On a dry March night in New York City the basement at SOBS night club has been converted into a bomb shelter. Lil Fame from M.O.P. Jean Grae, Large Professor, Mr. Len, !llmind, Skyzoo, King Of Chill, Showtyme, Mela Machinko, Styles P, DJ Boogie Blind, Dru Ha, Shucky Ducky, Craig G, Immortal Technique and many more are huddled in the bunker. In one way or another they are here to support the war effort of one Troy Donald Jamerson, aka Pharoahe Monch.
The ceiling rumbles with sonic booms from Skyzoo’s opening set upstairs. Monch is dressed in a military jacket but the real fatigue is on his face. It’s been two days since his third solo album We Are Renegades has been in stores. But since its release W.A.R. has meant “working a record.” Tonight is Monch’s fourth performance in as many days. Monday he was in Boston. Tuesday he was in Philly shooting a video with Jill Scott. Then performed at Best Buy. 36 hours from now he’ll be at the Comedy Central Comedy Awards recording the “John Cryer Will Fuck You Up” routine. A week later he’ll be in Germany to begin his European stretch.
“It was amazing man,” he says of the tour weeks later. “We knew what we were up against in the industry right now with this type of record. We just set the bar high knowing we were going to have to work. In other countries the majority of the country was speaking a different language. When we got to London it was crazy. The entire crowd was singing the lyrics to all the new songs. I don’t want to say it took me by surprise but it did. I was blown away.”
But how did this all come together? No longer on a major label Monch and his manager Guy Routte partnered with Duck Down Records to bring this album to the masses. In this exclusive TheUrbandaily and Nodfactor.com speak to the many renegades–art directors, producers, engineers, singers, MCs and many more about their contributions to this album.
“It was really people saying, I want to work with Pharoahe,” says Guy. “That’s what twenty years in the game will get you. I told him that he has to do an album for your core, that speaks directly to the Internal Affairs fan base, people that want to hear you spit. I don’t think you need to go and get Drake’s fans. You just need to re-awaken your own.”
Album Cover (front)
Ola Kudu (Art Director): This cat shot for a full day in a gas mask. It was my personal gas mask but the filters weren’t working. Monch was on a juice fast for three days before the shoot. I was worried. He was in a gas mask that didn’t function properly—with asthma. That’s dedication.
Pharoahe Monch: I was out of breath. I was getting my inhaler from time to time. We could dramatize it but I got this guy here, D-Nice is here, both are here because they heard some music that they felt excited about and moved them emotionally. Let’s work. Man up. Gotta nail the shot. We gotta nail the shot. That’s it.
Guy Routte: D-Nice came through, we gave him some turkey and cheese sandwiches and he was good. Ola is the father of the hip-hop the website. I called him to get advice on who I could get to do the graphics and he said “I’ll do it. We’ll work something out.” They shot it on the roof of Pharoahe’s apartment when he was living in Brooklyn.
Album Cover: (back)
[The asthma inhalers]represent the one thing I haven’t defeated yet. I was paying monthly for private health insurance and got dropped by the carrier. We’re still trying to figure out why I was dropped from the carrier. Guy is still trying to figure it out. My lawyer is reading through the contracts. There’s been a discrepancy since I left the major label and now I’m independent.
1.) The Warning F/ Idris Elba
Produced by: Pharoahe Monch
Pharaohe Monch: I know not many people are on the same frequency [as me]. So we started there by saying that “if you’re on this frequency you’re a renegade” and that helps people feel like they’re part of the project and feel like hey “I’m a smart motherfucker too!”
In writing the intro I approached it as something to think about in terms of the future and the past. I spoke with Dr. Cornel West about the overall message of the album and whether it was a message in vein. A lot of the content was very KRS-One, PE, Black Star, Rakim…it’s been done before. King, Malcolm and Ghandi…Jesus tried to raise the consciousness of the people to another level. He said this message has already been inspired, you can’t be wrong in what you’re doing. That gave me the balls to write the intro.
Just like film you can have a great script and terrible actors, or great actors and terrible script. I thought what I wrote was pretty decent but it wasn’t coming across. So I was talking with Jean Grae about who could do this and we threw out some names of people who could get this across. We sent the script to Dris and not only did he do the one he sent, he did five other accents and characters. And they were all incredible, but this one was the most ominous.
2.) Calculated Amalgamation, Produced by: Lion’s Share Music Group
“One shot fired in hopes to inspire a nation…”
Nick (LSMG): It came out of left field. Pharoahe came by…we were playing some stuff for him and it was hours before the album went to mastering. He really liked this one, the drums, etc. He couldn’t decided if it was going to be the intro or the outro. We had 20 hours to recut the sample and get all the instruments he wanted, mix it and that’s what came out.
Pharoahe: Jazzie B from Soul II Soul was describing the group one time in his English accent and he said “Soul to soul is an amalgamation of…” and of course that was 20 years ago and I was like “amalga-what?” I looked it up. I’m a word person. In this era it’s like “google the shit.” My vocabulary is not expansive at all, contrary to the songs. I just gravitate towards words I don’t know, or phonetically have a rhythm to it. Like “Calculated Amalgamation.”
When I said “one shot fired to inspire a nation,” the whole Egyptian revolution was going on and to my accounts I heard that a guy who was selling goods in Syria had a stand but he didn’t have his proper license. The police came and knocked over his goods. He went to the place to protest and they disrespected him and kicked his fruit down the steps. Humiliated him. In protest he set himself on fire. This situation is said to be the one thing that made the people say “now that’s it.” Taking from that, what is the tipping point here?
3.) Evolve, Produced by Exile
Pharoahe Monch: I reused the verse I did on De la Soul’s “Ghostweed.” I’ve been on some time travel shit and science fiction shit since I can remember. In the original rhyme I said “Take a bullet for Malcolm X then vanish/ extinguish the sun/ When I’m through/play pool with the planets.” I meant literally go back in time and stop this assassination and disappear again and see what the occurrence is to see how things transpire. Those are where my thoughts have been. Now science is getting into moving things at light speed. That’s my character on “Assassins.” Known to move throughout time. So I’m being nerdy. Coltrane and those guys did revised records all the time. I even say in the song “I’m a sadomasochist MC, I bite myself.” If I’m gonna take from somebody take from yourself. How cocky is that?
4.)W.A.R. F/ Immortal Technique and Vernon Reid
Prod By Marco Polo, Mixed By Joe Nardone
Marco Polo: I’ve been trying to get beats to Pharoahe for a minute. I burned him a CD and we started working on that beat and another that didn’t make the album. Vernon Reid from Living Color is on this one and for me, having someone like that play on one of my beats is next level. He was just adding guitar parts to the beat that already existed. He sent us a bunch of material and Pharoahe and I sat in the studio on the MPC and chopped it up. We could have had 18 versions with different guitar parts. He just wanted to give us an abundance of options, God bless him.
Immortal Technique: I came to the studio and knocked it the f*ck out. Final product sounded real good. I heard the range of what it was going to be before any final mix and I could tell it would sound tough once it was really finished. Recording a song after all isn’t the end all be all, it has to undergo several other important phases, mixing, mastering…etc
Joe Nardone : Generally I went for hard hitting drums and extended low end. Of course I also try to preserve or enhance whatever it is that makes a song move. Clarity of the vocals was stressed by Pharoahe and I mostly stayed away from big or flashy vocal effects. The vocals stand up on their own.
Pharoahe Monch: “When The Gun Draws Got a million views/so that gave me permission to break the rules”
How are you going to say f*ck the radio, Viacom and BET on a record and then make a music video? You can only do that when you’re on that Malcolm X, MLK, not being fearful of industry repercussions. What do you have to lose in an industry that’s model is completely changing? If people like this black and white video that I did from the perspective of a bullet which direction are you going to go in? It’s not even as rebellious as it sounds. I can’t make a Rihanna-esque beat and pay major label type money without those people being in our circle.
5.) Clap (One Day) Featuring Showtyme and DJ Boogie Blind , Produced by M-Phazes
M-Phazes: That beat is real old, it’s one of the first beats I made when I moved to Cubase from Nuendo as a workstation. I found the sample and loved it, chopped it up and added some real hard drums. Young Cee laid some keyboards and extra sounds on there and it was one of the first beats Monch picked. Showtyme always amazes me and he fit the track perfectly, and the cuts!! Boogie came through with some crazy shit you don’t hear on records much any more, especially on lead singles. The whole track is crazy from the concept to the rhymes to the hook to the video!
Boogie Blind: He told me he wanted to use Eric B and Rakim for the “Clap” scratches and the first thing they came to my mind was Ice Cubes’ “JD’s Gafflin” from Kill At Will. A lot of people don’t’ have that on vinyl.
P. Monch: I got asked about the Novus Ordo Seclorum line. People see the gas mask and the eye and [make assumptions]. I say it was Egyptian before it was some Illuminati stuff. The Pyramids were the pyramids before that. My name is Pharoahe! Come on people. I’m not in the illuminati.
6.)Black Hand Side F/ Styles P and Phonte
Prod by Mike Leo
Phonte: P can sing and a lot of times cats send me a reference and they really don’t need me like that. His reference sounded cool to me. I just did it and added some things to make it more “me” and my own flavor on it. I sent it back and he hit me like “Yo you killed it.” I knew just the weight of that song, being that it was him and Styles and how big “My Life” was I knew I had to bring my” A” Game. I was just happy to be a part of it.
I did it back in ’09 early ’10. I remember it was one of the first jams I did when I set up my own studio recording in my crib. So I was even more nervous cuz I haven’t really mastered my sh*t yet. I turned my third bedroom into my studio/office. It’s real basic; the monitors are the KRK Rockit 8s. My pre-amp is a DBX 376 and that’s just my pre-amp/compressor that I run my mic through. My mic is a Rode NTK and I just run all of that into a little Yamaha USB mixer into my Macbook. I track and record everything in Garage Band. But I gotta good mix out of it. When I heard the finished version with the strings it took it to another emotional level.
Jean Grea: I did the string arrangements. I’m a huge fan of arranging strings and stacking harmonies. I sat down for a couple hours with Pro Tools. I’ve always enjoyed playing with placement and breaking the rules of song structure. So I was really happy that I got to do that, even though it took a big chunk out of my day and I wanted to go shopping.
Mike Loe: I bought the record we sampled downtown at Big City records. It used to be Sound Library. I took it home and looped it up and put some drums on it. I was playing it all day. I gave it to Pharoahe and he told me you got some joints. “BHS” was the second one we did.
Pharoahe Monch:I sing with a lot of soul but (Phonte) is a professional. I’m not a professional singer. There are some things I can carry. But after all the rappity-rap sh*t I gave you in the beginning of the album I wanted the listener to say “ahh, water.” [laughs]. At some point I need a break. It’s not even about the consumer. I literally take a deep breath on Black Hand Side. The strings do that for me, the tempo, the content and the singing.
Guy Routte: Mixing the songs the engineers wanted more dynamic on the bass side. But we couldn’t separate the bass in the sample. So we called my man Jeffrey Smith from Family Stand who lives around the corner and asked him if he could come play some bass. [laughs]
7) Let My People Go, Produced by Fatin
Fatin: Song started out basically…I played the beat for Monch in his car. He came up with chorus on the spot. It was originally supposed to be on Desire. The thing with Monch is that you have to trust his genius. The way things were going creatively…the way it fits on W.A.R. is perfect. I do all of my beats at home and I was still using the ASR-X at the time. It’s pretty straightforward. We had some stuff played over in post-production to give it a big feel and keep it hip-hop. Replayed organ. Those are live. We chopped up the sample and came back over and replayed it.
Pharoahe Monch: It’s a heavy record, but serves as a light moment for me. There’s deepness in the hilarity of the chorus. My name is Pharoahe and I’m saying “let my people go,” the irony is brilliant. And there’s history in the chorus. The character I’m playing, the pastor, is meant to be humorous. I felt like I had that on the last record. And I felt like it could stand alone and it could stand alone or be part of an album in the right place. Some people said they have problems with the name, but I looked at Pharoahe as something that was African and a dope prefix on some Grandmaster Melle Mel shit. So it lightens all of that up.