The Pharcyde

Metro, August 10

Three years ago the Pharcyde was one of the first hip-hop bands that dared to rap surreal, silly lyrics instead of nihilistic, violent ones. Rather than posing with menacing stares, they had a cartoonish demeanor. They sampled jazz from Donald Byrd, Ramsey Lewis, and John Coltrane before hip-hop was “cool like dat,” and the L.A. quartet captured a loyal following in the midst of the rising west-coast gangsta-rap scene.

Thanks to groups like the Roots, Spearhead, and the Fugees, innovative and diverse hip-hop isn’t so rare anymore. While hip-hop has evolved, the Pharcyde has managed to stay ahead of the pack with amusing, street-smart rhymes and creative samples. The most serious issue the band addressed in its first album, Bizarre Ride II, was women “passing them by.”

But for all its innovation, the group remains stuck on one hip-hop staple: misogyny. It may seem like a tired accusation, but the misogyny is more deceptive in the case of the Pharcyde because they seamlessly slip it in between the loopy lyrics and smooth rhythms. Bizarre Ride II is so full of fast-paced fun that you almost don’t notice that six of the album’s eleven songs refer to women as bitches. At a recent performance at Metro, the band’s bad attitude was glaringly obvious.

After a freewheeling concert packed with break dancing and wild rhyming, an MC took the stage and announced the grand finale–an “ass-shaking contest.” He told the laughing audience, “All the scary cats leave, and all the girls stay, and we’ll see some real hip-hop skills. I have two T-shirts to give, but y’all gotta shake that ass!”

About 30 women climbed onto the stage, and the MC dismissed those that looked “too young.” The remaining women then writhed and bounced to taped music, and the winner was chosen according to who received the loudest applause. This tawdry scene was embarrassing for a group that built its reputation by challenging hip-hop stereotypes.

When the Pharcyde released Bizarre Ride II in 1992, they supplied a welcome relief from the Uzi-slinging gangstas. The first single, “Ya Mama,” was a clever send-up of the ultimate dis. The tune featured a sample from a 60s psychedelic classic, Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” further distancing the group from the rest of the hip-hop scene. Its second single, “Passing Me By,” found its way into the collection of every hip-hop fan with its rolling, funky beats and skillful, playful rhymes: “All I can do is sta-yer / Back as kids we used to kiss when we played truth or da-yer / Now she’s more sophisticated / Highly edumacated / It’s all over-rated / I think I need a pra-yer.” Samples from Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” and Quincy Jones’s “Summer in the City” also signaled that the Pharcyde was out to broaden rap’s horizons.

Bizarre Ride II contained more hits with the same mellow rhythms, vivid lyrics, and punch-line delivery. Critics and DJs were so enthralled that they ignored the disturbing thread of hatred toward women. The otherwise innovative “4 Better or 4 Worse” contained lines that were disturbing (“Went up your pussy with my fist”) and unapologetic (“If you really want me, bitch, take me for better or for worse”). The hilarious “Oh Shit” complains of “a bitch [who] was frontin'” and “Pack the Pipe” recalls “the bitch smokes a lot of her-on.” While their music has been justifiably praised for its innovation, these lyrics are a long way from being creative, fresh, or clever.

Hip-hop is still a macho world, and the music reflects it. But the bands that are supposed to be pushing the music in a positive direction are still carrying the same old destructive baggage. The Pharcyde may have changed hip-hop music for the better, but unless they stop propagating misogyny in their lyrics, they’ll continue to drag their songs down, amounting to the same pathetic drivel we’ve been hearing for years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Don Silverman.