Cypress Hill - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Perhaps the missing link between hip hop and modern rock music, Cypress Hill’s psychedelic homages to street life and marijuana are often laced with unexpected shifts in genre. B-Real’s high-pitched rhymes and Sen Dog’s snarls have complemented DJ Mugg’s cerebral production work for over two decades, making Cypress Hill one of hip hop's most enduring groups.
Louis Freese (B-Real), who is of Cuban/Mexican American heritage, and his future partner-in-rhyme and fellow Cubano Senen Reyes (Sen Dog) met in crime-infested South Central, Los Angeles. Freese began to sell drugs and both he and Reyes became involved with the infamous Bloods street gang. In a painful twist of fate, Freese was shot in the chest, thus ending his career in street crime. Freese survived the shooting with a punctured a lung and he, along with Reyes, began to rethink their priorities. The pair, now going by their aliases B-Real and Sen Dog, was introduced to a young producer named DJ Muggs who was interested in recording a concept album based on the harsh tales of Cypress Avenue in Los Angeles.
Naming themselves after the dangerous area, Cypress Hill released their debut album, 1991’s eponymous Cypress Hill (1991 Columbia). Their unique sound made the album stand out to hip hop fans; B-Real’s immensely high-pitched, nasally voice grooved over DJ Muggs’ backing tracks, which twisted rock and funk samples into hip hop beats. While the first single from Cypress Hill, “The Phuncky Feel One,” was marginally successful, it was the B-side’s song “How I Could Just Kill a Man" that gained the most attention on both college and commercial radio. Despite the fact that a good portion of Cypress Hill’s debut displays the violent realities of gang culture endemic to South Central Los Angeles at the time, progressive topics such as police brutality and the legality of marijuana are dealt with on the album as well. These flashes of progressive activism came to characterize the group the most. Another remarkable element of the album is the group’s consistent mingling of English and Spanish, which has become the group's other outstanding legacy within hip hop. Cypress Hill eventually went Platinum, making Cypress Hill the first Latin hip hop group to achieve such an accolade.
DJ Muggs continued to produce the work of other Los Angeles-based hip hop artists, including a good chunk of House of Pain’s debut House of Pain (1992 Tommy Boy). Without a doubt, Muggs’ most notable contribution to the proudly Irish trio’s album was his horn-heavy “Jump Around." The single, which extracted samples from the likes of Prince and Jazz great Lou Donaldson, would become one of the ‘90’s most definitive anthems.
Cypress Hill’s debut live performance was in 1992 at the Lollapalooza festival. Playing alongside alternative rock icons like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots, Cypress Hill began to develop a fanbase that extended far beyond hip hop consumers. This solid core of fans would only expand with the release of their next single “Insane in the Brain” from their second album Black Sunday (1993 Columbia). Utilizing his knack for constructing bizarre sample loops, DJ Muggs created one of hip hop’s few successful crossovers into rock music.
Featuring a gothically dark depiction of a graveyard on its cover, 1993’s Black Sunday tells more brutal tales of gang life but, as manifested on tracks like “Hits from the Bong” and “Legalize It,” a mellower side to Cypress Hill emerges. Their fondness for marijuana was deeper than mere debauchery; the linear notes to Black Sunday contained nineteen facts pertaining to the beneficial effects of marijuana. Later that year, Cypress Hill would plunge deeper into their fight for the legality of cannabis during their performance on Saturday Night Live. After playing “I Aint Goin’ Out Like That,” DJ Muggs began to puff on a pudgy joint. The performance was never aired and the stunt earned the group a spot on SNL’s banned band list.
Later that year, Cypress Hill contributed to the Judgment Night Soundtrack (1993 Epic), which paired prominent rock musicians (Faith No More, Slayer) with hip hop artists (Run DMC, De La Soul), creating a dynamic that may have well have been pioneered by Cypress Hill. They contributed two tracks to the project including “I Love You Mary Jane” with Sonic Youth and “Real Thing” with Pearl Jam. The significance of the soundtrack has surpassed the film itself and is seen as a precursor to the onslaught of rap/rock hybrids that dominated the late ‘90’s.
Cypress Hill began to shift their focus towards Latin music as the 90’s progressed. At the second Woodstock festival in 1994, they unveiled their newest member, Latin percussionist Eric Bobo. Son of the legendary Willie Bobo, Eric initially alternated between playing with Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys. When the Beastie Boys went on a touring hiatus, Bobo became a full-time member of Cypress Hill. Meanwhile, DJ Muggs again extended his production credits, working with Funkdoobiest, another Los Angeles-based hip hop trio comprised of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Native American members. Muggs produced a majority of the tracks for their sophomore album, Brothas Doobie (1995 Epic), which is infamous for its explicit sexual content.
Perhaps Cypress Hill’s most mellow and docile effort was their third album, Cypress Hill III: Temples of Boom (1995 Columbia). At this time, Sen Dog had decided to pursue other projects and doesn’t appear on every track. DJ Muggs’ production was lauded for its diverse scope, incorporating influence from everything from hardcore rock to Indian music to psychedelic grooves. While DJ Muggs handled most of the dark production, the trio uncharacteristically outsourced the track “Killa Hill N****s” to the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, another hip hop producer known for his brooding musical arrangements. Controversy surrounded the track “No Rest for the Wicked,” which accuses fellow Los Angeles rapper Ice Cube of plagiarism. Prior to the album’s release, Ice Cube had approached B-Real about using the track “Throw Your Set in the Air” on the soundtrack to his forthcoming film Friday. B-Real declined his request and, subsequently, Ice Cube released “Friday” with a chorus similar to that from the Cypress Hill song. A two year feud ensued between the two camps. Eventually, the disputed was quashed and the two have since collaborated several times.
After releasing a nine-track collection of old unreleased tunes called Unreleased & Revamped (1996 Columbia) in 1996, the group began to pursue other ventures. DJ Muggs crafted an album, which features an epic parade of prestigious rapper including Mobb Deep, Dr. Dre, KRS-ONE, Wyclef Jean, and others. Cypress Hill reformed two years later and released IV (1998 Columbia), which was perhaps the most divisive release critically. However, the single “Tequilla Sunrise” aided the album’s acquisition of Gold status
Cypress Hill reformed again in 1999 to pay homage to their Latin roots with Los Grandes Éxitos en Español (1999 Columbia). The album features the same instrumentals from past hits but the lyrics were re-recorded in Spanish. “Insane in the Brain” was translated and renamed "Loco en el Coco” and “How I Could Just Kill a Man” became "No Entiendes la Onda.” Due to the obvious language barriers, the album was not as commercially popular as past Cypress Hill albums. However, it was the sixth highest-selling Latin album of 1999.
In 2000, the group delved deeper into genre fluctuation with the double-disc album Skull & Bones (2000 Columbia). A concept album of sorts, the first disc of Skull & Bones contains orthodox Cypress Hill hip hop, while the second, far shorter disc includes rock accompaniment. The single from the first disc, “(Rap) Superstar,” was re-done for the rock-centric disc and appropriately dubbed “(Rock) Superstar.” That same year, the group reveled in their mastery of live performance with Live at the Fillmore (2000 Columbia), recorded at the legendary San Francisco venue.
Cypress Hill continued to utilize rock music on their sixth studio album Stoned Raiders (2001 Columbia). Compared to the sales of past albums, Stoned Raiders proved to be lackluster despite guest appearances from fellow weed-enthusiasts Method Man, Redman, Kurupt, and King Tee. The following year, Cypress Hill released more reworkings of their tracks on the remix album Stash (2002 Columbia), which includes a new version of “(Rap) Superstar” mixed by DJ Muggs’ protégé, Alchemist.
Cypress Hill’s seventh album, Till Death Do Us Part (2004 Columbia), features experiments with reggae on songs like “Ganja Bus,” which includes guest star Damian Marley. The single “What’s Your Number” features Tim Armstrong from the punk group Rancid on guitar and backing vocals.
Cypress Hill remains one of the most tireless groups not only in terms of touring, but also in the sphere of genre experimentation. They are pioneers of the often attempted by rarely successful art of bending of musical genres.