To fully appreciate the impact of The Pharcyde's “Ya Mama,” you had to be in a junior high lunchroom in the spring of 1993. It was mama manna from the heavens nourishing the impressionable youth with disses for days. Two decades later, the lines still detonate. Things ya mama had: a peg leg with a kickstand, an afro with a chin strip, Play-Doh teeth, the wings and teeth of an African bat, hair on her tongue, and a 99-cent sign on her back (while walking down Sunset).
Currently touched up for 20th-anniversary reissue treatment, the album from which the song sprang, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, was a rap gateway drug, a powerfully psychedelic expansion. After all, earlier this year, the group's producer J-Swift told me that the name came after a mushroom binge while watching Oliver Stone's The Doors.
Inspired by Jim Morrison's monomania for breaking through, the South Central natives goofed their way toward transcendence, searching for the edge between common sense and one toke over the line. Partying in the post-riot rubble, they paved a third path between the rap of their Delicious Vinyl labelmates Young MC and Tone Loc and the gangsta shit smoking up out of the hood.
Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde was the White Album of rap: Every song could spawn its own sub-genre. “Passing Me By” flipped the fire-hydrant jazz of Quincy Jones' “Summer in the City” into an elegy to unrequited teen lust. SlimKid's showcase “Otha Fish” remains the closest rap ever got to Annie Hall. Kanye West once called the album his favorite ever. Chris Rock ranked it No. 5 all-time, claiming, “Everything [about it] is way ahead of its time.”
But like most great rap records, Bizarre Ride also defines its place and its era. Often stereotyped as self-deprecating dorks or ex-dancers who represented “an alternative,” The Pharcyde were much closer to the smoldering realities of The Chronic than anyone gave them credit for being. The entire group went looting during the 1992 riots (J-Swift was briefly jailed). “Officer” tackles racial profiling, with Fatlip even admitting that no one would think they were up to any good “in hats and glasses/making funny passes.” Before Lebron and Lil Wayne defined Steve Urkel-chic, the Pharcyde came first.
Few groups were so fearless. In the first 10 minutes of their debut, they offer a jazz instrumental, a song about accidentally picking up a tranny on Crenshaw and one defining “Jiggaboo Time.” Never ideological, they fatalistically shrug their shoulders at the latter song's end, wisecracking, “We're all jiggaboos in our own way, might as well get paid.”
A wistful Pharcyde returned three years later with Labcabincalifornia, a similarly ahead-of-the-curve but less heard opus that introduced J Dilla and Spike Jonze to the world (via the “Drop” video). Yet with fans and media mesmerized by the East-West beef, the record wound up in CD bargain bins, only to be hailed later as a lost classic. Drug abuse and acrimony soon felled the group.
The decades have passed with the occasional brief reunion and as much infighting as The Eagles. But the legacy is indelible. Not only did it give this column its name, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is the best L.A. rap album without Dr. Dre's name in the liner notes. And if you disagree, ya mama has a glass eye with a fish in it.
The Pharcyde perform tonight at the Roxy.