Last summer, The Pharcyde reunited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut album, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. But they didn't reunite into one group. Fatlip, Slim Kid Tre, producer J-Swift and DJ LA Jay presented "Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde," a showcase created with help from the group's original label, Delicious Vinyl. Meanwhile, fellow rappers Romye and Imani, who own legal rights to the group's name, mounted a competing tour billed as The Pharcyde. For the millions of people who grew up listening to Bizarre Ride every day and reciting the lyrics to "Passin' Me By" in countless nightclubs -- I was one of them -- the public bickering that ensued between the two camps made for a bittersweet anniversary.
In sports, there's a saying that you have to make the most of your opportunity every season, because you never know what will happen next year. The Pharcyde are living proof of that. Released on November 24, 1992, Bizarre Ride was a serendipitous blooming from the acid jazz vibes that overtook underground dance clubs, the manic fast-rap techniques spreading across the hip-hop world like an infectious disease, and the West Coast's freestyle indie scene, in particular the Good Life Café, a near-mythical club where innovators like Aceyalone and Mikah 9 of Freestyle Fellowship honed their craft. Hallmarks of the era include Beastie Boys' funk-rock opus Check Your Head, U.M.C.'s pop-rap whirligig Fruits of Nature, Leaders of the New School's teenage fantasy A Future Without a Past, Del the Funky Homosapien's drolly whimsical I Wish My Brother George Was Here, A Tribe Called Quest's cool jazz masterpiece The Low End Theory, Das EFX's wickity-wickity rhyme game Dead Serious, and Gang Starr's hard bop homage Daily Operation.
Although The Pharcyde's competitive pride won't let them admit it, they obviously borrowed from Freestyle Fellowship's 1991 debut, To Whom It May Concern, which became a cornerstone of underground rap lyricism in Los Angeles. However, they have freely acknowledged the influence of The Brand New Heavies' 1990 self-titled debut. As the prototypical acid jazz album that melded Northern Soul and funk licks with uptempo grooves derived from R&B and house music, Brand New Heavies had a marked effect on J-Swift's production for Bizarre Ride. The Heavies recorded for Delicious Vinyl, one of the reasons why The Pharcyde signed with that label in 1991. As a bonus, they got to contribute to Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol. 1, The Heavies' all-star hip-hop collaboration with Grand Puba, Black Sheep, Masta Ace and others.
Just over the horizon was Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Released on December 15, 1992, it rendered nearly all of the above recordings commercially irrelevant. Delicious Vinyl co-owner Mike Ross recently told SPIN magazine a possibly apocryphal story about the fate of Bizarre Ride's biggest single, the classic "Passin' Me By." MTV told the band it was elevating a rap video from the Yo! MTV Raps margins to regular rotation, and the decision came down to either "Passin' Me By" or Onyx's knucklehead party jam "Slam." (During the glory days of grunge, MTV carefully selected rap videos for its pop audience like token schoolchildren.) "Slam" won. So "Passin' Me By" petered out, and "Slam" became a crossover sensation, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard singles chart.
Before we slip into gangsta-bashing mode, however, let's remember that the street-rap crowd also loved the group. Too Short paid a compliment on "Paystyle" when he dissed the growing freestyle scene: "Never even care who you're sounding like … bit the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest." And Ice Cube nurtured his own Pharcyde-sounding act, Anotha Level. Although Bizarre Ride sold in modest numbers and took four years to ship gold, it briefly opened the doors to a slew of similar acts, from legitimate contenders like Souls of Mischief, Mad Kap and Blackalicious to Pharcyde-affiliated acts like The Wascals and Quinton. None of them achieved the same level of raunchy humor and life-affirming sunshine as Bizarre Ride.
Slim Kid Tre, Romye and Imani were best known as breakdancers when they formed The Pharcyde in 1989. Reggie Andrews, a musician whose songwriting and production credits include Dazz Band ("Let It Whip") and Patrice Rushen ("Feels So Real"), mentored the trio when they participated in his South Central Unit youth program alongside producer J-Swift. There, they met Fatlip, who became the Pharcyde's fourth member.
J-Swift and the Pharcyde decamped to a South Central party house they dubbed the Pharcyde Manor. They initially set out to replicate the tough boom-bap of East Coast groups like Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, whose Mecca & the Soul Brother also came out in 1992. But it's doubtful C.L. Smooth ever imagined a story like Fatlip mistakenly dating a transvestite on "Oh Sh*t," or placed a hilariously threatening phone call like on "4 Better or 4 Worse." Imani could brag on "Soul Flower" about shooting a jacker who breaks into his house a la Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man" and make it sound funny. And post-modern riffs like "Return of the B-Boy" and its self-consciously corny reprisals of "the roof is on fire" chants marked The Pharcyde as a new generation so versed in rap culture they couldn't remember life without it.
Undercutting all the jokes were songs of unabashed emotion. On "Otha Fish," Slim Kid Tre harmonizes for five agonizing minutes over an ex-girlfriend. Fatlip's final verse on "Passin' Me By" brings the song's theme of unrequited love into uncomfortably stark focus: "Then I signed, 'Sincerely, The One Who Loves You Dearly, PS Love me tender/ The letter came back three days later, return to sender," he rapped. It's one of the most poignant admissions of defeat in the hip-hop genre.
There were also songs on which The Pharcyde balanced introspection with goofy frivolousness. "On the DL" is a triptych that begins with Slim Kid Tre complaining about friends who think he's ego tripping, segues into a story from Romye about jerking off on the toilet while his girlfriend sleeps in the bedroom, adds a second story from Imani about shooting a jacker that breaks into his house, and ends with Tre admitting to himself, "The homies got your back 'cause it's wack to let you fall." Throughout Bizarre Ride, the group seems more human than the Afrocentric lecturers, thugs in hoodies and lyrical gods then dotting the landscape.
Though never officially a member, J-Swift was an indispensible contributor to Bizarre Ride. Listening to the album now, it's remarkable how he lifted a seconds-long bassline from Weather Report's "125th Street Congress," the drum track from Skull Snaps' "It's a New Day," a vocal line from Whodini's "Friends" ("But nevertheless, I'll say it again…") and Jimi Hendrix's guitar line from "Are You Experienced?", then fit it all onto not only a beat for the group's verses (Quincy Jones' "Summer in the City"), but also a beat for Imani's sung chorus (Eddie Russ' "Hill Where the Lord Hides"). It's a feat he repeats with the likes of The JB's for "I'm That Type of N*gga," Ramsey Lewis for "Officer," and Herbie Mann's "Today!" for "Otha Fish." He often mixed these samples with his own piano and bass, and Darryl "JMD" Moe's drums; these backbeats took center stage without any sample clutter on skits like "It's Jigaboo Time." LA Jay added turntable scratches and cuts.
J-Swift's strategy of building a beat through multiple sources had grown common since Public Enemy's encyclopedic use of sound on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Today, now that both mainstream and indie beatmakers rely on simplistic loops of one track if they sample at all, this meticulous style of production has been all but lost.
The same could be said for The Pharcyde. By 1995's Labcabincalifornia, the group was in disarray. J-Swift and The Pharcyde parted ways over money and songwriting credits; he tried to launch a record label, Fathouse Wreckords, and then drifted into a years-long addiction to crack cocaine. His replacement, the soon-to-be production legend J Dilla, helped create two memorable Pharcyde singles in "Runnin'" and "Drop." But even his mellow, ambient neo-soul couldn't mask the tension and creative frustration inherent in Labcabincalifornia. "You guys argue so much -- I can't understand it," Dilla once told them.
After Labcabincalifornia, Fatlip split and tried to launch a solo career before descending into cocaine abuse and manic depression. In 2005, he finally released The Loneliest Punk and its mordant lead single, "What's Up Fatlip." Slim Kid Tre used his government name, Tre Hardson, for solo albums that blended rootsy indie soul with conscious hip-hop, including 2006's Slimkid3's Café. Over the years, both Fatlip and Slim Kid Tre would reunite with Imani and Romye, and then take off again. It's hard not to sympathize with Imani and Romye, who have soldiered on in spite of their onetime bandmates' vacillations, and despite a lack of interest in new material (like 2004's Humboldt Beginnings). It's likely that a generation of aging B-boys and B-girls, and the touring revenue they offer, will be an incentive for the quartet to set aside their differences soon, if only for a temporary run like 2008's Rock the Bells festival series.
The Pharcyde may forever be linked to one shining moment in the early '90s. But what a moment it is! Few musicians will ever reach a creative peak like Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde.