Pharoahe Monch has never gone with the norm. In the ‘90s, when other rappers crafted glossy singles for radio airplay, the Queens, N.Y. native took the opposite track. “Simon Says” was still a commercial success, despite its ominous Godzilla sample. His 2011 album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), also held dark themes. Hive spoke with the veteran MC about his forthcoming EP, the heavy depression that influenced it, and why New York Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning won’t be appearing on Dancing With the Stars any time soon.
Your last album, W.A.R., seemed like a dark journey through a post-apocalyptic world. Is that an accurate assessment?
It’s really layered. It’s definitely not a one-listen thing. I agree with you in a sense that it’s dark hip-hop, which I love. The initial opening with Idris Elba is set in the future when he talks about what the content of this record is gonna mean to people when it’s discovered by people who weren’t even around when this record was done. It’s about what this content will mean to them and what’s actually happening now. It’s the war that people have every day within themselves and outward conflict, like police brutality and systemic entertainment, where the emphasis right now is to dumb it down.
What will it take to achieve a balance in popular music?
Here’s the incredible universal thing that’s happening: the music industry didn’t count heavily on the Internet being as big an influence as it is. So the truth about something can be out there and within your reach; you just have to know it exists. Then you have these kids who are trying to emulate what’s on the radio, and some of them are forming their own brands. But when they gain momentum and a fan base, labels come along and capitalize. It’s kinda weird to me in that sense. There are willing artists able to breach the system as an independent. It’s definitely lucrative.
You look at artists like Tech N9ne and others who have paved their way on tour and have a great business sense. Then you have artists in general who don’t get played on the radio, but people are clamoring for their shows and clamoring for their projects. It may be on a lower tier, but I’m amazed and blessed that I don’t get played on the radio, but people are interested in this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder record. I can tell that now, because through social networks, people are telling me they can’t wait for it. The Internet cuts out a lot of middlemen and exposes a lot.
What makes you stand out from your peers?
It’s comfortable for me to be cinematic. I think dark, and I don’t mean that to say I embrace the negative. I mean darkness in the sense of being thematic; I’m very comfortable with those types of records. The new project is the follow-up to W.A.R., but also a separate thing in itself. It’s way more mental, emotional and personal, because of the depths of a depression I was dealing with. There’s the enlightenment that comes out of that, and lyrically, it’s some of the best stuff I’ve done. I really feel like I have award-winning records on this project. I don’t wanna give off the impression that “I’m left field.” I understand you have to have a demographic and work towards the consumer. These are brilliantly written songs with choruses that are catchy. I think I’m tapping into my introspective triumphs and low points, and I’ve never done that before.
What are some of the internal and external factors that helped you create Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
I was working on the title track, which took me to a point in between Internal Affairs and Desire, where I was heavily depressed. Through the waiting period, the industry period, and going through a lot emotionally. Then there was the physical shit with the asthma. It was the worst. So I started off with that title track and my manager was like, “Yo, let’s really dive into that state and how you got to where you are now, and how this follows what people go through to get back to a so-called ‘normal’ situation.” W.A.R. was generally about me taking this stance against the norm. On that, I was saying “fuck the radio” and other things. After I finished touring that, I heard the responses and people asking, “Where are you at emotionally and financially?” “How’s the chronic asthma?” “Is your company providing health insurance?” You know, real issues. For people asking, “Who is Pharoahe?” You get a glimpse into that from a lyrical perspective.
“As a bullet, it doesn’t give a fuck if you’re white, black, Latino, pregnant mother, Pop, politician or whatever.”
Does the project help you exorcise those trying times?
Definitely. My mind is already scheming on the next project after Post Traumatic. I’m looking to the summer of 2013. I’m already astonished by the shit that I’m writing and the music that I’m getting. It’s exciting. It’s a great feeling to do this for an extended period of time, and have longevity, and still be genuinely excited about a verse, a beat and a song, and giving it out to people.
What were the ideas behind “Damage,” and the bullet trilogy in general?
“Damage” is the first single off PTSD. I’ve had that in my head, and as an MC, I love that record “Mama Said Knock You Out.” There’s so many quotes on that record, so for the past three years, I’d come up with lines for “Damage.” Then I thought, “When I get a dope beat, I’m gonna use those lines or something.” Then when I got the beat, I was like, “Shit, this might be it!” I don’t wanna approach the song as rhyming for the sake of riddling, but that’s when I heard the chorus with a whole new meaning, coming from the perspective of a bullet like, “Listen to the way I slay your crew.” As a bullet, it doesn’t give a fuck if you’re white, black, Latino, pregnant mother, Pop, politician or whatever. I figured this was the best way to finish the trilogy — first; it was “Stray Bullet,” then “When the Gun Draws.” When we finished doing the song, I wrote a treatment for the video. The video for that record is gonna give that song a whole new perspective. I play the role of the bullet who’s targeting the people I’m talking about in the song.
What are your thoughts on the recent presidential election?
I thought it was telling. What I saw in Obama was an individual who was steadfast in his conviction. It reminds me of myself in that, people are like, “Scream on this dude, man! Let this dude have it!” And he was like, “That’s not what I do. I’m gonna look like a fool trying to be something that I’m not.” At the end of the day, millions of dollars, lies and hate still didn’t outshine the truth. Among other reasons, the reason I don’t like politics is that in the next election, folks will say, “These cats had it for eight years, this is why we vote against, or for.” With Obama, there was the inspiration there to remain true to who you are.
On a lighter note, I’ve noticed that you’re a huge New York Giants fan. Are they gonna repeat as Super Bowl champs?
It’s hard, man. It’s hard to repeat! That’s why the NFL’s so dope, because almost from game to game, almost from half to half, if you don’t have the ability to adjust, then anybody can beat anybody. Small markets like Pittsburgh and Green Bay can be successful, whereas in baseball, they can’t. The Giants, a 9-7 team, built a run in the playoffs, got lucky and won the Super Bowl. This year, people are gonna start adjusting. Eli [Manning] has poise, but he has two left feet and his arm is getting tired. So teams are like, “If we can disrupt his feet, we can beat these dudes.” So what are the Giants gonna have to do? We know our quarterback isn’t as mobile as Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers or RGIII [Robert Griffin III], so we really gotta dig in and protect this guy. And that’s the fun part about it: if they do that, I think we got a chance.
Pharoahe Monch’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder EP currently has no release date. First single “Damage” is out now via W.A.R. Media.