Category: A Tribe Called Quest

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.)


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Photo: Slimkid3, left, and Fatlip, who perform as Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Credit: Suzu Fresco.

Michael Rapaport’s quest: To give Tribe its due

The actor’s first directing project, the new documentary ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life,’ is his bid to show A Tribe Called Quest’s ongoing influence on hip-hop.


Over a dozen years since abdicating its spot as rap’s pacesetter, the New York hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest’s rhymes have never stopped being checked. Ask Pharrell Williams, the Roots, the Beastie Boys, Common and De La Soul, who freely rhapsodize about the Queens quartet’s impact and enduring legacy in Michael Rapaport’s documentary, “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.”

Slated for release in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, the film has been shadowed by controversy since its Sundance debut in January. Both love letter to the group’s import and testament to its messy dissolution, “Beats, Rhymes and Life” captures Tribe’s psychedelic spirit and trademark idiosyncrasies. In the process, it reaffirms the group’s influence on spiritual descendents, including Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and worldwide underground music.

While the New York neighborhoods nearest Linden Boulevard received the strongest vibrations, Tribe’s skypagers have continued to commune with West Coast subterranean culture since its last full-length, 1998’s “The Love Movement.” Locally, Tribe’s inheritors rank among the most significant figures around — a fact underscored by Rapaport’s recruitment of Highland Park label Stones Throw composer/producer Madlib to score the film.

“Madlib took it very seriously. [Rapaport] requested melancholy music, so Madlib created three or four CDs’ worth that we called Sadlib,” Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf, the founder of Stones Throw, said. Unfortunately, those tracks contained unlicensed samples, so Madlib reworked the music to eliminate the samples. “Madlib thought they were obscure enough to escape copyright lawsuits,” said Manak, “but the film’s attorneys disagreed.”

Rapaport also tabbed Manak to handle music supervision. A renowned producer and DJ, he readily acknowledged the creative debt that he and his imprint owe to Tribe. Indeed, Stones Throw boasts a direct bloodline to A Tribe Called Quest in the late artist J Dilla, who first achieved widespread notoriety upon joining the group in 1996.

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Coming to a theater near you: L.A. Film Festival winner 'Beats, Rhymes & Life'

Tribe1The rap world has been wrongly accused of lacking good documentaries. From artifact "Style Wars" to portraits of its mid-'90s ascent ("The Show" and "Rhyme or Reason") to last year's "The Good Life" and "The Carter," hip-hop has produced few contributions worthy of Criterion, or at least the Sundance Channel.

But not many (if any) films have ever so cogently illustrated the dynamics of a hip-hop group like Michael Rapaport's documentary "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest," which won the Audience Award at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival. 

The film, which premiered at Sundance, was screened Friday at the Ford Amphiteatre to the tune of a standing ovation for the director and three of the four members of A Tribe Called Quest (all but Q-Tip). Since the first screenings in January, the film had been dogged by controversy, with the members variously retracting and reissuing their support.

The final version, which will  premiere July 8 in New York City and Los Angeles, captures the creative differences and personal beef that still dogged the group years after its dissolution. Focusing on the events surrounding the 2008 Rock the Bells tour and the events that triggered the group's breakup, "Beats, Rhymes & Life" is the closest thing the rap world has to rock documentary "Dig!" -- a document of the difficulties inherent in sustaining a creative and business partnership. And, of course, it's a love letter to the group's canonized first three albums, with testamonials from De La Soul, the Roots, the Beastie Boys, Pharrell and more.

If you love A Tribe Called Quest and wonder why all your favorite rap groups ultimately break up, it's highly recommended. A reported feature will be coming in The Times in the next two weeks, but in the interim, here's some footage of the scene that went down last weekend off Cahuenga Pass.

And for those who couldn't get in to the almost immediately sold-out West Coast debut, Paper Ships has just put tickets on sale for the official party for the film on July 7. Taking place at 618 S. Spring St., the event features a performance from Phife, plus a DJ set from Madlib (who composed the films score) and VJ sets from Prince Paul and Peanut Butter Wolf (who handled music supervision). 


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