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A reunited Pharcyde discuss breakups, make-ups and J Dilla

May 15, 2009 | 11:45 am


Stylistic kin to Native Tongues nabobs De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, Los Angeles’ Pharcyde re-mapped the boundaries for what was then labeled “alternative hip-hop” with their 1992 Delicious Vinyl debut, “Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde.” Buoyed by hilariously self-deprecating and deceptively complex singles, the quartet of Imani, Bootie Brown, Fatlip and Tre (SlimKid3) emerged from a corner of South Central seemingly alien to that of “The Chronic,” released only a month later.

Ever-unpredictable, the Pharcyde followed the popular “Bizarre Ride” with “Labcabincalifornia,” an artistic 180, a decidedly melancholy, introspective and excellent effort that also introduced the world to the talents of a young J Dilla (then billed as Jay Dee). Released during a period when the media’s oxygen was consumed by the East-West beef, Dr. Dre’s blueprint of gat-strapped gangsta’ posturing ultimately won out over the mushroom-gobbling, gonzo rap of the Good Life-steeped crew. Indeed, other than the moderately successful lead single “Runnin,’ the album was met with a ho-hum critical and commercial response, a wrongful slight that has since been corrected.

Label and managerial woes, egos, drug abuse and the inevitable desire to explore ostensibly greener pastures led to a breakup shortly after their sophomore release. Reunited since last year’s Rock the Bells tour, the group will play a free show at today’s Coors Light Cold Front event at the Santa Monica Pier.

So are you guys officially reunited after the Rock the Bells show?

Imani: We were doing our own things for a while, then the Rock the Bells opportunity came around and it was cool trying to re-create the old vibe for those shows. We’re not ready to make another album yet; these shows are about us getting together and becoming compadres again so we can go forward in the future.

So no new songs yet?

Imani: It’s a vibe thing. It’s nothing that we can manufacture inorganically. I can rap forever, I write rhymes all day, but the Pharcyde is about us coming together from different angles, the same story from different perspectives. We need to just chill and hang out and let songs come together when it feels right. Time isn’t necessarily important in that respect.

The popular story that gets told about the breakup is that it stemmed from Fatlip’s drug problems leading to everything unraveling. What actually happened?

Imani: People shouldn’t blame it on Fatlip. We were all young and we had success come at us really fast. We were trying to maneuver through the madness and we weren’t always making good decisions. There wasn’t one moment when Fatlip or any of us did something that specifically caused a breakup. It was a series of things: from record company politics to management to everyone’s individual egos. We’d done a lot of tours and we were curious to know what it would be like to make our own music.

At the end of the day we’re all artists, not Pharcyde employees. It’s always hard to keep four individuals on the same page, but if you’re supposed to come back together you do, and that’s what’s happened.

Why do you think people didn’t initially catch onto “Labcabincalifornia,” the way they did with the first album?

Imani: The East Coast-West Coast beef was boiling over and all everyone seemed to talk about was Tupac and Biggie. That whole era was a blur. Of course, there was Outkast, the Roots, Q-Tip and Dilla, but the media in particular were just in thrall with Puffy, Biggie, Suge Knight, Tupac and Dr. Dre.

Tre: It’s just how it is. If something else had happened that would have sold copies or got ratings, they would’ve switched it up. That’s why you just have to hold it down no matter what.

How did you guys end up tapping Dilla to produce “Labcabincalifornia?”

Imani: We were in New York. We’d recorded “Bizarre Ride” and wanted to come with a totally different sound. Of course, all the label people said that it was a bad idea. They wanted us to get back with J-Swift. It’s not like we were saying that J-Swift wasn’t great but we wanted something different.

Tre and Fatlip had been doing a lot of production work, and then we went out to New York City. We were chilling with Diamond D and he was introducing us to people; we were doing sessions at [famed recording studio] D&D and vibing that Bronx NYC-style. We were working with Q-Tip on the record and we did a few songs, but we thought he was holding out on us. So we asked him about other producers and he gave us this beat tape. At first, we thought he was playing a joke on us and that they were really all beats he'd made. 

We were flipping out and losing our minds. The stuff was just incredible and he told us that it was a kid he knew named Jay Dee. So we told the label that we wanted to pay him $2,500 per beat and they weren’t feeling it because he was barely known at the time. We told them that he was incredible and that he was going to be huge so we should get them while the beats were cheap. So he produced about half the album and we formed an incredible camaraderie with him. It was like magic -- we’d give him some tracks, disappear for a few hours and when we returned they’d sound completely different.

-- Jeff Weiss

The Pharcyde play at the Los Angeles Coors Lite Cold Front event at the Santa Monica Pier tonight. 6 p.m., free.

Photo: Pharcyde