Defining what “underground” means always results in debate. For some, the term refers to the “chit-terling circuit of hip-hop,” as noted by Marci Kenon in Billboard, or the beginning stages of an individual’s career. “Once you get to a certain point, you cannot be considered underground anymore, even if you are doing what some define as underground music,” said Domino, a hip-hop producer and CEO of Hieroglyphics Imperium Records, an underground label based in Oakland, California. “At one point, hip-hop in general was underground. It wasn’t in the magazines. It wasn’t on television. It wasn’t in the movies. It was rarely on the radio. It hadn’t come to the surface; it wasn’t available to everyone.” Thus, according to this view, once a person builds a foundation and fan base, he moves from the underground into the mainstream. In other words, when a relatively unknown innovator progresses and breaks into the mainstream, making way for the next wave of new talent to begin their own careers, the rap/hip-hop artist is no longer an associate of the underground scene.
However, some observers consider commercial successes like Jay-Z and Redman underground, or “true to the streets,” though they agree that highly commercialized stars like Puff Daddy and Will Smith represent the antithesis of what the underground scene stands for. Pharoahe Monch as well believes that a rap artist can remain true to his roots. And despite the mass popularity of hip-hop music, a genre once reserved for a smaller, urban audience, he still considers his creations of and for the “underground” scene. “Some people feel that if you sell, you are not underground anymore,” he told Kenon. “I disagree with that. I think that underground is an approach that you take to making a song.” Take for example “Simon Says,” his hit single that sold in excess of 125,000 units according to SoundScan from the artist’s 1999 album Internal Affairs. “The beat is very underground,” Pharoahe continued. “I didn’t expect it to get as much radio play as it did. It’s not in the format of a typical rap song. I wanted to be direct with people, lyrically, and not give them anything to think about.”
Regardless of whether critics and fellow hip-hop artists now consider his music commercial because of the rapper’s widespread popularity, Pharoahe unquestionably spent years enduring the trials and tribulations of the underground/streetwise scene before making it big. Born Troy Jamerson in 1972 in Jamaica, Queens, New York, the future rapper received the latter part of his nickname early in life. The girls at school used to call him “Monch” after a doll popular at the time, and the youngster, known for his easy-going nature, happily accepted the moniker. He added “Pharoahe” some years later while studying Egyptian history in college.
Meanwhile, the young Pharoahe had also developed an interest in rap music. An enthusiastic fan of rap and hip-hop, he regularly attended the “rap jams” taking place around Queens. “I’d have a beer and listen to the cutting and scratching, and feel reaal good,” he smiled, as quoted by Andy Crysell of New Musical Express. “But then you’d go home and normal life would resume.” Soon, however, a normal life wasn’t enough, and Pharoahe decided to set his sights on a career in rap music, beginning by recording his own muffled and amateurish tapes at home.
After improving his technique, Pharoahe commenced his recording career, spending the next eight and a half years as one half of one of rap music’s most revered and enduring underground duos, Organized Konfusion. He met his partner, Prince Poetry, while attending Manhattan’s Art and Design High School, where he studied illustration and photography. Both drew inspiration musically from Queens rappers Run DMC and A Tribe Called Quest, but also wanted to apply the techniques they learned at art school to create their own brand of hip-hop. “We learned that everything is art,” he explained to Crysell. “Dance, spoken word, garbage cans, people talking on the block, the architecture around you. Everything feeds the rhymes.”
Outside the mainstream, Pharoahe and Prince Poetry worked without guidelines, never abiding by anyone else’s standards but their own. Therefore, only devoted to themselves and their core audience, Organized Konfusion usually made music against the grain. The duo’s much-lauded, self-titled debut arrived in 1991, and their critical second effort, Stress: The Extinction Agenda, followed in 1994. Taking a rebellious approach
Born Troy Jamerson in 1972 in Jamaica, Queens, NY.
Recorded with Prince Poetry as Organized Konfusion, 1991-97; disbanded Organized Konfusion and signed with Rawkus Records, 1998; released debut solo album, Internal Affairs, 1999.
to this album, Pharoahe and Prince Poetry ignored music industry rules, releasing a dark, striking first single from the record called “Stress.” An explicit song, “Stress” never received much radio play, but Organized Konfusion persisted in spite of lackluster record sales.
Undeterred, the duo, hailed by fans for their expressive wordplay and state-of-the-art production skills, switched labels from Hollywood to Priority for their third album, 1997’s The Equinox. However, after another record failed to sell as well as expected, Pharoahe grew frustrated and started to question his involvement in the music business. Subsequently, he took some time off to rethink his next move, eventually deciding to try again as a solo artist. Pharoahe and Prince Poetry parted amicably in 1998, soon after Priority terminated their contract. “When I signed with Rawkus [Records], I was like, Til give you two songs that you can work, I guarantee you, ’” he told XXL contributor Bonsu Thompson in an interview with fellow hip-hop artist Mos Def. “You see, Mos and I need to sell records to set a standard for the music industry. For a little 14 year old coming up to have the opportunity to be like, ’I want to be like Pharoahe, Mos, Talib, or G Rap’ because they’re hearing it. That’s what sales mean to me.”
Upon signing with Rawkus, Pharoahe contributed songs to two benchmark compilations— Soundbomb-ing II and Lyricists Lounge Vol./—then started work on his debut solo album, Internal Affairs. Released in late 1999, the album included the party tune “Simon Says,” which became a hit, ranking alongside such prior songs as House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” in cities across the United States and later in Great Britain. Suddenly, after nearly a decade in rap, Pharoahe’s quiet life came to an end, as he found himself dashing down the streets of Queens to avoid mobs of fans. “I am an introverted guy who enjoys solitude,” Pharoahe admitted to Crysell, though he realized that a successful career in hip-hop would make it difficult to retain a sense of anonymity. “Through the TV and radio, I’m now in people’s faces 24 hours a day. I hope they don’t mind that.”
For Internal Affairs, Pharoahe enlisted the help of several top names in the business, such as Redman, Method Man, Canibus, and Busta Rhymes, who also returned to produce the video for “Simon Says.” All say that it wasn’t the lure of money that drew them into the project, but rather a common respect for Pharoahe’s work—his extreme individualism—with Organized Konfusion. Like his outings with Prince Poetry, Internal Affairs, also Pharoahe’s most accessible album, won high praises for its “adrenaline-fueled tracks that pack more punch than Mike Tyson in his prime,” wrote Thompson. Just as impressive is Pharoahe’s remarkable ability to match the lyrical and vocal wits of a diverse range of fellow rappers, especially considering his life-long health condition: chronic asthma.
“In light of the fact that he’s a chronic asthmatic, he’s probably the greatest MC living, because he’s working against a huge deficit physically,” Mos Def told Thompson. “People who have full capacity of their lungs can’t repeat his rhymes.” According to Pharoahe, the asthma usually never affected his performance, but when he suffered complications during a Rock Steady concert in 1998, he vowed to live a healthier life through exercise and good eating habits. Pharoahe also says that breathing is also important in enabling him to rap. “Sometimes you hear music and you have an interpretation of what part you play as an instrument in that piece,” he explained. “You gotta know how to breathe and you gotta know when to breathe. There are saxophone players who play continuously and get their inhalation in simultaneously to continue their flows.”
Content with his rise from the underground to wider recognition, Pharoahe, who successfully enlightened rap listeners without alienating them and succeeded commercially without sacrificing his individual integrity and street sensibility, nonetheless hoped to one day try his hand in other areas of entertainment, namely writing books and screenplays. “I had a great imagination as a kid. I used to think about autobahns and 007 and now I’m in those places,” he told Crysell. “And when I’m old and grey, I’ll be talking to my own kids about these days in Europe.”
Internal Affairs, Rawkus, 1999.
“Simon Says,” (single), Rawkus, 1999.
Organized Konfusion, Hollywood, 1991.
Stress: The Extinction Agenda, Hollywood, 1994.
The Equinox, Priority, 1997.
Billboard, April 1, 2000.
New Musical Express, February 26, 2000, p. 25.
Rolling Stone, December 9, 1999.
Vibe, December 1999/January 2000, p. 135.
Village Voice, March 9, 1999; November 16, 1999
Washington Post, December 4, 1999; January 12, 2000.
XXL, January 2000, pp. 73-76.
Rawkus Entertainment, http://www.rawkus.com (May 29, 2000).
Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com (May 29, 2000).
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