Exclusive Interview: Pharoahe Monch Talks PTSD

Pharoahe Monch is a soldier. He went to war with the industry and won. His last album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), received critical praise and has sold over 20,000 copies independently.

However, when you go to war, you must deal with the consequences. His new EP, PTSD, explores just that. The aftermath of battle and the cruel realization that you’re not quite sure what you fought for was worth it.

Monch is no stranger to battles. He was famously sued for sampling a Godzilla tune, which resulted in his solo debut, Internal Affairs, being yanked from store shelves (this was when stores still used shelf space for CDs). Following that, Monch was sidelined for eight years without an album due to legal matters with Priority records. He returned in 2007 with Desire on SRC, but would eventually part ways with that label as well. Now, Pharoahe Monch is independent and that’s just the way he likes it.

Marooned in Dallas for the past few days due to superstorm Sandy, the Queens native speaks on his latest project and his future goals outside of the music industry.

“Damage” is the third track in your career where you rap from the perspective of a bullet. You had “Stray Bullet” and “When the Gun Draws.” What made you want to turn it into a trilogy?
I started working on [PTSD] and I got the music from the producer, Lee Stone, and for a couple of years now I’ve been wanting to do this chorus, “oooh, listen to the way I slay your crew, damage, damage, damage.”  Then I saw how I could flip that into the content following that trilogy. I just thought it would be cool to do the third installment as the last one.

I know you recorded it prior to Aurora, so after that happened did you go back to this track and view it differently at all?
No, I didn’t change anything. I wanted [the bullet] to be maniacal, especially in the second verse. So, we played around with different voices, even before that incident happened. So it’s like, the bullet gets even crazier in the second verse. When the situation happened, it was a lot to take. So I really examined the psychosis of that song and we’re gonna put out a psych music analysis of that song and the thought process. It’s gonna be real cool when the video comes out.

You’ve always been a patient artist, fans rarely hear new music from you until album time. But PTSD is an EP. Do you feel like you have to drop music more often these days?
I feel like I have a bunch of thoughts and ideas and a lot more music. And I feel like I need to move faster. I just want to get it to the people, I’m so anxious. I have a project I’m moving on to after this. I just felt like W.A.R. needed to have a period on it. I didn’t want to go into some of the songwriting that I have coming up next for 2013 until I finished my thoughts on government and issues, mental issues, and what happens after war. I thought it would be a complete thought if I did this Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder EP.

That new project, is that Rock vs. Disco?

How’s that coming along?
Fucking amazing.

You’re an artist with very dope visuals. From “When the Gun Draws” to “Clap” to “Still Standing.” They’re like mini-movies. How important are music videos to you?
They’re very important and they always have been. I try to write cinematically and, when you grow up reading comic books, it’s brilliant because it puts images in your head. I always thought early on in Organized Konfusion and even with Internal Affairs, some of those visuals failed with what my thought process was like. So now that I’m independent and we have access to some great directors of photography, directors, and just people who make these ideas come to fruition, why not push the limit? Even for “Damage,” I’m directing. I wrote the treatment. It’s gonna be amazing. We’re running into some financial issues with it but we’re trying to work through it.

I think that’s an interesting contrast. When you’re on a major, you maybe have a bigger budget but they don’t necessarily want to spend it on the videos, or maybe they don’t want to do the same vision. When you’re independent, you get that creative license, but maybe you can’t fund it the way you want to.
Exactly. That’s what’s happening now. I met this amazing CGI guy from Vancouver who basically, through the blessings of the universe, is lending his talents to this video because he loves the song so much.

You find yourself using your Rolodex and trying to pull favors. I think people also want to be a part of something that’s more creative, as well.

With MTV and BET hardly playing videos anymore and fans having short attention spans nowadays, do you feel like videos still get their proper attention?
I do. I think it leads to greater things. I think if you use it for your brand and helping to entice kids to come out to shows, then it’s a useful tool.

Let’s talk about PTSD. This a follow-up to W.A.R., with a soldier as its main focus. How fully is the concept of post-traumatic stress being explored on here?
A lot, in the sense that it’s very straightforward and follows the album. We Are Renegades talks about domestic war, mental war, war with self, conflict with self and so on. This discusses that from an emotional and mental perspective. Which is basically the same thing, I think. If you experience something traumatic in your life, you’re gonna have to deal with that. It’s really deep and really brave. It’s risk-taking because I talk a lot about my emotional issues, financially, being independent, trying to get stuff done as well as general life, as well as break-ups and things of that nature. It’s really a dense EP.

I want to ask you about that break-up record. It’s a break-up record, but you use heroin as the metaphor. Are you using heroin specifically because of the study about the Vietnam vets coming back from war and being addicted to heroin?
Exactly. Everything ties in. I went to the gym out here and I listened through. It’s a great listen, great workout record, comes in strong. The music almost sounds hallucinogenic, but hard. It raises itself, at one point, to almost 131 BPMs with a song called “Stand Your Ground” that I just did. So you got the scoop on that. It’s a protest record. Then it goes back down to something more psychedelic. So, in that regard, even the stories and the rhymes, you could listen to a bunch of times because things tie-in in so many different ways as a whole project.

You’ve said you have a record on here discussing some low points in your life: label issues, no music out. Talk about that song and the mindframe you had to go into for it.
It was difficult because, obviously, that’s not the case now. It happened in the past. Even when you’re doing a song like “Damage” and you do a verse, and you come back to that song, you have to not care about life. You have to get into that character and into that voice. It takes a minute, for me anyway, to really get into that couple of go-arounds with the verse in the studio, getting into the character.

With this title track, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” [it’s the] same thing. You’re going back to a time with huge depression. You need to embody that. You need to feel that. I listen to a lot of music and it comes off as, “Oh, that’s what that artists does and it’s easy for them.” This is challenging. I revel in the fact that I think people will hear this and see that it wasn’t easy music to do.

Is that something that gets a little harder as the years go by in your career? You have to keep challenging yourself? Because, Rock vs. Disco, that’s a different sound, right? Is that just you trying to keep the inspiration going?
It’s really old stuff, too. It’s all these ideas that you’ve always had at different times that don’t necessarily fit on different projects. Not that they’re not good, but you have to put them aside and give them the proper love and execute them with the proper care that you want to give it.

For example, after Desire, I started experimenting with a lot of different rock tracks, out in Detroit with Denaun Porter and stuff from Lee Stone, who did “Damage,” and I didn’t think it was the right time to be experimental again after the Desire record. We wanted to do something that was more ground-level, eye-level hip-hop and I thought W.A.R. was the answer to that.

In a lot of ways, W.A.R. was a political stance, but it was also you at war with the industry. You exposed some tough lessons you learned along the way, so how are you readjusting from coming back from that personal war?
That is the perfect question to why I’m doing this record. How do you adjust after you get those feelings out and you prepare yourself to say these things and go to war and combat? I’m gonna voice my opinions where most artists don’t, and I’m gonna make these statements. And then you get it all out, and you examine where you are. You come home, you toured, similar to soldiers, and you come home and it’s like, I think people should lift me up because of my bravery and patriotism to whatever cause, and you’re dealing with the reality of being home now. That’s what the EP is about.

On “The Hitman,” you talk about label politics and radio play. How different is it for you, artistically, now that you’re independent?
I don’t look at it like that. I record songs, and I’m like, “This is a Grammy.” I record from the future backwards. I’m in the studio like, “This is a Grammy award winning record.” I see my performance at the Oscars and my speech and the video and the stadium and all those things. I think a lot of artists create backwards and it really puts a lot of pressure on you because, at the end of the day, you need everything to hold up to those standards in your head.

I think I got three Grammy award winning songs on PTSD. That’s not just bullshit interview talk. People are saying that about the songs. Now, if it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean we’re not worthy of that, but they’re still really good.

You mentioned the Oscars and you mentioned directing earlier, is that an area you want to explore? Directing, maybe some movies?
Definitely. [“Damage”] being my debut, I’m taking it very seriously. It’s definitely somewhere I’ve always wanted to be. Behind the camera, trying to create visuals, come up with new ideas that people haven’t seen before an try to be classic at that.

One thing I’ve always wanted to know: What’s the deal with the number 13, man? On “Still Standing” you mentioned you were first diagnosed with asthma at 13 months. You have 13 songs on Desire and W.A.R., the E on Pharoahe to make your name 13 letters. What is with that number?
That’s basically it. It appears so many times in my life, I’ve just embraced it that way. It’s my number. My birthday’s on Hallowen—31. I might as well have fun with it at this point. [Laughs]

[Laughs.] Absolutely. So does that mean we can expect PTSD on November 13?
We’re shooting for it. Even though I’m done, we kind of need weeks to prepare in advance, but the record’s done. And we want to shoot this video that’s not done.

Anything you want to add?
If you’re a fan: Thank you. Look for this PTSD record. W.A.R. Media, we got Mela Machinko coming and Jean Grae coming. It’s gonna be crazy.