Published Apr 24, 2014With his fourth solo album PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Pharoahe Monch retains his status of one of the most consistent and creative MCs in hip-hop. Since he debuted back in 1991 with Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe has been delivering innovative wordplay and well-executed conceptual hip-hop. Probably best known for his 1999 single "Simon Says," in 2014 Pharoahe is co-owner of independent venture W.A.R. Media and celebrating the 20th anniversary of Organized Konfusion's seminal album Stress: The Extinction Agenda. He talked to Exclaim! about his latest project; PTSD finds Pharoahe drawing on his own experience with depression to fashion a thought-provoking album unflinchingly addressing issues around mental health and trauma.
It's been 20 years since Organized Konfusion's Stress: The Extinction Agenda. Do you think there are parallels thematically with that record and PTSD as they both deal with mental issues in a way? Would you agree with that?
No, I wouldn't agree and I'll tell you why and elaborate. I think the consistency is something that has alluded to post-traumatic stress disorder in the urban community as we see it. A lot of what [Prince Po and I] were talking about on the Stress album, the Organized album, was dealing with that subject matter and it's a point that I'm trying to make with this record — understanding this heavy, heavy soldier and war issue. At the same time, y'know, what's been diagnosed in the last few years is that if you have to go to class and you have to worry about gang violence, Bloods and Crips, as well as police, bad neighbourhoods, drug dealings and just an impoverished situation and lifestyle, then these things have repercussions as well.
I think what you were getting with the Organized [Konfusion album] was the raw embodiment of us growing up in the hood from "Stray Bullet" to "Bring it On" to "Maintain" and my father passing and those things. So there are parallels. I think this record is the culmination of all of those things and how you deal with that and react to it. And how you live your life after experiencing these things, and that's why I didn't use that album as a reference. This is just straight organic, the same as that record was.
The beauty and also the sad part is there are parallels. There are parallels to simply being a kid and growing up and coming out of the studio with your expensive equipment, trying to get a cab and none of the cabs will pick you up. It was a hard time dealing with the Yusuf Hawkins killing and the racial turmoil that was going on at that time and realizing that that could still happen in the Stress, Organized Konfusion days. Now, you know, have we evolved? Have we really evolved when Trayvon [Martin] is a similar situation? That's the interesting thing about the correlation. I don't even think it's a music thing, I think it's a social thing. I think that's why with this album reads well and feels well if you are a part of that culture because it still the fabric of what a lot of people are going through.
On [PTSD's] "Losing My Mind," you do kind of touch on the fact or hint at the fact that inner turmoil people are going through is a taboo issue. How much do you think people are willing to address this issue?
I don't know how much the individual is. I know the feeling as we evolve, I know that matters of the mind and emotional and mental health are going to become something that's old hat and out in the open, where it was taboo years ago, especially in the black community. You're talking about a community of people and a generation of people — hard working, double overtime if you are — trying to fend for your family [as] a single mother. Nobody's trying to hear you don't want to go to school or you don't want to go to work. And it's like "Why?" "Well, it's like I'm not feeling right in my head." It's like, "Are you fucking kidding me? You know your father went to work with no arms. His face was on fire." So nobody's trying to hear that.
Now, you're seeing people evolve. I think it's not a new thing I'm discussing, by any means, from artists I think when I talk about evolving, not listening to people or hearing what they have to say, but feeling the vibration and seeing people for what they are. When you look at a lot of these artists in today's culture, you see patterns of abuse and drugs and violence and domestic and all of these things that are consistent with a lot of artists. And I'm not saying all artists, I'm just sayin' to make music and art, you have to be a real strong individual especially when you graduate and move on to celebrity, it's a whole different process to be out there like that. You have to be strong-willed as well. I've always thought that you have to be a little off to begin with as an artist, that the world wants to hear what you have to sing or rap. You have to be on a different plane of energy. I always feel like artists are a little strange in a way.
Health and mental health is one of the bigger topics and debates right now in American politics. I'm in Canada but we're seeing that. When I've been to the States I've met people who have told me, "Here's my arm that's jutting out with this bone that healed wrong because I had no coverage."
Fam, I'll tell you from the bottom of my heart, there is generational, there's learned behaviour there's social behaviour. It is almost like how the hood doesn't communicate with the authorities and the police. There's an understanding there that at the most positive level, we understand your job, and we understand it's a good job, but 90 percent of people in impoverished situations don't feel comfortable when the cops come around. I'm a tax paying citizen and I get pulled over and I'm just like, "I might get shot in the face." Maybe that's just me. I say that to say y'know it's still a behaviour in the inner city, whenever they have an issue they're not rushing to the doctor. Cats will be, I'll be like, "Your eyeballs are bleeding dude, you need to go to the doctor." It's just a social thing it's the last thing I want to do. It should be like "Oh wow, my nail, I need to go to the doctor." That should be the mentality these [situations should be] absolute reverse, but it's not and because of that you have a lot of situations with sicknesses and people not going to the doctor for the burst appendix or something as simple as that appendix thing can be the end of you, so yeah it's an issue. That alone is an issue, let alone going to the doctor and being like "You know I've been feeling anxious lately and I haven't been getting enough sleep and y'know I got a kid on the way." Nobody's going to the doctor for that type of thing.
You just kind of suck it up, right? Or you just try to push through.
I think the word that I've been looking for is resilient and I think people of colour in this country have been pretty resilient when it has come to that and I think that point of evolving is something you don't really have to fight against if the availability is there to deal with it or talk about it.
I didn't want to dwell on health questions but I did want to ask something that does impact you on your art. I know that you have asthma and I know that it's something that helped to shape your flow 'cos of the breathing rhythms and how it impacted that. At this point you've been doing this for over 20 years. Is it something that's gotten easier to deal with the longer your career has gone on or do you still change your flows for that?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's gotten easier to deal with. I've gotten increasingly more sufficient and efficient with my health and things of that nature. But it's still there, it's still serious, I'm still chronic, so it's something I have to stay on top of all the time, 24-7 and it can be emotional, weather, dust, food, allergies. So it's difficult to deal with because you could be smooth sailing and then I could land in Toronto and you guys could be like "Oh it's crazy pollen season right now y'know" and I could be like "I don't understand why I'm feeling weird" or whatever. You're travelling, you're flying and it's different climates wherever you go. Yeah it's something you gotta stay on top of it.
Also, "Damage" is on the album. It's the third song in a trilogy that started with "Stray Bullet."
People [in the U.S.] are making links between violent crimes and health sometimes. You've talked about this since "Stray Bullet," which is a 20-year-old song, but sometimes these mass shootings are directly related to being overwhelmed with stress or something snaps.
I agree there's an obvious correlation there and my thing with hip-hop and my art is it's OK to make that correlation. People don't want to give the music credit for having those correlations but yeah man, it's all in the songs. If you listen to "Damage" as you get into the second verse, the voice in that second verse takes on a whole different deranged characteristic of the song and that particular bullet that's speaking, is off his rocker and doesn't care. "Little babies, I've seen it all," it's saying, and so I think the great thing is about that is that it is layered, it is philosophy you know. It could just be a dope song with a dope beat and some nice rhymes and rhythms or you could just sit there with a friend maybe or by yourself and be like "Look at how this correlates to mental illness and trauma and how over the course of time these things still correlate" like you said, with "Stray Bullet" and "Damage," as well as with what's happening in the news right now and gun violence. It's all a part of health and mental health. Are we legally, politically — are we just trying to keep automatic weapons away from mentally unhealthy people or should we just ban them altogether? All of that gets expressed in the song and I think that that's what makes the songs dope to me. Not to jock my own stuff, but any music that's layered, you can derive these questions from a bullet song, because it's all in there to be quite honest.
You talked about being on your jock there and "Stray Bullet" has been a pretty influential record. I think Nas's "I Gave You Power"… did he acknowledge that it was an influence on that song?
I sat down with Nas once and we talked about the correlation. I just think that when you are a writer, and imaginative and creative, you're trying to not just raise the bar but write in ways that everybody else doesn't write and that's what separates each artist, voice tone, where they fall on the beat, y'know and around that time so many good writers and so much good hip-hop — cats were really stretching.
One of the reasons I was mentioning that was 'cos I think y'know if it did inspire or influence him in any way. In a way you're like a rapper's rapper. I don't know how comfortable you are with that. For example like an Eminem will shout you out, but some of these guys are in that superstar realm that you alluded to earlier and have to deal with the celebrity factor on top of their art.
It's weird man and that's why I'm a big Eminem fan, because if I were to reach that level of celebrity, I don't know, I don't know, I might have drove off a fuckin' bridge.
It sounds like you kinda answered my question already cos I was going to say would you prefer being a rapper's rapper or would you prefer to get that bigger acclaim.
Pharoahe is so happy in his skin, man, so happy with where I'm at and of course, the goal is… when you own your stuff, when you're not compromising and you're independent and all of that stuff, is to maintain your level of artistry and to survive. Pay bills and save money… with that being said I'm making it, man. I'm pushing hard and obviously that's one of the issues that I talk about on the album, but I mean there's love and there's the Eminem mention it's really, really dope. And the love is like, people who are Pharoahe Monch fans are fuckin' Pharoahe Monch fans. Even if you check for me because of Eminem, I would assume some people checked and turned away, but the ones who stayed found something organic and honest and a reason for staying and my little Pharoahe Monch brigade, y'know, it's strong and they support for the most part.
On this record it seems like you've kind of tapped into knowing what your audience expects in a way. You're not trying to chase the trends that are musically going on.
Oh, hell no. Not meaning to say that in an ignorant way because I do know you have to keep your finger on the pulse. But you know, man… Yep.
You're not biting. Is that what you're saying?
Mobb Deep just put out their new record and they're also from Queens and I'm noticing that both you and them have kinda stuck with their sound and kind of basically know their audience. Is there a downside to that in your estimation?
I think you have to evolve as an artist, because you are going against the natural order of the universe if you don't evolve. Relationships evolve we get older and we eat differently, our taste changes, you know. Your parents couldn't get you to eat spinach when you were five. Now you eat greens. It's the same thing with artistry as well. I think true artists not just for the sake of being crazy, just need to evolve and I mean when it doesn't happen it does get left behind. I think some artists evolve without being pop. It doesn't mean you haven't evolved unless the whole world knows your music. You could evolve in your fan base. Somebody just tweeted me just now and was like We Are Renegades, the W.A.R. album is better than Internal Affairs and he likes both albums but there's no comparison. I'm pretty sure Internal Affairs and "Simon Says" fans will disagree with him. But that's his opinion and that's one thing you learn as well.
In terms of your album I don't think you went back to who stole my last piece of chicken but you did work with some people that you worked with before, like Lee Stone and Marco Polo…
Yeah. Lee Stone, we collaborate on a lot of music. That's my dude. Marco's my guy. You know those are just mainstay people who are a stickler for the feel or vibe that I'm into and yeah, man.
About Marco [Polo], then was that "3 O'Clock" joint [from Marco Polo's Port Authority 2] the first Organized Konfusion song since [the last Organized Konfusion album 1997's] The Equinox.
Nah, nah. We've been working on music here and there.
It was the first one for a while though, right?
Was there any set of circumstances about why that record came out then or now?
Nah, we just wanted to do it and I made my verse and that's it. And I was like, "There, you want to get on this?"
Is there any new Organized Konfusion material on the horizon at all?
Yeah. We got a new song with O.C. on Prince Po's album that's out now. We just shot a video for that. I just saw the video. It's bananas. I like it a lot.
Yeah, that [Prince Po] album's called Animal Serum but I guess what I mean is an Organized Konfusion thing as opposed to appearing on each other's projects. Is that something that's going to be a possibility?
Six words: Who know s what the future holds? [laughs]
I had to ask. What other projects are you working on. I did come across this "Rap Life" joint with Diamond D as well. I'm not sure what project that's attached to. Could you shed some light on it?
It's a Diamond D album. It's the first single off the album.
Is this like him doing all the production and inviting MCs on the tracks?
Yeah. He did all the beats on the album.
What do you want people to get from this album, because it's very conceptual. What do you want to get across to people?
You know I just think it's cerebral but it's still really good hip-hop at the end of the day and of course it's layered. It's not a rap album or the type of rap that you can vacuum to and, at the same time, you're dusting and it's on in the background and it's background music. And background music is good music too and we need that. But this is not that. This is that in your car I want to get into something on my way to work or on the train. I got 30 or 40 minutes to listen to a portion of the album or I have some time before. And I understand exactly what the temperament of the music is. And if you don't have time, I think there are a couple of joints that are going to stand out.
But at the same time — I've been saying this ever since we went independent — this is not McDonald's man, it's not fast food. There's a huge need for fast food and people are leaving, they're on their way to work and they need to grab something. This is totally sautéed, simmered, basted, marinated for hours and cooked and portioned meal and if it takes you [until], 30 days, 40 days til the summer until you're like I'm gonna sit and listen to this album, well that's when you watch the movie. It's not that fuckin movie like "Ha, ha, ha! I'm watching it and I'm doing something else and it was easy." My shit is the matrix, it's layered.