Pharoahe Monch originally entered the game as one half of the seminal rap dup Organized Konfusion with his partner Prince Poetry. During the years with Organized, he quickly gained prominence and notoriety on the mic with his intricate rhyme schemes and inventive content with tracks like “Releasing Hypnotical Gasses,” “Stray Bullet” and “Invetro.” As he moved onto a solo path he has continued to elevate the craft, delivering material sparsely but at the highest quality.
Read on for more on his process, the impact Paul C had on his career, the potential of a new Organized Konfusion album and of course a bit on the upcoming album P.T.S.D.
Halftimeonline.net: I read that when you got into the game you got into all of the other elements before emceeing. How deep did you get into them before you decided to pick up the mic?
Pharoahe Monch: I went to art school and from a cultural standpoint as it was happening in my school, it had exploded before then but as it was evolving in my school, I was getting to see the dance, the graffiti, the fashion and all the different aspects and how it was empowering for a community as a form of expression. That energy in itself is why I gravitated [towards it]. I was asking myself from a passionate and honest perspective how can you lend to this thing that’s happening right now where people who didn’t otherwise have a voice can discuss whatever they want to discuss. I never seen a limit, especially on content, so I just wanted to be down with it and get involved. As an artist it’s working on art and trying your hand at different stuff. I discovered that my voice was in emceeing and that’s how I could lend what I had to offer the culture. For me it benefited because it allowed me to have a certain reverence for that voice and an understanding that it was about elevating the art, keeping it moving upwards instead of being stagnant. That was a good starting point for me as an emcee to try to improve constantly.
Halftimeonline: One of the things I’ve heard a lot about is when you and Prince Po recorded your first demo tape, with him rhyming and you beat boxing, you were like this isn’t working. What was it that you didn’t like that made you say I’m gonna do more than just that on the mic?
Pharoahe: I think what we were inspired by at the time were cats in the park like Grandmaster Vic and Boss Crew, which was a crew and a famous DJ out of 40 projects, and it simply wasn’t lengthy enough. It didn’t have the body or the musicality. I was beat boxing and he was rhyming and it let me know the level of thought that had to go into making routines. I talk about this with cats today. The ability to listen back to your own stuff and quickly feel if it is up to par or not is a very important thing. Not only up to your standards but marketing, commercial and underground standards. To be able to kick yourself in the ass and say it’s not good enough or it’s not better than or up to par. In my mind I was like we don’t deserve to be professional yet and it took a minute before I was like this shit is just as good as the stuff that inspires me because I’m inspired by it. Like I felt something when that happened. That’s all it was man. It was the ability [to say] this is not right just based on records and if what you are doing is evoking the proper emotion. That also comes from being an artist and having stuff in your head and painting it or drawing it. You’re up close on it and the teacher is like step away from your work and really get it a look at it. Then you’re like damn that anatomy is off. It’s the same thing.
Halftimeonline: I noticed you talked about this a little bit with jazz [in the past] but going from some type of instrumental like beat boxing to emceeing you have a little bit more thought about melody and things like before you started rhyming. How did that time when you were doing solely beat boxing and some of the elements impact your style of rhyme?
Pharoahe: It was more or less very, very grade school. It was just like cultures and people. You only know the knowledge that you’re given unless you have the innate ability to listen from within. We were just going off what we were inspired by at the time and trying a variety of stuff. [We were] exercising our ability to try and match what other cats were doing. It didn’t take us long to start finding our voice. We started asking what are we going to bring to the culture because biting was so taboo back then. It was cool to be influenced and give a nod to those groups that you were influenced by but if you weren’t bringing or adding it felt like you were stealing. Everybody wants money for selfish reasons but that’s one of the big things I see with the artists now. It’s kind of going back to that. It’s just evident that it has really become a corporate industry and you don’t feel the reverence. That’s okay but it’s just different.
Halftimeonline: You talk a lot about when you’re really adding something new to the culture and not just doing something for fun or exploration. When was it for you, whether you spit something or you read it, where you were like, “Yo I’m actually nice!” or “I’m really elevating something and being different?”
Pharoahe: We started working with looping our stuff, doing our own beats and buying equipment and we signed to an independent label that was working with a lot of live musicians. They wanted us to go into that direction, which was cool, but it really wasn’t where our hearts were. I think we had already imagined what kind of schemes or what we wanted to express. They were pretty much following what was popular. We didn’t know any better so we were like whatever we’ll do that. When we were given the opportunity to produce our own material it took a natural course of what we liked which was James [Brown], The Meters, Zeppelin and other rhythms that were inspiring us. We quickly took it that way and laid some demos. We went to the studio and met Paul C and started laying more demos and took them to a record store. Mr. Walt and Evil Dee worked at the record store in Queens and we were like, “Yo we got a tape!.” Mr. Walt was like I think I know y’all and we played this one joint and he was like, “Oh my god these kids are fucking bananas!” I believe it was Herbie Hancock bassline (hums bassline) and we decided to rhyme in the rhythm of the bass line. Before that I hadn’t heard anyone do that to my memory. They were just blown away by that and that’s when we were like, “Yo we might have some shit here.”
Halftimeonline: Was that when you guys were still Simply Too Positive?
Pharoahe: Yea, we were still Simply Too Positive.
Halftimeonline: What made you guys change the name, the end of the African medallion era?
Pharoahe: Actually, what happened was we had shopped the demo to Russell Simmons at Def Jam through Bobbitto Garcia and we were hype on the name. It was more or less STP but it was Simply Too Positive. We were doing all of this lyrical, harder south side Queens stuff on the demo and we had a couple of offers but of course we wanted to sign with Def Jam. He turned us down but he turned Nas down too so I didn’t feel that bad. About two weeks later we see Russell in the club and he revisits the idea and we exchange numbers. We’re on the phone with Russell Simmons and I’m like wow! We call him one time and he was like I’m considering signing the group but first and foremost y’all gotta change that wack ass fucking name! What the fuck is that?! So we went at it hard with names to come up with some new shit because if Russell said the shit is wack it’s wack. We were tossing names around and my man Carlos called me. He had pulled out the Organized Con Funk Shun record and he was like what y’all think about Organized Konfusion? I was like “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” That’s how the name came about.
Halftimeonline: A lot is made about how Paul C helped the group’s development before his passing. What were some of the things that he would do or say that would push you guys to go forward or develop during that early time?
Pharoahe: We were sort of making a name for ourselves already before Paul took notice and I was starting to feel myself a little bit at that time as an emcee in terms of dexterity and the things that I was reaching for and things that I could accomplish. When we went to the studio with Paul he was the first one to shoot me down in terms of arrangement, verse arrangement, structure, and rhyme arrangement. He was like [Greg] Popovich. He was like you have the potential to take it to some other shit but you have to understand the rules before you break them. I was in the booth like “This motherfucker!” It taught me something that people credit me with today. I was always humble because I’m a quiet dude but it taught me a lot about learning more and it really humbled me at a very early stage. So even though after Paul’s passing we went to finish the demos and records by ourselves, which contributed to a lot of the experimentation, we knew which rules we were breaking. Whether it was going past a bar structure or arrangement or leaving “Fudge Pudge” without a chorus we knew what we were doing when we did it. Paul was amazing.
Halftimeonline: If he was around during the recording of the first album what kind of things do you think would have been different?
Pharoahe: If he was still living I think Organized Konfusion would have been a contained animal. The experimentation of it all actually got us the notoriety back then and who’s to say if it were contained where it would have went. It’s difficult for me to look back on life in general. The forces, god and the universe have you exactly where you need to be. I’m really strong in that belief. I really feel like if Organized Konfusion would have gone platinum off the first album I would be under a bridge somewhere in a rusted Porsche under water. Who knows? It’s all a blessing still. I say that because it’s difficult to look back but I know that we missed and I still miss him. I miss his thought process. He loved music so much. It was beautiful being around another person who was that analytical about groups, bands, James, rock, funk, emcees. Everybody does that now because of social media but he was like our social media guy back then. He would talk for hours about hip hop.
Halftimeonline: You mentioned something that I wanted to talk about which is how you are analytical [as well]. The thing that fascinates me about your rhyme style is that it’s like a mix of a real analytical dude mixed with like [physical] issues like asthma which made you want to challenge yourself with more complex rhyme schemes. How do those two elements come together to give that uniqueness to your rhyme style?
Pharoahe: I realize I wouldn’t be able to be doing this interview or relevant if you’re not carving or finding a voice so I allowed myself to be. I understand that while the asthma was a deterrent and a problem it was something that could shape me being unique as well. Even back then I realized that. You realize that there are other people out there that can relate to anything, especially now. I kind of was like you gotta be what you are. That’s what’s fly about hip hop. I feel like as soon as someone is fronting a little bit you can detect that whether its thug, trap, conscious or whatever. When you feel that someone is rhyming for the sake of riddling, like Chuck D said, it’s just like where’s the passion? It’s so incredibly intricate. You can have passion for your flow or the intricacies of your flow but when the passion comes through it shines. That’s one of the main things I try to implement more than anything else. So just trying to push past the asthma I thought that was something that could cut through as well. Honesty and its not easy. This Post Traumatic Stress Disorder album talks about depression in those years dealing with asthma medication and things like that. It’s intricate — it’s not like the songs are like “I’m dealing with depression, I’m dealing with depression” — which would probably resonate. I think when people listen to the energy on these records it’s going to cut through. It took all these years. I was being honest with my passion for flow and lyrics and it occurred to me just from an introspective of self that there is room for artists to be more honest about the individual. You look at a lot of artists that have cut through like Pac, B.I.G. and Kanye. I remember Kanye saying something as simple as, not verbatim but I’m paraphrasing Through the Wire. He said, ‘My mom taught me better than this. I know better than to take this money and do the exact thing that I’ve been taught not to do with my first bit of money. But I’m still going to the store anyway and getting some jewelry because, although I have an understanding with Jesus, I still have an innate need because I’m a young black man to feel a certain way about myself and this might help me feel that way. You can still analyze that today and that’s what being that gut wrenching and endearing always brings even if you have a small audience. For Joe Budden, or anyone who’s that honest about the things that are not so fly, you are going to cut through and people can relate. You’re going to get a nicer look into who you really are.
Halftimeonline: I want to talk a bit about your process. It’s clear before you start flowing something you’ve given it a lot of thought even to where it needs to be in the rhyme. One of the things O.C. said was you might write a line and then not come back to it months, possibly years later before you find the perfect place for it.
Pharoahe: Sometimes years later.
Halftimeonline: What’s the longest time you’ve held a line?
Pharoahe: It may have been years but I don’t know how many years. You’ll sit down and you’ll write a rhythm or a lyric or a phrase and you’ll be in your headspace at the moment. In that headspace you could be heart broken. You could be disgusted with black people and their ignorance and the murders going on in Chicago and you could say some shit. Like I can’t even say this right now because people will take it the wrong way but I’m so mad at our people .. [you gotta put it down] and then it will just be that and you wont go anywhere else with it. You may not have the music for it and something will come along and you’ll be like it’s time now fuck it if you’re not ready. I try to hold onto to jewels. I guess this comes from emcees that are kinda smitten. I don’t put out a lot of work so when I write something that I feel is nice I care about it so I try to put it out with the right thing. As we grew into the emcee mixtape era and quantity started to become popular and beneficial [focusing on the] quality of the painting and taking the time on the painting hurt a lot of artists. So I understand why that’s wack in a sense and you should release a lot of stuff. I’m trying to find a happy medium as well. I’m not saying that I hold stuff because I can. I hold stuff because I don’t want to present it in the wrong way.
Halftimeonline: We interviewed Rakim a while back and he was the only other emcee I know of besides yourself to talk about using pauses and syncopation of jazz and how that influenced his rhyme scheme. You both mentioned Coltrane as well. So I wanted to know what particular Coltrane records were the biggest inspirations to your flow.
Pharoahe: No specific record its just ultimate passion, precision and every other metaphor you can use to describe an emcee in terms of flow, timing, pocket, notation, and content Coltrane had it and it was just instrumental. I’m crying and there are no words to this song. Why? Why does it resonate that way? Why do the harmonics resonate that way? What did that phrase do to me? I studied with my production partner Lee Stone. We studied the things that make your hair stand up. Its truth, its honest and its tone. Martin Luther King speeches. All these little things that bring up this goose bump effect. Coltrane is one of the artists for me that did that just in terms of his choice to go from here to this phrasing and this notation. As youngins I don’t know if that’s freedom because at first you’re like that’s being free [but then its like] is it art, is it studying and understanding exactly what you need to express in that? That’s why he’s an inspiration to artists who are not even in that lane. As an artist you want to evoke those same emotions. I don’t care whether you dance, paint or are a novelist you want to evoke those same emotions when you get to the point of your story or your book that’s gripping. You want them to close to book and cry and be like it’s going to take me a minute to finish this book. I think that’s what Coltrane brought to the table for emcees that were even into that. Still I go back to listen to his tone and harmonics. I don’t think people even have the wherewithal to listen to emcees like that for the most part anymore. My manager was telling me, “Your tone on this new album is insane.” You might hear it and not get it but some of them are really super laid back. I’m talking to you and being honest but it’s a comfortability that comes from doing this shit over a certain amount of years. It’s interesting because we’re mixing, I’m independent, there’s monetary issues but let’s book a whole two months out and mix the record. It takes time to do shit but I can’t wait to give it out and see what the reaction is going to be. W.A.R. and “Push” and “Still Standing” is kind of built in inspiration and triumph but this record is dark as fuck. I’m trying to express to you how I felt. Even if I’m talking about some rhyme shit I want it to feel like this is some maniacal shit. Out of context you could miss it but in the context of listening to it on an album people are going to get it.
Halftimeonline: You’ve talked a lot about evoking emotion and having your work have a cinematic feel. With that in mind what kind of director are you or who would you compare yourself too in terms of the emotions you are trying to evoke?
Pharoahe: That’s a good question. I haven’t given it thought like that in terms of directors. I’ll just give you some of my favorite movies: Cooley High, Enter the Dragon, Pulp Fiction, Aliens, Uptown Saturday Night.
Halftimeonline: So your approach is a mash up of all of those?
Halftimeonline: This last bit is questions from fans before we close out the interview. Was there actually a shelved Innervisions album on Rawkus and if so are any of those ever going to be released?
Pharoahe: Yea, it was. It was in the beginning process of that and I had this one record where I was talking to … I don’t want to even get into it. We started it and obviously reached out to Stevie Wonder about it and shit like that.
Halftimeonline: I heard there was an unreleased Organized Konfusion track called “Rack Em Up” that was a metaphor for racism. What ever happened to that record?
Pharoahe: How do people find out about shit!? Yea, it was. It was a really, really hardcore record. It’s funny because I forget the comedian’s name. I think it was Martin but I forget what movie it was and he was like the eight ball is like the black man and we were like yooooo! It wasn’t that simple but we really got into the colors.
Halftimeonline: But that ain’t coming out I’m guessing
Pharoahe: We probably demoed a verse.
Halftimeonline: Do you think Equinox opened up the door for other concept album’s like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, Maad City?
Pharoahe: No. We were fans of De La Soul and we were movie buffs. So in the tradition of Dre and the skits with De La we were trying to put a little film in between our album.
Halftimeonline: You touched on it earlier when you talked about how much the game has changed. Being in it as long as you have been it seems like an interesting dichotomy because it’s really flipped from your perspective. You started in a group and now your solo, was major now independent and of course the scene has completely changed. How do you look at today’s culture given where you started from?
Pharoahe: If I could jump to now I would say there is definitely a designed and organized attack on socially conscious and aware thought provoking music. Not even from the content but from the flow and all aspects of it. To dumb it down is the most important thing in terms of marketing. I don’t think these things are just happenstance. Because you’re not getting that in the forefront it has forced those cats to really embrace the term underground and really work to be noticed like it was back in the days when they weren’t playing hip hop on the radio and they’re not doing that now so to speak. If you’re a hip hop artist and a purist it forces you to be more inventive with your craft and to cut through and do things that differentiate you from the pack. Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing because when it comes to the surface it’s as phenomenal and as polished as a Kendrick.
Halftimeonline: When can people expect to get the P.T.S.D album, or hear some new material outside of this west coast tour?
Pharoahe: We’re looking to release the video for this “Scream” song. It’s obvious. It’s a loop chopped up and produced by Quelle Chris from Detroit. Its some maniacal shit that’s going on and we are trying to make it look the same. Not because it’s cool to but we have these phenomenal ass records that people are like this is incredible, this record is gonna change the planet! We have those records but we just want to posture and shoot from where we stand which is like some straight underground shit. Put this album out and get to those big ass songs as they come along naturally.
Halftimeonline: I love the multimedia approach you guys have. Everything is meaningful and well thought out. It’s not just a video, its cinema and the words and imagery actually mean something.
Pharoahe: That’s just where I’m at. That’s just where our click is at, Jean Grae, my manager. What we’re trying to do with the company is implement some things that aren’t there. Worldstar provides you with a dope service of one aspect of it. In our imagination it’s the other side of the spectrum for people who fucking read X-Men and other shit. I think that’s what’s fly about the country and about hip hop. I’m on Worldstar but when I’m ready to vomit from that shit where do you go to find the alternative to that? In terms of a media company we are just trying to put content out there that’s just like man I gotta go back and look at that again. It’s gonna take time but that’s what we hope for.
Halftimeonline: When’s the Organized Konfusion reunion happening?
Pharoahe: Me and Prince just shot a video together for the Marco Polo record
Halftimeonline: Oh for real!? I thought you were gonna say “Only time will tell.”
Pharoahe: Nah, nah that’s my fam. I just don’t see the album. That’s being totally honest. That’s the reverence I have for that group. It’s like what does it sound like? What is the purpose of it and where are we right now with it? My thing is like I tell him let’s make music. I’ve had Pharrell say “If y’all do another Organized Konfusion album I’ll….” Everyone from Madlib, etc. All that stuff sounds exciting but where do you go with it. I’m like let’s do records. I don’t believe people. Let’s do records and challenge ourselves like when we started. You’re not shit and nobody cares so prove yourself.
Halftimeonline: I wouldn’t believe people either.
Pharoahe: Prove it and when I say prove it I’m talking about me and him. Prove it. Is the love there? I was at this event with a relative of Miles [Davis] and Ron Carter and he was talking about how Miles would come out and play the known song all different every night and they would be like where is he going with this shit because he would get bored. My thing is kick ass. [Po] even was like the crowd would be like (makes face) …what? But that’s cool man that’s what it’s about. There’s room for that. Some of my favorite artists I’ve gone to see them and it’s like (sigh) and they know it. That gives them room to not cater but work on the craft. That shit is organic. It’s supposed to be like that. It’s a dying thing man. I was telling [my team] don’t let me forget to acknowledge how much of a blessing this shit is. I feel like I should acknowledge that just to be out here and rocking because of where we shoot from. It’s still dope to me. It’s not a money grab.
Halftimeonline: “Push” is my shit and you got a lot of tracks throughout your catalog that really do evoke emotion. It’s lasting. If you ain’t doing that I don’t know why you’d be in it either. I appreciate that you still care about the craft like that.
Pharoahe: Its weird man because I was talking to Nas and he was like yo when your catalog gets crazy, you see your catalog from totally different perspectives than in your earlier stages. I take so long with the solo shit I don’t even know what he is talking about. When I dropped Desire a lot of the Internal Affairs fans were like what’s with the soul shit man?! What the fuck is going on? I go online a year or two ago, after I dropped W.A.R., and I was like I got 3 solo albums – Internal Affairs, Desire and W.A.R. – which is your favorite if you have all 3. Desire was [way up there] and I’m like really who are these people? What we don’t account for is the motherfucker coming into the game for the first time and somebody is like you gotta check out this dude. When you get time listen to his shit. Those people who enter your career at that spot, you can’t tell them that “One Mic” is not their song. You can’t be like go listen to this because they are like but I like “One Mic.” That’s what he was essentially trying to say to me. He was like you’re gonna bug when you get to albums 4 and 5. People are yelling Ilmatic but when you see people crying when you do “One Mic” you’re like “nobody cries when I do Illmatic.” It’s crazy.