The Pharcyde’s now 25-year-old album, Labcabincalifornia, saw the hip-hop group make a notable shift in their sound and lyrical content, resulting in an album that wasn’t as well-received as their debut. But the album did result in the creation of one of hip-hop’s most innovative music videos.
Before the Christopher Nolan-directed 2020 film Tenet tackled the inversion of time, the 1995 music video for The Pharcyde’s “Drop” was commenced entirely in reverse. Rather than being filmed by Nolan, the music video was led by another then-budding visual artist on the rise — Spike Jonze. Once taking promotional photography of The Pharcyde as teenagers in their South Central digs in tandem with their 1993 debut album, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, Jonze remained in contact with their label, Delicious Vinyl, seeking to collaborate with The Pharcyde again. Two years later, this reconnection led to one of the most innovative rap videos of all time.
In 1995, The Pharcyde hit a period of bleaker content on their heavily underestimated sophomore follow-up, Labcabincalifornia, where the sound was simultaneously conscious and depressive. Responses to the album were dismal; critics observed that the animated, multifarious humor from The Pharcyde’s debut was noticeably absent. Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde was far ahead of its time, receiving acclaim as a ’90s hip-hop staple in a number of music publications and later being name-dropped by Kanye West as his favorite album of all-time. By 1995, The Pharcyde was older, calmer, and fully aware of the music industry’s exploitation of rap culture. The Pharcyde began to take a surrealist approach to their music, and as rap visuals straddled violence and glamour during the prime of Bad Boy Records vs. Death Row, the visual for “Drop” diverged into guerilla-style territory.
While the jokester antics of Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde had enveloped into maturation on Labcabincalifornia, the group was still fluidly expressive in their movements. Three-fourths of the group, Imani, Bootie Brown and Slimkid3 (or Tre), had been dancers in their teenage years — even making appearances as “Fly Guy” dancers on ’90s sketch comedy show, In Living Color. The trio was previously known as GTI, once beating out female dance group Str8 Ahead during a nightclub competition in L.A. judged by Michael Bivens of Bel Biv DeVoe before their single “Poison” was released. Str8 Ahead became BBD’s backup dancers, but GTI verged further into hip-hop aspirations with a fourth group member in their sights. Fatlip — who joined The Pharcyde last after a brief stint as a solo rapper — featured Bootie Brown as a backup dancer during his live performances. While their dancing heyday had ended once becoming a formative group, The Pharcyde hadn’t lost their step in music videos for “4 Better or 4 Worse” or “Ya Mama.” The music video for “Drop” would similarly follow this tradition, however, there was a twist — the video would be shot entirely in reverse.
Closely hearing a backspin scratch effect on “Drop,” Jonze was incited with a vision of how the video should look. Relatively-known in the industry for his artsy, counter-culture visuals, the then 27-year-old was no amateur to his profession, having collaborated with artists like Weezer, Sonic Youth, and The Beastie Boys, and already having 28 music videos under his belt. (Three years after the making of “Drop,” Jonze went on to make Being John Malkovich, his full-length film debut.) Having a copy of “Drop” made in reverse, Jonze met with The Pharcyde at the Delicious Vinyl office to give them a convincing pitch. Sharing the idea of having the group learn and lip sync “Drop” backwards, The Pharcyde accepted the concept, especially the indifferent Fatlip, who didn’t have a verse on the song.
Given less than a week to study their cues, The Pharcyde was instructed by linguist coach Robert Belvin, who received a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Southern California. In reverse, the lyrics to “Drop” were nonsensical — almost gibberish — but Belvin wrote and aided The Pharcyde in recitation — which they referred to as a collision of different languages. To further prepare The Pharcyde to not only rap in reverse but also walk in reverse Jonze took them to various street locations, filming them on a personal video camera. While Jonze had gained notoriety for his recognizable one-take style, for “Drop” he shot the video using a 35mm low wide-angle camera on different locations in downtown L.A. By his side was Belvin, who not only transcribed the song in reverse but made accompanying cue cards that he held during filming.
Aloud, the music was played in reverse, while bystanders gawked at the group moving wildly about. In one central strip, The Pharcyde took to St Vincent Court, Los Angeles Theatre and Alexandria Hotel during the daytime — relatively-obscure spots while other rap videos were being filmed in night clubs, neighborhoods and house parties. The group stripped backwards completely down to their underwear, were doused in water, wore dog costumes and shattered a painting made by skateboarder Mike Gonzalez. The video seemed as random as rapping backwards itself and, if you watch closely, the lip-syncing isn’t quite on point, though The Pharcyde surprisingly moved on-beat. The video was pure surrealism during an era of repetitive imitation in mainstream rap.
“You had to keep up,” SlimKid3 said of the video in an interview with HipHopDX. “You didn’t know where you were going. You were just going backwards and saying shit. Then you had to fall off camera and the camera kept pushing by you while other stuff was happening. It was pretty magical though. It was a lot of fun. It was the most fun I had making a video to be honest. It was really good.”
After Labcabincalifornia was critically panned and perceived as a misstep early on in their career, The Pharcyde soon parted ways. While the group attempted their own solo efforts in the late-90s and early-2000s, it didn’t capture the spark of their prime as a whole. Rebranding for the 20th anniversary of Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde in 2012 during a slew of shows at The Roxy Theatre in L.A. and various festivals, “Drop” was regularly performed as fans reminisced on its iconic, mind-bending music video.
With The Pharcyde’s blessing, Jonze affirmed that the group would usher in a subculture of rap that had rarely been seen in the ’90s — an influence that can be found in visuals for current West Coast alt-rap artists like Vince Staples, Flying Lotus, Maxo, and Ovrkast. While the tides of rap have changed, the genius of “Drop” has stood the test of time.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, contributing monthly to the city’s entertainment guide (614) Magazine. She has also written for the likes of Bust Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Vinyl Me, Please, Vibe Magazine, AFROPUNK and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Scott Woods, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within the realm of music and social criticism. You can follow her @hernameisjae