In the years since the release of his debut solo album, 1999’s Internal Affairs, Rawkus has folded and been resurrected. Pharoahe Monche has teased us with rumors of label signings and scant guest appearances, and checks from Bad Boy for ghostwriting don’t bounce. The industry, which continues to lose its greats to murder, prison, politics and unexpected death, has been overrun by subpar talents. And with Internal Affairs being out of print and his Organized Konfusion albums impossible to find, Pharoahe’s story has become a kind of urban legend.
His return — with Desire, released in late June — should have incited a celebration, but it was more likely a collective sigh. Another one almost lost. For a generation, Pharoahe, Kweli, Common and Mos Def are the reason to love hip-hop. But Common has lost his edge, Kweli constantly experiments with production, and Mos has found the greener pastures of Hollywood. For Desire, expectations are riding high enough to fill your backpack to the brim. So to mark his return, here’s a look at nine of his greatest songs, with insight from Pharoahe himself.
The first track is "Fudge Pudge," which had O.C. on it and was the second track on Organized Konfusion’s classic self-titled debut in 1991. Recently there were some rumors that he was joining Organized Konfusion. Was this true or is he just extended fam?
Never. He was just an emcee on the block who was nice, and he was rockin’ with us, rollin’ with us to different events but always doing his own thing. We was like, "Yo, man, get him on this record."
When you did "Releasing Hypnotical Gases" for that same album, were you guys trippin’?
I mean, you know the recording process at that time — we would just go to the studio with a box of records. The recording process is so different now with Pro Tools. Back in the day, to transition from something that was slow to something that was fast, they had to cut the two-inch tape all types of crazy shit. That in itself was a mission. I’m a fan of bands like Zepplin and Weather Report, which we sampled for that song, and seeing them play the first stanza of a song at a slow tempo and then actually pick it up, I was like, How do you do that with a drum machine?" So I felt like I got to do a song like this and be like my favorite band ï¿½ that’s where all that madness comes from.
For me, the title track from Organized Konfusion’s second album (Stress: The Extinct Agenda, 1994) captures that mid-’90s New York City feel — that interlude with the cabbie scene, for example. How did this track come about?
One of the best things about being in emcee is that it’s therapy and a blessing to be able to express yourself and have an audience respond to your frustrations. I knew it was a tool to report, whether it was gansterism, thugism or the stress that was going on at that time in Manhattan, or just trying to catch a fucking cab. Buckwild did the beat, and those horns where just in a manic space. I was like, "What will meet the tenacity of these horns?" I was feeling stressed, so if we express that, we can make a good marriage with this record. And then being Organized Konfusion let’s you really take it there with the verses.
One of my favorites on Internal Affairs is "Behind Closed Doors." Did you really record Internal Affairs in Lee Stone’s basement?
Yeah. His parents have a two-family house so he set up a studio in the upper section of the house. We called it Grandma’s Hands, because he used a quilt his grandmother made to be the sound barrier thing in the vocal room. That whole album was recorded in a closet, and so was a little bit of this album as well. For songs like "What It Is," I was like, "I wanna go back into the closet."
Let’s get into Desire. You got introduced to Black Milk, who guests on "Let’s Go," through Denaun Porter (Kon Artis). This is that big-hype energy track that you get on a Pharoahe album. Is that the vibe you where trying to get?
I was in the studio. Slum Village came through, and they were like, "You haven’t heard that Black Milk shit yet?" And I am like, "No, you told me but . . ." Then he came through with his machine and started playing tracks, and I am like, "Oh my god. Oh my god." But as soon as he played that beat straight from the machine, I was like, "Hook up the mike now. Bring the engineer in. Let’s get this energy right now. I have something for it." I spit fourteen of the sixteen on the first verse and wrote the second verse. And like you said, this high energy — I made this for the album. But the second verse I wanted to give people more to think about. I thought that song was good because there is not much to think about. It is what it is. You hear the beat, then the emcee gets on it. I don’t have any yes men in my camp. My close friends be like, "You think too much. Just fucking rhyme."
The last track is "Desire." I remember hearing you spit the line a year ago at a Kweli concert: "Slave to my label, but I own my masters." This stuck in my head because of the Rawkus stuff, all the label/industry bullshit you have had to deal with over the years, the hiatus —
(loud boisterous voice) All culminated into one line!
Well, it reminds me of that Clipse line, "These crackers ain’t playing fair, Jive." As a listener, it seemed like this is you saying what you got to say. I may be reading into it to much . . .
No, no, no. It’s a nice line. It’s why Desire is the title of the album. It’s why it’s a standout record on the album. It’s why I think it’s a standout line. You get those moments — especially when you continue poking at your soul — to be like, "Put your soul on the tape. Put your soul on the tape. Put your soul on the tape." Sometimes you get those special lines. I thought that line was pretty hot — a standout line. There are some nice lines on that song, if I do say so myself (laughs). But I think it is poignant in a lot of different ways and, like you said, even if the words are kind of of blurred you can just feel the energy off that part, even if you couldn’t make out what was said at the show. That’s a lot of what the album’s about. That song gives you a certain feeling to me. That’s why I went in the direction I went with it, if that makes any sense.
So, just tell me a bit about Desire.
After two decades of waiting, I think it’s well-worth the wait. It took a lot of integrity to make this record. I could have put other records out on other labels, but it would have had that trendy R&B dude on it. It took a lot of patience as well. I think it’s the perfect timing, because I don’t think it would have been the same record two years ago or three years ago. I think it’s perfect now for a lot of different reasons.