A Conversation w/ Pharaohe Monch


Even in the thick of the bountiful early ’90s scene, the Queens-bred duo known as Organized Konfusion stood out. On their self-titled debut and their revered follow-up, 1994’s Stress: The Extinction AgendaPharoahe Monch and his partner, Prince Poetry, defined the lyrical vanguard with ear-bending enjambment, melodic cadences, stutter-stepping flows, and furious, multisyllabic rhyme flurries. Perhaps more than any of their contemporaries’, OK’s records conveyed an exhilarating sense of possibility: like the avatars of free jazz, they had the chops and the courage to take a song anywhere, at any time.

Conceptually, the group was just as adventurous, rhyming from the perspectives of stray bullets and “hypnotical” gases. The way they cloaked battle rhymes and social commentary in clouds of energetic abstraction marked them as heirs to legendary Bronx super-weirdos the Ultramagnetic MC’s—as well as forefathers to scores of unlistenable rappers who never mastered the proper ratio of organization to confusion.

Critical acclaim and $4.25 will buy you an iced mocha latte, so after a third album, 1997’s The EquinoxMonch decided to go it alone. The year 1999 saw the much-anticipated release of Internal Affairs on the tastemaking Rawkus Records. Like the disc with which it shared advertising space, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides,Internal Affairs showcased the versatility of a newly solo artist with ambitions and influences that both transcended and embodied hip-hop. Monch crooned, sparred with a who’s-who of guest MCs, and spewed high-concept rhymefests in the OK vein.

But it was “Simon Says,” Monch’s attempt to simplify his flow for maximum commercial impact, that gave the MC’s MC a bona fide crossover hit. Over an ominous sample jacked from a Godzilla movie, it commanded dancers to “get the fuck up,” and they obeyed in droves. Club DJs loved the song; radio embraced it.Charlie’s Angels and Boiler Room picked it up for their sound tracks. Then the Tokyo-smashing monster (or his human representatives) sued for the uncleared sample, and Rawkus was forced to pull the album from stores.

It would be nearly eight years before Monch released his next long-player, Desire,in June 2007—two or three eternities in the notoriously fast-moving world of hip-hop. Few artists could have marshaled a fan base after such lag-time, but hip-hoppers of a certain era are proving to be quite elephantine in the memory department (see: the resurrected career of MF Doom), and Desire found an audience.

It didn’t hurt that the album showcased Monch at the height of his powers: pushing boundaries with conspiracy theories, multipart narratives, and Tom Jones impressions; challenging listeners to digest his wordplay at the rate he served it up (“still get it poppin’ without Artist and Repertoire / ’cause Monch is a monarch, only minus the A & R”); structuring entire verses around the names of financial institutions and wireless devices. Desire manages to be simultaneously indignant and inspiring, defiant and joyful, hilarious and paranoid. Listening to it now, it is striking to realize how palpably the record feels like a document of the late Bush years.

Monch and I spoke several times by telephone shortly after his return to New York from a European tour. He was preparing for an Organized Konfusion reunion show, the first in ten years, and also laying verses for a new album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), scheduled for release in February. In each case, we talked until his cell phone ran out of juice.

—Adam Mansbach

Check out http://www.believermag.com/issues/201101/?read=interview_monch where this article original appears

I. THIS IS LADIES NIGHT!

THE BELIEVER: It seems to me that hip-hop today is like jazz was in the early ’70s. For the first time, the major innovators are not new artists, but fifteen- or twenty-year veterans—guys like you, MF Doom, Ghostface, Nas, Jay-Z. Even Lil Wayne has been in it for almost that long.

PHAROAHE MONCH: I think there’s a couple of reasons. Having the savvy to know what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what music you want to say it over comes with time spent and wisdom gained in a music career. Back in the days, a prodigy usually was cultivated by the veterans around him—take Nas, who was surrounded by Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Premier, and L.E.S., all listening to the tone of his voice and the way he rhymes melodically and saying, “He’s gonna sound better over this.” If Nas had tried to produce his first album himself and hand out demos to people… whatever, I don’t need to elaborate. I remember talking to Nas after [his debut verse on Main Source’s] “Live at the Barbeque,” and he was unsure what he wanted to do. It took time for him to cultivate his mental state and decide, This is what type of artist I want to be.

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