Features | Interviews

Pharoahe Monch

By Clayton Purdom | 28 April 2007

Quickfast: name your top ten favorite musical artists of all time, regardless of genre. The ones that once shot electromagnetic fishnets across your attention, blinding temporarily in a white-hot haze, a shuddering high that you never forgot and chased forever, reliving in tiny bursts with each of the thousand successive listens.

This is Pharoahe Monch for me. As one half of Organized Konfusion, he released two exultant, virtuosic, funny, fucked-up and sneering records, some of the best rap in rap’s best decade. When offered fifteen sweet, sweet minutes of interview with Monch, in the month preceding the release of his second solo record, Desire, which comes eight-fucking-years after his epochal solo debut, I snatched the opportunity. I had some shit to ask. I managed to do a little of this between chattering teeth.


CMG: You handled about half the production on the new record yourself, right?

PM: Nah, three songs. I did “Push,” “What It Is,” and “Body Baby.”

CMG: Is there any overriding philosophy unifying the sound of the new record?

PM: I think what pulls it together the most is the content and the soul. I think that for vocal reasons the direction I was going was heavy on the vocal side, whether it’s a god-fearing, evil song, there will still be some type of vocals, or on some James Bond, David Axelrod type of thing, or whether it was a straight soul record. So I think the vocals and the soul of the music is what makes it cohesive.

CMG: What was it that made you want to include more vocals on the record?

PM: Coming off songs like “My Life” with Styles P, (where I sang) the chorus, and from feedback and beats and just the direction I was going, I was doing a lot of vocalization on the records, but then when I got to the live element, I was like, “Yo, this is not translating well live with me trying to do everything.” So I incorporated singers. But these people who I got on board, they totally transcend that whole “background” vibe. The guy who’s singing on the “Desire” record is a force to be reckoned with, and then she-live is a force in herself. So as soon as we started doing shows together, I knew I had to incorporate these people on the record. And what’s dope about especially Neela, is, you know, he could be working on an Aretha Franklin record, or he could be working on some dark-ass satanic song and she will just switch up, and jump right into that character.

CMG: So you wanted to open things up more. Were you in search of a more collaborative solo record?

PM: Yeah, it’s definitely more collaborative. They’re all over the record. Showtime is featured on the “Desire” record, everybody and their mother thinks its K-C from Jodeci, you know. Even at the live show, it’s not like there’s someone in the background doing a two-step on some Gladys Knight and the Pips. It’s like a trio of artists on stage.

CMG: So were you dissatisfied with what could be done with straight rap? Was just rapping not good enough anymore?

PM: Nah, I really think that in the essence, if you listen to “Let’s Go” and “When The Gun Draws” it still comes across with an underground vibe. I just wanted to convey different emotions that vocals do. I think that what happens is that rap, hip-hop, and the powers that be tend to box it in, and you could take some David Axelrod vocals or some eerie ass shit, and it could be harder than me saying five times over, “I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the hardest fucking man, I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the hardest fucking man” in the chorus. I just think that people don’t really understand or it hasn’t been translated musically that every time a vocal is sung, it doesn’t have to be what you normally hear with rappers singing in their choruses.

CMG: So what do you think about Cee-Lo or Andre 3000, who have ditched rapping entirely? Could you ever do something similar?

PM: Eh, I don’t think so. I have too much emcee in me. At the same time, I’m gonna do what I need to do to convey what I need to convey. Whether that translates to the audience or not, I don’t know. But from ground zero, it’s like, I want this verse to break off into like, some hard rock shit that has, like, Sabbath, and I’m not gonna rap a chorus over that shit, because that (would be) corny. I need something authentic. I’m gonna go out and have a talent search to find the people who can pull that shit off the best in my eyes. At the same time, I wouldn’t do that if I got straightforward music from Pete Rock or Large Professor. That’s what I think the record’s about. But to answer your question about Cee-Lo, I mean, I don’t know, man. I love the “Crazy” record, I love the Gnarls Barkley project, I love Cee-Lo’s voice, so I’m just glad that he’s doing what he’s doing. He does have one of my favorite 15 bars of all time, which is the OutKast “Git Up, Git Out” record. But I love him as an emcee as well.

CMG: Yeah. I just miss Andre rapping, personally. I just wish I got to hear it more often these days.

PM: Yeah, it’s sad, because he’s one of the best, if not the best.

CMG: So was Internal Affairs what you wanted it to be at the time, or do you feel like Desire is closer to the music that you wanted to be making?

PM: Oh, man, Internal Affairs is the perfect interpretation of what I was feeling at the time. It’s me, riding my bike in the summer and being exhausted and having to use my asthma inhaler on the way to the studio to do vocals in a closet with no air conditioner in the summer in New York City. It is me, making a decision to leave samples in the sp-1200 rather than transferring them to the kai so that the sound is cleaner and richer. It is a conscious effort to honor out emotions without thinking about it. The only thing about the album that didn’t get explained is that, “internal affairs” is meant to mean like, me in therapy, and throughout some of the songs, there was supposed to be a therapist like, “Okay, so what’s making you so angry?” and then the album would go off in to “Rape” or “Simon Says” or whatever. There are things I would change, but (for the time) it was perfect: me vomiting out emotion and rhymes and, “Oh! I never got to do collaboration when I was in Organized Konfusion, and I wanna do a song with Common, and I wanna do a song with Busta Rhymes,” and so all that shit is imbedded in that album at the time. This particular album has no (guest) emcees on it, because I got that outta my system.

CMG: Is there much spillover on this record from (Internal Affairs‘ unreleased 2004 follow-up) Innervisions?

PM: Not really. We recorded like one or two songs or ideas that were kept over from that project.

CMG: What happened to that record, by the way? Did the soulful stuff that you’re pushing on Desire just overcome you?

PM: Pretty much, and just constantly recording and constantly recording and things going in different directions, and me being excited about that. Years after we are not in existence anymore, people will be digging the records, and be like, “Oh shit, oh snap oh snap, I’m looking kapow! and I found this Mos Def CD, oh shit, I didn’t know he did a song with Pharaohe Monch, who the fuck is this, Pharaohe Monch Pharaohe Monch, he did a song with Mos Def, oh, he was in a group prior to going solo, bah bah bah, whatever whatever whatever.” That being said, it’s an honor to record those collaboration songs like that, it’s also dope to me that the Innervision album is mine, I own the masters, and eventually, it will get put out. And, just as a fan of music, and a fan of hip hop, it’s fun to me because I pulled myself aside from the industry shit to be like, “Here’s some work that was scratched. Here’s some work that never got mastered.” It just makes me feel like I’m moving closer to being the Coltrane that I want to be, that I dream of being, that I imagine I am.

CMG: You’ve got Black Milk doing two beats on the new one. Milk makes no bones about being a Dilla follower. Did you hear him and think, “Hey, sounds like Dilla,” or was it more for you?

PM: I just heard some hot ass beats. I’m in Detroit, I’m at this spot with Slum and Mr. Porter, and it’s like, “Have you heard Black Milk?” And I’m like, “Nah, I haven’t heard Black Milk.” “Have you heard his beats?” “Nah, I haven’t heard his beats.” “We gotta get you his beats.” So we go back to the house, and he came over with his machine. And you know, it is what it is. I’m like, “I can’t pass this up, I want to rhyme over this beat.” The “Let’s Go” joint, he just put it on, I was like, “Put it on, set up a microphone, let’s go.” It pretty much sounds like that. There’s production that went down afterward, but lyrically, it made me feel like, just shut the fuck up and say some rhymes.

CMG: Me and one of the other editors have a long-standing argument over which Organized Konfusion record’s better. Which one’s your favorite, just for the record?

PM: I would have to give a slight edge to Extinction Agenda.

CMG: Oof. I like the self-titled.

PM: Slight edge, slight edge. I’ll be quite honest, I haven’t listened to those albums in their entirety in years. Maybe I might change my mind. Because of the passing of my father and a couple other things, I have a little emotional tie to stress. And I think that’s the first one where we were sure in who we were and what we were to hip hop. The first one is just incredible because it’s just obviously raw-ass organic motherfuckers taking records to the studio with equipment and just being real experimental.

CMG: Yeah, that’s exactly why I like it. Thanks for your time, I look forward to the record.