Question in the Form of an Answer: An Interview with Pharoahe Monch

Paul Thompson passed more ese’s than motorcade police parades in East LA. Pharoahe Monch believes in Phil Jackson. When I asked the one-time Madden star how he thought this NBA season would...
By    March 28, 2014

monch1Paul Thompson passed more ese’s than motorcade police parades in East LA.

Pharoahe Monch believes in Phil Jackson. When I asked the one-time Madden star how he thought this NBA season would shake out, he gave me his conference champions (Oklahoma City and Indiana, if you’re wondering), before a long, weary pause. “I just hope the Knicks can make the eighth seed.” There was hope, though: While the newly-hired former Bulls and Lakers coach would not be behind the bench for New York, Monch was confident his presence would be felt. “Phil has already had an impact on the culture, and that’s what it’s all about. A philosophy helps people to focus on the end goal. And that’s in anything you do.”

And Monch knows a thing or two about impacting the culture of New York. With the twenty-year anniversary of Organized Konfusion’s seminal “Stress: The Extinction Agenda” on the horizon, Monch is busy prepping the release of PTSD, his fourth solo album. I spoke to him about those records as well as gun control, the state of the American veteran, and the humanizing power of social media.

PTSD comes out next month. It’s a concept record, correct?

For the most part—it’s not super intricate or anything. I know people get kind of scared when you say it’s a concept album. They’re like, “It’s going to be difficult to follow”. It’s just a theme. I always want to work with themes, because that’s how my brain works.

You characterized WAR (2011) as a struggle against complexes, one of them being the music industry. Has that industry machine affected you creatively?

It hasn’t, really. It’s more about the human side the everyday side. At the end of the day, it’s really about, you know, who you are—none of [the industry] stuff has really deterred me from creating what I want to create. I’ve always gravitated to my stuff having layers and having content, for the most part. I’m comfortable there.

It hasn’t affected me creatively [to where] I haven’t been able to accomplish what I want creatively. These are all thought-out choices—who the producers are, all that. Mind you, the Rolodex is expansive at this point in my career. I could be working with a host of people, but these people were chosen because I feel they complete the music bed that I’m looking for.

Speaking of that content, you touch on a lot of very serious issues, notably gun control.

I mean, I’m always putting myself in the other person’s shoes, looking at logical solutions, looking at the history of why things are the way they are. Why do we feel the need in America to have a love for—and huge private organizations that support—guns, to the point where these groups have power politically? You see that, then you look at the full spectrum and come all the way back to the hood. A lot of times, at the end of the day, you just see the pain of a mother or a father or a wife or a husband. I sympathize, I empathize with that pain. It hurts, and I never want to be in that situation. And you think, “What is the immediate solution, and what is the long-term solution?”

I speak on the album of even having a gun myself, and some depression, and my friends being like “Hey, you don’t seem too good, we’re going to take this from you for the moment”. Those stories are on my record—losing my mind, battling with that. But how does that go from one extreme to automatic weaponry that fires 100 rounds a second? Who would vote for that? Here, in New York City?

You want to tackle those difficult subjects to bring about a dialogue in the first place, I’m all for that. The conversation crosses gender and race and social class. It’s a great conversation to have, because if you grow up in the hood, you look at NBA players and people who go past a certain financial status. And the first thing [they think] is: “Look, I used to be here, in the projects. Now I just signed a 15.8 million dollar contract. I’m still attached to some of these people, some of my family.” One of the first things they’re thinking is “I’m afraid for my family”. Then there are old American frames of thought, “Go west and prosper and build land, and everyone should have a gun to protect their land in case some guy comes around in a horse and buggy and tries to kick you off your land”. And I’m like, “We’re living in Brooklyn now!”

Speaking of post-traumatic stress disorder, why is a country with the resources America has not taking better care of its veterans?

As a youth, growing up and seeing what happened with Vietnam and watching these movies, my personal thoughts have been that if you serve this country, there should be very few worries when you come home and are finished serving. That’s my opinion. That alone deters me from the concept [of military service]. Where’s the respect?

PTSD is definitely about that. It’s an understanding of and an ode to the level of trauma you have to deal with. That’s the connection right there. It’s also a social statement to impoverished, slave, hood syndromes in which you go into schools and you’re worried about gangs, and you’re worried about the authorities, and you’re reading about people your age—in junior high school, young teenagers—who are getting shot. It’s the stress of your everyday life. This affects people later on with their stress levels, their anxiety levels. It’s a very serious issue that’s been there, but not spoken about for some quite some time. I think the discussion—not because of me—is becoming broader, because of the topic being brought to light by artists and people and the media, even the president. It makes us examine what really is a traumatic experience and what really is healthy mental and emotional living.

When we sat back and asked “What should we follow the WAR album with?” and we talked about calling it PTSD, I said “Yeah, that’s cool”, but in the back of mind I thought “You’re not going to be able to front your way through this; you’re going to have to talk about some actual issues that come from you, that aren’t metaphorical, that aren’t you bullshitting your way through an essay in high school to get a passing grade. This is going to have to be Pharoahe Monch being vulnerable.”

Does being that vulnerable make you nervous?

Man, it’s weird. It’s weird when you realize you’ve obtained wisdom in your life. You get older, and you become comfortable with a lot of things. I think because I have some time in the game and some cache, it does allow me to speak about certain things. That’s what makes me upset about music in general: people who have that same type of cache but don’t expound on what they could. I’m still relatively underground, but I have some cache so I feel like it’s okay for me to be like “Yo, man, this is where I’m at, I’m 40-plus, and in my life, these are the joys, and these are the lows”. We haven’t even put the album out…a fan was like, “Yo, I’m married, I have a kid, everything’s all good, we’ve got two cars, we live here, but my pops passed away, and I thought it would be a natural thing for me to move forward.” But he had a hard time with it, and started experiencing a lot anxiety. That’s not something lots of people are aware of, or aren’t educated on how to approach that.

The other day, I’m watching Dr. Oz, and this dude is on TV—a medical genius—and he said he’s just now dealing with voices in his head. As a normal thing, not a creepy thing. The voice that says “You were supposed to graduate college a year ago; You’re not doing your job where you’re supposed to be; Why are you still in New York? You were supposed to move to LA years ago; You’re not married yet, what’re you doing?” Those are the voices that cause you anxiety, or depression, or whatever. This is normal human shit, not some horror story.

Do you feel like fans also forget artists are human?

I think so, but I think that’s the good thing about this record, and about social media, for me. Even with the fans and with the support, I think I was a little dehumanized. That happens when you write these mystical, verbose rhymes, or you’re a bullet, or you’re an unborn kid, and kind of go away and are mysterious. We tend to do that as fans—I do that with my actors and artists and athletes that I follow and love. I think social media for one has helped me come back to earth a little bit, in terms of people being like “Oh shit, he watches The Fresh Prince!”. On the silly side, social networking has connected me to people.

As for being transparent and vulnerable, I want this album to connect to people as well. I’ve had really high points, economically and in all those ways throughout my career. But there have also been points where it’s like “Man, I’m paying for this tour, I’m doing this, I’m doing this”. And I find myself really busting my ass day-to-day, week-to-week to make things to connect like a lot of people in this country. I think it’s a great story, hard work is the fabric of even what the music industry is about. We often get this picture of how the record labels work for some artists. And I think record labels are working for Miley Cyrus, while you may have a more eclectic artist who’s just as good, and [the label] may just not work for them. [That artist] may need to go along the route of semi-indie or all the way indie to get their message across.

This August will mark twenty years since Stress: The Extinction Agenda came out. Does it feel that long?

Amazing. Amazing, amazing, amazing. One, because I do believe time has a way of slowing down or speeding up for people. My superhero character on the last album and on this album is kind of able to move about time in a seamless manner. One of the reason time passed in a certain way for me is because as an artist, looking at a career instead of “I’m gonna grab this dough and then get out the game”, I was always listening to people like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Led Zeppelin. When I got into that stuff, it was already ten, fifteen, twenty years old. “This came out when I was born—why is it still dope?” I wanted to make music that would last that long as well, not just be in the moment, per se. Sometimes the media will say what the life expectancy of an artist is in a given genre; I never paid attention to that because I never really paid attention to hip-hop rules. It’s bugged because here I am, off on this other adventure, and I’m super excited about PTSD, like a kid, or a parent about to have another child, but the other child is going to college. [laughs]

In ’94, could you have imagined putting out an album in 2014?

I envisioned it. But I envisioned myself very differently. I imagined myself how I thought old people looked like, but still doing it. Playing a guitar in a chair, morphing into something different. But if you think about it, PTSD is very relatable to young people, just like Marvin was with What’s Going On. Not comparing the two albums, just pointing out that that’s a very mature record that applied to the youth at the time as well as the older people. This stuff about the demographics of music, it’s a lie and it needs to be exposed. What I’m saying by that is: PTSD is from a man who experienced a lot. I wouldn’t have been able to write that record twenty years ago. It’s a natural progression.

PTSD is out April 15th.

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