Pharoahe Monche - The Pharoahe Returns
Monday, 5 November 2007
Pharoahe Monch’s career has been defined by artistic struggle. This year the New York MC, now on Steve Rifkind’s SRC roster, resurfaced from an imposed hiatus with the breathtaking Desire, his follow-up to the classic Internal Affairs.
Unbelievably, Monch endured an eight-year gap between LPs – but we’ll return to that later. Desire hasn’t sold mega units, Monch staying an inherently underground MC, but it’s generated greater excitement in hip hop ranks than any other LP of late (Katalyst digs it). Monch has quietly upstaged Common. Even Monch can’t hear enough of his most musical venture, blasting it in the car.
“Still to this day, when I put the record on, I don’t wanna stop it,” he says bashfully. “I’ll pull up in front of a store and I wait two or three songs before I get out the car, or I’ll wait ’til a song is over before I get out [of] the car.”
Today’s hip hop is dominated by Southern crunkateers, who are all about the party. In contrast, Monch is representing – or reviving – a long-lost lyrical tradition.
Troy Jamerson came to the fore as ‘Pharoahe Monch’ with Queens’ legendary Organized Konfusion. The duo were unusually self-contained, frequently producing their own beats. Significantly, though Organized Konfusion pre-empted the rise of sophisticated ‘backpack’ MCs, they proved to be more than ‘conscious’ hip hoppers. The pair were outlandishly avant garde even within the spectrum of alt-hip hop.
Together with Prince Poetry, Monch fostered a highly literary style of rap. Organized Konfusion aired a trilogy of challenging LPs, beginning with 1991’s eponymous debut. Credible as these were, none blew up commercially.
Organized Konfusion composed the devastating Stray Bullet, an ingenious use of personification, which impressed Nas – he made I Gave You Power about a gun.
However, their partnership fragmented following 1997’s underrated ‘concept’ album, The Equinox.
The Equinox, for which Organized Konfusion portrayed the opposing characters of Life and Malice, was a radically theatrical LP. It confounded listeners. Organized Konfusion were, according to an interview here with Prince Po, eventually beaten by industry neglect. Yet Monch offers a different account for why they split. It was about artistic growth.
“I don’t feel like I gave up,” he says. “I felt like I was just mentally exhausted after the third record. We put a lot into The Equinox.
“Something that I found out, and I think fans should be appreciative of, is that concept albums are a very hard sell in the market in general throughout history – and Equinox is a very heavy concept record.
“It was a brilliant album. We toured it and then, after that, I just needed a break. But, during the hiatus, I found out that I had some personal things that I wanted to say – dreams that I was having.
“I felt that it would be unfair to include Prince [Po] in time to convey these personal things that were coming to mind in the way I wanted to convey them. So I said to him, ‘I think I need to get this stuff off my chest...’ We separated from there.”
As a solo artist, Monch welcomes the fact that he no longer must compromise, but he misses sharing the writing and responsibilities. He won’t dismiss the possibility of an Organized Konfusion reunion, but it’s not a priority.
“I’m definitely excited about my solo career and, as far as Organized Konfusion, who knows what the future holds-” he says. “That’s my answer for that question.”
Monch remains close to Prince Po, who released his debut, The Slickness, on the Warp-affiliated Lex Records. Post-Organized Konfusion, Monch signed to Rawkus, premiering with 1999’s Internal Affairs. He relished his first crossover hit, Simon Says.
But, just as everything was coming to fruition, Monch faced legal issues. It was discovered that a Godzilla sample on Internal Affairs hadn’t been cleared. The LP was withdrawn.
Monch went on to record another album for Geffen – which had swallowed Rawkus – but it was shelved. Rumours suggested he might switch to Eminem’s Shady Records but, Monch says, “label politics” thwarted that. He was courted by various labels – most incongruously Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy. At the time, Monch was ghostwriting for Puffy’s Press Play. The Bad Boy mogul loved what he heard of Monch’s material, pitching him a deal.
“I thought about it, because he is a great ambassador and marketer, but I just think, for the way I wanted to market [the album], it wasn’t really suited.”
In the end, Monch opted to go with SRC, home to the Wu-Tang Clan. Nevertheless, D12’s Mr Porter acts as co-executive producer of Desire. Monch values Rifkind, among few contemporary industry executives possessing both business acumen and a love of music, and divulges that the two have just breakfasted. Xzibit submitted his definitive work to Rifkind. Monch is content.
“I have the freedom to build.”
And he’s gratified by the reaction to Desire.
“It’s everything that I wanted it to be,” he enthuses. “I’ve always told everybody that this album was my child. I spent so much time trying to create it and perfect it and, artistically, it’s everything that I wanted it to be.
“I’m really proud of the final product and even more proud of how the people are responding to it. I mean, that’s the best that a true artist can ask for – the music really touching the people and the peers.
“After that point, it’s up to the marketing and all of the business side of things.
“Music has gone into a direction – especially in hip hop – where they’re not really looking to embrace music with substance and music with a message and music that’s conscious. That’s a different battle.
“But, on an artistic level, I’m really proud of the record.”
WHO: Pharoahe Monch
WHAT: Desire through Universal / Plays Good Vibrations at Centennial Park
WHEN: Out now / Saturday 16 February
MORE: pharoahe-monch.com, goodvibrationsfestival.com.au