We Are At W.A.R. -- Pharoahe Monch Interview
Pharoahe Monch looks to be in a good place these days.
Sitting in Duck Down’s Chelsea office, snacking on an egg roll, sipping on a Smart Water — well documented label limbos years behind him, talking W.A.R. and the future before him. Creative independence fits Monch like the fitted cream colored ribbed knit he’s rocking beneath his fur-collared, bulky army vest. His demeanor is much more reserved than the raucous rhyme slinger known best for commanding crowds to “Get the fuck up!” Yet, his conversational word choice is as intricate and seemingly limitless as any of the roaming, multisyllabic rhyme schemes now synonymous with his name. It’s calming and disarming all at once.
The Well Versed and the Queens Emcee covered much ground in this thirty-three minute interview. We discussed his writing process and “Assassins” with personalities. We talked politics and police brutality and production choices. We talked the transition from his seminal verse on “Stray Bullet” to Nas’ “I Gave You Power,” the bidding war between Sony, Bad Boy and SRC for his 2007 LP, Desire, and why he needed Jay-Z to hear it before he made a decision. We talked what still surprises him about Hip-Hop, and of course, his upcoming release 2011, We Are Renegades.
The Well Versed: “I have no dead bodies to claim. / Never been a trigger man. / Crack never penned that. / Opposite of Jiggaman / Doubled my expectancy, / Can you believe it? / And look no bullet wounds. / Not parapalegic. / Still standing like the Pledge of Allegiance.” Thats a real triumphant way to start off the second verse on “Still Standing” [off your upcoming album, W.A.R.] For me, it screams a lot about your legacy, or at least what I think about when I think of Pharoahe Monch. Your mic skills are legendary. Your catalog is otherworldly and unfortunately slim for fans who are more used to anticipating your next release rather than getting new material from you. But now you’re here at Duck Down. Is this a more stable situation? Are the flood gates open? Can we expect a lot of Monch material after this album?
Pharoahe Monch: Well, I think you can. I don’t want to make it black and white as to why [there has been gaps between releases]. I’m a thoughtful writer. I take my time writing. “Clap” for example, I got the beat a long time ago. Started jotting down stuff early in advance because I knew what I wanted the metaphor to be and then the Sean Bell incident happened. And not that I struggled writing the song, it’s that I put that down and started working on W.A.R. I started thinking about space age polymers to create capsules to fly out of space. Whatever. I toured and then the Oscar Grant situation happened and the Aiyana Jones situation happened and it fueled something real. So, what you’re kind of pausing for is to really not rhyme for the sake of riddling but to really find real emotion to be like, “I’m really angry.” I don’t have [a studio] in my crib, so I couldn’t just be angry and set something up and be angry and then fix it, you know. I would watch the news and be pissed and speak to people and be bottled up about the Sean Bell situation and felt powerless about it. And then, two weeks later, I would have to kind of rekindle that in the studio. There’s a lot of, [I] don’t want to say acting but, let’s be honest about these feelings when you’re writing these songs. Or better yet, when you’re performing this stuff that you wrote down. It’s not just “some shit, some shit, yeah Sean Bell.” I’m trying to pull that out. So, those type of things take time. I hope that you don’t only hear the words but you feel the sentiment in certain parts of that song.
And that’s really it, man. The label — we started W.A.R. Media. We did a joint venture which allows me to have freedom about my thought process going in and making songs. From a lot of different perspectives, one thing that it changed was that [this album] is mine, literally. So, there has been a little bit more care. And let’s say this is my child and I’m trying to birth it, bring it to the studio, I was very selective about people. Engineers. You had to have a degree of love. You want to engineer, fine, but let me play you some music, see if you’re into it and if you’re into it and you’re like, “I like what you’re doing,” then I want that energy on this record. This record couldn’t have been created without engineers cutting their fees, lending their services, doing favors, staying past the point. From Idris Elba, to Vernon Reid to Jill Scott being like, “I love what I heard. I want to be a part of it. Not because there’s going to be some type of monetary benefit but, I want to be a part of something that feels this way.” I hope that’s what comes across in the record and it takes time because obviously when you have a Rolodex, I can call this person, “Jump on this song,” and shit and, “Such and such did the beat. Listen to the beat. The beat is dope. Give me a sixteen.” That’s not what I was looking to do. Immortal [Technique] was strategically used. Phonte was strategically used. Styles P. Jean [Grae], although that’s the rappity-rap song on the album, I was like, “This is the point where I need these people to help me because I can’t rap my way out of this struggle by myself. Who am I going to get to help me?” So I hired these two “Assassins.” Assassins have personalities, too. Their human. One assassin might be an alcoholic, that might be Jean Grae. The other assassin might be late because he’s riding around with strippers and he has guns and shit, so where the fuck is he going to be? I’m trying to give the song personality instead of three really nice rappers just rapping on the song. And again, I don’t mean to be winded, that comes from me as a fan of Hip-Hop. As a consumer purchasing being music and being like, “What’s missing from it for me?” and being the change — I don’t mean to be cliche — that you want to see. I don’t think people take enough time to think, “This could have been thought out better.” Let me take the time to think it out better when I do my project, and that’s probably what takes a little more time.
TWV: I don’t think any of your projects fall into that, “Rhyming for the sake of riddling” mode. When you listen to “Desire,” everything is strategically placed. I think there is a reason Dwele did “Trilogy” — which is a masterpiece. And I think about the cinematic aspect of that song when listening to W.A.R. This album seems more scene based.
PM: That’s because I’m a starving, struggling script writer in my head and I see things that way. It’s the reason why Organized Konfusion [was created]: I think I’m ready to be in a group and rap and take it seriously as a career because I see something that me and Prince can implement and that’s our love for comic books and film and karate and Godzilla and King Kong and being cinematic. I think that was really our forte in what we’re trying to bring to the game so that those likeminded people, when they sat down [they could visualize it]. Will.I.Am told me one time that when he got [Stress: The Extinction Agenda] album, he went into his room or his apartment and he was chilling with his man and they put a red T-shirt over the lamp. I want people to listen to my records like that. That’s how I am. You’ve got to be what you want. If I was a consumer, I would be on the train like, “I’m going to wait until I get home [before listening to it].” That’s what I love about the shit. The Rakim and the Black Star and the albums that made me think that way. Like, “What were they thinking when they did the shit?” The [Public Enemy’s] and so forth. It’s a shame that we got away from that because it’s not tangible anymore and people do disposable music because it became popular that the quantity became more important than the quality. And I understood why that was, but I was never a mixtape dude so I couldn’t produce as fast as a lot of artists were doing it. I’m just lucky enough to have kind of passed — not saying that that’s over with — kind of passed through that period and I think people are appreciating something that’s thought out. I don’t know how quality it is yet. The people will decide that. But I can tell that they know that I put some effort into thinking about the fucking record.
TWV: You mentioned the Stress album. “Stray Bullet” is fascinating to me. When I hear “Stray Bullet” and then I hear “When The Gun Draws” — it’s kind a continuation on the same extended metaphor. Then you have Nas’s “I Gave You Power” and Tupac’s “Me And My Bitch” where they play off the same themes. And those two are probably the most well known songs using that concept. Have you ever talked Nas about the transition from “Stray Bullet” to “I Gave You Power?” Did he borrow from that or extend on “Stray Bullet?”
PM: Let me see if I can discuss this conversation in an interview…hmmm [Laughs].
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW @THEWELLVERSED.COM