Top of the Hill
This spring, Los Angeles-based Cypress Hill will be honored with what's become a symbol of pop-cultural hipness: an animated guest appearance on The Simpsons. The pot-loving crew--front man B-Real, rapper Sen Dog, DJ Muggs and new percussionist Eric Bobo--have been turned into cartoons for the show's upcoming Lollapalooza episode, and a snippet of Cypress Hill's music will also be featured. So does that mean viewers will see Bart Simpson and the Hill sharing a blunt?
"Naw," B-Real responds, laughing. "They wouldn't even use the lyrics to our songs. We had to give them an instrumental version instead."
Some musicians would see this request as a slight, but not B-Real. He's amused that the mainstream is paying any attention to his band at all.
Back in 1990, Cypress Hill was just another South Central hip-hop group; when the members weren't running with local gangs, they were smoking more weed than the patients at a glaucoma ward. But their songs--like "Trigga Happy Nigga," later renamed "How I Could Just Kill a Man"--and their sound--a potent combination of speedy raps, hard beats and paeans to their one true love, marijuana--subsequently caught the attention of executives at Philadelphia's Ruffhouse label. Their self-titled debut was released the following year to little fanfare, but it quickly became an underground sensation spurred by "Hits From the Bong," "Stoned Is the Way of the Walk" and other salutes to sweet smoke.
The disc went on to sell 1.5 million copies, and earned for the players the title of official musical spokesmen for NORML (National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws). It also inspired virtually every other rap combo to start boasting about their chronic consumption. But B-Real claims not to be bothered by those outfits that have swiped Cypress Hill's trademark. Rather, he sees it as flattery. "In any form of music there's going to be imitators that come around and try to do your thing," he says. "And it's cool in a way, because it's going to be in everybody's ear all the time and it heightens the awareness, which is something we want. But on the other hand, people go, 'Oh, no, here comes another rapper talking about weed,' because they just want to make money off the subject. For us, pot is not something that's going to get played out or be trendy. When other people stop talking about it, we'll still be talking about it."
B-Real and company certainly didn't drop the topic on their followup to Cypress Hill, 1993's Black Sunday. The platter features more odes to marijuana, including "I Wanna Get High" (on which B-Real advises Bill Clinton "to go and inhale"), as well as cuts that either showcase their sense of humor or depict them as gun-crazed madmen. B-Real maintains that the tracks that fall into the last category aren't simply poses. "When I write songs it has to be about something I feel," he explains. "So when we started recording, all that gangsta stuff just came out. Because that affected me the most, feeling-wise."
That's no surprise: B-Real's formative years were filled with gang-related horrors. When he was a youth, his father survived a total of twelve gunshot wounds. And a few years later, B-Real himself took a bullet in the back during a drug deal gone bad--an experience he relates during Black Sunday's "Lick a Shot."
"That song was so moving and so sinister that it immediately made me think about that," he reveals. "When I heard the music and the beat, it just started flowing--how I got shot, how I had nightmares about it, shit like that. Certain beats take me right into my past."
Tracks like this one helped Black Sunday sell more than three million copies. Nonetheless, B-Real wasn't satisfied with the CD, in part because the band was pressured to record it quickly to capitalize on the first recording's popularity. "It was just a collection of songs," he says. "We didn't take the proper time we needed. We were proud of certain songs on it, but it wasn't anything in comparison to our first one or to the new album. III is an entire album, a whole cohesive project. We wanted to take it back to the essence of the first one."
Indeed, the early portions of Cypress Hill III (Temples of Boom) are strongly reminiscent of the act's first effort. For example, a voice intoning the phrase "The powers of the herb open up the mind" introduces "Spark Another Owl," which pays tribute to you-know-what. Aside from "Owl," however, III contains only one more reefer testimonial. Is it possible that Cypress Hill's interest in potent smokables is waning?
"Hell, no!" B-Real exclaims. "We feel as strongly as before, if not stronger. We actually did, like, five pot songs, but there's only two pot songs on the new album and a bonus track on the Japanese version." After promising that one of the numbers that didn't make the final cut (a how-to guide to growing marijuana) will surface before long, he notes that the group decided to tone down its advocacy to avoid being pigeonholed. "With the pot thing, it was just becoming the emphasis of the group. People were starting to say that we couldn't make good music without talking about it or smoking it. So we went ahead and made a few pot songs, because that's an issue we all care about, but there was a lot of other stuff on the album, too."
Most of that "stuff" probably won't appease critics of hip-hop, since its primary theme is street violence. B-Real attempts to justify the menacing, paranoid words on "Boom Biddy Bye Bye" and "Locotes" by pointing out that "you can't run from your past. And as negative as that lifestyle was, it taught me a lot of things. Lyrically, I wanted to get deeper into the things that have been affecting me these last couple of years. Whether it's positive or negative, I wanted to talk about it on this album and take it a step higher as far as the content."
Still, Cypress Hill is at its best when focusing on music--and the man who deserves most of the credit for the advances in this area is DJ Muggs. While many current producers favor densely layered textures and samples, Muggs doses III with trippy, minimalist beats. According to B-Real, "We wanted to make our sound deeper and stronger--something that people could really bug out over." Muggs succeeds on that count: He mixes the stark atmospherics of earlier Cypress Hill long-players with ambient synthesizer tones, ghostly wails, African drums, strums of sitar and samples ranging from the chants of Buddhist monks to Samuel Jackson's Ezekiel 25:17 speech from Pulp Fiction. The result is the perfect complement to B-Real's chronic-enhanced rhymes.
Muggs steps down from the production duties on one of III's offerings; Wu-Tang Clan's RZA is behind the boards for "Killa Hill Niggas," and he and fellow Clansman U-God also rap a few of the song's verses. But don't expect the band to collaborate with Ice Cube anytime soon. The Cypress Hill mob contributed to the soundtrack to the recent Cube film Friday, but as III's "No Rest for the Wicked" attests, B-Real now views him as an enemy. "He stole from us--from the song 'Throw Your Set in the Air'--because we let him hear it before the album came out," he argues. "We said, 'Check it out, we've got a few songs from the album,' and let him hear them." Two months later, B-Real continues, the chorus from "Set," as well as terminology unique to Cypress Hill, showed up in an Ice Cube original. "We called him up and he straight-up denied it," he adds.
Fortunately for Cypress Hill, rivalries sell almost as well in the world of rap as does praise for dope. But B-Real insists that he doesn't want this turf war to overshadow the accomplishments on III. "We just wanted to show people that we could make good music whether we were talking about pot or about life on the street," he says. "Now we've got the satisfaction of knowing we can hang with anybody."
Cypress Hill, with 311 and the Pharcyde. 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 27, Mammoth Events Center, 1510 Clarkson, $20, 830-
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