Pharoahe Monch is back! And to the sure-to-be delight of fans of the intricate lyricist who felt betrayed by the experimental direction of some of the songs heard on 2007’s Desire, the author of the certified classic full-length, 1999’s Internal Affairs, is promising a return to his hardcore Hip Hop roots with his forthcoming third solo effort, (and first as part of a newly formed partnership with indie powerhouse Duck Down Records), W.A.R. (We Are Renegades).
In his interview since the new deal, Pharoahe not only revealed some early details of his upcoming un-alternative album, but one-half of notable ‘90s duo Organized Konfusion also revealed that he and Prince Po have new music and performances planned for their long-starving supporters. The Queens-bred legend further shared with DX memories of meeting Biggie, expressed his appreciation of Brother Ali, and announced an in-the-works EP dedicated to his female fans.
HipHopDX: I wanna set things off by asking you a question I been curious to know the answer to for 14 years: Two years after you and Po’s classic “Stray Bullet,” when you heard Nas’ “I Gave You Power” and Tupac’s “Me And My Girlfriend,” did you think you got bit at all? ‘Cause you know they both had to be up on the Stress album.
Pharoahe Monch: In terms of Nas – me and Nas spoke about this a couple of years ago, a little private conversation we had – not directly about the issue. But recently, he had reached out to me and he said sometime after the song [was released] people were approaching him about similarities, and you and [I] having similar ideas and concepts. And from his standpoint he was explaining it more of like great minds [think alike]… Lately when I heard [“I Gave You Power” again] I didn’t feel that way about it in terms of like this dude just straight bit our shit.
DX: Let’s fast forward to the present and get some details on your new partnership with Duck Down. Why’d you decide to partner your new indie label, W.A.R. Media, with Buck and Dru’s house?
Pharoahe Monch: We were really going forward with trying to execute [W.A.R. Media] solely on our own with just a distribution scenario and… In discussing different scenarios with Dru [Ha] – These guys have been doing for 15 years now successfully east coast, independent Hip Hop [at] a very high-level of commitment and good product that they put out. I think when it’s all said and done and you look back I think that Duck Down will be one of the more respected Hip Hop labels on a long-term basis. So, it was a no-brainer [to partner with them]. As well as he was schooling us to things to do as an independent label, and things not to do, and things to look out for. And so it only made sense that the first time [out] we were like, “Yo, let’s just do this, pursue it this way, [and] partner up. These people, Dru and [Buckshot], have relationships that they have built over this period of time that we just won’t have trying this for the first time.”
And then with the W.A.R., with the record [itself], I mean the sensibility of the record, man, I wouldn’t really [feel comfortable putting] it at any other place. Boot Camp [Clik], they’ve been in the trenches, they’ve been through a lot of stuff that we’re gonna face in the struggle as an independent label already. But the sensibility like I said of the music, it just feels good right here independent, because [the album] talks about human struggle, human conflict, war against establishment and authority. And [I also talk about] myself. It’s really like the first time that I’m discussing personal conflict and issues, childhood, and really going in and being open about sharing yourself as an artist… I just think in a major [label] situation you would have a hard time marketing and getting somebody behind that. So [Duck Down is] just the perfect scenario.
DX: And this situation basically has been initiated because of you leaving SRC Records. You told XXL back in September that SRC tried to get you to do another album with them but you felt like going independent made more sense at this point. Were the poor sales for Desire the main reason you wanted out from SRC or were there other motivators?
Pharoahe Monch: I think that the change in the marketplace for music in general, and the music industry paradigm just really switched. And I listened intently to what [SRC] had in mind for me for the next project and I just was like, “This is way behind the curve.” And even with Desire I noticed that with print [promotion] being out of the marketing plan, and them not necessarily going hard Internet-wise, [that] I would go in the mall or be in the street and hardcore Pharoahe Monch fans would be like, “When’s your record coming out?” Or, “Are you still making music?” And I’m like, “This is ridiculous.” …It’s not a knock necessarily on the label, but a shift in the paradigm of how music and its marketing was getting to people. So, when we went to discuss what would we do differently on a new record, that I already knew would have a [more] straightforward [Hip Hop sound]…and not necessarily a alternative appeal to it, I was very careful to be like, “How are we gonna market this record? I’m not worried about the music being great, it’s gonna be great. But what are we gonna do differently?” And, it was some of the same ideas, and [so] I just was like, “I opt [out], if y’all would allow me to opt out.”
We still did 80,000 units, and the record performed extremely well in the U.K. with “Push” , “Body Baby” … I wasn’t angry with the performance where it was worked at… I was more disappointed with just realizing like if the head is not gonna push the green button on your project then more than likely the machine that is the system, and the radio and all of those things, is not gonna find a place for you… If it happens [with W.A.R.] it’ll happen organically. And I’m gonna be in the face of the people [more this time] by virtue of moving from such a large system and missing some of the fans to simply having to do things myself. And now I find that I’m at shows at Irving Plaza, and in the mall, and people are asking me when the W.A.R. record is coming out? And it’s blowing me away because we haven’t even started advertising yet.
DX: Well that lack of promotion for Desire was clearly a problem, but I’m just gonna play devil’s advocate and ask if you think the low sales for Desire had anything to do with the more experimental joints on the album like the ‘60s Soul-and-Rock influenced “Body Baby”?
Pharoahe Monch: I don’t think that people who are fans… Even if I’m viewing something as a downturn for somebody’s album career, or there’s a song on there I don’t like or there’s a couple of joints [I don’t like], [that] doesn’t necessarily deter me from purchasing the record or going to the show. ‘Cause I’m still gonna go to the show and hear my [favorite] Internal Affairs joints and my joints that I wanna hear that I like off [Desire]. I think that the layoff, the hiatus [between Internal Affairs and Desire], the push-backs [of the release date for Desire] – it’s coming out, it’s not coming out, it’s getting pushed back, it’s coming out, it’s not coming out, it’s getting pushed back – as well as where you go and how do you know [about the album affected the outcome]. I think the hardcore fans once the record got leaked just got it. There was one site [that] I wasn’t familiar with, like of [popular] music download sites at the time, but a friend of mine from overseas was like, “I am saddened to be the one calling you, I don’t know if you know but your record has leaked.” And I was like, “The fuck?” And I went and I checked it and it was like third day that it was on this particular site and it was like 15,000 downloads [already]. You can’t say that those people necessarily would of purchased the record, but that shit was damaging as well. Not to make a complaint, because all artists complain about that when that happens, but just for somebody who hasn’t been out in seven-and-a-half years we needed the record to hit when we needed it to hit.
DX: Well I definitely thought the throwback Soul on “Push” worked, but I just know us heads wanna hear you go in over more of that “Desire” and “Let’s Go” head-nodding goodness… Is that the direction of the new album?
Pharoahe Monch: The new album has a concept, ‘cause I’ve always been concept driven since Organized Konfusion. But [overall], it’s just spitfire, and it’s hardcore and it’s lyrical, and it’s high-end vocabulary, and it’s unapologetic. Like, the whole process of We Are Renegades is music from the heart that is like this is what I think is missing [from the game and] so I gotta do it myself. And this is what I wanna hear, and so I gotta do it myself and stop complaining. And I feel like everybody who feels that way will be able to relate. As well as it’s just on some straightforward Hip Hop shit. It’s more in the direction of Internal Affairs, so to speak.
DX: Is it [lyrically in the direction of] “Still get it poppin’ without artist and repertoire / ’Cause Monch is a monarch only minus the A&R”? “My book is a ovary, the pages I lust to turn / My pen’s the penis, when I write the ink’s the sperm.”
Pharoahe Monch: When I listen back to those lyrics I honestly am like – ‘Cause I’m a fan. [And] everybody knows I’m a humble dude, but like when you read that back to me just now I’m like, “Damn! Who wrote that shit?” [Laughs]
DX: [Laughs] I just know you ain’t playing fair with this current generation of emcees. I hope you know that.
Pharoahe Monch: I don’t know what that problem is. I equate it to the lack of variety at radio. I feel like when I’m coming up I have Chuck [D] and KRS [One] and [Rakim], [Kool] G Rap, [Big Daddy] Kane, Juice Crew, De La [Soul], all these people, predecessors to be like, “Okay, I’m taking from all of those dudes.” Organized [Konfusion] definitely took from G Rap and De La – an amalgamation of all of that shit. And now, it’s like a lot of the same thing. And the impression is if you do that it can be simple – If you do Drake it can be simple to [get to] where Drake is. If you do [Lil] Wayne it’ll be real simple to get where Wayne is. And, [the copycats] are not as good as that.
The sad part is the history of the stuff is out there now and they could find it more readily than we could when I had to go dig and somebody was like, “Yo there’s this group in L.A. called Freestyle Fellowship and they’re on that shit.” And now I’m on Jamaica [Avenue] looking for the shit. I gotta find the shit now, or go check them out live. Whereas if I tell a kid, “Yo you’re really dope, you remind me of the sensibilities of these artists. You ever heard of Rakim? You need to check out ‘Let The Rhythm Hit Em.,’” they’ll [just] fuckin’ go to YouTube and listen to it. There’s no excuse for them to not have the history of music in general, not even just Hip Hop. If you’re a big Jay-Z fan and you find out that Jay-Z was a big Kane fan, and now you’re not just researching Jay-Z’s last record, but eight records – and Kane’s records. And now who influenced Kane? And now you have a better opportunity to grow as an artist. And they’re just not doing their homework to me.
DX: Another thing I just find amazing about your delivery…is that you have asthma. How the fuck did you survive that “Hurt U” joint on the Jake One White Van Music 12″?
Pharoahe Monch: You know, it’s you have good times and bad times. And on a session like that it’s just like if you’re writing it that way you’re definitely going into that session with tea and water, and prepping. Just like everything else there’s preparation, like the gym and – I got a [Canadian] tour coming up [in April] with Slaughterhouse, so leading up until the first date I’m like let me try to do the things to get my shit under control, where it needs to be. But as a lung disease in general, it’s a gift and a curse because it’s the reason why I rap [the way I do]. At one point I looked at the shit as a demon that I needed to defeat. And in trying to defeat it I’m like I’m gonna choose the most complicated air-breathing style as possible to show this ailment that it doesn’t have me… I tweet and write about the asthma, and talk about it heavily on this new record. It’s real deep in terms of how things like that influence who you become.
DX: You mentioned that you tweeted about it, I caught one of your tweets where you said that it may have been the only time you met Notorious B.I.G. [and] that he was shocked, he couldn’t believe you had asthma either?
Pharoahe Monch: Right, yeah. We were talking about that that day [we met] and Buckwild, who produced on [Biggie’s Ready To Die], was telling me [beforehand] – ‘cause [Organized Konfusion] we had worked heavily with Buckwild as well… Buck would tell me that [Biggie] spoke about me a couple of times, and that blew me away. When I met him, I knew he knew of me so I was super excited, geeked and [ended up] just kicking it with him on the corner that [one] day.
DX: Now you know they all know of you, right? Like Andre 3000, Eminem, they all know Pharoahe.
Pharoahe Monch: Yeah, yeah, yeah, no doubt. We speak. I was kickin’ it with [Andre 3000] not too long ago at a concert we were both at… Nah, nah, the peers and all that, the respect that I have for those dudes, and the way that they pushed the music forward, that’s what I’m about, man, ‘cause I’m a fan. I really, really enjoy Hip Hop as an artform and when it’s pushed and bent and played with like with the Nas’s and the Eminem’s and the Andre’s, it’s incredible to me. I’m totally not in artist mode when I’m listening to these dudes.
DX: I think the cat that’s like straight – I even brought it up to him last time I spoke to him – that’s straight Pharoahe Monch disciple is Brother Ali.
Pharoahe Monch: Oh yeah, yeah. I see on some of the postings that he gets that [comparison] a lot. That’s an honor, man. Like, that’s dope. We have yet to do something together but we’re gonna get something done.
DX: Back to the new album, there’s no Alchemist heat-rocks to bring that “Desire” spitfire out. Is there still time to get Alc on the line?
Pharoahe Monch: [I] spoke to Alchemist last week at South By Southwest. He’s supposed to be sending me some music, and we’ll see what we can do. But the dope thing about this new [album], man, is [that it’s] just to feed the fan. Like I said I’m a fan…and [so] if I do record something hot with him, or demo something hot with him, then it could happen [to make its way to the public at some point]. There’s no sense in holding on to [music] anymore. It’s like, what are you gonna tell me, why wasn’t this on the record? Like here, have it for free.
DX: You’re still in the constructive process [for the album], but I understand that Exile and Marco Polo are gonna be two of the main boom-bap suppliers?
Pharoahe Monch: Marco Polo laced me with a joint that is just – I listened to it [again] yesterday. It was already bangin’ [and then] I got together with Vernon Reid [of Living Colour and we] reconstructed [some of the music]. He played and solo’d on the record, and the shit is just hard, man… The shit is some hard-ass shit. And when I say hard I don’t necessarily mean thugged [out] or whatever. You grit your teeth and the shit is like some head-nod shit, and it’s [a] real topic [being discussed].
DX: Is that like a “Cult Of Personality” cover or something; you rockin’ out with him?
Pharoahe Monch: Nah, it’s just a dope, dope hardcore beat that Marco did and I heard chords in my head and I was like, “I have this relationship [with Vernon so] let me see if…” We didn’t even discuss [what to play]. It was like, “Let’s see what he hears,” and he enriched the shit. That’s the joint Marco did. Exile did the intro. I worked heavily with M-Phazes on this [album], and Nottz, [and] Lee Stone, who worked with me on [the] two previous albums. Still listening to records – we’re basically done, we’re just finishing up the features. I don’t really wanna talk about who [all] those people are, ‘cause that’s kind of a surprise. But yeah man, I’m really happy with it.
DX: I [was] kinda jokingly asking if that was a “Cult Of Personality” cover ‘cause the last cover record you did I know it was hard to try and match the intensity of a song like “Welcome To The Terror Dome.” Looking back now do you feel like you [nailed] that or you feel like that was…?
Pharoahe Monch: That’s one of my favorite records, ever – of all music, not just Hip Hop. So even the thought crossing my mind [to cover that song], as a fan my lip kinda twisted and said, “What? Let me hear [what] this fuckin’ shit [will sound like],” which gave me the inclination to do it because I knew as a fan that I would say, “Fuck, I gotta hear this shit for myself.” So it was a challenge to me. I knew it would be a twist [on the original] and different. Mine is a lot of BPM’s faster so in order to get my voice that deep on a faster song, and kinda try and sound like Chuck, was a challenge [in itself]…
I was wrapping up the [Desire] album and I was playing the album out in London for heads, and for some of my younger friends that I roll with. They hadn’t heard the original song! [And that’s why] I felt it was necessary to revisit that tone again, because the Internet, while you have access, it has made people lazy. And I’m just like, it’s beyond me that I have this song and people don’t know that it’s a cover. Not everybody but just a few heads that didn’t know. [But] I was [also] like, “This is great,” because it reminds me of when I’m digging for records back in the days and I come across “Get Out [Of] My Life, Woman” and then Lord Finesse is telling me, “Yo, that’s not the original version.” I’m like, “Well fuck, who did the original version?” …I know how people feel about covers in Hip Hop, or how they used to when I was coming up it was taboo. So now I’m just like, not only am I breaking rules in my sensibility of Hip Hop but I’m challenging myself to [match] one of my favorite artists. And I ran it by Chuck, just when I did the first verse, and he approved it. If he hated it I wouldn’t have done it.
DX: Now, I gotta ask if on the new album we’re getting any of those classic conceptual joints in the tradition of “Stray Bullet” or “Rape” from Internal Affairs?
Pharoahe Monch: Um…let’s see [Laughs] Um…I would say that as of right now the [album] itself is kind of that to me. It’s not one specific song that’s a “Trilogy,” or a “Rape,” or a “Stray Bullet,” or a [“When The Gun Draws”]. Not yet anyway. [Laughs]
DX: You produced the dark “Rape,” but I think some of your best beat-making thus far came on the chill-for-the-females track from Desire, “So Good.” Is there a little smooth something for the ladies on W.A.R.?
Pharoahe Monch: No. We’re actually gonna try and put out like a five-song like mixtape on the Internet that’s a letter to women, Before I Go To W.A.R. ‘Cause I’m telling you, man, this shit is testosterone-city, this [album]. [Laughs]
DX: [Laughs] Are you done with those letter joints yet or you still…?
Pharoahe Monch: Nah, I’m still writing some of them now.
DX: Yeah you got a knack for them female-friendly joints – “The Light” from Internal Affairs was another dope one.
Pharoahe Monch: Yeah, yeah, and then you know that’s the thing, I try to make it real. I’m working on a song right now with Jean Grae that Jean Grae and Talib [Kweli] is on called “Sucka For Love,” and it’s taking me a long time to write it ‘cause I’m last and they really, really murdered their verses… It’s not that it’s taking me so long, it’s that I need the things that I say to be honest, you know? That’s a word I would like to add to the interview, [honest]. You will be able to say that this sounds honest. And I still believe that’s a good thing to have going into what your lyrics sound like. ‘Cause skill and all that stuff gotta be there, but each word sounds like the shit is coming from someone who is experienced, suffering near-death experience. Like this isn’t made-up stories, this is some real shit.
DX: Is the new joint you got with Black Thought for W.A.R. on par with y’alls last collaboration together, “Guerrilla Monsoon Rap”?
Pharoahe Monch: This shit is a 102 beats-per-minute, and it’s a pure flame-throwing, liquid laser spit [fest]. I think that record alone – People [who’ve heard it] have been saying that record alone supplies enough serum for your fans who are like, [says in funny nerd voice] “Where’s the spit records?!”
DX: [Laughs] Can you give me a title or you wanna keep that under wraps?
Pharoahe Monch: Right now the working title is “The Assassins,” but I think it’s probably gonna change… This song happens [at the point in the album] when I find out that the struggle that I’m dealing with, with trying to get people to understand and life struggle and going against the machine so to speak as a renegade [and] as a revolutionary, that I can’t do it on my own. And no one has really ever been able to do it on their own. I talk about Jesus and Moses and Malcolm [X] and Martin [Luther King, Jr.] – these people who come about to talk about higher sense of existence period – and the difference that they made, or if they made a difference, and questioning that. And, I come to the point in the album where I realize I need help, and this is the music that comes on. And one of the artists that helps me is Black Thought.
DX: Just hearing that you and Styles P are gonna be at it again too for W.A.R. is great news. I’m just curious if it’s gonna be on that “My Life” tip, that hard-hittin’ type thing?
Pharoahe Monch: It’s amazing, man. I know I’ma sound like a fan, man, but just over the years working with Mos [Def] and Kwe and Common, Busta [Rhymes], M.O.P., and all these dudes that I’m fans of – I hold Hip Hop in a really, really high regard [and] I look at these dudes like [Jazz lovers look at] Thelonious [Monk] and Miles [Davis], I really, really, really do. I really look at the Mos Def’s and these people as the upper-echelon artists of our time. That being said, Styles P is one of those people, man. He has a artist sensibility and truthfulness in his words. His approach to recording is crazy – I never seen anything like that before. And this song [that we did] is called – I don’t wanna give the title away. But I worked with him, and Phonte from Little Brother is doing the chorus. And it’s one of the more heartfelt songs I’ve heard in a long time in Hip Hop. It is very reminiscent of the “My Life” record, except I rhyme this time.
DX: Is that the joint that Diamond D produced?
Pharoahe Monch: This is a joint that this kid Mike Lowe produced. Mike Lowe is sorta connected to the D.I.T.C. camp. He produced this joint, and [it’s] very strings [heavy], very emotional, soulful record.
DX: I asked about Diamond ‘cause I saw that tweet that you [wrote] the other day, March 23rd, where you said, “Diamond D just gave me a heat-seeking missle – hardcore emotional, I love that combination with beats, I got a bit misty.”
Pharoahe Monch: Yeah, I’m writing to that now. [Laughs]