Happy 25th Anniversary to The Pharcyde’s debut album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, originally released November 24, 1992.
Much of hip-hop’s identity in its Golden Age was tied up in it being “music with a message.” While other genres of music were about saluting one’s loins or rocking hard, hip-hop artists were taking on the government, expressing the realities of life on the street, and tackling larger social issues. But at its core, hip-hop music has been about having fun since its inception.
The Pharcyde is one of the special groups that managed to capture the essence of using hip-hop as a form of expression to enjoy one’s self. However, the music they created on their debut album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde sounded unlike much of the music that was being recorded and released at the time. In terms of spirit, its closest comparison is De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, but sonically and lyrically they are different animals. Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde is one of the best albums of 1992 and a deeply influential work of hip-hop art. In the West Coast Underground, it helped inspire groups like People Under the Stairs and Living Legends, and remains one of the most whimsical, hedonistic hip-hop albums ever.
In their original incarnation, The Pharcyde was comprised of rappers Derrick “Fatlip” Stewart, Romeye “Bootie Brown” Robinson, Trevent “Slim Kid Tre” Hardson, and Emandu “Imani” Wilcox, along with producer Juan Manuel “J-Swift” Martinez. They first came together as teenagers in South Central Los Angeles through an impromptu after-school program called South Central Unit (SCU). The program was designed to help kids from areas like South Central develop themselves artistically. Members of the group had been involved in various smaller rap crews growing up, but through SCU, mentor and musician Reggie Andrews helped them focus and begin to achieve their potential.
Members of the group got their first break through their dancing skills. Bootie Brown, Imani, and Tre appeared in Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video, and were three of the “Fly Guys” on In Living Color during the early ’90s; they appeared as back-up dancers for Jim Carrey in his fairly famous Vanilla Ice spoof. After Fatlip and J-Swift entered the fold, and they began to spend even more time with SCU, they began to really get interested in recording music. In 1991, they recorded the three-song demo that would lead to them signing with Delicious Vinyl. Their first formal foray on wax was “Soul Flower,” the closing track on the Brand New Heavies’ acclaimed funk/hip-hop fusion album Heavy Rhyme Experience, Vol. 1 released in August 1992. A few months later, they released Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde and slowly began to build a devoted audience, drawn to the energy and the all-out honesty of their music.
The Pharcyde have been labeled “alternative hip-hop” at times, seemingly only because they were from Los Angeles and didn’t rhyme about shooting people. More accurately, they’re closer to the young every-man model of rapper. They were kids who grew up in South Central Los Angeles but didn’t get involved with gangs. They represented the young people who smoked weed, tried to get laid, and wanted to have a good time. And as a result, they recorded music that reflected their desire to enjoy themselves as much as possible.
Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde fires on all cylinders when all four emcees are just going for broke, wilding out over a J-Swift track. Swift was an integral part to the group’s success, a skilled musician and nice behind the boards. He was gifted on the piano and a maestro with a drum machine and sampler. For this album, he helped created a super-dense, layered soundscape of drum tracks, basslines, samples, and vocals. Sounds and scratches and flutes filter in and out. The tracks are almost sensory overload in action, churning like a madcap whirlwind of hedonistic beats and lyrics.
Songs like “Oh Shit,” the “Soul Flower” remix, and “Return of the B-Boy” all channel this unbridled vigor. Whether it’s relaying goofy anecdotes, saluting their old school influences, or just plain bragging and boasting, these songs convey a feeling of unrestrained exuberance that hasn’t been found in hip-hop music before or since. Most hip-hop records about having fun these days are made by morose drug users talking about popping Xanny bars. Fun on Bizarre Ride is a much more lively experience.
The original version of “I’m the Type of N***a” is probably Bizarre Ride’s peak, but only the original version. The version on the earliest pressed copies of the tape, CDs, and vinyl is a chaotic maelstrom of James Brown samples, blaring horns, shifting drum breaks, and wild verses by all four members of the crew and Buc Wead of Da Wascals (later known as Buc Fifty). The uninhibited energy that it exhibits is infectious.
Unfortunately, the song was sabotaged after the fact by sample clearance issues. By some accounts, a recently freed-from-prison James Brown decided that he’d had enough of rappers and groups sampling his music without permission, and began enforcing strict content clauses and exorbitant fees for any future sample clearance requests. This album in particular caught his attention, and Delicious Vinyl was forced to alter the song after repressing it due to the success of “Passin’ Me By.” But more on that later. As it stands, the revised version of the song features the same verses, but the music is stripped down and stark in comparison, which makes it stand out like a sore thumb in the context of the rest of Bizarre Ride.
Songs like “Ya Mama” further capture the group and album’s unique vibe. The song is essentially what the title suggests: more than four minutes of the quartet slinging “Ya Mama” jokes at each other over organ and guitar from Super Session’s version of “Season of the Witch.” I’ve told a few “Ya Mama” jokes in my days, and I marveled at the sheer creativity that they display here. “Ya Mama’s got a glass eye with a fish in it” and “Ya Mama’s an extra on The Simpsons” are two of the most memorable insults.
“Officer” showcases the group’s sense of humor, as each member tackles their respective experiences with the LAPD. However, instead of serious crime, they’re more concerned with being busted for driving with a suspended license or without registration, or operating a vehicle after smoking mountains of marijuana. Speaking of herbal endeavors, the smoking anthem “Pack the Pipe” is another of the album’s high points. With its molasses slow tempo and multi-layered sound, the track creates the sensation of listening while stoned, even if you haven’t actually toked. However, the lyrical content isn’t merely the superficial “roll that shit, light that shit, smoke it” reference, as the members of the crew all rhyme about how they use good weed to manage the stress of their everyday lives. In one odd and slightly disturbing turn during his verse, Fatlip resolves to share a doobie with a friend’s four-year-old, because, hey, “Who am I to deny the kid a try at nature’s little way of saying ‘hi’?”
Other songs on Bizarre Ride shows surprising amounts of depth. With “On the DL,” Tre, Imani, and returning guest Buck Wead all describe situations where they want to keep things under wraps, and each goes in wildly different directions. While Buck Wead describes discreetly indulging in self-pleasure while his girlfriend is asleep in the other room, Imani deals with being forced to shoot and kill a man invading his home. In bookending verses, Tre explores the effects of ego on relationships and musical careers.
Like many groups, The Pharcyde was preoccupied with recording music that reflected their interest in the opposite sex. Another of the strongest songs on the album is “4 Better or 4 Worse,” the group’s ode to finding and recognizing true love. While Tre ponders the implications of marrying his soul mate, Imani struggles with the idea of having to change who he is in order to make his partner happy. Meanwhile, for the final verse, Fatlip works himself into an absurd frenzy as an obscene phone caller harassing an unsuspecting woman. It’s certainly not the most conventional way to end a love song.
“Passin’ Me By,” the album’s second single, remains The Pharcyde’s biggest hit and their signature song. It received crossover play on modern rock stations and its video earned a spot in MTV’s rotation. It’s certainly one of the most unique hip-hop hits of the early ‘90s. For one thing, the audacity of melding the feedback infused guitar intro to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” and a keyboard loop from Quincy Jones’ “Summer in the City” is an audacious one, and one that J-Swift apparently balked at. But he successfully pulled it off, while adding horns from Eddie Russ’ “Hill Where the Lord Hides” and a brief bass solo from Weather Report’s “125th St. Congress.”
The song’s subject matter is also easy to relate to, as all four members each tell separate tales of love and longing. In most cases, the objects of their affection remain “low-key unaware of [their] existence,” happily involved with men that they deem unworthy of their love. But this isn’t a romantic comedy, and at the end of each of their verses they don’t “win” the girl. While Imani reflects that dealing with rejection has turned him into a better man, Fatlip can only sit dejected, as his letter to the “dopest Ethiopian,” which he pours his soul into, gets rejected.
“Otha Fish” is the only solo track on Bizarre Ride and the only song not produced by J-Swift. In this case, Slim Kid Tre raps about lost love on a mellow and jazzy L.A. Jay produced track, touching on similar themes that he and his comrades covered on “Passin’ Me By.” Though he’s hurt by his presumed love leaving him, he resolves to find the strength to move on, rapping, “Hey diddle diddle, I won't play second fiddle / To no man and stand firm on this / And seal up on the bliss with a big juicy kiss, just call me Big Gibraltar miss / No, I won’t dis, just on to otha fish.”
“Otha Fish” was the album’s third single, and, according to Mike Ross, co-owner of Delicious Vinyl, caused issues within the group. According to Brian Coleman’s in his Check the Technique book, Fatlip reportedly took offense to a solo song being a single for the album and refused to be in the song’s video. So instead of capitalizing on the success of “Passin’ Me By,” the song’s promotion caused further rifts, which only continued to fester.
The five-person configuration of Pharcyde wouldn’t last. Despite all the fun and humor that the crew was having on record, the group was a volatile mix and members would fight all the time while recording. And not just arguing. Straight-up brawling was common, especially between Fatlip, Tre, and J-Swift. Other members of the group were bumping heads with J-Swift, both literally and figuratively, for creative reasons and personal ones. To top it off, J-Swift was also wrestling with serious substance abuse issues. He left the camp after the album was released, and never really reached his full potential as a producer.
The Pharcyde’s second album Labcabincalifornia followed in 1995, proving a critical success and a bigger hit by commercial measures. This time around a good chunk of the album’s production was handled Jay Dee a.k.a. J Dilla, and the album gave the departed super-producer some of his first prominent exposure. But although Labcabincalifornia is musically stunning and more thematically mature, it’s also a much more restrained affair. If nothing else, The Pharcyde doesn’t sound like it’s having nearly as much fun on their sophomore effort.
Members of The Pharcyde have suggested that Bizarre Ride is an incomplete album, explaining that they were in various stages of the recording process for up to five additional songs when Delicious Vinyl had them turn in the album. Ross maintains the creative issues and the personality conflicts necessitated that they just finish the album so it could be released. While it may have been nice to have those five extra songs, the way things turned out is almost fitting.
Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde is like that great party you went to in your late teens or early twenties. You got hammered off of some unholy concoction of Everclear, Vodka, and Hi-C Fruit Punch. You smoked some weed that’s made you smell colors and taste sounds. Your best friend popped at the wrong person’s girl and got his jaw out on the porch. But the party kept going. And just when things were REALLY about to reach Brazilian bacchanal levels of insanity, the amp blew, the DJ bounced, and the cops came to break up the whole shindig. And then it’s over, and everyone scatters away dazed into the night, not quite sure what exactly happened. Everyone is disappointed that they never got that girl’s number, but none of them will ever forget the night they had.