Cypress Hill rail against the state of modern hip-hop. “In a world where this particular genre of music has thrown substance out the window, there are those of us who strive to still make something that says something,” says B-Real, who has done just that for three decades the frontman of these Californian hip-hop giants. “You have all this shit out there that talks about what you have and what you want in terms of materialistic things. We’ve always felt compelled to speak out about the realities of life. That’s where we came from, from that first Cypress Hill album to the end.”
Some would say they’ve earned the right to be overly critical. One of the biggest hip-hop bands of all time, the trio mixes funk and hard rock-influenced rap with inflammatory lyrics about the horrors of gang violence and the benefits of marijuana, and have sold more than 20 million albums since forming in 1988.
Her eponymous debut album, released in 1991, immediately established her as a musician with a message. They were one of the first hip-hop groups to rap in Spanish slang and celebrate their Cuban and Mexican heritage, and their vocal advocacy of marijuana helped push for legalization in California. The rap/rock crossover that was to follow in the late ’90s can also be laid right at their feet. In fact, you can blame Cypress Hill for Limp Bizkit.
As his chosen stage name suggests, B-Real – born Louis Freese – was driven by a passion to tell the truth about what it was like to grow up in Los Angeles in the late 80’s. But his musical career almost didn’t materialize. At 17, B-Real was shot and killed at a gang-related drive-by in south LA. A .22 caliber hollow point bullet ricocheted off a wall, piercing his lung and leaving shards near his heart and spine. He was lucky to be alive and, in his opinion at least, almost as lucky to survive when he was taken to the now-closed Martin Luther King Jr Community Hospital, which after a string of stories of preventable deaths from poor patients as “Killer King” is known to care. With members of the rival Bloods and Crips gangs both treated there, the hospital has often been a war zone. After doctors drained the blood from his lungs, B-Real was smuggled out by friends with bullet fragments still lodged in his body. Last year tres equis, In a graphic novel reminiscence of the early days of Cypress Hill, he escapes from the hospital by being placed in a body bag. Today he tells me that at least part of it was poetic liberty. “I had to sneak out, it just wasn’t a body bag,” he says, laughing. “I’m too claustrophobic for that!”
Intense experiences like these are burned into the storytelling of Cypress Hill. Their first album took listeners to the streets of South Gate, a predominantly Hispanic, working-class neighborhood southeast of downtown Los Angeles. It established their signature sound: Muggs’ production layered wailing sirens over slowed-down funk, while B-Real’s nasal rapping – delivered as if waiting to exhale a puff of smoke – contrasted with Sen Dog’s deep, gruff vocals. The album kicked off with “Pigs,” on which they called out the corrupt police, before the song that garnered them national attention was the searing “How I Could Just Kill A Man.” It was her way of explaining to the world how young men could become involved in gang violence.
“Back then, people outside of Los Angeles were like, ‘Why are they killing each other?'” explains B-Real. “It’s the lack of opportunities for the kids out there,” he says, adding that while gang violence (known as gang-banging) has declined since it peaked in the 1990s, many problems remain unchanged. “There are no programs to keep them off the streets and many of them come from broken families. You also have to realize that some of the gangsters, their fathers were veterans who came back with problems and had no help from the government, no help from the state, no help from anyone. Their kids have been on the streets looking for various mentors and not all of their teachers are going to teach them good shit in life. Especially in areas where gang banging and drug trafficking are rampant. Now if you’re asking, ‘Why are these guys killing each other?’ Well, those are some of the damn reasons. Only slightly.”
After celebrating the 30th anniversary of their debut last year, Cypress Hill are releasing their 10th album this week, back in black, a collaboration with Detroit-born rapper and producer Black Milk. There will be one more after that, one final hooray where B-Real and fellow rapper Sen Dog reunite with original Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs.
“The next album after this will be the last traditional Cypress Hill album,” reveals B-Real over the phone from LA, though he’s quick to clarify that this won’t be the end of the group. “After that we will still make music. We won’t stop, not for nothing, but we want to change the experience. Putting out an album isn’t what it used to be and people’s attention span these days revolves around songs. We traditionally like to take people on a journey with the album, and that’s harder these days.”
Sen Dog – born Senen Reyes – met B-Real at Bell High School. In 1988 the couple formed Cypress Hill with DJ Muggs – real name Lawrence Muggerud – who had recently relocated to LA from New York. “How I Could Just Kill A Man” was one of the first tracks the trio made together while working late into the night at Muggs’ apartment. On the phone from his Las Vegas home, Sen Dog recalls that at first they weren’t sure if the track was good. “That night we had one of our friends from our neighborhood there,” he recalls. “Muggs drove us all home and in the car our friend disregarded this song. We ended up dropping him off at his house, walked a few blocks, and bought a $20 bag of indica weed. We shot it, started smoking and then played the song again. Suddenly it just jumped out of the damn car. We were like, ‘Oh man, that’s freaking beautiful.’”
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The grass probably didn’t hurt. Cypress Hill have always been avid supporters of cannabis and soon realized it could help them differentiate themselves from other hip-hop acts. “We read high times Magazine,” recalls B-Real. “We weren’t out there like all the other gangsta rap groups in Los Angeles. Our sensitivity and the way we approached sex was a little different. Muggs said, “We could be the Cheech and Chong of hip-hop!” and it just went from there.”
They leaned towards the stoner image of the 1993s Black Sunday with smoker anthems like “I Wanna Get High”, “Legalize It” and “Hits From The Bong”. Her second album was even more successful than her debut, selling over a quarter of a million copies in its first week alone. “I still remember getting it billboard [magazine] and Cypress Hill at #1 over Janet Jackson, over U2,” recalls Sen Dog. “I was like, ‘This can’t be true.'” B-Real blinked in the spotlight. “It was quite a culture shock for me because I wasn’t the most popular guy in school or in my group of friends or anything,” he says. “Going from being virtually unknown to not being able to walk in the mall was quite an experience. Luckily we were able to put the right work ethic behind it, learn what it was about and grow as men, grow as artists and create another great work alongside this.”
In 1996, Cypress Hill’s place in pop culture was cemented when they received one of America’s most important cultural awards. They were immortalized in it The simpsons. The group, who appear in the “Homerpalooza” episode alongside Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins, end up stealing Peter Frampton’s orchestra before getting a “nice toast” at an animated version of the Lollapalooza festival. B-Real says they were loyal fans of the show even before they got the gig. “We thought that was great, man. It lives forever and people are still looking at it, so it’s one of a lot of things where we can be like, ‘F***, we were a part of it.'”
At a time when hip-hop groups have become scarce, Cypress Hill’s consistency and longevity is a rare achievement. “The best part was that we did it together,” says Sen Dog. “We had no idea how far our music could go, or what frontiers we could reach, or what doors we could break down.” Also on new album Back in black Their music still sounds as grounded and riotous as it did in the early days. It’s a record rejecting 2018’s journey into psychedelia, elephants on acid, in favor of a return to their roots and a hard-edged boom-bap sound that underpins an exploration of contemporary politics and cannabis culture. (“Did you see the news? They legalized in California / But the government’s still trying to pressure you,” B-Real raps on the standout track “Open Ya Mind.”)
This May they will embark on an extensive tour of North America with heavy metallers Slipknot. B-Real says he’s excited to bring Cypress Hill’s music and message to a new generation. “As a young artist you play for your peers and never realize you’re getting older!” he says with a wry laugh. “Now we’re seeing people our age bringing their kids and that’s a great thing. Bands are passed on as a tradition because people say to their kids, “That’s what you want to hear, because this shaped what you’re hearing now.” It’s happened to many bands before us. They would say, “This is Led Zeppelin,” “This is the Beatles,” and “This is the Rolling Stones.” When it comes to hip-hop, you’re like, ‘This is Cypress Hill.’”
“Back In Black” will be released on March 18th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/cypress-hill-interview-b-real-sen-dog-b2015680.html Cypress Hill: “The next album will be our last”