The Pharcyde: “Hip Hop Is Not Like A Labour Union”

Los Angeles’ alt hip hoppers The Pharcyde have enjoyed remarkable longevity on the back of one cult album, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, issued in 1992. Now, despite the departure of two founding members and no major material in a decade, the outfit will headline Sydney’s “boutique” festival OutsideIn in November alongside trendy electronic names such as Seekae and German post-techno-type Pantha du Prince – oh and, on the Red Bull Music Academy stage, UK garage auteur Wookie.

The Pharcyde’s MC Imani, aka Emandu Wilcox, is unfazed by the incongruity of it all, offering a routine, “really?” when told. Indeed, The Pharcyde have always attracted a diverse audience. “When you talk about The Pharcyde, and the people who like The Pharcyde, you can’t never tell who gonna like The Pharcyde,” Wilcox extols down a muffled mobile line.

They’ve had crazy experiences as a consequence – once venturing into the wilds of nu metal. “We did a tour with Korn – and we was rockin’ for Korn’s audience.” Wilcox adds, “I’m never surprised.”

The Pharcyde’s mythos begins with three dancer pals: Wilcox, Bootie Brown (Romye Robinson) and SlimKid3 (Trevant “Tre” Hardson), who appeared in music videos – not to mention the TV comedy show In Living Color. They later hooked up with Fatlip (Derrick Stewart) as well as J-Swift, an aspiring producer, as they transitioned to rapping.

Having circulated a demo, the posse signed to Californian indie Delicious Vinyl. They then premiered with Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, Swift crafting its jazzy, R&B-laden beats by way of sampling and live instrumentation. The album was mostly ignored until its second single, Passin’ Me By, aired and today Bizarre Ride is deemed a classic and a gamechanger. TI even referenced the album on Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.

Watch: The Pharcyde – Passin’ Me By

Back in the late ’80s, gangsta rap held sway, the West Coast’s hip hoppers successfully challenging New York’s imperial status. In the meantime, the East spawned new socially-conscious acts – Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Into this milieu came The Pharcyde. While they weren’t gangsta, The Pharcyde mined the same P-funk tradition as their G-funk peers. But they were also positive, witty and eccentric. Their hip hop managed to be simultaneously ‘street’ and psychedelic. And so, with Bizarre Ride, The Pharcyde inspired an alternative hip hop movement out West.

Nonetheless, The Pharcyde was soon fracturing. They fell out with Swift, their unofficial fifth member. (He’s battled drug addiction.) Three years after Bizarre Ride, the crew furnished the darker Labcabincalifornia, which – aside from an early J Dilla gem in Runnin’ – met with negative reviews. The Pharcyde lost momentum. Stewart embarked on a solo career, followed by Hardson. Wilcox pointedly hasn’t stayed in touch with either. The four didn’t even unite to mark the 20th anniversary of Bizarre Ride.

“Now let me tell you this honest to God truth,” Wilcox starts to explain. “It’s not a personal hatred or something like that, it’s purely business – because, as soon as [the others] made it, they aligned themselves with our former record label, and we don’t have anything to do with that. The whole reason why we stopped making music with Delicious Vinyl was because we had problems with ’em – and we never really resolved the problems.”

Because Wilcox’s old homies sided with Delicious Vinyl, “it just made it real difficult to deal with them.” Any exchanges would be “counterproductive”. “We had something that was going and, instead of continuing to work out the things that we had to work out, they decided to just align themselves with the enemy, as far as I’m concerned!”

The now-compact Pharcyde last self-released Humboldt Beginnings in 2004 to little buzz. Wilcox is under no pressure to record a fifth LP. In fact, he believes that, as with De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde’s catalogue is complete. From the get-go, the group intended to only ever cut a trilogy – “because we felt like, if we made three records, we could say everything we had to say.” Of course, The Pharcyde just serviced two albums with the original line-up, though Wilcox has disseminated solo tracks and Robinson has collaborated, and toured, with Gorillaz.

Watch: The Pharcyde – Runnin’

If The Pharcyde have retained their currency, it’s as a live entity. The MCs are gigging amid a booming ’90s retromania. Probe Wilcox on what compels them to keep the dream alive and he pauses. “I’ve never thought about it because it’s what I am.” He and Robinson perform because people want to hear them. Wilcox says he is still moved by the “respect” and “appreciation” fans show them. “You don’t even think about the money.”

The Pharcyde’s influence is pervasive in contemporary hip hop. Kanye West has identified Bizarre Ride as his favourite album. Atlanta’s OutKast are indebted to the Californians, as is Compton newcomer Kendrick Lamar. In 2006 Nas articulated a widespread despondency with rap on Hip Hop Is Dead. A fresh wave of MCs, Lamar among them, have since reinvigorated the culture – especially on a mainstream level.

Asked for his views on the state of hip hop, and Wilcox proclaims it “a hard question.” For him, hip hop just is. He expresses a similar indignation when questioned about hip hop’s initially muted reaction to the police shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and ongoing community protests.

Even Yeezy, quick to lambast President George W Bush over his administration’s apathetic support of Hurricane Katrina’s (black) victims, has been silent. Ironically, The Pharcyde raised the issue of racial profiling, and harassment, on their debut with the pertinent Officer.

Given that hip hop has traditionally been about empowering the marginalised, why haven’t more MCs taken a stand? “People say ‘hip hop’ – hip hop is not like a labour union,” Wilcox argues. “It’s not a collection of people who sit around at a table [and] who have a leader and a secretary and a treasurer. It’s people who make music or B-boy or graffiti or DJ – it’s a culture.

“So, I mean, there’s no representative. It’s individuals. Talib Kweli went right down to Ferguson and was right in the middle of that shit – so some people did take it upon themselves to go down into that shit. So hip hop did!”

The Pharcyde will return to Melbourne’s famous Esplanade Hotel on 27th November with “special guests” before making their way up to Sydney to perform as part of the forthcoming OutsideIn 2014 festival. See the dates below.

Watch: The Pharcyde – Drop

The Pharcyde Australian Tour Dates

Thursday, 27th November 2014

The Espy, Melbourne

Tickets: Oztix

w/Special Guests

Saturday, 29th November 2014

OutsideIn, Manning House, Sydney

Tickets: Oztix

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