Last month, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Pharcyde's seminal album, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, label Delicious Vinyl threw a huge party at the Roxy. The club was filled to capacity with fans eager to see the work performed in its entirety; it was so packed that even the show's publicist couldn't get in.
Inside the club, a festive celebration ensued: Purple and gold balloons fell from the ceiling, and the guys onstage sounded crisp and on point. But if something seemed amiss, it's because two key group members weren't there. In fact, if you'd looked at the Roxy's marquee carefully, you'd have seen that the show wasn't marketed as a Pharcyde event at all.
While SlimKid3 (pronounced "Slim Kid Tre") and Fatlip performed, the other two original members critical to Bizarre Ride's creation — Imani and Bootie Brown — were noticeably absent. Turns out only the latter two, lesser-known, artists are legally allowed to use the Pharcyde handle, while the better-known ones (SlimKid and Fatlip) tiptoe around it.
Two decades after its release, Bizarre Ride remains a beloved classic. (Jeff Weiss named his Weekly column after it.) It's easily one of the freshest, most creative Los Angeles rap albums ever made, and Kanye West calls it his all-time favorite CD, period.
Its exuberance comes from producer J. Swift's jazzy loops and sample-heavy beats, which swirl psychedelically as the quartet snaps hilarious and poignant rhymes that transcend both gangsta and politically conscious credos. Tracks "Passin' Me By" and "Ya Mama" remain DJ and radio staples.
The album also continues to be a profit generator. Earlier this year, Delicious Vinyl released a deluxe box set of the work, and a CD version comes out in July. The anniversary presents both the label and the group with a chance to recapture the public's eye, considering both have largely fallen off since their '90s peaks.
Despite a couple of big singles, The Pharcyde's 1995 sophomore effort, Labcabincalifornia, didn't match Bizarre Ride's success, and the group proceeded to splinter. Meanwhile, Delicious was known for putting out some of early rap's most popular artists, including Tone-Loc and Young MC. But the long-running indie — co-founded in 1987 by DJs Matt Dike and Mike Ross — has largely gone underground, with only sporadic releases from under-the-radar artists.
All of this has combined to create chaos and bitterness. On the day of the Roxy concert, The Pharcyde's official Twitter account was buzzing with questions about the evening's performance, which were answered with the same tepid response: "We have nothing to do with the show."
In the end, the event had the effect of highlighting a conflict that has ensnared the members and associates of one of L.A.'s most adored rap collectives — as well as lawyers. And despite the protests of the outfit's fans, the situation shows no signs of untangling anytime soon.
The Pharcyde came together in the late '80s, born out of Brown, Imani and SlimKid's high school friendships and their hip-hop dance group, named 242. A music teacher introduced them to Fatlip, also a rapper and dancer, and all four are credited as writers and performers on almost every track of Bizarre Ride, which has been certified gold.
But following Labcabincalifornia Fatlip left the group, and by 2000 SlimKid also had decamped to launch a solo career. Imani and Brown continued to tour and released an album, 2004's Humboldt Beginnings, under the group's name. They sought to legally expel SlimKid from the act, but he balked; a judge ultimately ruled that since only Imani and Brown had continued on, they alone were permitted to use the band's moniker.
Even so, in 2008 all four originals reunited for the traveling Rock the Bells festival, and at the San Bernardino stop they looked to be having a great time — dancing, flipping cartwheels and grinding on underdressed women. Unfortunately, within a year, infighting had commenced and the members again parted ways.
Imani and Brown say they nonetheless worked hard to keep the group together, including moving their studio to a location near SlimKid's house. (SlimKid and Fatlip could not be reached for comment for this story.)
Whatever the case, things remained relatively quiet until earlier this year, when Pharcyde manager Greg Campbell read about the Roxy anniversary show on the Internet.
"My attorney was like, 'We're gonna sue everybody,' " Campbell says now, though that has not come to pass.
Brown contends that he saw the group's long-estranged producer, J. Swift — who fought substance-abuse problems for years but performed at the May concert — promoting the show as "The Pharcyde" on Facebook, which only made things worse.
"It was like somebody was celebrating your birthday and you weren't invited," Brown laments. (Another producer who collaborated with the original incarnation, L.A. Jay, took the stage that night as well.)
Brown was especially disappointed by the fact that SlimKid had only very recently declined his and Imani's latest overtures to reunite, he says. Still, the two current Pharcyde members remain even more alienated from Mike Ross, now the sole owner of Delicious Vinyl, who signed the act and also executive produced both Bizarre Ride and Labcabincalifornia.
"We found out one of our songs was in [2011 movie] The Sitter the same time the fans did," Brown says incredulously, referring to Pharcyde's track "Runnin'." He adds that he also has been kept largely in the dark about Bizarre Ride's sales figures over the years, as well as those from greatest-hits and reissued albums from the group.
But Brown and Imani's biggest beef seems to revolve around the Roxy show, to which they weren't originally invited — though they say Fatlip belatedly reached out to them about it. "Delicious made it like a farce," Imani insists. "[Ross] didn't tell people we weren't involved."
"People may think we're disgruntled," Brown adds. "[But] it was just uneasy to feel someone could come and take what's yours."
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Mike Ross counters that the performance was never intended to be a reunion show — an argument the show's fliers support. He says that while Imani and Brown would have been welcome to take the stage with their former cohorts, he declined to extend an invitation because the pair had been "doing their own thing." Their proclivity to enlist lawyers didn't smooth matters.
"Maybe there's some bad blood between Fat and Tre and them," Ross says, a bit cryptically. "Maybe with me as well."
When told of Imani's "farce" comment, Ross grows sarcastic. "The Pharcyde performing without Fat and Tre is much more of a farce. [Doing shows] without Fat and Tre is like The Beatles performing without John Lennon and Paul McCartney."
Meanwhile, jokes aside, Imani remains sour. "I've been celebrating The Pharcyde since the birth of The Pharcyde," he says, a hint of resignation coloring his voice. "[That night], there was nothing for me to celebrate."