Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Pharaohe Monch
Pharaohe Monch Pharaohe Monch Pharaohe Monch Pharaohe Monch

During a 1972 concert performance captured on his 'These Songs For You, Live!' album, soul legend Donny Hathaway referred to “the black pool of genius” before giving the crowd his rendition of Stevie Wonder’s classic Superwoman.

Over the years this deep metaphorical sea of creativity, spoken about by Hathaway with such reverence, has found other ground-breaking and free-thinking artists such as Marvin Gaye, Prince and Rakim swimming within its waters. These individuals, and others like them, have each managed to tap into a place somewhere inside the soul that allows normal creative limitations to be transcended. Their music becomes more than just mere sound, taking listeners on a journey that opens up a whole new world to be explored emotionally, spiritually and mentally. Songs become personal friends. Albums become life-changing events. History is made. Another artist who can also claim to have let his mind float in that mythical “pool of genius” is New York MC and hip hop trailblazer, Pharoahe Monch.

Returning with Desire, his first album in 8 years, the Queens-bred wordsmith appears to be more focussed than ever, eschewing hip hop’s current penchant for disposable music by filling his heavily-anticipated opus with meaningful verses that cover everything from politics and love to racism and conspiracy theories. A name that’s long been synonymous with next-level lyricism, Pharoahe Monch debuted as one-half of Organized Konfusion in 1991 before kick-starting his solo career on NYC’s Rawkus Records with 1999’s massive Simon Says single. The rapper was also very nearly signed to Eminem’s Shady Records some years ago, before settling at Steve Rifkind’s SRC imprint.

Recently the incendiary video to Monch’s anti-violence anthem When The Gun Draws caused controversy due its graphic imagery, while his latest single Body Baby has gained an equal amount of attention due to its unexpected homage to Elvis Presley. Two very different creative directions to say the least, but Pharoahe is quick to assure doubters that it is possible for such seemingly conflicting extremes to successfully co-exist within the same artist.

Monch is free at last.

B&S: Desire was originally scheduled to be released late last year. Why the delay?
PM: To me the album wasn’t really ready last year so I pushed the release date back myself. I wanted to shoot the When The Gun Draws video and really get it out there. I didn’t want to just throw the album out and have it be all about ‘What’s the buzz?’ or ‘What are the first week sales numbers?’ To me it’s really not about that. This whole album is like a huge single because I’ve been away for so long, so I wanted to make sure the whole thing was done right.

B&S: The anti-gun message of When The Gun Draws really seems to have struck a nerve with people. Have you been surprised by the reaction to the track?
PM: I’m not surprised because I knew what that track was and what it had the power to be. When you write a song like that you try to do it in a way so that it doesn’t sound trendy. The incidents I talk about in the song that have transpired over the years will unfortunately continue to occur. I really took my time writing it because I was trying to create something that would have a longer shelf-life than the average hip hop record and I believe that When The Gun Draws will still have relevance for years to come. It wasn’t about making a controversial record for the sake of being controversial; it was about dealing with an issue that’s tangible and trying to make a difference to the lives of the youth through music.

B&S: You’ve spoken before about society becoming desensitised to violence. Why do you think that is?
PM: It’s so easy to become desensitised because violence is such a prevalent part of everyday life now. There just seems to be a general lack of self-respect amongst people, and if you can’t respect your own life then how’re you going to respect someone else’s. The media also plays a big part in the process. For example, if you look at the Iraq war situation, in America the media aren’t allowed to show images of the coffins of dead soldiers returning home. Quite frankly, I really feel a lot of people don’t understand the realities of war as well as they should. People are watching this propaganda and being drilled about what the war is about but aren’t actually seeing any loss of life.

B&S: You’ve always been viewed as an underground artist. Do you think that’s a label you’re ever going to be able to shake-off?
PM: What people don’t realise is that even with Organized Konfusion we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. We were just fans of hip hop giving our interpretation of the music and the culture. We didn’t necessarily know that we were underground. We wanted to break rules but our approach to making music wasn’t about us consciously taking a so-called underground approach. I was influenced by a lot of obscure jazz fusion groups and it was those old records that I sampled for the first two Organized albums. But if by some strange chance those same old albums had been popular million-selling projects and we’d still sampled them, would that have made our creative approach not underground?

B&S: That’s an interesting point because your new single Body Baby will be viewed as a commercial radio record simply because of the Elvis Presley connection. You could be saying the most complex rhyme on that track and it would still be viewed as mainstream because of how it sounds musically…
PM: Body Baby is definitely a risk-taking record and I approached making that song the same way as everything else I’ve ever done; I wanted to break the rules. But people will automatically see Body Baby as me doing something totally different to what they think Pharoahe Monch is about, which is what I mean when I say that it’s a shame people don’t listen to music properly today and don’t know the history of artists. We had gospel influences on the first Organized album and I was singing on Black Sunday from the second album. So all of the ingredients that you’re hearing in my music today have always been there since the Organized Konfusion days.

B&S: Would you say Desire is the closest you’ve come in your career so far to truly capturing the essence of who Pharoahe Monch is?
PM: This album is such a true reflection of who I am as a person. I really care about the socio-political state of society, but at the same time after I’ve had a few drinks you might hear me talking about ‘Look at those titties!’ I know that in this industry you’re only supposed to give people one side of yourself and promote that, but I really don’t have a problem showing people all the elements of Pharoahe Monch. I mean, a track on the album like So Good is so much a part of me and it’s such a sexual song, but then I also have a song like When The Gun Draws. So I have a fun side, but I also have a darker, more serious side. But that’s what I like about this new album, the fact that it shows so many sides to me that people really shouldn’t be surprised by whatever I choose to do next.

B&S: With that in mind, given that you’ve put so much of yourself into Desire where do you feel you can actually go from here artistically?
PM: I still feel that I’ve got so much potential to grow as an artist. I feel like I suck right now and I need to get better, which is a great place to be in as an artist who wants to improve their craft. I just feel like I’m only scratching the surface right now. I think Desire is a phenomenal album, but now I feel like I wanna beat that shit with whatever I do next and grow as an MC.


The album 'Desire' is out June 25 on Universal.
Words Ryan Proctor

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