Pharoahe Monch is one of the greatest emcees of all-time. Since the days of Organized Konfusion, his rap patterns have been globally lauded as some of the best in the business, but it’s his content that puts him in the upper echelon of emcees.
With the current Presidential administration’s plan to attack healthcare in the United States it felt appropriate it to unearth my 2014 interview with Pharoahe Monch. In the spring of 2014 Monch was preparing to release his fourth solo album, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The album touched on the causes and effects of PTSD, while Monch shared his personal journey of dealing with anxiety and depression.
Mental illness is a taboo subject in America, and even more in the black community. Pharoahe Monch took a brave risk tackling a subject that is rarely dealt with in Hip-Hop. In possibly the most meaningful interview I’ve ever conducted Pharoahe Monch goes in depth about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
TRHH: You’re known for having serious rhymes but this new album is a lot more serious than the others. Why’d you decide to take it there with this record?
Pharoahe Monch: I think from a creative standpoint it was a beautiful transition coming from an album called W.A.R., which is an acronym for “We Are Renegades”, which was my first independent album. I feel like I put a lot of gems in there about the struggle independently, socially, politically, and dealing with the machine of capitalism in the country. I think coming off of that album, which was pretty revered for an independent – we did pretty well, it still left me being dropped from my healthcare provider, grinding, and working really hard and really left in a place that people don’t get to see from the perspective of the artist. I decided to talk about what a lot of soldiers experience, which is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also, people in general who are dealing in today’s society are more privy to traumatic experiences and expressing them. I thought it would be cool artistically as well as a challenge to myself to be vulnerable enough to talk about my issues with depression, monetary issues, losing my with healthcare, and even after trying to champion a great cause being faced with some issues returning back to what I love to do.
TRHH: How did you navigate through your depression?
Pharoahe Monch: What’s unique about the situation is I’m pretty stoic in general and I pull from different timelines. In the depth of the seriousness of the depression I’m actually pulling from a time where I was hospitalized for two and a half-three weeks with a severe and chronic asthma attack. What happened was my doctors were trying to get me over that hump. I was getting medication intravenously and then after I was released I was on heavy dosages of prednisone, antibiotics, and other different medications. I didn’t realize what I was experiencing was the side-effects from the medication. That’s one of the side-effects of prednisone. I wasn’t realizing it at the time but when I returned home from the hospital back to like, “Yo, let’s make some records,” and “Yo, let’s play some ball,” I was just hit with this feeling of not feeling like doing anything. Normal day-to-day issues that we face that I was able to cope with before, I wasn’t able to navigate the day-to-day. The day-to-day turned to hour to hour.
When people speak about severe depression I’m able to very clearly go into depth about what that feels like. I later discovered at a dental appointment when I wrote down the medications for the dentist he brought me into his office and said, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but I might need to break some shit down for you.” He broke it down medically and I just started bawling. There is an answer to what the fuck is going on in my head. I was able to call my doctors and they said I should stop taking it immediately and so on and so forth. I used that experience to pull from for this project because dealing with healthcare and still not being cured of my asthma you’re fearful of going down that road again every time you experience that. When I wrote the title record or ‘Broken Again’ I’m really pulling from those experiences like, “Yo, if I go another hour without getting sleep, I just can’t.”
TRHH: What happened with your health insurance? Was it a label situation or financial?
Pharoahe Monch: Well I was under Cobra and how it works is it’s only for a certain amount of time that it lasts and you have to find a new carrier. That doesn’t matter when you can’t breathe. Again, I’m likening it to what I can imagine to be a grave problem for people who don’t have the income that I have. If I need it at the time I would just pay out of pocket. Most people can’t afford to pay out of pocket. There were times when I couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket — if I’m likening that to a spiral situation that’s deep and I think it’s worth writing about. I didn’t write a song about healthcare I’m just saying part of my writing in this project to explain where I was at still coming off of “Oh, this is heroic that he’s speaking out about the radio,” or “This is heroic that he’s speaking out about these issues.” I was just telling from the perspective that we’re shooting the video – same thing.
The real hardcore is the people who put those types of things on the line and look at the Mandela’s, Martin’s and Malcolm’s. And the groups like PE who had to remove a member of their group. That’s what hardcore truly is in my eyes. I just wanted to make the record feel like P.T.S.D. is not a catchy, cool, popular thing to come behind the W.A.R. album with, but instead the reality of it is there are consequences to reap if you go independent and there is also hard work and trials and tribulations. I just wanted to show that side as well.
TRHH: What’s your opinion on Obamacare? Republicans are really against it. They think it’s un-American, but in my opinion it’s just an opportunity for people to buy cheaper or better healthcare.
Pharoahe Monch: This may not be prolific but in my mind years ago I’m like, “I don’t understand why you don’t want healthy thinking, functioning, and working citizens.” just starting from that simple man’s assessment is mind boggling to me. But then when you’re blessed to travel abroad to Copenhagen, Germany, the UK, Canada and you see how things are functioning, it changes your thoughts and perspectives about what you’re seeing in this country healthcare wise. You come back and you’re in New York City, South Jamaica Queens, Brooklyn, and you have somebody who is contemplating checking out a severe appendix pain or paying the cable bill – it’s crazy.
I remember one time I was in Copenhagen and I was experiencing the asthma thing. I got sick over there touring and it was top notch treatment that I had. At the end of the stint when me and my manager went to say that, “We’re covered by insurance in the States, you can mail us the bill, here are my credentials,” they were like, “What credentials? For what? What are you talking about?” and I was just blown away. It takes a monkey off your back that’s invisible. A lot of people deal with it here and they don’t even realize they deal with it. There is a relief that a lot of people don’t realize could be there. I’m saying that to say, you go to the emergency room and the aspirin is bumped up twenty times the price and the treatment is bumped up twenty times the price. It’s private companies that are providing these medications and you get these outrageous bills. The companies are charging these outrageous fees and where is that coming from? Why?
TRHH: We live in a capitalist society. Yeah, I’m with you. Going back to anxiety and depression, these types of disorders are taboo in the black community. I personally have anxiety and depression and when I got it I didn’t know what it was. I just thought I was dying. It was like, “What’s wrong with me?” My father passed away and I just started freaking out. I didn’t know what it was. Somehow I’ve managed to be OK. I tried everything possible. There is a basketball player named Royce White who was drafted by the Houston Rockets. He refused to fly because of his anxiety. They traded him to Philly and he still wouldn’t fly so they cut him. A colleague of mine was like, “That’s some white people pussy shit,” and I’m like nah, that’s a serious thing. I agree that if you’re in the NBA you should probably figure out how to fly, but I won’t take away from what he’s feeling. I think in general people dismiss stuff like that, but there are a lot of black people with these kinds of issues. Was your aim with this album to shine a light on this stuff for the black community?
Pharoahe Monch: Definitely, man. The last three albums have been about provoking a dialogue in the least case scenario — at least a dialogue about issues that we don’t readily hear in that light, in that community, from these people that I know are human. As you say that I think about when my pops passed away I had the same reaction — the anger. I don’t think that’s a defect, but it becomes that if you don’t understand that you’re not alone when you’re like, “Man, I used to be a calm dude until my pops passed and then I wanted to punch everybody in the face.” As intellectuals it needs to be discussed why that is or else we’re left with a void. I think writing it makes sense. It’s fascinating because with as many years as we’ve been in Hip-Hop there is so much more to grow.
There is so much more to explore that hasn’t been experienced from the perspective of 40-something year olds who should be allowed and welcomed to write their experience rather than vilified from doing it. That’s another thing that’s a misnomer and bullshit in terms of what we’re told about the art that we created and what we can and can not do. And from the perspective of how beautiful it is to obtain wisdom, the greatness of it, the good side, and the bad side, I just think it’s really dope. There are so many layers of writing that can come about from this culture. It’s one of those things that keeps me feeling hungry every time or a Stan or fan about the music when something prolific as the Kendrick Lamar album comes out it’s like, “Yes! Let the culture expand in ways that it’s being held or people are afraid to talk about or talk from.” Same experiences, it’s still hood, you can still talk about the drug game and drug culture, but there are so many ways or perspectives that it hasn’t been discussed from yet. I think the machine obviously wants to churn out the same repetitive thing over and over and that’s not really the truth about what Hip-Hop is about. It’s definitely about elevating and expanding whether in its simplicity or in the technical aspect. It should go both ways, but grow.
When I’m asked this question I know for a fact rappers have touched upon what I’m touching upon on this album already. I’m not the first, but I’m just saying I hope my colors and my sentiment brings a new perspective and a wider perspective to something that’s obviously there, even if you’re a thug dude and your man got shot in the face and dragged down the street by the rival gang, it affects you. And from that point on after that experience you are affected in a certain way and you are not the same. That’s what P.T.S.D. is about as well. It’s not just about American soldiers or some incomprehensible experience. We experience this as everyday people – especially black people. Most of us have.
TRHH: I remember years ago watching this thing on TV about kids in Cabrini Green projects in Chicago – it’s where Cooley High was filmed. I guess they studied these kids and determined that the children in Cabrini Green projects have the mentality of Vietnam War vets. This was probably fifteen years ago and shit is worse in Chicago now. How can children feel like war veterans? It’s definitely something that most black people go through and we just dismiss it or don’t know where to go with it.
Pharoahe Monch: Think about that. I mean that’s deep, man. You’re in junior high or in grade school and although you’re in honors classes you have to walk home with a group of students where the cops still think you’re in a gang because you have to rally up to walk home in these areas – good or bad kids. You still can get picked up, you still can get picked on, and you still can get identified as a gang member even though you’re in honors classes. Hopefully that builds layers on your skin and you make it through and amongst your peers you have a layer of skin that makes you tougher that you can pull from, but in a lot of cases it’s just a difficult thing to experience. I know that people are going to see these letters and this title and look at it as this is something that’s being tweeted, hash tagged, and is on the President’s lips, but I just hope people take a listen to the record and get a feel for the fabric and colors that I’m really trying to get at with the title.
TRHH: Who is PTSD for?
Pharoahe Monch: This album is for the film buff, the movie heads, people that go to see films that are layered, people that like music that’s layered, like music that you listen to it once for the first time and get a feeling from it, but you get a different feeling for it when you listen in the spring than you did in the fall and summer because it has all these colors and layers to it. PTSD is for a person who experienced something traumatic and is wondering where there place is among their peers in society. PTSD is for a fan of writing lyrics. I think the writing on this record is my best writing.
Purchase the Pharoahe Monch Solo Discography