The grass used to be greener on the Pharcyde: The band in better times, before drugs and label problems tore it apart
The grass used to be greener on the Pharcyde: The band in better times, before drugs and label problems tore it apart

Malicious Vinyl

"Everything right now with this album is basically a hell of a compromise," says the Pharcyde's Romye, who also goes by the name Booty Brown.

Imani, the group's other half, echoes the sentiment: "I'm not mad at it, but"--he pauses to hit a blunt--"yeah, it's a compromise."

How's that for a glowing endorsement of the Pharcyde's new album, Plain Rap, which hit retail shelves a couple of weeks ago?

It might seem odd for the group--any group--to act so lackadaisical toward its first album in five years. Even the punny title is understated--an anomaly in a genre known more for hyperbole and "I'm the super shit" braggadocio than for humility. Then again, the Pharcyde has always been a little left--no, a lot left--of hip-hop's center.

We're up in the Pharcyde's office/production studio, a cluttered two-room affair on the 12th floor of a semi-dilapidated Hollywood Boulevard building, overlooking the palms and traffic and haze. The place clearly gets a lot of use, as illustrated by the package of Philly blunts next to a pile of stems on a desk, crates overflowing with vinyl, empty juice bottles lining shelves, and the pervasive odor of incense. Our bohemian-looking hosts are relaxed, unaffected, and gracious: Romye, in short tousled dreads, roams casually about the debris and offers us a Snapple (accepted); Imani, in long pulled-back dreads, lounges at a production console and offers us a pull of smoke (declined). A gold plaque for their first album, 1992's Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, is one of the few things hanging on the scuffed white walls.

The plaque testifies to the creative synergy of Tre "Slim Kid" Hardson, Imani "Darky Boy" Wilcox, Romye "Booty Brown" Robinson, and Derrick "Fat Lip" Stewart--four very off-the-wall 19- and 20-year-old break-dancers turned MCs who lived, partied, and made rap history together in an infamous hip-hop "flop" house called the Pharcyde Manor.

The then-unknown foursome debuted on the Brand New Heavies' Heavy Rhyme Experience. Amid the top-tier rappers busting over BNH's live jazz-hop, the Pharcyde's contribution, "Soul Flower," was the highlight. Next, the phar-out quartet hit the studio with loopy, experimental producer J-Swift and--fueled by sack after sack of weed--emerged with a hip-hop classic. Bizarre Ride offered an alternative to L.A.'s burgeoning gangsta rap movement: jokes about ya mama, tales of unrequited love, mad freestyle energy, cartoonish voices, and an overall Fat-Albert-on-acid approach to a genre that had started to take itself all too seriously. Add to that a hyperkinetic stage show that dispensed with hard-shelled crotch-grabbing and posturing in favor of fluid shaking and shimmying, and you had a group that was equally at home playing black colleges, underground hip-hop clubs, X Games events, or raves.

Eight years later, Pharcyde Manor is a distant memory. Imani, 29, now lives in West Covina. Romye, 30, shacks up in Pasadena. Both have kids. Like a rose blossoming in a scrap heap, the framed, half-a-million-units-sold certification on the tattered studio wall looks distinctly out of place and begs some pretty serious questions: Where are Tre and Fat Lip, how did four become two, and why the long hiatus?

Undaunted by the rumors--that Fat Lip was on crack, that there was major drama between the group and their label, Delicious Vinyl--the two remaining members break things down with candor.

Trouble started brewing during the recording of 1995's Labcabincalifornia, the group's more polished and sober sophomore effort. Creative differences led to near fistfights, mostly between Fat Lip and Tre, ironically.

"Everybody was learning a lot, and if you're learning, you want to apply what you learned. Sometimes there's clashes," Imani says matter-of-factly, his mirrored shades hiding his no-doubt very dilated pupils. "[Plus] Fat Lip was going through a lot of things: girls, going from nobody knowing you to everybody. Some people take it in stride, some people really let it affect them."

Labcabincalifornia wasn't a flop, but it didn't make the profound mark of its predecessor. Maybe it was the lack of zaniness; maybe it was the decision to relieve J-Swift from his duties and tackle a lot of the production themselves (apparently, J and Fat Lip didn't get along well either). In any event, the album's underwhelming performance led to internal tension, which was only heightened by Fat Lip's reluctance to go on the road.

When Labcabin flatlined, Fat Lip wanted to focus on making new music, blowing off tours to tinker in the studio. At the same time, he was expecting his first kid and was experimenting with ecstasy and blow--distractions that didn't enhance his productivity. "We came to an agreement: We go out on the road, you do music, so that when we come back, we can just step into the studio," Romye explains. "But we'd come back, and nothing was really going on. He was fucking around with the drugs. That was kind of a turn-off. It was just like, 'Yo, you should get it together; it would be better if you did your own thing solo.'"

In a separate conversation, Fat Lip, who's finishing up a solo project, offers his take: "Our drugs had always been limited to marijuana and mushrooms, so their perception of cocaine was, 'That's the devil.' That was the last straw for them." For the record, he staunchly denies ever messing with crack.

In 1997, the Pharcyde "fired" Fat Lip and continued to perform and record as a trio, amassing songs for a third album. While the departure of the group's most bugged-out and animated member required some adjustments, Romye and Imani attribute the five-year wait between LPs to their label. "We kept turning in songs to Delicious Vinyl, and they wouldn't [approve] them," Imani explains. "If they didn't like a song, we'd have to replace it with another song." Some of those discarded songs made their way onto an EP, Chapter One: Testing the Waters, which the group hawked "just to give the fans something to listen to" between albums.

These artist-label "creative differences" were compounded, the two say, by the fact that the label was broke. Making its splash in the late '80s with megahits by Tone Loc and Young MC, the Los Angeles-based indie carved out a niche as the city's hippest urban boutique label, inking acts like Def Jef and the Brand New Heavies. But by the mid-'90s, gangsta rap's reign had knocked the progressive-minded indie off its perch. Shuffling between distributors, Delicious scored only one isolated hit with Oakland duo the Whoridas. "Basically, we were in New York recording, and the label just told us they didn't have no more money," Imani says with a grin.

Delicious co-founder Mike Ross, who's anticipating his label's comeback in 2001, insists that any holdups were based on quality control rather than lack of dough. "We've had creative differences ever since Fat Lip left the group," he says. "They wanted to get much more involved in their own production; I wanted to use more established producers. With all the in-fighting going on, [the material they turned in] wasn't up to their usual standards, and I held a lot of it back. The group has a certain reputation out there, which I wanted to keep sacred. Since on some level I am the label, I wanted to maintain a certain integrity for the name. I didn't really have the resources, but also I didn't want to risk it on that record."

Somewhere along the way, Tre got fed up with the politics and moved on. He "was always a wanderer," as Romye says, working on side projects like the universally dissed record by Beverly Hills 90210 actor Brian Austin Green. After departing the Pharcyde in '99, he focused on his live hip-hop/funk band, Legend of Phoenix.

"He figured his job was done," Romye recalls. "I asked him, 'Is there something I did? Is there something I can fix? Let's just commit to doing this, get this album out, make it happen, and then we can all do our solo things.' And he was like, "No, dude, I just gotta do what I gotta do.'" He shakes his head. "I can't take it lightly right now--like it's all good. I tried to extend [myself] and got turned down."

Eventually, 13 songs were agreed upon for Plain Rap, but owing to what Imani calls label "screw-ups" over sample clearances, two were yanked, including the Buena Vista Social Club-indebted "Jealousy." Delicious has aligned with German-owned Edel America Records, which kicked down the funds necessary to finish and market the now 11-cut disc.

So...based on the group's own tepid assessment, you've got to wonder: Does the new album suck?

The manic, cartoonish flows and psychedelic, youthful exuberance of Bizarre Ride are long gone, and you won't find long-term club hits like Labcabin's salsa-flavored "Runnin'." Instead, Plain Rap lives up to its name, offering a set of calm, thoughtful, and straightforward head-nodders by three seasoned MCs. (Yes, three: Tre bailed after most of the disc was done.) Tre, Romye, J-Swift, and Showbiz handled the production duties.

Stream-of-consciousness verbal assaults like "Trust" and "Network" (featuring a cameo by the Roots' Black Thought) showcase the group's wit. "Blaze," which tackles the subject of getting high from a more intellectual standpoint ("We're connoisseurs," notes Imani), illustrates their steadfastly offbeat perspective. But songs like "Somethin'" and "Misery," with their wistful lyrics about materialism and loneliness, as well as the slew of meditations on the responsibilities of adulthood, set the disc's tone: mellow, serious, even a little downbeat--reflecting the mindset of a band that's had "more complications than childbirth."

"Step by step, day by day, don't let the negative vibe lead the Cyde astray," they try to convince themselves on "Evolution." Yet it seems as though some of the crap from the past five years managed to sneak in. No, Plain Rap doesn't suck--it's just not all that fun.

"When we were recording these songs," Imani points out, "we didn't really see any money--no record sales, no royalty statements. It wasn't like we were dirt broke--we made money off of shows--[but] we had no tour support, and it was tough, really tough, doing things without the help of the record company."

"It was [frustrating] constantly hearing, 'You can't do this, you can't do that,'" Romye adds. "I mean, I thank God it's out, and that it gives us a little more time and light to just bring everything else into the spectrum as far as what we wanna do. It's good for what it is right now; it's enough."

Imani and Romye say they'll shop for another indie to put out their next album--including stuff that didn't make it onto Plain Rap and stuff they deliberately held back. "I didn't try to make no nasty album, [but] I didn't want to give them the super shit," Romye says with a smile, referring to songs the duo has cut with De La Soul, Pharoahe Monch, and others. They've also been recording with the Bay Area's Souls of Mischief for their collaborative Allmighty Mighty Pythons CD, and an Imani solo project is in the works.

So Plain Rap is, as Ross describes it, "a good, honest representation of where the group is now"--in transition. J-Swift's remix of "Trust," included on the album, is getting some solid airplay, and its accompanying computer-animated video is one of the coolest of the year. But ultimately, Pharcyde's third full-length represents a phase in their evolution more than it stands on its own as a great album. It's a piece in the puzzle, a rung on the ladder that is the Pharcyde's future.

"I just want this record to [reconnect] us with hip-hop fans out open doors, to open opportunities," says Imani, drifting off. "It's frustrating that we've only released three albums. I've got so many more to make."


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