via 48 Hills
When Cypress Hill smoked out the Fox Oakland on Friday October 27, the theme “Haunted Hill” was a fitting synthesis of Halloween weekend and the 30th anniversary of their monster sophomore album, Black Sunday. That 14-track record, released in 1993, helped change hip-hop’s trajectory, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (while their 1991 self-titled debut was still in the top 10). So for hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, it was a Bay Area home-away-from-homecoming for the LA outfit as emcees B-Real, Sen Dog, percussionist Eric Bobo, and DJ Lord gave the costume-clad crowd a fat puff of the Hill’s legendary discography.
Cypress Hill may be named after a Southern California street, but their pioneering cannabis advocacy and Latino representation—to say nothing of their outsized importance in rap—has always given them roots and rowdy audiences in the Bay Area. Since the group was unapologetic about their cannabis smoking at their inception, and the racist trope Latinos aren’t marketable in the mainstream was more entrenched than it is today, the Hill was considered underground phenomena despite having their music released through a joint venture with Columbia Records; Ruffhouse Record was a new label angling for credibility and Cypress Hill immediately proved to be their barrier breakers.
Still, all the aforementioned prevented Cypress Hill from regular radio spins. Since hip-hop is a Black-led art, marketing departments couldn’t fathom Latinos’ place in it, nor could they process that Afro-Latinos like Sen Dog exist. In addition, popular fear mongering about rap music attempted to drown out Cypress Hill’s vocal FTP (fuck the police) energy.
Fans, however, understood the multitudes Cypress Hill contained, and it meant an unstoppable momentum even if it came with grim packaging. Their music has always evoked the urban gothic, with their debut single “How I Could Just Kill a Man” setting the tone. The song grew in infamy via its inclusion on the Juice (1992) film soundtrack, offering insight into the psyche of Tupac Shakur’s electric performance as the wildcard antagonist in the film. Thus, hardcore hip-hop had great expectations for Black Sunday’s release. Street-reality rhymes carved out Cypress Hill’s landmarks on the rap map because the violence found on California’s streets from Los Angeles to the Bay Area at the time needed the catharsis Cypress Hill baked into track after track.
The way the West goes, so does the country. Their signature style furthered the notion West Coast rap was the real deal, and Black Sunday’s first single kicked in the doors previously closed to them. “Insane in the Brain” became a crossover hit, and the radio stations that previously ignored them could no longer do so; MTV aired the video in regular rotation, and the song remains their most synonymous track. It had everything Cypress Hill fans needed: a bass heavy beat, amped up rhymes, that cannabis haze PTSD edge. The unique feel of so messed up it’s funny, the gallows humor the hood clings to during trying times. Its hook’s simplicity, along with B-Real’s distinct voice, made a song about psychosis a fun kid’s bop for bilingual Latin kids across hoods in America.
From their notorious skull logo to the graphic designer Jay Papke’s iconic cover art for Black Sunday (a graveyard’s hill littered with crosses and tombstones in haunting lighting), Cypress Hill’s aesthetic is at home in metal circles, promising what B-Real and Sen Dog always deliver on the mic: heavyweight rap hard-hitters. See, Black Sunday’s cover art is borderline, if not outright, blasphemous in Latino Catholic households, and that’s always been part of Cypress Hill’s appeal. Factor in their pro-cannabis facts on the album’s insert and yeah, having the record was basically contraband. Anecdotally, whoever had Black Sunday in the early-to-mid-90’s San Francisco Mission District had currency (and that had to be the case across the Bay in Oakland too). It was an album made for cruising, for smoking, for house parties, or for the select few in the life Cypress Hill reflected, for doing dirt.