Oh, I’m doing great, man. I’m just dealing with the heat. It’s like 990 right now.
Your new album Desire has been out for about two weeks now. Are you happy with the response you’ve gotten from your fans?
It’s incredible, man. It’s actually better than I thought it would be. I didn’t know how the immediate response would be in terms of Internal Affairs, but people were really feeling it. A lot of people are saying that they like it even better than Internal Affairs.
Were you concerned that fans would compare Desire to Internal Affairs and that this album wouldn’t be able to stand on its own?
Yeah. You know, that’s the thing when you have something, even if you’re dealing with one fan and that fan is stuck on that album. It’s in the back of your mind, but professionally and just being a veteran, you have to stand alone from that project in order to have the project stand alone. I didn’t go back and listen to Internal Affairs and say, “Oh, I need a song like this. Oh, I need a song like that.” It was a whole different vibe. I felt like if I was honest with where I was at the time and what I was feeling, then that would shine through and it would be up to the people to decide which vibe they like the most, because it’s two different vibes.
Did you successfully capture your current state of mind on Desire?
I think so. It’s pretty turbulent going through the situation and waiting and waiting. It’s different when you’re actually recording and you’re pushing the record back for commercial reasons or for marketing reasons and you’re not even recording. Your deal is not even accurate. They don’t want to put you out. That was the kind of frustration I had. I felt like I interpreted that well and created it well on the album. It’s also bigger than that. There’s a spiritual side and that helped me to get through that as well.
Were the two pushbacks Desire had beneficial to the project?
I just think that if the album would have come out two years prior, then it wouldn’t have been beneficial because if the label’s not ready, then that’s a big part of it. I think now is the perfect time to drop this album and I think that’s why people are receiving it the way they are. Because of the frustration with the industry and with the frustration with music, I think this album is really a breath of fresh air.
You sound very frustrated with the industry on Desire.
From a fan’s perspective as well as from a business perspective. But from a business perspective, at times, it is what it is and you work with it and you deal with it. From a fan’s perspective, it’s even more frustrating sometimes because people do look for music and look for artists to do certain things and it is spiteful by the way that the industry is going at radio and at record labels with people trying to get a grip and a grasp on what to market and how to market it and how it’s affecting the culture of hip-hop in itself. So to a certain degree, I’m glad I’m still frustrated and it’s not like I don’t give a shit anymore.
You compare being on a label to slavery on “Free” and “Desire.” Looking at that, why sign to a label?
It’s an ego thing. If you wanted to just do it for the art and for the culture, then you would be at a recreational center and rap in a circle for free. Obviously you do take a business standpoint. When you talk about big business and the commercialization of something that is an artform, it’s give and take. I understand that hip-hop is big business now, but I never knew that it would affect the culture and the artform of it as much as it did. And keeping the top tier artists, you can kind of see them curve what they would say and how they would say it and how they would present it because they know that it’s connected to business and you have to give and take and there’s some performing that you have to do. And so at a level where you’re trying to pay back $5 million or market towards 5 million in sales or making sure you come in at Level 1, there are certain things that are contrived and have to be done and unfortunately everybody can’t see it, but the ones who see it see it for what it is. That’s what it is. But you know, I’m not sure if you can say it’s frustrating. It’s disappointing when you know people are capable of putting out better material than they’re putting out.
On “Desire,” you say, “Slave to a label but I own my own masters.” Being that you’re on SRC, it seems rare that you would own your masters on SRC. Do you own the masters to Desire?
Actually, the song was written when I wasn’t in a deal, but I was still in part of a contract. That line was contingent to me not being in a deal at that time. I just thought it was a dope line and I didn’t want to change it.
What made you choose “Body Baby” as a single?
From the moment I made the beat, I was feeling it like that. I was feeling it like a single. I wasn’t feeling it like a first single after being away from the game for so long, but it was a progression for me. I always knew how I wanted the song and video to be. I wanted the video to be somewhat humorous. But because things are the way they are, things can’t always be the way you want. But I did know that I wanted it to be a single. If I had expressed myself fully, I probably would have needed $100,000. The budget for the video was nowhere around that. I guess from the people’s reactions, it did come out as humorous, but it wasn’t all of what I imagined when I first made the beat.
How did you approach remaking Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”?
A lot of times when I get music, I always say some freestyles or just rhyme over a track or I’ll say some old OC lines or Mos Def lines that I know and see how I flow over the beat. A skill that I learned from producers is that they play a lot of acapellas when they make new beats just to see how certain voices and different styles sound over their beat. When I got that beat, I was putting some rhymes over it and I started putting a Chuck D rhyme over that. I was like, ‘Oh, shit! It sounds exciting like that and that would be a great idea.’ So I started to try to mimic Chuck. When I called the producer, I told him I had a great idea.
We laid it down and I sent it to Chuck. Chuck heard it and he was like, ‘Yo, this shit is hot!’ I got the thumbs up from Chuck and that was it. We had all of the original samples in there, but we couldn’t clear it because back then, I don’t even think they cleared any of those samples. The Bomb Squad used so many samples for those records back then. We tried to replicate as many of the same samples as we could, but we had to pull some of the samples off of the song. But once I got the thumbs up from Chuck, I was like, ‘This is a done deal.’ I think the song is still so relevant today. When I play the song for people and when fans hit me online, they say that it’s one of their favorite songs on the album. Some of them are too young to even reference back to the original song, so I think that’s a good thing.
What did Chuck D’s blessing mean to you?
That’s everything to me. That’s one of my favorite songs. That’s one of my favorite albums. I think that’s one of the best albums, period, in music, period, not just in hip-hop. I’m a big fan and I know what that song meant to me. Coming up, I was influenced by a lot of rock music and that song just fused what I felt when I used to listen to Maiden and Zeppelin and Sabbath and it was on a rap record. I was like, ‘This is it right now!’ That’s why Public Enemy was the shit to me. So that being said, just to have the person who did the song give me a thumbs up, I was like, ‘That’s good.’
I knew I was taking a risk and I knew I was doing it justice at the same time because there are kids who don’t even remember It Takes A Nation of Millions and there are so many PE fans that are going to say, “What the fuck? He redid that? Who has the nerve to do that?” I knew I was taking a risk and I think I took a lot of risk and stepped out of the box on a lot of stuff on the album.
There are a lot of powerful images in your video for “When the Gun Draws.” What inspired you to make that video?
The one thing that was cool about it was that we knew that by shooting it the way that I wanted to shoot it, there was a 99% chance that it wouldn’t get played on TV, but we knew that it would be played all over the internet. I just knew that I didn’t want to compromise. I wanted to stay true to the lyrics in the social-political sense of how bullets have affected our history in terms of Malcolm X’s assassination, JFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination and the deaths and murders of Biggie Smalls and 2Pac. So in speaking from the perspective of the bullet, I just wanted to show that if you’re a President, rapper or young kid in the suburbs, I don’t give a fuck. I wanted to give off that feeling.
I also think that we’ve become desensitized to war. I’m here. I’m in America right now. I’m in New York City. I just bought something cool to drink and I’m doing my interview in the car and there are soldiers overseas trying to maintain that and I think that people take that shit for granted when we hear these stories about these thousands of soldiers dying in this war. We don’t take it seriously because we don’t see the cost of it, so it doesn’t seem as much. And the war is not here. The war is not here in New York City, yet anyway. It’s not affecting us like it should. So we just push it to the wayside. I look at people with their iPhones and carrying on with everyday life and it’s really not a concern when you think about it. They try and put it in the back of their minds.
You also have a website, WhenTheGunDraws.com. What do you have to do to raise more awareness on gun safety?
I partnered with a company called Guns for Cameras and we’ve been doing speaking engagements at colleges, not even on a deeper level than this conversation, but just “pay attention, be aware of your situations and mindful of your past because it’s easy to choose that direction and education and knowledge is what opens your mind up to the options that allow you to be that individual that can make change and be important and don’t just become a victim of the system.” It’s a very straight-forward conversation but I think at the end of the day, it’s very fulfilling to the kids and the college kids. We go back and form programs and shoot PSAs about violence and gun violence in particular. But it’s very fulfilling as well because you know that one conversation could resonate for years to come and I think that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about raging a war against the government or a vote against the government.
It’s sad that you could obtain some knowledge that can change your life and you’re missing out on it because you’re worrying about some bullshit smokescreen, the ignorance of a block, what have you.
There are a lot of popular songs that make references to guns. Artists talk about their guns like they’re in love with them and a certain group of rappers can’t wait to flash their guns on DVDs. How do you take that?
That’s layered to me. I sort of rapped about guns on a song and I thought I did it pretty creatively. For the entertainment value, I’ll buy a gun song and I’ll go see a gun movie and so on and so forth, but one of the things we talk about is taking that for what it is. Even the DVDs, sometimes I find myself laughing hysterically. I don’t know if these guys mean to be humorous, but it’s that comical at times. I think most people with half a brain look at somebody on a DVD shooting up at the sky in a comical sense. I don’t really think that most half-brained people are like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get a camera and do the same thing!’
But in a sense, that aspect of hip-hop is what we’re talking about. I’m good about songs on guns and rims, as long as they inspire other people to write good songs about guns and rims and as long as they’re creative. That’s what hip-hop is. I’m not trying to take that voice away from somebody if that’s their story and that’s their artistic way of explaining it. My thing, my hatred, and I know ‘hate’ is a strong word, is for wack-ass, senseless songs that drop gun names and rim sizes and they don’t make sense. They don’t make me move. They’re not artistically written. And that’s just my thing. I don’t mean to pick on these artists, but I think if Kanye did a song about rims, there would be some artistic value to the music and nine times out of ten, I’m probably going to like it and it’s probably going to have some substance behind it. I just hate it when people do those types of songs because they’re popular and there’s really no sense behind it.
It infiltrates your mind and before you know it, you’re just repeating some nonsense and it becomes okay to say and okay to do in your rhymes. But I take creativity from any of those things. If there’s anything worth feeding off of, I’m going to try and find it and not miss it, even if it’s in the beat alone. Even if it’s the quirkiness in the beat alone, I’m going to try to find something. But I do understand that the “When the Gun Draws” message is probably countered through 80% of what is promoted in the mainstream as hip-hop. I think the people who choose not to do that don’t get promoted as well and therein lies the problem. If I was to do a video called “Die, Motherfucker” and I shot pregnant women in the video, it would probably get more airtime than the “Gun Draws” video, which is ultimately something positive.
What inspired “Trilogy”?
Honestly, I got the first half of the beat and I was crazy on it. And then I wanted to complicate it even more by writing three more scenes. I would have to say my mental psychosis and retardation [is what inspired “Trilogy”].
Mr. Porter told me a lot of great songs didn’t make the album. Were you able to make the album that you wanted to make?
I think that those songs got omitted because I was trying to make an album. If I was trying to do a long-playing record where you would listen to it and you would say, “There’s five good songs on there,” then that would make sense. But I tried to make an album where you would listen to it and you would say, ‘That’s a pretty good fucking album.” It plays like an album and people have been listening to it like an album. The formula for making dope records is really like…I think me and Mr. Porter could do that in our sleep.
Would you do another album with Mr. Porter?
Definitely! Mr. Porter is like my favorite producer right now. And we still have records that could bash what you’re hearing on the radio with substance and they could compete with that, but it depends on where we take the next project.
Artists today sell more ringtones and singles on iTunes than they do albums. Is the art of making an album dead today?
It’s a possibility. But if the iPhone figures that out and ringtones become obsolete, I would have been trying to follow a trend and you might be saying to me, “You’re too late on that trend.” So you have to do what your heart wants you to and everything happens for a reason. The next song I do might be the greatest song since “We Are the World” and downloaded a million times, but that’s not what I was trying to do with this record. I wasn’t making this album with ringtone potential in mind. (laughs)
Have you been paying attention to the album sales of Desire or is that not a concern to you?
I think to be concerned with that, you have to definitely do certain things that show that you’re concerned with that and then you need to get X, Y and Z producers along with the guys who have the hottest choruses on the radio right now on the single. And it shouldn’t be too complicated. And then you need to hire the right people to market that record and I think you will be in a pretty good place. A lot of that stuff isn’t selling either, but I think that when you do that stuff, it definitely shows that you’re making an effort to play that game. At the same time, my publishing company and everybody that was making this album already knows in advance that if we’re going to make a record like this, it’s not going to be about what it does in the first week.
Looking at Desire today, can the album stand the test of time?
Yeah. I think so. Definitely.
Can you take us through your writing process?
It’s all different processes. Some of them are ideas that come from inspiration, from film and books and conversations. Most of them are like, ‘This is what I’m feeling from this song and from this music.’ If the music is inspiring me to say, “Good golly, Miss Molly,” then I’m definitely going to say that, especially if it’s from the heart. If it’s simple or if it’s complicated, I’m not going to change that up. If the music is giving me a vibe that says it should be something that the people have to figure out, then that’s what I’m going to do. If the music is saying that it should be something that is ABC, then that’s what I’m going to do. It’s all based on the music and the music that I like.
That being said, in closing, I really feel like all of these things could be marketed and sold platinum. It’s not like the people involved in this project didn’t think this was a platinum album. I don’t want to get that misconstrued. But we knew that it would be a longer process than selling a million copies in the first week. We knew it was going to take more work than that and have a slow burn. That’s why I’m touring. That’s why I have a band. That’s why I’m doing the things that I’m doing.
Even beyond this album, after all these years, I think that this is the first time in my career that I’ve been able to promote my brand of music. What I like about my brand of music is that I think there’s less than a handful of people that if they tried to do it, they could do it. So that puts me in a league by myself.
And the latest metaphor is the iPhone. There were people standing in line, waiting in line for four hours. When the reporters were asking them, “What are you waiting for?”, half of the people responded, “I don’t know. It seems like the phone to buy.” I think that’s because Apple was like, ‘It’s the ultimate phone. It has no buttons. You’ll never need another phone.’ I just think that the marketing on the iPhone was brilliant and the marketing on Pharoahe could be the same way. So I think if you’re going to go platinum, there are a portion of those people just buying it because it was marketed well. I think Desire is strong enough to last longer than the first-week numbers.
Do you ever worry about going over the listener’s head with your lyrics?
Sometimes it’s meant to do that so that that fan says, “Wow, you know, I’ve been listening to this song and now it’s going to last me a little bit longer because he said ‘X, Y and Z.’” It gives the song more of a shelf life. As compared to Internal Affairs, this is a real simple album. As compared to “Chain Hang Low,” it’s a very complicated album. I personally don’t think it’s a very complicated album.
Looking at yourself as a producer, how have you grown from Internal Affairs to today?
You just grow and you always grow. I think the best producers in the game are continually learning how to grow the motion of sounds from music to arrangement to choruses and interpreting what gives people certain motion. I think that’s the biggest change. I listened to a lot more and studied a lot more, like instruments, choruses and crescendos. If you go to a movie and see a chase scene, certain instruments are used to provoke that emotion and I think it’s the same way in hip-hop. Something should be exciting before you rhyme on it and say that it’s exciting. Something should be hard before you say, “This is the most hardcore song ever.” Especially when you’re not dealing with samples, you have to learn how to create that yourself.
What equipment do you use today?
I use the MPC 200XL, Proteus, anything I can get my hands on in the studio, any instruments that I can get my hands on, musicians and samples.
Will you work with DJ Scratch and Diamond D again?
Oh, man, me and DJ Scratch are going back and forth. Definitely. And with Diamond, definitely.
You’ve mentioned fans talking to you about your album online. A few years ago, that never would have been possible and most fans never would have had that chance to contact you. What do you think of the way the game is changing to where fans can interact with their favorite artists through the click of a mouse?
I think it’s dope because you get an immediate response one way or another from the hardcore and critical to the most affectionate. You can kind of go somewhere in between with that. For the most part, it’s overwhelmingly positive and I think that’s great, especially if you’re open to the criticism.
Do you feel a responsibility to be accessible to fans?
To some degree. My personality is that I love my privacy, but like Erykah said, artists are sensitive about their work. I think all artists are. I think you could take the most hardcore artist and tell them that their single sucks ass and they won’t like to hear that. Nobody likes it and everybody hates it, and I think they will definitely be affected by that.
What is your next project?
There are a couple of things that are in the works. I don’t really want to discuss it. But there’s like three directions that I’m trying to do at the same time. I’m working on a Black Milk-type of sampling, gutter record. Another is a record with the band that I’m working with now. And what the other record will be, I don’t want to say. But there’s so much and it’s so open.
What do you have to do to be successful as an artist today?
I think I’m there already. My live show is crazy. The response to my live show has been better than the fucking album. The band is incredible. The guitar player is phenomenal. The bass player is phenomenal. I think that’s what the difference is. You can’t get that live experience at home in front of your Mac. Sometimes you have to be there. That’s why the people are coming out and the shows are selling out. You can’t get that kind of content on the radio. So if you want to hear me talking about the government, you’re going to have to come to the show, and that’s the difference. The shows have been packed. People have been coming out and that’s what it’s about. It’s about the content. It’s about if you want to get that, you have to come out to a Pharoahe Monch show. If you want to have surprise artists and guests that you love come out and represent with him on stage, then you have to come out. That’s what a true artist is. A lot of people can’t hold their weight at a live show. There’s a lot of walking back and forth and people are complaining about that as well.
What do you want to say to everybody?
Thanks, man. Thanks for waiting. Thanks for supporting. And if you don’t know, check out my MySpace. Listen for yourself and judge for yourself and join the experience because it’s a pretty good album.