From the Vault: Pharoahe Monch (Damage)

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Photo Courtesy of W.A.R. Media

If you took a poll of elite rappers and asked them who their favorite rappers were, you’d hear the name Pharoahe Monch a whole lot. Monch is an emcee’s emcee. Eminem, Common, and Talib Kweli, among others have gushed over the lyrical dexterity of Pharoahe Monch. Monch came into the game in the early 1990’s as one half of Organized Konfusion and further added to his legacy with lyrically superior solo albums.

In 2012 I got the chance to talk with Monch while he was preparing to release the EP, which later became an album, PTSD. The albums’ first single ‘Damage’ was the third and final installment in Monch’s bullet trilogy that began in 1994 on the song ‘Stray Bullet’ and continued in 2007 on ‘When the Gun Draws’. Monch takes the form of a bullet on ‘Damage’ and chronicles the destruction that’s left in its path.

Pharoahe Monch discusses Damage, W.A.R. Media, and the possibilities of an Organized Konfusion reunion.


TRHH: Tell me about the new single Damage?

Pharoahe Monch: On some straight forward Hip-Hop shit I’ve had that chorus for about a year and a half. I’ve been saving it because I was looking for a hard beat to scream on rappers and utilize that L chorus. Lee Stone hit me with this beat when we started working on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and being the artist that I am I’m like, “Man, this is iller than I thought.” I thought I might as well finish this trilogy and put it in the personification of the bullet and let this be the third and last installment of the bullet records. So, I took it and kind of flipped the phrase, “Look at the way I slay your crew, damage,” as if the bullet was talking and I thought it made it more of a conceptual record.

TRHH: It’s also kind of like a view of inner-city violence that we’re seeing today, correct?

Pharoahe Monch: Yeah, you know it’s been so graphic last summer with killing and violence here and in Detroit, Chicago, and other main cities. It’s just been crazy. I’m a passionate person and I have empathy whenever I see that type of thing on the news, especially young children. What I wanted to do with this song was to be as graphic as possible to bring about these types of interviews and these types of discussions to say, these bullets don’t have any heart. They aren’t sympathetic and they don’t have empathy, whether you’re a cop or a 5-year old. That’s the true triple examination of the song. At the end of the day the bullet turns on the police officer. That’s how we’re going to shoot this visual and I want to examine how the song affects people when the tables are turned.

TRHH: You mentioned how on Damage you used the LL Cool J lyric from Mama Said Knock You Out. You’re from Queens, right?

Pharoahe Monch: Yes sir.

TRHH: LL is kind of an overlooked guy these days. Would you say he is the best emcee ever from Queens, besides yourself of course?

Pharoahe Monch: I think he’s super underrated and I’ve always felt that way. He gave mainstream cats the blueprint that females buy records. He was one of the first artists to be like look, this record is directly written for teenage girls, or that type of audience. Because of that it was overlooked of how nice he was as a lyricist, in my opinion.

TRHH: You’ve historically taken a lot of time in between solo albums, why was the turn around so fast from We Are Renegades to your new project?

Pharoahe Monch: I had promised the fans that I would turn out work sooner when I became an independent artist. A lot of the last situation was label hang ups and being caught in that frame of mind that I need my label shit to be right before I just give this shit away. I’ve never been big on mixtapes. So, I still have my artist side that wants the artwork, cover work, videos, and visuals. With this I actually recorded the title track first and we thought it would be a great idea to follow the W.A.R. album with what happens after war.

My manager was like, “Yo, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as it applies to the real-life soldier situation and everyday people who go through traumatic situations,” and I thought it was a brilliant idea. I myself have gone through traumatic situations in everyday life as a human in the city, the hood, the ghetto, and as a black man. Also, as someone who is trying to spark something in an industry where they don’t really allow small businesses to thrive. And that struggle can be frustrating financially, video wise, budget wise, touring, and radio wise. I thought I would put the ending result to the W.A.R. album on this EP.

TRHH: With that being said, would you say that being independent is a better look for you at this point of your career?

Pharoahe Monch: It’s definitely a better look for me in this paradigm. I don’t think I’d be able to put out a record like Damage in order to sustain my career, in my opinion, because these are the records that separate my brand from everybody else. I don’t see how one would stand out with all of the music and artists that’s available to you now. It’s all about what it used to be about which is preserving the culture, standing out, making a name for yourself, or adding to Hip-Hop culture by trying to put out a dope classic project and inspire. I think through that you can sustain your brand and make money in the end.

TRHH: Do you ever think you’re too lyrical in your music and you could be alienating certain fans?

Pharoahe Monch: Well PTSD in my opinion so far is my best project. It runs the gamut of what I do. What I do is over the course of time if you’re a fan from Let My People Go, to Still Standing, to ‘Desire, to Black Sunday with Organized Konfusion, to Damage, to whatever, is a variety of shit. I think PTSD highlights the best that I’ve done in my career. From Damage to the stuff that you haven’t heard yet, I think it’s Grammy Award winning records on this album from the bottom of my heart. To answer your question, not everything on this album is as lyrical as Damage is. It’s just really dope in its simplicity; it’s dope in its content and complicated-ness.

What I want people to get from me as an artist is that all of this shit is calculated. Damage is a calculated record. It’s not mixed real edgy like that because I don’t know producers who can play fucking vacuuming-dust the house-chick music. It’s mixed like that because that’s what I wanted to portray in the song sonically. The next record, as smooth as it is or with the singing in the chorus that I’m doing is purposeful. These are the sides of me and the personalities that I have, so it’s not just happenstance. From upper tier producers to the most underground cats who don’t have names yet, I’m picking music with a purpose. Damage obviously isn’t going to be in rotation at radio fifteen times an hour. It had a purpose.

TRHH: You’ve been in the game going on 22 years did you ever picture that you’d have this type of longevity?

Pharoahe Monch: It’s funny because in the beginning you only have who inspires you to be your guideline. I say that to say, I’m fortunate enough to grow up in a household where my siblings were listening to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix. This is music from ’72, and ’74 and I’m hearing it and it’s still banging. What process did they take to make this music twenty years later sound as good to me? What did they do? I’m digging through these crates to sample their shit. I’m looking at the Stones and Police and they’re still making albums and performing, so that was my initial thought process. I want the shit to be that good to where if you pick up Internal Affairs it doesn’t feel dated. Of course, it feels vintage in a sense that there’s a new thing going on, but you can still play the shit today. That’s from Simon Says to the whole rest of the album. That’s what I attribute that to.

I never got in the rap game under somebody else’s pretense of what the limitations should be. This was something different. Initially, in terms of culture and the shit just being dope to me at the time I got into the game it was more about how you want to play your part. How are you going to play your part in this culture that’s emerging rapidly and taking the world by storm and you better not be wack? That was the mentality of people that were getting in the game back then, unlike now where people need a hit for the summer, or the description of how people describe me or determine my level of artistry doesn’t matter. What matters is if I get paid, which has relevance. I’m just breaking down the difference between the eras.

TRHH: I saw you perform for the first time in 2000 on the Spitkickers tour with De La Soul, Common, Reflection Eternal and Biz Markie and it looked like such a fun tour to be a part of—you gave a great performance. I recently saw that you’re going on tour with Jean Grae and some other artists in the winter. What do you have in-store for fans on your upcoming tour?

Pharoahe Monch: It’s always the dopest shit going out with her because she’s not only open to ideas, she’s bringing ideas to the table. She’ll go on stage and come out of a cage even if it’s some underground spot with 250-300 people. We’re always trying to push the envelope with ideas because we’re fans of the genre. We’re looking at the shit like we’re double fucking platinum artists or deserve to be so we’re never stepping out on stage like, “Fuck that shit, the sounds fucked up so we’re going to walk back and forth.” Me and her haven’t even started brainstorming in terms of the set or what we’re going to try to do. I’m excited about that. I’ve thrown around some ideas and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder should be out by then so I’ll do a couple of songs off of that album and then in turn treat the stage like it was my living room and I’m going through the mental issues that I’m going through.

TRHH: What do you hope to accomplish with your label W.A.R. Media?

Pharoahe Monch: We’re getting it, man. It’s slow because we’re independent but we have artists writing us and stepping to us. Established artists are asking about being signed to the label and submitting music. We’re not at that stage just yet, but it does show that we’re doing something right and people want to fucking be a part of that and we haven’t even begun to fight yet really. It’s more of a mass media content/magazine/information/skit/film… it’s a bunch of shit. I see stuff on the internet and in entertainment where I think, “Man, if they would have just done this, or shot it this way, it would have been funnier or more compelling.”

We’re just trying to provide that content at the end of the day because we believe there is room for this witty/headsy content. There seems to be a lack of it on the internet. To me, most of it is just like high school fights and girl fights. That’s cool, too, because I blow a lot of time watching bullshit, but it’s not enough anti-that. That’s the problem with the industry in general. It’s like after you watch a couple of crack heads fight on the internet you kind of want to even it out with some information about how to eat right, or vegetables, or information that’s happening, or like-minded artists that are performing in your town. Where do you get that? Where you get that perspective and point of view at is just a portion of what this company is really about. It’s not just about putting out rap records.

TRHH: Will we ever hear another Organized Konfusion album?

Pharoahe Monch: Six words, who knows what the future holds [laughs]?

TRHH: OK. What can fans expect to hear on PTSD?

Pharoahe Monch: Ah man, this is my pride and joy right now. This is my baby. I had one before and it sold a lot of records for an independent record, it was well-received, and well-toured. PTSD pushes the envelope, man. It’s like what’s the point of doing this at this point after all of these years if you’re going to play it safe. It’s not a safe record, not in rhyme scheme, lyrics, my personal shit that I’m putting out there, or my singing shit that I’m doing. It’s not safe at all. I hate when my favorite artists make safe music where I’m like, “Fuck, anybody could have did that! You can put twenty artists on that beat with that chorus, that’s like ‘add a rapper!’” It’s like instant rapper, add water fucking songs. So, this record is not that, and at the same time it’s pretty damn phat, to coin a phrase from Souls of Mischief.

Purchase the Pharoahe Monch Solo Discography

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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