Cypress Hill: Mr Muggs will see you after the bong
Friday, 2 October 1998
Maybe it’s short-term memory loss, but dopey US rap crew Cypress Hill seem to be missing an MC.
There seems to be an unwritten rule among hip-hop crews these days: an all-embracing law which dictates that, no matter the line-up of rappers on the album, come the European tour a host of fresh faces will have joined up and replaced the original front line. We saw it last year with Wu Tang Clan’s shows, where the fresh faced substitute rappers appeared woefully unable to fill their mentors’ sneakers. We saw it again earlier this year when a sadly depleted Gravediggaz limped into the UK for a lacklustre London show. And now, in the face of the critical acclaim which surrounds their latest album IV, Cypress Hill are busy playing the hip-hop substitution game. As the Crew take the stage at Amsterdam’s infamous Paradiso club it becomes immediately evident that the original line up of DJ Muggs, and rappers B-Real and Sen Dog has been altered – the Cuban- born Mr Dog is curiously absent.
The official reason suggests that the rapper’s no-show is due to the strict visa restrictions for Cuban nationals. “If Sen Dog leaves the US, he won’t get back in. That simple,” explains the band’s tour manager. However with Sen’s recent disappearance from “Smokin Grooves” – the US touring package of hip-hop artists – rumours are rife that he has, in fact, been under house arrest.
Whatever the reality, the swift substitution of New Yorker B-Smooth for this European jaunt simply adds to the overriding sense that, these days, rappers are as interchangeable as football managers. The only prerequisite for the substitute’s job is the ability to walk the boards in a Puffa jacket, occasionally muttering the odd “huh, huh, c’mon” into the microphone.
Sitting in one of Amsterdam’s infamous cafes prior to the show, the highly animated B-Smooth was at pains to explain Cypress Hill’s apparent involvement in hip-hop’s transfer market.
“Sen Dog is still with Cypress Hill,” he stated, his fingers working on a joint filled with the finest herb the cafe had to offer. “I’m very proud to be involved with Cypress Hill, I’ve been a fan since time and you’ve got to remember that I am a part of the Soul Assassins [DJ Muggs’ production side project]. Me an Cypress are cool, y’know what I’m sayin’?”
Thankfully, as a replacement to Sen Dog’s baritone growl, B (Baron) Smooth couldn’t be better. The dreadlocked, slightly rotund rapper walks in Sen’s footsteps with the flair of a super sub: a vocal delivery like dark chocolate – deep, smooth, but slightly bitter and the charismatic energy of a somewhat stoned James Brown.
Add to this his love of ganja and not only does he make a worthy addition to the Cypress crew but he is also something of a kindred spirit. After all, if Cypress Hill are known for anything, it’s their constant eulogies to “the ‘erb”.
Since they first emerged in 1990, Cypress Hill have been held up as hip- hop’s premiere champions of marijuana. With song titles like “Stoned is the Way I Walk”, “Hits from the Bong” and “Legalise It”, the trio’s well documented support for NORML (The National Organisation to Reform Marijuana Laws) and a tendency for their live shows to resemble the pages of a Furry Freak Brothers comic – spliffs held high in the crowd, six-foot bongs and a fifteen-foot inflatable toking Buddha on stage – they seem to embody everything that Amsterdam’s cafe culture stands for: marijuana as a way of life.
And yet, as soon as Cypress Hill arrive in Amsterdam, it is not the cafes B-Real heads for, it is the tattoo parlours. Braving the torrential rain and the gale-force winds – the front doors of our hotel had been blown off their hinges earlier in the day – he disappears to have one of his many tattoos completed.
DJ Muggs, on the other hand, exits for a day of European interviews leaving only co-rapper B-Smooth, band photographer Scandalous and percussionist Bo Bo to seek out the nearest cafe and live up to the kind of behaviour for which they are renowned.
As the somewhat chilled B-Real re-emerges an hour before the band are due on stage, it soon becomes apparent that his tattoo session had also included the sampling of a number of variants of homegrown. Sprawled across the backstage sofa, eyelids half closed over pinpoint pupils, he shows off the tattooist’s handy work: a close set of urban primitive designs coiled around Cypress Hill’s trademark skull.
On the other side of the dressing room DJ Muggs paces the floor, unimpressed by the design. Today’s interviews had been set up for both him and B-Real, however the rappers’ unscheduled disappearance left Muggs, the engine in the Cypress machine, to do every last interview. As a result he is less than happy, only becoming interested when the subject of the recent spat between The Prodigy and The Beastie Boys comes up.
“Smack my bitch up means `handle your business’, period,” he exclaims. “When you have a bitch to smack up, you have a problem to solve and it’s that simple. They [The Beastie Boys] come from the old skool, so they should know what that phrase means.”
The combined forces of the edgy backstage ambience and the misogynist connotations of that “Smack My Bitch Up” sample come together as a reminder that there is another side to Cypress Hill. Just as Amsterdam has its class-A drug fuelled underworld – crack cocaine was offered to us as openly on street corners as ganja is sold in the cafes – so Cypress Hill’s dope stories are laced with gang-related tales. Indeed, their initial celebration of ganja in verse came as much as a reaction to the gangsta rap that surrounded them, as it was from their obvious love of toking.
“The reason I talked about marijuana so much was because all that gangsta style was getting too much and I wanted to offer an alternative,” explains B-Real, the Los Angeles native whose looks reveal his Mexican-Cuban extraction.
“Smoking was always a part of my everyday experience. I’ve experienced different things in my life that I wanted to talk about, that’s the premise in my writing in the first place. I’m trying to document parts of my life, things that I’ve seen and done, y’know? Things that I’ve witnessed.”
Among the experiences which inform B-Real’s lyrics is a first-hand knowledge of the downside to any affiliation with a gang. Indeed, as a teenage member of LA’s infamous Kripps, he took a bullet in the back during a fight with a rival gang. An episode which offers a rare insight into the attitude of the “gang bangers”.
“I was with my boys y’know, and this bullet ricocheted off a wall and lodged in my back,” he recalls. “At first it changed my feeling about gang-banging, but after I’d got through the pain, it just made me arrogant. I thought, `Those jokers can’t kill me’. Before Cypress Hill I was doing things that weren’t too righteous, they weren’t right by God, they weren’t right by people.
“When I was doing that stuff it was just bringing me down. It brought me nothing positive, but in my ignorant state of mind I was just thinking that I ain’t gonna make money no other way, so I’ll just do my own thing right here – I ate every bit of those words when I joined Cypress Hill.”
Later that night the group’s performance displays all of the reasons why B-Real has been forced to eat those words. Playing a set which wanders between the street funk of the forthcoming single, “Checkmate Fool”, and the downtempo, smoky ambience of the crowd favourite, “I Wanna Get High”, they conjure a rare unity between band and audience.
With the crowd calling back lyrics from the band’s multi-platinum back catalogue, holding spliffs aloft in honour of the surreal sight of the Buddha’s slow inflation and, perhaps more bizarrely, the front row moshing in a style more befitting a Megadeth crowd than one for the arch-stoners of hip-hop, it quickly becomes obvious how this crew have become the second most successful rap outfit in the world. They give the audience exactly what they want, never straying in to indulgent experimental territories, and certainly never forgetting the power of the live performance.
“What we do is to offer people something different,” enthuses DJ Muggs after the show, his previous bad humour totally forgotten.
“When we came out everyone was talking about niggers and bitches and shit so we came in with the dope shit. Like now, we ain’t talking about Mafia movies and wearing Versace and shit like everyone else in hip-hop, we’re just doin’ our own shit. Rugged beats and rugged rhymes.”
By the bongful, no doubt.
The album `IV’ is released on 5 October, on Ruffhouse/Columbia. Cypress Hill will be touring the UK in November with the full original line-up