out drums and loops and coming up with ideas. Halfway through we would do some of the stuff at home, but we would literally go into the studio, not like now where you’ll have music and you’ll have a session and you can write and rewrite your edits. A lot of that stuff was just off the cuff. I’m not saying we wrote all of it in the studio.
The energy of it was very experimental is what I’m trying to say which is what helped give us that sound. I think we still would’ve pushed the envelope lyrically but if Paul C had overseen our first project it would’ve had a lot more structure to it.
Do you look back and say, “I’m glad we did that?” or do you ever wish you guys endeavored in something that would’ve been more accessible for the sake of commercial success?
I’m the type of dude man, I look back on the course of things and I’m definitely the type of guy that’s like “All of that shit happened for a reason.” Organized Konfusion for me has been monumental and has shaped our creativity.
I could go back to some of that stuff now and get inspired and push myself on current projects because I’m like “The fuck were you thinking about when you wrote that?” It still has that effect on people, or on me I should say. I wouldn’t change anything about it.
There’s something about a young creative mind where there’s not much second thought about taking risks. There aren’t as many learned rules. In your opinion does creativity get harder as you age?
Hell no! Shit. I recognize that for that we were recognized, so I never want to lose or stray away from that as much as possible. In maturing a lot of things happen: love and lost love and mistakes. It becomes the scope of who you are so that thing naturally happens, but in terms of creativity, I would never squander an opportunity to do something as far as left as it can be for the sake of where it fit.
That’s why I’m independent now (laughs). Not that majors try to structure me or guide me to where I was so uncomfortable that I just said “Fuck it, I’m not doing that.” We always had control and I always had control over my solo career, but there’s shit that we do now that I couldn’t do if I wasn’t independent. Videos that I shoot now, people would be like “Why are you even spending your time on this song?”
When I get in those modes I just go for what the creativity tells me even if that means structure, because I think that there’s super-dopeness inside correct mathematics and things of that nature as well, as well as, you know we haven’t pushed the boundaries on tone and all of that and that’s why I’m still excited about my career and I’m still excited about hip hop and other people’s releases as well because it’s still infant. When you look at the whole scope of it there’s not many people that are doing out-of-the-box stuff as compared to all the other artists trying to be the next popular rapper.
Do you look at that and say, “Oh okay, go ahead and do that because it just leaves me more room to innovate over here.”
Exactly. There’s certain songs I do and I take a listen back to it and a lot of times you do something great and you’re like “Man I hope somebody don’t steal this fucking idea before I put it out!” Then you think about it and you’re like in the whole scope of this whole thing, there’s only a handful of artists that are even going to fucking waste their time or attempts creatively to go in this direction and say this.
There’s a lot of a herd mentality thing. Bring that back to hip hop, the original innovation. How did it affect you when you first heard it? Was it a party thing or was it a voice of the streets and disenfranchised thing?
It was all of that man. It was a street thing because I’m from Southside Jamaica Queens. It was an artistic thing. It was a lyric thing, because I read comic books and what I saw was “look at this expression coming from people with no voice.”
Like I said, it was fashion expression and verbal expression and music expression and dance expression. That shit was vivid in my mind. I went to art school and all that shit. I just saw the whole thing as a fucking film happening and that’s exactly what it became.
It became the soundtrack to that whole movement and transpired like that in front of me. I’m a freshman and I’m going to actual jams and I’m seeing the cats from Rock Steady and New York City Breakers like live and that shit was mind-blowing to me. It was like “This is the new way of expressing yourself during this breakbeat,” and that shit was like “Yeah!” This fucking song does make you want to exert yourself in this way and not in a normal way.
When I decided like I said “How the fuck am I going to express in this? I want to be an emcee. I’m already a part of this culture by demographic and the nature of what I do. I draw characters. I am hip hop, but how do I play a part in it and in the progression in it?”
Like I said, from very early on, even if I choose this emcee thing professionally, I’m still staying true to art and my art form, because my parents – I thought my parents were going to be like “What the fuuuuuck are you doing!?” When I came to them and I was in art school and you have this gift and it’s like, you can’t forsake your talent to create what’s in your head and put it on paper. Everybody just doesn’t have that.
I came to them and I was like “I want to be a rapper!” (Laughs) I thought they were going to be like “What in the fuck?” but my moms and my pops were like “We get it. We see the determination in your eyeball. We’re going to give you 365 days to figure this shit out.” And I was like “That’s all I need!” and I went to Prince [Po] and was like “I don’t know how long you got, I got 365 days.”
That’s a good parental tool man. They supported you but they gave you a time limit to put the fire under your ass at the same time. That’s legit! Did you have that thing where you were pacing in the hallway like practicing your revelation to them?
Yeah I did. I definitely did that and until this day I’m definitely like I’m blessed, because a lot of brilliant dudes didn’t have that same support. A lot of brilliant artists didn’t have that same support at the time and it meant a lot. I get it. It’s huge. It works out.
Life works out beautiful as humans and how we adapt and how we come through situations, like Eminem’s situation where he had to face too much other fucking adversity that it carved him into the monster and rap genius that he is. So either way it’s a beautiful thing but in that moment I realized that the support that I was getting and also it didn’t make me take it easy, it made me say “Yo, if you’re going to get the nod from them, you better bust your ass.”
Yeah you have to respect that because there aren’t going to be too many parents who are like “Be a rapper.” For a lot of parents you probably told them one of the top five things they don’t want to hear from their kids ever.
So shout out to your parents man! That kind of support is a beautiful thing. Speaking of that I have this hunch that you grew up in a very musical family and that they impressed music upon you because your music goes beyond quote unquote hip hop. What was your relationship with music growing up?
It was huge man because two brothers and a sister and both my parents, my oldest brother was at the time like on some Deep Purple, Zeppelin, Black Sabbath stuff, next brother was funk and soul, my sister was Michael Jackson, my pops was the jazz man and my moms was the gospel.
Getting up and going to school or coming home from school and doing homework or in the summer going from one room to another and throughout the house you literally would hear all of that shit. So I spent time with my older brother in the basement with the incense and the fucking Hendrix poster and then I’d fucking go upstairs and spend time with my sister and the Prince and The Michael Jackson poster and then later that night my pops would be like “Let me let you hear what real music sounds like.”
It was bugged because because it went through this phase in New York where they were playing all these after school movies and it would be some Elvis shit. It’d be like Elvis week and then it’d be like Monster week and then it would be Beach Week with The Beach Boys and the chick Arnette Funicello and I know all I’d seen was mad old when I was coming up, but I just absorbed all that shit.
So to chop it all down, by the time I got into my hip hop shit, my brother had moved on to jazz and fusion and Weather Report and that’s what’s really got my mind going is like the whole Jaco Pastorius, Alfonso Johnson, Wayne Shorter and all of that shit as well as Coltrane is what started influencing my rap flows and shit like that when I started really getting in and putting my flows together.
Speaking of that, I’d like to talk about your art school background. Kanye obviously had a very big year last year and we heard him talk in a lot of interviews during his tour, one thing that struck me in his interviews is that he says he sees music and that architecture inspired Yeezus and that he was primarily a visual artist before he was ever a rapper. Tech N9ne over here has often said that he paints pictures with rhyme. I say all that to ask you, who also has a visual background from art school, how did that visual appreciation and understanding lends itself to your music.
One of the things that Tech and Kanye and the consummate artists who approach it whenever from that creative standpoint of something to have a texture or a visual or color, what separates them apart from everybody else is that it has you thinking about your tone and your interpretation and where you are.
I’m not even talking about content, I’m just talking about “How do I say this word? How do I say this phrase? Am I crying? Am I happy? What is the texture of my voice? Am I afraid? Am I transforming? Am I a fucking vampire?” Whatever the case may be. This is what separates artists like that apart from everybody else. It’s obvious that most artists don’t have enough appreciation for what they’ve seen for that matter to even think about it in terms of those dimensions.
You talk about Kanye, he’s just dope hip hop: beats, production, all that shit, but one of the things that allowed him to push it to levels and push past his peers is his fucking passion for manifesting what he sees in his head and the colors and the sadness of it. I only say that man, I’m like “You don’t speak the language.” Beat-wise and structure-wise you should know what the feel of something is and you should be able to see it.
Just like Coltrane and just like jazz. It stems from that too because you’re like “What is Coltrane actually trying to say in a song that doesn’t have any words? What is the song about?” And if he could convey a feeling, and I got words to do it? I gotta take it to a few levels past the norm and you gotta evoke people’s hair to stand up and goosebumps and that type of thing.
One time I was listening to a PE record and I got goosebumps. He was saying something that was honest and the tone in his voice and the sounds that was going and I’m like “Fuck, this is the first rap record that I got goosebumps from.” It’s happened in rock before it’s happened in this, like “What is that?” I sat down and I’m like “Let’s analyze what gives you goosebumps.”
Like speeches, honesty, truthful speeches, an MLK speech, or harmonics. Different things that I’m like, when this happened to Kennedy or when the Mets won the World Series, I remember I got that feeling. We’re just trying to put all that in my music to hopefully have some of that happen to someone and they feel inspired. On this new album, it’s as dark as I’ve been in in my depression, and from that hope – I’m always striving for that in the colors and in the vibe of the rap or whatever.
Wrekonize told me that out of all rappers, he thinks you have this ability to just make language your bitch, more or less. You can stretch the possibilities of what you can do with language, not just with vocabulary, but in all of its devices. What’s your relationship with language? Have you always been well read? Do you look at words like your currency?
Well I’m not an avid reader, but for this new album I read a couple of Octavia Butler books and it’s just mind boggling to me that we communicate in different languages and in the literary sense how you can do that to people. How the mind can write a novel or a story or you can read a paragraph and someone can literally take you out of your world and bring you into their world with descriptions and describing and they can even relate to them. That’s what’s fly about the emcee.
Pac and Big, you would be like “I know…” – I mean I knew Pac, but the average person is like “I don’t know him personally but I feel like I know this motherfucker!” because of his tone and his shit! In some of his moments he sounds like he might have actually cried in the studio! The ability to take that emotion out and put that onto a recorded piece again is what separates those elite artists from the rest. It’s not an easy thing to do and it is a nice blend of acting, pulling from experience, writing skill and freedom and then translating that into the studio and into the marriage of the piece of music you’re working with.
I really don’t think that emceeing and hip hop is praised for the depth that that is. It’s not just making words rhyme, it’s not just “I can flow.” It’s that too, it’s all of that, but the art of emceeing has reached levels and has yet to reach levels that it can still go to because we concentrate on so much content to be discussed.
I think this new era of independent and coming off the craziness that we had from the last couple of years, I think it’s really going to force artists to talk about things that’s never been talked about or experienced before in our history and I look forward to the growth and even those type of challenges. I was telling my manager “Somebody’s going to do a record or an album where it’s like ‘Yo, I’m fucking taking Geritol and I used to be able to do these things and I can’t do these things anymore!’ and ‘This is how it is now.'”
It’s going to be done in such a way that even young kids are going to be like “Yeah! That’s my fucking uncle! Yeah, that’s my fucking father and I relate! Even though they tell me I’m not supposed to I know that fucking man. I know that person and this shit is just fucking incredible!”
When I was coming up, like I said, I’m listening on the radio to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and he’s talking about issues and things that I haven’t even experienced yet. I have no idea what they’re really talking about but even back then I’m like “This song is incredible!” Because of the emotion that it evokes. It’s not always about the demographic. I think, getting back to radio, I said it’s a huge lie. Great songs break the barrier of the different demographics that they say that music should be in.
I don’t think suburban kids all over were “supposed” to be such huge 2Pac fans, but when you listen to him there’s such an immediate register that is unparalleled. I think that goes with hip hop in general. You just said that these artists are very underrated for their ability to just strike that chord. There’s an immediacy there that’s second to none as far as music goes, as far as how quickly an artist can connect with the listener.
It’s brilliant man. I don’t even think, for the most part, for what’s popular now, I don’t even think it’s appreciated for the depth and the elements that it can go and has gone. If it does I don’t even think most people understand why.
I was watching the Jack White documentary with Jimmy Page and The Edge and Jack White was saying how he grew up in Detroit, in the ghetto. No disrespect, but by the time…his family was still in the ghetto when the black people were fucking like “We can’t stay here any fucking more. It’s too crazy.” He was expressing how just fucked up the neighborhood was.
He was so into music and guitar playing and hip hop but when hip hop was popular nobody was picking up any instruments and shit. He was like “I had to go three towns over to find a music store.” He was building guitars and stringing them shits up to wood and he’s doing this shit in the documentary. So he met this guy at a car shop who played him this blues record by Son House. I went and downloaded the shit on iTunes when I watched this documentary. The guy is slapping on his leg and beating on his chest and singing this song.
When you listen to the song, he’s not even necessarily in pocket with the song, it’s just free flow. He’s singing about how you can’t trust anyone, even people in your family, and he said the pain and the truth and the honesty that came across in this song, and it’s his favorite song to this day, he said when he decided to become a musician, he was like “I’m not making a fucking song unless I give it a hundred percent of trying to put that type of spirit and realness into my song.”
That shit, it just blew my mind how truthful it was and how serious people take the craft. I know he’s blowing up and he’s successful and all that shit but I’m like, there’s a depth of giving of yourself that has to be there for me to be a fan of yours. That shit holds true in most of the artists I became a fan of.
When I heard Wrekonize and them for the first time, my DJ he would say “Yo these dudes like the record.” My DJ knew about them before I did and then when I did the research I was like “Oh I know these dudes.” So they got together for this project and then I checked out their stuff and then they sent me that song, I was like “Yo, these dudes are on another level!” They figured out how to put that pain or that struggle or that truthfulness or that happy onto the tape or the CD! And it’s not just being a good emcee, it’s finding your voice. I tell cats this all the time. You have to spend a good amount of time at trying to find your voice and let that honesty in. Once that cuts through, you can make it to the absolute top of this game.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH PHAROAHE MONCH
Hit the links below to hear Pharoahe’s latest track and keep up with him on social media.
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