The Old Testament: The Pharcyde-Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
A few months ago, I was writing something with a writing partner, a very witty and intelligent girl, who for one reason or another just isn't into music. The scene in question, called for a bunch of young women caking on make-up in a room, and we were looking for the right song to soundtrack the scene. Naturally, I was stumped. That's not a situation I find myself in often and I certainly had no idea what girls play when they're getting ready. James Blunt? Kelly Clarkson? Abba? Then my writing partner suggested "Passing Me By."
At first, I blanched. A bunch of girls throwing on lip-liner would never rock out to The Pharcyde. But she insisted: it really happened. Ultimately, what struck me most about the exchange wasn't the idea that a bunch of presumably hip-hop ignorant girls would listen to the Pharcyde, but more the extent of how much people loved that song (and Pharcyde's brilliant debut, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde.)
Featuring one of the most iconic album covers in hip-hop history, the gonzo spirit of the Pharcyde is aptly captured at first glance as the album is an amalgam of bright colors, screams, thrills, fun-house lyrical contortions and just straight-up hilarity. A 56-minute-long bizarre ride., featuring the Los Angeles-based quartet of Tre, Fatlip, Booty Brown and Imani Wilcox, a West Coast version of De La Soul, focused less on ethereal abstractions than playful observations filtered under the analysis of strong drink and powerful narcotics.
From the first song, "Oh Shit," you know you're in for a surreal journey, as the group spins a strange tale about accidentally picking up a tranny, taking her/him to the beach and horrifyingly realizing that her feet were much much too long, as this "ho turned out to be a...John Doe." From there, the album is extremely consistent, laced with funny skits and creative well-constructed songs. Tracks like "Soul Flower (Remix") finds them riding samples from The Fatback Band and name-dropping Menudo. Recorded shortly before the LA riots broke out, "Officer" tackles the Draconian tactics of the LAPD, and serves as a comical (but ultimately serious-minded) take on police brutality, that seems a stark contrast from LA peers like NWA, Snoop and Above the Law.
If Digital Underground were neo-Funkadelic, The Pharcyde were a neo-Sly and the Family Stone, a deranged collective that coalesced for a brief period of brilliance, only to come unhinged under the influence of far too many drugs (the source of the the group's break-up was rumored to be Fat Lip's crack problem, while producer J-Swift had to drop off the debut due to his own substance abuse troubles). Tracks like the trippy, deranged "Pack the Pipe," don't do much to dispel that theory either, as Fat Lip's helium voice twists and soars like an over-inflated balloon ready to pop, with lyrics about, you guessed it...packing the pipe. And I won't get into the sheer awesomeness that is "Quentin's On His Way," a two-minute sing-a-long leading into "Pack the Pipe," that celebrates the fact that indeed, Quentin is on his way, and therein, everyone can get high.
As for the production, it's rock-solid and very much a product of its sample-heavy time. Nearly every track features a spiraling jazz loop or a funky drum-break. Among the artists sampled include Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, James Brown, The J.B's, The Meters, Jimi Hendrix, Stephen Stills, Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane, and fittingly, Sly & The Family Stone. Listening to it, the myriad samples make you wax nostalgically about the era when samples weren't prohibitively expensive and out of the price range of most artists.
The Pharcyde: I'll Bet Even Gary Larson Likes Passing Me By
The album is chockful of dazzling lyrical weirdness, but its unorthodox heart reveals itself the most on its three strongest tracks: "Otha' Fish," "Ya Mama," and of course, "Passing Me By.""Otha Fish" struts along with silky-smooth loops provided by Herbie Mann and Gaye, providing one of the greatest break-up anthems in hip-hop history. At once sentimental and inspiring, the track features the Pharcyde's MC's recounting their various heartbreaks, absent of any tough-guy swagger or grandstanding. Ultimately, while they might be torn up inside, the willowy flute infused-hook finds them chanting "you know there's otha' fish in the sea."
Meanwhile, "Ya Mama" finds the Pharcyde playing the dozens and delivering a host of hilariously witty insults that put that inane Wilmer Valderamma MTV show to shame (admittedly not a tough task). However, the snaps unleashed during "Ya Mama," practically carried me through the 7th grade, including such gems as "yo' mama's got an afro with a chin strap," "yo mama got a glass eye with a fish in it," and my personal favorite, "yo mama's got a pegleg...with a kickstand."
However, it's the unadulterated brilliance of "Passing Me By" that fully ramps up the album into full-fledged classic territory. Few hip-hop singles ever made were as iconic as this, with the four Pharcyders swapping stories about schoolboy crushes gone wrong, with Imani's scratchy voice screeching the hook. Coupled with its indelible black and white video, "Passing Me By" only went to #52 on the Billboard Hot 100, but was the #1 Hot Rap single at it's peak. The Pharcyde would go on to make another brilliant record, 1995's criminally slept-on Labcabincalifornia, but they would never record anything so universally loved (though "Runnin' comes close). 15 years after its release, Bizarre Ride II To the Pharcyde remains a left-field touchstone of hip-hop music, the rare album capable of being bumped by sorority girls and hip-hop heads alike. The group may be long since disbanded, but their music still hasn't passed anyone by.
MP3: The Pharcyde-"Otha' Fish"
MP3: The Pharcyde-"Yo' Mama"
MP3: The Pharcyde-"Passing Me By"
Bonus: The "Passing Me By" Video