Pharoahe Monch interview: Pushing the envelope

Nikita Rathod caught up with the legendary rapper ahead of his UK tour which takes place later this month.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 21st Mar 2018.
Originally published: 16th Mar 2018

Image: Pharoahe Monch (credit)

Although hip-hop music may be making way for all kinds of experimentation and new sounds, Pharoahe Monch has proved that being true to yourself is really what counts in making good hip-hop music. 

Not many rappers can say that they’re music has stood the test of time like Monch. The Queens, New York MC has built a legacy of more than 25 years through being one part of Organized Konfusion, and his own solo career beyond this. One of his biggest hits, 'Simon Says' continues to live on amongst the collections of both new and older hip-hop fans.

Despite being a seasoned veteran in the hip-hop game through staple albums of his such as PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Monch is dabbling in new ventures such as experimenting with alternative production styles and his new affiliation with the prestigious Kennedy Center. But at its very core, Monch is intent in keeping the tradition whilst giving freedom to hip-hop as an art form.

Ahead of setting off for his tour dates in the UK, Ireland and Croatia we caught up with Monch to discuss his longevity, production and mental health.

Your music is still living on, how does it make you feel when you see the younger generations singing along to tracks of yours such as “Simon Says”?

It’s amazing. I was recently in Jazz Café and I figured it was a lot of people that had seen me before. When I asked the crowd how many people had seen me before, it was pretty quiet and it kind of threw me through a loop, it was a weird moment. Then I asked how many people have seen me for the first time, and then 80% of the crowd cheered and I thought, how great is it that, that there is a whole new audience of young people who obviously, people had told them to check out the show which is great. It feels good man. It’s a beautiful feeling. 

We’ve seen rappers jumping onto the “Simon Says” beat to freestyle over it, such as Hopsin recently. With such a notorious beat, how do you feel when that happens? Do you feel flattered or feel as if it should be left it alone?

Oh no, the song, it’s transcended throughout many generations now. It has become a part of history. It’s always amazing when it happens, I love it. It still gets a reaction when DJs play it and people still choose it as a beat to freestyle over. It’s amazing. 

A couple of years ago you were engaging with the classical music scene for your production, is this something you’ve continued to do?

The new project has harsher vibes, we do incorporate a few scales but genre mixing in any form and in hip-hop, taking from reggae, taking from jazz, its always looking to be in the culture. But I’m a fan of music and so many different kinds of music too. 

Outside of hip-hop who is influencing you now?

I would have to say it’s a lot of jazz musicians that have projects out that are really amazing like Keyon Harrold, Chris Daddy Dave, those cats I've been checking out heavily.

Do you think hip-hop could look wider in terms of how it approaches production? 

Definitely I think that the borders can only extend. It's an expansive art form when it's marginalised, it only hurts the art form. If you look at companies, businesses and record labels, they're always looking to marginalise whatever it is for the benefit of the CEO streamlining making it packagable and recyclable. But in terms of the pure art form, it's one of the art forms that lends itself to being adaptive, to all of these different genres from the musicality and production to the topics.

There's always room to grow. For me, that's what's exciting about it. I'm looking to push the envelope always, always have been, but more so keep the tradition. 

Do you think that newer artists are losing the tradition and this is something that they could benefit from?

It only serves to expand your production when you have knowledge of the people that came before, how to scheme and arrange music differently. It can only help. I encourage them to do as much of that as possible. And fit it in to your voice, don't go so far outside of what you do that it's not natural. It's always beneficial to incorporate as much knowledge as possible. I just experience that myself with jazz musicians and just watching them rank music, and read music and arrange music in different time signatures was eye-opening.

Congratulations on becoming a founder of the Kennedy Center. Why was that important for you to become a part of?

Thank you. It's a very prestigious centre for music and art. I think if they're going to open it up to hip-hop they should have a variety of people, variety of ideas at the table to expand and also knowledge and be able to expand the legacy and get the history right, promote and do things for the culture. 

Is there something particular on your agenda that you want to push through in the Center?

I have a couple of things but I haven't fleshed them out yet. 

In a time where we’re actually beginning to have more of an in-depth conversation about mental health, do you think that hip-hop is having enough of an honest relationship about matters such as depression, anxiety or is it concealing it through songs about popping pills?

I think as it becomes a little more open, as it becomes a part of the discussion that artists are dealing with, it becomes more prevalent that it's not just a physical issue and it's something we all need to monitor just like dental, our hearts, lungs, and our blood pressure. I think that if it comes more to the forefront then people will take…hopefully let's just say, take more pride in making sure that it's part of something that's important to them.

Also, it's political in the sense that the government needs to make it a part of what we care about and bring it to the forefront as well. Even in the case of gun control, being able to have access, mental health is just an issue in America that is not taken as seriously as it should be.

You mentioned a new project, it’s been a couple of years since we had a big project from you. Can you tell us a little about it?

Err no, I can't talk about that (laughs).

What’s coming up for you in 2018?

I'm releasing this project, it's amazing and it's dark and it's evil, that's all I'll say - and I'm excited.

Find Pharoahe Monch tour tickets below.

London - Brixton Jamm, Thursday 22nd March

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Leicester - 2FunkyMusic Cafe, Saturday 24th March

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Bristol - The Fleece, Tuesday 27th March

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