In 1991, rap music was in a transitional period in its then-nascent history. Rap music was still mostly regionalized, and underground Hip Hop acts that weren’t of the star power of MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Young MC, Tone Loc, or Technotronic had to be heard on either college radio or local rap video shows like New York City’s Video Music Box, BET’s Rap City, or California’s Pump It Up.
MTV was paramount in pop culture that celebrated its 10th year of operations, and Americans nationwide finally got their longtime wish from the slogan “I want my MTV” after the channel went from premium subscription cable to basic cable to their homes nationwide. This change enabled the visceral sensation of Hip Hop culture to be shown via Yo! MTV Raps, and fans got to see their favorite rappers on daily basis.
Yo! MTV Raps hosts Ed Lover and Dr. Dre showed a video for a song titled “Who Stole My Last Piece Of Chicken?” by a light-year, speed-travel rhyming rap duo from Hip Hop’s historic Southside Jamaica section of Queens called Organized Konfusion. The duo was comprised of the high-registered vocalist Prince Poetry and the preacher-like baritone spitter Pharoahe Monch. Organized Konfusion quickly became the standard bearers for underground Hip Hop’s elite with the release of their self-titled debut Organized Konfusion. After they released two additional albums before officially splitting in 1997, Pharoahe went on to a successful solo career with smash hits like “Simon Says,” the chart-topping “Oh No” with Mos Def and the late Nate Dogg, “Desire,” and several other underground rap favorites.
After 25 years deep in the rap game, Pharoahe, now 44, has seen the rap music industry and Hip Hop culture come full circle in many ways. The same traditionalist arguments about “rap isn’t the way it used to be” are are taking place; government politicians are continuing to disenfranchise people of color in ways that create protests in artists music; some artists are opting for dollars and fame than being woke seeking justice. Pharoahe Monch spoke with us about how he’s navigated the rap industry to remain relevant, why he is understanding and not mad at mumble rap being popular (including being a big fan of Desiigner), and how he defines his legacy.
Pharoahe Monch Defends & Bemoans Mumble Rap
The man behind lyrical gems like “Simon Says” and “Rape” can still enjoy everything the rap spectrum.
HipHopDX: We’ve seen an intergenerational discourse about that subgenre of mumble rap. What’s your take on how Pete Rock and other notable Hip Hop artists from the 1990s say about mumble rap and this generation of popular artists?
Pharoahe Monch: One thing about the argument that you’re asking me is that it’s not black and white. It has nuance to it and it’s mad layered. As for me, I can’t find myself to put all artists in the same box; Rae Sremmurd, I love them; Chance; the records made by Desiigner. To lump everyone in that same box i bugged out to me. I can’t do that. Plus, in my upbringing, I told my parents I’m going to be in a rap group, there were like “What instrument are you gonna play?” I was like “Nah, it’s Hip Hop and I have a partner. This is what it is.” They were like “Word? That dope.” I played them my songs, and they told me, “I like this one and this one,” and these are parents that come from gospel and heavy jazz backgrounds. They were accepting of what I was doing that sounded nothing that they were accustomed to. My parents’ place was the homebase for us to get in the space to work out for the gymnastics and development songs as well. So, my outlook on it is different in that respect.
At the same time, I’d say it’s a layered situation is because the very thing that makes Pete Rock the legend that he is because of the vast knowledge of music that he has. He has much better knowledge of what to put into the song, pulling from lexicon from all genres of music that he’s studied over the years. In that respect, I have a disdain for kids who refuse to attain that same type of lexicon that essentially makes them a better artist to have an understanding of what came before. Not just in the rap scene, but just in general, the love for the music to pull from the lexicon after you do your homework. So, in that sense, I understand what he was saying. That’s why there’s so many dimensions to why a lot of the young kids today feel like nobody pulls them up. And I’m not talking about just old school dudes, I’m just talking about in terms of era. Young cats are like “Yo, I can’t even buy or get the same equipment. I have to use my phone to do what we do. This is what it is.” I understand that as well. I don’t purchase some of that shit, but I understand it. I have a disdain some of it, but I have the same standards from way back: either your shit is dope or if it’s not good, then just throw it out the window.
Keep It 100: Desiigner’s “Tiimmy Turner” was pretty hot.
HipHopDX: Did you receive some of those similar critiques from your predecessors in rap when you began your career?
Pharoahe Monch: As I was coming up, I remember we had cats yelling at Organized, “You’re the reason shit is fucked up now! Hip Hop used to be fun with the hippity hop and the ‘Ho! Wave your hands in the sky.” Why y’all put so many words in the bars??” And I’d be like, “Well, fuck y’all.” (Laughs)
HipHopDX: But you had fun records in your solo career and with Organized, too.
Pharoahe Monch: That’s what I’m saying, and that’s why it was called Organized Konfusion. I’m saying that it’s a beautiful layer in the conversation and I’m glad I’m being asked to participate in it because I see both sides of it. KRS-One said years ago [in “I’m Still No. 1”], “Nobody’s the old school because rap on a whole, rap isn’t even 20 years old/50 years down the line…” So even then there were murmurs of muthafuckas like “Oh, those are those ‘old school’ cats with the ‘hippity hop’ and to ‘wave their hand in the air.’ We are the new generation of muthafuckas who really know how to do it.” You know what I mean? But the difference is that Pharoahe Monch, Pete Rock, KRS-One pays homage. I borrowed from Cold Crush. I owe them, G Rap, Kane, Rakim. These are the building blocks to get to where I am. But it wasn’t from just them. I had love for the whole genre at the time because I had that respect for the fact that we built this shit from nothing. Literally from nothing! You can formulate these words in this arrangement right here, and you can communicate in the hood in this way, which are records. That shit is beyond amazing to me. I got into Hip Hop because of the culture. I went to art school. I saw New York City Breakers and Popmaster Fabel, Rock Steady [Crew] and Crazy Legs, I drew and tagged, wanted to be a part of this as much as I can. It wasn’t like I’m going to make a record and make lots of money — that shit was a feeling.
Pharoahe Monch On Indie Rap Artists Being Today’s Hip Hop Superstars
HipHopDX: After so many years categorized as an “underground” artist, how do you feel about artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, J. Cole, Earl Sweatshirt, Joey Bada$$, who have gotten to where they are as rap superstars?
Pharoahe Monch: I think at the end of the day — another thing that we’re missing today — when you make a record a demographic, and they feel the record that they feel the record, Run The Jewels, Chance, and that’s undeniable that there is so many listeners. Nobody brings out Immortal Technique and Run The Jewels in these conversations. And they have huge fan bases. They are their own entity. With Run The Jewels, I love them because it’s the passing of Run-DMC and Rick Rubin. But it has such a new feeling to it as well because El-P has a vast knowledge of how to get out of his music and production what he wants to evoke. That’s how you have a lasting career. What I’m trying to say is that if you expand on that, you can last past a summer hit or last past even when it’s not trendy anymore. But that’s what you’re going to be stuck into the limitations of the possibilities of what you’re trying to do. At least have an understanding of why Public Enemy was how the way they were, what it meant, why it was integral for the major parts of production of what it was. Even one part in a song where Flavor Flav did an ad-lib and add that to your lexicon.
If you’re not digging into your past, your future is bound to be negative in some way. Because that’s the nature of the music industry. You want to add upon your production and legacy. That’s why half of these radio stations don’t give a fuck about these kids today because half of their shit is disposable to them.They’ll have an artist with no eye or no ears, and that will be the taste of the day, until the end of the summer, or next year. Kids should ask themselves, when Phife from A Tribe Called Quest passed away, why was there so much fanfare and show much love? Why were their memorials for Tupac? How did they affect people to get this much love in this way?
As I was coming up, I remember we had cats yelling at Organized, “You’re the reason shit is fucked up now! Hip Hop used to be fun with the hippity hop and the ‘Ho! Wave your hands in the sky.” Why y’all put so many words in the bars??” And I’d be like, “Well, fuck y’all.”
Do We Need More Political Rap Posses Cuts in Hip Hop Today?
HipHopDX: With all the political unrest that happened in 2016, do you feel that Hip Hop is due for a “Self Destruction” or posse cut from big name artists?
Pharoahe Monch: As long as it’s dope, man. I was having that conversation about how I don’t give a fuck about whatever the content of the record is if it’s not good. In music, I’m looking for great songs and then listen to what they’re saying to make you want to go and look stuff up. As long as it’s flavor, we need it. If it’s ass, I’m not going to listen to it just because all these motherfuckers are on it. Black Star wasn’t fly because of the suggestive content, but it was the flavor — these dudes are nice. Who did their production? What made them this way? It was all of that for them. Popular and loveable, stick to your guns and had dope choruses. They paid attention to production choruses and musical arrangement, as well as the structure of the songs. They were well-read, and at protests, and expand upon what they were talking about in many different ways. That’s what’s missing to me. To run that full circle, I love when I hear the truth and honesty. Even in the most ignorant shit, if I’m hearing ignorant ass shit, and this guy is making me feel as if to say, “This dude is really fucking dumb.” This is his intelligence level and that’s it. But if what he’s talking about coming from his heart, I’m probably gonna fuck with that dude because the truth is undeniable. The same goes for trap music if it’s not sounding contrived to me, I’m locked in.
HipHopDX: So you feel there should be more of a balance between braggadocio and political rap?
Pharoahe Monch: Braggadocious Hip Hop is powerful because when it hits you the right way, it empowers you, like LL [Cool J] or ‘Pac. It’s like it’s not even their song anymore once you sing it to yourself. It has that soul and feeling brought into the recording. That’s what we’re all looking for. As if to say, “Man, Chuck D is really mad!” and with Talib Kweli, you knew his feeling about the girl and your own maybe when he did [Black Star’s] “Brown Skin Lady.” If he’s breaking it down like that, you know it’s an experience.
I love A-F-R-O, Chance, Desiigner, and both his “Panda” and Timmy Turner” records. Just the rhythm, the sonics, and the melody of that shit to me is fucking brilliant. The rest of the song, I know that this dude is looking for a gun and I know this is bad, and the song is dark as fuck, but when that song comes on, I don’t turn from it. That’s just me. I feel like he pulled it from a place in his heart. And that’s what translates to me. After that, I could criticize everybody. I could criticize myself. I do it all the time. I appreciate what he’s done in his career. I love the fact that he’s a nut, and he’s unafraid to be uninhibited on stage, and he’s got a long way to go. I want to see him stay out of trouble and to do as much music as possible. There’s a reason Kanye gravitated to him. He has something with him. I want to see that come into fruition. I want to wish him the best career he could possibly have. I don’t have no hate towards these people like that.
Pharoahe Monch Talks His Years In Organized Konfusion
Organized Konfusion – Releasing Hypnotical Gases (1991)
HipHopDX: What are your best memories of that year for you and the first Organized Konfusion album?
Pharoahe Monch: So much, man. Hearing Red Alert play your joint on the radio for the first time. Plus, charting and going to different cities to perform, realizing that everybody doesn’t feel the same way when you get to certain cities. There were some singles of ours that would be in the top five or a top 10 at that particular station. All of that was brand new and we were so experimental with the record because not only that’s who we were, but a lot of the experimentation was out of our control. I just remember having a buzz and trying to be different at shows, seeing support for us in the Bay Area, and different areas at the time that was supporting Organized. It was mind-blowing to see that translate, and for the first time digesting that this is a real professional career that we were launching.
HipHopDX: You had a lot of love in California back then, especially Los Angeles. Organized Konfusion was an anomaly with only a few NYC rap acts like with that double-timed rhymed style like L.A.’s Freestyle Fellowship who emerged and was definitive of that underground movement back then.
Pharoahe Monch: See the thing that’s an anomaly to it is that Bobbito (Garcia) had pushed our demo on Russell Simmons at Def Jam. Russell actually later came back around and they wound up actually giving us an offer. He even was instrumental in changing our name. The beginning name of the group was Simply 2 Positive. Russell was like, “That’s the wackest fucking name I ever heard in the history of Hip Hop. Like, what is that shit?” We were like “STP, you know?” He said “Nah, fuck that. Y’all need to change that shit” (Laughs). Then we were like, “Yeah, we got a number in our shit, and it makes us mad stagnated. We need to change.” He was the reason we changed to Organized Konfusion because it was representative of who I was and who he [Prince Poetry] was, and how it was interchangeable in the different music genres we wanted to touch upon in that album, which was dope.
When Russell later came back around, he was like “Yeah, you guys are dope.” He probably doesn’t remember, but we saw him in a club, and he gave us an offer right there. But we had a higher offer with Hollywood Basic in L.A. off the Disney shit with Dave Funkenklein out there, and we wound up signing with Hollywood Basic Records. That’s how we were in L.A. like that. With that, we were able to expand our viewpoint of the situation. I think that’s one of the reasons why the group, even though we shouted out “Southside” and all of these things on the record, it was still in a way that was it was rooted in New York primarily.
Stressin’: Relive Organized Konfusion’s “Bring It On”
HipHopDX: You’re talking about the song “Rough Side of Town” with the Grover Washington, Jr. “Black Frost” sampled loops?
Pharoahe Monch: Right. I know we did shows in Chicago and people went crazy for that “Southside” song more than they did in New York. You know what I mean? Because every place has a Southside, and it especially was really popular in Chicago. Things of that nature are allowed us to expand our outlook and write to have a different feel about how we were writing. We were literally out there at Roscoe’s [Chicken and Waffle House], in the spots and at the clubs on the scene with Money B. and Tupac, we were in the midst of all of that. I always thought that it was dope that people were like “Where are y’all from?” even though it was clear where we were from.
Pharoahe Monch Defines His 25-Year Legacy In The Rap Game
“Get The Fuck Up!”: “Simon Says”. It never gets old.
HipHopDX: You maintain an intense workout schedule to improve your problems with asthma, and for breath control during your performances.
Pharoahe Monch: Yes, definitely.
HipHopDX: You look younger than you did on Organized Konfusion’s debut album cover.
Pharoahe Monch: It’s the medication that I was on at the time, there’s less of that, and you are what you eat. So it’s ill to me that people aren’t as knowledgeable as I would think they could be. But I guess people don’t see the negativity in what they’re eating.
Bar For Bar: Pharoahe Monch and Black Thought went nutty on Monch’s last album, 2014’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
HipHopDX: After 25 years, how do you sum up your career or how should your legacy be viewed?
Pharoahe Monch: I look back on it on my records as my babies. After Internal Affairs, Desire was a little weird for people because it was soulful and whatever. But recently I asked people online about that record and a lot of people gravitated towards it. I was like “damn.” But then you realize that there are new people who are 18 and 19, and there will be new 18, 19 to 24 years olds who grew up on it and were loving it because it’s theirs. When I look back at Organized Konfusion, the zone that I was in at that time, I just shake my head. There were just bangs and rhythms, beats and lyrics on those records, and I’m like “Jesus, this dude would rip you apart right now.” (Laughs) This muthafucka was really into crafting these flows that he was into at that time. When I put it in perspective, it’s mind blowing. I’m not an artist at the top of the charts or any of that now, but I have my fan base that I work with. But once you lose that one thing that people respect you for, then it’s wrap.