Between points Pharoahe Monch took deep breaths, in part due to his asthma, but like his lyrics, it was clear he wanted to carefully think through each point. Pharoahe Monch has always been creatively thoughtful with his lyrics, once rapping from the prospective of a bullet to elicit the history of gun violence. After over twenty years in hip hop, first making a name for himself as one half of Organized Konfusion, one might expect Pharoahe Monch would be more popularly known at this point. His debut album in 1999, Internal Affairs, was released on the highly acclaimed Rawkus Records (famous for starting the careers of Mos Def and Talib Kweli) and featured “Simon Says” which became a Billboard Top 100 single. Then a battle for creative freedom with then label, Universal Records, stalled the released of his follow up album, Desire, until 2007. SFCritic spoke with Pharoahe Monch at SXSW about the one-sided focus of hip hop, Lupe Fiasco’s own label struggles and the politics of music.
SFCritic (SFC): In a past interview with a hip hop artist out of Minneapolis named, I-Self Divine, he explained to me that the problem with hip hop on the radio today is that it’s one slice of the whole hip hop pie and everyone is gobbling that shit up. Would you agree?
Pharoahe Monch (PM): Definitely. If you want me to go into why that’s an issue, I think it’s an issue because when you look at culturally or artistically you want it to be represented in the full for the up and coming artists as well to get a great view and taste of what it can be, instead of it being one way.
SFC: What slice of the pie are you?
PM: I’m right now the truthful slice of the pie. As a culture in general, people in general, not just hip hop, we need to evolve to more freedoms, greater thinking, better race relations, better everything.
As I look back to when I was in school, I thought by this time we would have evolved culturally to something much greater than where we are at now.
SFC: Who is an artist that is on the same page as you? Please choose a song.
PM: My thing is when you’re free creatively it shows a liberation of art. Not just hip hop, but expression like the way you approach your interview and present it. War within us is the most important personal thing. When you watch what happens in Egypt it’s a microcosm of me. I don’t want to say anyone else. It’s my struggle with asthma and coming to grips with trying to fight against that. Eat better and be healthier. There is a war within myself, and I express that on the album.
There are a lot of artists that present themselves free whom I get inspiration from. I would say Georgia Ann Muldrow “Runaway.”
SFC: Your album’s cover features you with a gas mask on. What air are you clearing?
PM: I want to leave that open for people’s interpretation, but I have asthma, the environment is screwed up. I like to be a mystery, so my face has been covered on all my solo-album’s covers.
SFC: Where does that inspiration come from? Is there an artist or song that is exemplifies this characteristic of you?
PM: It probably would come from “Hypnotical Gases,” which I did with Organized Konfusion on the first album. We were always inspired by Marvel and comic books. We were artists. We went to art school. We were writing not only from a perspective of what is right, but will be, as well as studying what happened in the past. When you see W.A.R. and that gas mask I didn’t want you to just think pollution. It’s deeper than that.
“We were writing not only from a perspective of what is right, but will be, as well as studying what happened in the past. When you see W.A.R. and that gas mask I didn’t want you to just think pollution. It’s deeper than that.”
SFC: One of the things I’ve always appreciated about your music is the combination of a personal narrative with a social conscience. I’ve found many of your songs to be highly informative on different real issues from gun violence, to police brutality, to issues of the mainstream media. Would you consider yourself a teacher about the perils that are part of the world?
PM: Going back to another cliché, I’m a consumer, I’m a fan, I go to shows, and watch videos. Often times I’m disappointed, so I ask myself, “What would I do? What changes would I make with this film or song or piece of art?” In saying that, I want to inform, but
I don’t want to be preachy because I hate to be beat over the head. I want to give people information in a proper way just like a teacher. If it requires limericks to remember an equation, than that is what it takes.
I think The Torah, The Koran and The Bible, are all meant to grow with you as you evolve. I try to write songs like that because I listen to Zepplin and Coltrane. Especially with Coltrane, I’m like “My God! This is what he meant!” Even the simplest of things can turn around and mean something different the twentieth time you listen and that’s how music is supposed to be.
SFC: There is talk in the online community about “Free Lupe.” Having been an artist struggling with A&R, can you shed any light on your experience and what Lupe might be going through? How would you describe that period in your career? What song might reflect your feelings?
PM: It’s amazing man. That’s the life story right there. I think I’ve been able to have creative freedoms, but you understand the struggle and the politics of the music industry by watching it through his [Lupe Fiasco] eyes.
I’m happy in my skin right now and those decisions that I’ve made, but a lot of those same decisions and opportunities presented to me from Rawkus to different labels, if you were to work with this artist, or do these things, we can get you in different doors. Those are choices you make. I chose [laughs] not to work with a lot of artists that I could have worked with. I’ll keep it like that. Some people are like this is just a business and whatever you do is just a song and you sell it. For some people it’s more than that.
“I think The Torah, The Koran and The Bible, are all meant to grow with you as you evolve. I try to write songs like that because I listen to Zepplin and Coltrane. Especially with Coltrane, I’m like ‘My God! This is what he meant!'”
SFC: Is there a song that helped you reflect or was helpful during that period of your career?
PM: It was probably Georgia Ann Muldrow’s Olesi Fragments of An Earth album. It was just so creatively free. [We selected “Leroy”]
SFC: What does it mean on the album’s self-titled track “This is a war against consciousness?” What is a song that instills political resistance in you?
PM: People at the helm of all of this would rather have you buy their products, not be a leader, not have mental freedom and conscious freedom. There are things that are implemented to keep us in line, spiritually and consciously. The majority of the world’s wealth is controlled by two percent, doubling everyone else’s wealth. What keeps that happening is you remain buying into the system, and we remain at the helm and control it.
SFC: Is there a song in your mind that instills political activism?
PM: Nation of Millions by Public Enemy or any of Rage Against the Machine’s albums.
SFC: In your interview with Believer Magazine you stated at one point that you’re uncomfortable admitting you’re a rap artist. You stated, “There are situations where I’m uncomfortable saying, “I’m a hip-hop artist.” In some circles, the response is like, “Oh, OK, so… you have whores and your ties are shiny?” What artist embodies hip hop in the way you’d like to be seen? Can you select a song from him?
I would have to go outside of hip hop and say Hendrix, James Brown, Fela [Kuti] and Marley. I would say Marley. You can go with Bob Marley “Redemption Song.” The perception of a hip hop artist has changed a couple of times. Outside of people who are into hip hop, which is what I was referencing, they ask “What do you do?” and I reply, “I rap!” [laughs]