DJ Muggs woke up one morning with a revelation: He had to go to Egypt. At the time, the influential producer, who lives in Los Angeles, was just beginning to compile musical ideas for Cypress Hill‘s recently released ninth album, Elephants on Acid. Muggs told his friend Fredwreck, himself a noted producer (Eminem, Snoop Dogg) who has worked for MTV Arabia in Dubai. “He was like, what??”
Weeks later, the two set out for Cairo, which was still adjusting from the aftereffects of the Arab Spring. Muggs initially wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he loved the “energy and the rawness” of the city’s slums, and he recorded with local street musicians. “I was driving one day, and I heard this music on the radio. I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ They said it’s called [mahragan]. I go, ‘What’s that mean?’ They go, ‘It means the parties. It’s music that came out after the revolution. It’s the new music of the youth.’ I go, ‘I want to do something like this on the Cypress record.” That led him to Sadat and Alaa Fifty Cent, two leading progenitors of Shaabi — Egyptian street music.
“They came to the house, we hung out for a few days,” says Muggs. “We smoked hash, we drank coffee, talked shit, rolled out.” The trio eventually created the roots of “Band of Gypsies,” the first vocal cut on Elephants on Acid and the album’s lead single, which finds Sadat lilting in Arabic. The song fuses two smoked-out sensibilities that Muggs dubs “Cairo-fornia.”
DJ Muggs’ journey to Elephants on Acid started five years ago with a different subconscious revelation, an out-of-body dream that he was a man with an elephant head. “When I woke up, I remembered the whole thing, like, bit for bit for bit,” says the producer, who adds that he has studied dreams for years, and keeps logs of his own night visions. “Basically, what happened was, Elephants on Acid was born.”
Don’t bother asking DJ Muggs what it means, though. “I’ll leave it open for interpretation,” he says. “Nothing’s logical here. This is to open up portals in your imagination and for you to come up with your own answers.”
The mystery of Muggs’ vision has blossomed into Cypress Hill’s most enigmatic and psychedelic album to date. The multi-platinum hip-hop band, which also includes rappers B-Real and Sen Dog and longtime percussionist Eric Bobo, has long dabbled in mind-bending tones. Their 1995 fan favorite III: Temples of Boom included “Illusions,” where B-Real portrayed a mentally disturbed malcontent lost in a marijuana haze, and the sitar-festooned “Red Light Visions”— but they’ve never constructed anything as deeply hazy and abstract as this, with its hints of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s semi-autobiographical phantasmagorias, H.R. Giger’s alien apocalypses and Salvador Dalí’s bizarre surrealism. For a group now entering its 30th year together, it’s an impressive demonstration of how the hip-hop icons continue to craft vital artistic work.
But Elephants on Acid, which is Cypress Hill’s first full-length album in eight years, is also the result of a journey that found the longtime friends traveling the world on increasingly separate paths. With each founding member more focused on separate musical and entrepreneurial ventures, the brand that brought them worldwide renown threatened to fade into memory.
“When I was approaching this particular album Elephants on Acid, I thought it would be my last one in recording a Cypress album. We’ve been around for 30 years, and we’ve done every possible thing there is to do,” says B-Real. “I thought if we were going to close the book, we would have to do it in such a way that our fans would go apeshit.”
“What I do, man, is that I travel constantly. Music is entwined with my life,” says DJ Muggs. “Music is my meditation. It’s where I find peace.”
After a month journeying between Cairo, Aswan and Luxor, Muggs visited the Dead Sea in Jordan. Upon his return to the United States, he went to Joshua Tree National Park for a two-week session with the indescribable experimental vocalist Gonjasufi, resulting in two of Elephant on Acid’s strongest tracks, “Jesus Was a Stoner” and “Blood on My Hands Again.”
While Muggs ventured around the globe, Sen Dog prepared to lead Powerflo, a metal supergroup he formed with Biohazard’s Billy Graziadei, ex-Fear Factory bassist Christian Olde Wolbers, downset’s Rogelio Lozano and Worst drummer Fernando Schaefer. It’s not his first foray into hard rock — fans of the Cuban émigré and Latin hip-hop pioneer will remember his funk-rock project SX-10 as well as 2000’s solo bow Mad Dog American released on his Latin Thug imprint.
Still, hearing Powerflo’s mix of agit-rap, thrash metal and punk attitude is a revelation to those who only know Sen Dog from his Cypress Hill joints. His vocals are clear and sharp, and he drives the band’s full-throttle crunch like a natural-born frontman. His words on “Crushing That,” a highlight from Powerflo’s 2017 self-titled debut, hold special resonance: “I don’t mind being the one that’s slept on/But I will never be the doormat that you step on.”
Sen Dog is keenly aware that the public tends to underrate his contributions to Cypress Hill, whether it’s playing hype man or simply offering a gruff, stentorian counterpunch to B-Real’s famously nasal vocals. “My approach to that [Powerflo album] was just being as honest with myself as I could be, and not being scared of writing a lyric or two that might be personal,” he says. “I’ve never been a very high-profile rapper, or anything like that. For the most part, people view me as a hype guy for Cypress. And that’s cool and everything. I’ve experienced that through my life. If that’s what it is, that’s fine. But the lyric ‘I don’t mind being the one that’s slept on …,’ personally, that’s life. This is something that every person should install in their program: not being anybody’s doormat or punching bag.”
Last summer, Powerflo toured throughout Europe with Body Count, among others. “We had a great summer,” says Sen Dog, adding that Ice-T brought him onstage to perform “Cop Killer” every night. He recalls an afternoon slot at Hellfest Open Air, a “big-ass festival” in Clisson, France, as a noted highlight. “It was very uplifting, reenergizing my life, this experience that I’ve had with Powerflo,” he adds. The band released an EP of remixes in June, Bring That Shit Back! They’re working on a new album of material for possible 2019 release.
B-Real, the lead voice of Cypress Hill, also stayed busy during Cypress Hill’s hiatus. (The group’s last release was Cypress x Rusko, an EP-length dubstep experiment with Rusko in 2012.) He has issued numerous projects — mixtapes with San Francisco rapper Berner, a solo mixtape called The Prescription, and innumerable guest shots with Snoop Dogg, A$AP Ferg and others.
His most high-profile side project is Prophets of Rage, an ambitious rock-rap supergroup with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. The all-stars landed like a bomb at the 2016 Republican National Convention with The Party’s Over, a EP that gave voice to the insurrection of Bernie Sanders’ supporters. They’ve since followed with a 2017 self-titled full-length, and the noisily anthemic July single “Hearts Afire.”
B-Real has long been something of a political figure himself. In an era when alcohol and tobacco corporations are sniffing around the marijuana industry, and former U.S. House Majority Leader John Boehner has joined a cannabis corporation to lobby for federal legalization, it’s easy to forget that Cypress Hill drew widespread ridicule and condemnation when they aligned with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws early in the Nineties. Law enforcement harassed them, and they lost business opportunities, as well. More subtly, Cypress Hill’s legacy suffered: Many still dismiss them as a talented “weed rap” group, instead of one of the most dynamic and popular hip-hop groups to emerge from the waning years of the genre’s Golden Age.
“We were stereotyped,” he says. “Those were some of the sacrifices that we made for standing up for cannabis. We got labeled, left out of certain things and demonized for ‘promoting drugs to the kids’ and all this sort of shit.”
“We opened the floodgates. Rappers didn’t talk about weed when Cypress Hill came out,” says Muggs. While others dropped subtle shout-outs to “cheeba cheeba,” no one scored a major rap hit about weed until Cypress Hill infiltrated the charts with 1993’s “Insane in the Membrane.” Their subsequent struggles with law enforcement led to the metaphorical Elephants on Acid track “Jesus Was a Stoner.” “When [B-Real] says Jesus was a stoner, born in Southern California, he says Babylon’s on the corner, that means the cops are on the corner. He says, Why are they trying to stone us? That means, why are they trying to shoot us?”
The growing decriminalization of cannabis — it’s now legal for recreational use in nine states — is undoubtedly vindication for B-Real, who opened his Dr. Greenthumb’s dispensary in Sylmar in August. But he doesn’t have much use for joining the wave of industry corporatization. “It’s bittersweet. You know that marijuana’s going to get accepted in such a way that it’s never been before. But that’s at the hands of the corporations, because they have the biggest distribution networks,” he says. “For me, I intend to keep my brand independent and self-funded, and keep doing it as long as we can have fun and be successful.”
Cypress Hill’s legacy is secure. You can trace a through line from their seminal 1991 self-titled debut and dusty, menacing classics like “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and “Hand on the Pump” to Wu-Tang Clan (who have collaborated with Cypress Hill on numerous projects), super-producer the Alchemist (an early protégé of DJ Muggs) and too many others to name here. They helped change the sound of hip-hop music. Meanwhile, B-Real and Sen Dog’s proud Latin identity and unabashed use of bilingual “Latin Lingo” lyrics remains a benchmark for a genre that is increasingly global and multicultural.
Which is why Elephants on Acid is such a shock. Cypress Hill seemed destined to ease into the role of elder statesman, content to regroup every few years for a festival run while B-Real, Sen Dog and DJ Muggs developed separate empires. Their 2010 album, Rise Up, a pleasing but uneven mix of pop-radio bait (“Armada Latino” with Pitbull and Marc Anthony), rap-rock rousers (the title track with Tom Morello) and throwbacks to their Nineties heyday (the Pete Rock–produced “Light It Up”), seemed like a formula they’d deploy for the foreseeable future. Few could have expected that the band would recommit to the type of innovative work they created long ago, much less a dense concept piece that has as many droning, Eastern-influenced Muggs instrumentals as it does vocal showcases for B-Real and Sen Dog.
“It’s not just me, B and Sen hanging out every night, y’know,” says Muggs. “Sen has four or five different things he’s doing, different bands. He has kids. He has grandkids. He lives in Las Vegas. B has a few different bands he’s doing. Ten different businesses. Kids. Myself, as well.” In fact, Muggs’ daughter Frankie Muggs appears on “Oh Na Na,” a bouncy number that might be the most pop-oriented cut on Elephants. (“We always try to have the upbeat shit to break all that darkness up,” says B-Real.)
DJ Muggs was noticeably absent on Rise Up, and only produced two tracks. Instead, he focused on forward-thinking Soul Assassins projects like this year’s Dia Del Asesinato and the Roc Marciano collaboration KAOS. So as B-Real and Sen Dog initially approached him about working on another album, he wondered if they just wanted a few beats for old time’s sake. “They were like, ‘We want you to do the whole album next time,'” says Muggs. “I was, like, ‘Cool, do you just want me to do the music, or do you want me? Do you want my thoughts?’ They were like, ‘No, we want you 100 percent involved in the whole album.'”
The two rappers quickly bought into Muggs’ concept. B-Real notes that the resulting album reminds him of III: Temples of Boom. But that “underdog” classic was also disturbingly violent, and rife with tales of gunfights and gang warfare. “We were going through some turmoil with management at the time. Within the group, there was a little bit of tension,” he says. “It was a very dark time for us.” Sen Dog even left the group at one point.
Elephants on Acid isn’t exactly benign, either. There are cuts like the lumbering trip-hop weirdness of “Falling Down” and lyrics like Sen Dog’s growl, “Got you scared of the dark/Frightened of the shadows, I’m the one who tests your heart.” But overall, Elephants on Acid is an introspective spiritual experience, and a journey into the inner mind’s eye — aided by good smoke, of course.
“It’s like a man fighting his demons between the good and evil in life,” says B-Real. “It’s also a dude looking for redemption.”
The triumphant return of Cypress Hill may come as surprise to fans who have waited patiently for new music. But for the three men who formed the group in South Gate in the late Eighties, then found worldwide success, their reunion seemed destined. The fact that Elephants not only feels like another joint, but a true return to form, only solidifies their lifelong camaraderie. “We still have passion and chemistry when we do it together,” says B-Real.
“We’re a brotherhood, man,” says Sen Dog. “[B-Real and I] were friends at 13, 14, 15 before any kind of record deal or turntable or microphone was around. This is a street-level friendship in the purest form, just hanging out, everybody putting in a dollar or two for a fucking dime bag of weed or something. That’s how far back it goes. By the time we became musicians, we were a family.”
For Sen Dog, this understanding provides a lens through which to interpret Muggs’ dream of five years ago. “My own interpretation of Elephants on Acid is a simple one,” says the rapper. “To me, an elephant is a sign of good luck. It’s something that’s going to fill up the room because it’s a dominant figure. It’s a large entity, you know what I mean? And I feel like B-Real, Muggs and myself, we’re the elephants. And this acid that these elephants are on is music that we’re giving you to trip out on when you smoke your weed and your blunts and have fun with your friends.”