We live in an era of premature anniversaries and nostalgia-fueled hagiography. But Cypress Hill deserves every glowing retrospective. B-Real, Sen Dog and DJ Muggs have licked shots at pigs, rivals, and the DEA for 30 years. They’ve earned the right to reminisce, to remind you to genuflect before you enter the Temples of Boom or lay a blunt atop their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The Cypress Hill sound was inimitable and irrepressible from the beginning, a bicoastal sonic hybrid complemented with bilingual lyrics and localized slang. Muggs dialed back the Bomb Squad’s sonic maximalism, creating a barrage of psychedelic funk with a West Coast bent that would become progressively stranger and layered with each album, forever toeing the line between ominous and zany. The self-proclaimed Cheech & Chong of rap, B-Real and Sen Dog turned violent scenes from their native South Gate, CA into eerie, sometimes hilarious blacklight posters for the blunted ones to approach. Today, Cypress Hill are three-time Grammy nominees with four platinum albums — Cypress Hill, Black Sunday, III (Temples of Boom) and Skull and Bones — touring the world with their percussionist Eric Bobo and appearing on bills as diverse as Woodstock ‘94 and Hullabalooza. Their stamp on rap and pop culture is indelible.
Since the 30th anniversary of their self-titled 1991 debut last year, Cypress Hill has reflected on their career in the studio and on screen. Their new album, the Black Milk-produced Back in Black, casts a wistful and chest-beating glance to their formative years and many achievements. Black Milk’s lugubrious boom-bap also scores the group’s commentary on our pandemic present and pro-marijuana rhetoric informed by their respective forays into the cannabis industry. On the appropriate date of April 20, Showtime will air their career-spanning documentary, Cypress Hill: Insane in The Brain, which was directed by acclaimed photographer and the unofficial fifth member of Cypress Hill, Estevan Oriol.
SPIN spoke with B-Real and Sen Dog separately over the phone to discuss the group’s early career, the documentary, and Back in Black. There are backyard metal parties in South Gate, police car joyrides in Illinois, and discussions about the importance of experiencing an album as a “journey.” There are also plans for the next and final album from Cypress Hill. (The conversations have been combined, condensed, and edited for length and clarity.)
SPIN: The Cypress Hill aesthetic — the combination of psychedelic, stoner, and metal imagery — seemed fully formed from day one. Were there a lot of discussions about your visuals?
Sen Dog: We looked at Black Sabbath’s first album, the one with the old man on the front and no band members. It was like, “What am I looking at?” We wanted to be like that. We didn’t want to show ourselves. If you look at our first album cover, you can’t see any of our faces. This was at a time when hip-hop was pretty and clean and everybody was on their album cover with fresh Nikes and gear. We look like we’re having a liquor party in some kind of alley or something. It was definitely a discussion about being dark and mysterious.
B-Real: It was Muggs’s experience producing 7A3 and having a concept. Before, we were writing whatever songs came to mind and just vibing, which we still do today. But in his time with 7A3, [Muggs] learned that the production has to be cohesive, you have to have a concept, you have to have a logo that stands out and represents you — something iconic. He brought some of that to the table, and it helped Sen Dog and I focus on that goal. It sort of happened organically. It wasn’t like we planned that we were going to be “the Cheech and Chong of hip-hop.” It was a revelation after some of the songs that we were doing. In terms of the metal imagery and vibe, that’s because the three of us listened to a lot of different things growing up: funk, punk, metal, reggae and eventually hip-hop. You have these little things that represent those influences in the dynamic, whether it’s the artwork, certain sounds that Muggs might add to a song, or our overall “We don’t give a fuck” attitude, which is very punk rock. All those culminated in the Cypress Hill vibe.
We were just being ourselves. Fortunately, Ruffhouse Records and Sony allowed us to be ourselves. More importantly, they allowed Muggs to command the ship. They didn’t try to throw other producers at us or undermine him. They actually saw the vision that we had and the talent that Muggs had as a producer to put an album together and make it a journey. That was key. If they hadn’t believed in our vision, we would have probably sounded way different and flamed out in year three or four.
Who came up with the concept for the logo of the skull pierced by four arrows?
Sen: Muggs had come back from some meetings with people in New York, and he was like, “We need a logo. We need this. We need that.” I was always into heavy metal artwork. Growing up in South Gate, there was a lot of heavy metal there. In school, guys would wear Dio and Iron Maiden shirts, and they caught my attention. My only input was, “We should do something heavy metal-ish.” And then we gave our idea to this artist, and he came back to us with everything that we wanted on there.
There were [metal] bands everywhere in South Gate. When you went to parties, it might be a DJ party or a rock and roll party with guys playing their instruments in the backyard. The music levels in that city were incredible at that point because you had metalheads, hard rock dudes, b-boys breakdancing and pop-locking, and some people just barely starting to rap. I went to these metal parties just to get drunk or smoke, but I started paying attention to the music. I became more of a metalhead as the years progressed. The first concert that I ever went to, I was 15 or 16 years old. My partner in my science class invited me to a show at the quad in South Gate. My partner’s name was David [Lombardo], and they played a bunch of songs. Little did I know that that band would become Slayer.
What did it mean to you to have Estevan Oriol direct the documentary?
B-Real: I couldn’t have envisioned anyone else doing it. He’s one of us. He’s our brother, and he lived it with us for a very long fucking time. He was there through the times that we didn’t have Sen. He was there through the times we didn’t have Sen and Muggs. It’s not really addressed in the documentary, but there were times that he filled in for Muggs on the turntables. He knew the ride, and I don’t think another director can tell it as he can tell it. He was on stage and on the bus with us. He was there through the really good times and the really shitty times. As far as who could tell the story best, if it ain’t me or Muggs telling, it would have to be Estevan.
Is there any footage in the documentary that holds a special place in your heart?
Sen: When I see the footage from Woodstock ’94, I’m like, “I can’t believe we actually did that.” There were so many people there. After so many years of touring, some shows slip away. But when I saw [the Woodstock footage], it almost took me back to that same day. It was the first Woodstock since the original, so we felt like rock gods. B-Real smoked a big joint on stage, and when we got off Steven Tyler was standing there waiting to meet us. He walks up to us and goes, “Hey, man, was that a big ass bone you guys were smoking up there?” I’d never heard someone refer to a joint as a bone.
B-Real: There’s footage that holds a special place in my heart, but I don’t think it made the documentary. We were playing in upstate Illinois, I think in Rockford. We were going to this little plaza that had a movie theater, and we bought out the movie theater — like rock stars do sometimes. We told the guy not to open the door because we were going to smoke inside this fucking theater. We did, and we tipped him a few hundred dollars for that. As we’re walking back to our hotel — which was just down the street — we see like five or six Rockford police cars by our bus. We’re like, “Oh shit, this fucking guy dimed us out. We should go back and beat his ass up before we go to jail.” But we decided to see what would happen.
So as we’re getting close to the hotel, they pop out on us. The lead officer says. “Hey, you guys are Cypress Hill, right?” And reluctantly, we say, “Yes.” He goes, “My grandson is a fucking huge fan. I was wondering if you could take a picture with me so I could send it to him.” We’re like, “Fuck yeah.” So we give him a picture and he’s like, “You guys are fucking cool as hell. What if we give you an escort to your gig tomorrow? I’ll get some squad cars up here, and we’ll escort your bus Elvis style.” We’re like, “Hell yeah.” This was the first time any law enforcement was being fucking cool with us, but none of us believe it’s going to happen after they leave. We thought maybe he was just pulling our fucking chain.
But when we get up in the morning and we head to the bus, there are four squad cars out there ready to go. Then he pops out and says, “I know we were going to give you an escort, but why don’t you pick another one of your guys and two of you drive the squad cars in. We’re like, “Fuck yeah.” So I jumped in one driver’s seat, Muggs jumps in the other patrol car’s driver’s seat. Estevan jumps in the back of mine, and Alchemist jumps in the back of Muggs’s. We rolled through the city with the wailers on, punching it hard. I went from sitting in the back of police cars to driving one. That was fucking awesome. I’ll never forget that. Estevan and Alchemist have their versions of that footage, but I don’t know when that will see the light of day. We don’t want to get those folks in trouble, even though it was close to 20 years ago.
The documentary discusses the fact that you were one of the first rap groups to smoke weed on stage. How often were you harassed by police and/or arrested for smoking so publicly when weed wasn’t legal?
B-Real: To the credit of law enforcement, they never harassed us. I think I got one ticket for smoking on stage in Denver before it was legal. It was during the tour with Rage Against the Machine, the Pharcyde and L7. I smoked on stage and they waited until the end to give me a citation. But for the most part throughout our 30 years, law enforcement let us do our thing. Some of them might’ve been fans, but I don’t know if they didn’t believe what we were smoking up there was actual cannabis. Who knows? I’ll never know why they didn’t fuck with us. God is good. He had our back the whole way. It’s unexplainable. When you think about songs like “Pigs” or our overt representation of cannabis, you’d think that in the places we were playing early on that we would’ve gotten fucked with a lot more.
Were there any parts of your career or your life that were uncomfortable to revisit?
Sen: There was a time when I had trouble touring. I would show up a day late and leave a day early — or halfway through. When my body said I was done, I was done. I had a bad case of anxiety back in those days. I felt like I couldn’t really breathe and needed to go somewhere and just be me. Unfortunately, if you went to see Cypress Hill in those days, you might not have seen me depending on how I felt. I didn’t want to talk about it, but [Estevan] asked me. I’m glad that I was able to explain that to fans who went to see Cypress Hill and didn’t see me. I was having a hard time transitioning from growing up in Southgate for 25 years and then all of a sudden everybody knew my face and name everywhere I went. It was hard for me, which led to over two years of not being in the band. Luckily, B-Real kept the pedal to the metal, and when I came back we did so many tours and shows that my anxiety just went away. I don’t even know when.
Sen, you take the lead verse on many Back in Black songs? How did it feel to flip the dynamic? Was there any pressure?
Sen: Not really. We’ve been doing Cypress Hill records forever. When we were doing demos, it didn’t matter who came out first. When we got further established and B-Real came up with the outstanding flows, we thought we should feature him more. When we went into the studio, B was like, “I want you to do the first verse on this.” I was like, “Are you sure?” We thought it was a different approach to the same old thing and it shows how deep our tandem goes. There’s more than one way to marry our two voices.
What do you think Back in Black adds to your catalog?
Sen: I think it shows that we still have the ability to connect to our hip-hop roots. The language on there is a bit more cerebral than in the past, as far as when we’re talking about the legalization movement and the laws and the Feds and all that stuff. We’ve learned a lot about that so that all comes into play on this record.
Black Milk is the first producer outside Muggs and Rusko to produce an entire Cypress Hill album. Why did you feel he was the right fit for Back in Black?
B-Real: I’ve been a fan of his production for a long time. He comes from J Dilla’s school. I was talking about collaborating with him, and then it sort of went away. Then the conversation happened again, but this time with Cypress. As the songs started to progress and we got four songs, we’re like, “We need more. This is pretty damn good.” Milk being a student of the game and a historian and a dope-ass producer, I think he got the vibe of what he thought Cypress Hill would sound like in the now, as opposed to what a lot of producers try to do when they do a collab with me. They want to produce a Cypress-like song, as opposed to doing them for Cypress — and that’s a big difference. If we wanted someone to produce a Cypress-style track, we’d just call Muggs, go to the source of greatness. But we’re trying to do something different. “What would your vibe be for Cypress? Erase the 30 years you know of us. What do you think our sound would be right now?” To me, I thought he hit that fucking really well in terms of the boom-bap style along with the slight edge of darkness as it relates to Cypress. He got it.
But we are going to do another album after this with Muggs. I plan to do just one more album with Cypress Hill. After that, we’re looking to create a different experience than just putting these albums out. The climate has changed, and you rack your head to make this fucking album, and — unless you do the Taylor Swift or Adele thing and make them buy the full album — people pick and choose the songs they want from the album. We’ve always been into creating the journey, so if you’re not getting the full album, you’re not getting the full fucking journey. So we’re going to try to create a different Cypress Hill experience, and Muggs and I are working on it now.
So much of Back in Black is an examination of your past as much as it is a reminder of what you’ve accomplished. Why did you feel compelled to take stock of your career on this one?
B-Real: Sometimes you have to reflect and remind yourself and others. As artists, we evolve, and certain music speaks to us a certain way. I’ve always subscribed to: whatever the music is telling me, that’s what I’m telling you. A lot of the music Black Milk provided brought back these memories and allowed us to be nostalgic while pushing forward into the new. We’re sort of bridging all this time — these 30 years — into where we are now. That was the goal of that.
Our last album was more of a conceptual, artistic piece on the behalf of DJ Muggs, and Elephants on Acid was very dark and psychedelic. It didn’t necessarily speak to the times that we are living in right now and the shit we’re all going through. We took time for Back in Black to be reflective times and in the now. And the next one, with Muggs producing, is going to be completely different. That’s what I love about Cypress Hill. We never stay one thing.