Pharcyde Producer J-Sw!ft: Breaking Beats and Beating Addiction
The steady return of 'Bizarre Ride II's sonic architect
Twenty years after the Pharcyde’s debut, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, it seems like that pack of self-deprecating MCs are finally getting the credit they’ve always deserved. You can spot their logo on T-shirts in stores like Urban Outfitters right next to Biggie and Tribe apparel, Booty Brown dropped a verse on Geoff Barrow’s Quakers project, and last month, for Record Store Day, the ornate Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde: The Single Collection Music Box was released, complete with liner notes written by J-Sw!ft, the producer behind the Pharcyde’s 1992 classic. On Wednesday, May 23, the Pharcyde reunite at the Roxy in West Hollywood.
When I got on the phone with Sw!ft, he ran through about five hilariously bad fake accents (Middle Eastern, French, Chinese, nerdy white guy, something just nebulously foreign) before admitting that yes indeed, this was him, and “How you doing, man?” Hanging in the background of our conversation was Sw!ft’s recovery from a seven-year crack addiction, both the subject of a fascinating bummer of a documentary called 1 More Hit, which followed him around while he was using, and his upcoming solo album, The Adventures of Negro Knievel. We talked about his new projects, his classical musical training, and the sample source — or lack thereof — of Bizarre Ride II‘s “4 Better Or 4 Worse.”
In addition to the reunion next week, you’ve got a new album coming out and a documentary.
Yeah, the documentary is 1 More Hit. It’s available on demand at AT&T U-Verse, Verizon Fios, and a few other places. And I have a single “High When I’m Sober” which is on iTunes and on Youtube. It’s from my upcoming album The Adventures of Negro Knievel. “High When I’m Sober” goes with the movie 1 More Hit. We’ve been getting a lot of good responses from the film, but, here, let me rewind the clock because this relate to the new album too. I was homeless. I was on Sunset Blvd. VH1 had given me a show, and before filming we had a little dispute with one of the camera people. I was still on drugs, I wasn’t moving fast enough, so I can’t blame them for passing. But you can’t compact a real problem into a six month show! They didn’t understand that. I didn’t get on drugs to try to get a reality show.
This was during the era when VH1 started giving rap figures in turmoil TV shows.
But I don’t give a damn about a show! I’m a b-boy, I make hip-hop. VH1 wants to know about my world and my world was really in turmoil, then. So, I’m living in the street and I got a girl and we’re both on drugs, and she’s doing illegal business and she left me in the cold for like two days. I was depending on her to be able to get money and drugs. So I just hung out on Sunset and I’m like “How did I even end up like this? I’m a musician.” I left Inglewood on purpose because I didn’t want to ever go back to how I had been brought up, so how did I end up here? That moment’s when I thought of the character Negro Knievel. I thought, “I’m Negro Knievel, going back into the danger zone.” 1 More Hit is pretty shocking to say the least. People who see this movie tell me it’s a miracle I’m alive.
Were you making music during your addiction?
The music was always calling me back. I remember one time I was on Hollywood Boulevard and I’m walking with my two hoes, and I couldn’t believe I was a pimp. Me! Have you seen what I look like, dude? I grew up in Inglewood but like, I don’t wear khakis, you know what I mean? I tried it when I was younger. It didn’t work. I didn’t feel comfortable. So, I’m on Hollywood Boulevard with these girls, and I look at this fucking TV store, and I’m looking at TVs and shit and I see Dr. Dre in a commercial. And this nigga Dr. Dre’s sitting on a fucking plane and he’s got a laptop on his lap and he’s tapping, and I knew right there he was making fucking beats! And I was like, “I gotta get one of those motherfuckers.” I couldn’t believe it. You could actually squeeze a whole studio into a computer. It was mindblowing but it was a turning point for me. I was like, “I gotta get off these streets! It’s going down! I can take my studio anywhere, now?”
And you started to return to music after that?
Well, I wrote so many songs [while addicted] and fortunately, I loved hip-hop so much that even on drugs I would pay an engineer a couple of hundred dollars and I would record. I was documenting my addiction. Like street reporting. Like Ice Cube was South Central’s street reporter for years and he was on the front line and then he’d write about it. I was on the front line of the underworld of the drug scene, reporting with songs.
You had the reality show for a second, then your friend shot the documentary while you were struggling, and the new album is a result of that time. Even the Pharcyde album has a documentary quality to it. How important is documenting your reality?
When I was with the Pharcyde, as a producer, I tried to make it about more than just what you’re hearing. It’s the things that you’re not hearing. The things that give you the atmosphere that makes you think you’re in another world. And then you actually are in another world! So, you have to document everything. I did a lot of recording just talking with Pharcyde, ragging on each other. We grew up together, so that was nothing. I had all this wealth of recording and then it is like making a movie. You have to edit it down, and chop all this footage, but you have so much material that it works itself out, you know what I mean?
You produced Bizarre Ride II beyond just giving them beats. As a producer, not just a dude who makes beats, how important is capturing the energy of the room?
I don’t just make albums, I make experiences. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, I’m just telling you that. I feel like it was a privilege to be a member of this band and be at the helm of the music. Here’s my approach: Get a group of people together, get to working on music and exploring ideas and enjoying it. Fun is the secret weapon. Having fun.
You mentioned seeing that Dr. Dre commercial as a turning point. So, you’ve moved over to using computers to make beats?
Yes, and I love it. Programming on Reason is the shit. And anybody can do this! I got contemporaries that are like “These dudes try to do music too.” I’m like, “So what? It’s fun!” That’s not stupid to me, dude. The whole point of music to me is to enjoy yourself. I’m making music and you see how much fun it is to groove to it. You can just get inspired by the keys or chord to create. “Oh, it’s too easy now, anybody can do it.” I don’t give a fuck if seven billion people make beats, no one will make beats like me.
How did you get into music?
My daddy was a musician, so we had a piano, and then, I started collecting gear. I met this guy who became my manager and the Pharcyde’s manager — that’s a whole other story — but he had all this old equipment that he didn’t like anymore. But we took that shit and we would create what we thought was the greatest shit on earth. I’m sure it was garbage but we learned our craft on that stuff. What I learned is it doesn’t matter what you use, if you’re dope you’re dope. Laptop or MP.
Are you still sampling?
I gotta stick to what I’m doing. In the ’90s, me and my contemporaries were having the time of our lives: Pete Rock, DJ Premier, LA Jay, Diamond D, Showbiz. We were so ahead of the curve with sampling. All of a sudden we got these machines that had a lot more memory and we felt like just losing our minds! But when the lawyers caught up, the lawyers, were like “They need permission to use this stuff!” So when that whole shit, people started — it was like gas prices. Like OPEC can just speculate, like “We’re gonna charge this much,” and it happens. Now all these lawyers are charging like $50,000 for one sample. So what happened is people started playing keyboards. I’m not mad at that. I’m a classical pianist. I dig what they’re doing. But I gotta stick to what I’m doing which is beat breaking.
Do you think about sample clearances more now?
With samples, it’s like catch me if you can nigga! Because I chop the shit up. I sampled almost 70 records on the first Pharcyde album. I only got caught for 16.
You mentioned you were a trained pianist. What’s your musical background?
I was trained as a classical musician. My father was a musician. He played the flute, the stand-up bass, the guitar, he sang, he made arrangements, he fully knew how to read music. He had a 13 piece band and they cut a few albums in France, they toured Europe.
So, he taught you?
Me and my sister and brother would see him practice every day and he started teaching my brother and sister how to read music and I started, and I would know the notes. He told me, “I’ll teach you how to play the piano, if you learn to read music.” So, we all had to learn to read music, and once we learned how to read it, he put us in the piano conservatory, so then I studied piano. I went five out of the seven years.
Why didn’t you finish?
I ended up feeling like I knew enough and I told my dad, “Look, I’m cool, I’m not gonna go the whole course.” Plus like, the rules of hip-hop breaks those rules of piano. It’s like physics. Like things a pianist thinks cannot happen do happen in hip-hop. I started having conflicts. Like, “I can’t go to this key even though I’m in this key? Why not?” But you can do that when you’re layering sounds and samples. Because you got two different keys going on. I remember my teacher would be like, “Why you like that? It’s off key.” And I’d tell him, “It just fits right! That’s what makes it dope!” It’s not about the key, it’s about the feeling.
There’s so much live playing on the Pharcyde album. Or what sounds like live playing.
See, when I sample something, the reason people can’t tell if it’s a sample or if I played it is because I try to get inside the sample. I play the sample and I’ll EQ it and match it so that I’m literally like traveling through time and joining the artist in that session and playing those notes with them, you know what I mean? People always ask me about the sample from “4 Better Or 4 Worse.” But there is no record for “4 Better Or 4 Worse”! I made up those chords. I took a cheap-ass tape recorder, you know, those rectangle ones you put a cassette in and hit the red button? Yeah —
Yeah. I took one of those. And I put at the foot of my Rhodes and played these chords. I took that tape and I uploaded it in the studio and I put that in my drum machine. So, the low-grade sound, because it’s analog made it sound like an old album! All that came from that classical upbringing. I played the first skit on the Pharcyde album on piano. My training has proven so beneficial because that’s how I was able to do those skits on Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. I was able to play whatever I heard.