Pharoahe Monch, PTSD
This fall, legendary Queens emcee Pharoahe Monch returns with a new EP, PTSD. The record is a continuation of the story he began telling on his 2011 album W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). Just as the terrors of post-traumatic stress disorder follow real-life encounters with war, this collection of songs chronicles, in ways both literal and metaphoric, the results of the rapper’s encounter with the music industry as an independent artist. With four brand-new songs and a remix so vastly different from its predecessor that to call it a “remix” hardly seems fair, the album continues Pharoahe’s career-long habit of making smart, uncompromising music, while being unafraid to move in sonically surprising directions.
I sat down with Pharoahe to listen to and talk about the project. At an apartment in Brooklyn, only a short drive from his native Southside, I heard still-unfinished versions of the songs and we had a wide-ranging chat about the nature of the new project. He told me about the connections between his two most recent albums, beyond their titles. W.A.R. was the emcee’s first independent release, and the new business situation came with both long-awaited freedom and unforeseen new challenges.
“The W.A.R. album was like, I’m going to battle against the machine, I’m doing this independently,” he said. “I’m putting some things out that that I learned and I’m going to expose about the music industry. PTSD is the result of me doing that, where I am emotionally now. It’s similar to how someone comes back ,from war and is stricken by re-adjusting to a regular situation.”
The album follows a veteran through combat experience, his return home, relationship dissolution, drug addiction, painful depression, and, finally, a triumphant but realistically rendered decision to keep living and struggling. The story mirrors that of many real-life war veterans, with the character’s problems with heroin mirroring the problems of many returning Vietnam servicemen in the early 1970’s – a 1971 study found that a fifth of all soldiers in that war had tried the drug, and that up to 12% of soldiers relapsed into use after returning home.
In addition, the very sound of the record matches both that drug and that era. In keeping with the Vietnam-era themes, traditional-sounding hip-hop beats are mostly jettisoned, and many of the tunes are indebted musically to 1970’s progressive rock stalwarts like King Crimson (who Monch is a big fan of, and interpolated on his last album, well before Yeezy’s “Power” made it hip) and Pink Floyd. In addition, some of the vocals in the songs where the character is high are delivered in a behind-the-beat, dreamy fashion.
The record begins with “Damage,” which is the final piece of a trilogy of songs the rapper has written from the point of view of a bullet. (It should be noted here that the first one, Organized Konfusion’s “Stray Bullet,” pre-dates Nas’ similar “I Gave You Power” by two years). In this chapter, the bullet is portrayed as psychotic and gleefully destructive, something that gave Pharoahe pause when the real-life shooting incident in Aurora, Colorado at The Dark Knight Rises made his rather convincing in-song portrayal of such a character have a little more resonance than he intended.
“The song was laid way before that incident, which kind of threw me for a loop,” Pharoahe said. “I like to embody different characters. And this dude, like I said in the verse, ‘I’m sorta certified, fortified live.’ It’s not a dude actually, it’s the bullet that’s going crazy in this incident, just going wild and not caring what’s happening. It’s like a frenzy at that point. That’s what threw me for a loop with the tragic incident that happened with the Dark Knight situation. So I went back and examined that character. I was looking at the dude on TV and realized the mindset [I expressed in the song] is what you have to be in to be that psychotic.”
That tune is followed by “The Jungle,” the most traditionally hip-hop sounding tune on the otherwise experimental and classic rock-infused project. The song started its life as a funky banger, complete with James Brown’s oft-sampled “In the jungle, brother” exhortation from “I Got to Move.” But that version of the song got scrapped after Pharoahe used some of the words on a mixtape tune. The final version, which compares the city and a literal jungle in a marvel of extended metaphor, has a beat by Marco Polo that reminded Pharoahe of his beloved home borough.
“When I heard this Marco Polo track, I was like, yo, this is it,” he recalled. “This is the soundscape for the city. This is so, so, so Queens. This is 40 PJs, this is Baisley [Park Houses], this is Southside, this is Lefrak, this is Queensbridge, Jamaica Ave – I gotta have this. So we re-intrepreted the lyrics and the feel.”
The tune also shouts out cultural touchstones from the rapper’s younger days, including 80’s TV shows and movies, as well as that staple of any party in that era, be it hood or suburb,:wine coolers. “It took, like, eight wine coolers to get a nice buzz, you know?” he reminisced. “We were bugging back then. And then we’d take the wine coolers and put them in the forty [ounce malt liquor bottles]. And then we would [also] take Hawaiian Punch and put it in the 40 and try to make wine coolers out of them. You empty it to the top of the forty label, and then you fill it back up with Hawaiian Punch. And the fructose plus the beer? Whoo! It’s crazy!”
After “The Jungle” comes “Broken Again.” “This guy comes back from the war, and his girl couldn’t wait for him because he kept having to go back,” Monch explained. “This is a story about that love lost, but I compare it to heroin the whole way through. It’s a beautiful song, but it’s a horror story as well.”
The last new song on the album is the title track. “PTSD” is a potent, anguished song that finds the character feeling morbidly depressed and contemplating suicide. To help create that depressed mind state, Pharoahe thought about a rough patch in his own life. After having his biggest hit, “Simon Says,” in 2000, the rapper ran into a series of career setbacks. He went through a lawsuit over a sample on that song, which ended in having his album pulled from stores. After that, he went through a rocky series of record deals. It ended up being almost eight years between albums for Monch.
“The label started wanting to control more of what I were recording,” he told me. “For an artist, that’s a death sentence. I was at my lowest lows, even though I wasn’t financially struggling at all. I just want to create the way I want to create, and I was tied into all these label situations and all of this legal shit. So I pulled from that emotion to create that song.”
The album ends with a remix of “The Grand Illusion,” a song originally on W.A.R. The revamped beat was played by the Connecticut band The Stepkids, which features former Alicia Keys guitarist Jeff Gitelman. The dissonant, untraditional beat called for a new vocal take by Pharoahe, even though the words are largely unchanged.
“In terms of my rhyme pocket, I wanted to be in and out, because the song is so trippy,” Pharoahe explained. “The drums are played behind the beat, and I wanted my vocals feel like that as well. So I didn’t want to just take the a capella [from the previous version] and place it on there. I wanted to play with my flow a little bit more.”
PTSD is currently scheduled for a Halloween release, to tie in with Pharoahe’s long-running obsession with the number 13 – the date, the 31st, only needs its numbers reversed to fit. The rapper’s new project is sure to turn the heads of those who, as he put it, have the “temperament and education for what real hip-hop is” and are “proud and strong in their culture.” After hearing this incredibly special collection of songs, we definitely agree.
– Shawn Setaro (@SameOldShawn) Rap Genius E.I.C