Research can be a bitch. Take the assignment of tracking down hip-hop superheroes the Pharcyde. Their 1992 album Bizarre Ride II the Pharcydetook the Pharcyde's thick jazz-inspired mixes and their Richard Pryor-like humor and catapulted the LA foursome into one of the big buzz bands of that year, complete with a gold record and fawning coverage in such mighty mags as Rolling Stone and Spin.
Eleven years later, a simple whatever-became-of inquiry might as well have taken a flying leap into a bottomless pit. No one seems to know anything about these guys' fate. Not even the hipster magazine editors and ultrahipster record-store clerks usually quick with an opinion.
Then a breakthrough—with a deadline looming, I finally hooked up with Pharcyde MC/producer Bootie Brown. He agreed a missing persons report could be justified.
"A lot of people see us in this time warp. They still think we're 23," says Brown, born Romye Robinson. For those who lost track of him, he basically looks the same, except a cool Jimi Hendrix-like Afro tops his head. That said, a lot has changed for these Clinton-era cut-ups. By 2000, half the group had quit, and it wasn't a tidy break-up. People got angry at one another for typical band reasons. Their former label, Delicious Vinyl, was none too happy with the Pharcyde's post Bizarre Ride II material. Talk was that they had turned into the Woody Allen of hip-hop—once-funny boys who were getting too serious with age.
Former members Fatlip and Tre were more interested in working on solo albums than with the group. They also refused to tour as Pharcyde, says Brown—a surprising turn because touring was and continues to be the group's primary moneymaker. Then there was the real sellout shocker: Tre actually produced the celebrity creep-fest debut rap CD of Beverly Hills 90210 star Brian Austin Green. Yikes!
Then again, they could relate to child stars like Green. As with kiddie thespians, no one wanted Pharcyde to change, and their comic rep stuck to them like dirty gum to a shoe. "I don't mind being funny," says Brown. "But after awhile, everyone perceives you as a clown. We did a photo shoot where the photographer would scream stuff like 'Do something goofy! Show your ass!' I almost threw a rock at his face. I'm not that funny anymore. I got two kids."
Pharcyde still produce and release music. In the basement of a building in LA's Mid-Wilshire district sits Chapter One, the indie label owned by the two remaining Pharcyders, Brown and Imani Wilcox. They've released six singles and Testing the Waters, a six-song EP. They report this music is mostly distributed overseas. Following the post-Bizarre Ride IIstyle, the raps are more serious than the songs that made them famous such as "Ya Mama" and "Passing Me By." The music isn't even that jazzy; it's straight-ahead hip-hop, out of character for a group of people who launched careers by playing the contrarian.
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"We were gonna name the group True Jigaboos," Brown says. "Basically we were saying, like, man, you're a Jigaboo if you go out there and perform. You're bugging your eyes, you're dancing. It's not the [minstrel show] black face, but you're doing something that's making somebody else way more money than you're ever gonna make."
And why didn't they use that ham-fisted yet ironic moniker? "The record company didn't like it," Brown says. "It was just too much heat."
But daring to be different is what made them special, says hip-hop journalist Oliver Wang. "Pharcyde's an incredibly important group for the West Coast hip-hop scene for the same reasons De La Soul was important back East. Both groups represented an alternative to the 'hard as hell' braggadocio that dominated both places. They helped to diversify the sound of hip-hop out West."
The Pharcyde perform with Scarab and Lucky I Am at Hogue Barmichaels, 3950 Campus Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 261-6270. Fri., 10 p.m. $20. 21+.