Happy 20th Anniversary to The Pharcyde’s sophomore album Labcabincalifornia, originally released November 14, 1995.
Today, my fellow soulheads, I present to you a story about the sophomore jinx. Or more accurately, a story about the perception of the infamous phenomenon. You’re familiar with the notion, I’m sure, whereby new artists come out of the gate blazing with their first critically and commercially applauded record, only to fall painfully flat with their follow-up effort. Everyone remembers Black Sheep’s masterful debut A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, right? How ‘bout their second LP Non-Fiction? Nope, didn’t think so. And don’t even get me started on Snoop Dogg’s Tha Doggfather or Puff Daddy’s Forever. So obviously the sophomore jinx—or slump or whatever you want to call it—can sometimes prove a fair assessment. Though in too many other cases, the term is floated way too liberally, devolving into lazy cliché. We’ll revisit the subject in a few moments.
More importantly, this is also a story about an ambitious, passionate, and supremely gifted foursome of South Central Los Angeles bred emcees who rapidly ascended the slippery ladder of fame in the early 1990s. Formed in 1989 by Trevant “Slim Kid Tre (Slimkid3)” Hardson, Romye “Bootie Brown” Robinson, Derrick “Fatlip” Stewart, and Emandu “Imani” Wilcox, the quartet secured their first record deal within just a few years of their inception. On the strength of their demo tape, which featured the soon-to-be classic track “Passin’ Me By,” the playing-the-dozens hilarity of “Ya Mama” and the anti-police harassment anthem “Officer,” the group was signed in short order by Delicious Vinyl, the renowned indie label that was home at the time to L.A. hip-hop stalwarts Def Jef, Tone Lōc, and Young MC.
Wasting no time in capitalizing on their new signees’ raw talent and dynamism, Delicious Vinyl formally introduced the group on Heavy Rhyme Experience, Vol. 1, the much revered second LP by their labelmates The Brand New Heavies. The group collaborated with the Heavies for the exuberantly funky album-closing number “Soul Flower,” one of the project’s handful of standout tracks. A few months later, The Pharcyde released their whimsical, cleverly crafted debut long player Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, which prompted Rolling Stone to endearingly label them “a pack of class clowns set loose in a studio.” Produced by J-Swift, the endlessly entertaining album was a critical and commercial success, largely fueled by the group’s penchant for narratives that balance outlandish humor (“Ya Mama,” “Oh Shit,” “On the DL”) with humility and self-deprecation (“Passin’ Me By,” “Otha Fish”). The group even delivered weightier subject matter with comedic flavor, as best exemplified on “Officer.”
With Bizarre Ride, The Pharcyde helped to broaden the definition of West Coast hip-hop and offered a much-welcomed counterweight to the established Gangsta Rap and emerging G-Funk subgenres that were so ubiquitous in their native stomping grounds of South Central. In embracing a more free-spirited aesthetic that placed a premium on lyrical prowess and songwriting, the group was stylistically more closely aligned with L.A.’s Freestyle Fellowship and Oakland’s Hieroglyphics crew, as well as the Native Tongues collective back east.
Three years later in the fall of 1995, the foursome released their highly anticipated follow-up LP Labcabincalifornia. Whereas all but one track on Bizarre Ride was produced by J-Swift, Labcab was more of a collaborative ensemble affair featuring production by various group members, J Dilla (a.k.a. Jay Dee) on 6 tracks, plus additional production by Diamond D of the Diggin’ in the Crates (D.I.T.C.) family and M-Walk. In a 2013 interview, Slimkid3 explains that Q-Tip facilitated the group’s introduction to the then relatively unknown J Dilla:
We met Dilla through Q-Tip. We thought Q-Tip was actually Jay Dee, but he wasn’t. And when we finally met Jay Dee he was this short guy from Detroit, always wore his Kangol hat or what have you. But Tip had brought us this cassette tape and on that tape was the loop from “Runnin” and from “Drop” and all that. And we were just sitting at Q-Tip’s apartment listening to all these loops and beats man, and the rest is history. If it wasn’t for Q-Tip, we would have never met Jay Dee or had those beats. We were kind of like the first ones. We branded that shit.
I’d love to learn more about why the group assumed that Q-Tip and J Dilla were one-and-the-same, but we’ll save that for another time.
For even the most casual of Dilla fans, Labcab represents a vital historical artifact, as it was the producer’s highest profile production work by that point in his fledgling career. In other words, it was his big break, which he converted into a bona fide breakthrough. Remember, Dilla’s résumé only began filling up in a major way the following year with the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes & Life, as well as his work on Busta Rhymes’ debut LP The Coming, De La Soul’s Stakes is High, and his own group Slum Village’s underground classic Fantastic, Vol. 1. Indeed, his instantly memorable contributions to Labcab opened quite a few doors for him, as requests for his Midas production and remixing touch began to multiply as a result.
Relative to its precursor, Labcab contains considerably less jocularity and levity, in exchange for a more noticeably pronounced conscience and introspective vibe. The album is arguably less of a bizarre ride altogether, and captures the sound of the four emcees growing up, shedding some, though not all, of the frivolity of youth for the obligations of adulthood, as they examine the complexities of relationships, the challenges of fame, and their own mortality.
Regrettably, some critics who had understandably been seduced by Bizarre Ride’s many charms were underwhelmed with Labcab when juxtaposed with its predecessor, lamenting its thematic and sonic departures. AllMusic’s John Bush was downright dismissive of the group’s newfound maturity, describing it as “not necessarily a good thing” and suggesting that the group had fallen victim to—yep, you guessed it—the “sophomore jinx.” Even Chris Rock, of all people, indirectly expressed his tacit disapproval of Labcab in a Rolling Stone article published in 2004, suggesting that “Only in rap do you get one-album-wonders. I don’t know what happened afterward, but the first Pharcyde album is incredible.” Well, I suppose Labcab simply wasn’t funny enough for one of the funniest comedians of all time.
My advice for Bush, Rock and all of the other music pundits whose rigid expectations soured their perceptions of Labcab would be to give their ears a good flushing out, as it’s quite possible that excess wax buildup has prevented them from hearing the same record that I’ve heard. I mean, far be it for a group to aspire to expand their creative horizons beyond territory that they’ve already conquered. Not to mention that if The Pharcyde were to have made Bizarre Ride Part Deux, wouldn’t this have undermined the novelty and brilliance of their debut?
So no, contrary to Rock’s sentiments, the one-album wonder tag most definitely doesn’t apply to The Pharcyde. Overall, at least in my opinion, Labcab is the more cohesive, more gratifying listen of the two. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bizarre Ride, but I admittedly love Labcab just a little bit more. And this isn’t revisionist history on my part, owing to the fact that I’m twenty years older now and naturally appreciate the more mature things in life, records included. No, I was 15 when Bizarre Ride came out, 18 when Labcab arrived, and I instantly preferred the latter upon first hearing it.
Much of my affection for the album is driven by the half-dozen tracks that bear J Dilla’s production credits, and four of these in particular. Dilla builds the album’s braggadocious lead single “Drop” around an addictive vocal snippet from the Beastie Boys’ “The New Style” (1986) and a swirling, ingeniously reverse-looped sample. While the song itself is excellent on its own, most will likely immediately associate it with the unforgettable, Spike Jonze directed video, which was shot in reverse to mirror Dilla’s inventive sampling technique. An anthem for keeping “keen and cunning,’” as Imani encourages, while defending yourself from life’s adversities, the album’s second single “Runnin’” finds Dilla lifting the unlikely pairing of Stan Getz’s 1963 beautiful bossa nova composition “Saudade Vem Correndo” and Run DMC’s 1984 single “Rock Box” to glorious effect. With sincerity for days, the group reinforces the passion they possess for the art of rhyme across the headnod-inducing, midtempo bump of “Somethin’ That Means Somethin.’” Co-produced by Bootie Brown and Dilla, the contemplative, chilled-out “Y?” advocates for rolling with the punches as the best remedy for enduring life’s harsher realities.
Other standout cuts include the Diamond D produced “Groupie Therapy,” which delves into the dichotomy between The Pharcyde’s temptation and repulsion when it comes to groupie love, with Fatlip conceding that karma’s a bitch when you get tangled up in some groupies’ scheming ways. The slow-burning soul of “She Said” tackles the complicated nature of love and the challenges in determining what motivates the opposite sex. On the somber yet sublimely M-Walk and Slimkid3 co-produced “Moment in Time,” the group reflects that since life is ephemeral, we all should do our best to enjoy it while we can.
Labcabincalifornia would prove to be the final album that The Pharcyde recorded with the original lineup, as owing to intra-band discord, Fatlip and Slimkid3 left the group to pursue solo careers after the release of Labcab and 2000’s Plain Rap LP, respectively. Though currently still comprised of Bootie Brown and Imani whose last studio album was 2004’s Humboldt Beginnings, the original group members have reunited periodically to perform select live shows, most notably for the 2008 Rock the Bells festival. The group’s four albums deep discography is admittedly sparse, but much to their credit, they will forever stake claim to not one, but two of the West Coast’s finest hip-hop long players ever made.
My Favorite Song: “Runnin’”