Pharoahe Monch is nothing short of a hip hop legend. Building his reputation through the late '80s as one half of Organized Konfusion, alongside Prince Po, his complex rhyme patterns and unmistakable voice—inspired by jazz musicians such as John Coltrane—have inspired a generation of rappers to blend harmonies with hardcore raps. Pharoahe went on to release the timeless Internal Affairs album, which launched his career as a solo artist and birthed the anthemic "Simon Says"—and it still rings off in parties around the world today.
With notable feature appearances alongside Mos Def and Nate Dogg on "Oh No" and Styles P on "My Life"—plus the standout "F^ck You" off the Training Day OST and anti-war banger, "Agent Orange"—Troy Jamerson from Queens, NYC, remains one of the most respected MCs in the game—your favourite rapper's favourite rapper, even. Following said classic cuts, Monch released iconic albums in Desire (2007) and W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (2011), and is currently promoting his latest effort, P.T.S.D (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Complex UK caught up with the legend on his recent visit to London, to talk longevity, the decline in sample-based hip-hop, his forthcoming hard rock project, and more.
Interview by Nick Russell (@BlatantlyBlunt)
So, what brings you to London?
We toured Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, then we went to Russia for some festivals, and then we decided to take some time off in London to do some press and radio. Since we’ve been here, we’ve done shows and they’ve always given us an amazing reception wherever we go.
How does it make you feel to be still in the game, twenty years down the line?
From the start, I looked at it as a longevity thing. Being inspired by the likes of James Brown and Hendrix, once you’ve done lots of crate-digging, you wonder how they did that.
What key things have you picked up along the way, to boost your longevity?
I learnt about building your music to provide a great live show, after touring with De La Soul. Learning to take what they did in the studio and translate that to a live arena was valuable. What the independent artists have right now is the relationship with their audience and live shows. For me, it’s not how it translates at radio because that’s not really there anymore.
What are your thoughts on the current New York sound and scene?
What is fly about the scene is that it’s very underground again. But it’s also apparent that certain songs are built for radio and popularized in the media, but that’s a small group so everyone’s inspired to build music in their own way; some follow trends, some don’t. You've still got to search for it, though. I’m still unaware of a lot of names, so I’m waiting to see what more interesting stuff will emerge.
Do you feel sample-based hip-hop is no longer a part of the New York sound?
What’s dope is dope. It just needs to be an organic vibe. You could sample some stuff and it could sound great, and vice versa—however, with regards to the mainstream perception of sampling, it seems that the art has now become something perceived as easy to do, so there’s less of a demand for it. Another aspect, behind the decline in sampling, is the expenses and loss of income incurred via publishing and royalties.
Which artists do you look up to from history, and who are you feeling today?
I would go back to Eugene McDaniels, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Public Enemy, and Rakim. These days, I'm inspired by names like Jean Grae, Slaughterhouse, Kendrick Lamar— just those who have their own voice, tell a story, and are unique in flow.
Has the political voice of hip-hop taken a back seat?
There’s no support for the music that kids can see, so given the choice they’re going to go with what’s popping. Good music has always been a reflection of what’s going on, but it’s all been stripped back.
Does anything still surprises you about the music industry?
The incredible thing about the industry is that I can shoot a video for an old track like "Agent Orange" tomorrow and it would generate tons of new fans that hadn’t heard that song. It's one of the incredible things, that although the major label owns the record, it could be approached by an investor to be turned into a 10-minute movie, with zombies in the middle of London, and become a whole new phenomenon. Even with my latest album, P.T.S.D, the independent release means I have fans that don’t even know it’s out yet, which is testament that it’s a slower grind. I met some fans in Westbourne Park in west London that spotted me and asked for selfies, who then said they’re going home now to purchase the records—evidence that an independent release experiments with time differently.
For those yet to grab a copy of the new album, P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), what’s the vibe like?
With this album, I had to make the concept dark to give people an idea of how it feels to be depressed. The people that are into that stay around for the long haul, and it’s not all glitz and glory.
What’s coming next for Pharoahe Monch?
I have a new project on-deck for autumn. It's a super aggressive, super-rock, super-testosterone, 10-track album, which should be done for Halloween. Pharaohe kind of dies at the end of P.T.S.D, and I’m introducing this new character called "13" for my new rock sound.
That sounds dope. What made you want to take this direction?
I had a project called Rock vs. Disco that got put on the back burner, and it was heavy head-banger, mosh-pit stuff. After Desire though, we felt we had to get back on the soapbox and go to a certain level with the fans, which I think that was a great decision. Now that I have the ears of some of the fans again, I want to go amongst the top end of their top ten.
How did the new character, "13", come about?
It started on a track called "Thirteen", on the second Organized Konfusion album—Stress: The Extinction Agenda. Thirteen is my favourite number. I’m obsessed with it, in a sort of psychotic and maniacal way [laughs]. Every autograph and piece of paper I sign, it’s on there. I was born on the 31st and, on the album, there’s a lot of backwards, sacrilegious-sounding material.
Who are you trying to reach out to on this project?
It’s not only going to appeal to hip-hop fans, but I think if you play it to classic rock fans, they’re going to know this shit goes harder than ever. I’m not about throwing words out there that grab your interest. I want to let the music explain. For the most part, it’s hard, aggressive drums and samples. It’s part of me, re-enacting my influences like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Jimmy Hendrix. The kind of 1970s stuff that you could sample or listen to today; those things never leave the playlist.
Apart from making music, what other creative avenues do you pursue?
I love all forms of writing. I’ve got scripts, and shorts, and tons of other things moving forward. Technology-wise, there's a company that wants to make our music videos different and stronger, with longer formats. The visual side of hip hop has become a little bit stagnant on the creative side, and a lot of people could be pulled in, and then put off by the fact it feels so capitalistic. But, with ours, you can see the effort we put into our visuals.