Pot Shots

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

Like most habitual dope smokers, the only party I can recall from the last twenty years is the one at which I puffed my first ever joint. Even then the details are hazy: I remember the host, Jim Walsh, arm-wrestling his pretty blonde girlfriend over a surfboard. I recall a green faced Rick Adams gulping down a pint of vodka thinking it was water and then spewing all over the garage door. And I remember the record on repeat that night, Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday, sounding better than pretty much anything I’d heard in my life.

Jim built his first bong soon after. Rick entered the school public speaking competition on the subject ‘Why Marijuana Should Be Legalised’, an argument he recited word for word from the Black Sunday sleeve notes without once looking up at the audience (he lost). As for me, I began the protracted descent into cannabis-induced psychosis that would smother my teens and twenties, years spent confined to couches and the safety of computer games, and in which contact with the outside world was kept to a minimum. Yet no such fate awaited Cypress Hill, who for a bunch of guys regularly exposed to gangs, guns and double-crossing drug dealers remain surprisingly paranoia free.

“We still smoke every day,” says Sen Dog in his laidback Latin drawl. “It’s a constant source of inspiration. From the very beginning we wanted to be part of the legalisation movement. We were party heads and huge Cheech and Chong fans, but we also had friends whose parents were hippies, and we’d go round their houses and they’d break shit down and teach us about what we were smoking. Not long after we met some Rastafarians who prayed for maybe thirty minutes before getting high. We were like, dude, there’s so much here we need to talk about. We didn’t want to just get on stage and be like: ‘Awesome, we’re stoned!’ We wanted to know our facts, and I’m glad we did, because it helped break down doors and move that old school mentality out of the picture.”

But if middle class British kids believed Cypress Hill had suddenly exploded into being amid a cloud of bong smoke and a fanfare of blunted beats, they were mistaken. Sen Dog and B Real first joined forces back in 1988, and from day one they were working on a formula that would help them stand out from the crowd. The bad cop/bad cop blend of B Real’s nasal delivery and Sen’s grunting baritone played a big part, as did their comic book rendering of the California badlands they called home.

“We did everything in direct opposition to what was going on at the time in the rap game,” says Sen. “In those days everybody had their faces plastered all over their album sleeves, trying to look all gangster with gold chains and shit, and we didn’t want any of that. It was also fashionable to rap about your culture and ethnicity, and we weren’t interested in that either – we figured it was pretty obvious just from looking at us that we were Spanish. So we decided to rap about who we were and what our lives were like, just ordinary days hanging out and partying with our friends.”

Black Sunday provided Cypress with crossover success previously unthinkable for a hip hop act

Not that Cypress Hill’s parties were much like Jim Walsh’s. There were more small arms skirmishes than arm-wrestling matches, more baseball bats than surfboards, and when Columbia finally released the group’s eponymous debit LP in 1991, they were clearly unsure how best to market so volatile a cultural commodity. As a result, How I Could Just Kill A Man – the heaviest track the album, albeit the one with the most antisocial refrain – was slipped out surreptitiously as a b-side to the more innocuous The Phunky Feel One. When the flip became a huge crossover hit with everyone from hood rats to Harvard college kids, Columbia saw the potential, bit the bullet and pushed for the release of the equally ghetto Hand On The Pump as the second single, complete with a murderous video featuring street beatdowns, shotgun assassinations and B Real, Sen Dog and (producer) Muggs stalking around a decayed housing estate. Almost overnight, Cypress Hill became America’s most wanted both in the hip hop charts and the shit lists of concerned parents.

“It was a strange time,” says Sen. “For every nine out of ten people that loved what we were doing there was one call into every radio show that was like ‘you people are wrong, children are listening to you’, and we had had a couple of shows that were picketed by Christian organisations and women’s groups. But we loved it. That sort of attention was exactly what we wanted, and from that point on we just laughed off every naysayer and finger-pointer that crossed our path. We knew we were on to something that would keep people talking, and it was the best publicity we could have hoped for.”

But Cypress Hill’s defining moment was still to come. In 1993 they released Black Sunday, an album as genetically modified to the smoker’s high as a skunk plant. It was the culmination of a style both musical and visual: the vaguely derivative ghetto funk of their debut had been replaced by Muggs’ eerie atmospherics and tape saturated beats, while the album’s lyricism and imagery established the group as dark prophets of the apocalypse – a role bolstered by the video for the Black Sabbath-sampling I Ain’t Goin Out Like That, which depicted them as grave diggers bearing torches and pursued by slavering devil dogs. Cypress Hill hadn’t tapped a nerve so much as mainlined a vein: the album entered the Billboard charts at number one before going on to sell 3.25 million copies worldwide.

Few rap groups had enjoyed comparable crossover success. Lead single Insane In The Brain became a stage-diving spectacle that smashed rock as well as rap clubs, and later that year Cypress Hill found themselves collaborating with both Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam on the soundtrack to forgettable action flick Judgement Night. For many it was the first inkling of the direction the group was about to take in its fusion of hip hop and hard rock, but for Sen Dog it was the culmination of a process that had begun long before the first album.

“We were fans of rock and heavy metal way before we were into hip hop. I remember when we were coming up with our first logo – the skull and spikes thing – we looked for inspiration to the posters we’d had on our walls growing up: the Doors, the Stones, Kiss and Aerosmith. By the time we were recording the second album we were looking at those bands and figuring out how we could present ourselves in the same way. We wanted to have the mystique of a Jimmy Page, the rowdiness of a Keith Moon, the destructiveness of a Jimi Hendrix. We wanted to get the turntables on stage and set fire to that shit.”

A college tour with Rage Against The Machine and slots at the ’94 and ’95 Lollapalooza festivals gave Cypress Hill the chance to do exactly that, and when they were banned from Saturday Night Live for trashing their instruments and sparking a joint on stage, they cemented their reputation as a rap group capable of rocking as hard as any guitar band.

True to their rock roots, Cypress Hill's live shows have long extolled the virtues of a good mosh

Not that they were quite ready to give up their ghetto roots. In 1995 they released Cypress Hill III: Temples Of Boom, widely regarded as their best record thanks to Muggs’ sparsely paranoid production and the album’s sinister, psychedelic imagery. It also served as a sparring ring for one of the most famous beefs in rap history: when Cypress refused or were contractually unable to let former friend Ice Cube use Throw Your Set In The Air for the soundtrack to his hood comedy Friday, Cube went ahead and recorded his own version. The ensuing spat led to a series of increasingly hostile diss tracks from both corners, with Cube laying a lyrical beatdown on the Westside Connection tune King Of The Hill, and Cypress replying in kind on the awesome No Rest For The Wicked, itself on the album.

Yet by the end of the decade the band had put battle rapping behind them and stepped on to a wider stage. Their 2000 LP Skull And Bones was a two-disc affair, with one CD (Skull) comprised of hip hop tracks and the other (Bones) heavily metal influenced, and featuring cameos from members of Fear Factory, Deftones and Rage Against The Machine. Tellingly, the lead single was either Rap Superstar or Rock Superstar depending whether you heard it on urban or mainstream radio. Hardcore hip hop fans plugged their ears and pretended the whole thing wasn’t happening, but Sen Dog couldn’t have cared less.

“We loved hip hop, we loved heavy metal, and we knew that the bands who have the most success are the ones who aren’t afraid to walk that edge and risk everything for the bigger reward. Sure, there were people in the hip hop community that wanted to talk shit about it at the time, but the alternative audiences took to it right away, and before long we’d look out into the crowd and the ethnic diversity was just staggering – we were playing to pretty much every race on the planet. I think rock ‘n’ roll definitely helped us grow stronger as artists, and it served as an example to kids growing up not to be penned in by pigeonholes in music.”

It’s an attitude the group has carried with them to the present day, which sees the release of their eighth studio album, Rise Up – five years in the making, and featuring appearances from Rage and Audioslave’s Tom Morello, salsa singer Marc Anthony and Daron Malakien of System Of A Down, as well as production from Pete Rock, DJ Khalil and Linkin Park’s jack-of-all-trades Mike Shinoda. The latter was called in to produce the poignant Carry Me Away, which finds Cypress in reflective mode, meditating on fallen friends, mistakes made and the dark side to the ghetto lifestyle they spent 20 years bragging about without pausing for breath.

“There’s some great songs on the album, but Carry Me Away was the track I wanted on it most. It means a lot to have a chance to tell our fans that we’re not without regret, that we made mistakes and lost a lot of good buddies on the way up. When people rap about that crazy gang life it’s always the rowdiness and bravado that comes across, not how much they cried when their best friend got shot. That’s what makes that song so fucking special.”

And while it’s a million miles away from the pump handling, hammer cocking, kill-a-man machismo of the band’s early 90s incarnation, it’s still an excuse to see them storm stages the world over and – like any great supergroup in their third decade of touring – play the tracks the audience came to hear.

“Those songs – How I Could Just Kill A Man, Insane In The Brain – I swear those tracks get a better reaction now than they did 18 fucking years ago. And it’s weird, because I think they might have more meaning to the audience than they do to us. We were so young when we wrote them, just knuckleheads on the street doing dumb shit. But the message they conveyed was one of craziness and being down for whatever, and that continues to speak to kids today in ways we never imagined possible.”