Growing up, I had few avenues to hear new hip-hop. Barely anyone I knew liked it, and I never had that big brother figure feeding me all the stuff that would make me a better listener. Like most suburban White kids, I was exposed to most of it through TV.
I remember creating diversions to stay up past my bedtime in order to see Snoop and Dr. Dre on the American Music Awards. There was a faux-Compton set, and Snoop rode in on one of those ornate hood bicycles with a pick in his hair just in time to start "What's My Name?" My dad turned to me and asked, "You don't like this shit, do you?" He could probably tell how much I did.
Anyway, MTV and the now-defunct The Box shaped my listening more than I care to admit, and it was on the latter that I first saw the unforgettable video for The Pharcyde's "The Drop," that rare clip that gets more impressive with every viewing, in all of its Spike Jonze low-tech but high-concept glory. Although everyone has heard "Passing Me By" (even if they don't know it), this video was the hook that introduced me to the group.
Their Bizarre Ride II- The Pharcyde, the centerpiece of which is "Passing Me By," is heralded as a classic, an idiosyncratic, playful type of brotherly mish-mash. (Fun fact: Kanye West has called it his favorite album.) But it was always overrated to me--a bit too long, a bit too heavy on extended jokes like "Oh Shit" and "Ya Mama."
"Runnin'" is from their more mature follow-up, 1995's Labcabincalifornia, and it remains their masterpiece to me. It's just as jazzy as anything they had done before, but they provoke a more specific, plaintive mood.
Most of that atmosphere is courtesy of J-Dilla, known then as Jay Dee, who produced the bulk of the album. He starts with a fade-in as glorious as anything this side of "The Sound of Silence," then he flips a bossa nova type Stan Getz sample for a few bars before the harmonies of the chorus set in.
After that, he drops his patented drums, which hit hard enough to balance the delicate bed he has already laid. Those trademark drums are what will live on the longest from his tragically shortened life. His sumptuous, full kicks always sounded live in their richness and soulfulness, and they were a serendipitous pairing with his more artificial-sounding snares, which were hard--in the technical sense, as in not having that white noise quality Timbo ushered in--and sometimes filtered, sometimes just sampled in part before the true duration of the hit had ended. In short, that clipped snare sound that Kanye ripped off.* That high-end is the sort of thing that could come off as rushed and amateurish but instead smacks of spontaneity and enthusiasm. Musically, it's like finishing each measure with a question mark, which is kind of what "Runnin'" calls for.
Throughout the song, Dilla builds with some water-logged scratches and a descending slap bass line, but that crux at the beginning sticks around. I'm not sure I could quote you anything from the song's verses from memory; the boys are pretty much keeping up with Dilla's beat rather than the beat keeping time with their lyrics.
I guess that's my point. The Pharcyde sound fantastic here because they're letting the beat and the melody take center stage. No matter what nonsense Fatlip or Imani says, they sound sensitive and pensive over this production. That's what I mean when I say that rap doesn't sound like this anymore. People are so worried about putting themselves out there and making a name for themselves that they do it in disservice to the music overall. They don't want to let the mood of the beat dictate their own message, yet the convergence of the two is exactly what makes a successful rap song. That's why a song like "Throw Some D's" was a hit: because Rich Boy wasn't stupid enough to mess up the emotion that was already there.
This wasn't meant to be any kind of public service announcement about how hip-hop is dead and everything. I just love this song.
*- If it makes him feel better, no one's handclaps are as good as his.