Pharoahe Monch has been put in the rap world to challenge the norm. He’s outspoken when it comes to religion (The Five-Percent-Nation specifically), and his music is influenced by the church as well as rock legends Led Zeppelin. He acknowledges the perils of drug usage in the music industry and how artists’ abuse is a widespread problem, something everyone else seems scared to talk about.
Pharoahe is far from your typical turn up rapper of the day. Yes, he has been around for a minute, but his voice is still one of the most refreshing out. We spoke with the veteran emcee about the capitalist society that we live in, how the music industry wants us to be dumb, and mental and emotional instability.
Interview by Peter Goddard
Mass Appeal: What are you most proud of with this album?
Pharoahe Monch: What I set out to do was take this theme that I thought was a great follow up to the W.A.R album, but not as used as a topic that was current in the media, but something that was really introspective. When I came up with the title I was like, “You’re going to really have to delve into some uncomfortableness about yourself.” In the past I’ve metaphored bullets and unborn babies and for me this is one of the first times I’m really… this is Troy Jamison that you’re getting. That was hard, but it was kind of therapeutic.
Then there’s another side of it that’s just like, “How do you make this whole thing cohesive?” That’s when I started examining how it’s not just a soldier thing but it’s always been kind of an impoverished black, hispanic issue that people encounter when you deal with the bullshit of gangs, police violence, and violence with your own people. How do you recover from that? How do you evolve into a man or into a woman from that?
Not to ramble, but in the black community… you know I’ve seen my parents go to work sick. I was fortunate that they were both there, but they worked their asses off. They had blue-collar jobs and damn near nothing could keep them from going to work, you know? You liken that to slavery, psychologically, and just having to do [work] regardless of the weather or physical conditions, and then you have a kid coming up saying, “Hey man, I feel emotionally unbalanced.” He’s definitely going to be like, let me not even say nothing about how I feel mentally or emotionally.
MA: There’s such a stigma against it and I think it’s what’s wonderful about the project is I wonder, not just fans, but also if other artists would kind of come clean a little bit on some of the things they’ve done. You’re not supposed to do that, particularly as a man. Have other folks in the industry said that they’ve thought about these things too?
PM: Yeah, I’m definitely not the first. Entertainment is about a whole bunch of masking and it’s not really what it is anyway. Artists have always struggled with the art versus the business of entertainment and celebrity. It’s apparent that Ol’ Dirty Bastard had some issues, Kurt Cobain had issues, you know? If you’re abusing alcohol or substance and you walk in the room I can’t diagnose you with a specific thing. I’m just like, “Hey man, you want to talk about something, let’s get it on.” It’s too late in the night for you to be this intoxicated, or you got a function you got to speak at and you look disheveled and you’re not together. What’s going on?
For me, for years I never communicated with people like that. I always communicated with energy. I could feel people’s vibrations and could sense that something was imbalanced with someone. I’m not being special or saying anything new or provocative. It’s apparent that we’re dealing with some issues.
That accompanied with the 24 hour media cycle, the speed of things, we’ve become so desensitized. If another Trayvon situation was to happen I wonder if, with myself, how much does my heart go into it? Or if it would just be another fucking thing, another issue, that’s going to end up with the same results. I don’t want to spend my love and my heart on it.
The album is about where do we find the balance in all of this.
MA: What interests you most about the writing process particularly with PTSD?
PM: I’ve understood that sometimes you reach that balance point and you let things be and let the universe speak to you. You become a vessel, it gets real easy. At the same time, what I enjoy is the technical aspect of it. Actually doing some research and finding out the facts, putting them together, and tying them in is a beautiful process as well.
MA: I hear the Church a lot in your music, all the way back to Organized Konfusion, maybe even in the writing of this album. How does spirituality influence your music?
PM: It’s heavy man. I’m big on how harmonics culminate to move you and make your hair stand up. Something that I study is what it is that gives you goosebumps. That Martin Luther King speech or that Malcolm X speech. I first experienced it with Public Enemy, in terms of hip hop. In terms of hip hop Chuck was the first one to match quality with truth and tone. I was like, “Goddamn. What is this?” It’s something that I wanted to have people feel as well. Obviously not in the same way as Chuck, but he’s a big influence on me in so many ways. He’s a big supporter of PTSD, too. If he hears something in “Bad MF” there’s something about that that’s invigorating. I just thought it was amazing that he heard that and he reached out to me like, “Yo Pharoahe, this shit right here is crazy.”
In Church I would be sitting there like, okay these chords, this organ, this lady, and this old man; he can’t really sing but he knows what he’s doing and it’s coming from his heart. Plus, the preacher who has honest conviction, there’s something with that. It’s beyond normal recordings.
MA: Plus the audience.
PM: Yeah, call and response too. What’s messed up about marketing and the music industry is I’ve realized that the minority of people really understand that. It’s not like I don’t understand that and I’m just doing it. I try and do it consciously knowing that it’s a smaller percentage of people that gets it. Just like scripture or Five Percenters – the masses… whatever. At the same time, in my household that was a heavy influence and so was Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Weather Report. I’m thankful that my sister and my brothers put me on.
MA: Turning from spirituality to politics, how much has the Bush administration influenced your writing and are you surprised that it hasn’t been more addressed by emcees today?
PM: It’s pretty bad being a 1970′s, 1980′s baby seeing how much the musicians and artists were involved and did have a voice. I always say this, just be honest. I don’t want Lil’ whatever to do a song about something he’s not really invested in. Be honest with your art and your heart – that’s my thing. I understand I’m all over the place as an artist sometimes, that in itself is hard to market, but when I talk about Trayvon or whatever I just want people to know that it ain’t about a song or taking advantage of something. I’m hurt. I was hurting with the Sean Bell situation. I was hurting with the Trayvon situation, too. I’m appalled with the fact that we just haven’t evolved man.
MA: You mentioned coming up with groups like Public Enemy and X-Clan. Is rap music supposed to educate?
PM: Definitely. No doubt about it. It should have a balance. You should be able to party and dance with the girl too. What we’re missing is that balance and information. You know, I did the research, these are the numbers of minorities in prison right now and it’s in a song called, “The Numbers.”
MA: Who do you blame for that imbalance?
PM: It’s a combination of everybody’s fault. The industry and the capitalist society, you know? If they can dumb it down further than so be it. That’s not going to change. You’ll get a few people that want to put out a superior product, but for the most part… McDonald’s man. The insane thing is you can give somebody the information and they will still make that choice. You know, if I choose to eat the fries that’s cool twice a year, but an everyday diet – that’s crazy.
Head to iTunes to pick up a copy of Pharoahe Monch’s new album PTSD