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’s 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.”
FOLLOWING IS PART TWO OF THIS STORY. PART 1 IS AT THEURBANDAILY.COM
Shine F/ Mela Machinko
Prod By Diamond D
Mela Machinko: Shine was one of the last songs to be completed on the album. We all lived in the same building for like a year. He, I and Jean. Jean and I were roommates. I was like “shit I finally made the album vocally.” I’d been involved with the background vocals, writing on Still Standing but I didn’t have a vocal presence, unlike Desire. So I was like “I finally get a hook.” It’s one of the songs that rides the balance of being a no-brainer but it has intent. It was still a good summer time leak. There was nothing light about it, but it’s so bare.
King Of Chill
What I did on” WAR”…I’ve been out of touch with Guy but I’ve been working with Premier at HeadqCourterz. Guy gave me a call and said I’m working with Pharoahe. I said if there is anything ya’ll ever need give me a call. The first thing we worked on was the track “Shine. “It just snowballed after that. They paid me in turkey sandwiches and Hennessy bottles. Sonically I’ve told Pharoahe your stuff always has cohesion to it even if there are different producers and that’s what I liked about his stuff.
Pharoahe Monch: “we can’t afford whole foods. Say a prayer in the morning call it soul food.”
My mom is from the south and she grows groceries in the backyard in Queens. There is something to be said about that and praying over your food. Needing to pray over it. Slavery not too many generations removed people prayed on the crops, cooked it, prayed over it again. So my mom came to mind and she eats that way, which is essentially super organic on a budget. Not too many people can afford to eat at Whole Foods or shop there. I just wanted to make light of that with a play on words.
Haile Selassie Karate F/ Mr. Porter
Produced by Sam I Am.
Pharoahe Monch: I was going out there to work and have [Denaun] oversee the project and oversee songs, mix records. Listen to stuff and see if it was sonically correct. I’m really fam with those guys, Hex, and Denaun. I jumped on the Slaughterhouse record when I was out there. I was trying to show off. I had this verse that was pretty complicated and I needed something that was slow that I could flow over. I didn’t have a title. It was like a skit so I said let’s listen to the words in the record and pick something. I picked that cuz if I saw that I’d say “What the fuck? this n*gga is crazy.”
The Hitman The Hit Men
Prod by M-Phazes
M-Phazes: Monch actually got a beat CD of mine from his Mela Machinko. It was around the time of him coming out to Australia for a show so his manager contacted me and asked if we could link up. I went to the show and met Monch and the crew, since then we just worked on music. Whenever Monch was in town I would show him beats and a few of those ended up on W.A.R. The guitar is a sample. The vocal sample I think is from a live Stax record, the Watts Stax live record which had a bunch of different artists performing.
I read the book The Hit Men. It chronicles the music industry from a radio and promotion perspective from the 50s to the 70s. Guys were discovering what publishing was all about and taking advantage of artists contractually. It started out talking about Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album and they set up a concert in L.A but the song wasn’t being played on the radio in L.A. Their manager investigated why because it was the #! Album in the country. Then it got into the awkwardness of the radio asking “why” and the label saying “you better” and they hired a third party to finagle some shit outside of the record company and the group. “I’m the dude that goes to the radio with the song and some tickets and a suitcase.” It goes into a lot of other stuff and five chapters in I was tearing reflecting on shit that I’ve been through with Prince Po.
Assassins F/ Jean Grea and Royce Da 5’ 9”
Prod by M-Phazes
M-Phazes: Jean Royce and Monch is without question always going to be incredible. I love the way these guys actually use the feeling of the beat to dictate the concept. A lot of artists just rap about rapping, and that’s cool, but when three amazing MC’s take a beat that sounds like some James Bond shit and write about being assassins and all the slapstick humor in it, it shows true artistry, not just rappity rap over a beat.
Jean Grae: Monch played the beat for me months before we actually recorded it. The third person changed a few times but it was originally Royce. I do what I normally do, which is write before hand. I was like what the hell am I gonna do. There’s not a lot of guys who are amazing and call me to be like “Rap your head off.” Good, it’s not about relationships? Thank you so much! The day we got to the studio I was panicking “I’m going first?” The joke while I was recording was “thanks for your 8-minute long verse” because I didn’t think 16 bars was enough. It sounds like the lineup of nerd raps wet dreams. We’ll perform it and heads will explode and backpacks will be allover the floor.
Royce: I was on tour with Pharoahe and he told me he needed a verse for something. We set up a mic in my hotel room, he played the song and I didn’t know Jean was on the track so I was like “oh shit I actually have to dig down for some on tour bars.” It was like literally a mic stand in front of a hotel bed and everyone had to be real quiet. It actually came out kind of crazy. I was happy when it was all done. The Evian backwards line happened cuz I was drinking vodka because they didn’t have any patron, you know drink Patron so that crazy, stupid bar came out.
Pharoahe Monch: I wanted the baddest chick in the game in this film. She has on the matrix outfit and kicks ass. The last guy who does clean up is fuckin late, drunk. Royce came in and was like “my dick, my gun, my balls [laughs]…I really don’t wanna be here with you guys anyway.”
I think I’ve garnered enough hip-hop credit points to get my ass kicked on a couple of songs [laughs]. I didn’t think any way bout the artists or the competition. I was on tour with Slaughterhouse. I did 15 dates with them in Canada just to be around that type of shit. Motherfuckers throwing out lines and we grabbing our pads and being around those styles of greatness. It was just dope man.
The Grand Illusion F. Citizen Cope
Produced by Adam Deistch and Eric Krasno
Pharaohe Monch: The idea behind this song is the assassins help me break into a place where I can broadcast the truth about what people have seen. It was definitely designed to feel like the end of The Matrix when Neo makes that phone call. I saw the current Time magazine that has the eye of Horus with the revolutionary fist in the pupil. Me and Guy got together and said “I know people use this fist but this is my logo.” The time is now regardless if you’re aware of it or not. People are evolving. Some people are not. That’s the whole theme of this record. We are playing to the percentage of people who are aware. The 5% of the people control almost %100 of the wealth. It’s plutonomy. What are the rest of us? The path to righteousness is narrow. That’s math. The path in the other direction is wide and filled with snap music, gold rims and shaking asses. [laughs] If you grew up around 5 percenters and you’re in this industry and you know the numbers.
Jean Grae: Pharoahe brought the sample down for it and I asked Monch if I could take a crack at writing the hook because I heard it I wanted Beatles, pyschedilic…white dudes on the hook. Not in a racist way, but you know what I’m saying. So we thought Cope would sound amazing. We’re just driving playing the track over and over and I came up with the hook and in the next couple of days. We didn’t get up with Cope until late in the album. It’s an awesome song. I thought it was a great concept. Both Pharoahe and I are big sticklers for sequencing and how much space is between each song and I think they Illusion is perfectly placed.
Still Standing F/ Jill Scott
Produced by M-Phazes
M-Phazes: That’s actually a sample, something I found in “the thing” in Brooklyn, that place has so many records so it’s lucky I even stumbled onto that! I got my friends on it though; Sean Windsor on bass, Mikey Chan on guitar and Damian Smith on keys. I Just loved the sample and thought it would be a big triumphant track, and so did Monch which is great. I love when an artist has the same vision as I did when I made the beat. I have this thing where I love to make epic tracks, from the intro to the outro I love a lot of emotion in the form of chords, change ups, just the general feeling, and I think a lot of the time that can just be right for the ending or starting of an album, the artist wants to invoke a type of emotion to close the album with.
Mela Machinko: I was totally impressed with him being able to do that with his actual life. That line where he says “I have transcontinental indigenous divas that speak multiple languages for unspeakable reasons…” I know that girl! I’m friends with that girl!
When Jean heard my hook she started tearing up and I was in the studio with Jill vocally guiding her along. I’ve been a fan of Jill for so long and I’m sitting there geeking out but at the same time I had be like “can you sing it more like this…can you tweak that a little bit.” But she did that thing she does. She was interested in doing an R&B version of the song for her album. Which would be great. You can’t come away from that song without feeling something.
Pharoahe Monch: It started with the beat. I got the beat and I knew it was a big sounding record. This is great, a challenge and another curve ball in terms of this record. I felt like the chords were emotional and it played perfectly for an emotional story. sO I said be honest about your story. Working on Destire my A&R was like “you’re an amazing lyricist but it’s never introspective.” I’m trying to get better at so many aspects of hip-hop and writing so I was looking for a song like this to be more introspective. IT was about my War against athsma, health care issues, lost weight, playing sports, etc. I thought it was the perfect canvas for that. So when I thought about the chorus I said I want a Broadway chorus, like the end of the show. A week or two after I wrote that chorus “still staaaanding” I played it for Guy and And Mela and they were like “crazy.” Then the Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” came out with the “new yooooork” and I was like awww fuck! I was like I need to rewrite it, wrote around it but the Broadway sounding one was the best. Then we sent the song to Jill. She was on tour with Maxwell and when she finally listened she called me and she was tearing. She heard it and started crying and asked “what the hell do you want ME to do?” because Mela already demo’d the chorus. I said I really need your voice and your operatic way you’d pull this off on stage. She was like come on down to Philly. She put the bridge on there that’s the part that gets everybody. She did an incredible job.
M-Phazes:I didn’t know people would cry! That’s insane. Working with Jill Scott is a blessing, I couldn’t be more humbled, two amazing artists on my track and it makes people cry, pretty humbling!