The Making of Stress: The Extinction Agenda with Organized Konfusion

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

This Monday, January 27th, Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po (aka Prince Poetry) of legendary Queens duo Organized Konfusion will take the stage in Brooklyn together to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their classic sophomore LP Stress: The Extinction Agenda. The album, which was released August 16th, 1994, has stood the test of hip-hop time, thanks to its undeniable, sample-based production and downright vicious lyrical content. With stories of struggle and frustration (“Stress”), as well as tragedy (“Maintain”) and triumph (“Black Sunday”), mixed in with party jams (“3-2-1”), super-creative concepts (“Stray Bullet”), and microphone onslaught (“Bring It On”), Stress: The Extinction Agenda is still nothing short of phenomenal.

To help build excitement for this Monday’s show (cop tickets here), which will also feature Organized Konfusion collaborators O.C. and Large Professor, we caught up with Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po earlier this week to discuss the making of Stress: The Extinction Agenda in detail, breaking down every track on the LP, and also its cover art (which we insist is recognized as one of the dopest rap album covers ever). In addition, we revisited New York City with them during the time the album was recorded, and what events and emotions contributed to its theme. Read below, and stay tuned for Prince Po’s project with Oh No Animal Serum dropping February 4th (it features an Organized Konfusion reunion track), and Pharoahe Monch’s upcoming solo album Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Creating a Sophomore Classic

Pharoahe Monch: Coming off of the first album, I was kind of feeling like the labels could’ve done a better job. So I was already starting with an attitude on some label shit. The first record actually did well, I just thought it should’ve done better. So moving on to the second [album], I just knew we had to go harder than we did the first time. So it was us really digging in, in terms of the topics and the content and the arrangement, and even reaching out [to] our extended fam, out to Buckwild and Rockwilder. Going outside of the camp, and getting some different production.

I think we’ve been blessed in that we’ve always had creative freedom. We had a lot on the first album, and it was so revered, so [with the second album] it was like, “Go do your thing. We’ll check in.” I think there was a little more A&R [involvement] on the second album, but it was still like, “Do what y’all do.”

Prince Po: We learned a lot from what mistakes the label made on the first album, too. So, it definitely pushed us to go hard on the second record. When you got love for stuff as much as we love hip-hop, you’re gonna apply yourself and try to learn the rights and wrongs. For the second album, we definitely were more geared up and experienced and educated to give more input, and also get more involved in the theatrics of the music on the other side, like promoting and marketing, and how the image is gonna look. We were definitely involved a lot more, immensely, between the first and second album.

In The Lab

Pharoahe Monch: With the first album, it was experimental. Paul C got murdered [during the recording of the album], so the second half of that project, we were literally doing it on the fly, and bringing records to the studio [trying to get beats made and finish the album without him]. On the second album, we got equipment, and a couple of pieces—an SP-1200, an S950—so we were doing a little bit more pre-production. We were basically working out of Battery [Studios] the whole time.

It was fly because you’re talking about ‘93, ‘94, so it’s Souls of Mischief, [A] Tribe [Called Quest], and Jive [Records] was actually in that facility, so you’re bumping into these dudes, which is actually how Q-Tip got on this record, because he was in the studio across from us. It felt like everyone was trying to raise the bar and push the culture of hip-hop. It wasn’t even competition. It helped to have all those artists there, all in the studio going hard. I just saw a post with all the albums that came out in ‘94, and I was like, “Wow.” Biggie [Ready to Die], Redman Dare Iz a Darkside, [Nas Illmatic]. It was crazy. Lots of bars! It was like, you better earn your place, or you’ll get quickly pushed to the side.

Prince Po: During that album, it got emotional, but we were also more experienced. We did most of our work out of Battery, but there were a few times that we had creative ideas that jumped into our head, and it was like, “We gotta go to the studio right now.” So we did the Soundtrack Studios, and Unique Recording Studios, and we ran into other artists as well. We’d run into Busta [Rhymes] over at Soundtrack, or LL Cool J at Unique. At the time, hip-hop was very competitive, but there was a lot of love for the culture itself, and there was less ego.

If Monch came up with an idea Wednesday, we wanted to be in the studio Thursday. We were just that type of group that was assertive in terms of creating music. Life changes every day. You can be happy two days in a row, but that third day you can wake up with an attitude about how things aren’t going your way. Or, you can just be disappointed about how things are turning out during your daily timeline. So the music was based off what we were going through in life.

Track-By-Track Breakdown

1. “Intro” (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Pharoahe Monch: We were just trying to set it off. Intro the album, and the theme.

Prince Po: Back then, intros and interludes and skits were very important, because records were like one piece of art. So the intro was just to welcome people to the music. But I don’t really remember it. [Laughs.]

Pharoahe Monch: I don’t remember that shit [either]. [Laughs.]

 

2. “Stress” (Produced by Buckwild)

Pharoahe Monch: I gravitated to the beat because I felt like we needed to get out our aggression. I just wanted to yell and scream. Being who we are, I felt we needed that vibe and color for the album, and that beat set that tone.

[When we performed this song], it was the first time I’d seen people mosh at a hip-hop show. That shit blew me away. I seen it with Bad Brains and a couple other bands I followed. I was a rock fan, but I didn’t really go to a lot of shows. But to see that shit happen off our song was amazing.

[As far as the cab skit], a lot of the recording was being done in Manhattan, so we would have equipment and records and shit, trying to go crosstown from Queens, which is already two fare zones. Bus to the train, and then you hit Manhattan, and you’re trying to take a cab or whatever, and you’re going through that whole thing [of no one picking you up because of the color of your skin].

Prince Po: It wasn’t that long ago that there was a lot of attention on racism. And that’s what we were dealing with. There was racism in New York, and the whole, “Oh, I’m not driving a cab to Queens.” People always say it’s about the color green, but that’s where the frustration came. We had money. Monch had his own pocket full of money, I had my own pocket full of money. But the money couldn’t buy the trust of a cab driver to take us home. So it was like, “We’ll pay you up front.” But it didn’t matter. The racism was that thick in New York. It definitely has gotten way better since then. But being a native New Yorker, that was very stressful, because sometimes you don’t want to take the train or the bus.

Between that, and booking studio time, and a couple of our songs getting clipped by mistake by the assistant engineer, and just little things [that happened contributed to our] tension. We’re normal people so [those things] do have an affect on us. There were bumps we had to get over with[our label] Hollywood [BASIC] between the first and the second album, too. So that definitely contributed as well. They did have us set up a lot more professionally than other artists as far as our itinerary and stuff like that, so we were blessed, and I give them credit for that. But we had to fight to get that second budget the way it was. So the everyday hustle pushed us to vent.

Pharoahe Monch: We were branching out. We repped Southside Queens, but on a larger scale, it was like, “Where the fuck are these dudes from?” I don’t think we had a classic, New York, boxy sound, or the way that we rhymed even. We shot the “Stress” video in San Francisco which kind of showed people like, “We’re mad global right now.” And I remember The Bay giving us so much love because we shot it there.

We weren’t trying to keep it regional. It wasn’t [just] a Queens thing for us. [Showbiz and] A.G. and were from the Bronx, and we toured with them a lot. We went to Japan with them and Big L. D.I.T.C. was hot, and we were fans of what they were doing tremendously. I was more of a home body, but Prince was actually in the Bronx, in Manhattan, exploring shit. So it was nothing for us to [to work with Buckwild and all these different artists].

 

3. “The Extinction Agenda” (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Pharoahe Monch: That was us on the production, and [a reflection of] my love of jazz. That’s a combination of Herbie Hancock [and Joe Farrell] loops. Like we were saying, there was so much pressure, and we were frustrated by society, so [we felt like] this was the time to present it. The time is now. They were trying to make hip-hop extinct, and we were feeling the pressure of racism or what have you as black men in the city. It was like, “People don’t want this culture here no more.” Also, I was a big comic book head, so I was kind of [approaching the theme of the song] like that too, with storylines. X-Men, and things of that nature.

Prince Po: We also were like, “Let’s style out on this.” Like the way we started out the track, going back and forth between every couple of letters [in our name]. We were the type of group that was like, “We’re gonna go harder than the last time.” That song was like, “We still got ill skills. We’re not mad, we’re just venting. And we’re coming at y’all.”

 

4. “Thirteen” (Produced by Buckwild)

Pharoahe Monch: I was pretty pissed off during the recording of this album, obviously. [Laughs.] Thirteen has always been my favorite number. I contracted asthma at thirteen months, age thirteen was one of my favorite times of my life, becoming a teenager and having fun. And I’m a big sports fan, so it was all the players that had that number back then, like Mark Jackson. And he had 13 at St. John’s too I think. For many people, it’s a bad luck number. But for me it was a lucky number, and also it was like, “Yeah, I’m the oddball guy.”

The beat put me in a trance. It was hard. And science was my favorite subject, so I was [dropping different references] to the periodic table of contents. I knew that Au was gold, and Ag was silver, so I was trying to throw gold in there in a creative way, like, “Rappers do shit to go gold.”

 

5. “Black Sunday” (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Prince Po: That was us talking about breaking into the game. But it was also us telling people that we’re normal, even though we’re coming from the left. Me and Monch are a very unique combination. We both are artists that went to art school. I’m a left-handed Leo, which is one of the most weirdest aliens on earth right now. [Laughs.]

“Black Sunday” was a soulful struggle, where we were talking about our influences, being around gospel music, rock music, and jazz. Talking about how after I leave practice with Monch, I gotta figure out how to go home and sneak in my building because there’s a crazy lady who rides up and down on the elevator and scares the shit out of me. It’s homegrown. We’re taking you to church, but in a street way. We’re going back to the hood, where we had to go to Woolworth’s to buy cheap stuff. We were talking about our struggle, and coming up in the game, talking about our desire for music soulfully, while going through what other people go through. Like, “We’re not gonna let the fact that we can’t buy this sandwich stop us from making this new song.” It was our expression of what was happening before we got our deal. Our peoples were like, “Y’all not gonna make it.” But we made it. So we wanted to let the ones that did support us know, like, “Remember how we pushed and fought?” Black is usually negative, like the Black Plague or the black market, but “Black Sunday” is actually a positive song of triumph.

I did this beat on the same machine that was used to make Onyx “Slam.” Big up to Chyskillz [who produced “Slam”]. Back then, me and Monch worked together and separately. I’d do a beat with other producers, Monch would do a beat with other producers. That was the love for the culture and the movement at that time. Me, Monch, Buckwild, and a few others, we were about learning different machines. Chyskillz had the ASR, so that was part of the exercise, part of class. Learning how to chop, and freak loops and samples. So Chy would be like, “I’ll do a beat, then you do a beat.” And that’s how this came about.

Going digging was how I built a relationship with Chyskillz, and how we built relationships with other people. We used to go digging, and everyone was mad cool, but it was very competitive. We were in one section, over in another section would be DJ Premier, in another section was Q-Tip, in another section was Showbiz, in another section was Biz Markie. Not always at the same time, but at different record conventions, and spots that cats knew about. It was very serious game, like how people dig for gold and prehistoric artifacts. We’re looking at the dude from P.M. Dawn like, “Don’t look at me, we’re looking for records.” And he’s like, “Don’t look at us, we’re looking for records.” But it was a friendly competition. Me and Monch had a friendly competition, too. He’d have something dope, and I’d be like, “Where you got that from?” And he’d be like, “Aaaaaahh!”

Pharoahe Monch: I think digging helped our era’s approach to the music. A lot of the artists that we were sampling aren’t alive right now, but they gave us an understanding that the music will outlast the artist. So we tried to put little tidbits and emotion and goosebumps in the music so it could stand the test of time. And it’s difficult to get that without the process of going through what we went through to make hip-hop music back then. And that’s what the music is getting away from right now, and why albums like this are revered.

 

6. “Drop Bombs” (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Pharoahe Monch: We were trying to bring a lot of energy to the project, performance-wise. Prince did that beat, and it had a lot of energy, but it might not have been [worthy] of a song [with verses]. So it was like, “Let’s go hard on it, and use it as an interlude or something.”

Prince Po: We looked at albums as one whole piece of art, with many different colors and directions. Interludes like that, it was like, “It’s dope, but some beats need to be listened to with no [rhymes] on it. So just shut up and let the beat rock.” It was [put there] to get people inspired and amped up.

 

7. “Bring It On” (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Pharoahe: “Bring It On” was exercising, and doing what we would do in the crib. What’s weird is I just heard Eminem doing bits and pieces of the verse on a radio show. So you know we did our job for somebody on that level to remember. I was like, “Wow.” Not only is that shit [from twenty] years ago, but it’s Eminem.

Prince Po: You just have to make music, and let people tell you what it does for them. “Bring It On” was a song for us to be like, “Let’s exercise our shit, do what we do in the crib, and not hold back. Let’s go hard and give the people what they might not be ready for.” And people still be like, “Yo man, ‘Globby spits of remains of rappers in the lobby as a hobby.’” Sometimes people don’t need subject matter, they just need a vision, or something that makes them laugh, like, “That was funny,” or, “That was weird.” It was like, “We’re gonna go in. Let’s go bonkers. Let’s go crazy.”

Monch is really good at inspiring me to write something. Most times, we wrote over at his crib. And I’m getting over there at eight o’clock in the morning, and he’s like, “Check it out,” on some two in the afternoon shit. He’d have a beat going, or a beat someone sent him, and it was like, “Let’s go.” So by noon, when most people are just getting their day started, we [were already finished] with stuff like “Bring It On.”

 

8. “Why” (Produced by Organized Konfusion and Buckwild)

Prince Po: My verse was straight real, what it is. I had a girl, I loved her, and she was like, “That rap game, ehhhhh. You need to stay on your job, and stop being a bum. Your car got a leak in the oil tank, you need to get it fixed. You need to get your life together.” But I had faith in what we were doing.

And we had support. Monch’s mom was very supportive. I couldn’t possibly play my beats half as loud in my house. We had people that had faith in us. So I wasn’t afraid to put my emotions on that song. Now we got a deal, we’re doing well, we got other artists coming. I was feeling good about myself. So it was for our fans and music lovers to be like, “I’m glad they weren’t afraid to put it out there like that.”

 

9. “Let’s Organize” ft. O.C. and Q-Tip (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Prince Po: We were in the studio together, and we already had a good amount of the album done. And we had been seeing each other every day, having milk and cookies together after every session and all that. [Laughs.] So Monch was like, “This is your song. I need a break. I’m gonna give you some room. Figure it out. Make it happen. I can’t be here right now. I’ll be back.”

So I’m playing the music, trying to get in the mood. Then Tip came in the studio, and I was like, “Listen to this, man.” And he was like, “Let me go in the booth,” which was not what I expected [him to say]. He’s a good dude, and he’s really talented. And in two takes, he was done. Monch and them came back [and heard it] and were like, “Ohhh!” Tip was in the other room by then, but it was just beautiful. It was supposed to be my solo song on the record, but Tip laid his [part], then Monch and [O.C., who we had been working with since “Fudge Pudge”] came back in and laid their verses, and it was done. And I owe that to being a man, and loving your brothers when you’re working. You gotta respect each other, and be grateful for everyone’s contribution. Monch pushed me to make that song.

I wasn’t aiming for the most lyrical song. It was a song for a person to bop their head to and be like, “I feel good right now. I got a little spunk to go slide to the bathroom and brush my teeth in the morning.” [Laughs.]

I used to go over to Tip’s house a lot, and he’d be like, “Check out how I made this beat.” He would share stuff with us, and we would share stuff with him. He loves music on a whole other level. He showed us mad love from the beginning, and gravitated towards us as well. We kept our eye on them. When we were looking for our deal, they had the biggest deal out of all the groups from that era. They had a solid deal, but man, them and De La [Soul] were just crazy with it. So for him to call me and be like, “Yo, I need you to check out these songs and tell me what you think,” that’s an honor. And he did that with Monch, too. We always had a relationship with Tip that was very music oriented and soulful, and being from Queens, we had a connection.

 

10. “3-2-1” (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Pharoahe Monch: “3-2-1” was a reflection of who we were. The beautiful thing about the oxymoron of our name is that it’s so fitting. It’s these kids with this type of upbringing, who went to art school, but still are into chicks, and into parties, and having fun, going to jams and clubs. That was a part of being from Southside and our upbringing as well. So it’s like, “You’re lying if you don’t represent that side of who you are, too, as well as that you love the Arts.” This song is how we partied. This is what it feels like. We smoked weed, and we drank 40s.

 

11. “Keep it Koming” (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Pharoahe Monch: Those are classic drums, and the way they played it is off. And we liked challenging ourselves, just to do some next shit. It was like, let’s spit over this shit that’s not a traditional two-four, kick-snare, and show our dexterity.

 

12. “Stray Bullet” (Produced by Organized Konfusion)

Prince Po: Monch made that beat, I just added the sounds.

Pharoahe Monch: [Laughs.]

Prince Po: Nah, but he freaked that beat [with the “Wind Parade” and “Nautilus” samples]. And that concept to me was so easy to do, because unfortunately—and I don’t brag about it because it’s horrible and sad—but we have a lot of friends and family and associates that fell victim to gun violence. So doing the song from this perspective takes a lot of the emotion out of the song that we didn’t want there. We wanted to keep the song more savvy and cultural without tapping too much into a person’s emotions. So putting yourself in the form of a bullet, it kind of softens up the sadness when you’re speaking on such a delicate topic. We wanted to be clever with it, and not be preaching to people, but also bring awareness to the gun violence by being the bullet.

Pharoahe Monch: I think the song is actually more graphic than if we were to do it the other way. That shit is so descriptive. That shit is harder than the gangster rap shit that was out. But part of Prince’s rhyme, he experienced that. He was in the club with O when dude’s brains got put on the wall. That’s the thing that a lot of people don’t know about the group. We dealt with gun violence a lot. We’d be doing shows in Newark, and we’re rolling [with our crew], and motherfuckers is holding heat! So how are we gonna do this, and not do a traditional song where we’re rapping about holding heat. From a song’s perspective, we’re a little more savvy with it. So how do we flip this, and tell our story of people trying to roll on us, and us being like, “I don’t think y’all wanna do this,” without sounding like a thug. Because I’m not a thug. We had motherfuckers in our crew with AKs and the whole nine yards. We had motherfuckers in our crew with grenades! P, am I lying?

Prince Po: [Laughs.] No. I’m laughing because I’m reminiscing.

Pharoahe Monch: But I understand what he’s saying, because we weren’t trying to do the same thing that was done back then. But in the same token, here’s this relentless bullet that doesn’t give a shit about race or color or child or circumstance or whether that guy has a wedding the next day. It doesn’t matter. We wanted to make people feel that. It’s even realer than having a gun, because we got guns too. So what?

Prince Po: That’s one of my favorite of all the Organized songs ever. Someone might have stopped themselves from doing something stupid to destroy their life listening to that song.

 

13. “Maintain” (Produced by Rockwilder)

Prince Po: We were personally going through some stuff. Monch had asthma pretty bad back then. We lost Monch’s pops. It was really hurtful, because you’re a brother to your partner, bigger than music. His moms fed me. I slept on his floor. It was hard, and there was a lot of personal stuff going on. It was a very emotional and challenging time for me, understanding that a part of life is death. I was very close with Mr. Jamerson, and he reminds me of my dad. He had lots of humor, but was very cut-to-the-chase, with no sugar-coat. I appreciate that, because if I didn’t have that upbringing, who knows where I would be in this type of society that we’re living in now.

It’s such a dope song, because at the end of the day, you can only cry so much. That song was to make people feel good, and know they’re not by themselves. Through the ups and downs, you gotta maintain. We tried to inspire people with that song, and we were rewarded, because a lot of people came to the shows with stories of what happened in their personal lives, and how that song helped them persevere.

Pharoahe Monch: Like Prince said, my pops had passed, so the basis of that record was to put that pain [on the track], but also the perseverance. You gotta maintain, and still push through. It’s a very emotional record.

 

Cover Art

Pharoahe Monch: Matt Doo was the artist who painted the album cover. He was from Queens as well, so there was the fabric there of him being a real b-boy. He walked from one part of Queens to the next part of Queens to be at the jam, or be up in the mix of action. He was the true sense of that dude who was in a cypher absorbing the entire culture. So when he approached us about doing the record [cover], it really came from a place of, “You guys take me to a place in my spirit and my soul with what y’all do, and I think I can capture the essence of what this duo is about, and how your music moves me.”

He put his heart and soul into this album cover. Literally. Every aspect of this cover was maniacal, and intricately thought about. Where the hammer would be placed, or the pig and the cop and the things along the path that you see on the cover, as well as the color technique. The actual oil painting is a big, 30’’ by 30’’ oil painting, then they took a photograph of the painting [for the album cover]. That in itself is bananas. When I tell people it’s an actual painting [they can’t believe it].

His brother has the painting. I just spoke to him, and he was like, “Every day I see it, it reminds me of Matt Doo. I gotta walk past it every day.” Matt Doo committed suicide not long after working with us on that cover. His brother has a couple more pieces of his, [and he also did Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus cover]. He’s in my opinion one of the most incredible artists of our time. I told his brother, if we’re gonna do shows or listenings or whatever to celebrate [the 20th anniversary of] this album, I think that cover [and Matt’s work] is a big part of translating our [music visually]. We weren’t able to be that creative with the visuals yet. For the video, you just did what everybody else did—you rapped in it. And you change your fuckin’ clothes a couple times.

Prince Po: [Laughs.]

Pharoahe Monch: But that cover helped people be like, “This motherfucker Prince Po is beyond the universe with his shit. These dudes are trying to pave a path from the projects in the background to you. Look at where they’re coming from.” He played a big part in translating the sound of this album to the audience. We’re just blessed that the cover gets celebrated, and the album gets celebrated. It’s the biggest “thank you.”

Looking Back 20 Years Later/The Future

Prince Po: This is our record of perseverance. We were going through a lot, pushing through, and we kept fighting. It’s one of the apexes [of our career], because we still have unfound ground, separately and together. This album is a blessing, not just from a personal standpoint, but for the people going through things all over the world trying to push through and persevere. They bought the record, and they still support it. It’s looked at as a classic album, but I’m humble and grateful about it. I’m just happy if it touched one person, and helped them get through college and find the right job. Then our job is done, and my heart is happy.

Stress: The Extinction Agenda is available for purchase on Amazon.

Images via Discogs, UpNorthTrips, Hip Hop Photo Museum, HipHop-TheGoldenEra, and NY Times.

Previously: The Making of No Need For Alarm with Del the Funky Homosapien