How Cypress Hill Made Marijuana Mainstream
B-Real and Sen Dog exhale the secrets behind their classic debut and its potent cannabis philosophy
Weed. Blunts. Joints. Spliffs. Izm. Slang terms for cannabis—all largely popularized by hip-hop music. But for a subject matter so synonymous with rap, there was a time not too long ago when MCs did not talk about marijuana; in fact, they cautioned against it.
Hip-hop’s beloved golden era (roughly 1984–1994) produced arguably the greatest groups, songs, and albums ever, but it took over a decade for cannabis to be rapped about openly in the culture. Sure, you might have heard LL Cool J say “Roll up a fat one and pass it around / Laid back, hypnotized by the funky sound,” on “Boomin’ System” in 1990, but references to the drug were spotty and subtle at best, many times condemning its use. Rob Base would proudly proclaim “Don’t smoke buddah / can’t stand sess, yes…” right before the hook of his 1988 platinum hit “It Takes Two.” Even N.W.A, who were anti-establishment as it gets and were making songs about killing police, raping teenage girls and doing drive-by shootings, warned against the “dangers” of smoking marijuana. On 1988’s “Express Yourself,” Dr. Dre famously rapped “I don’t smoke weed or sess / Cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage / And brain damage on the mic don’t manage.” Four years later, with the help of a young Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dre would release an album called The Chronic, its cover featuring his face in the center of the Zig Zag rolling papers logo.
But Snoop can’t really take all the credit for changing Dre’s stance on the matter, despite the fact that he is now considered one of marijuana’s top advocates. That honor — whether acknowledged or not — goes to Cypress Hill. An L.A. trio made up of rappers B-Real and Sen Dog, backed by the beats of DJ Muggs, kicked the doors down with their self-titled debut album in 1991, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. They were the first group blunt enough — no pun intended — to openly embrace cannabis culture on a mainstream platform, making it okay for every rapper thereafter to do so.
“Previous to us talking about it so openly, it was a taboo subject. Mostly in hip-hop, because in reggae they had been talking about legalizing for a number of years, but it was accepted in that genre,” B-Real tells Cuepoint.
“I think marijuana/weed was always part of the culture, it was just underground,” says Sen Dog. “We just wanted to make it cool again. After the War on Drugs that the Reagans had, when they classified marijuana as a class one drug, it made it really uncool and made parents really concerned about smoking weed.”
“With all the shit they were throwing at us, ‘These are kids from the streets and they are influencing our young,’ blah blah blah. Nobody wanted to pile on more negativity,” says B. “But we didn’t look at it as negative, we looked at it like this is who we are. There’s nothing wrong with it, it should be legal for many reasons, other than just casual consumption.”
“For a long time it was a bad word; saying ‘weed’ was like saying ‘heroin’ or something. The fun wasn’t there anymore,” says Sen. “We just had to put a cool twist back on it like Cheech and Chong did in the 70s and get people to relax on the subject.”
Once they did, the floodgates opened. In the following few years, Def Squad rappers Redman and Keith Murray would release singles called “How to Roll A Blunt” (1992) and “Get Lifted” (1994), respectively. Out west, The Luniz would score a huge smash in 1995 with “I Got 5 On It.” That same year, even “The Teacha” KRS-One would participate on Channel Live’s single “Mad Izm.” Suddenly everybody was rapping about weed.
The early origins of Cypress Hill begin in the late 80s with a group called DVX, which stood for Devastating Vocal Xcellence. It’s revolving door membership would include Sen Dog and B-Real, as well as future Funkdoobiest rapper Tyrone “T-Bone/Tomahawk Funk” Pacheco, “Mentirosa” hit-maker Mellow Man Ace, and influential L.A. radio DJ Julio G. But its legacy was cut short for various reasons.
“DVX was like some old school, hardcore b-boy rap. I started that band with my brother, Mellow Man Ace. I was out of high school that year and my brother was a senior. We had that going for a while and we had a DJ named Julio G who we knew from high school. He had aspirations to be a radio DJ on KDAY’s Mixmaster Show. He told us that if he ever got that chance, he was going to take it, and he got that chance and he took it,” Sen recalls. “Right around the same time, B-Real was in a break dancing crew with my brother called Street Dancers and he was starting to show us some promise as a rapper. So we were actually a four man crew at one point, with my brother, myself, B-Real and T-Bone.”
But Mellow Man Ace left DVX to be a solo artist in 1988, and struck RIAA gold in 1989 with a crossover Spanglish rap single called “Mentirosa,” with Julio G on the cut.
“Mellow got a chance with some label that wanted a Spanish rapper — we were not even rapping in Spanish at that point, but we spoke Spanish. Mellow was able to put something together that impressed them. They were like ‘We know you are with this group, but we really want you and don’t want the group.’ Mellow made that decision on his own and left what would eventually be Cypress Hill,” Sen says of his brother’s path.
Despite the fact that Ace’s song was a hit, its legacy would pale in comparison to that of Cypress Hill, which would begin two years later.
“He had success, so that left me and B like ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ T-Bone from Funkdoobiest went to jail for some gang-banging shit at that point, so he was out of the picture. We were like ‘Well, let’s start our own group. What are we going to call it?’ Eventually we named it after our block on Cypress Avenue that we called Cypress Hill.”
Before DJ Julio G departed on his own journey into radio, he introduced Sen and B to DJ Muggs, who in 1988 was producing for a short-lived L.A. rap group called 7A3 that were signed to Geffen.
“[7A3] were more of a commercial sound, radio friendly if you will. That kind of fell apart. They had gotten dropped from Geffen in the midst of Muggs producing the Cypress Hill record. They had flown to Philadelphia to work with Joe ‘The Butcher’ Nicolo, who was eventually the guy who signed us to Ruffhouse. It’s all interconnected there,” Sen continues. “Muggs would keep sending me beats in the mail and he kept telling me ‘Make sure you have B write to this stuff. When I come back, we’re going to record.’ It took a few months, but when he came back, we had a song called ‘Trigger Happy’ that was about 14 or 15 pages long, because that’s how long we used to write our raps — we didn’t know any better. ‘Trigger Happy’ was eventually ‘Kill A Man,’ once Muggs heard it and dissected it… The more we went on with it, the more Muggs wanted to be a part of it, not just be seen as a producer.”
Muggs’ unique Soul Assassins sound is what pulled the whole thing together. He took things in a different direction, with a style that meshed hard hitting drums, groovy bass lines and distinctive high pitched shrieks that were pulled from various places, such as blues guitar riffs or Prince vocals. Utilizing sources like 50s doo-wop tune “Duke of Earl” (“Hand on the Pump”) or Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” (“How I Could Just Kill a Man”), Muggs’ beats were heavily-layered sample collages that paid homage to forty years of music history, pulling pieces from the most unlikely of origins.
“Muggs was our ace-in-the-hole, right there, as far as Cypress, Funkdoobiest. We had DJ Muggs. And he had a different production style and approach than anyone else in the game. And I mean the heavy hitters like Dr. Dre and everybody were blown away by his production,” says Sen. “To get Muggs to really deliver that signature sound, it opened the door for Cypress Hill and it opened the door for Muggs to be one of the great producers in hip-hop.”
The two rappers meshed well with that energy, playing opposite sides of the same coin; B-Real with his high-pitched, condescending nasal style and Sen with his more straightforward, grunting delivery. The unit had finally taken shape. Three mysterious, goateed individuals in EPMD-esque fisherman caps and red skull t-shirts, their features perhaps intentionally obscured. Roll it all up with the group’s pro-marijuana infused lyrics and you had something truly unique with Cypress Hill.
“That was just us, that was the way we dressed. Muggs was from the East Coast, we were from L.A. We would kind of mix and match looks, get a little bit of East Coast flavor with the West Coast and that’s what made us look a little bit different,” B reveals. “But we were very much influenced by East Coast artists like EPMD, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, KRS. So we just tried to mix our flavor up. We wanted to be ambiguous — we didn’t want everyone to know exactly where we were from. We wanted to you guess if we were from L.A. or New York and keep guessing. Fortunately it worked for us.”
With the success of their debut album, they would be the first Latin rap group to be certified platinum by the RIAA, and eventually the LP would go double platinum. Yet they never intentionally used their heritage as a marketing angle, aside from one album cut “Latin Lingo.”
“For us, we didn’t want Sony to label us as a ‘Latin hip-hop group,’ we just wanted to be labeled a hip-hop group. Because beforehand, if you got labeled as that, basically your fucking feet are held to the Latin market, which was not buying hip-hop music then. Like maybe 1%,” says B. “We are proud of who or what we are, but we didn’t want that to be the big gimmick. People could find that out after. We’d celebrate our ancestry and heritage after that, we just wanted people to focus on the music. Fortunately, Sony got that, put us out and didn’t focus on the Latin aspect until we made a Spanish record [1999’s Los Grandes Éxitos en Español]. I think that was a good play for us and it helped us reach people we wouldn’t normally reach if we marketed ourselves that way.”
Additionally, to the label’s credit, they allowed Cypress Hill to be themselves, boldly unfazed by the band’s pro-cannabis message in a post-Reagan America.
“When we first started, the label wasn’t sure about our material, so we went with the ‘safe’ first single ‘Phuncky Feel One,’ which was a great tune, but it wasn’t like a monster song,” says Sen. “In the beginning, we didn’t do a lot of videos on our weed stuff, because the label was not sure about that. We were, but the label was not.”
The band’s early singles were less about getting high and more about living street lifestyles. Ironically, the violently-tinged tracks “Hand on the Pump” and “How I Could Just Kill a Man” were viewed as suitable for radio and video shows, yet harmless songs about smoking weed were not.
“I think the labels were just used to the status quo of hip-hop at the time, which was that some rap was commercially viable for radio and some is not and made for the street… They were cool with songs like ‘How I Could Just Kill a Man’ [as a single] — and people don’t really understand that that song is more about offense,” says Sen. “For us to rap about violence and stuff like that was okay, because everybody on the West Coast was doing it at the point.”
“It’s very ironic that that was the case back then. You could not get a song about weed on the air. You could get all kinds of violent shit on the radio back then, but nothing that condoned any drug use,” says B-Real. “Now you hear weed songs all over the fuckin’ radio.”
“Prior to signing to Ruffhouse, we had a couple of other offers from some West Coast labels, but these are the labels that didn’t want us to rap about weed, didn’t want us to cuss in our songs, didn’t want us to use the word ‘nigga,’ didn’t want us to talk about violence. They thought we were good entertainers, good rappers, they just didn’t want us in our context,” says Sen. “That’s the reason that we didn’t go with those labels and went with a smaller one. Ruffhouse Records out of Philadelphia guaranteed us 100% freedom on the mic. Muggs knew that we had a lot to say, so it was a very important decision.”
“When we started shopping our demos, we had the marijuana influenced songs and they weren’t really with it. They were like ‘What are you guys talking about? Getting high and smoking weed?’ They weren’t giving us a shot. Sony for some reason got it, and said ‘This is you guys, do what you want to do. We’ll back it, if it fails, it fails. If it wins, great,’” says B-Real.
“But still, our label was still hesitant to put out our more weed infused music until things really started catching on, after seeing a commitment from fans to Cypress Hill,” adds Sen. “Then they began to say ‘Anything the band wants, just put it out, put it out.’ So then we started putting out ‘I Want To Get High’ or ‘Stoned Is the Way of the Walk’ and songs like that. It really made a difference in our careers.”
“To Sony’s credit, they let us do what we wanted to do artistically and that meant whatever our subject matter or content was. They were cool with it, they actually helped us market and promote to that area,” says B. “They came up with some creative ideas to help market the legalization movement as well as our music. I have to give a hats off to Sony for that because they were not afraid.”
One of those ideas was the inclusion of a fact sheet with the band’s second album Black Sunday, separating fact from fiction about cannabis. It was quite eye-opening for this writer at the time, whom was raised during Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” era, which found us repeating the slogan in unison, day-after-day in our elementary school classrooms.
“I don’t know who’s idea it was to put those liner notes in there, it might have been a collective decision, but we felt that we needed make an even broader statement than what we were saying lyrically in our music. So here were 19 facts in bold type that let you know something that you didn’t know,” says Sen. “I think that opened a lot of eyes that were highly against marijuana, cannabis or hemp, and for people that thought we were just a bunch of party boys. We were actually educated about what we were talking about, we just had to give it to you in the right context with those liner notes.”
“We wanted people to know that we weren’t just about smoking, we were about educating people about all aspects of the culture. We teamed up with NORML, High Times, and Jack Herer and put this information out there to people, so they would read it, share it, learn from it, be inspired by it and continue the fight, if they chose to be a part of it,” says B.
Cypress Hill exploded in popularity, paving the way for other DJ Muggs-backed affiliated groups to come out under the Soul Assassins banner. House of Pain was first out of the gate in 1992, as Muggs’ sound help reinvent a white rapper named Everlast, who previously failed to launch under Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate banner.
“It made House of Pain and Cypress Hill brother bands — you couldn’t have one without the other. [Muggs] really stepped up Everlast’s performance on wax. We would see Everlast at clubs in downtown Los Angeles, like ‘that‘s the whiteboy that rolled with Ice-T and Rhyme Syndicate,’” recalls Sen. “We heard his stuff that he did with them. I heard a great rapper, I just didn’t hear a great hit.”
Little known to most, House of Pain’s massive debut single, “Jump Around” was originally pitched by Muggs to Cypress Hill. But like a blunt, they passed it.
“I’ll tell you a little story that I don’t tell many people. Muggs had approached B-Real and myself to do ‘Jump Around’ and our reaction was like “Well, that’s what people are doing at our shows anyway. Why would we want to make a song called ‘Jump Around’,” laughs Sen. “We were like ‘Give it to the white boys’ and House of Pain got that song.”
“Muggs gave us to the music to “Jump Around” first for some reason. It was the only time in my life that I could not come up with a good idea to one of Muggs’ songs. So I gave it back to him and told him to give it to Everlast and… boom. That was the last time I told myself I can’t or I won’t. I would not allow another [mental] block after that, because I missed out on a great song (laughs).”
“The day I went over to Muggs house, he goes ‘Yeah, Everlast just left here. You gotta hear this.’ So he played me ‘Jump Around’ and I was like ‘That song is a major hit!’ And sure enough, it took off,” says Sen. “We were not hating or anything, it helped our brother Everlast and helped House of Pain build a career. Together with Cypress it was a really strong movement. We think we made the right decision there.”
As the popularity of both bands continued, Muggs would back other acts, such Funkdoobiest and the Whooliganz, the latter made up of future Ocean’s 11 actor Scott Caan and underground super-producer-to-be The Alchemist. Meanwhile, House of Pain’s DJ Lethal would later help back Limp Bizkit. Cypress Hill’s legacy is not only heavily tied to marijuana, but the careers of several other successful artists as well.
“People tend to overlook some of things that we’ve brought to the game, but the fans know it, we know it. As long as our camp is still pushing, that’s what’s most important. All of the accolades and the credit, other people can have, it’s the longevity we want,” says B. “We’ve been fortunate to have it and a lot of the talent from our camp has been able to get out there and make careers of their own. That’s the name of the game for us.”
That longevity has taken form in B-Real’s latest project, Prophets of Rage, alongside Public Enemy’s Chuck D and former Rage Against the Machine band members. Having just released a five song EP with the band, B-Real eyes their future as more than just a one-off deal.
“I think at this point right now, they’re feeling it, we’re feeling it, I definitely see some longevity in this, as far as we want to take it. After this tour is over, we have some obligations to our individual stuff with Cypress. Public Enemy, Tom and Brad and Tim, they all have other projects as well,” B says of Prophets of Rage. “I think we’ll give some attention to those, but at the end of all that I think we’re going get together and make some new music and put some original stuff out there as well.”
Much progress has been made over the last twenty-five years in terms of marijuana’s medicinal and recreational usage — primarily in the states of California and Colorado—but advocates were dealt a crushing blow last month. The DEA declared on August 12, 2016 that cannabis has no medical use and should still be considered a schedule 1 controlled substance, listed in the same class as cocaine, LSD and heroin.
“I just think that it’s the same old closed-minded mentality that we’ve been dealing with since the Richard Nixon administration. To say that now with all that has been proven… I have to say something different, because it is being used around the world for medicinal and other purposes. Go online and Google it and you’ll see patient after patient that is truly sick and how this is really helping them,” says Sen. “I’m not just saying it because I’m a stoner and believe that it’s my god given right to smoke marijuana, I’m saying this because for there are medical advances that could have been made a long time ago.”
“Obviously the DEA are still behind the times and whoever is doing their research needs to be fired. There is no way that heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines should be in the same category as marijuana. This is medicine. They have opiates right now like Oxycontin that people are addicted to. That’s not classified under those hard narcotics. Those fuck people up everyday, yet those are legal and they’re okay with that,” B argues impassionately. “But marijuana, something that is not even in comparison, has taken no lives, caused no medical illnesses… the scale is grossly tipped when you compare the two. The fact that they are turning a blind eye to that just goes to show you that it’s obvious that they are disconnected.”
“I’ve been standing firm in my beliefs since I was in my late teens and I will forever believe for the rest of my life that cannabis is actually something that is positive for the earth and positive for human beings,” Sen adds.
“It’s the people’s choice and they’re not allowing that. It’s just ridiculous, they need to wake the fuck up,” concludes B-Real.
Despite this roadblock, what Cypress Hill has done for cannabis culture, especially in hip-hop, is unparallelled. So how did they feel when other artists followed suit, after they broke the walls down for all of popular culture? Did it bother them when artists like Dr. Dre suddenly changed their tune after they did the heavy lifting?
“The way we looked it was that we influenced Dre to change his stance on it. He was a huge influence in hip-hop and still is, so we felt more like ‘Hell yeah! We got Dre to get down with what we were talking about!’ As opposed to, ‘Aw man, he’s taking our thing,’” says B-Real.
“When that happened with Dre and he kind of changed his stance on weed— I thought ‘Okay, things are starting to change now, because dudes that weren’t really with it before now are.’ Dre’s a giant in the game, so when he sees a trend and jumps on it, then you know where it’s going,” says Sen. “When that happened I was like ‘Okay, we’ve got a few more artists that are supporting the movement now.’ If Dre smokes weed or not, he’s supporting the movement. That’s when I started seeing the acceptance in hip-hop was starting to grow more and more.”
B-Real concludes, “Once we saw the influence, we didn’t get pissed off, like ‘Aw man, these motherfuckers are biting us.’ We thought ‘You know what? That’s great, because the message of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh spread to us, and now we’re spreading it to everybody else.’”
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