Live from the underground: Pharoahe Monch in Cape Town

The closest New York-bred MC, Pharoahe Monch (real name, Troy Donald Jamerson), ever got to the mainstream of American rap was in 1999 when he released his first solo album, Internal Affairs. The LP’s lead single, Simon Says – which used an uncleared sample of Godzilla film composer Akira Ifukube’s Gojira Tai Mosura and led to the album being pulled from the shelves – peaked at number 97 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Since those halcyon days, Pharoahe Monch has released three other acclaimed solo LPs: Desire, W.A.R (We Are Renegades) and, more recently, P.T.S.D (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Though he has never been able to eclipse the heights of the late 90s, Pharoahe Monch remains one of hip-hop’s cultishly revered figures. (Some die-hard fans speak of his early work, as one half of the duo Organized Konfusion, with the same reverence movie buffs hold for Quentin Tarantino’s early films.)

On a cold Wednesday night, the MC touched down in the Mother City for a one-night-only performance at Zula Bar on Long Street. It was a noticeably low-key affair from the start: no road closures, winding queues, velvet ropes, or an army of outrageously large bouncers patrolling the entrance. This was straight live from the underground.

Indie urban electro outfit, TheCity, a band flying largely under the radar in Cape Town, gave an assured performance as the evening’s opening act. Clement Carr on keys and synths and soulful University of Cape Town College of Music alumnus Bonji Mpanza on vocals provided most of the highlights.

TheCity also backed up the next act and one of the organisers of the show, Abdi ‘Whossane’ Hussein. To those not acquainted with the Brooklyn-born and Cape Town-based MC, he gave an emphatic account of himself during the 40 minutes or so he was on stage. The sincerity of his performance, more than his deep-toned voice, endeared him to the audience.

“Unlike rhythm and blues, hip-hop has a strong memoiriostic impulse,” American urban music scribe, Touré, once wrote. “MCs speak of themselves, their neighbourhoods, the people around them, playing autobiographer, reporter and oral historian.” And in this way a particular experience, like growing up surrounded by hardship in Brooklyn, can become universal.

The crowd went crazy when the evening’s headliner, Pharoahe Monch, sporting a Ché Guevara-like beard, appeared on stage shortly after midnight. From the beginning, the performance was as high-octane as those insane Busta Rhymes videos from the late 90s.

During one of the show’s surreal moments, a white guy standing behind me shouted: “I love you Pharoahe Monch! We’re living in the jungle!” Then as if on cue the rapper segued to The Jungle, one of the standout tracks from P.T.S.D (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Like Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle, the song imagines the city as a jungle where Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest is the only law that applies, and one part of the chorus goes:

“Yo, Ghana, you know we living in the jungle
Cape Town, you know we living in the jungle
Jo’burg, you know we living in the jungle.”

Supported by DJ Revolution on the decks, Pharoahe Monch deftly moved between old and new tracks. The one element though, which threads through his incredible discography and which has earned him cult status, is his lyrical dexterity. That and the fact that he rhymes intelligently about the lives of the 99%. While mainstream American rap has sashayed into a creative cul de sac, someone like Pharoahe Monch reminds you of the aesthetic and political possibilities of hip-hop.

“Simon says get the fuck up!”

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

The Portfolio: ByLwansta

Hip-hop artist ByLwansta adopts a multidisciplinary approach to story-telling by making use of visual cues to reinforce the ideas that he puts forward sonically

Finding Your Niche with K.O

Rapper K.O speaks about his creative process, his intentions with Skhanda and South African hip hop losing its identity.

Rams’s feet touch the ground and sky

The Johannesburg rapper, known to switch flows in a minute, has his eyes set on international swag

HHP – the motswako legend who was one of a kind

Jabba drew inspiration from everything. His approach was collective and prolific.

Don’t it always seem to go

The music video for Janet Jackson’s Got ‘Til It’s Gone is as politically relevant today as it was back in the Nineties

The church of iNice Time and blessings

On their album AKA and Anatii keep the tradition of hip-hop spirituality and prosperity

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

DRC: Tshisekedi and Kabila fall out

The country’s governing coalition is under strain, which could lead to even more acrimony ahead

Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs.

Klipgat residents left high and dry

Flushing toilets were installed in backyards in the North West, but they can’t be used because the sewage has nowhere to go

Nehawu leaders are ‘betraying us’

The accusation by a branch of the union comes after it withdrew from a parliamentary process

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…