On the surface, the lineup of the Spitkickers Tour -- De La Soul, Common, Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli, with Biz Markie thrown in for comic relief -- seems like the yin to the yang of this summer's Dr. Dre/Eminem/Snoop Dogg hip-hop extravaganza, with the former representing a forward-looking alternative to the latter's bleed-and-weed, glocks-and-shocks, hose-the-ho's approach. But in Monch's mind, nothing could be further from the truth.
"Definitely not," he says. "I'm trying to catch that Dre show myself, because production-wise, I know it's going to be off the hook, and because Dre is one of those artists who has musical integrity. You can hear the time that he puts into his music just like you can hear the time that Common puts into his music. So Spitkickers isn't in opposition to that at all."
This response is defensible on several levels. While Eminem's current success owes more to clever packaging than anything he has to say, there's no arguing that Dre is among the genre's true sonic innovators -- and although Ice Cube's music has grown increasingly inconsistent (these days, he seems more interested in making movies than hip-hop), he remains one of the fiercest vocal presences in rap. Yet Monch's rejection of fighting words is also emblematic of an attitude shift among those performers who aren't satisfied with the status quo. A few years back, these rebels seemed to believe that they could wipe out the knucklehead contingent with determination, energy and the power of their intellect, but they were wrong. Good reviews and props for positivity proved no match for the thrill of bullets, blow and booty.
For that reason, the folks behind Spitkickers have no interest in portraying their product as a show that's good for you -- the musical equivalent of broccoli and cauliflower. Rather, they want fans to come to the event expecting little more than a helluva good time, and if what they wind up hearing just happens to be fresher and smarter than the average throw-down, well, so much the better.
Monch (born Troy Jamerson in Jamaica, Queens) is the perfect symbol of this strategy. As half of the obscure '90s duo Organized Konfusion, he's got a history of going where few rappers have gone before -- from both an aural and an oral standpoint -- and Internal Affairs, his solo debut for the Rawkus imprint, finds him building on this legacy. He's in excellent, free-flowing voice, and the music, most of which is overseen by fine-eared dial-twister Lee Stone, is unswervingly intriguing: Check the noirish jazz loop in "Intro," the ominous beat found in "Behind Closed Doors" and the witty Latin touches that decorate "The Next Shit," co-starring Busta Rhymes. (Among the CD's other guests are Canibus, Method Man and Spitkickers cohorts Common and Talib Kweli.)
But instead of larding the platter with didactic lessons or outlandish soundscapes that might have left some listeners scratching their noggins, Monch mixes highly conscious narratives such as "God Send," featuring Organized Konfusion's Prince Poetry, with get-down stuff like "Simon Says (Get the Fuck Up)," a wild, club-happy smash that turns on politically incorrect exhortations such as "Girlies, rub on your titties! Yeeeaaahhh!"
The balance between the profound and the par-tay seems deliberate. But since to admit that might seem like a violation of principles, Monch portrays the blend as his attempt at personal honesty. "All of it's part of who I am. When I was doing it, I was like, 'I can't lie to myself and make a Black Panther album.' At times I really get stressed out about racial issues, and I'll put that on my album. But other times, I like just watching a ton of porn peeps, you know? Everybody's got different things inside them, and if I didn't express those aspects, I'd be frontin' on myself."
Even so, Monch doesn't pretend that he's oblivious to the demands of salesmanship, especially given the bitter lessons he learned during the Organized Konfusion years. "We had a lack of communication, a lack of understanding between everybody involved in our projects, in terms of who we were and what we wanted to do and what our marketplace was and who we wanted to market to. If you're doing comic-book, college-kid, skateboard, X-Men lyrics with a twist of street, there are certain places you just wouldn't market that to. And some people couldn't figure that out."
That's a pity, because Organized Konfusion overflowed with potential -- much of it realized. Monch and Prince Poetry (Larry Baskerfield) met when both were attending an art-and-design high school in the New York area, and shortly thereafter, they began appearing under the moniker Simply 2 Positive. Their evolution to Organized Konfusion was memorialized by the act's 1991 self-titled debut for the Hollywood label, which earned them a reputation for heaviosity that Monch thinks ignored some of its other elements: "We had 'Fudge Pudge' and 'P.S. 48' and different, playful songs that weren't as serious or topical or conceptual as other songs -- ones where we could just bug out and have fun, because that's who we were, too. But they didn't get as much attention."
Three years later, it was déjà vu all over again. Organized Konfusion dropped Stress (The Extinction Agenda), a fascinatingly dense salvo that some observers regard as one of the great lost hip-hop masterworks of the last decade. But the platter ultimately proved too challenging for mainstream acceptance, and after 1997's The Equinox, issued by Priority, suffered the same ignominious fate, the two decided to try things on their own.
During this period, Monch looked closely at his work and concluded that while he could handle complicated verbalisms beautifully, he had some work to do when it came to simplicity. "I focused on my craft, because I wanted to be well-rounded. And I realized that it was second nature for me to spit a triplet-rhyme, split-personality, conceptual, double-metaphor story about giving animation to inanimate objects, but it was difficult for me to have the crowd react to me saying two words in sixteen bars and still be like, 'That was dope.' And I can do that now."
Yet there are also instances when his imagery gets away from him. Witness "Rape," an Internal Affairs lyric in which a rapper angrily argues that music should be forced to put out à la an unwilling female: "I grab the drums by the waistline/I snatch the kit/Kick the snare/And sodomize the bass line." The track has startled feminists of both genders, especially since Monch is viewed as one of the more progressive MCs on the scene -- and he says he understands why.
"One of the things I pride myself on is the ability to put myself into other people's shoes and listen to their complaints and suggestions and what have you. But one of the reasons I used that subject is because it's so touchy. Not only women get raped, but men get raped in prison and kids get raped in adolescence. And since it's such a touchy subject, I wanted to use that chorus in order to sound as offensive as possible, because the character that I'm portraying is a rapist, and his mind is twisted. And if you don't make me believe that you're a villain...Like, I had a problem with the Star Wars movie, because the villain wasn't villain enough for me. I wasn't scared, and so therefore it wasn't believable and it nullified the hero. So I'm glad that character was offensive, because he was supposed to be."
If this argument seems a bit tired, it's because gangsta rappers have been using it to justify their most over-the-edge offerings for ages. But in most other regards, Monch holds himself to a higher standard.
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"You should always make an effort to elevate, but I don't see that in abundance in the music industry right now," he says. "It's not taking place in rock, it's not taking place in a lot of areas. And it's frustrating artistically, because as an artist, you just want to appreciate fine art. You want to revel in the work that somebody did and that you can build off of and enjoy. And you realize that the masses are getting cheated and people aren't putting the same type of integrity that you would into it. You get all this packaging, but when you get down to the bare bones, there's not a lot of substance there."
Spitkickers, in his mind, is an antidote to such mediocrity. "One time [Rawkus labelmate] Mos Def and I were talking, and we were like, 'You defeat this by joining like minds together.' And when other artists see that -- artists who might be thinking, 'I've been double platinum already; I could just stick to the same formula' -- they'll hopefully be like, 'This is what it takes. This is what we should be doing.' And if the audience sees it, they'll be like, 'I'm not picking up that new Bozo the Clown CD, because he's a fucking clown, and I'm not going to support that after seeing what went into this show.'"
Not that he thinks Dr. Dre should be wearing a red nose. "I know he doesn't want to put on a half-assed show," Monch says. "And we don't want to, either."
After all, Monch's music is ambitious stuff. But it's also showbiz.