Cypress Hill has always been an easy group to pigeonhole. From the adenoidal whine of frontman B-Real’s voice to the group’s almost monomaniacal focus on weed-smoking, one can imagine younger listeners writing them off as a one-note act. But history has been kind to them, and a deeper look through the smoke clouds on the surface reveals much more than meets the eye.
They were hip-hop’s first Latino superstars, and key architects of its West Coast sound and style. They were among the most visible advocates for cannabis legalization at a time when that prospect seemed politically unrealistic. And they were second only to the Beastie Boys in their ability to bridge the divide between rap and rock audiences, at a time when those two genres were often at odds. Estevan Oriol’s entertaining, energetic, better-than-it-had-to-be documentary “Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain” offers a more complete picture of this massively popular yet often underestimated group.
Oriol was an early associate of the crew, and variously served as Cypress Hill’s photographer, videographer, and tour manager for much of their three-decade run. As such, there isn’t a whole lot of editorial distance between filmmaker and subject – it’s easy to lose count of the number of interviewees who pause a story to say “you remember?” or “you were there” to the director off-camera – but that turns out to be an asset. Not only do his interview subjects seem entirely comfortable under his questioning, but the film is ultimately his story, too, as he putters around his own archives, digging through the crates of videotapes and contact sheets that meticulously document both the group’s life and his own.
Hailing from South Gate, Calif., Cypress Hill was forged of three very distinct personalities: the diminutive Cuban-born rapper Sen Dog; the innovative Queens transplant producer DJ Muggs; and the group’s eventual star, B-Real, a former gangbanger who gave up that life in favor of music after surviving a shooting when he was a teenager. After spending several hard years workshopping in Muggs’ apartment – and consciously styling themselves as hip-hop’s answer to Cheech and Chong – the group rose from underground sensations to mainstream stars with remarkable speed in the early 1990s, and their second full-length, “Black Sunday,” became one of the earliest hip-hop albums to debut atop the Billboard chart.
One of the film’s most pleasant surprises is just how much time it spends digging into the group’s actual music, which is hardly a given in contemporary music docs. Oriol sits down with Muggs to analyze some of Cypress Hill’s earliest demos, tracking the evolution of B-Real’s signature vocal tone over long periods of trial-and-error. (Snippets of early versions of “Real Estate” and “How I Could Just Kill a Man” offer fascinating glimpses at a group just on the cusp of discovering its style.) There’s even some great stoner musicology courtesy of Ruffhouse Records founder Joe “the Butcher” Nicolo, who demonstrates why the seemingly sloppy drum programming on “Hits From the Bong” gels so perfectly with its central Dusty Springfield sample in ways that more sober minds didn’t necessarily grasp. (He then adds: “I know it’ll be a shock for everyone to learn we made those records stoned.”)
The film follows the group as it becomes a touring workhorse, steals the show at Woodstock ’94, gets banned from “SNL” for lighting up a blunt on-air, and soon adds a fourth member in percussionist Eric Bobo. And when the inevitable cracks in the band’s façade finally arrive, the film takes its most interesting turn. Burned out from constant travel, Sen Dog begins to act up, trashing dressing rooms and sometimes going AWOL, until he eventually leaves the group for several years in the mid-‘90s. In contemporary interviews, Sen Dog is quite forthcoming about the benefits of therapy during his time away, while clips of B-Real from the period of Sen Dog’s absence display a great deal of sensitivity and support for his bandmate. Perhaps Oriol was reticent to probe too deeply into the band’s fissures, but as portrayed here, the whole episode seems like a remarkably mature approach to a mental health crisis – the fact that Sen Dog now comes across as the most Zen-like, even-keeled member of the group is encouraging to see – and the sense of brotherhood on display is unexpectedly affecting.
Making his second feature-length doc after 2020’s “LA Originals,” Oriol has a real knack for pacing: the film has a brisk momentum to it, yet never feels like it’s in a hurry. And as close as the director may be to the group, his film never feels like glorified PR – he just wants the rest of us to appreciate Cypress Hill the way he does, and after spending 90 minutes in their blunt-spoken company, it’s easy to see why.