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Pharoahe Monch, This Means W.A.R.

Pharoahe Monch doesn’t have a huge catalog, but his potency on the mic is immeasurable. As one-half of the ’90s underground duo Organized Konfusion, Monch and his partner Prince Po dropped three notable LPs beginning with their 1991 self-titled debut.

After the group’s last album, 1997’s The Equinox, Monch embarked on a solo mission two years later with the release of Internal Affairs on Rawkus Records. The album, led by its fiery lead single “Simon Says,” cemented Pharoahe as a top-notch lyricist and a force to be reckoned with. His next project Desire was released after a lengthy hiatus in 2007 on SRC/Universal Motown, but after he grew disappointed with the performance of the record, Monch refused to re-up with a major label.

This fall the Queens veteran will instead be dropping his upcoming solo LP, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), independently on his own company, W.A.R. Media, through Duck Down Records. It’s been three years since fans last heard from Monch, but the man is ready to speak so listen up or get the fuck out. It seems that over the past few years the term lyricist has taken on a negative connotation. As someone highly regarded for his lyricism, do you agree?

Pharoahe Monch: It has. We’re facing all of these different mind control issues where the powers that be are trying to shape what the up-and-coming artists think about the music sensibility of hip-hop so that they can have more control over it. But there is no bigger example of lyricists selling than Jay-Z and Eminem. But yet they try to push that, “if you’re a lyricist, then you can’t make viable music in the marketplace.” And that shit is a lie… And when that shit cuts through on the airwaves people are able to tell. Like Sean Price, or like Jay Electronica’s [“Exhibit C”] record cut through. When you hear them you got a whole city like, “What the fuck is this?” Yeah, it’s exciting to see lyric-driven hip-hop break through like that.

Pharoahe Monch: Now this is a beautiful time in music. I was doing it for a while, I remember a time when the major radio stations weren’t playing hip-hop at all and we were on WHBI and Mr. Magic and Supreme Team and listening to these stations for our hip-hop. I can hear the most commercial artists going harder right now at their skill set then they were five years ago because records are not selling and muthafuckas are like, “I need to put a better product out.” I give the credit to the fans that were like, “Yo, this shit has got to change.” Great commercial records and great pop records are great records. When they’re great, they’re great—I love them. When they are bad, then they’re bad and I hate ‘em. It’s the same thing with the underground. Is there any rapper that you hear that makes you feel like, “I gotta step my shit up lyrically?” Who moves you?

Pharoahe Monch: [Laughs]. Aww, man. I don’t know, man. I don’t really find inspiration from that MC-wise. So many other things send me back to the lab. I’m a fan when I go to these shows [however]. I’m a huge hip-hop fan. I really want to go to the front row [when I’m at a show], but I know that I can’t because somebody will be like, “Yo, go on stage.” But that’s where I wanna be. But in that mode, [when] I’m at a Styles P show or I’m at the Sean Price show and I’m laughing at the lines… This muthafucka got so many lines. Like I’m really enjoying it, that what’s makes me happy about myself in this time. I’m glad that there is still good music out there. I really enjoy the Blu shit, the Black Thought shit, Jean Grae’s shit. All that shit, man. I’m backstage like a kid still. What led you from Universal Motown to do a deal with Duck Down Records?

Pharoahe Monch: I started my own label called W.A.R. Media. I had did that as soon as I asked for a release out of my Universal contract. It’s something that I wanted to do because I’m a visual artist as well. I went to art school. I just see things in that way. The way that marketing and advertising was being done in the music industry currently, I just felt like I either had to get a job in the marketing department or I need to get the fuck off the label. That being said, they were interested in picking up my option, but I was feeling like if it was gonna be the same type of marketing thing. Especially in the paradigm that the music industry is in right now, I was like, What are we really doing? So I asked out… I talked to a lot of distribution companies and other companies about doing partnerships. And when it came down to it, there were a lot of people interested… We sat down with Dru Ha [co-founder of Duck Down Records]. These are dudes who have been doing the independent thing for a minute. What can we expect from the new album?

Pharoahe Monch: The growth was in the challenge. The thing about Desire that I really loved was that none of that stuff was safe for me to do. I started feeling like a lot of the music was safe. Even if I’m Pharoahe Monch and I’m lyrical and technical, but it starts to become comfortable to me because that’s what I’m doing on a regular basis. Its like, He’s not even taking chances any more. A lot of the music on that record wasn’t necessarily safe for me to do; I pushed it artistically. This W.A.R. record is the same thing. [With] the message, the audience I’m looking to find and lyrically the shit is insane. How so?

Pharoahe Monch: It’s just a hardcore sensibility, but it’s unapologetically lyrical. It’s high-vocabulary. Where you feel like, Okay, he should stop; it’s fuckin’ 24 more bars. It’s that way this time because the message is that of renegades. I know this isn’t for everybody and I’m not trying to make this for everybody. If this ain’t for you, then this ain’t for you. This shit is so honest. This shit is so honest. This is me for the first time talking about my near-death experiences with asthma and my sickness. It’s war against that, war against the industry, war against the machine, war against authority [and] the war against yourself to grow. —Rob Markman

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