Interview: Pharoahe Monch Talks PTSD, Mental Health In The Black Community, Led Zeppelin, and Biggie

pharoahe monchThere’s a reason Pharoahe Monch went independent–he’s an individual to the core. His unusual manner emerges in each piece of his personality, from the way he sees–watch as Monch makes reference after reference to the albums or the world at large as a film–the way he feels–Monch is a self-described “empath”–to even the way he speaks: he talks casually, yet precisely, about depression, universal and personal. It’s rare that someone, in hip-hop or elsewhere, can speak about vulnerable subjects with such ease. His words have the air of a man who has lived a full life; he laughs knowingly while recounting his darkest moments, finding the comedy in tragedy, and vise-versa. We were blessed with the opportunity to listen to PTSD before talking with the Pharoahe, and we can say that the album is just as different, as forward-leaning, as the seasoned MC. Enjoy our talk with Pharoahe Monch below.

RESPECT: Let’s jump right into the album. On PTSD‘s second song, “Losing My Mind” you say that in your family, depression was thought to be an “issue for white families with wealth.” Can you elaborate on that?

Pharoahe Monch: I just feel like when–in America and in general–you talked about emotional and mental health issues, it still was foreign…I don’t want to say foreign, but taboo…up until four or five years ago. Especially in the black community. I mean personally, with what I was going through, I had a stint in the hospital for like two weeks, and I was being inundated with steroid medication and antibiotics for my asthma situation and it just…I was just…I didn’t even realize that it had an emotional side effect like it did. So when I got out of the hospital I switched, obviously, from the intravenous medication to the pills, and it just had me on edge. I couldn’t sleep. Issues that I would normally be able to process, I wasn’t able to process. Sometimes not anything at all. And when it got to the point where I couldn’t cope or deal, and I was going to friends like, “Yo I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m feeling like I can’t go hour to hour.” They was like “Ay, smoke a blunt, have a beer,” you know. [Laughs]. I’m like, “No, this is serious. I’m expressing to you the actuality of what I’m feeling—it’s not a joke. ”

I don’t think it was readily understood or spoken about. But I think now, it’s just like you need to get some professional help, and people speak about it more readily. Even during interviews, a lot of interviewers are like, “Ah man, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety when my pops passed.” The words, the definition of exactly to what’s happening to you and your emotional or mental state is more readily available for people to grab onto, whereas 10 years ago, for me, I was like, “I don’t even know what I’m experiencing. I just know that these are just normal issues that I’m not able to process, and I’m not sleeping when I fucking need sleep.”

Was it this community with an aversion to addressing mental issues that kept you from even realizing the nature of your own?

For one, you’re embarrassed because youre like, “I don’t undersand what’s happening.” The end result of this all was this: I had a dentist appointment, and I went in, and luckily they were like “Write down any medication that you’re taking.” The dentist reviewed the paperwork, and he called me in privately, and he was like “Yo…I just wanna make you aware…I don’t know if you’re aware…that the concoction that’s on this paper causes severe depression.” I’m sitting in the chair, and it’s like a thousand monkeys jump off my back. I fell into the chair and start crying. I’m just like “What the fuck!But I’m relieved. That allowed me the relief of being like, “This is what it is.’

From a writing standpoint, I’m taking from that experience and I’m likening it to–and I know it’s not like what a solider would go through—but I’m likening it to that. It’s a real issue, and getting back to your question….this experience happened to me years ago, so when this was occurred there was no term. People would come at me and go “Yeah, you’re experiencing anxiety—you need to do this.” It was just “Smoke some trees, deal with it.” [Laughs].

It sounds like that moment in the dentist’s office was when your depression finally became real. Was recording the album another (extended) moment like that–was it tough to record?

It was very tough to [record]. The fucked up thing about writing from that perspective is that you’re reliving a situation, rehashing bad times. But the whole challenge of that is what gave me drive and inspiration for the record. It’s like–Ok, this can’t just be some cool, popular tem that everybody is using. You’re gonna have to dig a little bit if you’re gonna want quality reviews and to make your fans happy. It cant just be some cool fucking bunch of letters that the president and soldiers are using and is being discussed about in pop culture. That challenged me as a writer, and I think for me that’s whats still fun about it. I have to find ways for it to be a challenge. If I keep doing what was successful for me, then its lackluster and its not really fun anymore. I knew doing this project it would take more time than we wanted. I know quantity is a problem for me, and we wanted to get it out quick, but after I wrote the title song, me and my manager was like “Whooaaah, we need to take our time with this. This could be something cool.”

There’s a moment in that title song where you mention that you’ve “seen death twice.” Were those two specific incidents of being on the edge?

Nah that’s just asthma shit, man. Like havin chronic attacks, having to rush to the hospital, fucking…blacking out….[laughs].

It’s amazing you can laugh at that.

I laugh now…but it’s not funny.

Does that stuff still happen routinely?

Not really, you know, I’m pulling from–I think you have to be careful because people take rappers very literal. But yeah, I have blacked out from asthma attacks. But I’m pulling from different timelines. Its not like all of this shit happened to me from the W.A.R. album to this album.

It’s good that you can take those liberties with your literal story and mold it to better fit your vision for the album.

I mean, I do it all the time. For instance–“Grand Illusion” is on the last album, but Stepkids did such a good job on some real jazz musician shit I was just like damn they totally reworked this record [for PTSD], you know.

In a recent HipHopDX interview, you called yourself a big “empath,” very empathetic. On tracks like your bullet trilogy, you make reference to public tragedies. Do those effect you a lot? How does your empathy play into the emotional state you detail on the album?

Just being an artist or a writer you have to put yourself in other people’s circumstances. I mean there’s just situations around the world that I just sympathize with that make me happy I’m here in new yorkc ity. There are even conditions here where I’m thinking we just need to evolve. We’re still dealing with problems from fuckin’ 70, 60 years ago. Terms from 70, 60–It’s like, when do we evolve? To not evolve is not natural, it’s not human. I say that to say, you know, when I hear about tragedy, airplanes, Trayvon..for me its not just a passing thing. It really resonates with me. I guess because it could be me, in the Trayvon situation. Or you know, I fly a lot. I can sympathize outside of…I feel for people. That’s why I say that. I’m not living my life totally blind to other peoples’ plights and struggles. When you’re like that, things weigh heavy, and it effects how you write, it effects how you create.

Speaking on that subject of tragedy it would be strange not to mention the explosion in Harlem earlier today.

My DJ lives on 116th, so as soon as I saw the news, I was calling him immediately. That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about, like, tragedy is very interesting. On 9/11, when the 1st plane hit the building, I completely desensitized and shut down. After that happened I went to the gym, I was like, “I can’t deal I don’t care, fuck it, they’re lying on the news, they’re saying that the public couldn’t see well enough.” And I already know, in my heart, that planes just don’t fly into the fuckin’ side of buildings at that rate…Not that building. I was upset, but I went to the gym. And then the second plane hit. And then the fuckin’ building falls and someone runs into the gym, screaming like, “Yo what the fuck!! The buildings are falling!” I was in denial, but then it washed over me, and the I started to go crazy. Like “That’s fuckin people. There’s people on that plane, in those buildings. Holy shit. My cousin works in the World Trade Center.” I think we’re getting to the point where it’s just a 24 hr news cycle where there’s too much to endure or embrace at one time.

Going back to your asthma difficulties, PTSD features lots of fake adds for asthma medication. Those really struck a chord because they went beyond being universally satirical; they were personal too. Much of the album is personal and universal at the same time.

Yeah, I think so. I think in terms of classic albums, my favorite are when the artist has been introspective, like Biggie and Tupac and you know they get real gritty with who they are. I think you have to be vulnerable. That’s a word that I haven’t used in describing this record in any other interview. Its like, theres redemption at the end, but throughout the album, you should feel offended, it should make you feel something. And I think I had to dig a little bit to get those emotions out and hopefully have the fans feel them as well.

And I went into a state where I couldn’t even drive or go by that area I would like feel people. So that’s a prime example of how its difficult for me to turn off some times.

Is that how you want this album to effect people?

I want to progress and evolve. I was watching an interview with one of those doctors that’s always on television, and he was talking about voices in his head, how he viewed it as taboo to discuss. It was just this voice that tells him he’s not working hard enough. Not crazy shit, just something telling him he’s not achieving, not where he should be. He’s just examining those voices. We have yet to explore and experience a lot that has to do with the head and the mind, people feeling weird about not being where they need to be, putting pressure on themselves. I think it’s worth exploring. If you’re feeling like that, and you hear music like this album, at the very least, you’re like, “Oh shit, somebody else in hip-hop is feelng the same way.”

It’s nothing new man. Me and Vinny Paz was touring Europe, and he was telling me about this condition that he has. I had a similar talk with RA the Rugged Man…it’s nothing new. I’m not by any means being a pioneer in the subject, I just want to be a pioneer in the writing, the feel. I needed the music to be at a certain tempo–blistering, cool. But [the album] starts off slow, because I need you to be like, ok, I’m not just gonna bop through this fuckin’ song mindlessly, this shit kinda stops me. And if you’re not paying attention, then fuck it, it’s not for you. It was important for the album to start out in a way that makes you say, “OK, he’s serious about the colors of this record.”

It’s interesting that you say that the album is only for people with the patience to pay attention. In a recent Sway interview, you said that one of your main artistic goals is to be relatable. While PTSD‘s emotions certainly are, do you worry about leaving people in the dust because of your dense lyrics? Do you ever hold back?

I think those films are for those people that want to go see those films. People go see movies that when you’re walking out of the theater, you get to discuss with your girlfriend, discuss with your boyfriend about the layers of the film…that’s what [my approach] is about. I think writing that way helps me to have a longer shelf life, and it helps a song or an album like this. Ten years later, when somebody discovering hip-hop, they can pick this up and say “Wow, this is dope.” It’s not an album of pop culture and references from the spring of 2014 only. I try to write that way, because when I was coming up, I gravitated to Black Sabbath and [Iron] Maiden and [Led] Zeppelin, and [Jimi] Hendrix and [John] Coltrane and Miles [Davis]. It wasn’t just a lyric thing. It’s a music thing and a feel thing. I’m listening to John Bonham on drums, and I’m just like, “How is this shit so hip-hop?”  If you go through the process of digging for records and you pull up records from ’72, ’73, and that’s what you’re sampling…that kind of cultivated the reason why I’m trying to get a certain feel, one that can last. It wasn’t about whats happening right now, this summer. I know hip-hop is that way, but it’s not that way for me.

Are those classic rock guys still some of your musical pillars?

I mean, you can always go back to that shit, you can always go back to “Ramble On,” to those records, and still be like, “What the fuck was they thinking! With this pattern…and the writing.” I still listen to Zeppelin and say like “Why do I even do this, I should try something else to do with my fuckin’ life. That’s how good those songs are.

That’s why those dudes are classic. There are classic artists like Eugene Mcdaniels who weren’t commercially successful either. It’s just that that shit still resonates with me. I mean, Eugene McDaniels’ political songs…if they made sense then, they make sense now. So that’s all you can ask for…’cause we’re not here forever. [Long pause]. But…with iTunes…[laughs]. Now, the music will be there.

Aside from the purely emotional aspects, what are the connotations of the album’s name and themes when it comes to the record industry? You’ve called yourself a rebel–what forces were telling you to conform, and how?

It was real simple. All of my career with Organized Konfusion we had total artistic freedom. Now, you see whats happening in the music industry. They have to make choices, they have to decide who they want to put their money on and what songs they want to bet on, and theres a consistency to who is making money, and it gets more streamlined. Because of the economy, now you can see less major labels putting out less major records per year to try to streamline it, to try to force the consumer to fit into whatever they want them to pay attention to. So going into the W.A.R. record I’m like, “At this point in my career, I cant veer from my heart or what I know I do best.” The structure of the company was that corporations and companies who were gonna support financially–they were trying to do something different from what we were…So it wasn’t this big rebel decision to go independent, it was just a natural decision for me. The relationship I had I was like, “Look, if you’re not going to record music that you’re going to green-light and put the machine behind, then what are we all doing? We’re wasting our time. So if you could let me go I would be very grateful thank you bye bye.” That was it.

On the title track, “PTSD,” you mention how a “Chris Wallace CD” helped pull you out of your depression. What has been the importance of Biggie’s music to you, personally?

I think he was a brilliant writer, and his ability to be witty, less wordy, and still evoke emotion from both the hip-hop culture and more of a pop-hip-hop culture…that still matters to me. He was able to say, “I am overweight, I am good looking. Fuck it. I realized that.” That was like “Wow.” Talk about vulnerability, man. For him to say that and then say, “However, I do….dress nicely, get girls,” whatever the case be… That is is a part of writing that is not rappity rap or word gymnastics or whatever. That is a writing process where somebody is in touch with themselves. That’s what makes us like 2pac and makes us like Biggie. [Biggie’s] relatable to everbody in the sense he rapped about his flaws as much as he bragged. I think that is what resonated. It’s like Kanye saying, “OK, my mother taught me better than to get my money and spend it unwisely on jewelry, but to make myself feel good, I fuckin’ did it anyway.” I think people were like, “Wow I can relate to that emotion.” You’re like “I know this guy!” You don’t know them. But you feel like you do.

You incorporate your flaws into your work too, especially here on PTSD. You really lay yourself on the line here.

Well, after I’ve challenged myself on a gymnastic level with flows, ultimately the goal is becoming a better MC. Where do you need to go? You’ve been a bullet, you’ve been a fuckin unborn baby, what about you? Who are you?

The album is very tightly constructed. Even the song with Black Thought, that at first seems to be just you two trading rhymes, is called “Rapid Eye Movement,” which relates to the album’s theme of brain function. Did you ever feel constricted by PTSD‘s structure? Did you have to set some records aside because they didn’t fit?

I don’t really do that, I don’t record excess music. Usually, I’d write the script, and I’d know what the scenes are already, and I know the actors I wanna get, so I’m usually on a steady course. But doing it that way takes longer, because when I call [Black] Thought, I’m like, “I kinda need you to merge with me in this way. After that, you can kind of go in, but initially I need you to merge and take over for me. Because this fight, I can’t win it on my own and I need your help.” That’s what I want that song to feel like.

Even the visual we’re trying to create with “Bad MF” is like, if youre a radical, then shit is on the line. And there’s a price to pay about speaking about the most popular group, the government, or capitalism, or whatever. You can’t really denounce whats working for people monetarily and not have a price to pay. What happens is I get my ass kicked. That’s whats happening on [PTSD] as well, everybody who’s independent and not funded by drug money, the push is a struggle. As I’ve said, the redemption is “D.R.E.A.M.,” the redemption is my fans keeping me touring. The redemption is–I am happy. Where’s your happiness level, at the end of the day?

You know, my manager was like, “You know what should come after war? Post-traumatic stress disorder.” And my first thought was like, “Damn this shits not gonna be easy. This is a real fuckin’ thing. You’re not gonna be able to high school essay bullshit your way through this. You’re gonna have to dig a little bit. If it’s not on point with the research then you’re gonna have to give up some real experiences.” A lot of this record is from someone—I don’t want to say wise. Someone who has experienced some life.