Look back through Pharoahe Monch’s storied career and you’re guaranteed to find one thing - consistency. Whether he was with Prince Po as Organized Konfusion or rolling dolo, Pharoahe has always delivered mind-blowing lyrics containing the intricacy of a Michaelangelo painting.
But despite how great his lyrics are, his last album didn’t do so well. Signing to Universal to release 2007’s Desire, the follow-up to his classic but doomed debut, Internal Affairs. But while an uncleared Godzilla sample from his anthemic “Simon Says” ultimately got Internal Affairs pulled from the shelves, faulty marketing made sure Desire stayed on the shelves, as the album sold an abysmal 12,000 copies in its first week.
Today, Pharaohe Monch is back with an indie. Signing with Duck Down Records in 2009 for his upcoming album W.A.R., the MC promises this album will be a classic. Pharoahe sat down with HipHopGame to talk about his upcoming album, surviving the game, what inspires him today and much more.
You just signed a new label deal with Duck Down. How did that deal come about in the first place?
Once I decided to leave the Universal situation, I really just started concentrating on music and I was lucky enough to have a relationship with some of the best producers in the game and was just working on music and with this record, I wasn’t really concerned at the time with label stuff because one follows the other and the reason why I left was I felt like I could do a lot more on the marketing and label side. I was ready to just take it on myself. I got halfway through the record and we started formulating our label and I started looking at labels to do joint ventures with and we sat down with Dru and he was kind of like schooling us on the downfalls and pitfalls and the different situations and the upsides and we decided that this would be a great balance in terms of the sensibility of the album and this label that’s been a long stay, 15 years of independent, classic hip-hop. When it’s done, I think they’re really going to be looked at as the best for how long they’ve been doing it and they’re still current in the game with Sean Price and Kidz in the Hall and they’re still putting out classic material and doing combinations like Sean, Milk and Guilty.
And for me, as a CEO now as well as an artist, I’m learning a lot about the process so that we can go on and hopefully be as successfully as Duck Down.
How do you want to market your upcoming album W.A.R?
I just think that because of the change in the music industry at the time, no specific fault to them, the audience wasn’t just looking in the same place to find my music. I missed my audience. I would be in the malls and the street and the fans would be asking me when I was putting something out and I was asking myself where were we missing these fans at? It’s like somebody opening up a small business and you have to go to the consumer and ask them how they want you to cook the pie and serve the food and asking them what they like about your restaurant. Personally I’m more involved in the internet with blogging and all that than I ever was before because it wasn’t my company. Not only is it my company now, I’m just more comfortable doing that and we’re two months away from the record and at the mall, now people are asking me when W.A.R. is coming out.
With an album title like that, fans would expect some aggressive music from you. How would you describe the music on W.A.R?
Oh, man. Wow. I’m just blown away. I’ve been listening to these songs over and over again. The title track was made by Marco Polo and we were fortunate to have Vernon Reid from In Living Color play guitar on this record. It’s just what I want to hear when it comes to that music. You could complain so much about what’s missing but you’re not trying to do anything, like trying to insert the antidote into the equation and I just feel good for anyone who feels like I feel about the blend of rock and hip-hop. This is the joint as well as it’s a very strong record. The rest of the record is pretty aggressive with unapologetically high-end vocabulary and lyrical skills and unapologetically Pharoahe Monch at his best and whoever that resonates with, it’s for you. If you’re feeling like you could sense this change in the industry or the matrix, so to speak, or if you’re oblivious to whatever’s going on in this record, then obviously it’s not for you.
You’ve already said this album is “a call to writers, artists, poets and even 9-5 people who think off the beaten path” as well.
Definitely, because it’s speaking about my flaws and my demons and my shortcomings and just trying to be a better human being, I would hope that anyone who is striving to better themselves, spiritually or health-wise, will be able to relate to the song in that aptitude or that manner. That’s why I say it speaks to that person. I’m always trying to be an artist and take an artist approach and I’m never satisfied with the last piece. I’m always trying to get better.
I feel like if you’re a photographer or you relate to raising your kids in that manner, you know that you can always fine tune and I think that comes through in this record. The honesty of the voice and the approach of the lyrics, you know, it’s real organic and it’s real honest.
You’re known for always having vivid videos to accompany your albums. This time you’re shooting a documentary for W.A.R. How’s that coming?
It’s going pretty good. I mean, it’s slow because we’re trying to finish the music part.
Do you have any plans for music videos?
Yeah. It’s gonna be the most artistic that I’ve ever tried to be because this is who I’m speaking to. I want to make it clear and there’s just no bones about who I’m trying to let this music resonate with who I’m trying to connect with. Personally I’m trying to find more like-minded people and if they’re consumers, then that’s fine too. In my heart I feel like there are people who think like me and it’s always refreshing. 9th Wonder Tweeted a question yesterday that if aliens came for the planet, which five MCs would you choose to combat them? I’m always posing that question in my head because I’m a sci-fi buff and a movie buff and I’m a fan of lyricism and so many people responded to the question and on the other side, I’m sure a lot of people are like, ‘What the fuck is he talking about?’ But for me, I think about that question all the time and it’s nice when you can just run the gamut from the whole spectrum of science fiction scenarios and how people resonate with things to everyday life and just talking about a particular weird food, like how you would like to put peanut butter on your pancakes. I do that as well. You hope that by opening yourself in an honest way that someone will say, ‘Well, I don’t have asthma and I don’t have a near-death experience from it, but my child does or my best friend does or my brother does and I can relate to that song in that manner.’ That’s what being honest is about. You’re not going to please everyone. You may not be received the same by everyone but I think in America, people respect someone who can say that they were wrong or looking back on something and saying that they might not have done their best but they’re trying now, so on and so forth. I think people respect honesty at the end of the day.
You worked with RZA on Blac Roc’s album. What was that like?
We had been talking about really doing some work together before and after that project. The fly thing about the Blac Roc project is that they have some great sensibility for hip-hop because they’re fans of what they understand about it and what they understand about it is simple grooves, simple drums and don’t try to overproduce. That’s what they grew up on and what they liked about it. It was real comfortable for a lot of the artists and I take a technical approach to writing but it doesn’t just flow naturally or organically but coming in the studio with that particular song, they were telling me to do whatever I felt and just to let it flow and that it wasn’t that deep, it was off the cusp and this is what rock and roll is and they weren’t overthinking any of the stuff and to just let it flow. People were telling me they liked the album and I think that’s what resonates with me. And RZA is just a long staying producer and legend in the game and just being on the record…I mean, I’m a fan of music in general just dating back as far as I can remember and it’s just a pleasure to know that when all is said and done and when I’m not here, there will be records like that and people can pick them up and they found it and it’s good. That’s what you do when you pick up music. You look at labels and you find that Ron Carter played bass on this album and you find out that he has his own solo career and now you’re digging through his music. I look at music like I discovered it and I’m a huge fan as well, so it’s just a pleasure, honestly, just to have those types of songs out in the marketplace.
There’s been rumors that you have a track with Prince Po ready to go. Is that true?
Yeah. We recorded this record some time ago. It was an original beat that he had that we reworked. I heard it and I went crazy. It’s very fun and it’s very simple. I know that with him and with a lot of Organized Konfusion’s stuff, they want us to make chemical explosions and bust people’s brains open but this is pretty funky, this one that we did. I think people forget about a lot of our funky songs that we did in the earlier work and this one is reminiscent of that type of funk and sensibility.
Is an Organized Konfusion reunion in the works?
Yeah, for shows. We’re working out all the songs for reunion shows. In terms of an album, I’m particularly not ready and looking at the music industry, you know, it would have to be really figured out, like how, what, when, where, why and who. It would have to be right with producers and it would just have to make sense. Prince is on the West Coast and it’s not just jumping in bed together to rhyme over some music because we have access to. We definitely have access to because some of the greatest producers in the game have hit us up that if we do it, they want to be counted in. It’s just a matter of it being right. I can’t even express to the fans how important they are in the decisions and to not cheat them. I think when it comes to any group getting back together from rock groups to what have you, I think that’s first and foremost – you not wanting to tarnish your foundation just to do something because you can. You want to take an honest approach to it.
Doing shows is a good starting point though.
Yeah, definitely. We never did a lot. We did a lot of stuff early on because contrary to us being underground, a lot of those records popped and we were able to tour a lot in Canada and overseas. Some promoters have been putting together some reunion stuff overseas.
You were a ghostwriter for Diddy on his last album Press Play for “Hold Up” and “Future.” Are you working on his new album?
Do you stay busy as a ghostwriter or was that a one time deal?
Not at all. That was my first time, not in the sense where I was just working on songs with people but that was my first time being really hired to do that. It’s not a major thing that I do. I’m such a slow writer and a meticulous writer that it becomes difficult at times. That particular project, I’ve learned so much just being around other people’s energy. Even the Slaughterhouse tour that I’m a part of, I’m excited because being around successful people who are where you wanna be and not people that are not where you wanna be, not even monetarily or successwise, it’s that I’m a big Royce fan and a big Joell fan. These guys are master lyricists and it’s just good to be where you want to be and sharpen your sword.
Going back to Puff, one of the reasons why I took that as well was just knowing where my future was going and doing more producing and starting my own company, it was a situation that I wanted to be around and seeing how an album was put together of that magnitude and sensibility. It was a learning experience. I’m scrapping to put my album together with glue and toothpicks but it helps to see it from the other side of having so much access to putting a record together.
How much of the production did you handle on W.A.R?
I just came across something that I might work on for the record. For the most part, I stayed out of the way and I created more of a concept. It’s a lot. If you’re just making music and making hot songs, it’s a little easier to make beats and do the album and a lot of times it takes a little more time when you’re making something conceptual and cohesive. W.A.R. is like that and it took me a long time to find different producers and the album is cohesive with different producers, which I think is a talent in itself to not have it sound all over the place. It’s just a lot of downfalls and a lot of different producers on the record. But I’m going to get heavily into the production after this record. I’m going to do some stuff. But it’s amazing. I’m very meticulous about not just trying to put something on this record because I produced it. It has to be right and it has to fit. And I’ll save the other stuff. I’ll have a song that’s really banging and I’ll just save that to give to the people, but maybe not as a part of this project.
You and Mr. Porter had great chemistry on your last album Desire. Is there a reason he’s not on W.A.R?
He’s replayed some music and advised me as well as he realizes that I’m kind of working on another album after this called Rock Versus Disco that he’s going to be involved with. He told me to do my thing and then he would be involved because while he’s working on other things, we’re over here. We’ll probably go to Detroit and put it together. I’m just a big fan of his brain as well as he’s one of the best producers in the game, no doubt about it.
You must be happy about having more control over your music at Duck Down.
Yeah, definitely, man. Not even just music-wise, but it’s just a little looser. That feels good to just be able to say that this isn’t even a single, let’s call it the first song and try to follow it up at this time. You got your own bakery and your own flower shop and you’re really going to get out of it what you put into it. And now that everything has shifted for a lot of artists, you’re going to get better music because I think the consumers are more aware and they’re not just going for any old thing. That makes it interesting for me because an artist wants to push himself and likes that. I don’t want to say my back is against the wall with pressure. I feel real good about this record. This record is going to be viable in the marketplace as well as something that you’re going to want to have when you hear it. I feel like you’re going to play it for your friends and let your friends get your copy. Even if it’s not two copies sold there, it’s an extra ear so I’m happy right now that it’s coming out.
You showed images of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in your video for “When the Gun Draws.” What do you think of the criticism surrounding Erykah Badu for her music video “Window Seat,” which shows her walking nude through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where Kennedy was assassinated?
I think it’s brilliant, man. You know, obviously knowing her like I do, it’s more of a statement on character assassination than physical assassination, where if you step out of the norm, which is what her album is about in terms of her thought process, or if you’re doing something that the power doesn’t want you to do and aren’t promoting what the people who want to control people want you to promote…Art itself promotes opinion. You’re told this movie is a 5 star film and it’s an Oscar winning film and you see it and you almost feel that way about it but then you have people with the sensibility who can say the movie sucks and they hated it and have no qualms about it. Those people are always going to be called crazy and weirdoes and out of the norm. This album speaks to people out of that mindset. Her video and her message is so in line I was just applauding. It’s not so much rebellious but awareness. It’s not about conspiracy theorists. It’s about trying to evolve, not even in a weird way.
But I feel like everything evolves from its beginning. Animals evolve, everything evolves. My spirit is asking myself when will race relations really get better? and when are we going to be more sensitive to human rights? and when do we start caring? My gut is asking myself these questions so I’m wondering if I talk about these things, will people be able to relate? Her message is a great message because this is how I write songs. Different people are able to take something different from things and that’s what’s great about messages like that. Her video goes back to asking if it was a character assassination in the form of someone who was questioning war and questioning things about civil rights and different things at the time when it really came down to a monetary situation and why he probably was assassinated and the money that his decision on war affected. It’s the same thing. If you’re singing about something that’s not normal and you’re not discussing what other people are discussing right now, they will look at you like, ‘This guy’s a nutcase,’ but in my gut, I’ve always been that way. I’ve always wondered when teachers will teach me to move a rock with my mind. That’s really what I would like to do but I’m learning what I’m learning so I’m dealing with it.
What artists inspire you creatively?
There was a lot of Coltrane music and Black Sabbath and just good, good, really good music, especially with the Zeppelin. I heard “Immigrant Song” and that certainly made me think of a snowmobile chase in Germany somewhere. What the fuck where they thinking about when they made that song and what was their inspiration? I was realizing that you could invoke that type of emotion in your song. With Coltrane, some of the riffs and how long he was able to hold his breath really influenced me to be that type of lyricist and work with breath control and lung work because of my asthma. I was combating that whole thing and trying to learn that way.
Now it’s a lot of film and conversations. I’ll see something and feel like I have to write something. It’s also everyday life too.