The Okayplayer Interview: Pharoahe Monch Talks Mental Health & New Album 'PTSD'
After a few years away Pharoahe Monch—almost universally recognized as one of hip hop’s most skilled lyricists and technically gifted MCs--is set to reclaim the spotlight in 2014. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Organized Konfusion LP Stress: The Extinction Agenda, as well as the 15th anniversary of his debut solo effort on Rawkus Records, Internal Affairs. Most importantly, however, Monch is set to drop his first album since 2011’s W.A.R. (We Are Renegades), a follow-up titled PTSD.
PTSD is only Pharoahe Monch’s fourth record in 15 years, but each of his albums have maintained a consistent level of excellence. PTSD shows Monch at his most personal, and is arguably his best crafted and most focused effort to date. The album focuses heavily on mental disorders and follows a loose storyline centered around a man dealing with post-traumatic stress. Guests on the album include Black Thought and Talib Kweli, while the production is held down by Marco Polo, Lee Stone, Quelle Chris and others.
Okayplayer recently had the opportunity to chat with Monch during a haircut to talk about mental health issues, including his own bout with depression; why he decided the make PTSD a full-length LP instead of an EP; his opinion of Nas’ “I Gave You Power”; and more. PTSD is set to drop April 15.
OKP: First off, congrats on the new album. I’ve been playing it quite a bit the past few days.
PM: Thank you, man.
OKP: When you first announced the title for the project it was slated to be an EP, what made you decide to make it a full-length album?
PM: I recorded the title track and “Broken Again,” and I was like, ‘this deserves to be an album.’ So I was like, let me keep going and make it a full-rounded thing. Those two songs kind of hit me really strong, so I didn’t want to just stop there.
PM: We were just still recording. We wanted to put something out because I hadn’t released any music in a long time. We had a bulk of the album completed, but a lot of the hesitation was waiting for features and engineers. I could block out a month of time in the studio and mix the album as well. So a lot of the stuff is contingent on other people’s time.
OKP: “Damage” revisits the theme of you rapping from the perspective of a bullet (as on 2007’s “Gun Draws” and Organized Konfusion’s 1994 single “Stray Bullet”), what made you decide to stay with that concept?
PM: I think “Stray Bullet” is a classic, and I followed that with “Gun Draws.” I heard the music (to “Damage”), that chorus came to mind, and I was like, we should just complete it from my perspective, you know, from my writing because it’s a trilogy. Let’s just go ahead and finish it up, and make it be the last song from that perspective.
OKP: What were your thoughts when you first heard Nas’ “I Gave You Power” which has a very similar concept?
PM: I thought it was dope, man. With Premier on the beat, and the whole concept to what we had done – I’m a fan. So I thought it was dope.
OKP: Did you ever get to talk to Nas about that track?
PM: Yeah a couple years back, we talked about how we had a lot of similar concepts. And how he would be doing these interviews, and people would be like, “yo you know Organized Konfusion did that? You know Pharoahe Monch did that?” So he was like, let me holler at dude because it’s in the same light. We did something similar with “Fetus” as well – from the baby, unborn child perspective.
OKP: PTSD deals a lot with mental disorders, you’ve said in interviews that you’ve dealt with depression in the past, were any of these songs on album drawn from personal experiences from that time?
PM: All of my music is from personal experience. I had a severe bout (of depression) due to a concoction of medication I was taking at the time for my asthma. I had a severe attack, and I was getting high dosages of (medication). I just had a big reaction, and I wasn’t able to put my finger on the side effects.
And later I got out of the hospital, I was still taking the pill version. I had went to the dentist, and they asked me to write my medications down for them. And they had brought me in for a consultation, and they were like, ‘I don’t know if you know that this mixture of medication and what the side effects are.’ And that was the first time that, it blew me away because I didn’t know what was keeping me down – the way I was feeling. It was just like regular issues that I could [have] figured out before…all of a sudden I hit a wall. So on the record, I relate to people who have that issue naturally or going through it for whatever reason, I’m able to pull from that experience, feel me?
OKP: On “Losing My Mind” you say “My family customs are not accustomed to dealing with mental health, it was more or less an issue for white families with wealth.” According to a recent study, 63 percent of black people believe that depression is a sign of weakness and only 31 percent of black people think that depression is a “health problem.”
PM: Yeah basically that’s the gist of the line. When I was going through what I was going through, my crew, when I was going to my friends, they were more or less, ‘oh word? Smoke a blunt. Have a beer. You’ll be better.’ So it’s not something that’s discussed regularly. Whereas now, I think it’s more a regularly discussed topic amongst Afro-Americans.
I do think dealing with that, in the different cultures is different at this point. If you’re just talking about the perspective of the media, how depression leads to illnesses was portrayed years ago. But it wasn’t portrayed as something that [applies to] an impoverished neighborhood, or people of poverty, or of a particular color, or people in the hood. It wasn’t discussed as that type of problem. So if you look at the kids in Chicago and what they’re going through, with the violence and things of that nature….it’s a whole new thing that could cause severe effects, or traumatic experiences for people that could foster anxiety or depression, for that matter.
OKP: And that kind of ties in with songs like “Damage” and “Stray Bullet.” Do you think that more awareness of mental health issues could help prevent gun violence?
PM: It’s so many different things that would resolve tension. The prevention of gun violence is so layered, it’s not just registration. It’s teaching, education, prevention, so many different things. It’s not just one thing, you know. Our culture is a gun-driven culture, you know.
OKP: It’s going on 15 years since your solo debut album, Internal Affairs, are you doing anything to celebrate or recognize that anniversary?
PM: Um, not really. We’re dealing with the 20th anniversary of the Stress album – the Organized Konfusion. We’re really focused on PTSD, you know.
OKP: Last year you and Prince Po reunited for a track on Marco Polo’s album, do you think you two will ever get back together for another Organized Konfusion project?
PM: We got music coming out, I’m on Prince’s new album that he has coming out. And we’re putting out an anniversary album with a new song on it. It’s a good look, you know what I’m saying.
OKP: When can we expect that anniversary album?
PM: It should be out this summer.
OKP: Do you ever wish you were able to release more music than 4 albums in 15 years or do you think your small catalog has been able to maintain a level of consistency?
PM: I think so. I think that quality over quantity has done well for me, in the sense that each of my four records have been well received. The first reports we’re getting back from the reviews for this PTSD album have been incredible. I prefer to take my time and work on records--and experience life--than to do five mixtapes a week.