"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."More »