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LAist Interview: Pharoahe Monch

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With his long awaited sophomore album, Desire racking up favorable reviews from the likes of The Source, Pitchfork, USA Today and The New York Times it's safe to say that Pharoahe Monch is back and better than most would have ever expected. Unlike many in the alternative hip hop scene, the Queens native who made rap fans around the world "Get the fuck up" in 1999 remained relevant despite an eight-year gap in between projects. Monch took time out from the busy schedule of Rock the Bells, which rolls into San Bernardino Saturday, to talk with LAist.

Congratulations on the album, the great reviews are pouring in. What does the praise from the media mean for you especially considering the amount of time that's passed since your last album?

It’s everything man, you don’t do an album with heart and integrity and not want people to take notice. There are some inspirational records, and I want as many people to hear the record as possible. I want it to inspire everyone; artists and fans not just the magazine writers. I knew it would be a slow grind, but it’s been so good to see that there are so many passionate people helping pushing this album. There have been so many people who aren’t just passionate about me as an artist but passionate about this album. They’ve come up to me with stories like, this record made me think about things or this record inspired me.

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How much of the delay in this second album can be attributed to label politics?

Pretty much all of it. I guess when you think about it though I can’t say all of it. When I got out of my label situation I was pretty comfortable so I just wrote and toured. I wasn’t like in a rush, I didn’t need to get a deal right away. I had a lot of offers on the table, but I wanted to go somewhere where it would be purposeful and not all about numbers. I didn’t want to go somewhere where they were like “you should get Scary Spice on your first single.”

Desire doesn't sound like any other hip-hop album out right now, what were you looking to accomplish with this album?

I really think that, actually I knew one thing would be different about this album. One thing that would separate it from the pack. And that would be the vocals. I am a big fan of vocals and what vocals can achieve on a record. Like a soundtrack for a movie you know, throw in so vocals in an intense moment, and see how much it heightens the intensity. You know if you come across some gospel vocals at the right time, how they can can be inspirational. People might hear me talk about vocals in rap music and they think it's just a rapper singing the hook, it's not that at all.

I read that you are a big Blue Oyster Cult fan, why no cowbell on this album?

(Laughs) That was the funniest SNL sketch ever.

Along with them you are also a fan of other classic rock groups like Zeppelin and Sabbath, how much have they influenced your sound as a rap artist?

They've influenced me very much. I am inspired by their greatness. They are still in my iPod, I just got back from the gym and I was listening to them and thinking what kind of shit were they on when they made this song. Even if you aren't drawing on them to inspire your sound, you are inspired by what they accomplish. Zep was so broad, they had bluegrass they had everything, they even had hip-hop - in fact, you could get a rapper on one of their records right now and kids would be like "who produced that Premiere?" I am interested in what went into the song process. I've paid a lot of attention to their sound and I spend a lot of time thinking about what it took to do what they did and apply that to my own creative process.

One of the album's first singles, "Gun Draws" got national attention for its politcal message. A gun control message from a rap artist seemed to ironic to many. You actually went out a did a college speaking tour regarding the topic and served as the spokesperson for a campaign called "Guns for Cameras". Tell us a little more about this campaign and why you are so passionate about the issue.

People got it twisted. Even during the college tours I had to reiterate this isn't about hip-hop or availability of guns, which it is kind of is about, but it's more about kids who haven't crossed that path, who aren't aware of what is out there. I wanted to invoke conversation, present the options to them. Guns are manufactured in factories and they would sit in those factories if there was no market for them. So that's where war comes in. War is the greatest way for the big businesses that make these weapons to profit. I am really talking about this from a global perspective, we're not just talking about a nine on a 50 Cent record, we're talking about tanks, missiles and so on. I know you've got people in the Red States saying, we need our guns to hunt rabbits and so forth but when you see a very harmful situation like Columbine, you think there are so many options for these kids besides what actually happened.

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Musically, I know that violence in rap and rock and music as a whole, hell even my own music isn't going away any time soon. And that's not what I am looking to do, I don't want to hamper creativity, but the bottom line is that it is an issue with many layers and dialoguing about it is the best thing we can do. I was blown away by the conversations we had with the college kids, they are so smart and young that's why we went the route of the college tour, we didn't want to just come in to the hood and say "Yo give us your guns we'll hook you up with an iPod."

Pharoahe Monch, "Gun Draws"

You ghostwrote on Diddy's Press Play, was it difficult writing for someone so famous? How did that gig come along?

It was great, it was a challenge. It was scary, it was new territory for me which is why I took the opportunity to get behind the scenes. I got to see what its like for a million dollar mogul to put a record together opposed to how I would do it. I got to see what a producer offers someone like Diddy opposed to what they would do for me, you know it was little things like that that were educational but also I got to learn a lot about work ethics. I saw we both we have the same kind of work ethics but at the same time we're different, and I am learning how to incorporate those things that he does into my own hustle. Work ethics of great businessmen like Diddy or a Bill Gates are different from say a talented prodigy. Prodigies have all the talent but sometimes lack the hustle, and that's why you'll hear a girl on the radio who doesn't have half the talent as the girl who sings in your church, but the one on the radio had that extra something to get her there.

Hearing him say "Yo your work ethic is incredible," meant a lot to me since he's worked with a lot of artists and been around so many talented people. This doesn't have anything to do with people's perspective of him, you know the way people blame him for the downfall of urban music or what have you, I'm just talking about what it was like to be alongside him every day in the studios, it was just so educational.

Aside from Diddy, what are some other intersting collaborations you've got under your belt?

The record I did with Justin Timberlake on Sergio Mendez's project was a dope experience. I think there are a lot more like that for me in the near future. Working with Denan Porter has really broadened my scope, just look at this record and how broad it is. The time is thin, I've got to be open to new ideas. I've done a lot of listening and a lot of watching in my time off, and that's actually a big part of producing. I spent so much time exploring what else is out there and what else can be done.

You are currently on the Rock the Bells tour, how has your time on the road been so far? How much do you enjoy touring?

I love it. One of the reasons I am loving it so much is I'm out with a full band. Bass player is only 20 years old, he's a prodigy. I got the drummer for Fort Minor, he is sick. I've got the music director for Alicia Keys playing with me. I think the band brings something else to the performance especially when it's not done half-ass. I am comfortable up there with them, I know a lot of artists are out there with a band it's clear that this isn't what isn't what they do. From the reaction the crowd is giving I can tell that this shit sounds better than the record, you can just see that.

I saw you perform along with Mos Def and Talib Kweli about two years ago at Universal Studios, your performance of "Simon Says" stole the show. What is it about that record that still gets crowds going? When can those in attendance at tomorrow's show expect to hear it?

I think it's a real crazy mosh record that gets people up, still. Even if you're hearing it for the first time, it still comes off that way.

Are you looking forward to tomorrow's show here in the LA area? Do you come to LA often? What are some of your favorite things to do when you come to LA?

I haven't been out here in a while, looking forward to it on the tour. Certain cities you know you've got to put it down because of where it is and LA is one of those places. I think its like being an athlete going to play the Lakers, you're like this is the game we have to play our best, you don't want to look ahead of any of the other cities but you know in the back of your mind that one stop on the tour feels a little bigger than the others.

Your new album has a remake of Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terror Dome" how much of an influence has PE been on you? Do you plan on performing this track tomorrow, considering PE is also on the bill for show?

Its obvious It Takes a Nation... is one of the best records in music, not just rap but all of music. I'm a big fan of PE. When I got the beat and I was running through the lyrics and I hit that verse and a lot of things struck me: first, that these lyrics need to be heard and are still prevalent today, second - nobody does this and I don't like being comfortable so I want to go ahead and do this, three - I know people would pay attention to a PE remake and lastly I wanted to run it by Chuck, I wouldn't have done it without his blessing. We tried to figure out a way where we could do it together for the tour but it hasn't worked out, with timing and all.

You're scheduled to go on at around noon tomorrow, how does that time slot work for you? Are you planning on sticking around for any other acts? Are you a Rage fan?

I'm a big Rage fan I will definitely catch them, I haven't yet but I will probably watch tomorrow night's show. I've got time to leave and come back and watch them do their thing.

Photo courtesy of Pharoahe Monch's MySpace page