Monch: 'Be true to who you are'
There are entertainers that are sports fans and there are entertainers that are sports fanatics. Pharoahe Monch -- a 20-year veteran in the rap game, revered for his classic work with 1990s group Organized Konfusion and his solo career -- is a fanatic. Just check his Twitter timeline. As a native New Yorker once known as Troy Donald Jamerson, we're not talking tweets, like, "S/O to my man Melo. #GoNYGoNYGo." We're talking fanatic tweets, such as, "my friend said he was gonna sit in front of me at citi field with a Don Mattingly jersey on - (I DARE YOU)." (He's a Mets fan.)
"Simon Says," one of the late-'90s signature club bangers, was a go-to get-hype instrumental for NBA arenas. His song "Official" contained perhaps more sports references than any song in hip-hop history, save Kurtis Blow's "Basketball." (Only Pharoahe would mention Phi Slamma Jamma and the Vancouver Canucks in the same song.)
He just dropped his latest release, "WAR (We Are Renegades)" (iTunes | Amazon), a few weeks ago (while his Knicks were still alive), so we thought it would be a good time to catch up with one of hip-hop's all-time MCs and, most definitely, its most sports-savvy tweeter.
The Life: You were repping the Knicks big time. Were you surprised by that Celtics sweep?
Monch: Well, you know, I thought they could give Boston a run. I really did. I know I was poppin' a lot of junk on Twitter with the Celtics fans, but at the end of the day, the Cs are a great defensive team and I knew it would be a long shot.
The Life: What do you think about Mike D'Antoni. You think he's right for the Knicks?
Monch: I don't, actually. I look at the history of playoff basketball -- and all it's about is the championship -- the game slows down, teams score less. It really becomes about defense and rebounds. I'm not saying he can't coach defense. But it'll be interesting to see what he can do with that personnel. Melo [Carmelo Anthony] is a half-court player. Amare [Stoudemire] has those knees. I don't know … we'll see.
The Life: But this season still had to feel good though, right? I mean, truthfully, how hard was it to be a Knicks fan for the past decade?
Monch: Well, really, the first five years of the struggling was hopeful. There was still hope. We were coming off the team with Spree [Latrell Sprewell], who was one of my favorite guys -- I was a big, big Spree fan. Anyways, I think New York doesn't mind losing if you have hustle, you know? If you're diving for balls and really playing with purpose and intensity. But, then, things just never got better. I was like, "maybe the Dolans aren't that concerned with winning a championship." I started to wonder about the integrity of the owners to put a good team together. That was a painful time. I started to watch less and less games. Truthfully, I became disinterested. Not just me, but a lot of New York fans. We were just disgusted with the losing and the organization's antics.
The Life: But you're back now.
Monch: Yeah, we're back now. The organization turned the corner with Amare in the summer and Melo at the [NBA trade] deadline.
The Life: Man, Pharoahe, I can't tell you how many times I almost cracked my skull open to "Simon Says." It still gets me amped to this this day. But, it also had a really good and long run in NBA arenas. As a sports fan, that had to be a dope feeling for you.
Monch: Yeah, that was incredible. You're at a game or you're watching on TV and you're hearing your song. That's one of the greatest feelings as an avid sports fan.
The Life: Obviously, that's a song tailor-made for wilding out in clubs, but did you have sports in mind, at all, when you made it?
Monch: I did. I'm a huge sports fan, I pay attention to what teams use to get motivated. That's why rap always has that sports analogy to competition. I've seen LeBron [James] and [Dwyane] Wade and came out to it. [Here's Pharoahe's tweet: "Lebron, Wade and Bosh come out to Simon Says. don't know how I feel about thos, LOL http://youtu.be/e9BqUBYaHlM."]
The Life: Did you know athletes and arenas would embrace it?
Monch: I had a great feeling about the song because of the energy. It's repetitive, but it's dope. Those four notes get you pumped. My thought was don't mess the song up, tell people to get up, but like really tell them what to do. [The chorus tells listeners to, among other things, "Get the [expletive] up" and "throw your hands in the sky."] Once the chorus was laid, I was in the crib listening to it, like, "This is crazy!"
The Life: Your song "Official" has like 1 million sports references. What was the inspiration for that?
Monch: Well, I'm such a big Mets fan and I started to play around with a couple lines. Then I was like, well, let's see if I can knock out a whole song with these references. [Rey] Ordonez was a shortstop for the Mets at the time and he was a real savvy defensive guy and I love defensive shortstops, so I put him in there and just tried to roll with some other colorful names.
The Life: When you see most NBA and NFL players with their headphones on, they're pumping music, usually hip-hop. Does it work the other way? Is there an athlete that inspired or inspires you?
Monch: It'd have to be Bernard King. Because of his perseverance, you know? I mean, in that playoff series against Boston [in 1984, the Celtics knocked off the Knicks in a seven-game conference semifinals … King averaged about 35 points per game during the playoffs] he had to go up against [Kevin] McHale, [Larry] Bird, Cornbread [Cedric Maxwell] and he still went in! And he didn't have a lot of help. I believe he was dominating with dislocated fingers, too. So, show-wise, if I look out in the crowd and get a few butterflies, I just think about a guy like Bernard and it's just like, "You can do this."
The Life: You're from Southside Queens. I'm assuming a lot of your partners growing up were Mets fans, too? Or no?
Monch: Actually, very, very, very few Mets representatives. It's just not the sexy choice. When the Mets are in the playoffs, they jump on the ship and you start seeing jerseys and what not. But, for me, it's inbred. My father was a National League guy, rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Giants, so I grew up National League.
The Life: So that Doc Gooden-Darryl Strawberry run must have been big for you.
Monch: Huge! I was a huge, huge, huge Gooden fan! A black pitcher? There weren't that many black pitchers in the league back then and for him to come in and dominate like that? I was at the park every other day. I was such a huge fan that I cried when the crack story hit the Daily News. I was ruined, crushed.
I felt like he was a representative for me as a young black kid, a young Queens kid, a young Mets fan. You wanted him to win more World Series. Crack was something that pumped heavy in Southside like a lot of 'hoods, so it was just really sad to see a sort of idol succumb to that. Even though I was a teenager, I really idolized him. It made me feel stupid for idolizing those guys. That was the last time I really focused on an athlete like that.
The Life: This new album, "WAR (We Are Renegades)" is introspective and opinionated, as always. Artists have always been able to use their medium as a platform for whatever they want to say. But athletes, not so much. Are there any athletes that you find particularly thoughtful or, I don't know, substantial?
Monch: It's a little bit harder for me to gauge the personality of athletes, especially now. At the end of the day, I think you should just be true to who you are. I always tell my people to imagine if we were athletes. I'd probably stay quiet and reclusive until it was time to be outspoken. I feel like it's changed since the '60s and '70s for sports and that's true in music, too. You don't have an abundance of artists that are courageous enough to take stands. In sports, most guys are so groomed. The most you'll get is an outburst here and there. But I do like players like [Derrick] Rose. I love D-Rose's demeanor. He's so humble, but still has so much aggressive energy. He reminds me of me as an artist.
The Life: Which NYC squad will be next to win a championship.
Monch: Well, the Yankees. But that's not really fair.
The Life: Right. OK, let's remove the Yanks.
Monch: I'm a Giants fan, but I'd have to say the Jets. Yeah, I think the Jets are the closest.
The Life: Are you a Rex Ryan fan?
Monch: To an extent. In football, I think you have to play the psychology game like he does, but sometimes you gotta be quiet, too. I don't think being redundant is going to work. You have to surprise people with it. With him, it's like he steps up to the podium and we already know some wild [expletive] is about to be said!
Vincent Thomas is a SLAM magazine columnist and a frequent contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @vincecathomas on Twitter.