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I. “Looking to advance in this world that's monopolized. So I utilize, careful not to jeopardize.” — “The Hustle”
Midway through Labcabincalifornia, The Pharcyde’s second album, we hear an invigorated Fatlip proclaim: “Been through so many trials and many tribulations. But I do this shit … for the people of my nation.” The track, “Somethin’ That Means Somethin’,” was a tone shift from the jocular material on their debut, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Exuberance remained intact, as did the colorful rhymes. The production was equally as compelling as it was on their debut — if not more realized. Thematically, Labcabin felt fun, but noticeably less humorous, a more focused affair given their previous levity. After all, there’s a song called “Somethin’ That Means Somethin’,” an ode to meaningful songwriting that stands in stark contrast to prior cuts like “Ya Mama.”
It would be hard to outdo “Passin’ Me By,” the first hit from their debut. Instantly recognizable from the first notes and anchored by a Quincy Jones “Summer in the City” sample, it’s one for the ages. For Labcabin, however, they countered with “Runnin’,” a glowing single coupled with one of the most memorable videos in history. Their other secret weapon — one that time has proved is tantamount to Labcabin’s success — was a skinny, soft-spoken producer named Jay Dee, later known to the world as J Dilla. “Runnin’” charted No. 35 on the U.S. R&B charts upon release and is now also considered classic material.
Labcabin still stands as one of the best sophomore efforts ever, a jinx that never was, an effort that bolstered what fans had heard on their debut in terms of energy and lucidity. The group consisted of Imani, Slimkid3, Bootie Brown and Fatlip, who sought to expand the course they charted on their debut. This time, however, they were bolstered by the aid of other wise producers, along with firepower from greats like Diamond D and Buckwild.
Big singles defined Labcabin’s success and emboldened the group’s already glowing rep — “Runnin’” and “Drop” remain vaunted to this day. Labcabin, however, would also mark the end of the core members’ time together, something that happens to many young troupes that come out the gates swinging. Fatlip, their early standout, eventually left following some personal and professional setbacks and tried a solo career. Slimkid3 also left the group in 2001 to pursue solo work. For years after, there were public displays of animus but also cordiality between members.
Labcabin was their second momentous work with Delicious Vinyl, the storied Los Angeles label established in the late ’80s, which lays claim to some of rap’s biggest early hits — Young MC’s “Bust a Move” sold a million copies, winning a Grammy for Best Rap Performance of that year. The Pharcyde emerged when Michael Ross, one of the label’s founders, heard a surprising demo from his new intern, Leslie Cooney, whose first legendary A&R credit is Bizarre Ride. The group was striking and pronounced in a way that ran counter to dominant rap trends at the time. Ross’ immediate instinct was to sign them fast.
“I thought they were hilarious,” he said. “This was like 1992, so Death Row was just starting to do gangsta stuff, and I just didn’t feel like it was my lifestyle or what I represented. We were young and very much into being true to ourselves. Pharcyde were the antithesis of gangsta. They were making fun of themselves, they were funny, and we loved them.” On Bizarre Ride’s “Soul Flower,” a track with a palpable sense of enthusiasm for their first foray into music, they overflow with an overt zeal for the rap game they were breaking into: “Michael Ross is the genie, he’s giving us our wishes!”
II. “’Cause we’re committed to the seeds of the new breeds. The mothership of dreams where fiends breast feed.” — “Bullshit”
Origins of the crew are found in late-’80s South Central LA, a time when N.W.A was topping music charts with a violent, misogynistic sound unheard of prior in rap. Schoolly D originated the gangster persona but Eazy-E and company emboldened it, bringing it to pearl-clutching suburbia en masse.
From its epicenter, four young men — Slimkid3 (Trevant Hardson), Bootie Brown (Romye Robinson), Imani (Emandu Wilcox) and Fatlip (Derrick Stewart) — would combine forces. These wide-eyed artists were a little younger when the gangsta image enveloped their youth. They were self-deprecating and goofier, giving listeners something perhaps more relatable. Bootie Brown and Imani, specifically, were aspiring dancers and choreographers before joining the group. All of them were equally into weed and girls, but eschewed guns and grimaces.
It should be noted that Mark Luv was the group's first DJ and J-Swift (who famously produced “Passin’ Me By”) also blossomed on the first project. Labcabin, in addition to having Dilla and a handful of outside producers, was internally self-produced, helmed by Slimkid3, Fatlip, Bootie Brown or affiliate M-Walk, who contributed “The E.N.D.” Despite the guest assistance, this was also their most hands-on project as a unit in terms of production.
From its start, Labcabin was lauded with heavy expectations. In 2013, on Red Bull Music Academy’s interview series (with Jefferson Mao), Questlove explained his awakening to Dilla through Labcabin’s demo tape, a time when Dilla was humbly known as “Q-Tip’s guy.”
“I met Dilla [at] our very first New York show… I had never heard of [him], but I knew that Q-Tip was supposed to be producing the second Pharcyde album,” Questlove said. “When I’d started asking Tre and Imani, ‘Yo, let me hear the Tip stuff,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh no, we’re working with Tip’s guy right here.’ And I just, like, I dismissed him. Like this little scrawny kid, like, ‘OK, this is not Q-Tip. Where’s Q-Tip?’”
So the story goes, according to Quest, The Roots and Pharcyde played together a few weeks later. “We’re in North Carolina with The Pharcyde, and we open for them. And I had to leave the show as soon as they get on, so I can do a college radio interview. And the first song they open with is ‘Bullshit.’” As he leaves the club, Quest hears Dilla’s unquantized drums leaking through the walls. Not only was it different — Quest, who trained his whole life to be surgically precise as a drummer, instantly felt the approach was unorthodox. “I’m hearing the vibration of the kick drum and it was the most life-changing moment I ever had. I had to get out of the car and run back in the club to make sure I didn’t hear what I heard,” he said.
“It sounded like the kick drum was played by a drunk three-year-old … The next day in Atlanta, I’m asking him, ‘What was that drunken song that y’all were playing? What was that?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s ‘Bullshit,’ it’s produced by Jay Dee,’ and I was like, ‘Who is that?’ and he’s like, ‘Q-Tip’s guy.’ And then, suddenly, they let me hear a beat tape, and I just never heard someone not give a fuck [like that], and that, to me, was the most liberating moment.”
Dilla’s DNA runs throughout the record. On “Drop,” he employs a Dorothy Ashby sample in ways that wouldn’t be understood until years later. The song’s hook utilizes an Ad-Rock vocal snippet. On it, one of the lines memorably goes: “They can’t swallow the truth because it hurts. This is how I put it down, this is my Earth, my turf.” It was a peek into the prospect of how this record would define Pharcyde and their careers moving forward, all with Jay Dee’s early magic as a constant undercurrent.
III. “’Cause every time I step to the microphone, I put my soul on two-inch reels that I don’t even own.” — “Devil Music”
Despite mixed reviews, the singles were popular and things appeared on the upswing. The afterglow from their debut still generated a lot of buzz and fans were hyped on the new project. Internally, however, Labcabin also marked the start of a growing tension between group members that ultimately proved irreconcilable.
On the various falling-outs that happened during the recording sessions, Dilla once said: “The making of The Pharcyde’s Labcabin album was hilarious. It was just all the way. It got me prepared for what was ahead in this rap game.” Slimkid3 also concluded that some songs would have been different “altogether on a spiritual level” if it weren’t for particular fights affecting the group while they recorded. The popular narrative is that it all stemmed from Fatlip’s increasing drug problems, which led to everything unraveling.
But in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Imani explained: “People shouldn’t blame it on Fatlip. We were all young and we had success come at us really fast. We were trying to maneuver through the madness and we weren’t always making good decisions. There wasn’t one moment when Fatlip or any of us did something that specifically caused a breakup. It was a series of things: from record company politics to management to everyone’s individual egos.”
Journalist Alice Price-Styles, who also worked at Delicious Vinyl, said of Labcabin’s making, “While unfortunate that conflict was such a feature of Labcabin’s creation… it is an undeniable component that contributes to the album holding such intensity and honesty.”
IV. “Tear after tear in the puppet man’s hands. Every time you take a stance you do the puppet man’s dance.” — “Drop”
In a year of ballooned video budgets, “Drop” upended everything with uncompromising uniqueness, a visual look and approach unlike any rap videos prior. Spike Jonze, before breaking out in 1999 with the stunning Being John Malkovich, revealed his eye for creation here. He flouted convention, supplementing creativity and ingenuity in its place. The video for “Drop” was painstakingly filmed backwards — every detail, even the vocals — in order to be played forward at its completion. If it sounds like a herculean task, it’s because it was. The Beastie Boys all made supportive cameos in the video, too.
There’s footage on the making of “Drop” where Slimkid3 is studying and rereading his rhymes backwards. A linguist, hurriedly employed by Jonze, explained: “I’ve never done either a transcription for a rap group or a transcription backwards of anything but there’s a lot of work that linguists do that sort of prepares you for that kind of stuff.” Jonze himself added, “I was actually really impressed that they took it so seriously. They’re on tour, they’re livin’ the life, and then to actually sit down, and it was like homework, having to sit down with their headphones and memorize this gibberish.” The finished product was a culmination of a very patient film crew, meticulous study and a bold young director. Years later, it was revealed that Dilla’s sample was not only taken from Dorothy Ashby’s “Django,” but that it too was looped backwards — bringing a sense of confluence to the whole affair.
In spite of Dilla’s brilliance and big singles, critics and listeners weren’t as forgiving of the change in direction. Even comedian Chris Rock, years after Labcabin’s release, said in a Rolling Stone interview, “Only in rap do you get one-album-wonders... I don’t know what happened afterward, but the first Pharcyde album is incredible.” Then and now, Labcabin has received a lesser reception than its predecessor.
Yet, powerful moments are strewn throughout, many that seem as earnest as they were creative. On “Y?” a co-produced track between Dilla and Bootie Brown, we hear: “Sometimes this world means everything to me. The inside is lovely to these eyes I see. And sometimes in my mind all I wanna do is cry. Highly upset but nothing drops from my eye.”
Another instance of introspection was on another Dilla production, “Splattitorium.” Its laid-back feel gives way to the crew speaking with a heightened sense of suspicion toward the industry. For a song with the energy of a red-eyed blunt session — literal lyrics about “joints, blunts and a bong” — more serious matter leaks through the lines: “Days are gettin’ longer. The brain is gettin’ stronger,” followed by a sense of focus, “Yeah, this is not a test. No more teachers. No more bitches, no more hoes.” All this is reflected through Labcabin’s cover; the foursome is pictured in white suits, faces obscured, a juncture of maturation, certainly a more serious feel than the cartoon cover image on Bizarre Ride.
V. “I got no need for jewels, cars and clothes. Need to slow my roll but can’t grab control. It’s unpredictable when we will go.” — “The E.N.D.”
In 1995, a year of monumental releases such as Pac’s Me Against the World, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, as well as a Wu trifecta — Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Return to the 36 Chambers — Pharcyde’s second album was unexpectedly subversive and came at a time when the group was drifting apart, during an early Dilla era to behold.
Fatlip would go on to release his solo effort in 2005, The Loneliest Punk. On it, he takes self-deprecation to new heights. On “What’s Up Fatlip,” he says, “Who am I kidding, who am I foolin’, when they be like ‘What’s Up Fatlip?’ and I say ‘Cooling.’” Spike Jonze made a documentary short on Fatlip by the same name, where, among many things, he candidly reveals very personal tribulations he’s endured since the start of his career.
Slimkid3 would go on to produce Brian Austin Green’s 1996 album, One Stop Carnival. He’d also appear on Plain Rap, a 2000 affair that featured the sole remaining Pharcyde members. He then left the group to pursue solo work under his birth name, Tre Hardson, releasing his debut, Liberation, in 2002. In 2014, he returned to Delicious Vinyl — a full circle moment — for a collab with DJ and producer Nu-Mark, and he currently maintains a solo career.
Remaining members Imani and Bootie Brown would continue as The Pharcyde, taking the brand with them. They released a Pharcyde project called Humboldt Beginnings in 2004, as well as a collaboration with their West Coast contemporaries, Souls of Mischief, called the Almighty Mighty Pythons. Slimkid3 and Fatlip, at one point in the 2000s, performed as The Bizarre Ride, a public testament to the group’s finality. Currently, Fatlip, Imani and Slimkid3 have been making small appearances again as The Pharcyde.
In hindsight, the reception to Labcabin was unfairly tepid. It was myopic, despite effusive singles and “Drop” blowing listener's minds then — just as it does now — in a year of triumphant releases that have stood the test of time. Of course, it’s hard to redo the magic that was their debut, but Labcabin has aged well, proving that there’s no statute of limitations on how art is viewed. It now stands as a major force that helped fuel the West Coast’s innovative mid-’90s run of albums. It also exists as an early timestamp in the career of the great Dilla, a peak into his early innovations, and that alone is worth the price of admission. Labcabin proves that sometimes the most dismissed can cast the longest shadow.
David Ma is a veteran music journalist whose work appears in Wax Poetics, NPR, The Paris Review, Billboard, The Guardian and elsewhere. He also teaches a course on hip-hop studies at San Jose State University and maintains Nerdtorious.com, a repository and remnant from the blog era. He writes from The Bay.