Uncompromising like Newman's own Cool Hand Luke, Pharoahe Monch stares down authority, overcomes obstacles and defies expectations. Emerging from an eight-year, contract squabble-induced hiatus, Monch came back with Desire in June, burning with a fresh attitude and renewed focus.
He's under no illusions; he's been around long enough to have seen how the game works.
"Obviously, if you've got Pharoahe Monch fans saying, 'I heard your new album's dropping,' and if it's dropped already, then there's a problem," he says with characteristic frankness.
"This album could very well end up being a promotional tool at the end of the day," he continues. "I've been saying since the beginning that it was always about branding my name. As I continue to brand my name, it starts to make sense for people to invest their time and finances in what this is all about. But I have to be a little more consistent."
He's referring, of course, to the intervening years since his torrid '99 solo debut, Internal Affairs. Before that, Monch had been half of Organized Konfusion, an underrated Queens-based duo, contemporaries of the Native Tongues posse. Of course, that's easily forgotten when, for years, no one's had anything to grab onto other than the occasional guest spots (i.e., Pete Rock's "Just Do It," Rass Kass' "See What I See") and stray singles (2003's "Agent Orange" and 2002's "The Life" with Styles P). He's almost been a ghost in the public eye.
He'll argue that this isn't a bad thing, though, when the absence is finally filled with an album like Desire. "It allowed me to create something so entirely new that it's affecting people in a different way because it's not what people expected," he says.
After a gospel intro announces his freedom, Desire opens with "Free," a dark soulful tune spiked with peals of guitar and lyrics that assail the industry that held him down. That's followed by the resilient title track, in which he promises to "protect my name like your anus in prison," and a Stax-flavored testament to empowerment called "Push." This powerful kickoff triumvirate is capped with a cover of Public Enemy's particularly relevant "Welcome to the Terrordome."
Desire "is just an overall statement about perseverance and push in turbulent times. And for me, those times were personal shit as well as label politics," he says. "The perseverance to create how you want to create and have integrity all those things made up the record."
What happened during those lost years is Pharoahe Monch got trapped in the post-millennial major-label buying spree in which his label, Rawkus, became part of MCA and then part of Geffen Records. Monch worked to free himself from Geffen and Rawkus, and almost signed with Detroit producer Denaun Porter's Shady Records imprint Runyon Ave. before negotiations broke down.
"At the time, I was like, 'I'm not doing a record unless I can do it on Shady.' But, you know, the business side of things with labels involved soured the deal for everybody," Monch says.
He finally landed on the Universal Records subsidiary, Street Records, run by former Loud Records founder Steve Rifkin, and boasting artists such as Akon, Wu Tang Clan and Terror Squad. Monch still ended up collaborating with Porter on two Desire tracks "When the Gun Draws," which presents the bullet's remorseless point-of-view, and the album-closing, three-act crime drama, "Trilogy."
"At one point, I wanted to spread the stories throughout the record, but Denaun was like, 'You confuse people enough as it is. Let's just put this shit together,'" he explains. "I produce tracks as well, and I learned [from Porter] a whole other level and way to approach producing a record. It's just all the things that he's learned from Dr. Dre and from J Dilla that widen your scope and your approach to song-making."
Of course, Porter isn't the only Detroit-area producer making an appearance on Desire. Black Milk contributes production on two tracks the bobbing "Let's Go" and Monch's barstool loverman twist, "Bar Tap," both featuring the alluring vocals of Mela Machinko. Monch is not shy regarding his love for the area.
"Everybody knows I've publicly stated that Detroit is picking it up with everything they're doing on the music side of things, from Eminem to the J Dilla stuff to Black Milk to Guilty Simpson. All that shit is really just incredible," he says.
He would know. Monch spent plenty of time over the years working with different artists and producers, including De La Soul and Kanye West. One of the most interesting pairings recently found him writing two tracks with Diddy for last year's hit Press Play. The rap mogul was very complimentary, according to Monch, but that didn't prevent Puffy from cracking a mean whip.
"He pushed me hard and I welcomed that," says Monch. But it wasn't always smooth. "At first, I'm like, 'I'm Pharoahe fucking Monch, write a line over? Are you kidding me?'"
But he came around and appreciated working with Combs. In fact, Monch walked away impressed with how hard Combs worked, and it's something that inevitably rubbed off on Desire.
"Most millionaires spend 23 hours a day doing what they're doing," Monch says, "and I think a lot of creative, talented, gifted, genius prodigy type of artists, do what they do, like on a whim, when they're inspired. And that's one of the reasons why you don't see a lot of talented people shining. I busted my ass on those songs down in Miami. And when I got back to my album ... well, if you work that hard for him on that, of course you're going to work 125 percent on your own shit."
Currently on tour with Rock the Bells, featuring a diverse lineup that includes Talib Kweli, Wu Tang Clan, Nas and David Banner ("You just feel something very different when these groups are hitting the stage"), Monch is backed for the first time by a live band that includes Alicia Keys' musical director on keys and the drummer for Fort Minor. He hints that this new approach might play a role on the style of his next album.
"As I learn more about [live backing] and how to make it sound [the way] I want it to sound, I eventually want to incorporate that," he says. "It's exciting because I know how I want the new album to feel. And you know it's going to take people by surprise as well."
Pharoahe Monch with Wu Tang Clan, Nas, Talib Kweli, David Banner, Immortal Techniques and Jedi Mind Tricks, Rahzel and Supernatural. Rock the Bells tour. Wednesday, Aug. 29, 1 p.m. $20/$42.50, at DTE Energy Music Center, 7774 Sashabaw Rd., Clarkston; 248-645-6666.
Chris Parker is a freelancer writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org