Pharcyde: L.A. hip-hop’s far side
In 1992, the group released the rollickingly irreverent 'Bizarre Ride.' The quintessential album's being celebrated with a box set, a reunion show and more.
This post has been corrected. Please see bottom for details.
In the haze of memory, it's easy to assume that the Pharcyde's debut, "Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde," came out at some time other than the fall of 1992. So much of L.A. hip-hop that year was dominated by the riots in Los Angeles. For example, Ice Cube took a victory lap on "The Predator," reminding listeners why "We Had to Tear This ... Up." Meanwhile, Dr. Dre and his lanky new protege, Snoop Dogg, readied "Nuthin' but a ‘G' Thang" as their inaugural vision of a post-Bloods/Crips truce, post-riots gangster's paradise.
In contrast, the Pharcyde's introduction came in July 1992 via a whimsical song full of dirty snaps, "Ya Mama," followed by an album that boasts one of the most famous uses of vagina dentata imagery on an LP cover. "Bizarre Ride" is now considered a quintessentially L.A. album, but 20 years ago, it seemed to have arrived from a world all its own.
The 20th anniversary of the album is being marked in several ways. Delicious Vinyl recently released a box set of seven 7-inch records, based on singles from the album, plus a full-size poster and a jigsaw puzzle of the cover art. On Wednesday, several core group members will reunite at the Roxy to perform "Bizarre Ride" in its entirety: rappers Tre "Slimkid3" Hardson and Derrick "Fatlip" Stewart, and producers John "J-Swift" Martinez and John "L.A. Jay" Barnes. The group's internal dynamics have always been unsettled; missing from the show will be co-founders Imani Wilcox and Romye "Booty Brown" Robinson (who still tour together under the Pharcyde name).
The enduring fascination with the album traces partially back to its incongruity in that era, especially the group's rollicking irreverence. On "Officer," Pharcyde's members turned a staple of L.A. hip-hop -- the anti-cop anthem -- into a tongue-in-cheek tale about driving without a proper smog check, while "Oh ..." features vignettes about embarrassing intimate encounters, including one involving a friend's oversexed mother and a cup of ripple wine.
This was the key difference with the Pharcyde -- its members weren't above making themselves the object of ridicule or humiliation, displaying a sardonic but still visceral vulnerability. We take that quality for granted today (what's jokingly called "emo-rap"), but the early 1990s were dominated by superhuman MCs, be it the stern, prophetic gaze of Ice Cube, the sneering, chilling affect of Eazy E or B-Real, or the lyrical virtuosity of the Freestyle Fellowship.
In contrast, Hardson, Robinson, Stewart and Wilcox, with their whiny tones and hyperactive flows, were like overactive teenagers, bubbling over with equal amounts of excitement and insecurity.
To wit: Their biggest hit, "Passin' Me By" builds on pained stories of unrequited love. Compared with the endless variations on "I'm a pimp/mack/player," "Passin' Me By" spoke to listeners who could identify with their own futile attempts to charm a grade school crush.
What would seem like a relatively simple admission -- life can be awkward -- was practically revolutionary at the time. Besides New York's Leaders of the New School (perhaps the Pharcyde's closest counterparts), few other rappers seemed comfortable displaying anything other than a bulletproof countenance.
"Bizarre Ride" also manifested its difference sonically. Martinez not only sampled liberally from jazz records but he and the group also sequenced an album whose rhythm dipped and swerved with an improvisational spirit. It opens with a short, live instrumental, there are interstitial skits that sound straight out of a poetry slam, and there's a notable absence of classic funk loops that up until then had all but defined a West Coast sound.
"Bizarre Ride" created a musical lane that others would follow, especially the short-lived group Mad Kap, as well as the early pre-pop incarnation of the Black Eyed Peas.
Maybe it's because the Pharcyde's core members began not as rappers but as dancers in an earlier era of L.A. hip-hop. Maybe it's because they didn't hail from a single neighborhood, but from places across the region, including Torrance and Pasadena. Maybe it's because they were just quirky. Whatever the reasons, their chemistry -- volatile as it was -- held together long enough to produce this unique artifact of an album.
Their next LP, 1995's "Labcabincalifornia," was arguably a more sophisticated effort, but by then, the very landscape that Pharcyde's members had helped shift had made them sound less incomparable. "Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde" was, then and now, a heady journey whose paths, once carved, couldn't easily be remade, not even by the group itself.
(For the record, 5:50 p.m. May 22: An earlier version of this post had improperly spelled the names of Tre "Slimkid3" Hardson and Derrick "Fatlip" Stewart. The original photo, which showed Imani, has also been changed.)
-- Oliver Wang
Photo: Slimkid3, left, and Fatlip, who perform as Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Credit: Suzu Fresco.