Indie Spotlight: Pharoahe Monch [Part 2 of 2]

Apr 15 2014

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When you talk to an emcee as seasoned and accomplished as Pharoahe Monch, there’s no shortage of knowledge to be soaked up.

That’s why when we spoke to Pharoahe a few weeks ago, we could only publish about half of what we talked about.

Well we’re back now with the other half of our informal class with professor Monch, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Pharoahe just released his first album in nearly 8 years. Titled P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the legendary emcee’s latest release delves even further into the war inside our own minds.

Dealing with topics ranging from mental illness and mainstream media brainwashing to just good ol’ fashioned shit talking, Pharoahe’s new album is more relevant within the current context of hip hop than many listening to it might even realize.

In part two of our interview with Pharoahe, we spoke about the themes behind his newest masterpiece, where hip hop is headed, and the realities of remaining independent in a time when the playing field is just beginning to even out.

Read the full interview below, and make sure you cop Pharoahe’s new album P.T.S.D. in stores now.

Talk about this album coming up, but first let me ask you what have you been up to lately. If I’m not mistaken the last thing we’ve heard from you is when you dropped “Damage” which was an amazing performance if you want to talk about taking characters on in the booth.

Yeah man that’s on the album. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. The new album is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It deals a lot with me pulling from my lowest points and I know “Damage” is another song that deals with me in another perspective, but the majority of the album is like, after that W.A.R. record, this is where I’m really at, spiritually, emotionally, mentally and financially. A lot of that stuff is difficult and painful to record. I even fiddle with the way that I got to bring people into the album. It’s kinda bugged and shit. It gets into those depths of depression and suicidal thoughts. I talk to people all the time and it’s not even a fucking unknown or minority thing. There’s some many artists that deal with this. We’re talking Cobain. I’m not even talking about deep depression where you see artists who obviously have issues. From top tier artists to underground artists, from substance abuse to Hendrix, Cobain, Chris Brown…whatever. You see them acting out and you’re like “Dude, somebody gotta wrap this dude and get in his ear,” or something or it’s going to keep going in the other direction. That’s the type of shit. So I’m not saying this is groundbreaking but for me, if you’re a fan, my approach and the way I try to paint this film, this movie and this story, is I think some of my best writing to date. It’s pretty dope man. Because I’m asthmatic I pull from a time when I was in the hospital for an extended amount of time years ago. I got a very bizarre cocktail of medication that had me spiraling down at the time and I didn’t know what exactly it was that was causing it. So I’m kind of pulling from that time a lot on this record.

I know you just said that everything just happens for a reason but when you look at those and it’s like “Man that time really sucked,” but you’re also kind of thankful because it gave you a new story to tell. The relationship you have with pain is different when you’re an artist.


Pharoahe War

I saw on Twitter that you said that this album was after W.A.R., and that this album is the casualties of W.A.R. What are some of those casualties that you speak of and how do they relate to some of the themes that you explored in W.A.R.?

I know it’s kind of heroic and stylish to say that you’re going against the machine, but when you decide that you’re going to combat and do it independent, it’s a rough road sometimes for a lot of artists, but there’s good as well. I was talking to my manager today like, “You can see me in the car and be like ‘what in the hell is he talking about?'” but what you don’t see when you look at other people is the honesty about getting the money for a video and getting the financial backing for things you believe in as well as the struggle of it. This is more like the struggle of it. I think we left the major situation with independent.

I said a lot of things about W.A.R. in terms of war with self, war with industry, war with authority, police and a lot of shit. and the battle for our minds commercially during the W.A.R. album, and this is kind of me putting myself out there in exile and the pact that could come from that as well. Everybody doesn’t want to side with you after you do that shit either.

How are you liking your current situation?

I love it man! We’re totally independent now. Our first record was in conjunction with Duck Down. We did this record totally independent. It’s being distributed through INgrooves and we’re going to have a hard copy in stores as well as a dope ass digital presence. It’s very boutique.

The music we make is not like we have a lot of stores. It’s just like one little store that we make these good cupcakes that every time somebody comes into town they come to the story and say “We gotta go there and get some cupcakes!” That’s how we look at our business. The beautiful thing is, and I’m not late, but I watched the Tech N9ne – it wasn’t a documentary, but it was a lot about his business and his same decision years ago and that shit was just fucking super inspirational. I know he’s been inspiring independent artists for years now but it just struck a chord with me. The business aspect as well as the artistic aspect and to answer your question it just feels really good to be independent.

I know people get mad at the time it takes me as it comes to rolling this record out in a real dope, artistic way. I still think that with the money and the backing labels, we’ve got other shit and we don’t even have time to roll shit out that way.

The thing I can definitely say that are the same between you and Tech is that I can’t really put you guys in a box, which makes it hard for executives that might want to have a twenty second pitch and have it be similar to something that’s already successful. It must be very liberating to not have to answer to anybody with those concerns.

Exactly, and I understood that when I was in Organized Konfusion. If you’re asking someone to box this shit and sell it, it’s difficult to do.

I remember sitting down with KRS-One and he was like “Yo fuck that man. If I’m a good salesperson…” and I had my inhaler out on the table at the time, and he picked up my inhaler and was like “If I’m a good salesperson, I could go take this shit downstairs, this inhaler, on the street, on the corner in Manhattan and say to passerbys ‘Hey it’s really cold right now and the congestion and you need these. These are things that are hot and they’re only five dollars’ and everyone has one now. ‘If the cold weather is freezing your lungs and whatever, whatever’ and you could sell hundreds of thousands of these shits. It’s humid. It’s whatever. You’re going to need it year round. Whatever.” He was basically saying that anything can be fucking sold. He was like “If you give me two hours, I’ll sit here and figure out how I can sell you guys. It’s just that these motherfuckers are lazy and they want to stick to whatever the trend is and whatever’s working.” I will always remember that meeting with him.

I won’t say it’s conforming, but when you’re pitching yourself, or when you’re doing business, there are rules and regulations then. The record size and it has to be this and that and all those things that you know go along with it and I think creatively the both of us, we just want to be able to stretch out and switch it up when the inspiration inspires us to do that.A lot of times when you’re on majors it goes against the grain to do that.

Look at Prince when he did his Purple Rain album. It was a successful movie and a successful album and there were Grammys and Oscars and then it comes time to do the next album, I’m pretty sure the label was like “We already got a name for it, it’s called Lavender Snow,” and he’s like “What? I’m not even on that anymore. I’m going to Africa to record with animals,” and labels are like “Why would you not take advantage of Purple Rain with Orange Snow? It’s such an easy next project to do!” And the consummate artist is just not going to do that.


You can relate that to Hollywood too. It’s like “Oh shit, kids bought a lot of Transformers, let’s make a movie. Oh that did well, let’s make two more of them.” But sometimes you want to be like “Dude! Instead of this RoboCop remake,” or whatever “Can someone just sit down and just think of a new movie?”

Yeah man. It’s unreal and obviously what the machine knows and has always known is that 15 years from now there will be a billion other kids who will be like “I never seen a Robo or mechanical cop before!” (Laughs)

It’s kind of tough because there’s dope records like “Poetic Justice” that I like a lot, which obviously took the Janet sample of a song that was very popular when I was growing up. It’s tough, but it’s like ‘Man…” I think the thing that’s being missed in all of this, and I know it’s a cliche, but the greater the risk the greater the reward, and people just don’t want to take risks. They want to know.

Right, but the fly thing about hip hop and the nuances of it is the concept of it borders on that shit all the time. If I’m sampling James Brown and somebody was listening to Organized who grew up on that shit and is like “I don’t understand how this is dope.” To the fans that listen to “Poetic Justice”, they might even missed that Janet Jackson record all together. That’s the good thing about it, it’s about revisiting the samples and songs and turning them into a whole new vibe. Even when it’s something familiar, sometimes I’m like “Oh my God this is fucking the whackest fucking attempt at chopping this loop” and someone else could take the same familiar thing and make a better fucking familiar ass record out of that. It’s all about the approach.

As far as hip hop is going right now, it seems like there’s a lot to be hopeful for, but it brings me to your song “Desire” when you say “Rap’s fatally ill, please get concerned.” That was in ’07. What do you think about hip hop right now?

I feel like it’s good man. I feel like, for me, my friends who comb obscurity and underground are always turning me on to the new shit and I think without the incredibly dope shit being on the radio, it kind of forces artists into how it was back then when they just weren’t playing hip hop on the radio period. That’s kind of what it feels like right now so what do you do? Are they not even supporting or do we have to go out and be as fly as possible and get a million people to come to our shows, and do this and do that because we love what we do so much that we don’t need you? You’re not going to make us stop doing it or you’re not even going to make us conform to do that, and so from that I see things coming up that’s just like hybrid and expressionism and traditional. That’s just dope man and that’s a good thing. If I can get radio play, obviously that’s a beautiful thing, but it’s just like cats are really paving a way from the internet, and live and merch because the internet again, your approach to it and your approach to it, you can create the world that you want to create.

I also read this book called Hit Men and it opens up talking about Pink Floyd and The Wall album and how they released an album without a single, but that one song and it was number one. People were coming to California to do promo and a concert and their manager found out that the radio wasn’t even playing the fucking record. The book is about payola and the bullshit that goes on in the music industry. This is Pink Floyd mind you. Comes to LA and they’re like “Yo, we’re doing a concert at the fucking colloseum, we have the number one album in the country and you’re not playing the record.” Guy at the radio station was like “Fuck you.” (Laughs) You know? Like, “No we’re not!” And it tells about what the manager had to do because they had a concert coming up and they wanted to sell tickets and blah blah blah, and I’m just like “Yo, that’s Pink Floyd dude.”

A lot of people speak of a second golden era in hip hop, do you see any similarities?

Definitely man. There’s a lot of dope cliques and crews coming out that I feel like the emphasis is on writing dope rhymes, being heralded and also making good songs.


I also read in an interview where you were talking about the pressures from radio on artists to sound a certain way, like Jay Z for instance, but a consumer being like “If I want to listen to some shit like that, I’ll just wait for Jay Z.” What advice would you give then to people who have aspirations to “Make it” or “Make it big.”

It’s just a lot, well not even a lot, but there’s just some homework that needs to be done. We’re talking about that recently here in New York, how the New York sound is not even the New York sound anymore and how it’s more into these different things.

You’re careful about critical of hip hop because hip hop is always taken from all these different things so you’re kind of leery to jump into a bunch of criticism but New York radio had really forced ahead and it’s like “Oh, the NBA is drafting three point shooters because there’s a lack of three point shooters and major league baseball has a lack of catchers and pitchers?” Of course when you’re in college you’re going to be like “Fuck if I want to make it into the NBA I gotta work on my three point shot,” and you do what you gotta do to get to the majors. If the radio is playing the same three records within a five or seven year span and continues to do the same three and is like “Here’s a new three this year,” and “Here’s a new three,” you’re going to be like “That’s what hip hop is? I think I can do that!” You know? There’s no variety for them to pull from. Those three songs are from the same clique from the same fucking producer with the same prints in every song and the same chorus! Same person on the chorus! You know? It’s just like, how do you even get inspired to have a variety?

My thing is, you pick your favorite artists and you say “What pushed him?” and “Who inspired him?” You gotta even go back to that to study and beyond that and listen to what was the shit then and how do you sell your brand. When I say brand I don’t mean just merchant perspective as well, because that comes with growing, but I mean how do you find your voice within all of that? If your content and all of that shit is similar, you’re not going to maximize your potential as a businessman.

I talk about the grocery store shit with the cereal aisle. We know that Cheerios and Frosted Flakes and these cereals are going to sell. They’ve been selling for years and they’ve been there for years. If you’re a new cereal, how do you come in – and you’re dealing with General Mills and you’re dealing with Post and all these brands that have been there for years that are probably not going to stop selling – how do you come in and say “There’s a new cereal on the block and you might want to try it”? You gotta be like “My shit is like Cheerios but it’s organic and it has mad vitamins and shit in it and it’s so good that you might not want to even eat it with milk, you just want to take a handful of that shit.” People might be like “You know what? I might want to get a little more healthier, let me try this shit one time. Let’s try it one time.” But if you’re like “I’m trying to get in the game, my name’s not Cherrios it’s Teerios.” It’s like “C’mon D, what are you doing?” You know? It’s not different. If it sounds the same and it’s the same content, why would anyone buy that? That’s my thing, find your voice and then within that it’s like “This is why you need to be aware of this because that shit still has saturated fat and refined sugars in it, my shit doesn’t.” Whatever you gotta do, that’s what you gotta do.


You were talking about, if you want to be like somebody, you should seek what they sought. Like, “What inspired them?” That becomes a history lesson. I asked R.A. The Rugged Man the same clichéd question of the “Advice to new artists” question and he said “Study your history.” So I’m hearing a similar message here. How does knowing your history help you make history because as far as a lot of other cats are concerned, I would think, especially in this immediate gratification era, they’d rather skip a history lesson because if the end game is just an appreciation and understanding of the culture, they’re just like “Okay? So I know some shit.” But how does that knowledge help you make better music?

You get a better understanding of major chords, minor chords. What progressions evoke happy? What makes a happy song or makes a sad song? You get a beat from somebody and you’re like “This is some happy shit!” “This is some party shit!” “This is some dark shit.” “This is some hood shit.” “This is hard shit.” What makes it that? Then, once you understand what it is, I think you can better make the marriage on the song as an artist. You understand what your goal is.

I think one of the things I forgot to mention is understanding your end game. It’s okay to say “I want to get into the business because I want to make lots of money. I want lots of women, titties and asses and I want to just be revered and all of this shit and all of that shit.” If that’s your end game and you thought it out and you have options, you’re like “Yeah, I know what they do. I know what he does. I want this, and I’ve made that decision,” then there’s a way to go about that decision as well. If you’re an artist and you’re like “I want people to like my lyrics like Kendrick. I want to be revered as one of the best rappers like Tech, and I want to do this and that.” There’s a way to go about that as well. It’s very, very different, but you have to understand what your end game is and the result of that is and how to benefit from it and how to eat from it. That helps you set your goal path and then you can easily determine whether you’re on track or not as time goes by. It’s not just “I’m struggling,” or “I’m still working,” or “I’m still at this job,” it’s charting the progression of the closer you get to finding your voice and putting that cereal in the cereal aisle and having people be like “Well let me try that.”

As much as I say “Oh this new shit that’s coming out has no refined sugars and it’s organic and it’s this and that” you can very well come along and say “My shit has twice the sugar and has more sugar than cereal has ever had!” And you can still get people to buy that shit. There’s a market for that. It’s just figuring out what is it that you really want to do. When you ask those aspiring artists “Honestly what’s your end game? What do you want? What do you want?” They usually take some time to have to think about it or the goal is really small like “I want to be on the radio!” I’m like “Pssh, you could do that!” Or it’s “I want people to know my name!” I’m like “Be careful what you wish for!” And be specific. That’s coming from someone who has been through that in that stage and when asked I was like “I want Big Daddy Kane to know who I am!” Like “Uhh…really? That’s what you want?” I know him now, that can’t be the end game. The end game has to be way be shot way beyond the stars so if you land on the moon you still be in outer space and on top of the planet or off of the Earth. People set their goals too low.

You were just talking about rich aspirations and bitches and all that. I read in an interview where there’s been times where you say you’ve felt uncomfortable revealing your profession because people automatically jump and go “Durr, you got any video bitches on the set?” or whatever. I go through the same thing, and I’m a white boy from suburbia, but people just have that association pattern. My question is, do you ever look at people who are making songs where you can tell that’s all they’re really about and they’re just perpetuating this thought pattern to the normal person, do you ever look at them and go “You know? Fuck man.”

(Laughs) It is unfortunate that that’s the most promoted thing and there’s some “Drop it Like It’s Hot” ass songs that I love. I am all over the place like that and I do understand that and I do understand someone being like “Yo, I like cars and I like asses so this is what I’m going to write music about.” That’s fine. I just think there’s room for great songs that are great as well, because all of those songs that are about that are not great. Some of them are. Some of them are good, or should I say, some of them I like and some of them I’m like “This is the worst fucking song ever.” The same thing goes for the underground or the conscious shit, it’s like some of this shit is not fucking good! That’s not what makes it good. It’s like you said, the execution and the approach is what makes something good. I think hip hop can have a run where the execution and approach on some of these songs outdo some of the execution and approach on the obscure and the left. I just think it’s catching up.

I think when you look at a Kendrick Lamar and you think about “Swimming Pools” and you think about “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” that shit has those elements where it’s just fucking excellently written and executed and the sonics compete with what is happening as well. You could compete with that song in those venues. That’s what happens. A lot of times it’s like “I can’t play this record in this venue sonically,” or you don’t want to go from these type of underground sets into something that’s so pristine because that’s just like “Agh!” That shit sounds weird and stupid when you do that, you know? I just want to see more of a balance. There’s also a great part of me that’s like “Fuck it, don’t balance it out, keep playing whack ass shit. We’re over here doing what we’re doing.” I think the shit is worthy of radio support and should be played everywhere, all the time. I think that highly of what I do, I really honestly do. At the same time I’m not asking the owners and the directors to do this balance. They know that question exists and so you move forward. I applaud the Tech N9nes and the Immortal Techniques and the artists who have been like “I don’t even give a fuck.” You know? “Here’s my shit and you can play my shit or not!”

Yeah he’s definitely been doing that. That brings up Kendrick competing with a lot of the pop songs because of the sonics and stuff like that. Is technology evening the playing field for a lot of great artists who might not have the resources because they’re not at a major label, or because they don’t have that backing?

Definitely. I think that’s one of the things that’s come up to speed. You’re getting better quality in the underground than years ago. No question. It’s still not the same as some of the qualified engineering, tube, analog/digital work, but what is the consumer listening to your song on? How much does that shit even factor in if you’re not even in that arena? It’s like “Here’s the shit that I put together with this machine at the crib and it has all of this feeling” and the other cat is like “I made this shit at Maximized Studios” for this and they have this equipment and this shit and the artist is not really saying anything. Hip hop has always been about more so about the energy that’s on the song or the vibe that song is on as much as it’s been about that. When you get the combination together that’s when the shit is special.

You were talking about setting goals before, what are you goals for this year?

I start off next month and I hit up ten cities in the UK, Ireland and we come back here and we’re trying to put something together with Kweli or maybe Ghostface for the states. It’s whatever man. I’m just grinding and I’m looking for any and every opportunity to get in front of people and perform new songs and this music, it feels like some performable shit so I’m excited about the live show portion of the extension of P.T.S.D.

What kind of thought do you put into your show and what are some bases that you like to cover when making your live show?

I try to get so far into some of the songs that it’s difficult to come out of the song, meaning that I try to, every show, reach a level of transcending and becoming so at one with the vibrations that it’s almost not even me anymore and I’m pretty sure Tech can tell you about out of body experiences that he’s had when the flow and the shit is just meshing and intertwining in such a way that it’s like you can even float or you’re not even there anymore and feel yourself go away to fucking Hawaii and come back on the stage like “What the fuck was that?” What I mean by that is just get in tune with songs and it’s not just money grab shit. “I’ve been doing this for years and I do the same show every night” like a jukebox. It’s really embodying the moment. It doesn’t happen all the time but I go for it every show.

Pharoahe Live

Speaking of that and talking about this year, if there is one thing that you could make happen this year 2014, do without fail, what would it be?

It would probably be start directing my first short. I’m going to direct a good amount of videos for this project so when people get a taste of my eyes like, you know?

There’s a ton of cinematic qualities in your music, but it does feel that with your skill set you could adapt yourself to that role pretty naturally.

I appreciate that. Thanks man.

Yeah man I think it’s only a matter of time and good luck with that. Is there anything you want to say before we wrap this up?

Yeah man I think P.T.S.D. is my best work. There’s some great shit on there. I got a song on there with Black Thought that’s phenomenal. Talib Kweli, Mr. Porter and production from Lee Stone, a longtime producer and collaborator and it’s just a phenomenal record. I’m really happy with it and I can’t wait to get it out so the fans can hear it.

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