Ancient Pharaohs of old were worshiped as direct descendants of the Sun God although, in reality, they were just flesh and bones. And while Pharoahe Monch might not be considered a God, there’s no doubt he is a man held in high regard by many fans and peers for his superior lyrical prowess. On his upcoming album P.T.S.D., he reveals his struggles with his own mortality, especially a glimpse into his battles with prescription drugs and subsequent bouts with depression. Although the album is being marketed as the dark turns of an independent artist, Pharoahe Monch makes it clear in this exclusive interview that this album is indeed his own troubling story.
“I was able to write this experience down and express it all from my point of view,” Pharoahe explained. “It’s something that I wanted to talk about on the record in order for people to get the feel of what that type of depression and anxiety can feel like.”
While most artists would be content to hide their demons and continue the illusion of being larger than life, Pharoahe Monch has no problem coming clean about the issues that have plagued his dazzling career. Honesty and vulnerability aside, P.T.S.D is lyrically loaded with dizzying rhymes in true Pharoahe Monch fashion. Long live the Pharoahe!
Pharoahe Monch Contrasts European & American Hip Hop Audiences
HipHopDX: I understand that you just came back from a European tour. How was it?
Pharoahe Monch: It was amazing. Some of my best shows have been over there. Some shows were mosh pit crazy, and others were more cerebral—depending on where we wanted to take it. I sold out eight shows, and I don’t say that to mean that they were stadium sized venues, but it’s still a big deal to me.
DX: How do you compare the American and European Hip Hop audiences?
Pharoahe Monch: It’s really weird. Even before Hip Hop, there were avant-garde Jazz musicians that migrated overseas because the audiences there were accepting of their music. It’s kind of like the same thing with avant-garde Hip Hop artists now. Going back to my first album, the amount of people over there that knew the lyrics to my songs was ridiculous. I think it has a little bit to do with how art is viewed abroad and here in the United States. Outside of America, people take the time to study what Hip Hop is all about as opposed to just jumping in to the things that are at the popular level. Of course the songs that are popular here are popular over there too, but they do have a tendency to search a little harder. I’ve always gone hard when I’m over there because I respect that they come out to my shows. Here in America, outside of the wild teenagers that jump around, the audiences are kind of lazy. During a show you look around and wonder if people are really in to your performance, and then when it’s over everybody tells you that it was the best show ever. [Laughs] I’m like, “It didn’t look like you were enjoying it!” But that’s how I am when I’m at shows. I stand there with my hand rubbing my chest or my beard and take it all in.
DX: Do you think if the attitude of the American Rap fan was different, you wouldn’t have to make an album about being in a war against the music industry?
Pharoahe Monch: There are so many layers to that. At the upper tier of the music industry, there is a massive production of things that work and are useful to the capitalism system and the machine—and they don’t want to deviate from what they feel works. Corporations will have you wanting to buy the same things over and over again. In the music industry, that also works in conjunction with radio and ticket sales. As an artist, I understand all of that. I understand that if Prince had a successful album called Purple Rain that made a lot of money and that the label wants something similar for his next release with a name like Lavender Snow [laughs]. Meanwhile, Prince has ideas of going to Africa to record animal sounds and be an artist. The label’s mentality is that the first formula worked so good that they have to go for it again, and the artist’s mentality is looking for the next level of expression. The artists that are okay with being molded and told what to do are the ones that tend to do better at record labels than those who don’t. I’m not dumbfounded by all of this. I understand it. With the new album, there is fucking awesome and palatable music on it that the masses would enjoy as well. You get tired of the redundant sound of the same producers and so forth. When I was a kid, I was absorbing music from Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye—songs that were much older than I was—but I recognized that it was good.
DX: You mention artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, but during that era it seems like there were more music executives that were actually into making quality music.
Pharoahe Monch: Exactly, and that’s a part of it too. It’s not just the attitude of the audience. Executives knew what they were doing and knew the people to turn to in order to get the music that they wanted. A&Rs are obsolete right now.
How Pharoahe Monch’s Asthma Treatment Impacted His Album
DX: The new album is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I know it’s a narrative about an independent artist but how much of this album is your personal story?
Pharoahe Monch: It’s worded as a narrative, but this album is about me and my experiences. It chronicles my bout with depression and the time I was hospitalized from a severe asthma attack. They treated me with heavy dosages of Prednisone steroids and antibiotics intravenously. The side-effects wound up fucking me up! Anybody that knows those medications knows what I’m talking about. Things like a changing of sleeping habits, bloating and appetite increases. One time I was being released from the hospital, and they gave me a drug to wean me off of the drugs that I was already taking. Two weeks after I was released, I ran into issues like not being able to sleep, sadness and not wanting to be by myself. When I tried to tell people about my condition, I was met with responses like, “Have a beer or go smoke a blunt.” I would tell them no, and further try to explain that I’m honestly going through issues.
DX: In your song “P.T.S.D.” off of the new album, you mention putting a gun to your brain. Is that true?
Pharoahe Monch: It’s true. You go to friends and family, and people are like, “Fuck it. You just need to go get some help and shit.” At the time, I was confused and befuddled on what happened all of a sudden, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Cats ended up coming to my apartment and taking things away from me. They told me that I seemed to be going through some things and that I shouldn’t have these weapons around.
DX: Your friends held an intervention?
Pharoahe Monch: Yes. After that, I went to the dentist and had to fill out forms and list all of the medication that I was taking. The doctor came out and called me in to his private office and told me that he didn’t mean to pry into anything, but he was going over my list and noticed the combination of my medications. He then informed me that one of the side-effects of a certain one included severe depression. As he said that, I melted into the chair I was sitting in and a thousand monkeys jumped off of my back. I started bawling right on his desk. I hadn’t put it all together before that point. I went back to my doctor, and he told me to stop taking the medications, and I was like, “Yo, I didn’t know. You gave them to me!” I was able to write this experience down and express it all from my point of view. It’s something that I wanted to talk about on the record in order for people to get the feel of what that type of depression and anxiety can feel like. I was on tour with Vinnie Paz, and he was telling me about a medical condition that he has in which he wrote about recently; this shit is real! As many artists that there are now, why wouldn’t they speak on the things they deal with?
DX: An artist coming out with problems like that flies in the face of the illusions portrayed by many of their songs.
Pharoahe Monch: Right and that’s the gist of the album, but there is also a redeeming and uplifting side as well. I needed this album to have its slow and dark parts. It’s also elegant, hard and lyrical at the same time.
Pharoahe Details Balancing His Pop & Underground Sensibilities
DX: When previewing the album some of the songs had me feeling down, then “Dreams” came on towards the end there and lifted my spirits.
Pharoahe Monch: Exactly, but I do admit that I tend to gravitate towards hard and dark music. I do have jolly, happy shit that’s coming down the line, but I’m in my element on this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder album.
DX: Marco Polo gave you some excellent tracks on this album, especially “Rapid Eye Movement.” I’ve read past comments from fans who have felt that you need to work with better producers, but I think Marco stepped up to the plate on this one.
Pharoahe Monch: I don’t want people to think that these decisions are made from a lack of understanding. The decision to use certain producers comes from getting what I want out of a song. The option of getting someone to give me a broader and more mass appealing sound is always there, and that will come later. I’ve made a conscious decision to work with the people that I am working with, like Marco Polo and Lee Stone. I don’t think I’m being hard-headed by thinking that Marco has the ability. I know that he’s like in the vein of DJ Premier, with a more traditional Hip Hop sound. To me, it’s about what kind of canvas that you are using in order to get out whatever the message is. I’m not opposed to pop or popular tracks. I still feel that even though I’m underground, a lot of the temperament that I do is more pop than some of my contemporaries who are truly underground dudes.
DX: In the world of Hip Hop who inspires you to be a better artist?
Pharoahe Monch: I’ve spent the last few years around Jean Grae, watching her work and paying attention to her approach to writing, and she’s fucking brilliant. Whenever I think of widening my approach from an emcee and songwriting perspective, she comes to mind. Of course, there are the mainstays who inspire me like Kool G Rap and Rakim. As for what’s new, there’s Slaughterhouse and the dudes from TDE. I like the hardcore and raw ass, thought-provoking shit.