It’s been seven long years since Pharoahe Monch advised us all to “get the f*ck up” on his hit “Simon Says.” The song’s unlicensed Godzilla sample got the record “Internal Affairs” pulled from shelves, but it’s the former Organized Konfusion member’s latest album, “Desire,” that is now towering over an unsuspecting populace.
Following the success of “Simon Says,” Monch left Rawkus Records, and endured more than his share of label issues — including a failed deal with Shady Records — before being picked up by Steve Rifkind’s Street Records Corporation, a division of Universal Music Group. He quickly got back in the game by remixing Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” last year.
“Desire,” Monch’s second album, reached No. 58 on The Billboard 200 and 13 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts. It is somewhat of a schizophrenic set. The album finds Monch effortlessly jumping from R&B on “So Good” to an Elvis impersonation on “Body Baby”, culminating in the 9-minute revenge epic “Trilogy,” all while maintaining his complex lyrical style. Billboard.com spoke with Monch while he was on the road, making his own “desires” known and explaining why he won’t let another seven years go by before the world hears from him again.
What does the title of your album, “Desire,” mean for you personally?
I have to have a strong desire to persevere through the turmoil of that whole [label politics] thing. It’s that push, that drive to make that record.
The production on your album is very different this time around, incorporating jazz, soul, R&B and other influences. Why the change in production style?
To fit the mood of what I was trying to convey, not only lyrically, I wanted to incorporate vocals and incorporate instrumentation to fit that inspirational vibe of the song. Rock inspirations, soul inspirations… There’s an air of hope with some of the record. So that was done to make this record cohesive.
You chose to do an update of Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” What drew you to that song?
Well, I’m a huge fan, and I like challenges. I like to bite off a lot and put myself out of my shoes. If I heard someone was doing that, I’d be like, “I gotta hear that for myself.” So that put that extra pressure on me. And when I got the beat, I just started doing that verse. So we played the verse for Chuck [D. of Public Enemy], and he liked it.
The song “When the Gun Draws” is very thematically similar to a previous song you did, “Stray Bullet.” Why did you revisit that concept?
All these things are kind of taboo, and my approach to making the album [was] already unconventional, so I was like, “How about I do a part two?” I thought, “That song was so cinematic; let’s do some more scenes. Let’s add on to that song. As well as, let’s push the envelope, in terms of hip-hop, in terms of what you’re not supposed to do and what you can do.” Even eight years ago, I wouldn’t have thought about covering another rap record, but the boundaries have been pushed, so I’m ready to push them in a direction that I’m happy with. I just loved the track, and I couldn’t do it in the obvious way.
Do you feel like you try to push the envelope with the record as a whole?
Yeah. Even the song “Push,” with me trying to sing an entire verse. I’d never done a whole verse. so to me that was pretty scary. It’s not safe at all. I don’t think it’s a very safe record, which is what I’m proud of. It’s easy for you to just get comfortable. It would have been nothing for me to just get with an A-list producer and bang out some songs with some good rhymes on them. But what I wanted was to challenge myself. That’s what makes it interesting for me. But on “Trilogy,” the first record [of the three-part song] we recorded much before, and we were just going to leave it as a skit. Leave it open-ended. But then I tried to challenge myself to make it more than that.
Why did you choose to make “Trilogy” have three distinct parts in a single track?
I thought that would be extreme from the fan perspective, thinking of things I would like to hear and similar things I’ve heard in the past with like Gangstarr, where they’ll switch the beat up with their rhymes. If you’re going to write cinematically, each scene is different, so I was like, why don’t we cater to what’s being said with each verse.
You’ve always operated beneath the radar. Do you feel like that allows you to be more adventurous with your music?
I think from an artist’s perspective, you listen to a piece of music and tell which people are good or talented. I think it’s obvious that this record comes from an artist’s perspective. And I think all of those people to some degree feel like what they’re doing should be Top 40 — to some degree. And I still feel like this record has content that has a longer shelf life then a ringtones album, which is going to allow it to top on different levels. Still, doing this record, I knew we were going to get on the road. We already planned to do that prior to making the record, so that allowed me to be comfortable with making this type of record. That being said, I still look at songs on there, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the product. I think there’s something wrong with the system.
Do you feel like there aren’t many unique voices in rap right now?
That’s hard to say, because that’s definitely an opinion, but certain songs like “Gun Draws”, “Trilogy” and “Push”… I think there are a handful of artists who would attempt that type of record. People like Eminem, Nas, Kanye, a couple of others.
Kanye’s new album is pretty unconventional too, with the pop culture direction and the eschewing of collaborations.
That’s awesome. That’s the same thing I did, you know? Kanye, that’s the first time I heard him stand out when he was talking about how people weren’t taking him seriously as a rapper. I was like,” that’s the best album I’ve heard all year.” So he’s all of those things, because he came through and was a sponge. He embodies a top quality arranger, producer, emcee and songwriter. So just by him taking that step alone gives you something to talk about. That’s why he’s in a space where a lot of peers are trying to be. You gotta take chances. Sometimes chances don’t pan out, but you gotta take them.
One of the chances you take on your album, the soulful vocal on “Body Baby”, is not something you hear on the radio. Do you think that’s more acceptable now that Gnarls Barkley and Cee-lo are doing the whole soulful vocal thing?
Yeah. I think a hit record is a hit record. People just appreciate good music, and the way things get to the forefront is always a mystery. You can’t really say what’s a hit and what’s not a hit. That song [“Body Baby”] in particular garnered me three major record deals by people just hearing that chorus and saying, “Oh my god, this is bananas.” So the Gnarls Barkley record is another record that I heard for the first time and was like, “This is ridiculous.” It’s great for everybody that it got the exposure that it did. Speaking of which, “Body Baby,” that’s one of the older records I recorded for this album.
You recently did a remix of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” What made you choose that song?
The music is just incredible. The album is incredible. She’s incredible. [She’s got] talent with a credible vocal. And the topic was real, and I just thought it would be funny if I put a pop culture spin on it. I don’t think it’s funny straight up and down, but I think the way that media covers it is a bit ridiculous. Someone was like, “You’re on the same label, I could get you that instrumental,” and I said, “Let’s just do it.”
You played the Rock the Bells festival. Was there anyone in particular you were excited to perform with?
Rage. Dream come true. No disrespect to Zack [de la Rocha], but if he ever twists his ankle, I would be the Zack stand in.
What direction do you think you’re going to move in next?
There are just so many directions, so many things. I’m just trying to narrow it down so I can focus, but there are just so many open slots and invitations to do collaborations. Right now I’m focusing on the tour, but after that I want to start work on the next record so it won’t be another seven-year layoff. It’s exciting. I’m excited. It’s almost the end of the second quarter. It’s definitely not the fourth quarter; it’s only halftime.