Switching Gears

Cousins of the Wize turn from musical enthusiasm to coping with tragedy

Mike "Sir Pie" Gomez, the normally effusive rapper and singer for Cousins of the Wize, looks devastated, wearing a blank look of disbelief, like he's lost his security blanket.

In fact, he has. Days earlier, his Cousins rhyming partner and longtime friend Chris "CPT" Pangrazi, 29, had been killed in a drunken-driving accident, effectively bringing an end to the off-again, on-again, ever-changing hip-hop rock collective. Gomez refuses to contemplate a Cousins future without his on-mike partner, a friend since high school days when they were rhyming under bridges in Scottsdale. Gomez and Pangrazi were the only constants for a band that calls itself a "family," with nearly 30 members passing through in six years, including seven drummers. A few Cousins "graduates," to borrow a term from guitarist Rob Maywalt, went on to play with some of the Valley's other noted hip-hop rock bands, including Bionic Jive, the Phunk Junkeez, and Trik Turner.

According to the Scottsdale Police Department, Pangrazi and two passengers were traveling north on 94th Street around 1:10 a.m. early on May 10 when Pangrazi attempted to make a left turn near Cactus Road. As he did, a BMW driven by a man named Stuart Crane, which had been traveling behind Pangrazi's Dodge Neon, smashed into Pangrazi's driver's-side door, killing Pangrazi. Another passenger, 21-year-old René Reiland, died May 12 from her injuries at nearby Scottsdale Medical Center. Crane, who was treated for minor injuries at the scene, was later arrested and charged with one count of driving under the influence. Toxicological test results on Pangrazi will not be available for several more weeks. Crane may face additional charges once the police department completes its investigation.

Cousins of the Wize, circa 1997. Pie Gomez (standing left) draws in Chris Pangrazi's halo.
Cousins of the Wize, circa 1997. Pie Gomez (standing left) draws in Chris Pangrazi's halo.
Friends, family and total strangers pay respects at a roadside memorial in Scottsdale.
Friends, family and total strangers pay respects at a roadside memorial in Scottsdale.

As we discuss the accident at Pita Jungle in Tempe on May 12, the wiry 32-year-old Gomez points to a piece of paper. It's a lyric sheet for a song called "Not Any Longer," which looks to have been produced on a manual typewriter and marked up with yellow highlighter.

"Chris' father died the exact same way," says Gomez, as he recites a verse of Pangrazi's song.

'Cause you're drunk at the bar/About to crash your fourth car/The Visa card don't cover smothered mothers/Up on the highway/What a day to die/You picked a Friday/You're hella drunk/And now you get behind the wheel/You're about to take another life now/How does that feel/Appealing to no one 'cause you think you're full blown/What a way to go out/Twisted metal and bent chrome.

"[Chris] wrote that in 1998," Gomez says, adding that Pangrazi's father had died in a Friday night drunken wreck when Chris was little. "That's five years ago, you know what I mean? It's like the kid wrote his own story. It's unbelievable . . . I was looking at that last night, and it was like, how is that even . . ."

Gomez pauses, looking down, hiding his face under the brim of his white baseball cap, wincing, clearly holding back tears. He then continues.

"He had a way of putting stuff into words that wasn't just like champagne and girls. He told stories, and something like that," again pointing to the lyric sheet, "you can't even believe it.

"It hasn't even set in on any of us yet. We still haven't been able to put our fingers on it. It won't hit us until we go to the funeral and go to practice, when we don't see him on Wednesday. He's not going to be there, you know?"

Gomez again strains to keep his composure.

"It's just too much, man."

This story, of course, was initially going to center on music, not on death.

When I made arrangements two weeks ago to meet Pie and CPT, the focus lay on the future. We'd decided to meet on the 12th at the Jungle to discuss new music the multiracial Cousins, now a six-piece, were recording with Larry Elyea, prolific local producer and former guitarist for popular Valley rap-metal band Bionic Jive. A four-song demo, released this spring, showed that the band and Elyea were moving in an unorthodox direction, melding jazz, Dave Matthews saxophone pop and even country into their eclectic mix of party riffs and rhymes. There lay the tension -- three standouts in the local rap-rock hybrid scene maturing and growing more sophisticated together, and crafting some of the better music produced by Valley artists so far this year. Gomez, excited about the new venture, even posted a message about our planned meeting on the band's Web site.

Pangrazi's passing changes everything. While the band had undergone more lineup changes than Menudo over the years, Gomez says Pangrazi was the one irreplaceable component.

Except for a planned tribute night featuring the Phunk Junkeez, equally diverse rap outfit Drunken Immortals and nearly every former and current Cousin set for Monday, May 26, at the Big Fish Sports Pub in Tempe, all discussion of a Cousins future is on hold. Gomez, for now, wants to concentrate on releasing a CPT solo album; Pangrazi had finished recording eight songs with his other band, CPT & A Pack of Smokes, and local producers will help finish three or four other tracks in posthumous Tupac Shakur fashion.

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