As quick as many West Coast purists are to dismiss Def Jam’s futile efforts to promote their West Coast roster in the mid-90s, it’s hard to dispute the quality of the acts they signed. Looking to supplement their largely New York-based artists with equally potent California rhymers, they inked established regional vets from across the state, including such beloved but largely forgotten names as Oakland’s Richie Rich; Long Beach’s Warren G, Twinz, Domino, and the Dove Shack; WC, South Central Cartel, and BG Knocc Out & Dresta from Los Angeles; and San Diego’s own Jayo Felony. While these rappers failed to match the sales figures of their East Coast labelmates and each left the label on poor terms, their output during their respective Def Jam tenures ranks among their best material, and each was able to release quality music with wide distribution even if the quantities moved seemed unbefitting of such a power label. The catalog amassed during this period comprises an underrated legacy of singles and albums, but with most of the pressings falling out of print it looks as if Def Jam’s left coast experiment will remain just that.

Arguably the first and only rapper from San Diego to break the national consciousness, Jayo Felony offered a bleak view of the West side of things at a time when most of his contemporaries were concerned with little other than crippin’ and creepin’. His 1995 debut “Take a Ride” is a lean, mean offering of anthems, narratives, and monologues mostly concerning incarceration. During a year in which California’s prison population reached new heights and the controversial three-strike law mandated time behind bars for repeat offenders regardless of the crime, the content proved timely and relevant, if only to a certain subset of the population. He wastes no time getting down to business, introducing the listener into his penitentiary-molded world on the opener “The Loc Is on His Own,” dedicated to inmates of the California Youth Authority:

“I caught another case, so the loc needs bail
But your people act funny when you’re sittin’ in a cell
I didn’t get mail so jail was like hell
Out of anger, I shank ’em in the neck in the stairwell
I remember, pot or ‘caine we used to rock up
It was a trip on how I got locked up
Ten saltine crackers runnin’ at me with yellow coats
Yellin’, ‘Don’t move or catch a hot one to the throat’
You learn real fast to put your hands up quick, black
Yo, just put an ‘out of order’ sign on your bozack
I didn’t twitch, scratch or itch
They found a nine in my inside pocket, ain’t that a bitch?
A short and quick trip to the county, straight drama
The first call I make was collect to my mama
I didn’t go see her before I went to jail
But now I want her to come visit, send money orders, and post bail
‘Til I remember that I’m grown, so now I gotta handle it myself, fool
The loc is on his own”

“The Loc Is on His Own” presents an apocalyptic vision of grudge-holding cops, back-stabbing friends, and a corrupt prison system that dooms inmates to danger inside and failure outside, with an ominous, gloomy beat that vividly sets the scene for “Take a Ride.” With a chattery, rapid sing-song flow that might be most reminiscent of a thugged-out Coolio, Jayo takes the listener on a violent trip through Southeast S.D. on “I’ma Keep Bangin'” and explores a world divided between a cycle of jail and probation on “Homicide,” one for which the tendency toward crime is natural and the rare reprieve is provided by drugs, as noted on the smooth single “Sherm Stick,” drawing its sample from Teddy Pendergrass’ “Come Go With Me”:

“In the men’s bathroom, fool let me have room
Make sure I light it right, so it won’t go boom
I took four hard hits, and passed it to the next man
Now it seems like I got powers like the X-Men
Sittin’ on the curb, for four fuckin’ hours, dog
Thinkin’ bout my homie in the pen, li’l boss hog
Damn near dead, ready to head to the tilt
My homegirl woke me up with a carton of milk
I’m glad I didn’t get caught slippin’ when I was sleepin’
On them fools on the other side, they call themself creepin’
But see sucka, I’m from the gangsta nation crew
And everybody knows what the fuck we go’n do”

Listeners may be surprised to learn that the dark, distinctly West Coast funk of “Take a Ride” is largely supplied courtesy of none other than Jam Master Jay, who turned toward producing other artists during Run-D.M.C.’s hiatus from recording in the ’90s. The sparse, industrial-sounding beats provide an unmistakable sense of gloom about the tracklist, with spare percussion, murky basslines, and swirling, whiny synthesizers. “Niggas and Bitches” (rebadged for radio as “Brothas and Sistas”) tends toward the somber and soulful, while “Can’t Keep a G Down,” “Funk 2 the Head,” and the highlight “Bitch I’m Through” are heavier g-funk.

Throughout “Take a Ride” Jayo impresses as a particularly engaging lyricist, and his verses each seem to have a predetermined purpose. While some of the street and prison tales may seem a tad redundant, the energy he displays on “They Got Me on Medication” makes it memorable:

“Somebody help me before another body’s found
The Thorazine they prescribed doesn’t calm me down
I fiend for the fuckin’ sound of the paramedics
I’m shootin’ up more needles than a sugar diabetic
I don’t wanna go to sleep because I’m sufferin’ delusions
Hallucination, paranoia and confusions
Why the fuck do I drive around in a hearse
But the symptoms start showin’ way back at this child’s birth
Then at the age of six this fool tried to play me soft
He took my toy and I cut his little sister’s fingers off
My mama whooped my ass ’cause she knew I was tweakin’
‘Cause I dropped to my knees and said, ‘Thanks for the beatin”
Is it flashbacks from the loop
Because I’m peelin’ busta niggas’ caps as if it was a fruit
The loc is on his own and my mind is racin’
Two hundred fuckin’ miles an hour, they got me on medication”

“Take a Ride” closes with its title track, a song that while not quite in tune with the rest of the tracklist is nonetheless a classic party cut, with a space-age funk track and charismatic verses from Felony. JMJ’s beat and the P-Funk-esque chorus are infectious, and it’s hard to argue with Jayo as he commands, “Leave yo’ strap in the trunk, it’s all about the funk / Take a ride.”

With his debut, the Bullet Loco set himself apart from the legion of faceless gangsta rappers dominating airwaves in ’95, impressing as a San Diego G with something to say. Fifteen years after its release, listeners will find that it still hits hard and mandates minimal use of the skip button. Jayo would record one more album for Def Jam before becoming increasingly less visible as an independent artist, but for those who missed it in ’95, the strong beats and captivating rhymes on Jayo’s debut should inspire listeners from the 619 all the way to the 617 to “Take a Ride.”

Jayo Felony :: Take a Ride
8Overall Score