No Question. Illmatic is the greatest debut album of all time. Period. But, was it the smartest?
It's the greatest debut because it's the greaest and it's his debut, and I use the transitive property. The lyrics are untouchable, and utilizing the production of hip-hop's finest beatcrafters was the right thing to do, but to a sense, it was safe. Team Illmatic did innovate the art of sampling by using back room records thick with dust (thanks to vinyl addicts Primo, Pete, Paul, Les and Tip). Predictably, Nas and his friends, who happened to already be production gods, were grouped with rap's legends as well as the 90's golden agers. Yet, this perception just proves that Nas' debut was judged as a hip hop staple, which left it to be seen to critics as what hip-hop is supposed to be. But does sticking to illy lyrics of hood tales and classic jazz loops futher the notion of what hip-hop can be?
So what is hip-hop's most prehensile premier? What debut album utilized respected techniques and molded them into a unique style to further the limits of the art? To find such an album one MUST delve into rap's alternative world, and a contender for the prize can be found in a little group from Los Angeles, a place where styles alternative to the mainstream are rarely ever congratulated. Let's travel to the Pharcyde of hip-hop.
The Bizarre Ride begins with buying the album. You get ready for what's inside by just holding that plastic (or cardboard) rectangle in your hands. You can get lost in the album art, a crazy dope painting of odd cartoon representations of the group members on a coaster heading straight into a.....well just look at it and tell me what you see. It makes you wonder what the record label was thinking when they let that slide. But then you flip the case and see the little Delicious Vinyl logo of the dude munchin' on a record, and you know you can trust the homies at Delicious. Plus, the Pharcyde's label was not (and still isn't) scared of experimentation, seen in when they backed Master Ace as he dropped the 'er' for an 'a' and took a trip to the Slaughterhouse or when they signed Brand New Heavies, a jazz band from England, to make hip hop with the game's illest emcees. So already, you know you are in for something out of the ordinary.
Then you push play, and you're greeted by an instrumental that sounds like it's being played at a small jazz club. Yet, in comes scratches of "oh shit", and the break beat hits. Next thing you know, brothers are yellin' Oh Shit! and sharing their most embarrassing stories. Slim Kid 3 introduces you into the conversation of hi-jinx with a nursery rhyme: "Little sally walker, sittin in a saucer/ Oh, how I tossed that ass up". Two minutes in to the album and you've jumped from a smooth jazzy feeling into the group acting like school kids at lunch break, one-upping each other with immature tales. If anything, Fatlip's verse will leave you saying "WHAT THE FUCK", and by the end of the song you have no idea what to expect. After "Oh Shit!", the tracklisting on the back cover might be misleading because the logical direction would be to go to another juvenile song, and the title of the third track does seems pretty silly.
This is the moment you realize that the album you are listening to is incomparable.
The instrumental jive hits again, and the group members take turns yelling out socially progressive critiques of how black men sell out. They deem these actions as the time when strong African Americans conform to appease the status quo and succumb to being viewed as Jigaboos. "Show Me Them Teeth Baby!". Fatlip borrows hip-hop rule number 4080 and illustrates how video directors attempt to place rappers in dangerous areas such as ghettos, so white America can view their black counterparts as evil criminals who are here to detriment society. The album's sporadic, light-hearted behavior is a refreshing alternative taste during a time when hip-hop's dark side was thriving, and the social cometary proves that hip-hop can be both fun and profound. With only a mere intro, a song and a skit, the Pharcyde helps you to realize that hip hop has no bounds, it's a force that cannot be stopped and can always further the extent of its universe. You're not listening to music anymore; you begin to appreciate it as art. A smart start for hip hop's smart start.
From the smooth vibes that drip from "4 Better or 4 Worse" to chants of "WHO IS THE NIGGA IN CHARGE?!" with a hostile chick in the background dishing out "um, well excuse me"'s to the simple pleasures presented in the campaign platforms in "If I Were President", the Pharcyde landed on the map with an album that sounded nothing like what was being produced in Southern Cali. The rappers enthusiastically share their digably juvenile outlooks and personal beliefs, and the beats they use are chock full of slapping breaks and unique loops. "Soul Flower [Remix]", a mix of the group's collaboration with the Heavies, uses a fucking funky Fatback Band sample that replaces the original's smooth feel with a chaotic and energetic mood. A notable line comes from the farmer man who points out "Yes I come from Cali, no I do not have a perm", another example of the Pharcyde's attempt to distance themselves from the hip hop world's common conception of LA acts. "On the D.L." shares "Oh Shit!"'s style of confessional rhymes as the group tells stories that they'd rather forget. And the name of the next interlude might also light up your eyes as you can just imagine the group taking a halftime break with mary jane, crying "ooooo"s after each hit.
So far, the album favors smooth drumbeats, yet as "Officer" starts the group flips the script with a quick break of techno kicks and snares, exemplifying the group's interest in a thriving underground genre that would have much success later in the decade. When the beat changes, in comes scratches of sample of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" followed by a Flavor Flav impersonation. Fatlip does his best Chuck D to set the stage for the song's stories of beef with the po-po: "I got a letter from the DMV, the other day/ I opened and read it, it said they was SUCKAZ!". This is an example of the album's successful attempt to pay dues, an important ingredient to great debuts. "Ya Mama" gives respect to another art form: snaps. If you want a song that compiles favorite Ya Mama jokes, the Pharcyde's got it. An especially funny moment: "Ya mama's a sellout, nigga/ Nigga ya mama made a pop tune, nigga".
Next up is everyone's favorite Pharcyde song, "Passin' Me By". We all remember the black and white video with the rappers hanging upside down as they regret lost love. But for me, the best Pharcyde track can be found in Slim Kid's masterfully slick crooning on "Otha Fish". With a hollow voice effect and strings of echoes, Slim sounds like he's singing underwater (fuck T-Payne's voice effect bullshit, this is where it's at). The song's undeniable smoothness just makes you want to whistle the melody all day, and the cool and hip nature of Slim's words sets the song above every shitty rap-R&B fusion you've ever put yourself through. With another weed interlude, "Quinton's on his Way", hailing the moment when your homie comes through with another j, followed by the stoner jam "Pack the Pipe", the Pharcyde once again drills in your head the fact that they like cannabis. Not complaining.
The album's final track is another highlight as Slim, Imani, Lip and Bootie pay more respect to the pioneers by making a Wild Style-esque 80's jam that sounds like it's coming live from the amphitheater. The song is a perfect way to cap a beautiful album, and it's clear that Bizarre Ride pulls out all the stops to prove that rap cannot be categorized into a narrow perception. The Pharcyde made a considerable amount of noise with the album, which was heard by the alternative gods of Tribe who invited the group to partake in their star-studded album cover for Midnight Marauders. The Pharcyde, showing that they can revolutionize something that was already revolutionary, followed Bizarre Ride with Labcabincalifornia, an album that featured J Dilla beats and his neo-hip-hop movement. Yet, after a couple of unpopular choices and a falling out, the group broke up. It's been ten years since they have performed. So what are the Pharcyde doing today. Well, tomorrow the four original group members will be performing at Rock the Bells in SF, and I'll be there! So blast "Soul Flower" and freak the funk to one of hip-hop's smartest debuts.