The Pharcyde - Biography
By David Downs
Alternative Hip Hop quartet The Pharcyde formed in 1991, releasing two druggy, funky, whimsical and essential albums before the group started to unravel. Regarded in the same breath as A Tribe Called Quest, Fugees, Lords of the Underground, and De La Soul -- the group offered an alternative to the gangsta rap hypnotizing the nation. Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (1992-Delicious) eventually went gold and hit number seventy-five on the Billboard 200 and twenty-three on R&B/Hip-Hop chart with iconic singles “Oh Shit!”, “Soul Flower”, “Passin' Me By” and “Otha Fish”. “Passin' Me By” became a 1993 U.S. Rap number one single, while later singles “Runnin'” and “Drop” also cracked top ten charts. The team lost their original DJ and took three years to release follow-up Labcabincalifornia (1995-Delicious) to weaker sales and a number seventy-five slot on the Billboard 200 with notable singles "Runnin'", "Drop", "She Said" and "Somethin' That Means Somethin'". Fat Lip left and third record Plain Rap (2000-Edel) barely cracked the Billboard 200 and sold even less. Tre left, and fourth record Humboldt Beginnings (2004-Chapter One) did not chart or sell. The group reunited for several live dates in 2008 and 2009. Numerous struggles with addiction and/or dependence on crack cocaine, powdered cocaine and marijuana dot the band's history, and their lyrics often celebrate illicit substances like psychedelic mushrooms and ecstasy. The band also released three EPs “Chapter One: Testing the Waters” 2000, 2001 Delicious Vinyl compilation “Cydeways: The Best of The Pharcyde”, “Instrumentals” (2005-Traffic) and “Sold My Soul: The Remix & Rarity Collection” (2005-Funky Chemist). The reunited band still tours.
Rappers Tre "Slimkid3" Hardson (born 1970 in Los Angeles, CA); Romye "Booty Brown" Robinson (born 1970 in Altadena, CA), Derrick "Fatlip" Stewart (born in Fairfax, CA); and Imani Wilcox (born in Compton, CA) coalesced in L.A. from the vibrant, second wave of Hip Hop sweeping the scene. Hardson, Wilcox, and Robinson started their careers as dancers and choreographers at club shows and talent contests, working up to the Fox network's successful comedy-variety series In Living Color. They met friend and long-time manager, Suave, a road manager for Tone Loc and Candyman and the group often hung at the home of high school teacher Reggie Andrews, where they met aspiring MC Derrick "Fatlip" Stewart and producer J-Swift. The group worked on a demo and signed to Delicious Vinyl, capitalizing on the buzz from their contribution “Soul Flowers” to Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1, (1992-Delicious) which featured U.K. funk-jazz band Brand New Heavies with a rappers like Gangg Starr, and Kool G Rap. Mid-tempo and funky, with a talkative intro and fast-paced, ebullient rapping -- it presaged the party anthems to come.
Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde would be the band's most successful album and set a bar so high they never hit it again. It was produced by The Pharcyde and J-Swift who dropped out of the production due to what would later be publicized as a crack addiction. Notably Fat Lip scratched on the record. “Passin Me By” -- one of the most recognizable songs form the band's career -- centers around a skewed synth melody, trap kit beat and a spare bass line, while the lyrics detail a story of unattainable women and the chorus of “she keeps on passin' me by”. The song hit number one on the U.S. Rap charts. The rest of the album's mellow rhymes, eclectic samples, skits, antics propelled the album to number three on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. The band embarked on two years of continuous touring in the U.S., Europe, and Japan with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. They played Lollapalooza amid the ascendancy of Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest and what would be golden era of “conscious” Hip Hop reacting to gangsta rap. Wu-Tang had just released the iconic Enter The Wu-Tang, De La Souls' 1989 Three feet high and rising was still finding new fans.
Even so, the album's sales didn't match the expectations of fans. Imani recalled that platinum sales didn't materialize and shocked the band. Tre told The Source the band was stressed, hateful and wondering what happened to the money they made selling records and touring. Bandmates claimed that they were lied to by record company staff. The band then moved from their celebrated "Pharcyde Manor," their party clubhouse to Los Feliz/Silverlake section of L.A. They dubbed the place LabCabin. The band built a 24-track studio there and did most of their new album's pre-production. The sophomore effort would be to cleaner and more straightforward than the debut -- a full, complete record with no throwaway tracks, influenced by the pot and psychedelic mushrooms they were reportedly taking at the time. They used multiple producers some self-productions but the real genius came from now-legendary deceased producer Jay Dilla who did tracks one, four, six, seven and nine. Diamond D also produced.
The sound was leaner, and jazzier than they'd had on the debut. The first single, "Runnin'," produced by Jay Dee opens with a iconic, looped acoustic guitar melody and chorus “can't keep runnin' away” cycles over scratches and a layered trap kit production. “Drop” samples the Beastie Boys phrase with some reversed synth samples and a sharp, dancy bass-kick. The video for "Drop" was directed by acclaimed director Spike Jonze, and used now-famous footage of the group performing the song backwards, replayed backwards, giving it a surreal quality. The backwards theme of the video was also a reference to the song itself, which featured a backwards sample. "Drop" -also produced by Jay Dee -- peaked at seventy-three on the Billboard Hot 100 while "Runnin'" hit fifty-five on the Billboard Hot 100. Labcabincalifornia climbed to thirty-seven on the The Billboard 200 and seventeen on the Top R&B charts .The album's themes of fame and success, drug abuse, and broken down relationships would now play a much bigger role in the reality of the band.
Fatlip left, reportedly addicted to cocaine, and fans perceived it as the breakup of the group. The rest of the team soldiered on until 2000, when the three remaining members returned with EP “Chapter One: Testing The Waters”. Full studio album Plain Rap (2000-Edel America), featured an appearance by The Roots' Black Thought on “Network”, but the album's reception was luke-warm critically and commercially, and Tre left the the band, as well. The music video for the album's single “Trust” displayed the group's disdain for Fatlip – who is portrayed as a sad-faced clown, under attack. Plain Rap made it to 157 on the Billboard 200, but managed a respectable number nine on the Top Independent Albums chart. The year 2001 through 2004 were quiet until popular singer Mýa sampled "Runnin'" for her song "Fallin'".
Two remaining members, Bootie Brown and Imani released 2004 album Humboldt Beginnings (2004-Chapter One) to even less critical and commercial attention, introducing singers Schmooche Cat and producer Spaceboy Boogie X. The album was released on the group's own indie record label, Chapter One. Produced by 88-Keys, the weed-themed album featured songs named “Bongloads II” and “The Bomb”. It was apparent the chemistry of the four could not be replicated with just two, let alone the loss of superproducer Jay Dee.
In 2005, a Pharcyde compilation Sold My Soul: The Remix & Rarity Collection, appeared and former member Fatlip released his solo debut in 2005, The Loneliest Punk to mediocre sales. Tre Hardson's second full length solo album SLIMKID3's Cafe (2006-Reggae Lounge) was released on 4 April. In 2008 The Pharcyde reunited for the annual Rock the Bells Festival Series. Playing before tens of thousands of fans in Chicago and other localles and in 2009 Pharcyde toured Australia as part of the Good Vibrations Festival, playing in Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast and Perth, underneath headliner Fatboy Slim, who also checked himself into rehab for alcohol abuse in 2009.
As side projects, The Pharcyde contributed to the soundtrack of 1994 film Street Fighter and to 1994 documentary Red Hot + Cool and State of Emergency – Society in Crisis (Vol. 1) (1994-Mad Sounds). Emergency track "My Soul," contains the oft-quoted Pharcyde lyric "Every time I step to the microphone / I put my soul on two-inch reels that I don't even own." Early producer J-Swift also released a documentary on his crack addiction 1 More Hit, which was supposed to be an MTV reality television show. The documentary was released independently in 2007.
The alternative Hip Hop scene of the early '90s was not conducive to longevity, so it is no surprise that a group of dancers, producers and rappers failed to hold onto the early chemistry that generated their fame. The Pharcyde's first two albums are canonical editions to backpacker rap, thanks to their lyrical skill and anti-gangsta poise, earning gold sales and worldwide fans. Later works suffered from their loss of Fatlip and now-venerated producer Jay Dee, but songs like “Drop” and “Runnin'” are still quoted and played regularly to this day.