The place to find and share independent music. From hip-hop to pop, dubstep to drum n bass; Beatnik is your filter.
Pharoahe Monch on cramming messages into his songs
words Sven Carlsson / images Press
Ahead of his the release of his new album W.A.R., Beatnik caught up with Pharoahe Monch, the New York emcee known for moving your ass and inner convictions at the same time. He also tends to do it by delivering intricate, meticulous and pedantic rhyme structures. We expect him to keep doing the same on his new release.
You’d think someone who can write an intricate and rhythmically complex song from the perspective of a bullet would not really need to “get sharp” lyrically, yet New York’s own Pharoahe set out to do just that on his Canadian tour this spring, when I spoke to him.
“I’m really coming out to exercise my lyrics and reach out to some of my fans,” Pharoahe calmly relays from his rainy city, quick to clarify that his skills on the mic have not dwindled (how could they?), only taken a restbite during work on his new album W.A.R. “Nonono, it’s not a matter of [freshening up my lyrics],” he says, “it’s just that the mentality of the new rcord has had me in a different place to my live shows.”
Witnesses to his shows will confirm that the performances he’s known to deliver do require Monch to adopt a different “sensibility” to his recording self. The shows are lively, but not necessarily in the conventional way.
People are up the walls, sure, but Pharoahe Monch himself is usually still on stage with his right hand slighty raised, his fingers guiding him through whatever complex web of rhymes he’s untwirling at that particular moment.
The effects songs like ‘Simon Says,’ ‘Right Here’ or ‘Body Baby’ have on the crowd seem to contrast with Pharoahe’s in-the-lab persona. The lab is where he has spent most of his time lately, engulfed in the recording of his “most cohesive album” to date, W.A.R.
“W.A.R. is an acronym for We Are Renegades. [The album] speaks to the mind, the individual, everyone who is combating their own demons, as well as people battling authority, the government, the music industry, and even love,” he says. W.A.R. is apparently his most “telling” album, touching on his battle with “cancer and even near-death experiences.”
We spoke around the time that Erykah Badu released the video to ‘Window Seat,’ whose message seemed to have resonated with Pharoahe. “If you step out far enough from the norm, your character will be assassinated. You might even be assassinated, but most importantly your character will. That’s what the message of [Badu's video and] my album is, really.”
As usual, the lyrical content and the beats will provoke action—on the dance floor and in protests. Herein lies the genius.
“There are still joints that make you jam,” Pharoahe says of W.A.R., “but within them there is a message. You can be totally jamming out to this album but still stop and say ‘whoa! I didn’t catch that before’. I was very maticulous about doing that. You can make good songs about the current political situation without it being a good record.” Pharaohe’s fans have come to expect him to do both.
Pharoahe has collaborated closely with Mr. Porter during the recording process for W.A.R., and like so many other artists, he says the former D12 producer’s perfectionism has made crucial contributions to the development of his sound.
How has Mr. Porter contributed to the album, soundwise?
“He makes me pay attention to sonics and frequencies, how things sound. He’s extremely maticulous about how things sound.”
Because of the way this record is going, some of it will sound like distorted slop because I’m choosing that. I’m choosing gritty-grimy tracks for a reason, because I want to evoke that kind of emotion.”
As a preview of things to come, Monch released a song in 2007 called ‘Broken Heart,’ which Mr. Porter producer. It’s quite obviously a love song, but when the Queens emcee depicts love, he takes his time to gather the impressions and convey them as directly as possible. What a first verse.
“I guess I was obviously still harbouring emotions,” chuckles Pharoahe when asked about penning the song. “You could be in a successful relationship and still pull pain from old relationships to tell that kind of story. But for the most part, I built those lyrics on pain from past relationships.”
Suckers for lyricism will rave on for days about Pharoahe’s writing. No matter how it’s executed, as spontaneous free-form flows or elaborate stories from whatever perspective, there’s plenty of thought behind it.
“For ‘When the Gun Draws,’ I did a lot of research to get everything accurate. I was in Dallas and visited the place where Kennedy was assassinated, I picked up on some literature and researched it online. The verse is not packed with information but I made sure that all of it was accurate.
“But stories like ‘Queens’ [from Internal Affairs, released in 1999] are real and true to life. So it may start off with someone that I have really known. With the flow in Queens, I wanted it to come off more organic, so I sort of freestyled the verses to get those honest feelings accross. Those are the two aspects I enjoy the most: doing a lot of research for a verse and telling a story true to my experiences.”
Pharoahe’s new single ‘Shine,’ which features Mela Machinko and was produced by none other than Diamond D, exhibits his unique and layered flow.
Over the phone, the veteran MC can barely hide his own excitement for the album’s first single: “I’ve played it 153 times today!”
Seems like we’re not the only ones eagerly awaiting W.A.R.’s release date.
Album: W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), First quarter 2011
Single: ‘Shine’ ft. Mela Machinko (Prod. by Diamond D), Stream above