Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five taught us that clever words backed by head-bobbin’ beats have the power to incite revolution. Mele Mel’s lyrics resonated with listeners because he was talking about problems they could relate to—neighborhood issues like drug abuse, poverty, and crime. While this type of “conscious” craft is what solidified early hip-hop’s place in music history, rappers have since given a disproportionate amount of attention to lyricism that glorifies greed, gluttony, and material goods. This so-called “ego rap” has helped the careers of formidable artists like 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Lloyd Banks, and Juelz Santana, but one wonders about its longevity. Whereas 50 Cent’s use of the word “Wankster” remains a relic of 2003, every hip-hop fan can still relate to the much older words of artists like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and KRS-One (whether the masses choose to is another issue entirely).
Queens-born lyrical shape-shifter Pharaohe Monch has been composing so-called “conscious” music since he teamed up with Prince Poetry to form Organized Konfusion in the early ’90s. Although Po and Monch released three solid albums, the difficulty of surviving while also retaining their “conscious” tag sped the group’s demise, and finally sent Monch in search of friends at Rawkus Records. It was there he came in contact with two other rappers known for their lyrical depth and prowess—Mos Def and Talib Kweli (aka Blackstar).
After the release of a solid but underappreciated solo album in 1999, Monch spent the next eight years floating. Many record labels, including Eminem’s Shady Records, sought to sign the intellectual wordsmith, but none could seal the deal because of legal issues and past contracts. This year, the label smoke finally cleared; Monch signed with Street Records Corporation, and, in June, finally dropped his long-awaited second album, Desire
In celebration of the long-awaited record—which comes without lyrical or legal compromise—Monch teamed up with a slew of talented performers to tear the roof off NYC’s illustrious Highline Ballroom. Mixtape messiah DJ Ready Cee of NYC’s WHUT 91.9 Underground Lockdown radio show warmed up the Ballroom’s whopping speakers, and Chicago’s the Cool Kids followed with a 15-minute set of intertwining tic-tac-toe rap. Of course, things didn’t really start popping until up-and-coming Detroit producer/emcee Black Milk (a.k.a. Curtis Cross) took the stage, issuing a series of fiery verbal attacks.
In addition to his skills on the mic, Black Milk is also a gifted producer, and, on the new album, he lent his expertise to Monch’s energetic “Let’s Go.” Keeping things appropriately in the family, the audience bid adieu to Milk as Monch stepped onto the stage accompanied by that song’s pulverizing beat. Backed by a band and two vivacious singers, Monch hit the stage with a fury that’s clearly been years in the building. “One for the money, two for the show, three to get it crackin in the hood… let’s go!” was the command that sent fists pumping throughout Highline Ballroom. Lights flashed and heads banged as an animated Pharaohe Monch began to unleash his arsenal.
Although this was the release party for Desire, most of the audience already knew the words to the new songs (after all, half the record hit the street early via Clinton Sparks’ The Awakening mixtape). Many were no doubt encouraged to learn the words by the controversial video for album track “When The Gun Draws,” which shows Monch rapping from a bullet’s point of view—an image recalling Nas’ “I Gave You Power.”
As the set wore on, special guest Styles P of D-Block emerged to bang on the crowd’s eardrums by revisiting his verse on “My Life.” On the album’s uplifting title track, meanwhile, Monch’s back-up singers got the chance to shine, passionately stretching their vocals even after the music came to a close. Later, Monch instructed the audience, saying, “Let’s get in a time machine and go back to 1955,” as he worked into Elvis tribute “Body Baby.”
The show ended with a double-punch encore: first the fiery MC covered of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” dangling his fingers in front of the crowd to match the speed of his rhymes. He followed with a run through the almighty “Simon Says,” and the crowd went as crazy as a kitty on cat nip.
Although being a “conscious rapper” has been a double-edged sword throughout Pharoahe Monch’s career, his new album—pushed forward by the cerebral intensity of his live show—is another step in the right direction. No, his old-school message might not sell a million records, but it’s important to remember that it is a lack of profound thought in modern hip-hop spurred Nas’ recent declaration that “Hip Hop is dead.” If that’s indeed the case, then Monch is one of the smartest MCs around—after all, he’s already working on the resurrection.