Interview
Pharoahe Monch



apparently even Rawkus rappers drink Starbucks. Pharoahe Monch and I exit some random CMJ party at Prey Bar on 22nd and 5th to patron the always-nearby “café” where he will soon order a Venti regular coffee. He will not touch this coffee for the duration of our interview. I find this profoundly revealing.

In person Monch is a far cry from his intense and forceful character, the manic larger-than-life purveyor of complex multi-syllabic internal rhyme schemes and stuttered post-apocalyptic flows. He’s a quiet dude with a goofy smile. When he speaks he is thoughtful and deliberate; he takes his time to respond.

He’s patient.

Of course, you’d have to be patient if you were Pharoahe Monch and you valued your sanity. Seven years ago he dropped Internal Affairs, still an indisputable street classic and one of the last great hardcore New York City rap records. Fueled by the surprise success of its ominous Godzilla-sampling single “Simon Says,” possibly the most unlikely club banger of all time, Pharoahe Monch was suddenly released from the relative obscurity of his influential group Organized Konfusion and introduced to an interested and national audience. “Simon Says” appeared in Charlie’s Angels and Boiler Room and then he murdered Mos Def on “Oh No” and then he had the lead single off the Training Day soundtrack and then … nothing.

Mr. Moe Mentum changed his address. Label politics. That old story. It appears that Rawkus, despite being distributed by Universal and synonymous with the late 90s underground, was run out of a shoebox. The fact that Godzilla himself sued the label for half a gajillion dollars didn’t help, nor did having his hit single removed from future pressings of Internal Affairs. MCA, who sucked up Rawkus’ roster, didn’t have a clue and eventually Shady called, but it didn’t work out. For seven years Pharoahe Monch has been patiently waiting to follow-up his solo debut.

But this January (God willing, of course) Monch will finally release Desire, his long overdue follow-up to Internal Affairs on Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind’s new imprint on Universal. Stylus sat down with Monch to discuss his long absence, the evolution of his process, and wtf is up with this Diddy track.

We were speaking earlier about your approach to the new J-Dilla track “Love.” I’m interested to know how your writing process has changed in the seven years since Internal Affairs.

When I first started out the approach was similar, but more intricate in terms of thinking about the process and applying a more studied approach. That still exists but right now the bulk of it is really, “What is this music telling me to do?” Honestly. If it’s telling me to be political, or if it’s telling me to be post-apocalyptic, or if it’s telling me to be very intricate in terms of flows … you have to be honest with what the vibe of the sample is telling you to say. I think the biggest mistake artists make today is that they don’t understand that marriage between the vibe of the music and the words they are saying.

When Organized Konfusion first started it was really about trying to get Kool G Rap and Rakim and the artists who we admired to say, “Yo, we heard this song.” We obviously didn’t get into the game to sell as many records as possible. Now, that isn’t to say Organized Konfusion couldn’t have been a monetarily successful group, which Stress: The Extinction Agenda was marginally, but we got into this for the love of the art form. The thing that’s beautiful about that Dilla record I’ve found is that it really has affected people in a certain way; that’s what music is supposed to do. When you stop trying to please everyone and simply make music for yourself—make music for the artform to raise the bar and push other MCs to do better—you realize it isn’t about complicating your flows. It’s about keeping people on their toes and broadening the spectrum of what this music can be.

Has the last seven years been frustrating for you? You have spoken about the beauty of being a free agent and the freedom that comes with not being tied to a label, but it has to have been frustrating not to have had any music out there at all.

At first it was really frustrating because we were following up something and there was a national anticipation for it. “Hey, this record was really successful. You were just in Charlie’s Angels. You were just on the radio every day. We are waiting for a new record.” So that was physically and emotionally stressful. But I’m not really frustrated right now because when I look back to three years ago, if I would have released that record [The Sun Also Rises] it wouldn’t have been what I wanted it to be. The sales may be more marginal now, but this record will be what I want it to be. To have integrity takes patience. To grow into an artist takes patience.

Now you haven’t had an album out in seven years but you’ve been able to release records sporadically, a Soundbombing track, the Training Day soundtrack, “Agent Orange.” Every time Pharoahe Monch puts out a record there’s an expectation and when your output is so minimal for such a long period of time that makes the expectation that much greater.

Wow, well that just put a whole new spin on it for me. There are so many artists who put out records that I don’t expect shit from. I don’t care. By virtue of what you do I’m not expecting much. So for people to have such a strong opinion on my work after all this time and still have that expectation from me is important and it’s a blessing. To be putting this album out with the anticipation that it has is a blessing. Like you said, the scarcity of material helps bring about that level of expectation for people to say, “Hey this shit better be good if it took this long.”

The thing about Organized Konfusion which set me up to this situation I’m in now is we did records like “Fudge Pudge” and records like “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” on the same album. I’ve done records like “Love” with Dilla but also “My Life” with Styles P. Talib [Kweli] told me, “You are one of the only artists that has been able to record a song with Cypress Hill and record a song with D’Angelo and not have your fans be like “What the fuck are you doing?” It’s been a very, very bugged and unique career.

Speaking of which, how did this Diddy song “The Future” come about? Was there even contact between the two of you or did you just, like, e-mail your verses to him?

Nah, man. He called me into his office and he was like, “Yo, I’m a fan. I’m going in a different direction and I’m hiring some different writers for this record because it’s probably going to be my last record. I caught you at some shows. I saw how the crowd reacted to you. But, first and foremost, bring me some records I’d like to hear what you’re doing with your project. Do you have a deal?” I say, “No, I don’t have a deal I’m just working on music.” I played him some music, and he was like, “Holy shit.”

During this whole thing my mind is working like … just for the sake of how intriguing it would be to work on a song with Diddy, it’s another unsafe thing to do. Based on my career it’s not a safe thing for me to write a record for Puff. Even he knows that. And if he didn’t know what people said about him, he wouldn’t be a marketing genius. He goes, “Here’s what people say about me: ��Fuck Puffy. He sucks. I might buy his sweatjacket, but I’m not buying his fucking album.’” It was all very interesting.

But writing down there and working with Diddy let me know that everything that happened to the artists that were successful around him wasn’t just them. He was really hard on Biggie, he pushed Biggie and he pushed me. And I realized, “I’m not going to work harder on Diddy’s shit than I would on my own shit.” So it pushed me to go back to my own project and I took that intensity to make the shit as good as it could be. It also let me know that there are a lot of people who don’t take being signed and this gift of being able to verbalize their situation to the public as seriously as they should. I got to see that and everyone was looking at my work ethic thinking, “Wow, this dude has been in the game this long and he still works this hard?”

Still, you had to be a little surprised Diddy was trying to rap like you. You have one of the most distinctive styles in hip-hop, everyone knows what a Pharoahe Monch record sounds like and if anyone tries to rap like you everyone on earth knows what they’re doing. Weren’t you surprised?

Man, what’s weird about that is … if I find the original verses that I laid down they’re very different from Diddy’s. Not taking anything away from what was done, but the way I approached it was a little more akin to my swagger. His approach was a lot different. So the fact that people are coming to me saying, “Puff sounds like you on the record," is driving me to be like "Agh! Let me show you what Pharoahe Monch really sounds like."


By: Barry Schwartz
Published on: 2006-11-10
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