A common refrain I hear echoing from all directions these days is “Yo! What’s up with UGHH?!” From some angles it’s fueled by the genuine curiosity of people wanting me to share what I’m up to. The other extreme has kept me up at night—sometimes working until 3AM—out of concern.

Over the past few months, I’ve received encouraging and disparaging words via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, online reviews and even through a couple of Better Business Bureau inquiries. Many of these inquiries I’ve taken the time to answer, but I haven’t had the time to address what’s going on publicly.

In short, to keep it Internet, here is what’s up with UGHH:

So, how did we get to the point wherein I’m wading through a blaze wearing a t-shirt with the new UGHH branding and sipping an Old Fashioned out of a mug? Let’s discuss.

Failure By the Numbers

2017 started off relatively strong with us paying off a hefty amount of the six-figure debt that UGHH had previously incurred. Things looked positive as we were able to increase revenue at a steady clip. We then had the best Record Store Day that UGHH had ever seen. After that, we dipped back to pre-Record Store Day revenue levels expecting that revenue would, at least, remain flat as we ramped up other efforts for growth. So, we proceeded with our plan to invest in high-quality editorial content.

Revenue slumped considerably through Summer 2017 as the magazine ramped up. We continued to pay off old debts and then the revenue sharing portion of our acquisition deal kick in early July. In other words: more money was going out while much less was coming in.

The goal of UGHH Magazine was to invest in high-quality journalism and develop long-form, well-written stories to remind people that we are the definitive source for underground hip-hop. Those articles were also meant to drive users to the site, which we hoped would encourage record sales. Unfortunately, the investment in editorial content didn’t yield much in the way of traffic or sales. The chart below indicates that the magazine content only saw 20k visits and yielded $152 in direct sales in 2017.

Even if we zoom out and look at the editorial content through a branding lens (considering some readers may have learned of UGHH through the magazine, and then come back later to purchase) we can only attribute 249 purchases and ~$10k in revenue to that.

No matter how you slice it, we lost a lot of money on investing in editorial content.

As a digital marketer, I know that when it comes to content marketing, you need to invest in it long-term before you see results. Naively, I believed that since we had a built-in audience and longstanding brand, creating content would cut down that timeline.

I was wrong. That won’t be the last time I’ll need to admit that here.

Around the time of our content ramp up, we also augmented our approach to Paid Media. We very quickly zeroed-in on the most optimal advertising channels for UGHH. The problem? There is very little volume for direct response marketing in underground hip hop, and a brand strategy would have proven too costly until we found more solid footing. I still believe this site ultimately needs a media component to thrive, but we did not execute it effectively in 2017.

Ultimately, the year ended with little cash in the bank. Together, my partners and I decided to invest more cash to keep the business going. We decided to personally invest in UGHH because we believe in our brand and its mission.

Sales are not sustainable

Being that we are in retail, my next statement will be obvious, but it’s worth saying to give a fuller picture.

Our customers are highly reactive to sales.

As you might imagine, that’s a terrible expectation to set in a buyer/seller relationship, because there are a ton of customers that will only shop during a sale.

UGHH is a relatively low margin business which means that, irrespective of our price to you, we don’t make much profit from the sale of each product even at full price. But, I get it, I’m no different from you, I’m always searching for a deal.

In the research we did early on, it’s clear that we historically haven’t been the cheapest option because we’re not a distributor and we don’t command enough volume to get preferred pricing from distributors. So, when we run sales, it gives us a shot in the arm with regard to revenue, but then when we have to pay our vendors, partners and staff it just doesn’t add up.

While I haven’t had time to validate this hypothesis, I suspect that’s part of how the previous management got into the rut that they were in.

Running a sale also leads to a huge influx of orders. Being short on staff, this influx was something that we weren’t prepared for. As a result, UGHH’s customer experience suffered throughout the holidays and, ultimately, into 2018. To keep it short: sales need to be more strategic to be effective.

And then there were two

From a technical perspective, UGHH is held together by bubblegum and duct tape. Throughout the past year, there was a tremendous amount of resistance against updating UGHH to a more modern, improved technology stack. As I write this, UGHH is using three distinct platforms: WordPress, Shopify, and a legacy homegrown solution for the forum.

On the fulfillment side of things, there are perhaps hundreds of disparate scripts to sync a secondary database with Shopify, manage inventory and queue up product for ordering and shipping. Frankly, there is no reason that everything aside from packing can’t be automated.

Since last year, my goal has been to bring everything on to WordPress/WooCommerce so we can easily integrate everything and quickly/continuously make improvements. Unfortunately, that did not happen on the original timeline we had planned, and in mid-January (after some key departures) managing the technical components of fulfillment fell entirely on my plate.

Our E-commerce Associate and I were left to our own devices to keep things going. Big shout to him for being resilient throughout this whole process and stepping up in a variety of ways to make things happen. He is definitely the biggest personnel win that has come out of my short tenure of running UGHH.

Unfortunately, the documentation for the management of fulfillment was lacking, referenced computers or files we didn’t have access to or the processes were so convoluted that it wasn’t something that could be efficiently managed by someone without a surplus of time.

So, I did what any self-respecting web developer would do. I wrote my own shit!

It’s all still a work in progress as I have been plugging new holes and fixing bugs as we go, but I’ve simplified and automated most of what was previously done manually. Processes that once took hours now take minutes. In fact, the process of writing UGHH’s new code has been the one thing that I’ve really enjoyed throughout this tumultuous time. Once we launch our new site, there will be additional efficiency gains and we will be able to serve our customers better than ever before.

However, in the short term, these improvements came at a couple losses. At one point during the migration to WooCommerce, emails about historical and pending orders were accidentally sent to a lot of customers. Also, because there were only two of us to manage everything, and I’m split between many responsibilities on other businesses, focusing on building for the long term slowed things down.

I Failed You At Communication

We sent mass emails out to customers when there were big delays, but we did not do a decent job of answering all the email inquiries. We also didn’t establish phone support once the previous management abandoned it.

And when I say we, in this case, I mean me.

As the showrunner over here, any of our failures are ultimately my responsibility. Yes, I recognize getting behind in orders and not communicating effectively are hallmarks of a fraudulent online business. I assure you that it was never my intention for anyone’s order to get delayed. Rather, I thought that the more valuable thing for me to do with my limited time was to sit in front of the computer and bang out the code to get things working better so orders could actually get shipped.

Nevertheless, we fucked up and I apologize to any customers that were negatively affected.

In fact, as we’ve gotten caught up, our customers began to receive hand-signed notes from me because our lack of communication and delivery delays were completely unacceptable.

To that end, we’ve hired someone just to manage email responses moving forward. Every single message we’ve received is getting a response and we expect to be finished with that in the next few days. Other than that, orders are continuing to be shipped in the order in which they are received unless items are out of stock or backordered.

So Ambitious

“I’m different. I can’t base what I’m gon’ be off what everybody isn’t” -Jay Z

I approached this venture like I do anything else I do in life — with uncompromising ambition and optimism. Despite my personal high functionality and various accomplishments, I’ve never seen anything I’ve done or wanted to do as especially hard or requiring exceptional talent. The sobering reality is that not everyone is on board with or capable of making what I see so clearly into a reality.

In hindsight, I still don’t see anything that we’d set to do as being something that could not get done. However, the goals we set out to accomplish were too ambitious for the combination of people that worked on them. Also, I have been an ineffective manager and, to overcome that, I recently completed a management course and I’m continually devouring books to improve those skills. Nevertheless, the order of operations with what we did was exactly backwards.

In other words, what we’ve been working on since I’ve taken over fulfillment operations is what we should have done first. Had we done that, I’d be sharing growth charts with you rather than telling you why we’ve hit bumps in the road.

We should have focused on identifying opportunities to attain efficiencies with the e-commerce and fulfillment operations and paid off all the debt. Once everything was stabilized and we established a step function of growth then we should have been expanded into more exciting opportunities like the magazine.

I believed that we could do the opposite. Again, I was wrong.

Dancing on Quicksand

“Saw a side of myself that I never knew. I’d probably self-destruct if I ever lose, but I never do” -Drake

I’ve watched enough Scandal and helped enough brands through crises to know I’m supposed to make this all look easy. I’m supposed to act like none of this bothers me. I’m supposed to just look at this like a bad acquisition, cut my losses and sell it to the highest bidder. I can’t, I won’t and I’m not.

As corny as it sounds, UGHH means a lot more to me than that and it’s taken a considerable toll on me, my personal relationships and my family to keep this ball in the air. It’s not just “a business,” it’s something that I feel is an extension of me and my partners and the more adult way that we express ourselves through this artform.

I’ve personally struggled through a variety of things over the past year and I don’t share that looking for sympathy. Rather, I share it to clarify that I’m just trying to do the right and most effective things across the board and have simply made costly mistakes.

The Path Forward

“That’s another difference that’s between me and them: I smarten up, open the market up” – Jay Z

The path forward is actually quite simple. We’re doing what I said we should have done previously, focusing on being the greatest underground hip hop record store possible. I still believe in growing toward the Media direction, but we need to develop the step functions that will help us get back to profitability first. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Focused Mission – Admittedly, we went into 2017 with 19 tactics that UGHH could leverage to generate more revenue. For 2018, we’re going to whittle that down to a handful of initiatives and put the weight of our resources behind those. The core of that mission is being the best online record store and the home for the underground hiphop community.
  • Improved Website – In the next day or so, we will have launched a new website on WooCommerce. Bare with us; we ask for your feedback once its launched so we can rapidly make improvements once this is live. This will position us to continually roll out features and functionality in support of our core mission.
  • Improved Fulfillment – We’ll continue to hire extra support on the fulfillment side as we grow and we’ll bring on seasonal support as we head into higher sales seasons like Record Store Day and Black Friday.
  • Improved Customer Service and Communication – This is our biggest immediate focus for improvement. We understand the need to be able to reach someone about your order and are correcting that right away.
    • Improved Phone Support – You can now reach UGHH Customer Service by phone 24 hours a day and 365 days a year at 866-311-5320. For those of you that are UGHH Premier members, your priority customer service line is 877-218-0176, also available 24/7.
    • Email Support – We now have someone solely dedicated to answering your emails. As she is working through the backlog, I’d recommend that you call one of the numbers above if you need immediate assistance.
  • Improved Customer Experience – I have no illusions about what we’re competing with for your business. I do know that we are capable of giving you a more personalized and higher quality experience then you’ll get elsewhere. We’ll iterate towards being a company that is more personalized and customer-centric. I don’t want us just to be another place that is going to send you things in a brown box. I want to be the company that is giving you a curated experience and knows who you are when you call us.
  • Focused Product Efforts – With us finally moving to a platform where we have more control over how things operate, we’ll be developing and publishing a roadmap of the improvements we’re making. The goal is to deploy new features and functionality on the site every two weeks. UGHH is becoming more of a “product” rather than just a “website.” You can expect things like an improved forum, mobile app, a streaming service in the near future — all personalized for you.

Back Like We Never Left

“Always trying to let go of anything that’ll burden me. That’s the reason you can feel the tension and the urgency” -Drake

I understand that we have undermined the trust that the previous management worked hard to establish. Some customers will never order from us again. I completely understand and I sincerely apologize for failing you as a businessman, rap fan and someone who has devoted a large part of his life to this music.

Perhaps, in the future, you’ll give us another chance.

In the meantime, were’ going to keep pushing forward to make this site and this business better than it has ever been. For anyone that still has questions, you’re welcome to email me directly (mike at ughh dot com) and we’re also hosting a livestream on the UGHH Facebook at 4:30pm on 4/20/2018 where you can ask me anything. I promise not to be too Mark Zuckerberg in my responses.

To those that have supported UGHH over the years and will continue to do so, I thank you so much for sticking with us. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to following through on everything I just said.

-Mike

This Record Store Day, UGHH has decided to celebrate a hand-picked mix of still-active underground legends with recent releases, canonized underground icons and a couple of cult favorites—creating exclusive sale bundles to salute some of the artists who have made a significant impact on the culture. In doing so, we aim to illustrate underground hip-hop’s longevity—as well as its staying power.

There has been a lot of debate about the state of the underground, recently. Some believe that, thanks to internet technology and the power it gives independent artists to reach wider fan bases, the underground has become the new mainstream—while others attest that, as long as a corporate music industry controls the majority of what does and doesn’t become successful on a mainstream level (despite some exceptions), the underground will continue to exist. Although it is clear that exactly what the underground is has evolved since the polarized “Rawkus Era” of the late ’90s, when emcees were either “independent as fuck” (to quote Company Flow’s old motto) or soulless commercial puppets (with no in-between), we at UGHH subscribe to the ideology that being dubbed underground is more than just an indication of one’s financial status or level of notoriety—and know firsthand that, musically, the underground is very much alive and healthy.

 
Speaking of Rawkus Records, considering that it’s funding was actually provided by the son of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch, maybe the financial divide between underground and mainstream hip-hop was always a little more complex than once perceived. Regardless, unlike many mainstream artists (who tend to come and go, catering to a fickle corporate music industry that’ll sign and discard talent at the drop of a mixtape), underground emcees and producers often maintain longer, more influential careers. Just ask DOOM, Pharoahe Monch or El-P, to name a few—and try to remember all the one-hit wonders with platinum singles that came and went during the 30 odd years each have been in the game.

In the words of the great DJ Premier, who recently dropped his second PRhyme project with Royce Da 5’9” and remains as influential as ever: “Underground will live forever, baby. We just like roaches: never dyin’, always livin’…”

 

“And on that note, let’s get back to the program…” — Preemo

 

This year, underground Long Island legend Roc Marciano released the sequel to his gritty, soulful masterpiece Rosebudd’s Revenge, one of “UGHH’s Top 10 of 2017”—a contender for one of 2018’s best, as well. Though RR2: The Bitter Dose is only available to pre-order, the original joins his album with former group The UN, UN or U Out, his solo debut Marcberg, his sophomore release Reloaded and his 2013 mixtape The Pimpire Strikes Back in our Roc Marci vinyl bundle.

Having released one of this year’s strongest albums to date, we felt it only right to salute versatile Detroit producer and emcee Black Milk with a bundle. The CD version contains his three most recent joints: No Poison No Paradise, If There’s a Hell Below and, his latest, FEVER—as well as his collaborative project with Danny Brown, Black and Brown! Though FEVER is not yet available on wax, the vinyl bundle includes all of the other aforementioned albums, in addition to Tronic and Album of the Year.

One of the most consistent and celebrated artists the underground has ever spawned, London-born, Long Island-raised DOOM is a cultural icon. With over a dozen albums and collaborative projects under his belt, created using various aliases, the masked super villain has not slowed his conquest for world domination—releasing his most recent collaboration with Czarface this year. In our CD bundle, Czarface Meets Metal Face is offered alongside his fraternal group KMD’s Black Bastards, his solo debut Operation: Doomsday, Madvillainy (his Madvillain collaboration with Madlib), his sophomore album under the MF DOOM moniker, Mm.. Food, and The Mouse and the Mask (by DANGERDOOM, his group with Danger Mouse). In the vinyl bundle, Mm.. Food is replaced by KMD’s first album, Mr. Hood.

What is there to say about Detroit legend J Dilla that hasn’t already been said. Considered the G.O.A.T. by many, Dilla influenced an entire generation of producers—and his signature style has been emulated time and time again. One of the most original, timeless and universally-loved artists hip-hop has to offer, Jay Dee unquestionably made his mark on the game before passing in 2006. Our CD bundle includes his early work with Slum Village (Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 1 and Fantastic, Vol. 2), Ruff Draft and his Champion Sound album with Madlib (as Jaylib)—while the vinyl version swaps Donuts for Ruff Draft, and also includes posthumous releases The Shining and The Diary.

Before his untimely death in 2015, Brooklyn representative Sean Price had already become an underground icon in his own right. One of rap’s most consistent lyricists, his tongue-in-cheek wordplay and inimitable, pocketed flow earned him the number one spot on UGHH’s Top 10 of 2017″ list for his posthumous masterpiece Imperius Rex last year. Though he established himself as half of Heltah Skeltah and a member of the Boot Camp Clik, to celebrate his memory, we’ve created a vinyl bundle of his always-stellar solo studio projects: Monkey Barz, Jesus Price Supastar, Mic Tyson, Songs in the Key of Price and Imperius Rex.

Hailing from Connecticut, Apathy is a Northeastern fan-favorite who built a rep as part of the Demigodz crew. In 2017, he released the acclaimed self-titled Perestroika, a group project with D.I.T.C.’s own O.C., and followed it up with a solo offering this year. The Widow’s Son features a ridiculous cast of collaborators including Pharoahe Monch, M.O.P. and AG, as well as DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Nottz and Buckwild on production—and both albums join Weekend at the Cape, The Black Lodge, Honkey Kong, Connecticut Casual, Handshakes With Snakes and Dive Medicine: Chapter 1 in our CD bundle, while the vinyl version excludes Weekend at the Cape, The Black Lodge and Honkey Kong.

Elusive, Bronx-bred trio the Juggaknots are true artists’ artists—revered by practically every emcee that arose from New York City’s underground hip-hop scene in the late ’90s. Though the all-sibling group of Breeze Brewin, Buddy Slim and Queen Herawin only release projects every decade or so, their existing two studio albums, Breeze’s starring role on Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves and some sporadic vinyl releases have managed to uphold the group’s legacy—despite most of their projects’ limited availability. Just last year, over 20 years after its release, a reissue of their classic self-titled debut flew off of UGHH’s shelves—so we decided to secure some rare 12″ vinyl singles (“She Loves Me Not,” “New $/Sumday,” “WKRP In NYC/Generally/J-Solo” and “Berzerkowitz”), as well as the even rarer CD mixtape The Love Deluxe Movement, straight from the source and offer them as part of our exclusive Juggaknots bundle.

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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