In 2014, esteemed Queens rapper Pharoahe Monch released his fourth studio album, PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, via his independent label W.A.R. Media. Prior to the release of the project, Monch had told MTV:
“The new project is the follow-up to W.A.R., but also a separate thing in itself. It’s way more mental, emotional and personal, because of the depths of a depression I was dealing with. There’s the enlightenment that comes out of that, and lyrically, it’s some of the best stuff I’ve done.”
In light of the album’s continued resonance as both personal confession and public commentary, Pharoahe Monch spoke to Tim Einenkel about the initial inspiration for PTSD, his own struggles with depression and sobriety and his writing technique when it comes to such conceptual projects.
Can you tell me about your mindset when you were writing PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Where were you at in your professional career and in your personal life?
I was freshly independent coming off the W.A.R. album, which was a joint venture I did with Duck Down. Coming off that, we knew that because I take time writing and creating, we needed to speed up the timeframe in which I would do a new release. I started recording and it was like, what better thing to follow up W.A.R. than PTSD? The incredible thing about going into the thought process was that I knew that PTSD was in the news for the military and all of those things, but I was reading about Post Traumatic Slave Disorder and disorders just in terms of traumatic experiences that people were telling me about and were getting diagnosed with. I thought it would be perfect to make this a real personal album.
I knew that I had to touch on my personal issues. In the past it’s very metaphoric, rhyming from a perspective of a bullet or some inanimate object, but this time I wanted to focus on Troy and what’s in his head and who he is personally. That’s what the album became.
You made every track about some form of PTSD – how did you ensure that was going to happen, that you were staying true to your original concept?
One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is committing to the thing, to the character; the actor committing to the role. When I said I’m going to title this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I said to myself, “If you’re going to do that, you need to commit to what this is, not just use it as some term that’s in the media right now with cool letters and a cool acronym and then go off on a tangent somewhere. You need to commit to the personal pain, you need to stay on topic and you need to stay in the framework of what this is. If you stay true to that commitment, you might come out with a decent piece of work.”
You read the Quran, Bible, it’s supposed to have new meaning. I try to write songs that way, so you can go back and be like, “Man, I didn’t look at that that way before.”
A lot of what I was talking about with the personal issues wasn’t happening in that timeframe. I had to go back a couple of years to pull from that and commit to feeling that way again, which was difficult. During the record, I wasn’t depressed at all, but I had to pull those feelings out again and delve into and remember what that feels like.
Were you worried that you might go back to feeling depressed?
Yeah. Once you’re working your way out of that darkness, you’re always worried about going back in. It’s the same thing with drug addiction. I’ve been sober for two years and now I have to do this bar tour, and you’re like, “Jesus Christ, I gotta fuckin’ do a bar tour,” and it’s going to be nothing but what I’ve been striving to walk away from. Saying that, it was still therapeutic in a sense that verbalizing and even writing about things that you’ve internalized is super-therapeutic.
In “Losing My Mind,” you spit “My family’s customs, we’re not accustomed to dealing with mental health/it was more or less an issue for white families with wealth.” What was this a commentary on? How has the conversation changed since the release of the album?
Just in the last eight to ten years, I would say black people are like, “Maybe I need to go get my head checked out,” coming from a place of such resilience throughout generations of dealing with certain things. You got fathers going to work with unheard-of, unfathomable conditions because the work has to be done, the bills have to be paid, there’s no excuses; you rarely see families adhering to their health as much in that regard. When you spoke about depression, I think people looked at it as something that isn’t even an issue that we deal with.
In my case, it was a health thing. It was because of a different cocktail of medications I was taking at the time. It spiraled me down and I started feeling this certain way, not being able to cope and analyze certain issues that I would normally be able to figure out. When I finally went to people and I was like “Yo man, I’m in a dark place” and I feel really depressed, to the point where I’m struggling, not even day-to-day but almost hour-to-hour, some of the advice was “smoke a joint.” [Laughs] I wouldn’t say that everybody said that. Most people said “You need to get some help.” But it was weird confronting people about that 15 years ago.
Also on “Losing My Mind,” Mr. Porter sings the hook, instead of you using your own voice. Why choose Mr. Porter to sing on this track?
I thought the chorus should be well-sung, and some of the notes that needed to be executed would bring the point and the sadness home. Me and my manager were wrestling back-and-forth with what to omit in terms of me singing, because the song’s so personal. He was like, “A lot of this you’re going to need to sing yourself to drive it home, because it’s you, so you don’t want to go out and get some name.” But Mr. Porter is such a good singer and I just wanted it sung really well. He’s just a better singer than I am.
The first six tracks on the album seem to have a piece of you in each of them, but on “The Recollection Facility, Pt. 2,” the “recollection voice” finally says your name, “Troy Jamerson.” Why wait until the seventh track?
The first couple of tracks I wanted to have a slow tempo and I kind of wanted it to drag, which is the antithesis of what hip-hop arrangement is usually. Usually cats come out of the gate gunning, “This is why you should listen to me, I’m the fucking greatest. Yeeaaah. Yeah!” It was a risk for me to start off that slow, but I wanted people to immediately feel the drag of what it feels like to go through a day of being depressed, time moving really slow. One of the “sci-fi” tinges that I tried to put into writing was that I went to a facility and they would extract these experiences so I could be normal again. They had the ability to go into my head, put these memories or whatever on a screen, edit them out and then wake you back up. The facility is saying to me at that point, if I remember the skit correctly, “You’re in here and we kind of tricked you in here and this is not going to help you become what you once were, so wake up.”
The next track, “Rapid Eye Movement,” features Black Thought. In hip-hop that would be the song you start out the album with, right? What was your goal with this track, especially coming out of “The Recollection Facility Pt. 2?”
In that piece right there, not only are you asking somebody to kill it, but you’re asking someone to morph into the vibe. I know that my vibe can be nerdy and weird, so I’m calling him like, “I need you to kill, but we’re in a dream and I want to pass it to you. So in this dream sequence I’m trying to battle for good and I’m losing, so you kind of got to cut me off and help me out with the situation, because in the real world, you know...” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah. I understand all of that.” He was like, “That’s not really that deep at all. I got this.” We asked a few other emcees – I won’t say any names – and they were like, “I’m not touching that song.”
When you use metaphors to tell a story such as you did on the track “The Jungle,” are the metaphors more to test the boundaries of your artistic skills or are the metaphors just the best way to convey this story?
Both. “The Jungle” is really old. I wrote “The Jungle” probably 2005, 2006. It morphed into something else – I write ridiculous ideas down and then go over them and try to make them make sense, try to build upon them. So there’s stuff on there that I wrote that day. There’s stuff on there that can span almost ten years. I pride myself on being able to gel them so they’re seamless in terms of how they fit into a project. With “The Jungle,” I had started that concept a while back, but it was to almost be offensive and endearing at the same time. Some of the things that I’m saying are used in very offensive ways.
Then, some of it’s like, wait a minute, is he being endearing or is he upset about the situation? And I wanted to leave it somewhere in the middle for you to figure that out depending on your perspective. That’s the type of writing that I wanted.
The gist of the song was to have people be like “Yeah, this is... What the fuck are you sayin’?” But within that, I think it’s a really good story.
Another song, which is my favorite on the album, is “Broken Again.” I like the slow pace, the wordplay, lyrics – “Squeeze 7cc’s so I could see the seven seas.” Can you take us into the creative process here?
I knew that the song was sad, and I had written a song about breakup that never made an album. We put it out and it was really popular. Mr. Porter produced it. And I was like, “Man, if you’re going to tackle this subject, it’s going to be really hard,” because people usually write one bad breakup. So, “Broken Again” is like “Fuck, when am I going to have successful situations?” I thought it would be a challenge to liken the girl in the story to a drug, being addicted to the girl and addicted to the drug and trying to leave it, in a way. You know, I had people like “Man, I didn’t know you were on heroin, Pharoahe.” [Laughs]
It came pretty quickly, but I took my time with certain lines and being meticulous, like the 7cc’s line. Originally I was researching the amount of cc’s heroin users used, and it was some off number. I was like, “Why don’t you just make it seven instead of 22.2cc’s?” I was like, “I want heroin addicts to be like, ‘Wow! He really knows.’” I was like, just make it 7cc’s, seven seas, it flows better. Depending on who you are, the amount you need doesn’t even matter. I was like, “You’re getting too technical. Just make the line flow better,” and you get the double entendre of 7cc’s and seven seas. Little shit like that took a month. I had it written one way and I was somewhere on an exercise bike and I was like, “You should say...” So I would go back in and make that edit.
You’re very selective with who you collaborate with. With PTSD, were all the collaborators in the studio with you?
When you’re talking about this caliber of artists, you trust them. Obviously, Thought is doing the Tonight Show and touring and studio – he’s a family man, so just getting him in the studio is a task in itself. So, you’re like “I’ll send it to you” and he’s like “I’ll record it. I have some time and I’ll go in and record it.” With [Talib] Kweli, he was on tour at the time. Even going back to Royce [da 5'9"] on the W.A.R. album, he did it in a hotel room on tour. When he did that I was like, “This is fuckin’ amazing.” That’s the caliber that these cats are. I really relish people like that because they, to me, are the Miles Davis’s and Coltrane’s and Quincy Jones’s of my generation at what we do. I was looking at Royce in a hotel room like, “This is ridiculous.”
You don’t realize the magnitude. Some of these people are closeknit and friends of friends and respect your work so much that you’re like, “Yeah, I do something for you, you do some for me... Let’s do it.” But then, when you think about history, it’s like, “Wow, I got fuckin’ Vernon Reid on my record.” He’s just genius, man. The times that I’ve worked with him and he’s done solos, I still listen to those arrangements and I’m like, “What is this guitar saying? What is this phrasing? What would be the vocal leads or the words to the pain of these notations?” You can’t say that about a lot of musicians. I’m working on something with Living Colour now, a verse.
Do you view the album as we would view a novel? The question would be what’s your favorite track from the album, but if you view this more like a book I imagine you wouldn’t want to select just one chapter from it.
Right. I want you to be confused and conflicted. All my favorite albums, bands, groups, I’m always going back-and-forth like, “What is my favorite song on this album? Because now it has changed because this has changed.” It should be layered, have a long shelf-life, should change with you. I try to write that way. Even “Broken Again” is a song that should mean something different to you at 37 than 21, because your experiences have changed, so now the interpretation of the song might be a little different after you’ve divorced, after you had a breakup. All love songs should do that, because the love of your girlfriend is different than the love of your wife which is different than the love of your firstborn child. Scripture is that way, too. You read the Quran, Bible, it’s supposed to have new meaning. I try to write songs that way, so you can go back and be like, “Man, I didn’t look at that that way before.” That’s how I look at the songs, as well.
We’re in 2016, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is timeless for many reasons because people are still dealing with PTSD, whether you’re a military veteran or you’re a kid growing up and also with current news regarding shootings and police brutality. What is that like, to have this timeless album that is timeless partly because of awful events staying current?
Like you would think. This is an artist speaking up about the times and being personal, like the ’70s and the artists who were talking about and even predicting experiences, like Marvin Gaye. You know, obviously it’s like, “Man, big up to fuckin’ Marvin for ‘What’s Going On,’” but it’s a sad-ass song, and you haven’t evolved from the stuff that he’s talking about. Same thing with PTSD – it’s pretty heart-wrenching to remember when I was in grade school and I looked at 2016 like space cars, flying hovercrafts, and to think what we’re still dealing with and we haven’t evolved in so many ways. It’s disheartening. But some artists just have to make music that reflects the times and even goes further than that.
It’s difficult, but the world is not peaches and cream. It is what it is. If you look at Facebook, social media and CNN, to bring that into your world, you’re going to be disappointed. We have to find our own happiness. I've been finding some happiness in some of the music I’ve been doing, in some of the silly shit, because we will be inundated with the fuck shit. We don’t have to worry about that.
Listen to the full interview below.