An Interview with Pharoahe Monch

Organized Konfusion, the Queens-based duo, made a remarkable impression in the early ’90s.

On their self-titled debut and the acclaimed Stress: The Extinction Agenda from 1994, Pharoahe Monch and Prince Poetry showed their poetic mastery through powerful enjambment, melodious rhythms, and staccato flows with their multi-syllabic rhymes.

More than any of their peers, OK’s records carried a thrilling feeling of possibilities: like the champions of free jazz, they had the ability and boldness to take a song in any direction, anytime.

The group was just as creative, writing lyrics from the viewpoint of stray bullets and “hypnotical” gasses.

Wrapping up their battle rhymes and social commentary in an aura of energetic abstraction, they could be seen as successors to the Ultramagnetic MC’s, as well as an inspiration for multiple rappers who failed to get the balance between structure and chaos right.

Having achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success with his third album, The Equinox, released in 1997, Monch made the decision to go solo.

The following year, 1999, Rawkus Records released his much-anticipated album Internal Affairs, which shared advertising space with Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides.

Internal Affairs demonstrated Monch’s versatility, with ambitions and influences that both went beyond and were indicative of hip-hop.

He sang, exchanged verses with a host of guest rappers, and created lyrically-rich rhymes that were reminiscent of the OK style.

Monch’s “Simon Says” was a shot at creating an easily accessible yet hard-hitting flow, and it quickly became a mainstream success.

Set to a menacing sample from a Godzilla movie, it urged listeners to “get the fuck up,” and its popularity with club DJs and radio stations alike resulted in its inclusion in the soundtracks of Charlie’s Angels and Boiler Room.

Unfortunately, the Godzilla entity (or its representatives) sued Rawkus for an uncleared sample and the album had to be removed from stores.

It had been close to a decade since Monch released any music when he dropped his album, Desire, in June of 2007.

A lot had changed in the world of hip-hop in the intervening years, and it seemed unlikely that Monch would have been able to retain his fan base.

Fortunately, hip-hoppers of a certain era tend to have long memories, as evidenced by the success of MF Doom’s comeback, and so Desire found its audience.

Monch’s album Desire was an expression of his creative peak, with conspiracy theories, multiple storylines, and even a Tom Jones impression.

His lyrics were delivered with a quick pace, and he combined financial institutions and wireless devices into his verses.

The record is powerful, simultaneously conveying indignation and inspiration, defiance and joy, and even paranoia and humor.

In hindsight, it is evident how this album captures the spirit of the Bush era.

After Monch had returned to New York from a European tour, we connected by phone numerous times.

He was in the process of getting ready for a reunion show by the group Organized Konfusion which would be the first in a decade, and he was also composing lyrics for the upcoming album W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) which was due to be released in February.

Our conversations would go on until his cell phone battery died.

— Adam Mansbach proposed

That we should not be afraid of change, despite it often presenting a challenge. He encouraged us to not be scared by the unfamiliar and to seek out the opportunities that it can bring.


It appears to me that hip-hop is in a similar position that jazz was in during the early 70s.

The most pioneering players are not those just starting out, but rather those who have been in the game for around 15-20 years – names such as MF Doom, Ghostface, Nas, Jay-Z and even Lil Wayne who has been around for almost that long.

PHAROAHE MONCH: There are several explanations for this.

Understanding what you wish to say, the manner in which you want to express yourself and the music you want to use comes with experience and knowledge acquired in the course of a music career.

In the past, an apprentice was normally trained by the more experienced musicians around him – take Nas, who was in the presence of Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Premier and L.E.S. who, upon hearing the tone of his voice and the way he rapped melodically, said, “He’ll sound better with this.”

If Nas had tried to produce his own first album and gave out demos to people… I won’t go into it. I recall talking to Nas after [his debut verse on Main Source’s] “Live at the Barbeque” and he was unsure of what he wanted to do.

It took him a while to cultivate his perspective and decide what kind of artist he wanted to be.

In the current music industry, it’s rare that an artist is able to thrive without being backed by a powerful entity.

Before, newcomers could become popular in the industry without any support, but now it is almost impossible to make it commercially without having an already established artist behind them.

An example of this is Ultramagnetic MC’s, who came from the Bronx and had no support from any large names, yet still managed to make a name for themselves.

The first Organized Konfusion album had an experimental sound that attracted listeners.

We were attempting to create a more refined sound, with the help of Paul C., an experienced producer who would have provided us with a more refined and organized beat.

Sadly, Paul was murdered, leaving me and Prince Poetry to work on our own, bringing our records into the studio and attempting to make it work.

BLVR: This made me think of something Adam Bradley mentioned in Book of Rhymes: rappers who use common words often rap about familiar topics.

Thus, innovating in terms of content is linked to coming up with new ways of rhyming. It appears that the freedom of musical expression enabled you to write in a different way as well.

I certainly concur. It is, in my opinion, one of the primary causes of the art form’s current struggles and stagnation.

Many of the more intricate elements of hip-hop culture have been rendered useless by the commercial mainstream, making them irrelevant.

For example, the beatbox. It has gone from “We don’t have equipment, but we have this person…” to “We have the budget to make a record now, so we don’t need you in the group anymore.”

In the music industry, particularly in New York, there is a lot of stress to emulate what is heard on the radio.

Many artists feel obligated to put out a product that is as recognizable as possible in order to make a living.

But the problem with this is that the consumer is unlikely to buy a product that sounds like Jay-Z from anyone other than him, and so they wait for the best.

BLVR inquires whether the viewer has seen the documentary of Byron Hurt, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, where he inquires the MCs waiting outside a music studio why they mainly rap about the same topics.

The MCs share with him that this is the only way to get noticed by the music label.

My colleague had a CD of a guy’s group, which was great with its cash, rims, and coke sound. But then the same artist had a CD with his individual work, and it blew us away.

There’s a disconnect between what the public is thinking and what’s selling – five years ago, I was certain a certain song was a platinum hit, yet it turns out that even younger listeners found it too absurd to purchase.

They just thought it was suitable for cell phone notifications.

In certain contexts, I’m hesitant to identify myself as a hip-hop artist.

When I do, the reaction is often a caricature of what one might expect from such an artist, such as having “whores” and wearing flashy clothing.

BLVR: Is there a distinct difference between different eras of hip-hop? Do veteran artists and fans associate hip-hop with social protest, while the younger generations are more focused on it as a part of pop culture?

An example of bridging the gap between the two is Desire’s cover of Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which pays homage to the original while modernizing it.

PM: My motivation for doing it was my admiration for PE. I wrote the initial verse; when I played it for some of the younger crowd, they were really amazed.

When I told them there was an original version, they were really interested and I thought to myself that’s why I must do it.

It is highly unlikely that one will ever hear PE on the radio.

The PM discusses how radio is targeting the 8-18 demographic by playing music that may not be of the highest quality, but then acknowledges that there is a resurgence of the golden-era music among high schoolers through the use of the Internet.

The PM notes that this access to the music allows kids to find classic artists such as Public Enemy, Large Professor, and Illmatic if they are willing to become privy to it and listen.

My producer friend attended a conference in Phoenix that was attended by many major names in the industry, and the crowd was composed of aspiring producers between the ages of 15 and 24.

At one point, a young man raised his hand and said, “What’s going on with the music? I’m not really feeling what’s being served to us!” This was met with applause from the audience. It is clear that it is not possible to deceive everyone all the time.

At the producers’ meeting, it was amazing that this occurred in the presence of many who desire to influence what will be popular on the radio in the future.

At my advanced age, I still remember my father and brother telling me that something wasn’t right. I recall buying Kool & The Gang’s Ladies Night, only to have my brother smash the record and proclaim it wasn’t real Kool & The Gang. I was perplexed and said, “What the heck, this is Ladies Night!” It’s necessary to have someone to guide you properly.

Pop music, radio, jazz, soul, and hip-hop all have their own beauty, both intricate and basic.

Young people fail to comprehend the difficulty of their task. If you admire Kanye, take the time to research who he looks up to and analyze that material.

You won’t be able to match his skill level by beginning with his most recent work. It’s essential to look back and recognize he was highly inspired by Jay-Z, Mos, Common and Talib Kweli.

Jumping in without understanding those references won’t get you to his level.

There are a lot of new artists coming up, such as Blu from L.A., who often credit their success to their musical roots: they may tell you they were “listening to that” or “in the basement with this.”

The radio might lead people to believe that anyone can become the next big artist just by having a laptop and some sounds.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true – those types of careers don’t last, which is unfortunate.

BLVR: Hip-hop was traditionally taught through mentorships between experienced and inexperienced artists.

With this method, the only way to learn how to DJ or do graffiti was to have somebody show you.

Consequently, those learning had to be obedient to those who had already mastered the craft.…

The PM remarked that it was unbelievable to consider the contrast between the first open-heart surgery done by a black man forty years ago, and the current surgeries that involve removing bullets from people’s lungs.

They don’t have doctors who dismiss the past operations, but rather recognize the progress that has been made.

It was essential. It was essential for somebody to do something to allow you the platform to do what you are currently doing.

You cannot just say, “Forget about KRS-One. I am doing my thing now.” Someone had to draw attention to people and make them realize that they didn’t need to give homage, but rather try to comprehend the opportunity that has been granted to them and how it came to be.

There was a time when rap had no radio station nor any video shows. It’s like someone saying, “It’s all me, and nothing to do with the universe, nothing to do with God, my parents….” You must understand the form that is permitting you to do what you do and why it is like that.

Section Two: Cadences from Barry Manilow

BLVR: In comparison to fifteen years ago, do you now experience a heightened sense of responsibility or pressure due to fewer musicians creating music with an overt political message?

At the moment, the PM is following his heart.

He recalled that Erykah Badu said that the songs she recorded today might not be reflective of her feelings tomorrow, which is an example of capturing a moment in time.

Right now, the PM’s recording is full of anger and sadness over the state of things. When he was producing Internal Affairs, he had become isolated and needed to express himself; the music act is a form of therapy for him.

After managing label problems and personal matters, I desired to create something more encouraging.

I have received messages from MySpace and emails from people who have experienced the loss of a job or having children and how certain songs, such as “Push” and “Desire,” have helped them to stay with their partner or look for additional employment.

It is important for the youth to realize that music can be used for this purpose.

Those who were part of the hip-hop movement in the 1980s didn’t see the need for a disconnect as it was already assumed. BLVR points this out.

PM: I heard Soulja Boy saying that hip-hop for him is having a blast and being the life of the occasion.

That is an original thought–people frequently criticize him for that. It is vital to have the capacity to do something senseless every so often.

Be that as it may, there is an alternate side to hip-hop that can urge one to have more control and open them up to a different lifestyle and these are not focused on any more.

Chuck D had me like, “Whoo!”, stressing about “Let me go look up [his references]; who are these individuals?”

BLVR: Chuck and KRS kept me busy in the library the whole day.

PM: My ambition is to create music that is on par with that. I’m not diminishing my work, not at all.

I’m still receiving criticism [in my music] for things that I never even intended to convey, like “Oh, wow, that’s a quadruple metaphor.” And being “dumbed down” doesn’t have to imply not using complex multisyllabic rhymes so people can’t comprehend it.

The flow might be straightforward, but I’m not reducing my language or the knowledge that I have acquired. Get it? Look it up if you don’t know it.

Do you write lyrics to a pre-existing beat? Or do you create a beat to go with the words you’ve written?

PM said that sometimes he writes to music, but other times he’ll have a concept and search for a tune to match it.

As an example, on Desire he had an idea and the music was composed to fit with what he was saying.

Specifically, the producer gave him a beat and he just started rapping right away in the studio. On Internal Affairs’s “Rape,” he wanted to create a character who was passionate about music and have it displayed all over their house.

As soon as he heard the beat he knew it was the right music for the track.

BLVR: When constructing a song that focuses on a certain rhythm, do you first establish the beat and then fit the lyrics to it? Such as in the case of “Body Baby,” for example.

PM: I took a playful, open-minded approach when I was creating the beat. I was figuring out what rhymes I had to work with and then, after listening to the beat, I had an idea.

I thought that the vocal tone and delivery could work so I tried it out.

I went to the studio with the guy I had made the beat with and I asked him, “Should I go with a Tom Jones or Elvis vibe?” He replied, “Give it a try with both!”

BLVR commented that Grandmaster Caz used to construct the Cold Crush Brothers’ routines around Barry Manilow cadences – understanding that the listeners would grasp the sound without being able to pin down the source, which caused a faint feeling of being acquainted.

KRS-One implemented a similar approach.

The genius of these writers is clear; by understanding and incorporating their sensibility into your own work, one can achieve the same excellence as Grandmaster Caz, Slick Rick, and KRS-One.

There is a formula for why certain rhyming patterns work and why others don’t, and it involves both mathematics and melody.

Do the mathematical elements come to you in a conscious manner or are they just part of your writing routine?

PM said that, when he was in Organized Konfusion, he was aware of the usual formulas, but he wanted to push back against them and let his audience know that he was refusing to follow the regular arrangement.

He saw Sting on VH1 Storytellers and heard him say that, if you don’t stick to the conventional structure, you can end up losing people.

However, he noted that you can still be creative and talk about any topic you want within the confines of a mathematical framework.

BLVR: It can be difficult for fans to comprehend the brilliance of an excellent lyricist.

This might be due to the lack of an area to discuss it, or the artist themself obscuring the process by saying something like “I just go in the booth and freestyle.”

Still, some dedicated listeners can unpack verses without much thought. Take the song “Push,” for example.

My initial thought was that Monch thought of the “I ride the bass line like Ginobili” line first and then added all the other elements that would lead up to it.

PM: I usually do that. Right now, I’m practicing freestyle writing.

I’ll be driving and think to myself, “Dada, dada, ride the baseline like Ginobili–Oh wow! Ohh!” “All right, I want this to be the last line musically, what should go before ‘I ride the bass line like Ginobili’? ‘Vocally, globally.’


BLVR: Are you in the studio currently? How would you describe the sound of your latest music?

PM: I’m finding my current project quite difficult. I’m looking at each group of four bars like a scene in a movie.

Every segment of four represents a distinct emotion. Particularly a song called “Hitman.” I was in the studio yesterday tracking this one and people are already saying “This scene, that scene.”

It’s not literally scripted, but I’ve taken that idea into account after speaking with some screenwriter friends.

It’s not just “OK, these are good lines and there’s a response to them” but also: “What are you trying to say here? What’s the story? What’s the aim? What’s the message? How does this relate to the next scene?”

BLVR: If you had to choose one lyric that stands out among all hip-hop verses, which would it be?

Melle Mel’s rap from Beat Street always stands out in my mind; the line “Hiroshima: ha ha ha” still makes me exclaim “Goddamn!” to this day.

BLVR inquires if Mel was the most influential figure to the person while they were growing up, and if they regarded him as the ultimate authority.

I never was a major fan of the Furious Five, instead I have always preferred the Treacherous Three.

BLVR: Agreed. I believe that Kool Moe Dee during the Treacherous Three era was more advanced than any other artist at any other point in time.

It’s just like when you listen to Louis Armstrong in the 1920s, where he’s on a totally different level compared to the other musicians he is performing with.

The Prime Minister concurred, expressing that he is in agreement with that standpoint.

What artists have had the greatest impact on your style of rapping?

The PM inquired whether it was necessary to remain with Multiple Choice questions.

BLVR stated that it didn’t have to be MCs; there were other alternatives.

When it comes to the person who has had the biggest impact on my creative process, my answer would have to be John Coltrane.

His music has been a major source of inspiration for me in terms of exploring a more melodic approach to my lyrics and making sure they don’t just fall into a monotone pattern.

BLVR: Do you mean those extended runs of notes he would perform?

I often revisit Eugene McDaniels’ music. He was a great songwriter and vocalist. His 1971 release, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, was very politically charged and unfortunately went unnoticed.

The lyrics were absolutely groundbreaking for the time.

I can detect his influence in the way you sing.

PM: I’ll admit that I tried to bite him. Hearing him gave me the motivation to try to do more, since he wasn’t trained vocally.

Kool G Rap was a huge influence for me too–not only for his wordplay, but for the whole package. His stories, battle rap, and everything. Plus, Rakim, KRS, and De La Soul impacted me too.

On a commercial level, I’d listen to what was on the radio and think, “I can do that better” or “I can top that artist.” But when Brand Nubian came out, I was like, “Holy cow, no one should record again!” This feeling of despair pushed me to try to do something more.

BLVR: During the time period you began your career, it appears that it was an extremely social atmosphere. All the significant producers would congregate often, look around for samples, and swap recordings.

We used to be in close proximity, living and working together in the same studio. Nowadays, everyone has their own set-up at home and spends a lot of time on the computer.

This means it is much less likely for one to cross paths with someone of my caliber. Without being at Battery Studios or Greene Street, I’m not going to bump into Pete Rock.

BLVR: Hip-hop had its beginnings in the need for a sense of togetherness, and the appropriation of public areas to form it: organizing gatherings in playgrounds, and writing on the subway.

As of now, communal space is diminishing throughout the nation. I’m curious as to what hip-hop forfeits by becoming more and more digital.

PM: Discussing this has brought me back to many other conversations.

For example, a few years ago, Nas and I were talking about how when a certain song was out, people would go to the concerts and there would be this distinctive electricity in the air. However, with virtual performances, that kind of energy is lost.

People can make a professional-level song without having to perform it live, but they miss out on the experience of seeing how the audience responds and how to improve the record. That is why veteran artists are still popular.

BLVR: One of the most peculiar connections between hip-hop and the digital sphere is seen through MCs battling on YouTube as a form of entertainment.

The battle circuit is full of people who do nothing else. It appears quite unrelated to traditional MCing, or battling like Kool Moe Dee versus Busy Bee and KRS-One and Brother J debating about humanism and black nationalism.

PM: Battling certainly has its place in hip-hop, but there’s more to it than just that.

There’s a certain electricity in the air when two highly-regarded rappers go to battle, as people know there’s something at stake.

Yet even when Jay-Z and Nas were going head to head, that electric atmosphere wasn’t as strong as it was when Kool Moe Dee was battling Busy Bee.

When I think of rap, I want to grab a beer and listen to Rakim, or Kool G Rap. It’s not all about the battle – great songs can change people’s lives too.

Some Alternatives You May Consider

The ability to effectively paraphrase is a skill that is highly valued in academia. It involves taking a piece of writing, altering its structure, and preserving its original meaning.

This requires the use of different sentence structure and vocabulary to convey the same concept, while avoiding any plagiarism.

A picture of a used laptop is displayed, the device has its lid open and the keyboard is exposed.

I remember Astrid Lindgren with fondness. Horseshoes come back like boomerangs, caressing the top rail of the electric fence with their articulate mouths.

A faint buzzing fills the air. Homecoming is their way, horses go home.

Every snowflake eventually descends to the ground.

The taste of persimmons is usually sour, but then can be surprisingly sugary. How could you do this to me? The more time passes since you left the nation, the more delightful it appears.

Whenever you open a dictionary, the page that appears is always the same, and always followed by the financial department’s red envelope after the green one and the white.

The kids are asked to take on various roles for the skit: Friar, Sheriff, Old Crone, and Robin Hood.

They can dress up in a funny way and use paper bags as props to look like parchment and write out the lines. Everything in the skit including the leaves, birds, and houses will end up on the ground.

The children can choose their own ending, and Robin’s friends may roll on the floor in amusement when the Sheriff is stripped of his clothing.

All living things require rest, with children requiring more than mules. Mules typically have a melancholic, youthful appearance and are always facing away from the wind.

Canines enjoy provoking them and also take pleasure in flipping over turtles, who simply return to their shells.

Pippi has the strength to lift any horse using just one hand, while being able to trick adults in the process.

As soon as the bell rings, the schoolyard clears out, with no one allowed to remain outside. The children’s voices are particularly melodious, and they even have an ultimatum for the sheriff: “Like it or not, you’ll be stripped and sent back on your horse, so it’s time for you to head home.”

Doves and pigeons share the same urge to return home. People purchase airline tickets in order to experience the joy of finding a window seat.

While in flight, passengers can take in the view outside the window. Eventually, even turtles, with a slow-moving eye, manage to turn themselves and their appendages in the direction of the window.

It’s unknown how they feel while they look out.

Using different phrasing and structure, the following idea remains the same: With the advent of the internet, information has become easier to access than ever before.

Nowadays, it is simple to locate facts and figures from all over the world with just a few clicks of a mouse.

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