Q&A: Pharoahe Monch On Growing Up in Queens, Twitter, Pizza, and Porn
"A guy got shot in the head at a club and the brain pieces were on the mirror -- as I was running out I took a glance at it." Pharoahe Monch is talking about the most unfortunately explicit thing he saw growing up in the same Southside Jamaica, Queens neighborhood that 50 Cent would later mythologize in rhyme as a heinous war-zone. But while Monch walked similar blocks filled with, as he puts it, "drug dealers and the gangstas and the thugs," he also stoked his artistic intrigue while attending the High School Of Art And Design, a move which freed up his creative mind and prompted him to take an interest in hip-hop music seriously.
The idea of duality has defined Monch's career as a rapper. Along with partner-in-rhyme Prince Po, he came to critical acclaim as part of Organized Konfusion, an often verbose group fond of weaving holy war word play into their rhymes ("Releasing Hypnotical Gasses") and making songs personifying a bullet's tragic stray path (an idea later re-used by Nas on "I Gave You Power.") Organized received pats on the back from their peers -- and is still cited as an influence by any even remotely wordy rapper these days -- but little in the way of sales. As the group split, Monch scored the biggest hit of his career with "Simon Says," but basing it around an uncleared sample from Godzilla nixed it as a spring-board to mainstream success. A similar story ensued with his second solo album, the more easily-digested and soulful Desire: Instead of allowing Monch to take his place alongside other rappers previously lauded by critics but ignored by the masses (see: Common, with an assist from Kanye West; The Roots, thanks, ultimately to a talk show host), the project left him stuck as an icon to those in the underground (although the recording of the album did coincide with an opportunity to ghost-write for Diddy).
Monch's new album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), find him resolute in his commitment to conveying a message and a certain degree of lyrical art in his music -- he talks with surprise about how few artists feel the need to speak on the world around them, not least regarding the recent events in Japan and Libya -- but he's also tried to frame it in a cinematic context. With a more mature approach to songwriting, Monch wants to appeal to those who want to hear actual songs, not just rap scholars looking to dissect 16 densely-packed bars. It's a balance Monch says he's happy with, describing the early reaction to the album as being "overwhelming." So in his present good spirits, Monch was happy to flit from reminiscing about days growing up in Queens and how the murder of producer Paul C halted Organized's chances of signing to Def Jam to talking those times when he wants nothing more than to "order a pizza and some porn."
What was growing up in Southside Jamaica like? Was it as bad as it's been portrayed?
It was dope, man, because you got to realize who you are. Your friends are like, "We're gonna go on the roofs of these buildings and jump from building to building for fun!" And you're like, "Uh, you guys run ahead, I'm gonna probably do something else with a ball or something more constructive. So you realize you're not a follower. So I started drawing and getting into art really early -- my older brother's friends and my father's friends would talk to me not like a kid but asking what I thought about this piece of art or that. So I went to art school, but yet in that you're still encompassing that you're directly in the center of the hardest hood in Queens and people are getting shot in the face at park jams and people are sniffing cocaine at junior high school and there's skulls splitting open just when someone gets jumped on your block. That's a reality as well.
What was the most graphic thing you witnessed growing up there?
Um, a guy got shot in the head at a club and the brain pieces were on the mirror -- as I was running out I took a glance at it. That was pretty shocking, pretty much. It was at a hip-hop club.
Was it hard growing up there and having a foot in two worlds, as it were?
It was an interesting oxymoron, which is why I think we came up with [the name] Organized Konfusion. We were amongst the drug dealers and the gangstas and the thugs and we still played basketball -- I always got picked because I could dribble and pass and shoot a little bit. But then after the game was over I'd say, "Hey, what are we doing now?" And they'd be like, "Get the fuck out of here, nerd." But there was a connection -- there's an inter-connectiveness with growing up the same and loving the same music and going to the same park jams and what have you. But I think you reach a point where you're like, "I'm for certain about wanting to see the [German] Autobahn and Sweden and Brazil." That was an early goal of mine, and when people saw that, they respect that as well.
What inspired those goals?
The music, the "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin, 'cause it sounded like someone was either riding a horse through a snow forest or someone was doing 120mph on the Autobahn. I was like, "I want to do that, actually."
How old were you at this time?
I was probably still in junior high school.
Is that when you started to write rhymes yourself?
I didn't start until high school, and even then I still didn't start writing straight away. I was beatboxing, and my beat-box name was MC Mail Box. I was pretty adamant about it, until we tried to make a demo and I got bored with myself beat-boxing for 60 minutes straight!
This was with Prince Po?
Yes sir, with Prince Po. He was rapping and I was beat-boxing.
Did the the music you were making sound anything like the early Organized Konfusion stuff?
Nah, we were pretty wack at that point in my mind; we weren't Organized Konfusion, we weren't anything. We just realized we wanted to make a tape. Hearing myself back for the first time, beatboxing and what we did, the great thing was I was able to go home and be like, "This shit is horrible, it's the worst shit I ever heard!" So I told Prince in order to make it better these are the things we need to implement. Prince was like, "You got to write some rhymes yourself to fill up the fuckin' tape!" That was the start of my writing process.
So did attending the High School Of Art And Design help your writing process?
It was amazing, that shaped everything. My ability to imagine was expanded beyond comprehension -- there was no limit to it and it was spawned by that school and being around like-minded individuals and so much competition.
Other notable rappers have attended that school, like Prodigy and Havoc. Who was there during your time?
Prodigy and Havoc was after me, I was part of the Kwame [a/k/a Kwane the Boy Genius, later to be dissed by Biggie with the "fuckin' polka dots" thing-ed] era.
Would Kwame rap in school?
Yeah, he was incredible, incredible. But the biggest influence I'd say was Percee P, who also went there. He was light years ahead of his time.
So when was the first time you and Prince Po performed?
First time we performed was when we did deal with an independent [Solid Sound Records] in the neighborhood and he had us do this mushy, whispered LL Cool J-type love song that I fuckin' hated ["Memories of Love," accredited to Simply II Positive MCs]. We performed it at the Center in St. Albans and I fucked up my verse.
Were you pressured into making that type of song?
Nah, we thought we were doing the right thing! But right after that day performing it, I was like, "Fuck everybody, suck my balls, I'm not doing this crappy shit no more." And this is around the time we ran into Large Professor, who was a genius, like mad scientist who couldn't even talk but was making music, and Paul C, who produced for Rakim, [Kool] G Rap, Super Lover Cee, Ultramagnetic MCs.
How did meeting Paul C come about?
Well we had went to a studio to demo some shit and Paul C walked in and heard the song, and within five seconds of the song he was like, "Holy fucking shit!" He contacted us and we were on our way from there. But we did a demo for him that got recognized by Bobbito [Garcia] at Def Jam and then he [Paul C] got murdered that summer, which killed that whole stream of momentum and we wound up going in an entirely different direction. Paul C, mind you, was a white kid from Queens.
What was Paul C's approach like in the studio -- was it very hands-on with helping you produce?
Well sometimes we brought in samples, and I'd be like, "This is what I want to do, help us make it air-tight and professional." And a lot of times he gave us the music as well.
When Paul C was murdered, were there lots of local rumors about what had happened?
Yeah, there were a few. I was a bit confused. It was my first time losing somebody that way. As I think back to it, I still deal with anger issues when psychologically I lose somebody close to me -- I stop and wonder why I want to fuckin' strangle someone and throw a brick through a window, but then I think it's probably wiser to do this interview, you know what I mean?
As you've matured, has your approach to making music and what's required from a song changed?
Definitely, and it hit me in the head one day watching Sting on VH1's Storytellers breaking down the songs and why he wrote them and why the message is important to the masses and you need to communicate that. It just hit me at that point in terms of touring and live performances, it's something I've paid attention to very much. I mean, I'm surprised that more artists aren't saying some of the things in these times. There are real issues going on -- I can't believe the art world in general is removed. I feel like, you know, obviously in the '70s and the '60s the artists were more in-tuned with the world and social issues, but the world is so connected to digital information now that I don't understand how peoples' hearts are removed from Japan and Libya. We have a nuclear reactor less than 200 miles from here. How come that's not being talked about?
Does the way digital way information spreads so quickly also mean there's a chance that people move on from subjects and stories too quickly?
It's amazing to me, man. Even watching the news, like local news, they'll do a story and it hasn't even resolved itself and the next day it's over, and it's on to the next one. That all helps desensitize us to violence and legal and world issues. That it's so important to the advertising company makes it pretty sad. It's the same with hip-hop and information. Like how do I tell somebody about this thing that I think is very important if I'm on my Twitter and I say my album comes out today and the next person asks me a question two minutes later like, "Yo, Pharoahe, when's your album coming out? You still rapping?" 'Cause so many things are going by so quickly.
So which other rappers do you follow on Twitter?
I don't follow a lot of people; the ones I do follow are because they're pretty funny. I also follow some self-help philosopher dudes like Deepak [Chopra], but not a lot. I mostly follow Jean Grae, Sean Price, and [Detroit hip-hop manager] Hex Murda -- guys who are asshole fuckery! You read some of Hex Murda's shit and it's over the top, hardcore, super-ignorant, and then you know the dude and he's a brilliant writer and his philosophy on music and life is even more brilliant. But, you know, laughing is good! People are always like, "Why do you look so young and you're a thousand years old?" 'Cause I laugh a lot, contrary to my image.
Does it annoy you that your public persona is so serious?
It's cool, because I'm a Scorpio and I like mystery and I don't even know who the fuck I am yet. I get up and I'll be a super-hero today and vulnerable tomorrow, and then I'm a save the planet by myself on Friday but, fuck it, I'm just gonna go to the White House and actually throw a rock at that shit. Then by noon I'm like, "Nah, I'll order a pizza and some porn."