Looking in from the Pharcyde


Name a group that released a debut album so potent it sustained interest in the group, with relatively modest help from from subsequent albums, for decades.

Rock has Guns N’ Roses. Hip-hop has The Pharcyde.

Seminal Los Angeles alternative act The Pharcyde dropped their debut, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, in 1992. The album, a cocktail of live instruments, buoyant party jams, an aching love ballad and lots of dirty jokes, demonstrated the diversity of a West Coast scene that was always broader and more interesting than MTV let on. They deserve mention alongside A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, the godfathers of “alternative” hip-hop. Bizarre Ride remains the proudest entry on The Pharcyde’s curriculum vitae.

The pull of that album was apparent when the Rock The Bells summer festival’s organizers announced in 2008 that The Pharcyde would reunite for the tour. One critic wrote that the mere prospect of seeing each member rap his verse to “Passin’ Me By” from Bizarre Ride gave him goose bumps. I would make fun of the critic who wrote that, but I saw the tour’s first show in Chicago, and I was just as excited.

Perhaps attendees will get a chance to plug into that feeling April 2 when three-fourths of the original group rolls into the Fox Theatre. The show, unfortunately, will not feature the band’s most noteworthy MC, Fatlip. Maybe between the live band and the three others — who all also contributed their share to Bizarre Ride — they’ll live up to that album’s magic.

Brooklyn-based MC and producer Von Pea, who is preparing an album called Pea’s Gotta Have It, praised The Pharcyde as a technically innovative act that made jokes without being clownish. He placed them among A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, groups that have always attracted more recognition, probably because they made themselves more available to fame.

“I feel like it gets forgotten sometimes, but [Bizarre Ride] is just as much a classic album as any of the other heralded hip-hop albums from the ’90s,” Von Pea said.

Bizarre Ride is aptly named. The disc kicks off with a piece of laid-back live jazz before segueing into “Oh Shit,” an energetic ode to sexual mortification. For 16 songs, the disk caroms from sex to marijuana to your mom to the crushing burden of love unrequited. Fatlip is the group’s most competent MC, but the others, including the manic and high-pitched Imani, also work competently in the realm of jokey gross-out storytelling. “Ya Mama” is composed entirely of jokes, and pretty good ones at that.

“They just had so much character and style in their delivery; and the way they brought the melodic singing and harmonizing with the rapping was unique at the time,” said Detroit MC and producer Black Milk, who is working on a release called Album of the Year.

The album’s sharpest turn is also its most rewarding. “Passin’ Me By” is an earnest love note to the women that got away from Fatlip, Imani, Bootie Brown and SlimKid3. The verses sag with remorse, and the organ sample communicates that same haunted regret. The song is an early hip-hop masterpiece from an album unique enough to feel lost in time.

“Very few albums from that era age well, but Bizarre Ride still sounds just as fresh and zany as it did when it first dropped,” said Phonte, of heavyweight semi-underground group Little Brother.

Like any truly bizarre band, The Pharcyde didn’t capitalize on Bizarre Ride’s success. They waited three years and turned out an album that matched its weird name, Labcabincalifornia. That disc didn’t live up to Bizarre Ride’s madcap enthusiasm, and subsequent efforts did little to build on the group’s legacy. Their lineup has remained fluid since the classic days, and awareness of the group has continued to depend on Bizarre Ride and “Passin’ Me By.” To be fair, there are those who prefer Labcabincalifornia. Those people are few.

Sadly, 2008’s reunion didn’t hold. I couldn’t raise the others to comment for this story, but Fatlip said the festival tour didn’t end well. He is working on a solo album and making a documentary about his sour reunion experience.

“I lost all respect for those dudes,” he said.

Fatlip noted that the feeling is probably mutual.

Even if the original Pharcyde is over, we still have Bizarre Ride. Phonte, whose group is readying a farewell album called Leftback, places Bizarre Ride among his favorite albums. The Pharcyde cut a path for such misfit acts as Souls of Mischief and Tha Alkaholiks, Phonte said.

“The Pharcyde were extremely original because they were a group that merged free-spirited West Coast humor and attitude with East Coast production and rhyme cadences,” Phonte said.
Bizarre Ride really laid the blueprint for a whole new subgenre of hip-hop.”

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