Rewind the Rhyme: Pharoahe Monch

Well, we’re a month into 2007 and the verdict is out on where Hip-Hop will go this year. Last year saw the South put the game in a chokehold, the return of a “retired” great, and the still brewing debate over the vital signs of the culture we love. One thing is clear though, currently […]

Well, we’re a month into 2007 and the verdict is out on where Hip-Hop will go this year. Last year saw the South put the game in a chokehold, the return of a “retired” great, and the still brewing debate over the vital signs of the culture we love. One thing is clear though, currently lyrics as an important and key element of Hip-Hop music are still on life support as catchy club and Chevy anthems abound. Nevertheless, there are still MCs who continue to be dedicated to manipulating the English language over tracks.

Pharoahe Monch is one cut from that cloth. Since the release of his last album, 1999’s critically acclaimed Internal Affairs, he has dealt with numerous label moves including brief stints with Steve Rifkind and Dr. Dre. Unable to lock into a desired label situation fans found themselves wondering if they would ever see the release of Pharoahe’s long awaited sophomore release. Appearances on compilations and soundtracks as well as features on other MCs albums (most notably Styles P and Puff Daddy) have wet the appetite of his supporters but failed to provide them with a complete offering of his true potential. Now situated at Universal records he is poised to finally release his second oeuvre, Desire. Here in the first Rewind the Rhyme of 2007, Pharoahe speaks with on the creative process for his newest release, how he, a frustrated filmmaker finds expression through rhyme, and the method behind what some consider the “madness” of some of his most complex and lyrical masterpieces. Most interviews about albums deal with producers and features, but let’s talk about your project artistically and creatively. Where were you coming from in putting together this latest album, Desire?

Pharoahe Monch: Artistically, I tried to keep challenging myself and

competing against myself, and just pulling inspiration from different

things. So when you hear the songs, they sound like something I’m not

comfortable with. By saying that, I mean I think things become easy for

certain artists and they become complacent with doing a certain style or

discussing a certain topic that they’re so familiar with at the time and

topics become redundant. Formats become redundant, and I like to stay

challenged while at the same time paying attention to arrangement within

the mathematical correct format.

One of the things is, you know, coming off the “My Life” record years ago

with Styles P had a lot of people

approaching me about my singing vocals. So I knew that I would be in

the studio with different producers… [I] remember one time I was in the

studio with Pete Rock, and I laid a verse and he was like, “Yo, do that

s**t you do. You know that s**t you do when you do that s**t!” And I

was like, “Wow, you know people are really feeling that side of me, but I

think the thing that’s natural about it is that even thought the

notations might not be perfect, it comes from a soulful place.” So I

made sure wherever I did it on the album, it came from a place where

people would be like, “I can relate. I can feel that.” I paid a lot of

attention to that and a lot of attention to-just being mindful of if you

hear me take a stance on something political or emotional or spiritual,

you may not agree but you’ll definitely be like, “I feel you on that.”

["Stray Bullet" from Organized Konfusion’s Stress: The Extinction Agenda 1994, Hollywood] Many are familiar with Nas’ “I Gave You Power”, but this record which has a similar theme, came out first. When you got together with Prince Poetry as Organized Konfusion and did this record, where were you at, mentally? How did this concept come about?

Pharoahe Monch: I mean, just by virtue of being from South Jamaica, Queens and also going to an art school. I think it played itself out then, when you’re at park jams, and your at parties, people get shot in the head and there’s some brain tissue layin’ next to you of some dude. Or you’re at a jam…I remember one time, running out the park and this girl got shot while we were both running for the same exit in the fence. You incorporate that

with going to art school and having an imagination, and I think that

winds up being songs like “Stray Bullet.” Though the Native Tongue movement was prevalent, this came out a time when gangsta rap and gun talk were at their height. Did you consider this to

be somewhat subversive, since it went against the glorifying of violence

that was going on in the mainstream?

Pharoahe Monch: [The question I asked myself was] “How could you be violent, but do it unlike how everybody else is doing it?” I love violence. I love

Bruce Lee movies. I love [the comic book] X-Men, which is pretty violent. I love [Quentin] Tarantino and all of these things which is what the movement is about. I don’t think it’s wrong for a human to go and see a Tarantino film, but leave that s**t at the movies. So at the same time, I’m having these urges to want to express myself in a violent way as like a struggled f**kin’ filmmaker who doesn’t have a chance to make the films he wants to make, so I express them through song and do it in a way where people are not like, “He’s trying to be N.W.A. from Queens.”

["Rape" from Internal Affairs 1999, Rawkus] Let’s talk about “Rape.” Hands down, that’s just a lyrical

masterpiece son! But when you name a record “Rape” you’re definitely

trying to do more than just rap.

Pharaohe Monch: When I wrote and I titled it, mind you I’m on Rawkus Records at the time, I deliver the record and they’re like, ‘You cannot call this song “Rape”, You have to change the title.” I’m like, “Isn’t this Rawkus

Records?” I don’t understand why if I was shooting a film, why I couldn’t call the film Rape. Children are raped and men are raped in prison, it’s not an attack on women. Why can’t I use my words the way I want to use them? [A female employee at Rawkus] was like, “You will lose so many female fans if you put this song out. I’m just telling you in advance.” Did you?

Pharoahe Monch: Yup. I think people listen to music differently, bit I had to take that chance because that’s what all of this is about. If I had it to do

over I probably would do the same thing, but the thing about “Rape” [and] why I like the song so much is because-secretly, I want to be a filmmaker, so I’m like, ‘Embody this character. Don’t just write the lines, you have to sound a little deranged on this song. Really embrace the character.

Go into your room and say that s**t again and mean what you’re saying.

Nah I need to say it again. I’m not meaning what I’m saying.” I think

people felt it that way, who are able to listen to music that way. [To] some

people, it’s just a passing song and they’re like, “Yo the “Rape” s**t is

hot, man.” Some people be like, “You’re on some other s**t.” My manager

was telling me one time, when she was in college she was in a poetry class and there was this guy who was nice looking dude who all the chick kind of dug, and he got up and he read a piece and he had two chairs on the

stage and he was like, “I’m sitting here with my lovely girlfriend. I

love you so much. I love you so much.” Then he just turns on the

“girl,” there’s no girl there, and he starts choking her in the piece.

And everybody’s like [shocked]. And [she said] after that point she was

like, everybody looked at him completely different. So ya know,

sometimes you gotta keep your inner-crazy to yourself. That’s sometimes

how I look at that song. Do you regret making that decision? Do you think on that record you may have let the crazy out a little too much?

Pharoahe Monch: [shakes his head no] I still think it’s one of those songs that keeps MCs like, “Hmmm. I don’t know if we should diss Pharoahe.”

["Queens" Internal Affairs 1999, Rawkus] I love this song and I’m not even from Queens. Is that a true


Pharoahe Monch: Partially true. This dude I used to play ball with, he was real good. Are you nice?

Pharoahe Monch: I’m alright. Killer jumpshot. Handle is alright. I jump like a White man. I don’t have no ups, but I can “J” all day.

So, you know how you might be playing ball and you meet somebody and

they’re…dude was just mad cool. Like a cool dude and I used to look

forward to going to the park in the summer. I mean, we were friends, I

didn’t have his number but he’d always be on the court and we would play

basketball and talk politics or whatever, whatever, whatever and have a

f**king beer after the game or whatever. So anyway, he was hustlin’

dollar cabs in Queens and he got murdered. So it’s kind of an

incorporation of a true story. What did you people to understand about your hood and where your from with that song? People always write about their home but you being an MC who looks at things from a cinematic point of view, what was the movie you wanted to make with that song?

Pharoahe Monch: From wherever you’re sitting or wherever you’re listening to that song, [you are] actually [a part of] the scene. As the song goes on and on, I’m hoping to pull you more and more into what actually happened which is why I try to do this big ending to the rhyme. Where would you say lyrics are on a scale of one to 10?

Pharoahe Monch: I think I’m like at a 7, maybe a 7 and a half. I have so much room to grow and so much more to incorporate. I think it’s a good thing and I think I

have a lot of room for improvement. It’s just something that’s not boxed in. Flows, formats, patterns, and subject matter. So, I’m still reaching for perfection on a technical

aspect. You hope to be as successful as possible [in order] to open up

more room to experiment. I always envision selling as many as records as possible to open a Little bit of space to experiment here with what you do I think people would be more open to it. And where would you say the game is at with lyrics?

Pharoahe Monch: People suck, man. I’m just not inspired! I can’t… it’s hard for me

to say ‘cause I don’t hear everything that’s out, and I want to go on the

record as saying everything that’s good and dope is not necessarily

inspirational. ‘Cause I listen to a lot of cats and I say, “Aw man, he’s

tight, but that doesn’t mean he inspires me.” What separates you as a lyricist from the pack?

Pharoahe Monch: When I step outside of being an artist and I’m a fan, and I do that

s**t a lot. The thing I like about Pharoahe is that each time out I can’t really calculate how he’s gonna rhyme or what he’s gonna rhyme about.

When I get a new CD or a new disc or whatever, I feel it’s like a surprise and that’s part of the enjoyment. What rhyme pattern is he gonna take? What subject matter is he gonna talk about cause he just doesn’t stick to rims, or consciousness, or politics he might be like “T**ties, t**ties, t**ties.” You just never know what you’re gonna get. That’s interesting about Pharoahe that I like. Like the flow on “Oh No”, that’s something I could’ve stuck to for a minute and had people be like that’s Pharoahe’s flow, but I abandoned it. That’s what I like though. He takes chances. In one word, define an MC.

Pharoahe Monch: I’ma have to keep it old school and say skills. With a ‘z’?

Pharoahe Monch: Yup!