20 Years Later, The Pharcyde’s “Labcabincalifornia” Is Far Greater Than The Credit It Received (Editorial)
20 years ago today (November 14, 1995), The Pharcyde released its second album, Labcabincalifornia. Coming a full three years after their Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde debut, the LP was highly anticipated, but for many, it didn’t live up to the expectations put forth by the group’s first release. Home to arguably one of the best music videos in history in the form of the Spike Jonze-directed “Drop,” Labcabincalifornia was considered a commercial failure at the time of its release, particularly when considering the success of the group’s debut. With “Passing Me By” serving as their official introduction, the pressure for a solid follow-up must have certainly weighed on the group, and fans were eager to hear what the eccentric purveyors of South Central, Los Angeles “California cool” had in store. Despite its not being able to reach Gold status, Labcabincalifornia remains a cult favorite, in no small part because of Jay Dee’s extensive production work (in addition to the work of Diamond D). Having yet to fully introduce Slum Village or produce for big-time artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, and Keith Murray (all of whom he worked with in 1996), Jay Dee’s work on The Pharcyde’s album is some of his earliest, and has only grown in value since his incredible legacy unfolded prior and after his 2006 death.
Contextually speaking, Labcabincalifornia had much to live up to. Delicious Vinyl had landed a moderate critical success with Bizarre Ride, allowing it to compete with the big dogs at Jive, who scored their own alternative Hip-Hop success with Souls of Mischiefs’ 93 ’til Infinity a year later. At a time when Los Angeles was becoming known as the headquarters for stark, gritty, confrontational Rap music, The Pharcyde offered 1992 Hip-Hop fans an alternative sound, one that centered on whimsy, absurdity, and what NPR called “Southern California’s answer to New York’s Native Tongues movement.” Comprised of Derrick “Fatlip” Stewart, Tre “SlimKid3” Hardson, Emandu “Imani” Wilcox and Romye Robinson, The Pharcyde was applauded for its unique perspective and integral role in the formation of what can be termed the “second wave” of Los Angeles Rap; along with artists including Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Freestyle Fellowship and others, The Pharcyde initiated the musical path that would influence such artists as Jurassic 5 and the Living Legends several years later. Just as Los Angeles today, where artists like Dr. Dre, The Game, and Kendrick Lamar run concurrently with MCs like Busdriver, Nocando, and Open Mike Eagle, the Hip-Hop scene dovetails between the mainstream, commercially giant music with the alternative, more modest artistry and much of that blueprint was established by The Pharcyde.
Formed in 1989, The Pharcyde had been together a full six years before releasing Labcabincalifornia, and the maturity showed (even on the album cover, which featured the four men in suits, albeit nontraditional, seemingly suggesting they weren’t quite ready to grow all the way up). The themes running throughout the record are not entirely morose, but neither are they as lighthearted as those on Bizarre Ride. Now in their mid-twenties (for the most part), the group members had experienced fame at a time when they were too young to legally drink, and with that came the predictable onslaught of hangers-on, yes men, and fairweather friends, as well as the stresses of dealing with overnight fame at a young age, something lamented over on tracks like “Runnin’,” the album’s second single (“Can it be I’m a celebrity who’s on the brink of insanity?”) and dealt with in the music video. On “Moment In Time,” Slim Kid3 gets very introspective as he mourns the loss of life in his own family (“I recall being three when Sunny passed away, one of the greatest in my eyes ’til this very day…”), and on “Devil Music,” Bootie Brown tackled systemic racism in history and the music industry (“As I ran up and down the TV stations, I witnessed Indian Joe getting tricked out of this nation by a silly hillbilly who laughed as the shit happened/Everything’s the same, the game continued into rappin’).” And, while the group was always credited for its affinity for the more complex, thoughtful lyrical content, Labcabincalifornia‘s more melancholy approach drew ire from many critics (for example, the group’s hometown newspaper, the L.A. Times, gave it two stars). In his list of the top 25 albums, Chris Rock remarked “Only in Rap do you get one-album-wonders…I don’t know what happened afterward, but the first Pharcyde album is incredible,” sadly disregarding some of Hip-Hop’s greatest work.
In hindsight, such critiques seem laughable. After all, “Drop” was the lead single. In addition to the song’s infectious sound and the members’ experimentally brave rhyme schemes, the music video is one of the most memorable of all time, thanks to its use of reverse time. In it, the group is seen walking through Los Angeles, backwards. Directed by Spike Jonze, it incorporated several interlocking layers to deliver the final product, which appears as a seamless, easily executed experiment in surrealism. However, the processes involved are extraordinarily ingenious and involved not only the critical eye of Jonze, but also The Pharcyde. Having previously directed the Beastie Boys’ videos for “Time for Livin’,” “Ricky’s Theme,” “Sabotage,” and “Sure Shot,” Jonze was tasked with helping The Pharcyde’s return to the music industry, and he delivered. In the mini-documentary below which exposes behind-the-scenes footage of making the video, the group members can be seen walking backwards, a task counter-intuitive enough, but that wasn’t all they mastered. All four worked with linguistic professionals in order to deliver the recitation of the song lyrics in reverse, which Slim Kid3 described as “learning another language.”
While considered by many to be the group’s crowning achievement, “Drop” was not an outlier. Labcabincalifornia also featured the humorous “Groupie Therapy,” which incorporated the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest’s “8 Million Stories” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First,” making it a signature Jay Dee fingerprint. “Bullshit” and “The E.N.D.” bookend the album, each track providing the jazzy earmarks found throughout the LP, but including a sense of extemporaneous delivery of a group that was fully in sync without feeling over-rehearsed. And, perhaps encapsulating the group best is “Somethin’ That Means Somethin’,” in which Romye’s words about the music industry (“The record companies are quick to end the fantasy…’cause in this capitalistic society money is all”) are echoed by Fatlip’s emphasis on making music that matters (“Been through so many trials and many tribulations, but I do this shit, I do this shit, I do this shit for the people of my nation”).
Evidently, the group’s consensus on what it meant to be a true artist wasn’t enough to keep them together, and Fatlip left the group to pursue a solo career. They would release two more albums as a unit and four E.P.s, but none reverberated with as much strength as the group’s first two studio albums. Two decades later, Labcabincalifornia remains a touchstone in the development of the West Coast sound, ironically with much of the help coming from a Detroit native and in today’s trend towards a resurgence of ’90s-influenced sound developing in contemporary artists, many Heads would likely embrace a 20th anniversary re-issue of the album uproariously, as they did with Bizarre II the Pharcyde in 2012. But perhaps such a move would serve in direct opposition to Labcabincalifornia‘s place in Hip-Hop history – sometimes, the understated is the most influential.