US hip-hop legends The Pharcyde talk their 25 years in music ahead of Hong Kong debut
Imani, one of the two members remaining from the original line-up, on how the group took a different route into rap, on not fitting into the East/West rivalry, and on working with the late legend J Dilla
A quarter of a century after the album that first made their name, legendary hip-hop pioneers The Pharcyde’s performance at Fly on April 14 will be their first in Hong Kong – but according to band member Imani, aka Emandu Wilcox, their history in Asia stretches back even further than their history as a band.
The Pharcyde, from South Central Los Angeles, are best known for their classic albums Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (1992) and Labcabincalifornia (1995), and in particular their hit single Passin’ Me By (1993), a tragicomic lament about past romantic failures. The outfit, originally consisting of rappers Imani, Bootie Brown, Fatlip and Slimkid3/Tre Hardson, plus producer J-Swift – only the first two remain – are famed for their playful, humorous rhymes and funk-spiked, dance floor friendly production.
Both their lyrical phrasing and their bouncy music, says Imani, owe a lot to their pre-Pharcyde lives as professional dancers, who earned their living on stage, in music videos and even on TV comedy show In Living Color – and it was in that role that they first visited Japan in 1990, as backup dancers at a series of house music shows.
“We were really wet behind the ears,” says Imani. “We were just paying our dues; we weren’t really thinking about rapping. It was like being at university. The rapping came about because we were dancing so much, and it afforded us a lot of opportunities, and we thought we could add something to the music we were hearing.
“We try to explain this to people: as dancers, how we interpret music will be different from someone who sits at their kitchen table writing raps.”
It’s easy to forget, now Bizarre Ride is universally acknowledged as a classic, that it was a bit of a sleeper hit. Partly that was because the band weren’t easily categorised: they were a million miles from the macho posturing of the G-funk style that ruled LA at the time; and while they were friends with and toured alongside Native Tongues acts from America’s East Coast such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, with whom they shared a certain amount musically, their frequently X-rated lyrical content meant they didn’t quite fit in there either. Instead, says Imani, the real tipping point for the band was the release of Passin’ Me By.
“When we put out the first record, people didn’t get it. The record company were trying to make us into something somewhere between the underground and the Fresh Prince. And we were not like that.
“We had fans, but we didn’t have commercial success until Passin’ Me By. We knew there were layers to it and it could get bigger, but from where we’d come from, it already felt pretty big. Then that record came out in ’93, and our world changed. We thought we’d arrived before. We hadn’t. This was like: woah.
“But then we’ve been blessed from the beginning. To give you an example: I got to dance on a video with Michael Jackson, for his song Remember the Time . He’d been my idol since I was a child. I was like: this is it; I’m retiring now. At the time I was doing demos with The Pharcyde, and I thought: I’m done with dancing; now let’s do this rap s***.”
As with the first album, Labcabincalifornia (despite the name, referring to the studio where the band were based, Imani says half of it was recorded in New York) is now a much-loved artefact of hip hop’s golden era, but it was met with a mixed reception at the time. Its subject matter was more serious than its predecessor, plus the band changed producer, after personal problems prompted J-Swift to leave – but what a change it was.
The new guy, then known as Jay Dee, would go on to become, as J Dilla, one of the most revered of all hip hop producers, whose instantly recognisable beats graced the work of artists including A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Common, Mos Def, Madlib and Erykah Badu before he died in 2006 aged 32 of a rare blood disease.
Imani says that after recording Bizarre Ride, The Pharcyde were working with producer Diamond D in New York and hanging out with other East Coast hip hop legends such as DJ Premier, Mobb Deep and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip.
“We went to Q-Tip’s house and he played us a tape of this guy called Jay Dee he thought we should work with. We thought Q-Tip was lying – his initials were JD [Q-Tip’s birth name is Jonathan Davis], and we thought he was just pretending they weren’t his beats in case people didn’t like them.”
They were eventually convinced of Dilla’s existence, however, and flew him to California to work with them. “He came into the studio and it was magic. We were privileged to work with him. Later it felt like he was taking over the sound of artists, but with us it was real collaborative working.”
Unfortunately, relations between the various rappers gradually became rather less harmonious. Fatlip, who had always had aspirations as a solo artist, left before third album Plain Rap (2000), after Hardson said he wanted him out, then Hardson himself left after falling out with the other two; ironically, Fatlip and Hardson have now teamed up again and perform as Bizarre Ride.
The occasional reunion, such as for the 2008 edition of Rock the Bells festival, known for reuniting sundered hip-hop crews on stage, has not lasted long, with old tensions quickly resurfacing. Imani and Bootie Brown perform the other two rappers’ verses themselves these days – but Imani says that he’s mainly just pleased he’s still performing at all.
“I was in college and I told my mama: I’m gonna try this; if it don’t work out, I’ll go back to school. She told me to try it if I really believed in it. It’s 25 years later and I still haven’t been back to school. Perhaps I’ll end up as a 55-year-old freshman.”
Fresh Off The Boat presents The Pharcyde, Apr 14, 10pm, Fly, G/F 24-30 Ice House St, Central, HK$300 door, HK$200 advance