Elevator 23: Pharoahe Monch


Pharoahe Monch has high expectations of himself. As he approaches a new project he sets the bar high. There are few other rappers in the world who marry wonderfully ambitious concepts with carefully constructed delivery. Once they’ve listened to Pharoahe Monch rappers of all ages are quietly embarrassed by their own lack of creative spark. Queens-native Monch is a humbler of artists and he should be honoured for this.

His contribution to the art of hip-hop lyricism is extraordinary.  Intricacy, wit, precision, melody, tone: if you’re doing a master’s degree in rap vocals you study Pharoahe Monch.

I first encountered Monch as part of the group Organized Konfusion in 1994 and I thought, “Oh, I guess this is the standard everybody’s gonna have to judge themselves by from now on”. ‘Stress’ and ‘Stray Bullet’ are not songs you forget.

His solo albums Internal Affairs [1999], Desire [2007], and W.A.R. We Are Renegades [2011] all have an epic, cinematic quality to them addressing global issues as well as emotionally nuanced narrative explorations most notably this tragic trilogy of songs.

Here he returns to the firearms issue:

In a 2011 Village Voice interview Monch laments: “There are real issues going on — I can’t believe the art world in general is removed. I feel like, you know, obviously in the ’70s and the ’60s the artists were more in-tuned with the world and social issues, but the world is so connected to digital information now that I don’t understand how peoples’ hearts are removed from Japan and Libya. We have a nuclear reactor less than 200 miles from here. How come that’s not being talked about?” The answer: those in the celebrity rap elite are too afraid to speak truth to power and the wanna-be celebrity rapper copies their flaccid chatter. In contrast Monch is outspoken politically, socially and prophetically. Check how dynamic rebel music can be:

And yet Monch enjoys salting each project with gritty, nasty rap songs that get rooms of drunken students swearing in unison, songs that you would have to mute the moment your grandmother entered the room.

And he also writes beautiful, inspiring soulful songs that would make him your mum’s favorite rapper. See:

He can and will surprise you.

In this Believer interview he talks about his writing process and his biggest influences.

Maybe it was inevitable that Monch would be one of my 70 elevators: he’s a master of his craft AND he’s an acrid voice of dissent fighting for a fairer, blacker, more beautiful planet.

Download his song ‘Stand Your Ground’ for free here.


Elevator 1: Homeboy Sandman


First of all, welcome! Welcome rap fans, rap veterans, rap doubters, rap visionaries, rap beginners, rap genre toe-dippers. 70 Elevators has arrived.

Meet Homeboy Sandman, the first of the 70 Elevators.

He’s a New York vocalist, who sticks out like a sore thumb. His first recordings were released in 2007 and by the following year he was receiving accolades all over the place. He clearly struck a chord. But what makes him distinctive? On one level, he simply has a love for language, which is almost giddy. He attacks the listener with astounding assonance, he spins sentences, and delivers whole verses in a sing-song duotone drawl as if he got carried away on a stream of consciousness and forgot that he was recording a song.

Some of his raps seem to be structured specifically to overwhelm the listener lyrically, but it’s clear from his live performances that Homeboy Sandman genuinely wants to connect with people and engage their minds and spirits. He isn’t afraid to be aggressive, tender-hearted or nerdy. I love ‘The Carpenter’. I think it’s worth opening up this video and watching it in HD.

In an interview with he was asked whether there was a running theme throughout his music. Homeboy responded: ‘Honesty, integrity, bravery, courage, defiance, and faith are a few themes that I think weave their way throughout all my work.’ He is unabashed about seeing a new breed of hip-hop practitioners impacting culture positively in direct opposition to mainstream rap.

This is classic hypnotic Homeboy Sandman

In a short interview I asked him if he was introducing someone to hip-hop music what would be the one album he would get them to listen to? He said: ‘Do You Want More??!?!! by The Roots’. In fact on his wonderfully candid track ‘Not Really’ he speaks with almost childlike hero worship of the rapper Black Thought of The Roots.

He’s a passionate prose writer too.

Here’s his site: An ol’ Groovement interview

April 2020 Update
Since I wrote this post Homeboy Sandman has released more astonishing records including these albums:
Hallways (2014)
Kindness for Weakness (2016)
Veins (2017)
Humble Pi (2018) (with Edan)
Dusty (2019)

and these EPs:
All That I Hold Dear (2013)
White Sands (2014)
Lice (2015) (with Aesop Rock)
Lice Two: Still Buggin’ (2016) (with Aesop Rock)
Lice Three: Triple Fat Lice (2017) (with Aesop Rock)

There’s so many newer songs I could point you to, but these are fire: