By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
He would later prove himself as part of Reflection Eternal, with Hi-Tek, and as a solo artist with his lauded 2002 album, Quality. But 2004's The Beautiful Struggle was met with mixed reviews; many fans balked at the more club- and banger-style production. Haters and skeptics will shut up August 24, when Ear Drum is released on his own imprint for Warner Bros., Blacksmith. It's Kweli in rare form — all literate, lift-yourself-up lyrics over neck-breaking, head-nodding beats. And he's making sure it gets out there: The famous road warrior isn't resting while playing Rock the Bells. He's sandwiching in club gigs on the tour's nights off.
Why did you start your own imprint of a major label at a time when so many seem to be folding?
Well, I'm not putting it out with my own money. It's a distribution deal. But the business model I have is consistent, regardless of what's going on. It makes money regardless of the trends that have come up in the business. I'm still here, culturally relevant and socially relevant to what's going on in hip-hop. And if [the major labels] could get other artists that could do that, they wouldn't be in so much trouble.
Were you upset at all about the reception of The Beautiful Struggle?
Why would I be upset? That album enabled me to go on the road. Based on that album, I was able to do a song with Mary J. Blige, I was able to do a song with Faith Evans. I got to do tours with the Beastie Boys, Kanye West, and Black Eyed Peas. I significantly increased my fan base, and I added songs to my stage show. Also it was my biggest-selling album, so I got to make a little money too.
How have your lyrics developed or changed on the new album?
My lyrics remain focused on the community and on self-worth, self-esteem. Those are the issues affecting the community the most. I've got more experience and more maturity.
What about the production? How did your process change when choosing beats for this new album, versus how you chose them for the last one?
With The Beautiful Struggle, the problem a lot of people have had is that I picked music that works for performance. I do 200 to 250 shows a year. When I started, my music was a lot of head-nod hip-hop, headphone hip-hop. But if you're performing a song like that and people don't know it, it's hard for a show. So I started developing songs, like most artists on the road, that translate to a stage show. I perform more songs from The Beautiful Struggle than any other album; it's really my biggest-selling album, even though people complain. It's like I have two sets of fans.
So this album, I wanted to work with specific styles, influenced by Pete Rock or Diamond D. So I actually got Pete Rock, and the people influenced by that style — even Madlib and Kanye West [both producers on the album] are influenced by that style.
Do you really still do that many shows? At least five a week? It seems you'd be pretty established as an MC by now that you could lighten up on that a bit.
I'm established in terms of my respect — you're doing an interview with me — but I'm not established in a traditional industry sense. The reason why I'm able to remain relevant is because of my time on the road. You're not really hearing my music on the radio or on BET.
Queens rap veteran Pharoahe Monch came of age in the Nineties with duo Organized Konfusion. His 1999 Rawkus Records solo debut, Internal Affairs, spawned the hit "Simon Says." This past June, his long-awaited followup, Desire, was released on SRC/Motown to positive reviews but fairly weak sales.
Where are you right now?
I'm in a car coming into Manhattan from Queens. I'm driving actually. I love to drive. If I go 12 times platinum, I'll still be driving. It'll just be a Lamborghini.
Who are the main guys you're buddies with on Rock the Bells?
Mos [Def] and [Talib] Kweli and some of the Wu-Tang guys.
Expecting any crazy shenanigans?
All of these artists are so busy. I don't think there's going to be like a Rock the Bells after-party tour with all the groups getting together and doing cocaine.
Why do you think critics gravitate toward you?
You kind of don't know what you're going to get. I've been doing these record signings at these in-stores, and the DJs will play some old, old Pharoahe stuff, and I'll be like, "Wow, the intricacies of some of that stuff, technically, is just remarkable." But I totally didn't listen to [Internal Affairs] when I recorded my new one, and I totally didn't listen to the trends that are going on currently in music.
How do you feel about Desire's reception?
It has been overwhelming — overwhelmingly good. One thing people feel about it is the maturity and the growth. I took some chances on it, for example singing for my first verse on the "Push" record. I've done choruses before, but I've never tried to sing a verse. I just love recording. You never know what's going to come out of the process.