Four 'round-the-way dudes talk about hip-hop's greatest ode to unrequited love
In early 1992, the international rap profile of Los Angeles was N.W.A's appetite for destruction, Ice-T's new-jack hustles, and Cypress Hill's hands on the pump. Lucky locals knew of the poetic bop-hop of Freestyle Fellowship, but to everyone else it seemed as if gangsta rappers had muscled any sensitive types out of the scene, painting South L.A. as an asphalted wasteland where those who didn't check themselves were destined to wreck themselves. Though they hailed more or less from infamous Inglewood, the Pharcyde didn't fit in at all. With helium-high voices, humorous lyrics, and a love for loose-groove jazz, they were a bizarro A Tribe Called Quest who'd grown up with endless summers and Cali chronic.
"Passin' Me By" was a revelation. While mainstream rap was inundated with gruesome fantasy, here was something deliciously relatable: Four 'round-the-way dudes poignantly rhyming about unrequited crushes. Romye "Bootie Brown" Robinson was hot for teacher. Trevant "SlimKid3" Hardson wrote about his first girlfriend. The object of Imani Wilcox's eye was already taken. And Derrick "Fatlip" Stewart, who also sang the achingly brutal chorus, rapped about being invisible. The beat, built around the smooth sway of Quincy Jones' "Summer in the City," was instantly familiar and impossible to forget, a gritty loop cooked up by in-group producer John "J-Swift" Martinez. But it was the MCs' gift for storytelling that got the most attention.
"That was back in the day when each line had to mean something," says Fatlip. "That 16-bar verse was a movie I was creating." Of course, a movie followed — a simple black-and-white video commissioned by the group's label, indie-rap powerhouse Delicious Vinyl, which seemed to stay on Yo! MTV Raps for forever and a day. "Passin' Me By" topped the rap chart while the album, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, went gold. Though things unraveled for the crew in the resulting years, the song paved a direct route for confessional storytellers like Kanye West and has been sampled and quoted by everyone from R&B star Joe to Girl Talk to, yes, Dr. Dre. For the 20th anniversary, you can find it packaged as one of seven seven-inches in the Bizarre Ride deluxe reissue box (complete with a jigsaw puzzle) and performed as the emotional peak of their sold-out 20th-anniversary show at the Roxy last May.
What do you remember about making "Passin' Me By?"
Fatlip: It was a magical time, man. It was just luck — we had this great creative space, South Central Unit studios, owned by our manager at the time, Reggie Andrews. He was a jazz musician and producer in his own right — he'd produced and cowritten the Dazz Band's "Let It Whip." He opened his doors to us because he said we reminded him of how jazz used to be.
SlimKid3: We were off of La Cienega Boulevard near the 405 freeway, and there was always super-heavy traffic on the corner of our block from 3 to 6 p.m. Our favorite pastime was to stand out front and look at the hot chicks going by. It was real fun, like sunshine and soda pop. The girls would flirt from the car and we'd holler back, then we'd go back in and work on these demos.
J-Swift, producer: Reggie had a bunch of old jazz records in his garage, and I found Quincy Jones' "Summer in the City" and a second loop that I can't remember. We were gonna do two beats and Bootie Brown was like, "Man, let's just combine them." So we did that, and then we ended up renting The Doors. We were on shrooms or some shit, all wigged out watching Val Kilmer transform into Jim Morrison, and right after, Fatlip walks into the booth and starts screaming like Morrison: "She keeps on passin' me by!"
Fatlip: We had a phrase that we borrowed from the Doors: "Break on through." That was our little personal motto back then. Just be open, be free, try to take it to another level. I just went in there and grabbed the mic and sang, and I felt my throat lift up. I hit that note without even trying. It was an accident almost. I didn't know what happened. I listened back and it didn't even sound like me.
SlimKid3: And that was it right there. Until then, we didn't know how the chorus was gonna go, but after that, we all went to our corners and started writing about these girls. We had the loop playing in the background for two or three hours — it was hypnotic. The song seemed like it just created itself. It was like this really beautiful bird that'd been circling our heads all day.
What else do you remember about the time before Pharcyde was signed?
SlimKid3: From lunchtime to midnight, we were always together. All of us. We were called 242 back then and we used to dance, so if we weren't working on music, we were going on auditions for other people's videos or doing our thing at parties. Some of us would stay at the studio overnight. There was this closet shelf that Bootie Brown liked to sleep on. Everything was music. Everything was entertainment for us.
Fatlip: It was just a feeling that something was going right. Those were the best moments, more than actually making it as a group or touring, before the record even came out, knowing that we had something that was our own. I remember, every day it was the best feeling ever.
Mike Ross, Delicious Vinyl cofounder: I got a demo that had three songs on it and each was better than the next. It was "Ya Mama," which was hilarious, "Officer," about not getting pulled over, and then there was "Passin' Me By." When I heard Tre's line, "I guess a twinkle in her eye is just a twinkle in her eye," I literally stopped the tape and said, "Who the hell are these guys?" That song personified them perfectly. They weren't super-confident or macho, they weren't coming straight outta Compton. They weren't carrying guns or in gangs. They were great, funny lyricists who had more in common with the Native Tongues movement in New York.
SlimKid3: There was a time when it felt very bleak, like shit wasn't gonna happen at all. We'd auditioned for so many labels, been taken out to dinner by Motown and Def Jam, but no one was serious. I was starting to feel stupid. Rejection is awful, you know? But we were so fucking broke, so we were like, at least we're getting free meals. Then Delicious Vinyl came along and they wanted to give us creative control. It wasn't a grip of money, but it was a grip of what we needed.
Ross: I literally met with them the next day and said, "I think we can do something great together."
Were you reacting against gangsta rap at the time or just doing your own thing?
SlimKid3: Well, I lived in the hood, but when all of my friends turned gangster, I picked up a skateboard. I was one of those neutral cats because…well, first of all, I couldn't fight. [Laughs] But it just wasn't for us, yo. Plus, it was scary times growing up in L.A. back then, and if you were coming with that language, people were definitely gonna be checking up on you.
J-Swift: N.W.A. was having such a huge impact on the world, so people thought we were trying to throw a finger up to them, but we loved what they were doing. We just weren't afraid to represent the other side of West Coast hip-hop. We were B-boys, brought up on A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. I'm thankful we were able to change the stigma out here.
SlimKid3: Once we made it, my gangster friends and family would say, "We're so proud of you. You're doing something good." The beautiful thing about all of that was we got to learn from them and they got to learn from us and, you know, it just turned into a barbecue. It was all love.
So when did you realize that "Passin' Me By" was going to be something?
Fatlip: For me, it was right after Bizarre Ride came out. We all lived in one house, and one day we get this call, and for, like, ten minutes it was two people just screaming, "We love Pharcyde!" They're singing the lyrics and quoting the skits and we're like, "Seriously, who is this?" And it was Phife and Q-Tip.
SlimKid3: I think that song spoke for itself from the beginning. It was like it was supposed to happen. I get chills thinking about it. But I guess I realized something was happening when we were editing the video. We were high, of course, and I'm looking at the screen and thinking, "Oh my God, there I am, trapped in a video forever. Like, when I die, my image doesn't disappear from it." Once it hit the airwaves, it felt like it was out of my hands. Like, it's out there in the universe now.
Ross: It should've been bigger, honestly. After we shot the video, I had a meeting with MTV in NYC. Getting on Yo! MTV Raps wasn't a problem back then, but they were starting to play hip-hop in prime time, and it was driving sales and awareness all over America. I was like, "You guys gotta play this. It'll be a classic." It came down to Pharcyde or Onyx and they went with "Slam." I'll never forget that.
The song has been sampled and quoted countless times. How does that feel?
Fatlip: I'm still getting used to it. It feels surreal hearing people saying some shit that I wrote, some shit that came from my mind. I mean, we had no idea that we were going to have any impact at all.
J-Swift: That's what hip-hop is about. Chop it, sauté it, fillet it, whatever — just make it go.
SlimKid3: I remember when Joe sampled it for "Stutter" in 2001. I was snowboarding with my friend and we kept hearing that song all day. My first thought was "Cha-ching! We getting paid off shit we didn't even do!" It was like "Passin' Me By" was saying, "Let me show you what I can do, fellas." It went R&B on us! And we got an award for it too when "Stutter" hit No. 1 on the charts. I'm like, "Isn't that a bitch? This old 'Passin' Me By' song is passing us by!" It's got its own legs. It don't need us to succeed.
How has your relationship with the song evolved? It's probably what you're all best known for.
Fatlip: In a way, Pharcyde can be put into the one-hit-wonder category, but I think it's a little more than that. Yeah, we had a song that was popular, but it feels like… I'm trying to be objective here, but it feels like an anthem. Like, it's never gonna go away. That shit is like the national anthem, son! I love hearing it in clubs. I love seeing people react when it comes on. And I never get sick of performing it.
J-Swift: I'm totally humbled. All I wanted to do was hear a song on [local rap station] KDAY. Really.
SlimKid3: There was a time when that frustrated me as an artist, but I've learned to lighten up and embrace it. Now it's a different set of problems. [Laughs] When I'm at my son's school, some of the teachers are like, "Oh, you're a musician! Can I look you up?" and I'm like, "You don't wanna do that."