After being a rapper for close to a quarter of a century, and 41-year-old rapper Pharoahe Monch still knows how to be creative and make progressive music. Late in 2013, Eminem declared his bars on 1994's "Bring It On" would "kill most rappers" and that he has "been ahead of his time since he came out," while a couple months ago Village Voice called him "The World's New Rap Therapist." His music is as critically acclaimed now as it was in the mid-'90s, and his discography is littered with Source accolades and acclaim from iconic establishments in pop culture such as Rolling Stone.
The Queens original laid the foundations for his career as one half of the revered duo Organized Konfusion before branching off on his solo career, where he has crafted four albums of his own. His latest, P.T.S.D., is an innovative, creative album based on post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The album's most remarkable feat is channeling Monch's own, personal struggles with both issues and turning into something that's compelling and entertaining. It's the hip-hop version of observing a live action therapy session like you would a play or concert.
On the heels of the new album, Pharoahe Monch will perform this Sunday at The Observatory as part of the second night of the Back to Basics fest. We reached out to chat with the rap veteran about the album and more, and as he always appears to be, his responses to questions are well-thought and expansive as he touches on a multitude of subjects related to his new album.
OC Weekly (Patrick Montes): Your last album is a very personal album and focuses a lot on depression. Was the experience of writing and recording the album sort of like a cathartic experience for you?
I think so. It's not a current situation, I was pulling from within a certain past. To go back there and rehash those events was troublesome but therapeutic at the same time. It was kind of both sides of the coin, and being transparent about it felt good as well. I'm not experiencing that bit anymore, which is why it was difficult to go back and utilize that stuff for the album.
Since you're someone who put all their flaws and was transparent on record, why do you think that kind of approach isn't fully accepted by hip-hop as a whole?
For the most part, the majority of hip-hop is about perseverance. Whether you've been shot or if you need push through a situation or are coming up through a situation. On the metaphorical side, it's "I'm big, I'm bad, I'm superman and I can leap a tall building", and that's the facade. The vulnerability doesn't get discussed as much, and I understand that, but whats also prevalent with hip-hop is people are honest and you can relate to their honesty — no matter what it is. I think people relate to that honesty, so I didn't have any qualms about being honest — I think it's one of the qualities I like.
Does it ever strike you as strange when rappers portray themselves as these infallible, superhero-like figures?
I think that's the beauty of it, too, but I think it gets taken out of context. One of the great things about writing is you can embody these larger-than-life characters in your writing and it's empowering to you and to others. At the same time, writing goes across the whole scope and runs the whole gamut of different styles of writing. Through others, you can find empowerment in their trials and tribulations or failures or them being transparent.
I put a little bit of redemption and rise on this record, but for the most part I wanted it to be mostly dark with slow tempos. I wanted people to really get a musical sense of the colors of what it's like to be depressed and not just use depression to give this beautiful, Hollywood ending because that's not what it's like sometimes. But, from that, people are telling me that, because I am a respected artist in the business, the fact that I put an artistic spin on this issue is empowering. I know for me, when other people are like "I deal with asthma as well," "I deal with those symptons as well," it kind of makes you feel like someone else goes through what you go through.
With this record, I just needed to make sure it didn't come off as "Oh, this is some popular topic that's current now in pop culture," or "he's trying to get sympathy votes." I wanted it to be actual, and felt like it would need to be my story as well as a hood story dealing with P.T.S.D, a soldier's story dealing with P.T.S.D., black people's story dealing with P.T.S.D. I could have just done research on that, but I wanted to make sure it was like "I actually went through a bout of depression myself."
You've said you this album isn't really for those who aren't willing to pay attention to it. With the way people digest music now, did you ever feel like P.T.S.D. wouldn't get its just due from the listening public?
I just think the majority of music gravitates toward major chords, happier music, and that quickly digestible fast-food music. There's a purpose for fast food — at the speed things are going you can't always cook yourself a five-course meal or on-the-go in the morning you just need a coffee and a muffin. I understand that's the same thing with music. I just came to the realization that the people who do care about nutrition still make up millions of people. The problem isn't whether there is a million people who will digest this record and be like "this is incredible," and also profit from it, the problem is reaching those people. I'm not even trying to reach a viewing or listening audience who prefers Weekend at Bernie's to The Godfather. If you're looking at your film like it's The Godfather, then you got to get to that audience. it's just difficult to get to that audience when you're a boutique.
You go and you do an album P.T.S.D., calling it that alone is not a repeatable title. If you're looking or McDonald's or mass appeal, then you call it "Boo Boo Kitty" or whatever would be more memorable. That's not what this is, so that's why I say it's not for you if you're a big fan of fluff shit.
With the live experiences of this material, is it more about entertaining the crowd or sharing the experience that you give on the record?
It's dope, because it's totally what it [P.T.S.D.] is. It's manic, it's a roller-coaster, it stops, it breathes, it's passionate, it's heartfelt, it's energetic. I think that's what that experience is like. I have anxiety, I don't feel like getting up, I'm in traffic and I'm screaming at people, I'm crying now. And, that's what the show is like.