Complex | The Process

Pharoahe Monch: On Writing & Organized Konfusion

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Peter Rosenberg:

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to another edition of, "The Process." My name is Peter Rosenberg and I am very excited. Today we get to break down lyrics with one of the best to ever do it when it comes to the pen, when it comes to the vocals. He of course started out in Organized Konfusion. He reps Queens, New York City. His name...

Pharoahe:

Pharoahe! Let's go motherfuckers.

Peter Rosenberg:

Queens' own Pharaohe Monch.

Pharoahe:

What's up, sir?

Peter Rosenberg:

How are you?

Pharoahe:

Good, man. Good, good. Chillin'.

Peter Rosenberg:

I think the first thing I ever heard from you guys was, "Who Stole the Last Piece of Chicken?" ...which when you look now at your entire body of work is sort of a funny introduction to get to Organized Konfusion.

Pharoahe:

I look back to those songs and a couple of other songs that were on that album that weren't so dark and I use that as examples to be like, you know, we can have fun too.

Peter Rosenberg:

What was the process that fueled you guys early on? How did the writing and creation of a song work for you and Prince Po?

Pharoahe:

Well back then we were doing the music as well so I would do a beat, Prince would do a beat, the crew would do a beat and then we would conceptualize. It was a very conceptual group. I'm at the point now where I'm writing whole songs in my head. I'll even freestyle a lot of it and then write it down. Back then, it was like straight pen to paper every time. I always start off by drawing some shit, get me a little more in the mood. Then I do the alphabet. I was on, philanthropic, you know, so you write three letters down. I know this weird. So, philanthropic, I'm in ill in topics that I write are skilled with... you know. So it's three parts instead of just you're looking for the "o" for -optic or myopic or anything that simple. So that's the alphabet style.

Peter Rosenberg:

Did you set out from the beginning to be a lyricist?

Pharoahe:

At that time in hip-hop, biting, was laughed off the block or laughed out of school. So we got in the game, Organized Konfusion, like what are we going to add to this? What are people not rapping about? Let's choose those things. Let's give a voice to an unborn baby. Let's change these perspectives. Give a voice to a racist. What is he thinking?

Peter Rosenberg:

Are you one of those cats who would sit there and listen to the beat over and over again and just try to go on a certain theme?

Pharoahe:

Definitely. It's like 1,200 samples on loop and you're sitting there for hours until you bang it out. Leave it, go play ball, come back. I'm my very worst critic. If I'm listening to it, you know, and it's not evoking an emotion then I'm like no this is not. You've got to say that, or, the right way it needs to be said. But we faced that in the very beginning from Russell Simmons being like Simply Too Positive is a whack name, you need to change it. As well as Paul C., rest in peace, who was like, "Your verse is too long. The verse is whack." We're fucking Organized Konfusion. How dare you say that?

Peter Rosenberg:

Where were you guys in terms of the custom em cee accoutrements that usually comes with the writing session?

Pharoahe:

I was never a big weed smoker. I was a big 40 ounce with the Hawaiian Punch or the St. Ives, mixing it up or whatever. So that was me. That's why I was like 100 pounds heavier back then, too.

Peter Rosenberg:

You were. You were a larger Pharoahe Monch back then. Vatican, rat-tat-tat again, sad again. That's crazy. That's madness. That's one of those moments you should have when you're like how did that come out of me? Okay. Let's talk about the Stray Bullet Trilogy.

Pharoahe:

Instead of, you know, doing the this thugged out record, we were like let's just do it from the perspective of the bullet. We can be just as violent with the song. That's what's on that idea.

Peter Rosenberg:

And what about when you tried to go back to it? That just happened?

Pharoahe:

Years later, I was in Detroit working with Damon Porter and he had this beat... ...and again I was like man, this is the perfect thugged out, you know, you took this route. It worked very easily because what he was singing about, I was just like how can I not do that? So maybe I'll make this Part Two.

Peter Rosenberg:

That's you basically consciously choosing to write a smarter, more important song that means something and is about something and potentially throw money in the trash.

Pharoahe:

Yeah, you know, you think about that but at the same time, when you make artistic decisions it can get me in this chair doing this interview because of the song as well as benefiting from it at the time. As long as you're true to who you are, it'll cut through. You know, so I'm like why be anything other than what your heart is telling you to do.

Peter Rosenberg:

Well did you ever have that song? Even if it was honest in the moment, it didn't appear honest to your character afterwards?

Pharoahe:

I feel like if you don't express all the different facets of who you are, you're fronting regardless because nobody is cerebral all the time and, nobody watches porn all the time, although I watch a good amount of porn.

Peter Rosenberg:

Well, the internet: it's not our fault.

Pharoahe:

But if I was to do a porn record it would be true to who I am and it may come off like, oh you're just capitalizing off of... why am I saying this?

Peter Rosenberg:

How did your personal writing process change as you became solo Pharoahe Monch?

Pharoahe:

I think I do a lot more research now. Still the same organic process in terms of, what is the song saying, before I say anything. So it's disrespectful if I don't make the right marriage to the person that I'm sampling.

Peter Rosenberg:

So as an em cee, you do a lot of crazy things with the rhymes but you also do a lot of crazy, different things with your voices, stutter step, use your voice as an instrument.

Pharoahe:

I'm trying to find the different patterns in the beat rhytmatically, because there's this, even though the beat is slow, and then there's this because the beat is slow.

Peter Rosenberg:

But why Simon Says? Why was that the mode you were in?

Pharoahe:

Everything about that song is calculated and thought about, even in its freestyle simplicity. Because of the energy of the beat, this is not a song chorus-wise where you would ask of anything. You have to demand of something. With this song I was like, dude this is it. You've got to sit down and work out a chorus. Sit here until you work out a chorus. What do you want to tell people to do? Then I went into character mode because I was watching a lot of gangster shit at the time, so that's why it's like, "Get the fuck up." That's why it sounds like that.

Rosenberg:

Well it's almost like a high-pitched, Brooklyn, Italian accent.

Pharoahe:

Right. That's why it sounds like that.

Peter Rosenberg:

You know, hip-hop is just so skeptical. We're the worst. The fact that hip-hop was like, "I don't know about this Simon Says. He's going commercial." Do you think people, the general fans, may have misconceptions about what it takes to make a memorable record, to write a memorable song.

Pharoahe:

Probably. I think they're more inside, inside look than they used to. You get a beat, you get high, you freestyle, you do it. Maybe that process, I think, has been opened up to the general public, but it's not everybody's process.

Peter Rosenberg:

Nerdy factoid: before I did anything of note in the game, the first interviews if you look on my YouTube channel, the absolute beginning when I was zero, was an interview with you on the street, in like 2007.

Pharoahe:

I remember. I remember you came up to me and you said, the first thing you said was...

Peter Rosenberg:

I know what you remember.

Pharoahe:

Yo, I heard the J Dilla shit you did. I don't like that shit.


In our latest installment of The Process with Peter Rosenberg, Pharoahe Monch details his writing technique during his early years in Organized Konfusion.

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