- Back to basics: Pharaohe Monch
For the third anniversary of Classic Material, a monthly hip-hop night founded by ubiquitous Pittsburgh DJ Selecta (a.k.a. Jim Scoglietti), it seemed fitting that he'd recruit Pharaohe Monch, a legendary MC who was influenced by the same "golden age" of hip hop.
Selecta started Classic Material out of frustration at having to spin commercial pop and Top 40 rap when DJing at other clubs. "I always played multiple genres, but my main choice has always been old-school hip hop," he says. "So I wanted to dedicate a night to the music I grew up with."
Classic Material, co-hosted by DJ SMI, runs the gamut from 1978 to 1998, while emphasizing the musical zenith of 1988-92, when artists such as Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Public Enemy produced their finest work.
"Incredible albums dropped during that period," Selecta recalls. "The sampling era began, and the sound changed from Mantronix doing 808 beats to sampling innovators like Marley Marl. Hip hop went from simplicity to something more layered and complex, and it brought the 'soul' in because they were sampling James Brown and Funkadelic."
Out of that context arose Queens-born MC Tony Donald Jamerson. High school girls compared his bad haircut to a simian Monchhichi doll, and the nickname "Monch" stuck. In 1987, he started rap duo Simply 2 Positive with friend Prince Poetry, and they were about to release an album when their producer/svengali "Paul C" McKasty was shot. After mourning his passing, they regrouped under the name Organized Konfusion, changing monikers to Prince Po and Pharaohe Monch.
In the early '90s, Disney had a label called Hollywood Basic run by David "Funken" Klein. He recognized the duo's rhyme skills and signed them as one of his first acts. Eventually, Organized Konfusion became the most revered underground MCs of the '90s, releasing the unequalled trilogy of their self-titled debut, Stress: The Extinction Agenda and The Equinox.
With critical acclaim but disappointing sales, the duo split, and Monch proved the more successful of the two. Monch's songs appeared in movies such as Training Day, Charlie's Angels and Boiler Room, and his debut album included a major solo hit, "Simon Says," with a Godzilla sample. ("Even now, if you play that song, people go nuts," notes Selecta.)
Around four years ago, Dameon Tompkins (a.k.a. Boogie Blind) joined Monch as his touring DJ, having previously backed up Jean Grae and Lord Finesse onstage. He fondly remembers the golden era. "During that time, it was cool to be different -- nobody wanted to do the same thing. It was about production, and digging for the rare records in the crates. You had a lot of styles to pick and choose from. Nowadays you don't have so much."
However, Monch himself believes that the cultural movement is slowly recovering from the homogenization of Top 40 rap. "Greatness has nothing to do with mainstream sales," Monch says. "You're seeing the biggest MCs go back to basics -- Jay-Z working with No-Id and Kanye working with Pete Rock. I believe creativity is at an all-time high right now, and the next few years you'll see more incredible music delivered from the old and new."
Monch's multisyllabic lyrical style (which Kool Moe Dee once likened to an "eloquent linguistics professor") will once again be in evidence on his upcoming third solo album, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) out this fall on the Duck Down label with Boogie Blind's scratching prominent throughout. "I've worked with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, Styles P, Phonte, Jean Grae and Royce DaFive9 to name a few," says Monch. "I hope the album will open eyes and inspire in the mode of Public Enemy -- it's about the fight for artistic, spiritual, political and mental freedom."
In the meantime, Monch was featured in Blac Roc, the hip-hop project from garage duo The Black Keys, in a track with the Wu-Tang's RZA. "I do a hip-hop show on WYEP, and the guy that came on before me at the 8 p.m. slot played that track," says Selecta. "So [Monch] is widely accepted, like K'naan or Mos Def, though he's not as big. But he also works with a West Coast group called Sa-Ra, who do more experimental-leaning hip hop."
Boogie Blind, who first appeared at Classic Material a few months back, is excited to return with the respected MC and spin a timeless set of hip-hop, although his skills also extend to other genres like dubstep and funk. "Last time, I met up with [rapper] BZE and all those guys. The local talent out there [in Pittsburgh] is very good."
Classic Material Third Anniversary featuring Pharoahe Monch, DJ Boogie Blind, Selecta, SMI, and Hank D, with hosts B-Tree, Gene Stovall and Knowledge. 10 p.m. Sat., June 19. $20. Shadow Lounge, 5972 Baum Blvd., East Liberty. 412-363-8277 or www.shadowlounge.net