In the fertile world of rap music—where new artists and groups arrive every day—it isn’t that difficult for aspiring rappers to sell a few albums and earn some audience attention, but it can be much harder for them to actually offer something distinctive enough to win national popularity. Cypress Hill succeeded in this task with their first album, not only earning the favor of demanding hardcore hip-hop, or “gangsta rap,” fans, but also achieving crossover success with pop music buyers. The group’s style has won considerable praise from reviewers, and the trio’s mix of ethnic backgrounds—Mexican American, Cuban, and Italian American—has inspired an unusually multicultural audience. Perhaps most distinctive about the band, however, has been their earnest and diligent promotion of marijuana legalization; both on their records and off, they advocate the free use of the drug.
Despite the group’s ethnic variety—unusual in a genre dominated by African-American artists and listeners, their background is nonetheless typical for hardcore rap. Lead rapper B-Real, born Louis Freese, hails from
Group formed in Southgate section of Los Angeles, mid-1980s; began recording together in 1988; produced demo tapes, including Real Estate, 1988, and Light Another, 1989; signed with Columbia/Ruffhouse, 1989, and released Cypress Hill, 1991; toured with Lollapalooza II, 1992.
Awards: Platinum albums for Cypress Hill, 1991, and Black Sunday, 1993; Billboard Music Award for best rap artist, 1991.
Member: NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 2100 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
a Los Angeles neighborhood known as Cypress Hill that typifies the poverty and resultant violence plaguing the inner city. Growing up there, B-Real befriended Senen Reyes, known as Sen Dog on the street, the older brother in a Latino family that had immigrated from Cuba in 1980; Reyes was 14 when he met B-Real. They would eventually form a trio with Lawrence Muggerud, who went by DJ Muggs.
Sen Dog had formed a few groups in the early 1980s after leaving high school. One was DVX, which he started with his younger brother, Mellow Man Ace; B-Real worked with the brothers briefly before the group dissolved. Pulse! ’s Jon Wiederhorn summarized the friendship that developed between B-Real and Sen Dog, explaining, “They skipped school and smoked pot together. They listened to music and fought in a street gang together.” The duo met Muggs in 1986, when he was just beginning to acquire turntable skills, and the three began working together.
Music writers have generally focused on Muggs as the musical force behind the group, cataloguing his early efforts to break into the industry. In 1982, the Italian American moved from Queens, New York, where he lived with an uncle, to live in the Bell Gardens section of Los Angeles with his mother. Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, the teenager began spinning records for a rap group called 7A3; although the group never won the attention some critics feel they deserved, his experience with 7A3 afforded Muggs the opportunity to cut an album with a major label, Geffen, in 1988. But the label was apparently not experienced enough with rap to produce or market the album properly, and Coolin’ in Cali faded from view without making an impression.
7A3 dissolved after this disappointment, and Muggs returned to a previous collaboration with B-Real and Sen Dog determined “to flex his own muscle as a freaky-deke producer,” according to Source contributor Michael Gonzales. Their earlier association had been less serious than Muggs’s work with 7A3; they were mainly, as Muggs told Gonzales, “doing house parties and hangin’ out gettin’ high.” Indeed, before Muggs became serious about music, the trio that would become Cypress Hill were primarily involved in the kind of street activity that occupied most young men their in neighborhood: hanging out with friends, or “homies,” and negotiating the dangers of gang life. All three have experienced shootings close up, seeing best friends murdered before their eyes; B-Real felt a bullet pass through his lung in 1988. As with most young people in their situation, they had little opportunity for a different life. Music was one of the few outs available.
In 1988 Muggs invited B-Real and Sen Dog to join him in the studio, reserving for himself complete control over the recording. They put their first song, “Real Estate,” on tape and followed it with more material in 1989. Several of these songs, such as the single “Light Another,” would eventually make it onto the trio’s debut album. It was another year, though, before they connected with wily manager Nancy Walker, who won them a contract with Ruffhouse Records, a Columbia subsidiary. At Ruffhouse they hooked up with producer Joe Nicolo, who became “the unofficial fourth member of Cypress Hill,” Gonzales reported in The Source; Nicolo is credited with nurturing Muggs’s DJ talent and production style.
Cypress Hill’s self-titled debut album hit record store shelves at the end of 1991, unsupported by extensive advertising or radio airplay; nonetheless, reviewers and listeners greeted it with unexpected enthusiasm. The group dedicated itself to live shows, increasing their exposure as much as possible. Praising the group’s “freshness” in his 1991Rolling Stone review, Kevin Powell declared, “Cypress Hill unveils an arsenal of sounds ranging from reggae to rock, all firmly rooted in the distinct cultures of Southern California. Rather than capitalize on the violent images prevalent in gangsta rap, this trio spins tales of reality that play down the shock factor; the album is a merger of craft with the commitment to inform.” Spin’s review further hailed the emergence of something singular, allowing, “The unique Cypress Hill sound has a place unto itself in the hip-hop realm. It injects heavy doses of funk into your eardrums, giving you a new way to experience hardcore beats and rhymes.” Two years later, Rolling Stone contributor Dimitri Ehrlich looked back to claim that Cypress Hill had “changed the face of hip-hop.”
In addition to the quality of Muggs’s mixing and B-Real’s uncommon rapping—a somewhat unhinged delivery described by several reviewers as “cartoony”—the album boasted something else: the group’s unabashed and prevalent endorsement of marijuana use. Cypress Hill showcased three songs explicitly about pot, and Black Sunday would add more. B-Real explained to Pulse! ’s Wiederhorn how the group happened on its trademark subject: “When we started out, we didn’t plan to be the leaders of any pot legalization thing or nothing. It just sort of happened,” explained B-Real. “We were trying to get songs going for our demo, and we didn’t know what to write about. One day we was all getting high, and someone goes, ’Yo, Holmes, light another.’ And I thought, ’Hey, that’s a good idea for a song.’ Then after that it became like, ’Shit, I get high every day—I can talk about weed.’”
B-Real and Sen Dog have gone beyond dedicated smoking to dedicated study, schooling themselves in the history of marijuana, as well as in the facts about its many potential uses. Black Sunday offers a selection of this information to its buyers in the record’s liner notes; members of the group will offer similar information to interviewers. Cypress Hill also became official spokespeople for NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Finally, the trio has related their support of reefer to the popularity of their music across racial and ethnic divisions. As B-Real told Wiederhorn, “We do our music not to leave anyone out. It’s not pro-black, pro-Latin, pro-white, pro-anything. Marijuana is a universal thing and it don’t see color.”
While the push to legalize marijuana use occupied the group after the release of Cypress Hill, it was hardly their only focus. The trio performed regularly, including an opening spot for popular hip-hop act Naughty by Nature. They had their biggest live success as part of the Lollapalooza II music festival in 1992. The band also won considerable public exposure with singles for several movie soundtracks; they contributed to Juice, White Men Can’t Jump, and The Last Action Hero and offered collaborative pieces with Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam to the Judgment Night soundtrack. Muggs quickly became a sought-after DJ and producer, lending his talents to a range of rap acts that includes House of Pain, Ice Cube, Yo Yo, and the Beastie Boys.
By the time Cypress Hill’s second release, Black Sunday, hit the charts in July of 1993, Cypress Hill had amply demonstrated its longevity, retaining a consistent position in the Billboard Top 200 album chart; it had also long since earned a platinum record. Black Sunday, however, not only eclipsed the success of its predecessor, it surpassed the success of every rap album that had come before it. Bursting out of the blocks with the catchy single “Insane in the Brain,” it debuted at the top of the pop charts, displaying its crossover power, and sold over 260,000 copies in its first week, hurtling past the record previously set by rapper Ice Cube. Still, not all reviewers loved the album as much as the buying public, some comparing it unfavorably to the debut disc; in Vibe, former champion Powell placed it on a list of “disappointing sophomore efforts.” Colson Whitehead, however, writing for Spin, called Black Sunday. “a consolidation of power for Cypress Hill, tending more toward perfecting a solid formula than toying with invention.” And, as critics had in their reviews of the first album, Whitehead paid special tribute to the DJ, stating, “Muggs has perfected his method, recycling all manner of sonic trash to find the useful artifact.”
Signaling the band’s musical evolution, a change of tone was noted by many observers on Black Sunday Ehrlich, for one, commented in Rolling Stone, “It sounds paranoid, vicious and dark.” The writer turned to B-Real for an explanation of that sound: “We just approached this album thinking that any time anybody stays satisfied with what they have, they get lazy and start slipping.... So we stayed hungry, stayed in our neighborhoods, and we didn’t let the success with the record business go to our heads. It’s a little easier making money legally, you know, but basically we still go through the same shit. Money can’t fix everything, so we just put our frustration into the music, and it came out moody like that.”
Cypress Hill (includes “Light Another”), Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1991.
Black Sunday (includes “Insane in the Brain”), Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1993.
Also contributed to soundtracks for films, including Juice, White Men Can’t Jump, The Last Action Hero, and Judgment Night
Billboard, August 7, 1993.
Cash Box, August 3, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, August 6, 1993; August 20, 1993.
L.A. Weekly, June 11, 1993.
Musician, October 1993.
People, August 30, 1993.
Pulse!, October 1993; November 1993.
Request, September 1993.
Rolling Stone, October 3, 1991; May 28, 1992; August 5, 1993; September 16, 1993; November 11, 1993.
Source, July 1993.
Spin, September 1991; August 1993.
Vibe, September 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1993.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
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