[Editor's note: Longtime Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
J-Swift hit rock bottom five years ago. Sacks of crack bulged in the pockets of the former Pharcyde producer. A million-dollar deal with Tommy Boy had long evaporated. Home was a sleeping bag next to the Crazy Girls strip club on La Brea. At one point, he was attempting to rip the wig off a woman he'd been pimping two weeks prior — except that it was Super Glued to her skull.
“If you have a sense of humor, you can make it through anything,” says the 40-year-old Inglewood-raised musician, who was born Juan Martinez in Madrid. It's a sentiment that may well have been the mantra for the Pharcyde, the Merry Pranksters of '90s West Coast rap.
We're at a sushi restaurant in Atwater Village, near the small house he shares with his wife and two children. Miraculously, he shows few effects of the ravages of drug abuse. His hair is still thick, his face smooth, his recollections unusually vivid. It's been 20 years since the release of his psychedelic hip-hop jazz opus, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde — a record so influential and inventive, the Weekly recently named it the fifth best L.A. rap album of all time. Martinez produced the classics “Passing Me By” and “Ya Mama,” among others.
Problems between him and the Pharcyde surfaced before the album's completion, following an arrest after the Pharcyde took a trip to loot the Fox Hills Mall during the 1992 L.A. riots.
“We tried to get away in a van moving 10 miles an hour. The cops maced me and everyone else escaped,” Martinez says with a laugh.
After several days away, he returned to the studio to find his crew had named themselves co-producers on several tracks. The apoplectic Martinez had retained sole credit on hit single “Passing Me By” but still opted to quit with two songs left. “Egos had gotten in the way. They were fighting constantly. It was a collective effort, and no one could touch us when everyone played their position and had fun,” Martinez says, adding that he's open to reuniting with the group, though he places the likelihood at long odds.
Following the split, Martinez earned a Tommy Boy deal to produce his artists Quinton and the Jazzyfatnastees. Remix offers came in from Massive Attack and Prince. In particular, Martinez's remix of the Purple One's “Let It Go” was hailed by ?uestlove as a favorite.
But the deal disintegrated and simultaneously Martinez's father, a Cuban-born émigré and jazz musician, passed away. Shortly thereafter, Martinez started sniffing coke, which became blunts laced with crack and, eventually, a packed pipe. His mother's near death in an auto accident and his career turmoil hastened the downward spiral. A dozen years were lost to the streets, smoke and multiple jail stints.
“I was too cowardly to put a gun to my head, so I tried to smoke myself to death,” Martinez says. “The real problem was depression. I had issues with my career and letting my father down. Depression brings doubt, doubt brings fear, and fear brings death.”
Martinez still took meetings, but most executives instructed him to emulate Timbaland or the Neptunes. Ironically, Pharrell once told him how much the Pharcyde had influenced him.
His rehabilitation started several years ago, catalyzed by a reunion with an old friend, Shauna Garr, best known for producing the Redman and Method Man flick How High. In spite of his homelessness and addiction, Martinez had managed to record whenever he could scrounge up $75 to pay an engineer. Moved by his story and new songs, Garr directed One More Hit, a documentary on Martinez being released on video-on-demand this month.
It traces Martinez's dissolution but also his attempts to rebuild — his reunion with the mother of his children; a rehab stint that finally weaned him off hard drugs; and the recording of his new album, which he plans to release later this year. A single is already available for free online.
“When I spun out of control, all I asked was that God give me my life and my family back, and allow me to create music,” Martinez says. “I'm happy for the first time in forever. Look, you can see it in my eyes.”
It's true. They look healthy, and ready for redemption.