In Conversation: Pharoahe Monch Leads th1rt3en’s Magnificent Musical & Cultural Exorcism
The three-man band of Pharoahe Monch, Daru Jones, and Marcus Machado channel rage and musical amorphism on the stark A Magnificent Day for an Exorcism.
Pharoahe Monch does not think that all is right in the world. As one-third of the genre-bending trio th1rt3en, the meditative rapper joins with drummer Daru Jones and guitarist Marcus Machado to deliver a riotous collection of songs examining harassment, social decay, and mysticism, among other topics. A Magnificent Day for an Exorcism arrives in the midst of dramatic political unrest in the United States, but the group’s material has been a slow burn, even though the music and lyrics arrive with arresting urgency.
In our Q&A, Pharoahe Monch discusses how he developed the th1rt3en concept for several years, and how he embraced breaking from musical norms throughout Exorcism.
I heard that you’d been thinking about this th1rt3en project for several years. How, when, and why did the initial idea come to you?
It’s part of my roots. I came up with a multitude of music in the crib, from gospel to rock to soul and blues, jazz. My oldest brother was very much into Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, a lot of ’70s classic rock. That’s where it got implemented into my lexicon. Since then I’ve been attracted to it, even in the hip-hop sense. A lot of the loops and so forth [appealed to me], so I always kind of gravitated toward that field in my music.
So I wanted to really go in that direction with this project, in a way, but not lose any hip-hop temperament in terms of the production. As I go deeper into it, I’m like, “Yeah, this idea needs to be brought to another level by finding the musicians who could actually form a band—not studio musicians or tour musicians—and stick to these guys in the making of this record.” So I obviously needed somebody with rock chops as well as hip-hop chops, which is how I reached out to Daru and Marcus Machado. With the recordings, I still wanted to have an almost chopped, sample feel, because I always hate it when a lot of the other mashups would kind of lose that tightness.
“I always felt like the trajectory of where the country was going, it wasn’t evolving how I thought it would be when I was a kid. I thought we would be in a different place, so the thought process and ideology is one of a cleansing. It’s just a different way of phrasing it to get people fuckin’ scared—and they should be.”
The project has a macabre outlook, as far as the lyrical and the thematic direction. When you had the first idea for the concept, was it always that dark?
Definitely. I always felt like the trajectory of where the country was going, it wasn’t evolving how I thought it would be when I was a kid. Even years ago, I just felt the energy was off a little bit. I thought we would be in a different place, so the thought process and ideology is one of a cleansing. It’s just a different way of phrasing it to get people fuckin’ scared—and they should be.
With your albums W.A.R. and P.T.S.D., it definitely seemed as though—at least compared to Desire, Internal Affairs, and even your Organized Konfusion projects—sonically and thematically things took a left turn. What were you seeing in 2010 and 2011 with America and where it was going that started this thought process?
I was wondering if there was a collective consciousness out there. I wasn’t doing a survey. It was just a feeling like there’s gotta be people who feel like I feel, so maybe they can relate to this. That’s the main principle about the W.A.R. album. I was trying to write it in a way, not just in social matters but in vibes, where you could possibly go back to it fifteen years later and be like, “Oh, shit. This is spot on.” As a kid, when I was thinking about the 2000s, and now the 2020s, I definitely visualized a different place that we would be in globally, but as Americans, too. It feels like we’re devolving, and that’s not a good feeling. The energy, this needs to be called out for what it is and why it is.
As a kid, where did you think we would be?
I thought in 2020 we would be floating harmoniously on air pods, being philosophical about how to astral project more efficiently to other planets. I mean that in every sense of the word. When I was a kid, I was like, “This is not where we’re going to be.” And I don’t mean this in just a racial sense, but technology and ideology and philosophically and all of it. I was like, “This is cool for now, but we’re going to learn and we’re going to be shown and taught a vast amount of great things,” and it seems like technology advanced for our phones, but morally and spiritually we’re backwards.
th1rt3en is the name of the group, a main theme of the project, and you address the fear of the number thirteen on the song “Triskaidekaphobia.” Why is the number so significant for you?
It’s always been a mainstay in my life. I was born on Halloween. The one and the three always stood out to me. Daru Jones really pushed us to be a trio. Even now I’m learning more about the numbers than before, the different spirit and magnetism and the body and how things are in three. So just off it being my favorite number and the guys rocking with it, I thought it would stick out like a sore thumb.
On the sonic side of things, one thing I really enjoyed was the panning that you have throughout some of the tracks, some of the texturing. As an artist, as a producer, as somebody that is intimately involved in the music aspect of things, why is that important to bring out in a project like this?
“As a kid, when I was thinking about the 2000s, and now the 2020s, I definitely visualized a different place that we would be in globally, but as Americans, too. It feels like we’re devolving, and that’s not a good feeling. The energy, this needs to be called out for what it is and why it is.”
I wanted to keep a lot of the hip-hop temperament, but then after that I don’t want to be boxed in, so let’s try some things over here. When you think about the genre, with sampling and the genre we’re sampling from, it’s from soul and gospel anyway, so it’s all like 360 back around. So where we’re like, “Yo, let’s put this shit on the left and put this shit on the right,” to me it’s all been done before. But in context of the nuance of which you’re listening or asking someone about, they may totally not even get any of this and that’s cool because in the context of what they have a knowledge of and embrace may not be that wide. So I was cool with having some of the joints be like straight live and treating it as raw as possible.
The song “Kill Kill Kill” is an incredible sonic and lyrical exercise, with intense singing and rapping about societal collapse and personal rage. It also lacks typical pop song structure. How did that song come about?
I’m a fan of musical genres and I’ve heard it done before, but I’ve never heard live music done with this amount of bars. A lot of our songs don’t even have usual math structure. It’s all calculated. It’s not like, “Oh, we made a mistake and we lost count.” It’s like, “Fuck it, bro. Let’s just let it be what it is. Bring it back here. Let’s make this the poignant part,” and it’s not traditional. I specifically wanted to push art on all fronts on this project. I’m not comfortable being safe with it and I think you could break through to some other ears. I think traditionally the bar work is there, but “Kill Kill Kill” is one of my favorite songs on the record, but it didn’t seem like when I did it, “Yeah. This is out there.” But then I play it for my DJ, who’s a Harlem turntablist, and he’s like, “This shit is insane.” It’s interesting to see who gravitates to what, because I’m obviously not going after whatever is the most popular thing right now. FL