Legendary MC Pharoahe Monch talks Internal Affairs, the inspiration behind his new music and reflects on his legacy.
RD: The year your debut solo album, Internal Affairs, was released (1999) was a special one for rap music—it also included the likes of Dr Dre's 2001, Method Man and Redman's Blackout! and Mos Def's Black on Both Sides. How do you think your offering has held up against that competition over the years?
PM: I think Internal Affairs is one of the greatest solo releases from an artist that has previously been in a group ever in the history of hip-hop. That's how I feel about it.
I look back on that part [of my career] and I’m really proud of it. I think it’s really quite amazing. I think we hit the mark, for the most part, you know?
RD: During the recording of Internal Affairs, how certain were you that it would have the longevity it has had, to still be popular 20 years on?
PM: That was the goal. My goal was [to create that feeling] when you feel the vibration of a song and it makes you say, wow, this is really cool, and this is not cool like you're feeling it now, this is transcending cool.
You know, when I [was making the beat for] Simon Says, I was like, yo, this is different. This has the possibility of being groundbreaking before I even wrote [lyrics] to it.
RD: Which tracks, apart from Simon Says, define that album for you?
PM: No Mercy, Behind Closed Doors, and Queens, because [with those songs] I allowed myself to be fully immersed within the song and when any MC does that—immerses themselves and develops a voice—I think it's infinite.
When you're authentically you, and you have an authentic voice, no one can take that away from you.
RD: When you're in getting into the zone of recording new music, do you ever find yourself relistening to your tracks from that era and envisioning where your head was at, at that time?
PM: Definitely. I think that’s important, you know? In my thought process, I'm always playing with time—I think about time differently from how I think an average person does. I've always felt that time is relative, so when I go back and listen to Internal Affairs, it's in a capsule.
When I was recording it, I know I was thinking about trying to make sure it has a shelf life. That's something I've always thought of in terms of career.
RD: Internal Affairs felt like you were creating the exact album you wanted to at that exact moment in time. Do you feel any pressure to conform to the expectations of rappers in 2019, or are you still making whatever music feels right that day in the studio?
PM: This new record I’m about to release is so off the beaten path of what is happening right now. I think Internal Affairs was too.
If you think about 1999, you mentioned some seminal records from really gold artists, but you can't forget the context of when that was happening. Speaking for New York—because I don't know what is going on in the rest of the world—that stuff was dominating 1998, 1999, 2000… Internal Affairs wasn't a f**k you to that, it was just an I don't give a f**k about whatever the new trend is. And I'm still like that now. A lot of the stuff that's popular now, I do love. A lot of artists our right now that are popular, I love.
"When you're authentically you, and you have an authentic voice, no one can take that away from you"
I'm inspired by the whole gamut of music from dudes who are excellent with bars like Your Old Droog, to all the way across the other end of the spectrum. You know, I don’t know any trap music that I like, but if it was arranged and produced a certain way, I’m not going to fight the fact that then I may be like, “This is incredible.” I allow myself to be open to anything.
I’m an individual consummate artist in the sense that I don't need to ask or see what society’s saying about something. You could just play me five artists that I’ve never heard of and I’ll be able to decide on my own. I don’t need to check whether they’re popular or not.
RD: Music culture today is so different from when Internal Affairs was released. Your fans back then would have bought physical copies and listened to them religiously for months. Nowadays, new rap music is so instant and internet-based, meaning projects get forgotten very quickly…
PM: Yeah, the attention span is completely gone. It is what it is. I'm not now going to decide to make 30-second songs on a five-minute album because of that, you know? I'm going to do what I do because, at the end of the day, I'm an artist. I haven't ever done this for a quick buck, or whatever has been trendy, so there's no need to do that now.
My new project is immersive from beginning to end. I'm not trying to jump into somebody else's lane—you've never heard anything like this before. So long after I'm not on this planet anymore, and it doesn't matter what we did in the proverbial digital crate of what was released and when it was released, people will still be able to say in 2020, this is what Pharoahe had to offer.
"I've tried to not be complicated just for the sake of being complicated"
RD: It's a generalisation, but most Pharoahe Monch fans will be part of the older hip-hop generation and will expect your tastes to match theirs. Do you enjoy any modern commercial rap?
PM: I'm already happy with this interview because I [can explain that I] love Migos and lots of other music that people might not think I like. First of all, I think Migos are really good at what they do. And I think they're technically good at what they do. And then I think they're very well-produced—what they do is done in an excellent way for the purpose of it becoming popular. My favourite Migos song is T-Shirt.
So I'm not saying that I don't like what's happening now. I'm saying that I'm making a conscious choice to do everything that I'm doing. I want everyone to know that I'm not b**********g here, I really do f**k with them, but this project is the antithesis of that style. And I don't mean that in a disrespectful way.
RD: Your name always comes up when people discuss hip-hop’s greatest lyricists. When you're writing, do you feel a sense of pressure to stay at that level?
PM: I don't have apprehension about writing simple bars, because I think they're all important, so long as they're meaningful or so long as the simplicity or the pop-ness of a certain sound makes sense in the context of what’s happening.
I've tried to not be complicated just for the sake of being complicated, I've tried to keep it meaningful. Since Internal Affairs, I've done a project called PTSD; which just dealt with my depression. And a lot of that album was [made up of] slow tempos because that’s what [depression] felt like. It’s not about anxiety, a fast rate type of thing, so I wanted to give people an interpretation of what it felt like to be super depressed. Writing introspectively is not about being the best MC at all.
RD: Simon Says contains the iconic line, "Pharoahe f*****g Monch, ain't a damn thing changed." What changes do you see in yourself as a rapper and a person in the 20 years since Internal Affairs?
PM: As an artist, I'm constantly trying to grow. Even now I’m looking for inspiration to learn and to grow. You know, I’m learning from my peers still, from back then and my peers now. I’m learning from J Cole and I’m learning from Kendrick [Lamar].
Internal Affairs was super aggressive. I had just left the group [Organized Konfusion] and I still felt like I needed to show the culture and the music industry that I could stand on my own. So there's that fervour in the album.
I think over the last 20 years, I've allowed myself to express how I've grown in songs like Still Standing with Jill Scott. I've grown to speak about what I've been through and who I am as a person. And I took a while to get to that point, over the course of 20 years.
RD: Are you proud of Internal Affairs' legacy? It's consistently named as a top 50 hip-hop album, which must evoke really positive emotions in you…
PM: It does. I think as an MC, you try to battle. You know, I've told my manager before that I’m going to go on Twitter and say that my new project s**ts on Internal Affairs and it’s twice as good and the bars are better, and he said, "that's really weird. You don't want to do that."
I do have to respect the fact that Internal has stood the test of time, which is not easy to do, and be respectful of it. We just recently did the 20th-anniversary [celebration] at the Kennedy Centre [in Washington DC] and we had a discussion the day before the performance, and that's when I kind of finally had to allow it to sink in and I was like, holy s**t, this is all about me.
"Writing introspectively is not about being the best MC at all"
Fifteen minutes into the Q&A I realised that I needed to accept that there are people here that paid for a ticket in the audience to hear a discussion about the making of this album, and I just spiritually fell out to the floor and just gave thanks and was super humbled and honoured that I was able to accept that in myself and accept, you know, that we did a good job. We did a damn good job.
RD: It took you 20 years to realise that?
PM: I'm serious, man. If you speak to most artists that I know, they always think they could do better, they're not satisfied. I have to top the last thing that I did.
Picasso wasn't looking at last year's work thinking, Let me stop what I'm doing now because I'm already so amazing I might as well quit.
RD: If you'd never released Internal Affairs, and seen success as a solo artist, what career path would you have taken instead?
PM: Having dealt with having asthma, I've often thought about how maybe I should have gone to med school and used my brain to help people. But then I fall back and I think about how music helps people to get through their day and it’s healing as well, so I take some honour in that.
About the interviewer: Rowan Faife is a rapper, YouTuber and events promoter. He worked as a consultant and lyric writer for the BBC-backed film, VS. He's currently the host and coordinator for the Don't Flop 11th Birthday Tour. He tweets at @twitteurgh