Pop: So phar, so good

CAST YOUR mind back to the state of hip hop in the early Nineties, before the dead hand of gangsta rap had throttled much of the life out of the most original musical form to come out of America in decades. It's 1992. A new wave is poised to succeed Public Enemy and De La Soul. Absorbing the former's politicised attitude and the latter's hippy-dippy sensibility, A Tribe Called Quest, Arrested Development, Digable Planets and The Pharcyde are shaping up to be the future of the form. A year later, Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, the architects of gangsta rap, had ensured they were its past.

What a pity. The Pharcyde could match any of their peers for anger, eloquence and intelligence. And they had jokes. In their 1992 debut album, Bizzare Ride II, The Pharcyde, the quartet exuded devil-may-care confidence, as wisecracking and acute about life in urban USA as some of their contemporaries were earnest and judgemental. By 1995, mainstream hip hop was obsessed with the macho-ethos "drive-bys" and "bitches". The Pharcyde, after their second album Labcabincalifornia, sounded about as relevant as Huckleberry Finn.

In the sweltering bunker of the Jazz Cafe, no one was more aware of this than the group themselves. Tre, Romye and Imani (but no Fat Lip, strangely) repeatedly apologised for their absence over the past few years. This was the only sign of diffidence on their part, though, as they reminded us what a tantalising prospect they'd been six years ago.

It started with dancing: the trio moved languidly across the small stage, barely able to stand up one moment, hardly able to keep still the next. One part playground mischief (acquiring roll-ups from one side of the audience to hand out to the other), one part goofy New Age babble (much talk of "energy reciprocation" and "positive auras"), their three-way banter crackled with barbs directed at each other and the delighted audience. You couldn't help thinking that this was the rosy future hip hop rejected.

Few were in the mood for what could have been, though. The Pharcyde's calling-card hit, "Ya Mama", summed up the freewheeling atmosphere. Built, like most of their songs, upon a thick slab of loose-limbed funk, it turned the Jazz Cafe into an LA street- corner slanging match: "Ya mama's got a glass eye with a fish swimmin' in it/ Ya mama's got a peg leg with a kick-stand on it." The group also announced that a third album was on its way. Its provisional title, Testing the Water, proved apt, however, as the group ran through some new, less carefree material.

Still, the future may be brighter. After a welcome appearance in Camden last summer, it looks like De La Soul are also preparing once more to dip their toes in the murky depths of commercial hip hop. "We're riding high on the underground current," declared The Pharcyde, and one can only hope that their predecessors are similarly inspired. With the Beastie Boys on rare form, "back to the old school" may become more than just a rap platitude.

Mike Higgins