The skunky smell is a familiar one. Inside the Cypress Hill tour bus, a thick cloud of smoke billows in the air.
It’s the Los Angeles hip-hop group’s 30th year and they’re being rewarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 6201 Hollywood Blvd.). They’ll probably refer to it as their Hollyweed star as the band has been associated with marijuana advocacy since they started rapping about their favorite plant, with such homages as “Stoned Is the Way of the Walk” and “Something for the Blunted.” Frontman B-Real (Louis Freese) says cannabis has been a factor in their longevity. “We’re medicating,” he says. “We’re eating clean. We stay in the gym. We never did party too excessively. We party, but it’s not every night and we’re not drunk and sloppy. Weed was the answer for us.”
A designated roller in the bus keeps the joints flowing as we chronicle a history that includes three Top 10 albums, among them “Black Sunday” in 1993, which hit No. 1 and featured their lone Top 40 single, “Insane in the Membrane.” Along for the ride are B-Real and Sen Dog (Senen Reyes), two of Cypress Hill’s three founders (Lawrence “DJ Muggs” Muggerud, who no longer tours with the group and was interviewed separately, is the other) and Eric “Bobo” Correa, who joined in 1994.
Cypress Hill’s backstory plays like a John Singleton movie. B-Real and Sen Dog grew up in South Gate; they named the group after a local street. Muggs migrated from Queens with his mother when he was 14. The aspiring musicians met in 1988 and started making rhymes and beats. But B-Real wasn’t all in; he had other aspirations on the mean streets of South Gate and Compton, where he disappeared for a couple of years.
“I was in the gangbanging wars of the ’80s,” he recalls. “While they were trying to make music, I was out there fucking up.”
As a member of the Bloods, at 18, B-Real was shot by a Crip spraying bullets with an Uzi. He suffered a punctured lung and internal bleeding. Several interventions by Sen Dog, his younger brother Ulpiano (Mellow Man Ace) and Muggs were unsuccessful in getting B-Real, the son of Mexican and Cuban parents, off the streets and into the studio.
“It took a couple trips to convince him,” says Sen, whose parents are Cuban. “It was a war down there, so me and Muggs went together. We were worried anything could happen at any time. That’s the South Central lifestyle.”
B-Real says: “At first, I was resistant. I said, ‘I’m slinging [drugs] right here. Are we going to make good money rapping?’ But something told me to give it a shot. If Sen and Muggs and his brother hadn’t come to me, we would not be here.”
During B-Real’s absence, Muggs worked on his DJ and producing skills. With B-Real back, Muggs decided his voice wasn’t distinctive enough. “You got to do something about your voice,” he told B-Real. “If you don’t, you’re going to write rhymes for Sen Dog.” Impressed with a nasal sound he heard from rapper Rammellzee, B-Real gave it a try.
“It unlocked a style for me,” he says. “I tried rapping in a foreign voice — and I didn’t like it. But I was trying to stay in the group as a vocalist. Mellow and I presented it to Muggs and he was like, ‘Yo, try that shit on this one.’ ‘How I Could Kill a Man’ was next.”
As a counterpoint, Sen would hit the deep notes in what they call “psychobeta” style. “It sparked everyone’s creativity,” B-Real says. “Then Muggs just began chopping shit up. He was genius at that. That’s how our sound initially started.”
Next for Cypress was a record deal. Philadelphia-based Ruffhouse had distribution with Sony, which allowed their ’91 debut the muscle of a major while being signed to an indie. “We were rookies,” B-Real says. “We were fans of Run-DMC, LL Cool J, EPMD, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and KRS-One. Those were templates. When we were done, we were, like, ‘Shit, this sounds pretty good for some motherf—ers from South Gate.’ I knew we had something cool, but who would gravitate to it? We were trying to be creative. Who knew about marketing and promoting?”
Sony did and soon Cypress was touring the world. Its follow-up, “Black Sunday,” sold even better. In 1994, the group added percussionist Eric Bobo, the son of Latin-jazz pioneer Willie Bobo. Eric Bobo met Cypress Hill when he toured with the Beastie Boys that year. The two groups shared bills and Bobo found himself hanging out with Cypress more than the Beasties. “Sen asked me to do a show at El Camino College. I played one song, ‘Latin Lingo.’ Then I got asked to do their Soul Assassins tour. It was Cypress Hill, House of Pain, Funkdoobiest and the Hooligans. That was one of the biggest hip-hop tours at that time. ‘Insane in the Membrane’ and ‘Jump Around’ were out; it was huge.
When Bobo left the Beasties to perform with Cypress at Woodstock in 1994, there was no turning back. “I wasn’t from their neighborhood, but we clicked,” says the New York native. “All these years later, I’m still here.”
The same could be said for Sen Dog, who took a two-year break to join metal band SX-10. “I’d gone from working in a warehouse to being in a rap band. I never really learned music. With SX-10, I learned about guitar and bass and drums. To this day, I think doing heavy metal on the side was a good thing for me.”
B-Real kept checking in on Sen Dog. “B would come to my house every six months, smoke a joint with me and be like, ‘Are you ready yet?’” Ultimately, a TV appearance by Cypress that Sen Dog saw convinced Sen Dog his hiatus was coming to an end: “The desire to finish what I started with these guys was more important than what I was doing.”
By that time, Muggs had left the touring lineup and been replaced by Julio Gonzalez (aka Julio G). “It was time to do other things and not just play live,” Muggs says matter-of-factly. Asked if he misses performing with the group, he concedes, “Absolutely.” These days, Mixmaster Mike fills the DJ role.
After 16 years and eight albums, Cypress and Sony parted in 2005. “Most people complain about labels and have negative shit to say,” B-Real says. “I could never say nothing bad about Sony. We stayed there our whole contract. They didn’t drop us; they gave us respect, even when downloading was happening and record sales were slumping for everyone. They helped me understand what the game was.”
Cypress Hill’s album output has slowed considerably. From 2010 to 2018, it had only two releases. B-Real has performed with Prophets of Rage, a supergroup with members of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Public Enemy.
Who’s the 2019 Cypress Hill fan? “We’re like the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd,” Muggs says. “The audience is kids, older people, really young people. We’re getting passed down like cult groups do from generation to generation.”
That’s an appropriate statement since another joint is being passed around the bus. Now a cannabis business owner with his Dr. Greenthumb’s dispensary in Sylmar, Calif., B-Real has seen the good and bad of legalization. He won a license and took several years to open the store. During that time, B-Real took a stance against California’s legalization measure, Prop. 64, which he thought wouldn’t benefit cultivators who’ve been feeding the black market for years. Activists questioned his lack of loyalty to the effort.
“It’s not cheap to run a business in the cannabis industry,” he says. “The hardest part is making sure we’re up to code on everything. My brand’s going to be there, but what about the mom-and-pops who put their life savings into this industry? Corporate money will come in and buy those licenses. It’s survival of the fittest. A lot of brands will be washed away. That’s why I told people to vote No on 64, but no one listened.”
Even if his pot shop doesn’t survive, B-Real has Cypress Hill to fall back on. Returning to the opening question about a band’s lifespan, he credits “our friendship and the desire to be one of the best. Being away from friends and family and the comforts of home is tough. Sure, we’ve had our disagreements like brothers do. Every band goes through it. Clearly, cannabis has been a big factor in keeping us together.”
10 Essential Cypress Hill Tracks
How I Could Just Kill a Man
Album: “Cypress Hill”
Straight off the streets of South Central, Cypress Hill offered a harrowing gangsta rap message on their first single.
Hand on the Pump
Album: “Cypress Hill”
Opening with a sample from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the badass trio warned adversaries to steer clear of their “sawed-off shotgun.”
Stoned Is the Way of the Walk
Album: “Cypress Hill”
Balancing hardcore gangsta rap with a love of marijuana, this would be the band’s first of many paeans to their favorite herb.
Insane in the Brain
Album: “Black Sunday”
A killer hook by DJ Muggs, memorable chorus (“Insane in the membrane”) and stony bridge added up to Cypress Hill’s commercial peak.
I Ain’t Going Out Like That
Album: “Black Sunday”
The follow-up to “Insane” returned to the more harrowing soundscapes and messaging from the first album.
Hits from the Bong
Album: “Black Sunday”
Opening with an audible rip, Cypress’ greatest cannabis cut noted a shift away from blunts. “Inhale, exhale,” B-Real extoled. “Just got a pound in the mail.”
Introducing B-Real’s alter ego, the song spurred him to start his own dispensary in Los Angeles by the same name. “I don’t want no weed from no cop,” he raps. “Get locked up and they close up my shop.”
Album: “Skull & Bones”
Everlast from House of Pain is featured on this rock crossover hit. There’s also a hip-hop version, “(Rap) Superstar,” featuring Eminem.
Album: “Rise Up”
Presaging Prophets of Rage by six years, Cypress employed Rage Against the Machine guitar Tom Morello to add significant crunch to this political anthem.
Album: “Elephants on Acid”
Not a remake of the 1930s jazz classic, but another opportunity for B-Real to declare his dedication to cannabis on this slow-moving track from their ninth and latest studio album.