Wins & Losses: The Life & Times Of Pharoahe Monch

Jerry Barrow digs deep into the history of Pharoahe Monch and how he evolved into the legend that he is today.

Pharoahe Monch is having a come-to-Satan moment. Huddled in the cockpit of an ebony two-door chariot, he is holding church for the wild. The car’s speakers vibrate with sonic fury as he nods his head immersed in his own creation, coming close enough to his steering wheel to trigger his airbags. His words saturate the cabin with the veracity of someone who has cheated death and has returned from the guts of hell to tell the tale.  Some of these songs (like “Ya-Yo”) will be untethered within coming weeks, while others have a less definite release date. But these hymns bear the distinct mark of an emcee who has spent the last two decades-plus pulling us through the dark side of his psyche with no shame. The enchanting anarchy of “Agent Orange,” the supernatural headbanging of “Let’s Go,” and the lyrically prodigious extended metaphors of “Gun Draws,” are all manifested in these new unreleased compositions.

A few hours before this impromptu private concert, Monch (born Troy Donald Jamerson, Jr.) is pacing the halls of the UGHH offices waiting to shoot a promo video for his UGHH-powered showcase. Between takes he is seated at a wooden table sipping a discrete amount of brown liquor from a plastic cup. He and his manager are playing French Montana’s new song, “Bring Dem Things,” which samples his Organized Konfusion classic “Stress,” and nod to producer Harry Fraud’s pastiche of Buckwild’s Charles Mingus manipulation. If you’d told a younger Monch in the ‘90s that New York rappers would be sampling his songs, he’d probably flash his signature gap-toothed smile, chuckle through his beard and tell you to kick rocks. But this is his reality. Two decades after sample clearance derailed his biggest, “Simon Says,” he is on the other side of the equation.

But how we did we get here? Monch’s origin story is filled with so much death, drama, and near misses that you’d think a radioactive spider had bitten him.

From humble beginnings doing LL Cool J-style karaoke and a Snoop Dog cameo that could have healed a divided culture, to turning down two of the biggest names in Big Apple hip-hop during a bidding war, Monch has had a career unlike any emcee. He slides his cup to the side and folds his fingers on the table as he details his ascension to Bad Motherfucker.

A few weeks later, Pharoahe Monch doesn’t just play the song “Ya-Yo” at his concert powered by UGHH, he unwraps it like a time capsule he dug up from the Ed Koch era ‘80s when B-boys laced their cigarettes with white girl. He turns to his DJ Boogie Blind for a co-sign on the covert habit, but gets a stern plea of ignorance. The lifelong asthmatic teases his fans about his vices before he goes full Steve McQueen in Bullit.

Photo Cred: Adam DelGiudice

“It sounded like a car chase, so that’s how I wrote it. With the drama,” he says satisfied with the song’s first live test drive. “The fun part about being a writer is staying on the cusp of coming up with some new shit, throwing people a curve ball. It’s not advocating cocaine use. It’s advocating dopeness.”

An official release of “Ya-Yo” will have to wait until he comes back from the festival circuit in Europe and can shoot a proper video for it. For now he is just trying to figure out if his Apple TV will work overseas, but the weight he’s carrying will have no problems getting through customs.

When did hip-hop first come into Troy’s life?

It was definitely an artistic/cultural thing. I felt like drawing and characters and letters and graffiti [were] as much hip-hop as anything. So if you could strike the right images or flip the right things in your black book, you were a part of it. And we would share our black books at Art & Design [High School]. I was surrounded by New York City Breakers, Mr. Fable, Mr. Freeze, and all of those cats. I was engulfed in the culture early. The first time somebody brought equipment out in Queens, I saw somebody lay some linoleum down, and I said “This is incredible!” I was a little kid. This was on my block. So by the time I got to HS, I said I have to be part of this culture. And it wasn’t that I had to be an emcee to get signed, but I had to make my name in this shit somehow. But when I got to Art and Design, I was looking at everybody else’s shit like, “You really not that nice, B.” I’m still talented, but in comparison…are you going to be drawing for Marvel? Probably not.

Do you remember your audition for the school?

Definitely. My pops was driving me to the school and I was drawing on the way. I was a fuck up. I was a class clown at A&D. My personality really switched 180 degrees. There would be courses where the first week of school the teacher would lay out how many quizzes there would be and I would raise my hand and say, “Fail me now. I’m not doing that shit.” I was really wild. Not a thug, but I didn’t care. I had monster movies to watch and football to play and music to do because I knew I could make the shit up in summer school or whatever. I was like you not gonna have me doing all this homework over the weekend, man.

Because there was some place you had to be on the weekends…

Going to the park jams was different from the clubs. There was literally an air in the way the weed filtered through the atmosphere at outside jams; the people and the heat in the Summer was a different vibe. The way shit echoed you could hear it from blocks away. I was like this is the most exciting shit ever. We had started writing and rapping and people knew, opportunities would come, to go behind the rope with Grandmaster Vic and get on the mic. I was shaking scared just like Nas said. “I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready yet.”

How did you know this?

It was a process, before Organized Konfusion, of very wack ass shit. But what was dope about starting the group is we were able to sense we were pretty bullshit before it even left the basement. We would listen back to the tape and say “This is horrible.” The grading curve was Grandmaster Vic and The Boss Crew, Infinity Machine and all the mixtapes, not even what was on the radio at the time. The way people were putting routines together…it just didn’t feel like that. I was beat boxing and doing all kinds of crazy shit. I was like, this is horrible. Prince was like you gotta have some bars, B. You’re not even filling the tape up. We were in the basement trying to find our voice and harnessing our craft. We spent every other day going over my man’s house and doing it live. DJ Tystick,  he was the only one I knew who had equipment. The dope shit about getting into shape then was that it was live to tape. The way cats were learning back then was sharpening us as well for what was about to happen. You would stop after a few beats and routines, but during the verses you better learn all the way through. When we got to the recording stage it was so competitive that if we weren’t doing shit in one take we were clowning each other. It wasn’t funny. It was serious business.

Photo Cred: Adam DelGiudice

Was there ever a point where you said maybe this isn’t for me?

I always knew it. I went to my parents and looked my father in the eye, getting my story straight and saying, “I’m not going straight to college.” Me and Larry are gonna start this group and what we’re thinking is—and he was looking me in the eye—he said you have 365 days to make this shit pop. After that you on my time. This was a little after graduation from Art and Design. I’d gotten accepted to Hampton University. It helped that they were supportive because that’s where we were working out hard, in my crib. It afforded us the space to exercise.

So what happened over that next year?

We got signed to an independent in the neighborhood. These are secrets that I haven’t told. There are vinyl records pressed up, but only so many copies were made. I don’t even feel like saying the names. Before we stumbled upon Paul C, we were with an independent and we did this record and they were like, “We want y’all to do it like LL, love, a little softer.” And I’m on the joint like, “I’m alone, I see you…” [laughs hysterically] I’m not even gonna say the name, but it was under Simply II Positive.

**Editor’s note. We found it. Sorry, Monch**

There were real talented people around us. All the musicians from Queens, Kevin Osborne, Tom Brown, all those Queens dudes that played on “Jamaica Funk” was in the studio. So we was trying to do straight live shit, no samples. But I was already over here with it. So we tried that, it was what it was.

We were in the studio working on some demos as STP, and Paul C (Paul C. McKasty) walked into one of our sessions, grabbed a tape and walked back out. Then he called the next day and said y’all are fire and I gotta work with y’all. And that was the beginning of real professional structuring in my mind. When we started working on the demo that eventually went to Bobbito, Paul was the one that said you gotta cut the bars down to 16 and I was like “Bars? 16?” He’d stop the session and say “go home, listen to your favorite group and work on your arrangements because I can’t work with y’all like this.” Four songs into the demo, just getting ready to shop it, Paul C got murdered. I’m pretty sure that’s a chapter in my life I can talk to therapists about. I never felt anything like that before so I know I didn’t know how to deal with it. I couldn’t understand how we’re just getting ready to get our shot, and the producer that Ultramag, Super Lover Cee, Rakim [worked with was killed]…I’m pissed at God, I’m pissed at everybody. I was just torn up. Then detectives were calling my crib. And we were young.

The demo had already touched Bobbito, but now we’re stuck in a situation where we don’t have that guidance anymore. Bobbito is telling me he shopped it to Russell Simmons along with Nas and he passed on both. I was telling Bobbito recently that we saw Russell in the club, and he was like, “You know what? I’ve been listening to y’all shit and I’ve been giving it some thought. Here’s my number, call me tomorrow.” The first thing he said: “Simply II Positive” was the worst fucking name in the history of hip-hop. “Y’all gotta change that name.” We were like what’s a hip-hop group name without numbers? I was like. “STP! Like the oil! And he said, “that’s even worse.” So we changed the name and he gave us a verbal offer to sign to Def Jam. Hollywood Basic came in and doubled the Def Jam offer. This was around ‘89 or ‘90. We were like “we gonna go out West and do this shit with Disney.” And they were like “you can have creative control, we love what the demo sounded like.” But they were fucked up, too, because they had Naughty By Nature and Cypress Hill. And I remember they passed on Cypress because they couldn’t see Latinos saying the N-word in their music. I was listening to their demo like “what the fuck?”

Where did you work on that first album, Organized Konfusion?

We worked on it out here. It sounded experimental because we lost our mentor and they gave us creative freedom. We would go in the studio with records. We did a lot of shit on the fly, that’s why it sounds so loose and experimental.

“Releasing Hypnotical Gases” was definitely experimental.

I was a huge rock fan, and the joints that I was loving the most had these tempo changes. But I don’t even know how to program a tempo change like that in an SP-1200, to go from 89 BPMs to 95. There wasn’t even enough sample time to do that shit. So I went to the engineer and said we need to splice this record with this record. We literally had to cut the tape in half. That’s the inspiration from going from one vibe to another vibe on the song. That shit is just dudes from the hood who saw people get murdered in the club, murdered at the jam, splattered, skull meat. Also being comic book nerds, how do we incorporate this? What is your voice that no one else has? You’re super visual, so you have to put this in your music and take some chances.

You followed that by releasing Stress: The Extinction Agenda, which sonically seems to pick up where Releasing… left off, more so than “Who Stole My Last Piece of Chicken.”

It’s amazing. I was just talking to Buckwild. Even on Hollywood Basic, we did the “Chicken” shit and they said, “This gotta lead. It’s funky, playful and everybody loves chicken.” So I said, “What are we following with?” So they gave us the “Fudge Pudge” and we can do this. I just didn’t feel like that joint represented Prince’s powers as a lyricist and what we embodied. So just hearing Buck give me that beat for “Stress,” we didn’t even write it yet and I said this is the single. I know what this is already. The bass line is dark, the horns are weird. I called my A&R Casual T and said this has to be the single and we have to shoot a video for this. My mind was expanding and it had stress in it [and] all of these different sounds. So we wrote the record, shot the video. Michael Lucero directed it, who also shot Souls of Mischief’s “93 Til Infinity,” so you know what his eye was like. He was a blessing. At that time I was 265 lbs and I’m filming the video and he can tell I’m being subtle. He said look, man, you’re a big guy. I need you to fuckin’ be in this video like a big guy. You look like you’re 4 foot 4 and 80lbs right now. He reached me. I said I gotta embrace this fat shit right now. I mention him in that video because it was a cool point in my career to be like, “This is who you are.” Once we saw how the video came out we said we wanna work with him more and he passed away. Right after “’93 Til infinity.” This is just bugged.

After Stress you released the final OK album, Equinox on Priority Records. That album turns 20 in September. What was your focus, individually and as a group going into it?

It was fly ‘cause we had already started working with Rockwilder. Buckwild had exploded as a producer. We had the connections now. So it was a matter of do you want to follow trends or stay with these perennial type producers? I knew that I wanted a theme to run throughout it. I think if we’d had more tutelage we could have pulled off the story album thing better. But as I listen back to that record—we were working with Bob Power—we were still learning but there were some really bright spots in terms of the production and the way it was sounding and that stuff was inspiring us as well. I still think that we were still trying to find what Organized Konfusion was and what it meant. I know it meant to people, high-end lyricism. But video-wise and branding-wise, I think we were still searching for what it meant for our fan base. We got clear-cut love for who we were, but I think the name Organized Konfusion allowed us to have a range of different sounds. I don’t know whether that hurt us or helped us because it wasn’t able to be packaged neatly. Because it was so wide.

But before you got the answer, you guys closed the shop…

The ending of Equinox was tumultuous. We shot the “Somehow Someway” video. We felt that the group still needed a promotional push and wasn’t getting broke properly into the mainstream. On the “Somehow Someway” song we were supposed to get Snoop, he actually recorded for the video, because that’s his line. But we couldn’t get the clearance. He did it because Snoop is dope like that. He filmed it on camera and they had it sliced into the video [but] his label said we couldn’t use it. So I was disgruntled. Po was disgruntled.

That would have been an amazing thing to heal the whole “East Vs. West” thing at the time.

Snoop will bust a Pharoahe Monch rhyme in a heartbeat. He loves the culture and he loves hip-hop and you could tell back then. Just for him to do that for us…Tim Reid probably connected the dots. He was the promotions guru at Priority. So I was disgruntled with the major label situation, so I took a hiatus.

Priority offered me a solo deal, but I was like nope. I went back home back to Queens like “What does it all mean?” [laughs] Finally you got some dark tendencies and you need to get that shit out of your system. That’s why that album was called Internal Affairs. It was really supposed to be therapeutic. There was supposed to be therapy sessions between the songs, but I was starting to like the songs so good I said fuck the skits. That’s where “PTSD” is from. Stress from the Stress album. That’s the period I’m talking about on that album. There was no Googling what was happening to me. I was in clubs until the sun came up. I couldn’t sleep, but I didn’t want to think about what I think about to myself. I knew DJs so I would just be in the booth sitting out of view. Not even standing.

But you did eventually release that solo project and recorded a literal and figurative monster of a song, “Simon Says.”

It was an “Ah.” moment. I’m just chilling with my best friend, who happened to be our original DJ. His name is Tystick, and we were both Monster Movie fans, and at the time Tower Records was poppin. He had just landed a great job as a bus operator, so he buys like $300’s worth of CDs of music. People used to do shit like that. He picks up the Godzilla shit and he’s at the crib down the block from me and he says, “I think you want to come down to the house.” He presses play—the whole CD is insane. To this day, there’s like nine things on that CD that I was [going to use] but I got to the [“Simon Says” sample] so I take the CD and chop it up, put the drums under it. I see the vision of the son.  and I didn’t have enough sample time to put the intro in. I could, but I didn’t have Pro Tools. I had a s950, I sampled it, but I couldn’t add it onto the beat tape. I was working with Lee Stone so I got with Lee, we added the intro to A-DAT for people who even know what that is. I know I’m bringing back memories. We used the frequency on the 950, the tone, for that same tone and we just pitched it. We were working with Troy Hightower at the time, and you know Rawkus had the budget. And for a very simple beat, he mixed the fuck out of that record. And if he reads this interview, he spent a day on the kick for that song, which I now know he was jerking me for my money. Because it doesn’t take that long to EQ a kick! All day it’s [beat boxes kick drum]. I didn’t know that at the time, that he was stretching the budget. It sounds impeccable to this day, but whatever.

And then Charlie’s Angels happened. The copyright holders of “Gojira tai Mosura Theme” by Akira Ifukube hear the song and you get a cease and desist…

We had a year where I got an excessive amount of money from the record and then Charlie’s Angels happened. To this day my manager sitting with me right now will attest that we still get letters and emails, video games that want to use that song. It was a moment of uneasiness with that song. I remember the office going crazy the first time we played it. The owners had the “we got one” face. But as the business process went—I brought them the sample info and the CD it was kinda like, I had a feeling of uneasiness in my stomach. And that’s when I should have stepped up. I said it’s gonna pop, but it’s gonna fly under the radar. But then Funkmaster Flex was like “LADIES AND GENTLEMAN!” We were like “here is the info” and we struggled with it to the end. Whatever shady shit that was…we got beat over the head for the Maxwell sample on “Queens” as well [because] the record dropped before the clearance was done. They hit us hard. Records were being shipped backed then. They hit us for $30 or $40K. So when I saw Maxwell at Joe’s Pub he was like, “Yo you flipped it…thanks for the check!”

Then what I call your second debut, Desire, is released eight years later. That turned ten earlier this year. Why was there so much time between the two projects?

I had to hire music and sample attorneys for the “Simon Says” lawsuit, I had to hire separate attorneys to get out of that contract. And it was a lot. It brought me down on the music industry. Again, I was unsure about releasing music. I was holding onto a lot of it. I remember being on tour with Mos [Def] and Talib Kweli, and Kweli’s manager at the time, Corey Smith, was asking me where’s the music at? “You gotta let music go, you can’t hold onto it. It’s a disservice to you and the fans, spiritually.” I was like, “I need a label, etc.” and Corey changed my perspective a bit. I almost went indie at that point. I recorded “Desire” and “Push” and “Body Baby” as well. We garnered a bidding war between Sony, Puff, and Universal Motown, and Steve Rifkind. So I had three labels coming at me with deals and bidding over each other. That was crazy for that time. I felt good about the music because my lawyer at the time said it would never happen again and it happened again. I demanded a meeting with Jay-Z when he was running Def Jam. I played him “Gun Draws,” and Jay was like “Woooo! That’s cinematic. I see that.” I didn’t think he’d be mind blown over that record but he was. But monetarily the logistics of the industry were such that if he gave me this much money, he won’t be able to follow through with the project. He was being honest with me. And Steve Rifkind was like [bangs table] and Puff was like whatever Steve Rifkind says, double that. And I wondered if the music was going to work under the Puff/Bad Boy moniker. If Puff wanted me to go on the air and yell “Bad Boy,” how was that gonna work? And I also needed money, so Steve made more sense. He loved the record. So I wanted to see if there was an in-between, where a level of undergroundness would make sense. Even though “Body Baby” was strong it wasn’t a straight radio record. It was about staying ahead of the curve. Then Lil Wayne dropped “Lollipop” and shut everything down.  

Then you went to “War” and reflected on your PTSD with your last two albums…

The “WAR” album was really dope because I was about to go where I’m going right now with the current music I’m working on, and I think I would have been way too ahead of the curve. So we decided to stand on the soapbox and do a Pharoahe Monch rap record, shooting for where we stand for the people. Independent. Partnered with Duck Down. It was so successful for us on an indie level. Independently we trumped what I did on Desire.

And what about now? What’s next?

I’m hustling now. I got this one record called “Ya-Yo” that’s an extended cocaine metaphor and another record that’s called “Yellow Brick Road” that’s another cocaine metaphor. And this record “24 Hours” with Lil Fame, some kind of realistic situation where I’m check-to-check, I need my money and people aren’t paying me. So I know someone who will get me my money. So I get Lil Fame. These records are the last that you’ll hear from Pharoahe until he transitions to 13. Then I go into the darkest, hardest bars. I’ll play them in the car for you if you like…

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