Underground Essentials | Pharoahe Monch
Pharoahe Monch (or Monchhichi, as he was known in his High School of Art and Design) was destined for fame and acclaim from a young age. Growing up with the golden age of hip hop unfolding in front of him, it was clear from the get-go that rap music was his fate. A beatboxer in his youth, he quickly rose to prominence in the underground when he joined forces with Prince Poetry to make the duo Organized Konfusion. Releasing three albums together, the two would cement themselves as icons in the underground hip hop scene.
With slow beginnings, the two originally began dropping music featuring Monch’s beatboxing and Prince Po’s rapping. After a short time it became apparent that Pharoahe could spin lyrics with the best of them, so the two acquired tracks from producers and began releasing more frequently. The Queens-based label Solid Sound Records was the first home of the new group (previously known as Simply II Positive MC’s) and would give them the footing they needed to begin their ascent. After some demos and singles that garnered moderate attention, the two signed a deal with Hollywood BASIC, and dropped their self titled 1991 album to mark the first of many major successes.
While not garnering much radio play or notable Billboard appearances, Organized Konfusion was critically acclaimed by the hip hop journalists who got their hands on it. To this day it is still referenced as a case study of genuine underground hip hop. Featuring only a childhood friend, the duo would continue their pattern of shying away from collaboration with the follow-up album Stress: The Extinction Agenda. This 1994 release would bring only one new name to the tracklist, the legendary Q-Tip. While songs did chart, and critics did sing praise, the commercial success wasn’t massive. This would have possibly been seen as a trend had it not been for their conceptual, groundbreaking third album The Equinox in 1997. Charting higher than any previous project from Organized Konfusion, they chose to end on a high note, parting ways. Citing burnout and differing priorities, it was clear that the group had made its mark, but it was time for the two to chase solo ventures.
With a hunger that only comes from someone with something to prove, Pharaohe Monch put the pen to the paper and began creating the projects that would establish his MC talent in his own right. Rawkus Records wasted no time in scooping him up, providing the resources and distribution for the release of his first solo album Internal Affairs in 1999. With surgically-precise writing and complex rhyme schemes, this project stands as a testament to the skills Monch developed in his time working with Prince Po. His debut premiered a grittier sound and harder approach to production as well as rapping. Copious samples added to the intricacy of the project, but would also cause the biggest problems. The distribution of this album was halted eventually when legal issues flared up regarding the sampling of Akira Ifukube’s Gojira Tai Mosura for a hook. Luckily, the album finally made it to streaming services in 2019 (other 90’s artists weren’t so fortunate).
Taking his time between album cycles, Pharaohe Monch would appear on label compilations and video game tracks. Aside from select singles, his next project would not arrive until 2006, when Desire was released. Showcasing a more soul-inspired and gospel-infused production, Monch used his new sound to deliver even higher quality wordplay. Complex as ever yet even smoother than before, this was the installment that showed the industry Pharaohe was here to stay.
Long Live the Pharoahe
W.A.R. and P.T.S.D. (dropped in 2011 and 2014, respectively) would mark the most contemporary turns in Pharoahe Monch’s discography. With social commentary and introspective observations sharing the same songs, he showed the world his brand with bars. Trading some of the shock value of earlier writing for the wisdom of his age, Monch championed the underground values of anti-commercialism while maintaining a coolness that would gain him a wide following throughout the industry. Bearing his vulnerabilities and emotions for the world to see, it truly seems as though Pharaohe has his eyes set on the prize and his priorities straight. Even this past year, he provided us with features and singles as a soundtrack to the craziness he could see in the world around him.
The underground has seen many rappers catch the wave of commercial success, only to leave their niche behind. Fortunately, Pharoahe Monch piggybacked off his label deals to give himself the necessary time and focus to evolve and grow from where he stood. Never relinquishing his Queen’s sound, or the middle finger to authority, Monch goes down as an essential piece of the game.