An Interview with Pharoahe Monch

“zadu za! zuh za! zu baby!”
Good things for a song to include:
Quadruple metaphors

An Interview with Pharoahe Monch

“zadu za! zuh za! zu baby!”
Good things for a song to include:
Quadruple metaphors

An Interview with Pharoahe Monch

Adam Mansbach
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Even in the thick of the bountiful early ’90s scene, the Queens-bred duo known as Organized Konfusion stood out. On their self-titled debut and their revered follow-up, 1994’s Stress: The Extinction Agenda, Pharoahe Monch and his partner, Prince Poetry, defined the lyrical vanguard with ear-bending enjambment, melodic cadences, stutter-stepping flows, and furious, multisyllabic rhyme flurries. Perhaps more than any of their contemporaries’, OK’s records conveyed an exhilarating sense of possibility: like the avatars of free jazz, they had the chops and the courage to take a song anywhere, at any time.

Conceptually, the group was just as adventurous, rhyming from the perspectives of stray bullets and “hypnotical” gases. The way they cloaked battle rhymes and social commentary in clouds of energetic abstraction marked them as heirs to legendary Bronx super-weirdos the Ultramagnetic MC’s—as well as forefathers to scores of unlistenable rappers who never mastered the proper ratio of organization to confusion.

Critical acclaim and $4.25 will buy you an iced mocha latte, so after a third album, 1997’s The Equinox, Monch decided to go it alone. The year 1999 saw the much-anticipated release of Internal Affairs on the tastemaking Rawkus Records. Like the disc with which it shared advertising space, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, Internal Affairs showcased the versatility of a newly solo artist with ambitions and influences that both transcended and embodied hip-hop. Monch crooned, sparred with a who’s-who of guest MCs, and spewed high-concept rhymefests in the OK vein.

But it was “Simon Says,” Monch’s attempt to simplify his flow for maximum commercial impact, that gave the MC’s MC a bona fide crossover hit. Over an ominous sample jacked from a Godzilla movie, it commanded dancers to “get the fuck up,” and they obeyed in droves. Club DJs loved the song; radio embraced it. Charlie’s Angels and Boiler Room picked it up for their sound tracks. Then the Tokyo-smashing monster (or his human representatives) sued for the uncleared sample, and Rawkus was forced to pull the album from stores.

It would be nearly eight years before Monch released his next long-player, Desire, in June 2007—two or three eternities in the notoriously fast-moving world of hip-hop. Few artists could have marshaled a fan base after such lag-time, but hip-hoppers of a certain era are proving to be quite elephantine in the memory department (see: the resurrected career of MF Doom), and Desire found an audience.

It didn’t hurt that the album showcased Monch at the height of his powers: pushing boundaries with conspiracy theories, multipart narratives, and Tom Jones impressions; challenging listeners to digest his wordplay at the rate he served it up (“still get it poppin’ without Artist and Repertoire / ’cause Monch is a monarch, only minus the A & R”); structuring entire verses around the names of financial institutions and wireless devices. Desire manages to be simultaneously indignant and inspiring, defiant and joyful, hilarious and paranoid. Listening to it now, it is striking to realize how palpably the record feels like a document of the late Bush years.

Monch and I spoke several times by telephone shortly after his return to New York from a European tour. He was preparing for an Organized Konfusion reunion show, the first in ten years, and also laying verses for a new album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), scheduled for release in February. In each case, we talked until his cell phone ran out of juice.

—Adam Mansbach


THE BELIEVER: It seems to me that hip-hop today is like jazz was in the early ’70s. For the first time, the major innovators are not new artists, but fifteen- or twenty-year veterans—guys like you, MF Doom, Ghostface, Nas, Jay-Z. Even Lil Wayne has been in it for almost that long.

PHAROAHE MONCH: I think there’s a couple of reasons. Having the savvy to know what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what music you want to say it over comes with time spent and wisdom gained in a music career. Back in the days, a prodigy usually was cultivated by the veterans around him—take Nas, who was surrounded by Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Premier, and L.E.S., all listening to the tone of his voice and the way he rhymes melodically and saying, “He’s gonna sound better over this.” If Nas had tried to produce his first album himself and hand out demos to people… whatever, I don’t need to elaborate. I remember talking to Nas after [his debut verse on Main Source’s] “Live at the Barbeque,” and he was unsure what he wanted to do. It took time for him to cultivate his mental state and decide, This is what type of artist I want to be.

These days, you don’t get development. When new artists come out and they’re not being cosigned or some company doesn’t have a stake in it, or someone’s not getting paid under the table to produce the whole record or bring it to video, the artist really suffers. You’ve rarely got an artist that’s not being chauffeured into the business by some huge-ass names. Before, it could be like, “Who the fuck are these cats Ultramagnetic MC’s?” “Oh, they’re from the Bronx and they’re insane and this is what it sounds like and this is what they’re bringing to the table.” Now, unless somebody who’s already eleven thousand times platinum is like, “We’re ushering this project in,” it’s not really gonna pop commercially.

People gravitated to the first Organized Konfusion record because it sounded so experimental. We were trying to work on something more cultivated, nurtured by Paul C., a veteran producer who would have given us a more polished, tighter groove. Then Paul was murdered, so me and Prince Poetry was winging it—taking records to the studio and trying to do the shit ourselves.

BLVR: That reminds me of something Adam Bradley says in Book of Rhymes: that MCs who rhyme familiar, standard words tend to rhyme about familiar, standard subjects. So breaking out content-wise is dependent on breaking out poetically. It sounds like breaking out musically freed you to write differently, too.

PM: I would have to agree. I think it’s one of the major reasons that the art form is suffering and we’ve hit a wall artistically. A lot of the intricate parts of hip-hop culture became non-useful to the commercial mainstream, so they made it unusable. Like the beatbox: it goes from “All right, we don’t have money for equipment, but we’ve got this dude.…” to “We’ve got the budget to make a record now; we don’t need you in the group anymore.”

There’s a lot of pressure from the industry and the radio. Especially in New York, cats are like, “I guess this is what you have to do to be recognizable or even make this a profession at all. And I definitely could do what I’m hearing on the radio.” And they get caught in a rut. But the consumer is like, “I’m not gonna buy some Jay-Z-sounding shit from somebody other than him, because I can just wait for the best person to do it.”

BLVR: Have you seen the Byron Hurt documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, where he asks all these MCs standing on the street outside a record company why they all rhyme about the same shit, and they tell him it’s the only way to get signed?

PM: No, but I can imagine. A colleague of mine played me some stuff from a guy who gave him a CD and was like, “This is my group. And this is what we do.” And that shit was cool; it was cash and rims and coke. But then the same guy was like, “Here’s the CD of what I actually do outside of them, because I’m on my own shit.” And we were fucking blown the fuck away. You feel pressured to do what you think the public wants, when in actuality the sales aren’t reflecting what the radio is doing. Not in the least bit! At some point, there’s a disconnect. Five years ago, I was like, “I know this song is platinum: this is the four-hundredth time I’ve heard it this morning.” And then you check and not even the younger kids are buying into the shit. They’re like, “This is cool for my fucking cell phone alert, but I don’t believe this guy, he’s a clown.”

There are situations where I’m uncomfortable saying, “I’m a hip-hop artist.” In some circles, the response is like, “Oh, OK, so… you have whores and your ties are shiny?”

BLVR: Do you see a generation gap within hip-hop? Between the veteran artists and fans who connect hip-hop to social protest, and younger ones who just see hip-hop as a facet of pop culture? I’m thinking of the cover version of Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” on Desire, which is a brilliant way of knitting two generations together: commenting on the continuing relevance of that song, but also reinventing it.

PM: That’s exactly why I did it. I’m a big PE fan, very inspired by Chuck and the group. I laid the first verse, and I was playing it for people younger than me and they were like, “This shit is incredible. This is dope, this is relevant.” And I was like, “If you think this is crazy, you need to hear the original version,” and they were like, “What… original…?” And I was like, “Oh my god, that’s even more reason for me to do it.”

BLVR: They’re certainly never going to hear PE on the radio.

PM: Radio goes after this demographic of eight-to-eighteen-year-olds, and plays music they think facilitates that demographic, and really dumbs it down. But at the same time, my manager has a nephew in high school, and he’s telling me about the resurgence of golden-era shit in his high school. The same monster that they invented—the Internet, which is a gift and a curse, because it gives you all this access—allows kids to find Public Enemy and breeze through the shit, if they’re willing to become privy to it, and listen to “They Reminisce Over You” and fucking Large Professor and Illmatic.

When you find that music, you really feel in your soul what’s on the level with what. A producer friend of mine went to a conference in Phoenix, and all the bigwigs is on the panel, and the audience is fifteen-to-twenty-four-year-old up-and-coming producers, and a guy raises his hand and is like, “What’s going on with the music? I’m not really feeling what’s going on.” And a guy on the panel is like, “Well, you know, the Pro Tools and the Reason and the digital transfer…” and the kid is like, “Yo, forget all of that! I’m saying that I’m not feeling what cats are doing right now, what’s being served to us!” And people started clapping. You can’t fool all the people all the time.

BLVR: It’s great that that happened at a producers’ conference, in a room full of people who aspire to shape what’s going to be on the radio next year.

PM: Even at my old-ass age, I think back to my father and my older brother telling me, “This is not good.” I remember one time I bought Kool & The Gang’s Ladies Night and my brother broke the record and was like, “This is bullshit Kool & The Gang! This is not real Kool & The Gang!” And I was like, “What the fuck, man? This is Ladies Night!” It’s the same thing. There needs to be someone who can lead you in the right direction. There’s a need for pop. There’s a need for radio. There’s also a need to understand the brilliance and the depth of jazz and soul—and what hip-hop can be at its most brilliant and what hip-hop can be at its most simplistic.

Kids don’t even realize what they’re up against. If you idolize Kanye, know who Kanye’s influences are, and study that stuff. You’ll never match Kanye by starting off with his last record. You gotta go back and see that he was a great student of Jay-Z and a great student of Mos and a great student of Common and a great student of [Talib] Kweli. You just can’t jump in it and expect to be at that level.

Even the guys who I like who are coming up now, like this kid Blu from L.A., you talk to these dudes and they’re like, “My father was this,” “I listened to that,” “I was in the basement with this.” Radio makes it appear like you can get some sounds in a laptop and be the next dude. Those careers don’t really last, that’s the sad thing about it.

BLVR: Well, they used to be built on a lot more. Hip-hop was passed down through mentor-apprentice relationships, and a lot of the skills had to be learned firsthand. You weren’t going to figure out how to DJ or write graffiti unless somebody showed you. So you were responsible to your elders.…

PM: It’s crazy. I was watching an interview about the black man who performed the first open-heart surgery. Forty years later, you have surgeries removing bullets from people’s lungs. You don’t have the doctors saying, “Oh, fuck that heart surgery he did back in the day, I’m pulling bullets out of people’s lungs now,” right?

It mattered. It mattered what someone did to allow you to have the forum to do what you’re doing. There’s no way that you can say, “Fuck KRS-One. What I’m doing now is what I’m doing now is what I’m doing now.” And somebody has to pull cats aside, not for them to pay homage, you don’t need to pay homage, but to just try to understand the vehicle that’s allotted to you, why it’s there. There once was no radio for hip-hop. There once was no video shows for hip-hop. It’s like a man going, “This shit is all me, it has nothing to do with the universe, nothing to do with God, my parents….” You have to understand the vehicle, the form that allows you to do what you do, and why that is.


BLVR: Do you feel a greater responsibility or burden now than you did fifteen years ago, because fewer people are making overtly political music?

PM: I’m doing what’s in my heart at the time. I heard Erykah [Badu] say once that the songs she recorded yesterday may not reflect how she feels about the same shit today, and that’s what capturing something in time is all about. What I’m recording now is pretty angry again, just at the state of things, and there’s also a lotta sadness. When I was recording Internal Affairs, I’d pulled away from the group, and I had a lot of things to express that felt personal and a lot of things on the record that I was just vomiting out. This shit is very therapeutic, you know.

But on Desire, after going through the stress of label issues and personal stuff, I wanted to do something more uplifting. People have written me emails and hit me on MySpace and told me stories of having kids, or losing their jobs, and how songs like “Push” and “Desire” have enabled them to not just bail out on their girl, or to get an extra job. Kids need to know that this is a tool for that as well.

BLVR: That’s part of the disconnect, right? For those of us who came up with hip-hop in the ’80s, that was just assumed.

PM: I heard Soulja Boy saying that hip-hop for him is having fun and being the life of the party. And that’s cool, that’s original roots—you know, we go at him a little too hard for that kind of thing. You need that retreat to do some silly-ass shit once in a while. But there’s a whole other side of it that can coax you to have more discipline and open you up to a different way of being and a different lifestyle, and those things don’t get focused on any more. Speaking for myself, Chuck D had me like, “Whoo!”, fucking stressing about “Let me go look [his references] up; who are these people?”

BLVR: Chuck and KRS had me in the library all day.

PM: I aspire to write songs like that. I’m not dumbing it down, not in the least bit. I’m still catching shit [in my own music] that I didn’t even intend, like “Oh, shit, that’s a quadruple metaphor.” And dumbing down doesn’t just have to mean not rhyming all multisyllabic and crazy so you can’t understand it. The flow might be simple, but I’m not dumbing down my vocabulary or what I’ve learned. You know? Google this shit if you don’t know it.

BLVR: Do you write to beats? Or do you compose a beat around a rhyme?

PM: I mostly write to music, even though I know I sound free-form a lot. Then there are times when I’ll have a concept and hold on to it until I come across the right music that makes a marriage. On “Trilogy” [a three-act story on Desire], I had the concept and we fit a lot of the music around what I was saying. For the first portion, the producer gave me a beat and I just basically started vomiting that verse out in the studio. I was like, “This is what this music is telling me to say. How are we going to finish this up?” On “Rape” from Internal Affairs, I was like, “I want to embody this character who is maniacal about music to the point where he’s going to have photographs of it all over the house and he’s obsessed with it like a woman, and this is how I’m going to scope this whole thing out.” And when I heard that beat I was like, “All right, this is the music for ‘Rape.’”

BLVR: When you’re doing a song that’s built around a particular cadence, do you determine the pattern first and then plug the words into the vocal melody? On “Body Baby,” for example.

PM: I did that just being real open and playful. “What is this? Is it this? Is it that?” You fuck around. When I had the beat, I was like, “Let me see, what rhymes do I have in my hand right now?” And I’m listening to the beat and I’m like, “I know, let me try this: ‘Wake up to the…’ No! Ah! I got something.” And I’m fucking around, but that tone and that vocal fit—“I think this might be a great idea, let me try it. Zadu za! zuh za! zu baby! zadu za! zuh za! zu baby!” “All right, that shit might work.” So I went to the studio with the guy I laid the beat with and I was like, “Is this Tom Jones? Is this Elvis? Where should I be?” And he’s like: “Try it Tom Jones! Try Elvis!”

BLVR: That reminds me of something Grandmaster Caz said about the Cold Crush Brothers’ routines. He would base them on Barry Manilow cadences, knowing that the audience would recognize it without being able to place it, so there would be this vague sense of familiarity. KRS-One did the same thing.

PM: That just shows you the brilliance of these writers. When you can hear that and implement that sensibility into what you do, then you become as legendary as Grandmaster Caz and Slick Rick and KRS-One. Because now you’re tapping into—there is a mathematical and melodic equation to why things work with a rhyme and why things don’t.

BLVR: Do you think about those mathematics consciously, or are they just ingrained in your writing process?

PM: I think in Organized Konfusion it was conscious, but we went against the formulas knowingly—trying to say to our audience: “OK, we know we’re supposed to stop, but let’s fucking fight the normal arrangement.” I saw a VH1 Storytellers with Sting, and he was like, you really can’t [abandon the structure]. You lose people when you do that. People’s brains are mathematically designed. But you can go crazy and maniacal within a mathematical framework. You can talk about Pluto and Saturn and Venus and all that shit in your sixteen [bars], in your eight, but it needs to stick to a mathematical structure.

BLVR: It seems like listeners don’t have a blueprint to understand the genius of a great writer of rhymes. Either because there’s no forum to talk about it, or because artists willfully obscure it, like, “Oh, I just go in the booth and freestyle.” But at the same time, hard-core listeners dissect verses almost instinctually. The first time I heard “Push,” for example, my first thought was, I bet Monch came up with the “I ride the bass line like Ginobili” line first and then went back and filled in all the bars that set it up.

PM: Yeah, I do that all the time. My process right now is freestyle writing. I’ll be in the car and I’ll be like, “Dada, dada, ride the baseline like Ginobili—Oh shit! Ohh!” “OK, I need this to melodically flow last, I need it to be the last line, what goes before ‘I ride the bass line like Ginobili’? ‘Vocally, globally.’


BLVR: You’re in the studio now, right? What’s the new music sound like?

PM: The stuff I’m working on is quite dense. I’m seeing every four bars as a scene in a film. Each segment of four completes a scene that evokes a different emotion. Especially this one song called “Hitman.” I was in the studio recording this shit yesterday, and I’m not even done and everybody is like, “This scene, that scene.” Not that it’s written in script form—I’m just comparing it to that. I took that into consideration after talking to a lot of screenwriter friends. Not only: “OK, these are dope lines and you get a response from a dope line,” but “What are you trying to say here? What is the film about? What’s your goal? What’s the moral? How does this relate to the next scene?”

BLVR: What would you say is the greatest verse in the history of hip-hop?

PM: The one that pops immediately is the Melle Mel rhyme from Beat Street: “Hiroshima: ha ha ha.” Still, to this day, I be like, “Goddamn!”

BLVR: Was Mel your guy coming up? Was he the be-all and end-all?

PM: Naw, not really. I was always a Treacherous Three dude.

BLVR: Me, too. I think Kool Moe Dee in the Treacherous Three days was further ahead of the field than anybody has ever been at any other point. It’s like listening to Louis Armstrong in the ’20s, where he’s just in a different zone than even the musicians he’s playing with.

PM: I think so. I’d have to agree with that.

BLVR: Who are your greatest influences on the mic?

PM: Do I have to stick with MCs?

BLVR: Nah, it doesn’t have to be MCs.

PM: I’ll have to say John Coltrane. Some of his songs really influenced me to push the melodic side of what I was trying to do lyrically, so it didn’t have to be monotone.

BLVR: Are you talking about those long flurries of notes he would play?

PM: Yeah, exactly. Another one is Eugene McDaniels—his songwriting and vocal performance. I always go back to his music. Headless Heroes [of the Apocalypse, released in 1971] was very political, and really got swept under the rug. The shit that he was saying on that record, at the time, was mind-blowing.

BLVR: I can hear him in your singing style.

PM: I straight tried to bite him. I won’t hide that. Listening to him liberated me to try to do more, because he’s not a classically trained vocalist. And then I’d say Kool G Rap. Not just for his wordplay—his flow, his vocabulary, the whole package. All his stuff—the stories, battle shit. And then, you know, Rakim, KRS, De La Soul. There’s just so many who inspired me. On a commercial level, you might hear something and say, “Oh, that’s what they playing on the radio, I can do that,” or “This is who everybody’s claiming is hot and popping; I can do that better.” But artistically, a Brand Nubian will come out, and you’ll be like, “Oh shit! No one should ever record ever again.” And then you use that desolation to try to raise the stakes.

BLVR: The era you came up in seems like it was very communal. All the influential producers would hang out all the time, go beat-digging, trade records.

PM: Back then, we were all sharing studios, right next door to each other. Now everybody has studios in their crib, and is on their fucking computer. There’s less chance of you running into somebody of magnanimous qualities like myself. I’m not going to run into Pete Rock if he’s not at Greene Street and I’m not at Battery Studios or whatever.

BLVR: In many ways, hip-hop was born out of the desire for community, and the seizure of public space to create it: throwing jams in the park, writing on the trains. Today, public space is in decline, all over the country. I wonder what hip-hop loses by being more and more virtual.

PM: Without that kind of live interaction you’re talking about, the electricity is gone. This conversation is bringing me back to so many other conversations. I had a conversation with Nas a couple of years ago and he was saying, “Yo, you remember when such-and-such song was out and we would go and see them perform and there would be this energy and this electricity?” The virtual shit has deadened that actual transference of energy somewhat. When people can create a professional-level song without really having to test it and perform it, they lose: they don’t have the experience of seeing how an audience responds, and learning how to implement that shit into the record. This is why you have these veterans lasting.

BLVR: To me, one of the most glaringly bizarre ways hip-hop intersects with the virtual world is in the phenomenon of MCs battling on YouTube, for sport. There’s a whole battle circuit of cats who do nothing but. It seems so unrelated to MCing, in a way. Or to battling, if your standard is Kool Moe Dee versus Busy Bee, or you remember when battles were about something, like KRS-One and Brother J arguing about humanism versus black nationalism.

PM: It has its place. The shit is not entertaining at some points, and very entertaining when people are tight. But what’s missing is, when Kool Moe Dee went to battle Busy Bee, you could hear the electricity from the fucking crowd: this is two people in the game who have some shit to lose. Even with Nas and Jay-Z, if it’s to the point where Jay-Z is performing and everybody knows, “Oh, Nas is supposed to be here tonight,” that changes the whole complexion of the shit. The battle thing is very important in hip-hop, but at the same time, I want to sit down and have a beer and listen to Rakim, you know? A lot of the cats I came up with weren’t filtered through that battle shit. And I know Rakim wasn’t a stand-on-the-corner, freestyle-and-crack-on-your-sneakers dude, either. I know Kool G Rap wasn’t. If you start making it the be-all end-all, it’s like, “OK, now, where’s your great song that changed my life?”

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