Highly regarded as one of the best to ever to pick up the mic, Pharoahe Monch is hip-hop. Famed for his time as part of the duo Organized Konfusion, and of course his classic single ‘Simon Says’, there isn’t an emcee in the game who cannot respect what this man brings to the table.
Back with a new album, the Queens rhymer gives TaleTela an insight in to his slight addiction to Twitter, his opinion on Slaughterhouse’s recent signing to Shady Records, and why he will never be a ghost writer again.
Welcome to the W.A.R... You’ve just finished a European tour. How many venues did you stop at?
We did like 15, 16 shows in damn near every city you could do a show in, as well as London and Copenhagen.
Which one was the livest show?
Vienna was live, Copenhagen was live. London was crazy, mainly because heads knew the lyrics to the new material and the album had only been out for like two days. It threw me through a loop. I thought that was really crazy.
As far as the new album, ‘W.A.R. (We Are Renegades)’, goes it’s a concept album that really tests the listener’s understanding of hip-hop because of its intellectual stance on the world’s current issues and oppressions. Go in depth and explain your thinking behind it.
The creative process was over the course of a couple of years. I wanted to do something that incorporated the listener, the audience, and the fans. I felt, as a fan of music, disconnected from a lot of the shit that was being put out so I wanted to be the change that I wasn’t getting. From that I came up with the concept. I came up with this concept to just be honest with how I feel about the healthcare system, my asthma, the war that’s going on, the floods, famine, police brutality, and the industry. It’s everything I’m at war with internally and externally, and I felt like people could relate to it as well. It is really for a specific audience who are on that frequency, and understand that these issues exist and are hard lined issues, even outside of our own issues, like bills, traffic tickets, and what have you. So I was very direct and clear about who I wanted to speak to on this record and who I wanted to reach. Each song is pertaining to one of those issues but incorporating the group W.A.R., which is an acronym for we are renegades. Anybody aware of these issues, just the awareness alone, makes you a renegade right now.
It’s released via Duck Down, as well as W.A.R. Media, which is something to do with you we’re guessing. Explain W.A.R. Media.
W.A.R. Media is a company that me and my manager formed after leaving Universal. It was already started but the brainchild was to do music like the ‘W.A.R.’ album, create innovative music, and for it to be a place where people could come with innovative ideas. We had a couple of offers from distribution companies but we wanted to go with someone who was mainstay, someone who had been in the business for a long time and doing it successfully like Duck Down. It felt like it was time to own the material as well as create the material. So having the masters you feel like you’re working for our own business this way. So it’s not just independent. It’s our company so it just gives a different feel to the grind, which is something you have to do anyway. It’s not like anyone can be relaxed right now in their career.
As far as the album’s featured artists go, each one of them is highly respected in their chosen field. How do you go about picking who makes the cut and who doesn’t?
I’ve always been in control of the creative process since the beginning. These people were specifically picked to play a specific part on the album. Nobody was picked for their star power. Nobody’s on the record for any other reason than for what they meant to a particular song. My roller decks are deeper than just those people but these people are the best at what they do in their own right. Plus they lent themselves to the story, and I think they help the story connect in a very poignant way instead of just pulling names out of a hat. A lot of things just came together at the right time. I’ve been wanting to do a song with Royce (Da 5’ 9”) for a long time, Jean (Grae) for a long time, and Styles P for a long time. We had people picked out for the spots while we were finding the beats. We were like, “Who would sound good over this?” It was never about who would attract attention or help get us radio play. No one gives a fuck about that anymore, especially the way we’re putting records out now. It’s what feels the best.
That industry ideology about how you make an album is... whatever. It’s all about who you feel, and if the people feel it then you’re straight. They (Jean Grae and Royce Da 5’ 9”) are not the only two emcees skilful enough to be on the track ‘Assassins’, there’s loads. I think they add character. Jean Grae is family but that’s not why she’s on there. She adds character to the record, as does Royce. They both have very magnetic personalities and are both dope emcees.
Another feature you have on the album is Idris Elba, an English actor at the top of his game. Best known in the U.S. for his role in ‘The Wire’, did you originally plan on featuring an actor to do the album’s intro, and who wrote the script?
I wrote the script, and I tried a couple of people that I knew out for it and they just weren’t good enough. It was amongst one of last things we did and I didn’t want to get to this point and have the intro be your average, run-of-the-mill intro. So in my mind I needed an actor. Again, I wasn’t concerned if it was a name brand actor or not, I just wanted someone that was really good at acting. So Jean (Grae) was like, “Why don’t you call Idris?” I had contacts for him from before. We had actually met a while back and he had told me he was a fan of music. So I was then like, “Fuck it!” This whole album was basically like, “Fuck it! Go for it. Ask Moses, ask Jesus, do it. What’s the worst they can say?” So we asked him, and he was like, “Yo, of course,” and I was like, “Wow!” He did the shit in what... two weeks? Two weeks with three different voices.
Word is that Jay Electronica’s new project is set to feature an entire album’s worth of narration from another English actor - Jude Law. Perhaps you’ve started a trend?
Maybe. That sounds dope.
Your three solo albums have all been released individually on three different record labels. The first was on Rawkus, the second on Universal SRC, and this one is on Duck Down. Why Duck Down, and do you think you’ll stay put this time?
No, it’s a one term thing. Where we go after this? Who knows? Everything’s great though.
A few years back you were within a few minutes of signing a deal with Eminem’s Shady Records. More recently Em has gone on to sign Slaughterhouse, whose debut album you appeared on, and quick spitter Yelawolf. With most Shady artists being predominantly successful on a huge commercial scale, what do you think to the signings, and does this mean the return of raw hip-hop to the masses?
I hope so man because I’m a big Slaughterhouse fan, and I like Yelawolf as well. What I like about that signing is... with skillful cats like that you look for them with your heart. It motivates everybody else to be more skillful, because once skills are in the forefront everybody’s like, “That’s what I gotta to do now.” It puts a shift in the game, and it feels good.
With that said, what’s your current opinion on the state of the game? With acts like Mac Miller, Tyler The Creator, Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, and a whole host of other new acts coming up in the ranks doing what most deem to be real hip-hop. It’s shaping up to be quite an exciting year don’t you think?
I think so! Random Axe’s album is something I’m looking forward to. Elzhi’s album is another one. The Raekwon album is tight. There’s a bunch of other shit coming out. Jean Grae, Slaughterhouse... it’s crazy!
Some people may not know, but you were actually a ghost writer for Diddy on his ‘Press Play’ album a few years back. Have you done any writing for anyone else since then?
Nope, and that’ll probably be the last time I ever do it too. Why’s that? Because it’s such a gut-wrenching process. You have to do your best but yet you have to then part with it.
You actually were quoted back then as to saying that it was a dope thing to be involved in because of the access to the beats that Diddy was able to purchase. So that’s definitely something you’re not interested in anymore?
Nah. I’m done with that. Plus, because of the shift in the economy, in terms of beats there aren’t too many people that can pay a premium for that shit.
For somebody whose lyrics, nine times out of 10, are going against the system, surprisingly you have a very active Twitter presence. What is it about the social networking giant that has you hooked?
People paint me as this creepy dark mysterious character, yet I can be very humorous. You could be in the studio, making a fucking omelette, or getting a blow job while you’re on Twitter. Nobody knows what the fuck you’re doing while you’re on there. If you look at my tweets versus how much other people tweet, I really don’t compete with them. I digress a lot which gives the appearance that I’m on there all time. Maybe I am on there a lot. I don’t know. I don’t think I tweet as much as my peers.
You seem to be on there a lot going back and forth with a comical Jean (Grae)...
Jean’s funny. I follow funny people. She makes me laugh. Sean Price makes me laugh. Royce (Da 5’ 9”) makes me laugh.
You recently discussed with us, off the record, your plans to film a video for your track ‘Assassins’, for which you outlined the intricate plot details. Is that something that’s going to be happening any time soon?
We just shot the video for ‘Black Hand Side’, and we’re obviously going to be shooting ‘Still Standing’. I want to shoot ‘W.A.R.’ as well, and I wanna shoot ‘Assassins’ but it’s probably gonna take a minute as I wanna make it in to a film. It’s probably gonna be like 30-45 minutes long.
So what’s next for you?
I wanna start working on some ideas for this ‘W.A.R.’ upgrade that I want to give out for free. I’ve already started working on the next album; in fact I started on it two years ago. I’m doing a lot of touring too. I just signed on to do 18 cities in the States.
When is the ‘W.A.R.’ upgrade coming?
Hopefully this summer and there are no restraints as we’re just gonna put it out there for free.
What about the title of the new album. Do you have one?
I do but I don’t want to reveal it yet.