“There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from.” A decade-and-a-half after Prodigy made street conflicts analogous to military combat, while noting his hood’s comparability “to Vietnam,” a fellow Queens, New York native, Pharoahe Monch, is providing a different kind of survival guide to battle, one less about readiness for urban warfare and more about mental fitness to take on the powerful enemy that exists in mass media, the music biz, and wherever there is “a war against consciousness.”
Sonically sitting somewhere between the traditional boom bap of 1999’s impeccable Internal Affairs and the more experimental dabbling with Rock and Soul found on 2007’s Desire, Pharoahe’s latest long-player, the rebellion themed W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), is sure to be audio armament for anyone ready to rage against the machine.
But before a battle plan is culled from Pharoahe’s rallying rhymes, Monch checked in with HipHopDX to file his war report, including some insight into his recorded observations from the frontline.
Additionally, the Hip Hop soldier shared one of Nate Dogg’s very real war stories, before revealing how before Rakim, before Busta Rhymes, the nimble emcee almost became the first established east coast artist to enlist in the Aftermath army.
HipHopDX: I know you’ve probably been asked a version of this question a few times over the past week, but for our DX readers can you talk about what it was like working with Nate Dogg for you, Nate and Mos Def’s classic collabo, “Oh No,” as well as for “I Pledge Allegiance” from Nate’s Music & Me album?
Pharoahe Monch: It was a big moment, in terms of working with an artist who was so accomplished, and on so many other classics. [“Oh No”] was also a thought-out collab from the label, [Rawkus Records]. Me and Mos [Def] had not worked together yet, so they were like, “You guys have gotta do something; make some music.” And it was Mos’ idea to reach out to Nate [Dogg], who we were both big fans of. But I was thinking when Mos ran the idea by me like, “Really? Nate Dogg, that’s … interesting.” And then I heard the chorus, man, and he took that thing to – took the song to the level that it was. I think the collaborative effort of the three [of us], along with the production [from Rockwilder], is how you make classic records: people vibing and then painting their own picture.
[Nate Dogg] was a real dude, and a professional dude, and really serious about that shit and about music. And I love people like that.
Dr. Dre had taken a liking to the Internal Affairs album, so I was out [in Los Angeles] for a period of time, like, just messing around with him on some music. And Nate was working on his [Music and Me] album, and that’s how I jumped on “Pledge of Allegiance.” I remember Dre coming into the studio after I laid my verse to approve the verse and turning around and he gave me the thumbs up and a “Hell yeah.” That’s like book shit right there.
[Nate was] a very, very amazing artist, just in so many different ways. Like, bringing out the fabric to which you could take a lot of the hardcore Chronic stuff and sing it and remember it … That [approach] that made it palatable.
DX: It’s kind of interesting that he became known for melody and a certain like smoothness. A lot of people don’t know Nate was in the Marines before he started making music, so he had that like Marine stoicism. He was a very serious dude from what I understand.
Pharoahe Monch: Yeah, and I wasn’t gonna tell that story but … I was working on “Pledge of Allegiance” and Nate was drinking a bottle of Hennessy, and I had my vodka, and it [had] got loose. And he was like, “Yeah, man, that’s like that time I had my M-16, and I was aiming my shit.” And I was like, “What?!” [Laughs] I was like, “What the hell is he talking about? And what the hell is he doing with an M-16? [That’s] a military issue machine gun.” [Laughs]
DX: Man, you know I gotta ask … you mentioned you had worked with Dr. Dre during the 2001 era … are any of those recording sessions still in the vaults somewhere?
Pharoahe Monch: I didn’t record anything. We were just trying to find a direction for me, for him to produce some stuff. I flew out there to work on music, I listened, and … wound up jumping on a [DJ] Quik record, [“Murda 1 Case”], and the Nate Dogg [song]. [But], I’m not the easiest artist to work with. Not that there was any friction or anything, it’s just I’m like … sort of crazy, in my own right.
DX: Switching gears here, that last line of “Evolve” has been fuckin’ with me and I need you to alleviate the frustration. “Get used to usage of a backwards euphemism.” So are you saying you’re gonna be saying more offensive shit?
Pharoahe Monch: [Laughs] Yeah, you know … that’s exactly the point of the rhyme. I mean that too, maybe not in the literal sense but it may be offensive to those who are offended by the truth …. When you leave stuff open like that it’s fun, because it allows you to be like, “What the hell is this dude talking about?”
DX: [Laughs] Yeah, I can’t believe I cracked the code on a Pharoahe Monch verse. I only went to community college. [Laughs] Speaking of offensive, I have a feeling Juvenile might get a little offended if he hears the beginning of that second verse from “Let My People Go.” [Laughs]
Pharoahe Monch: On the first part of the first verse I do a lot of sampling from my own stuff. I talk about that in “Evolve.” The first part of “Evolve” is from a song I did with De La [Soul] called “Ghost Weed,” and I revitalized it because [I] talk about time traveling on some parts of the album. The first part of “Let My People Go” is from a song, some obscure song, and then the second verse is sort of an ode [to Juvenile’s “Ha”].
When I executed it, I wanted people to laugh. That whole song is supposed to be funny, but I think the statement “let my people go” is obviously – it speaks volumes to a lot of what’s going on now, and then in the classic spiritual sense of the song. A lot of that song is supposed to make you chuckle and giggle, especially the ending. [But] Juvenile, I love that song. … [So] that’s totally not where I was going with that, [to try to mock him]. My parents are from the south. And a lot of stuff that I say sounds like that …. Anyway, I love that song that he did that I took that rhythm from. And [so] that’s not where I was going with that. I hope he’s not offended by that.
DX: The track before that one, “Black Hand Side,” is further proof that you and Styles P need to collaborate more. Can we get that next collabo in less than eight years though? [Laughs]
Pharoahe Monch: I think so, man. [Styles P is] supposed to perform with me tomorrow, [March 24th], [and] that’s something I wanna throw at him. I’m a slow writer. He’s a fast writer. So, he’ll probably write all the stuff and give it to me. But, yeah, [“Black Hand Side”] sounds … a nice combination; maybe different stories, but same sentiment, same soul. … I’m just in awe every time I see him write and his writing process, which he really just feels out every line and just goes in and it really does come from the heart as he’s laying it down.
DX: And I understand there’s already a Pete Rock produced project in the vaults between y’all?
Pharoahe Monch: Yeah, I did a chorus on a song called “The Children” [for Styles P’s new album]. Whew! Man, this is a very needed song. I’m all about feel. Before you even get into what I’m saying, and what he’s saying, the feel of this song is urgent.
DX: Speaking of collabos, you told me when we last spoke a year ago that you and Talib Kweli would be gettin’ it in again. So what happened to that “Sucka For Love” joint?
Pharoahe Monch: [Talib Kweli] just gave me some music for his new [Gutter Rainbows] album, and I’m trying to [make] my way through it and hear what – When it comes to Kwe, I just don’t wanna; when it come to people that inspire me, just in general I don’t wanna rhyme just for the sake of riddlin’, unless that’s what the song is about. And so, I’m looking for something that I can put my heart into. That’s all I have. That’s all we have. I need to make sure that something resonates. You may not even like the whole verse, but something gotta resonate with you in there.
DX: So you guys didn’t even get to the point of recording something for the W.A.R. album.
Pharoahe Monch: Nah.
DX: You told me that Jean Grae was supposed to be on that “Sucka For Love” joint as well. She put in some serious –
Pharoahe Monch: [Interrupts] Oh yeah, we did do that. That’s amazing. That’s [Jean Grae‘s] song. … That’s [J] Dilla.
DX: It’s a J. Dilla beat?
Pharoahe Monch: Yep.
DX: How’d you get that; something you been sitting on?
Pharoahe Monch: No, that’s [her beat].
DX: She put in some serious work on “Assassins.” But then you and her both got upstaged by Eminem’s little homie. When you first heard “You claimin’ that you flow like water, but really y’all niggas Evian backwards” were you like, This guy really deserves that Shady deal? [Laughs]
Pharoahe Monch: Oh my God! Royce [Da 5’9] is … The thing about when you put together collaborations – which is what I was telling them, I guess ‘cause I’m a veteran in the game, is I put him in that spot to do that to the song. [Laughs] Like, I don’t put him in that spot to not hit a homerun. You’re cleanup because you’re cleanup. … I know I definitely took the bronze metal. [Laughs] But that’s beautiful, man. A couple of names was thrown out there [originally for the song]. I was like, “Ayo, it’s gotta be Royce, man.”
DX: Yeah, you told me when we spoke a year ago [that] Black Thought was gonna be one of the assassins.
Pharoahe Monch: I actually wanted Black Thought on another song as well. He’s always in that conversation [of who I want to collaborate with]. Black Thought, Busta [Rhymes] …
DX: Let’s take the conversation up a couple notches here. How does “The Hitman” plan to snipe down the 360 deals, radio payola and all the other music biz BS you’re lamenting on that song and throughout the album?
Pharoahe Monch: Um … I don’t know, man. I would love to shoot a video clip for that song. I think people would be surprised by the visual. [Laughs] But, I just wanted to express that sentiment from reading the book, and how it made me feel.
DX: On the title track you say, “This is a war against consciousness / Controlling your soul, sort of a psychological dictatorship.” I don’t think there’s anyone reading this that would disagree with that assessment of media, as well as the music biz, but again, what can you or I really do to fight back – besides just turning off the radio, or turning off the television?
Pharoahe Monch: Um … there’s a couple of things. You wanna kinda – And I think people are there already, man. I can feel the evolving of the people, and the cry out to obtain your own decisions and freedoms. And a collective consciousness of people that’s naturally tired of something that’s redundant: the way the news is given, the way the media controls it. We know that the smaller percentage of people owns the majority of the wealth, and has the majority of the power. [But] the minority has the vote power, and the prayer power. That’s dangerous to the powers that be. The majority of the people just wanna feed their child and live comfortably. But you’re sick, and you put off getting medical attention ‘cause you can’t afford it, and there’s a point where you simply say [to your government], If you can shoot a $25 million missile, then people should be able to get their tooth fixed.
DX: What’s the now I think 18-year-old 2Pac quote [from “Keep Ya Head Up”]: “[They] got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor.”
Pharoahe Monch: There you go.
DX: I asked what you thought about how we tackle this because I feel like we need more practical, applicable war tactics. Because as much as I may feel you, and as powerful as that video was [for “Clap (One Day)”], we can’t just clap at the cops.
Pharoahe Monch: Are you talking about the video itself or the sentiment of the action?
DX: The sentiment.
Pharoahe Monch: The sentiment of the action in that video was all in the cops head. Its super layered, this video. What he’s actually seeing is not really actually happening. “There’s blood on his hands” is a cliché. And, he’s going through it because we’re showing his side as well. He made a mistake and it’s eating him up. He thinks he’s seeing the kid, but he’s not seeing the kid anymore.
And so, the action in real life is obviously not one of applause, but out of sarcasm. I believe that if that did happen, and cops did drive through the block and some kids on the corner did clap [their hands in mock applause], I believe if it got out of hand there would be some regulation against that.
It’s like, you can’t say certain shit. What does a gesture mean? Like, I thought about that when I came up with the idea. I said, “What if we were major and the green button was pushed and the song was everywhere, and we cleaned it [for radio], and it became a trend? How would government react to that?”
I’ve seen the scene in the Egypt revolution where the people hate the police [but] they love the military because you have to [enlist by age 18]. Its people you know; it’s your uncles. It’s something that you have to do. But the police is a different [story]. Like here [in New York], a city ran by a businessman with pretty much little empathy, and [so] the cops have no discretion. [Make] a traffic mistake and you’re feeling like it might be your last day on the planet.
I say that to say, my older brother was a police officer. And [so] my expression is never – I’m never trying to be black and white in any of my art… I was fuckin’ angry [about] the Sean Bell incident, I didn’t know how to [vent] that anger, I thought writing a song would be really corny, I wanted to break something, and I don’t know, man, I was really upset, which brought me to some sort of action, but [one with] some sort of intellect behind it. But you know, I did an interview on radio, on satellite, and a cop called, a black cop, and we talked about it. I kinda was like, Don’t even go there, because my brother was a cop, and the song is not a “Fuck Tha Police” record, per se. This record is just [to provide] insight and [to] evoke conversation. Because, the relationship has gone down since I was a teenager. There’s always been these incidents, but there’s no discretion that they can have on their side, [and so] there’s no relationship [with the citizens].
And just speaking for myself, most times it’s a traffic violation and I’m like, “Oh my God, where’s my registration? Lord! Where’s my insurance card? Oh God! I got it. Okay, cool, I’m good.” It’s rarely, “Hey man … the sign said don’t go straight, and there’s been a couple incidents, so we’re just trying to keep [an accident from happening].” It’s, “Why are you driving? Give me your shit.”
DX: Maybe you’re just a lousy driver. [Laughs]
Pharoahe Monch: [Laughs].
DX: So, you’re “Still Standing” after the war, but do you come home and chill out or sign up to go back into battle?
Pharoahe Monch: It’s an ongoing thing… it’s growing and evolving. It’s like your walk spiritually. And that song is about being thankful, taking the time out and really… the perspective of where you are in the now. Not to sound all philosophical, but …
Today’s the second day of the album [release]. We reached #2 on iTunes, #16 overall. It’s a very provocative, social, political record. It’s got joints on there. It’s got Styles P on there! It’s got choruses on there. It’s got Jill Scott. And I think “Still Standing” deserves a Grammy. “Still Standing” is for me it’s like… my healthcare is threatening to drop me because I’m not on a major-label anymore. I have regular man issues, and regular man stuff that we’re all trying to get through in these hard economic times. I’m comfortable, I got heat, and I drive a nice car and so and so forth. But it could go either way. I’m not out of the red in terms of my situation. And so “Still Standing” is taking a moment to say, But look, you got an album out that thousands and thousands and thousands of people were anticipating, you’re #2 on one of the most well-known places to buy music, you’re about to go on tour, people appreciate what you do. More importantly, people are telling me they’re crying listening to “Still Standing” and it’s inspirational for them. Those are real important things that matter.