Pharoahe Monch interview: Jazz opens up the door for us

Jimmy Coultas caught up with one of hip-hop's most eloquent voices to talk about the influence of jazz on his lyrical approach.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 28th Jul 2016

Hip hop, for all its linguistic and poetic possibilities, can often be a fairly formulaic music form. The familiar tropes of guns, bitches and cash money seem never ending lyrical obsessions, with few artists capable of extending beyond what can be at times a fairly narrow artistic path.

One emcee who doesn't subscribe to that belief is Pharoahe Monch. Since blowing up alongside Prince Poetry in fabled nineties duo Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe has been one of hip hop's true lyrical mavericks, with a flow and subject matter alien to many of his peers.

Even on his breakout hit 'Simon Says' where he deliberately dumbed down his lyrics, he managed to condense six rhymes into two bars of the hook ("New York City gritty committee pity the fool, That act shitty in the midst of the calm, the witty"), evidence of a truly groundbreaking poetic force.

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That track featured on his seminal Rawkus records released debut Internal Affairs (listen to it above), and he's since been at the forefront of a more expansive hip hop palette, with a sporadic but concise slew of releases this century.

He's due to hit the UK once more for dates in London and Cardiff (read our review of him tearing up the stage on his last visit), as well as a headline turn at Soundwave Festival and Boom Bap Festival, the former seeing him return to Croatia after a blistering turn at Outlook in 2013.

We caught up with him on the phone to seek the inspiration behind that famed delivery and his unfulfilled dreams of recording with rap's fallen soldiers.

So Pharoahe, you're heading back to the UK for a few shows next month, and we know it's somewhere you've enjoyed playing frequently over the years. How have you responded to the UK audiences during your time, and how long have you been coming over here for now?

It's been amazing man, and that's why you guys have had me back so many times, you know? It's always an honour to come back but it's pressure because the shows are always so good, we're always pushed to top the last show and do something different. You have a lot of return fans who have seen the last show alongside people seeing it for the first time, so you know it's always a challenge in that respect.

I've been coming for a long time but I never toured as Organised Konfuzion. When I first came over I was working on the Internal Affairs album before it was released. I did a test run with Stretch & Bobbito, High and Mighty and another group and we were putting out out my new music and seeing how I would fare as a solo artist.

On the topic of the UK, how into the local scene are you at the minute? Are you into grime? I can remember 'Simon Says' got an epic UK hip hop remix back in the day with the Rodney P and Roots Manuva (below).

Oh man that remix was dope! I'm not too abreast of everything like that, I come and understand what some of it is but I'm not really paying attention all the time, but this is also true in the US.

I'm not focused really on trends and what other people are doing - especially when I'm in the lab recording new music. I see what's happening, but I tend to want to put my own self through the test, challenge myself on my own ideas instead of paying attention to what's trendy you know? It's just an approach that helps me.

You’re also headlining Soundwave in Croatia later this summer. Have you spent much time in the Adriatic, and is the laid back feel of their summers something you go for?

I've been in Croatia before, I played with Jay Electronica at a festival, I think it was Outlook? The view there was amazing, the show was really good and where the festival is at was crazy, it was dope. The experience was great, so I know being back in the country is something to look forward too.

Your delivery is deliberately different to other rappers – even twenty years on from when you first started. What inspired you to approach the formula of rapping in such a unique manner, and can you remember when this became a focus for you as an emcee?

I grew up on a bevy of different music, an array of different sounds and I always gravitated to jazz. There was John Coltrane, Miles Davis as well as rock - so it was a little more open in terms of the rhythms with what people were doing. I gravitated towards that from an inspiration point instead of a lot of the basic format of what rappers were about. So I guess that's where I attribute that whole approach too.

Jazz seems to be becoming more embroiled in hip hop again, especially with the west coast stuff with Flying Lotus and Brainfeeder. Do you think this is a positive thing for the genre again to embrace this influence?

Yeah, I think simply not being boxed in to an arrangement, focusing on a formula of bars and chord progression, this is what jazz is all about. It opens up the door for us to pass different walls and barriers when we do that musically. You know rather than this is eight bars, sixteen bars and then a chorus, this is the sample then it gets a little mundane and monotonous when you hear music like that so on. I think if that's the type of artist you are in your heart then you should follow that - I'm open to all that stuff in music.

Looking into the way you've done music, one of the best concepts you've created from my fan perspective is the way in which you discussed the impact of a bullet with the trilogy of songs you did with 'Stray Bullet', 'When The Gun Draws' and 'Damage'.

Sadly this is just as prevalent an issue today as it ever was, so how potent do you think hip hop is as protest music in this day and age? And do you think approaching these issues the way you have, not the traditional narrow street commentary, is a good way of enlightening these aspects?

You know I think it definitely does. Recently if you look at the Grammy performance with Kendrick Lamar and then the Super Bowl with Beyonce, both have managed to open the door to conversation about what actually is going on, and what the panthers were all about.

If it leads to the people doing a little bit of homework, to them doing their research to find out what all this is about then it's a good thing. Hip hop still has the capabilities to push forward social matters; I don't think enough artists do it to be quite honest.

You know one of the things with me and Organized when we got into the game, we were like lets be who we are and approach this from the artist standpoint that we have. We were both art students, so we were like these are these perspectives, this will give us our own voice instead of society.

So we were heavily into not just what the content would be, but how do we perceive this content as artists. Let's bring this topic - even if its a similar one to what others are doing - lets show it in a different light, a different perspective. Lets do it from the bullet, the inanimate object, the unborn child, the police officer, or the victim. You know lets write from these different perspectives and it will help give us a voice as well; those possibilities are endless. I'm sure those types of approaches inspired people to do the same.

Finally we want to ask you the ultimate question, about your dream posse cut. What other three rappers dead or alive would you have rapping on a record with you, and who would create the beat for you all to spit on? 

Oh man that's a great question. There's an endless amount of variations of what that would be for different reasons, different combinations and approaches, it's a hard question to answer. You know Biggie and me doing something over a Large Professor or Pete Rock beat, you know that would be nice.

But let me try and answer the question this way. One of the reasons I'm still excited about being an artist after all this time relates to it. I was just in the studio with DJ Premier and we still haven't done a track together - I did a chorus on an OC record, but we've still not done a full track. We were just talking about getting something done on a new project I'm working on, and all these things are still a possibility with people I want to work with. 

The likes of KRS One, Rakim, some of the Slaughterhouse guys, Kendrick; you know they are not out of the realm of happening. But it's the artists that have left us like Pac, Big and Pun. Those collaborations can't happen, but they are incredible dreams, things I can imagine and conjure up in my head of how I would of liked those things to turn out.

Someone like Big L, you could just hear he was someone who was hitting his stride and emerging and finding his voice, you could hear that so well in what he was working on. It's the same thing with a lot of other artists, which is why it hurts so much - why it hurts me so much. 

You know you look at an artist like Biggie, where would he have gone with his ideas on a political level - would he have spoken about these shootings? The way popular music has changed over the years, would he have stayed traditional or would he have adapted? Those are the things that still hurt me to this day about artists like that who were taken from us.

Pharoahe makes a stop off in London's Jazz Cafe and Cardiff's Clwb Ifor Bach this August - find Pharoahe Monch tickets.

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