There’s a record shop just down from Notting Hill Gate tube station in London. If you dig through the racks (‘Hip-Hop/Rap, section P’), you’ll come across a particular marked-down seven-inch record. It shows a bemused-looking Pharoahe Monch, dressed up in an Elvis jumpsuit and stunner shades, rocking a spectacular afro. The fabulous Pharoahe Monch! blares the title.
This is “Body Baby,” Monch’s most peculiar single, and one which was received by mostly nonplussed fans, who couldn’t reconcile its bouncy, ’70s funk beat with the straight-spitting Monch of the Rawkus era.
A few blocks up is a nondescript hotel apartment complex, perched on Bayswater Road like a sitting dog. Monch (born Troy Jamerson) is in one of its anonymous rooms on the third floor. Opposite him at the table is Jean Grae (born Tsidi Ibrahim), his tour buddy and increasingly frequent collaborator. It’s a music cliché to say that an artist looks tired, but both Monch and Jean Grae do. Scratch that: they look exhausted. A huge show at London’s Jazz Café the night before and an entire afternoon of video, radio and press interviews has left the duo pretty zonked.
Monch doesn’t look anything remotely like his “Body Baby” photo, and you couldn’t pick two MCs further apart in appearance. Monch is big, with a trim beard and a bulky black jacket. Jean is small and sprightly, an extravagantly-tattooed pixie, absently fingering a knuckleduster pendant. Both are at a turning point in their careers as they prep new releases. For Monch, it’s a chance to reclaim some of his rap credentials after the out-there Desire project. For Jean, the new album Cake Or Death is looking increasingly make-or-break: the rapper hasn’t had a proper solo outing since 2004’s This Week, and although she’s had a couple of fine projects with 9th Wonder and Blue Sky Black Death, her public profile in the past few years has been sporadic.
You could argue that Monch has the better shot here. His new album W.A.R is being released on Duck Down, a label with an unimpeachable track record. “The Desire album was released on Universal-SRC,” says Monch. “I felt like the advertising and promotions that I got during a period when Lil Wayne absorbed much of what was going on in an entire company, it was pretty decent sales. It was less than what I thought from a musical standpoint, but from a business aspect I was pleasantly surprised. They offered to do a re-negotiation and at this point I felt it was a no-brainer to be independent. I got a bunch of different offers, but we went with Duck Down because after sitting down with them, after fifteen years they were pretty savvy with the basics and bullshit of independent music. It’s not all gravy because it’s independent! They said, let’s partner up for this particular album, and who better to partner up with than Duck Down, Boot Camp Clik for an album called W.A.R?”
Jean, for her part, is also trodding the independent route. Her base is Blacksmith, Talib Kweli’s outfit that is also home to Strong Arm Steady. It’s a label that is less combat-tested than Duck Down, to be sure, but has the weight of Warner Brothers Records behind it, which lets Jean focus on the music and not the admin.
“For the first time, I’m trying to stay as far away from the business choices of things,” she says. “I’ve decided to really focus on being an artist, because I try to take on too many things. I realise that I can’t multitask every thing. I couldn’t possibly be anywhere else and have the creative freedom that I have right now. If I said I wanted to have midgets on the next stage show and take them on tour with me, the label would go…” she puts on a confused voice, matching it with a screwed-up face. “’OK, we don’t know where you’re going with this, but all right.’ They don’t have a problem with my ideas, whether they be brilliant or possibly land me in jail. They’ve given me the freedom to do that and told me that they trust me, and it’s not based on sales or anything other than trusting my vision.”
“Midgets?” cuts in Monch.
“Yeah, man, midgets. I’d do it!” deadpans Jean. “Take ‘em on tour with me.”
Monch laughs, a high, wheezing guffaw that sounds like Jean should be making it. They’re an odd couple, sitting here in this identikit room with its paisley bedspread and laminated table. But they seem comfortable with each other, not only touring but working on several tracks together for their respective projects.
Jean is easier to read than Monch. She’s prone to extravagant gestures and wild comparisons, while Monch is more reserved, preferring to let Jean do the talking. And there’s at least one thing on the menu that many fans won’t know about the bulky spitter from Queens. Pharoahe Monch – the fire-spitting rap monster, the recognised master of breath control, rhythm and multisyllable mayhem – has asthma. Bad asthma.
He’s never addressed it on record before, and only rarely in public. On W.A.R, he’ll finally be taking it on, albeit in a passing way. “It caused so many problems,” he says, “and it isn’t easy to talk about, and still it’s talked about lightly in the song but I think you can get the gist of where I’m going with it. It’s inhibited me in a lot of different ways. I could do an asthma album!” The wheezy laugh that follows suddenly sounds a little worrying. “I finally got fed up with the pharmaceutical aspect of it and the amount of money that I’d spent over the years, especially in the last four years before getting health insurance.”
They’ve both got their demons. Jean has often joked that albums don’t get done without vodka, and even set up a fund on Twitter for this purpose. She came onstage the night before brandishing a huge bottle, before necking it in one go. It was a showman gesture more than anything else, but was still telling. Monch says that he made a point of tackling his asthma on the new record. “I’ve missed tours and shows and festivals, and I’ve worked hard at curbing the issue so that I can work harder, and that’s what W.A.R is about: why aren’t you doing everything possible to defeat this demon? You’re doing 85%, but what prohibits you from going the whole way?”
Good question – especially in light of one of the things Okayplayer wanted to talk about, which was the closure of Fat Beats. The legendary 6th Avenue, New York shop closed for good last month for financial reasons, and is now nothing but a pile of rubble. The closure of record stores is a worldwide problem – even the Notting Hill one where Monch’s dog-eared “Body Baby” vinyl resides looked empty and downcast – but Fat Beats hit particularly hard. As New Yorkers, it’s been a key part of both Monch and Jean’s career paths, and they both say that they – and hip-hop’s audience – could have done more to save the store.
“It was a hard thing to be like, we didn’t see it coming, and the guilt pangs were there for a while,” muses Jean. “We all know why it’s closing, and I didn’t really do what I could have done; we all complain about people not buying fucking records, and not supporting the music… I could have supported the music that I love better. It was sad, and it was amazing to watch the community come together like that. My record wouldn’t have been anywhere, ever, if not for Fat Beats. It’s symbolic of understanding what’s going on in the industry, and what’s happening to actual physical copies.”
Pharoahe agrees. “The culture of going into the store and being able to see the vinyl and album cover art work displayed had a certain significance to what we chose to do professionally. I remember seeing the old Organized [Konfusion] albums up there, and being like, I am up there amongst these legendary artists, so it has significance with that as well. People would visit the city and walk up into Fat Beats, and I’d see them just standing there, not buying any thing, just being there.”
Despite the career wobbles that both MCs have undergone, there’s no question that they remain extremely popular. Their London show was sold out; fans patrolled the line outside the Jazz Café, desperately hunting down spare tickets. Today, the cavalcade of journalists lined up on the stairs to interview the duo speaks to their appeal. Would either one individually have such pull? Yes – maybe. But there’s no question that they work extremely well together onstage and on record, and it’s a throwaway comment from Monch regarding one of their tracks together on W.A.R that seals the deal. “It’s a song where we team up together to save the world,” he says, “because I can’t save the world on my own.”
- Rob Boffard
* All Pharoahe Monch photos taken by D. Nice
For more from Pharoahe Monch, watch this live performance of “Clap (One Day)” at the Jazz Cafe in London.