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Pharoahe Monch: Stress Raps

One of the greatest technical rappers of all time speaks out about the record industry, the state of American healthcare, and that one time he ghostwrote for Diddy.
April 15, 2014, 7:00pm

When Eminem shouted out Pharoahe Monch on “Rap God”, it warmed my cold, bitter heart. I’m not the biggest Marshall Mathers fan (a thinkpiece for another time!) but I have the utmost respect for how he never stopped being a rappin-ass rapper, concerned with the technical minutiae of lyricism, even as he blew up. And nothing pegs you like a rappin-ass rapper like shouting out Pharoahe Monch, one of the greatest technical emcees of all time.

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But like Eminem, Monch is bigger than his microphone chops. Where Em took rapping better than everyone else and turned himself into a pop icon, Pharoahe spent the last couple decades using his technical superiority as a way to do a little bit of everything the rap game had to offer. He spent the 90’s as half of the limit-pushing, topical Queens rap duo Organized Konfusion. He went solo on Rawkus and landed a certified New York club classic with “Simon Says.” He sang hooks and he sang entire songs (with unlikely remixes by Optimo!). He got Diddy to spit the line “pop shit like needles through cow manure balloons.” And he did it all while battling severe asthma.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is Pharoahe Monch’s latest full-length, a personal record metaphorically recounting the fallout from fighting industry demons (music and otherwise). It is a great rap album. We spoke at length last week about the album’s themes, American healthcare, his struggles with the industry and, of course, Eminem and Diddy.

Noisey: The name of the album is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and it’s both about the harsh realities of the music industry and modern mental health issues. How do you split the difference between truth and symbolism?
Pharoahe Monch: To be honest, the album is a metaphor about the music industry. It's about me on the last album being radical about corporations and pharmaceutical companies and my health issues and record labels … and this is the aftermath of that. This is where you’re left off after you so-called go to war with these companies.

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But PTSD speaks to where I'm actually at emotionally, financially, with my asthma and the repercussions of that radical mindset which is not always heroic from a sense of the ending. I think the album ends with redemption but I wanted to go a little more introspective into talking about these issues. And I didn't want the fans to be like “oh he just took the title because it's some cool shit that's on the radar right now.”

I wanted this to be my most introspective writing. I'm very metaphoric, but I got dropped from my healthcare provider during the making of this album. I'm pulling from experiences that I went through from side effects of the medicine that I was on and stints in the hospital. I knew it would be challenging but that's why I took it on because for me to be excited about hip-hop, you can't be comfortable, nahmean?

What was the nature of the industry backlash?
My last major label record was Desire. And after that, moving forward through the recording process, the company starting talking about people in companies that I already had relationships with. And it's like, what's the middleman for if you’re not going to greenlight my project for millions of dollars but the people you’re talking about are in my rolodex too and they love me. I can work with this producer, I can work with this artist … people they were naming and companies and ways to go around expenses … I was like if this is what it's come to, then I'm good.

I was just at a point in my writing where I wanted to talk about stuff that could be relevant ten years from now rather than trying to be trendy. I wasn't feeling what was happening music-wise. I said "We Are Renegade" is the company, let’s make this album about the war within ourselves to do better … as well as Sean Bell. That shit happened around the corner from me and that's traumatic for me.

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The realization that I get stopped and pulled over, I'm the furthest thing from a criminal, but how you feel emotionally when that happens to you … the excuse is you have the car, the car brand around your license plate, it's like what the fuck man, I could get shot over having the auto-dealer's thing around my license plate. It's dumbass shit and when you really process that, it's worth writing about. I just felt like cats got away from talking about social issues. A lot of what was on the radio was redundant.

We talk about inequality and police brutality, but there's very little discussion of the impact of that on a mental level and what it does to someone's brain when they feel like they're constantly under attack.
Right, to give you a prime example of why this is real shit and factual, and not "cool title, cool letters, soldiers," it is relatable … I’m talking about studies on the children in Chicago who, when you grow up in that environment, how that affects you traumatically. I just read an article with Mos Def talking about him growing up in the 80s during the crack era, where you could get robbed, shot, stabbed, he never felt safe. And as an art student, someone who's trying to persevere in the arts and the theater trying to navigate your way through that, it's an experience. An unfortunate experience, but an experience nonetheless.

I think a lot of people who could say that they're growing up in grade school in Chicago and junior high, you’re seeing some kid at their school in the news and you're feeling like that could be you today. So you have to walk home with a group of honor students … let's let the honor students get together so we can walk home collectively, but now the Police are looking at you like you're a gang. You're grouped together. It's astonishing to try and fathom what that must be like. This album is relatable to that as well, as well as my personal experiences with violence in the hood and so on and so forth. When I discuss it and play this music for people, how relevant and how people can relate. I was doing an interview yesterday and one of the guys was like "man this took me to my anxiety and my father passed" … It’s not an issue gets discussed readily in American culture, let alone black American culture.

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And you do make the point explicitly on one of the songs that mental illness is thought of as a white issue.
Right … personally I’m pulling from an experience I had once when I was in the hospital for two weeks being fed IV medication, steroid medication, prednisone, antibiotics, what have you … that shit had me high strung when I came home. The dosage they gave me when I was home, I knew side effects of the medications but I didn’t know there would be emotional side effects. I went on a two-week stint where I wasn't sleeping at all, and I was just in my head like what the fuck is going on. I knew something was wrong, regular issues that I was able to resolve and deal with, I couldn’t figure them out. Not until I went to a dentist appointment and the dentist asked me about medications I was on and the dentist happened to be aware, he brought me into his office to be like "do you realize the combination of these medications, the effect they can have? This shit causes severe depression." As he said that sentence, 255 monkeys jumped off my back. I started crying because I couldn't figure it out! That’s why I'm able to relate to people who've had that severe depression.

Knowing something's wrong, that it's not just your inability to deal, can make a huge difference. When was this?
This was years ago, but I pulled from that experience on this project.

This isn’t the first time you’ve talked about mental illness; one of the biggest albumsand songs of your career was called STRESS.
That's a brilliant point. As a case study, when you look at artists over the course of time, you can look back at stuff like that and point out that it's actually nothing new. If you look at the role and the history of hip-hop … we don't have a voice and we have all this energy, how do we make our statement … where's the instruments and the music classes, how do we cultivate anything from this point and this era with no art and music classes? What are we actually doing? And from the original form you get a lot of songs that are talking about social injustice and things of that nature. I dont want to come off as raising my hand about being poignant or prolific, but for me it's the first time I'm going a little more introspective. Because I'm known more for, like, being metaphoric with the bullet. This is more of a Troy Jamison record [as opposed to a Pharoahe Monch record].

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So you said you lost your health care during the recording of this album. Do you mind talking about what happened with that?
I was a part of COBRA, which I got through AFTRA and the actor's guild. I was paying an astronomical amount for monthly out of pocket … but I'm asthmatic and I need coverage. And the way [COBRA] works is its only works for a certain amount of months before it expires. You’re talking about a guy that spends a lot of time in Europe and Canada and Australia, I'm like what the fuck man, I'm paying $900 and this shit is not even top of the line with dental or whatever, it’s some regular-ass insurance.

Are you done with major labels?
I mean, for artists, it’s going to a point where it's obsolete. It's a perfectly functioning thing for certain artists that benefit from the system. But if you’re an artist's artist and you wanna wake up the next morning and be like "I think I wanna go to Amsterdam and fly in some African percussionists and use some animal sounds for my next soundscape" the majors are gonna be like, "What the hell are you talking about?" It doesn't make you any less of a viable artist but they're getting pinched to streamline their product. They announced it years ago when they cut it down to four majors and four subsidiaries with the intention to release four major artists a year. Everybody else can eat a dick, right? If you’re veering off the beaten path … my art is never gonna change so in that regard. I love pop, I love good music, it's just redundant and I'd have to make my pop record for the label to be useful to me. I love that "Happy" record [the Pharrell song] though …

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I mean "Stand Your ground" was not "Happy" but "Body Baby" almost was. You ever thought about making a whole album of stuff like that?
I mean Pharoahe Monch pretty much dies on PTSD metaphorically. I don't think I'll be doing any more traditional albums. I'm gonna lend myself to getting my quantity up because I'll be able to try my hand at different projects with different producers as well as try my hand at producing more like I did in the past, as well as being like … check this out, what do you think? Rather than trying to string along these long-playing things in a society where people don't even listen to records that way. I just feel like there's a couple cuts on PTSD that are definitely my best writing ever and it's really strong and it'll drive fans to support.

Which cuts do you feel are your best writing ever?
Um… “Broken Again,” the title track, “Grand Illusion,” “Rapid Eye Movement,” “Bad Motherfucker”…

On the flipside of talking about pop shit … you ghostwrote for Diddy a few years ago. What was that like?
It was actually kind of dope. It was during a period where I was kind of like, “fuck this shit I'm just gonna tour and write, may not do music because I got enough money and I'm chilling.” I wanted to learn from him what it's like to produce an album at that expense, to see what the music sounded like. Like spying. When I was writing my eyes was wide open in the studio with T.I. and all the other producers and writers. I was like "Oh, this is the type of beats a multimillion dollar album gets you." The type of stuff people were submitting, I was like "you never gave me these beats!"

What was the connect with Diddy?
Diddy is connected! If you’re gonna be this guy who has your finger on the pulse of pop culture you need to know who Immortal Technique is and who Mos Def is and who Kendrick and Schoolboy Q is. You gotta be aware of everything that's coming up, it's not like he doesn't know.

What was your reaction to hearing Eminem mention you on “Rap God?”
I've been talking all day about what it feels like to be in the conversation when people discuss certain aspects of emceeing…to be even in that conversation sometimes is just amazing to me. Em, man, I mean, I don’t mean to sound corny but you’re almost at a loss for words when you talk about his dexterity and where's he's taken hip-hop and emceeing, just him being one of the best ever and have such a high profile and doing what he does at such a high profile does a lot for cats who call themselves emcees. Even on a song that's on the radio, he's rappin’ his fucking ass off. That keeps that conversation relevant.

Skinny Friedman is a writer and DJ living in Brooklyn. He's on Twitter - @skinny412

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