THE BELIEVER: 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.

PHAROAHE MONCHI 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.’

Pharoahe Monch talks with Adam Mansbach (January 2011). 

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