Pharoahe Monch Speaks About His New Album, J Dilla & 25 Years of Organized Konfusion (Interview)
Pharoahe Monch is – without an iota of doubt – one of music’s most indelibly unique voices. Sonically and technically there is no other like him, and yet his influence lives within countless MCs who’ve come after him. As a solo artist he continues to excite fans with his boomerang flow; regardless of how complex or unpredictable, his technique always manages to come back to where it began, as a genesis for thought-provoking inspiration. 2014’s PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder continues to push the boundaries as the Queens MC gears up to perform the album in its entirety with a full brass band and string orchestra, and in an insightful conversation with Ambrosia for Heads, he opens up about newer and more ambitious boundaries to be tested in the coming year as well as some of the past’s most resounding moments.
Ambrosia for Heads: Thank you for taking the time out to speak with us.
Pharoahe Monch: No problem, you’ll have to excuse my voice. It’s hoarse from the show I did.
Ambrosia for Heads: Not to worry, it’s just a sign of your devotion.
Pharoahe Monch: I’m up, I’m awake, I just sound like this right now. [laughs]
Ambrosia for Heads: Well thanks again; let’s just dive right in. October will mark the 25th anniversary of Organized Konfusion’s debut album. Commonly referred to as a cult classic, do you think it would still be considered that way were it released today? Have things like social media and trending topics made the concept of an “underground” or “cult” following obsolete?
Pharoahe Monch: I think it can still happen but in a different way. I think you would have to push towards stretching the art in a different way today to really get people to embrace something passionately and it be given those type of accolades but yet still not on a massive level. I think it really depends on the artist and their approach, which is a little different now that you have the internet. It applies, but I think art produces a cult-type following every once in a while, anyway. So I would say yes, I think it’s still possible.
Ambrosia for Heads: It does seem that the internet provides avid followers of a particular movement the space to follow their interests together without making the movement inauthentic, much like the success of Bernie Sanders’ political campaign. There are some parallels there, in terms of how music works today.
Pharoahe Monch: I totally agree. It’s still about someone speaking in a way or presenting different art or different ideas that in a way connects with you as an individual and applies to your outlook. But then you find out “Hey, I’m not alone in this just because the idea approach is different from the norm.” And so once you amass a great amount of people to feel that way, it creates that following. You become endearing – art becomes endearing – because it connects with people in a way that the general population probably wouldn’t get because status quo isn’t presenting that art or message in that way.
Ambrosia for Heads: All of these years later, do you think your life experiences would alter the way you would approach recording a debut project if you were walking into the studio today?
Pharoahe Monch: No way. Not at all. I think what causes that is, you know, you have to pay attention to the time of course – with anything you discuss. I think it was very important for us to try and break new ground and find our place and our voice and apply what we were familiar with. [Prince Po and I] both went to art school and one of the first things we learned as an artist is about working to try and find your own voice. As well as, you know, the people we were inspired by and the records we were digging through the crates for. These people – James Brown, Stevie [Wonder], Jazz musicians – had already had 15, 20, 25 year careers at the point we were digging. That made me say as an artist “I want the same things.” And by incorporating their style into your music, you’re not thinking about just the present, but thinking about five years later, ten years later. So, from the gate, I saw [the album] as a landscape to build something that would last and have some depth to it because that’s what I found when I studied what made other music last. At the time, Hip-Hop was more of an in-the-moment thing that people were denying as lasting as a culture or music form. Back then, you know, it was called a passing fad. But the first album, I just saw it as something I wanted to have a long shelf life and even be timeless. I would still do that today.
Ambrosia for Heads: Back in December, you lit up Dr. Dre’s “Pharmacy” Beats 1 radio show with an incredible freestyle that makes it no surprise he shouted you out as one of his favorite MCs. The chemistry is clearly there, but you have yet to work together in the studio in any formal sense. Should that ever come to fruition, is it safe to say there’s already a prescription for how a Pharoahe/Dre collab would go down?
Pharoahe Monch: It remains to be seen. Dre is obviously the pinnacle of all of what we say in conversations about trying to make music that will last and cut through and have layers to it. And he’s just so passionate about music, obviously, and the beautiful thing about him is making it translate into something that people love and have success in the music industry, which is rare. To get that shoutout is still an incredible nod. He said once he was taken aback by how my voice remains hungry after all of this time. I don’t think he meant in a sense of eager or boastful, just kind of new and youthful in the comfort and the passion. It’s because I really, really, really after all of these years love the music and the art of MCing. And making records and applying what I’ve learned. I don’t really touch songs unless there’s something about it that can bring that out in me. ‘Cause thats really all I have to share with my fans. I pride myself on trying to place that vibe on all the stuff I do. So Dre asked me for someting for the show, and I thought ‘I think this is pretty on point’ in terms of the aggressiveness and the Rock edge of the track. He was really feelin’ it and I was like, “that’s terrific!” [laughs]
Ambrosia for Heads: This month marks the 10th anniversary of J Dilla’s death. Do you have any memories of him that continue to resonate with you after all of these years?
Pharoahe Monch: Obviously for Dilla, it’s the being full of Funk, Soul…it’s the timing, and his passion and his work ethic. His spending hours and hours and hours working on music is something that I think is known by his fans now and around the world. What still boggles my brain and makes me just smile when I think about him is the uncanniness to try some of the things he would try and some of the samples he would try. It’s still inspiring when you hear that, it’s something that touches your heart and makes your feet move. You have to dare to dig in those areas. You have to dare to hear what you can pull from an orchestra or something that somebody else wouldn’t find a vibe in. That’s what Hip-Hop is about to me – stretching out in uncharted territories and creating vibes and feelings. And for me, as soon as you hear his stuff…it’s funny you mention him. I was just listening to some Dilla stuff my friend posted on Instagram so it was only like an 8-second loop and I was still in the bed in the hotel like jamming out to it and dancing. [laughs]
Ambrosia for Heads: Organized Konfusion’s “Stray Bullet” is a record that has showed its magnitude and influence recently. From the concept to the ricochet flow, there exists a lot of that record in Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Locksmith and Slaughterhouse. Do you think its relevance and influence have changed or even heightened over the last 22 years?
Pharoahe Monch: I think it’s along the same lines today. You know, when you talk about flow and content and how long ago that was and, you know, trying to touch upon what flows aren’t people doing right now. [The song is about] giving life to an inanimate object, if you gave it a voice what would it say? How would it feel about how it’s being used and when mistakes happen? So, I think it could be written from the same perspective now. You know, what would a gun have to say about legislation and war? It’s just limitless, those type of topics and content. Again, we were trying to think ahead and out-of-the box on that record for it to have shelf life, to have music people who would still listen to years later and still have something to extract from it art-wise or skill-wise. All those artists you named that do that is what Hip-Hop has always been to me. It’s always been MCs pushing the envelope to push your competition and your peers to get better at the art or better at finding their voice. These [artists you mentioned] are people who do that effortlessly. Going back to “Stray Bullet,” we wanted the arrangement to be different, you know. We were going past 16 bars. Back then we knew that there was a structure for the masses, and if you break those rules, there’s a consequence. But we still did it, ya know. The story of this bullet is more important than the rules and we hoped people would gravitate to that, and they did.
Ambrosia for Heads: With 2016 well under way, what do Heads have to look forward to from you?
Pharoahe Monch: In the immediate, I am performing at the Kaufman Music Center [in New York City February 4] with [PitchBlak Brass Band] and we also have strings. That should be amazing . I tour extensively again in March in Europe. Currently I’m so, so, so heavily in the studio working on a new project. I don’t have a title for it but I’m like 75% through it and it’s the hardest, heaviest, hardcore…I mean it’s really heavy, man. It’s a heavy Rock-minded project and it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for at least 10 years now. The first thing you hear when listening to the stuf is the confidence and the comfort with me in this space, ’cause its something I’ve been dying to do. Rock is like one of the genres that really influenced me and I have a real affinity and love for it. It’s coming out insane so far.