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Pharoahe Monch – live review

Unlike other hip-hop shows in Norwich at the intimate and usually half-empty OPEN, Pharoahe Monch performs at a sold out Norwich Art’s Centre – a venue twice the size. What makes Pharoahe Monch substantially more popular here than his contemporaries?

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Two words: Simon Says. It is his greatest hit, a thuggish crossover success / party masterpiece from 1999. Known worldwide for both getting people to aggressively chant ‘Simon Says get the f*** up’ and commanding girls to ‘rub on their t*tt**s’ – all to the ominously apocalyptic horns of the ‘Godzilla’ soundtrack.

Because of this, I assumed that the majority of the audience would be suburban middle–class white students waiting for their only opportunity to chant out naughty things like the ‘n’ word and be misogynistic, all under the safe banner that they’re just quoting lyrics.

In reality, there were only about 10 middle-class white kids in the audience, myself included. The rest were predominantly males over 40 with an uneven scattering of equally mature women. Considering that Monch had been releasing music as early as 1987, these balding pub-matured Englishmen are those that experienced hip-hop’s golden years first hand, with an unrivalled contextual understanding of Monch’s music.

Pharoahe Monch grew up in Queens, New York, where he originally adopted the name Monchichi (after a type of monkey doll) after receiving a bad haircut. He formed the duo Organized Konfusion with Prince Poetry and they released their highly acclaimed self-titled debut in 1991. Organized Konfusion became early heroes of the college-educated ‘backpack’ hip hop scene. They were known for covering social issues in an unorthodox way; Invetro (1997) saw the pair rhyming from the perspective of unborn twins, one hoping for an abortion, the other hoping for a chance at life. In Stray Bullet (1994) they became the bullet itself.

Although they were popular among critics, Organized Konfusion never achieved mainstream success. This led to a breakup of the duo and Pharoahe releasing his solo debut Internal Affairs which had a harder and more club–ready sound whilst retaining his characteristic wit.

Internal Affairs itself is a monstrously brilliant album – so monstrous in fact, that its cover art features Monch – akin to Godzilla – rising out of the water in flames. The recurring references to the destructive creature are most likely a cocky statement of his potential power as a lyricist: He can ruthlessly cut through any rapper who gets in his way with the sheer force of his tongue, and any resistance is futile. In his book, ‘There’s a God on the Mic’, Rapper Kool Moe Dee described him as: “an eloquent linguistics professor moonlighting as a rhyme serial killer terrorist, challenging the listeners’ I.Q. while daring him or her to keep up.” But following Internal Affairs, ‘an intellectual Godzilla’ would be more accurate.

It seems almost ironic that the apocalyptic Godzilla excerpt in ‘Simon Says’ that led to his widespread fame also had an appropriately destructive effect on his career. Those responsible failed to get the sample cleared, the legal consequences ruined his career and left him wandering in label-limbo – unable to record for eight years until he was finally released from his record contract. This was industry rule #4080 (that ‘record company people are shady’) in action. Since then, he has released two critically acclaimed albums, Desire in 2007, and W.A.R in 2011.

A true showman, he gets the receptive crowd to chant ‘right here’ when he demands where Norwich is, a hackneyed but always crowd pleasing measure. Equally hackneyed was the ‘rest in peace J-Dilla’ interlude that is pencilled into the halfway point of every hip-hop show. This jarred with the rest of the show, particularly as it wasn’t even followed up with ‘Love’ – the song that the late producer and Monch share. Not, of course, to criticise the late Jay Dee – to a hip hop head that would be sacrilege.

About an hour into his set an unmistakeable hook judders the walls, gripping the crowd with anticipation. ‘Simon Says’ was on its way, triggering the onslaught of messily bearded, beer-bellied men thrashing around like Rottweilers whose already tense leashes were about to snap.

While Monch was a powerful presence, at several points the DJ almost stole the show – probably because, far from your run of the mill LCR A-List DJ, this was Boogie Blind of the X-Ecutioners – ie. one of the most respected DJs on the planet. He demonstrated his turntable wizardry – beat juggling and using light fingered scratching to excite the crowd. But this was not his only function; he was responsible for the majority of the show’s comic value, calling out audience members he deemed to be dancing with particular fervour. His mischievous attitude even tamed the female bouncer (who had been aggressively repelling stage invasions) by pulling her over for a little waltz mid-performance. So relaxed was he in comparison to the monstrously rampant Pharoahe that he was even seen playing on his phone during the show. This laidback attitude was the perfect undertone to this incessantly powerful show.

Monch is due to release his new album, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder this April on Duck Down Records.

13/03/2014

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jonathanalomoto