Cypress Hill interview
April 20, 2010 by Beatweek
My first real encounter with Cypress Hill was back in the blazing heat of Arizona. It was the summer of 1995 and Cypress Hill was sharing the Lollapalooza main stage bill with the likes of Sonic Youth and Hole. I had driven from dawn until high noon from Los Angeles with a buddy who had an extra ticket. The heat was so scalding hot I remember people fainting all around me. I still have vivid mental images of Courtney Love of Hole in her white slip and bare feet taunting the rowdy audience in front of her. But mostly I remember Cypress Hill and their fans who dressed in a style that looked like Hip Hop and Punk Rock after a head-on crash. The Cypress fans were tough looking outsiders who suddenly moved like a swarm of hornets when Cypress Hill took the hot and smokey stage.
Since that day I’ve always kept my eye on Cypress Hill, following them casually over the years, until 2005 when I started dating my girlfriend Marisol who, like Cypress Hill, is also from South Gate, California. Then over the last six months I’ve been working with Marisol’s younger brother Christian who is a huge Cypress fan. “Tell ‘em, I bought their first single at Yuri’s (a local indie record shop in South Gate), they’ll know what’s up.” Christian sends me YouTube videos and stresses the role of DJ Muggs, as I try to introduce him to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
A few months ago when I learned that Cypress was coming out with a new album called Rise Up, so I asked if I could write a feature on the Hip Hop and Rap Rock pioneers. Then last week, using my Skype and Audio Hijack rig, I had the opportunity to speak with lead singer and producer B-Real (Louis Freese) from his hotel room in New York City.
I started the interview by asking B-Real to take me back to South Gate and the surrounding neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. “It’s a place where you have a lot of tight knit families and friends and stuff…it’s not a big city…there was a lot of cool things going on in the Hip Hop culture with Break-dancing and Pop-blocking and D Boy-ism in general. It hit our area pretty hard and we were very much influenced by that.” B-Real continued, “Previous to that we were kids that were running around…our neighborhood would play sports… basketball, football, baseball, whatever…we would play against other neighborhoods.
“That eventually evolved into the Break-dancing and Pop-blocking. We battled other cities or neighborhoods doing that. And then it eventually turned into Rapping and that’s when we found our little thing. What we wanted to do. It all stemmed off of those little things…. We submerged ourselves in Hip Hop Culture through the Breaking and the graffiti and all that sorta stuff. Eventually it evolved into ‘for us’ getting on the mic and starting to write songs and doing it on that level as opposed to the dancing and all that.” When I (rather lamely) commented that the Break-dancing was a good foundation for movement on stage, B-Real responded: “Well it gave us definitely more movement…but it gave us an understanding for what we were doing because we had genuine love for what it was.”
Of course we talked about the new album Rise Up that drops today (4/20). I asked B-Real about the six year layoff, focusing on the creative process rather than the changing of labels (from Columbia to Sony to Priority/EMI). “We (Sen Dog, DJ Muggs and Eric Bobo) were coming off of solo projects when we started to make Rise up. Out of the six years, those first three were those solo projects. Once we released and were done pushing those… doing the shows, press… putting the legs on all those projects. Once we felt we were done… that’s when we started to go in and work on the Cypress record…and just vibe out.
“Being that we didn’t have any A&R people coming in there telling us what they think we should do (Snoop Dogg is the creative chairman of Priority), we just sorta did it at our pace, at our own leisure. Had more fun than anything. We tried to be experimental at times. At other times we were working with the formula that we knew worked, but trying to have an updated version of it. Something that related to now and these times.” B-Real emphasized it was “a loose vibe” and that they were having fun as opposed to (breaking into a stressed out voice): “We need to get this done…this HAS to be done by this time.” Returning to his normal and mellow voice, “We didn’t want to do that to ourselves. We wanted to take our time and make the right album for us.”
Then I turned the conversation to the long list of collaborators on Rise Up that includes: Everlast, Young De, Pete Rock, DJ Khalil, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Daron Malakian of System of a Down among other soon to be mentioned. I asked B-Real if they got to work with any of their influences. “Definitely Cheech and Chong, I mean they’ve been a staple influence as far as our pro-marijuana politics go. It’s cool because we ended up becoming friends with them and doing various things with them…and one of the coolest things they did for us is contributing their voices…recorded specifically for the album…and they haven’t done that forever! For them to record while doing the comeback thing…it was great…we felt there was no bigger compliment than that. Because they totally get what we’re about and where we come from…and that they were a big influence on us…so that was a big deal to us to have them come and be involved.”
Since both myself and Beatweek lean more towards the Rock angle, I asked B-Real how Stephen Stills became involved with their new single “Armada Latina”. “We were working on a completely different track. When we were done…the producer whose name is Jim Jonsin…he said, ‘Hey look I’ve got this other song. I want to see what you guys think about it. If you guys like it, we can work on it. It could be something really cool.’” B-Real said he had heard Jonsin ”messing the samples beforehand” so he knew “where he was going with this.”
When B-Real heard the sample of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, B-Real’s first thought was “Now that’s real fucking cool.” But his second thought was “How the hell are we going to clear the sample? How the hell are we going to to pull this off? At the same time, it didn’t sound like the other songs on the record…a big concern of mine…But I had said at the onset going into this album that I would come in open minded and try different things. As long as it didn’t compromise who we are and what we do.” And taking that into consideration B-Real thought (breaking into his open minded dude voice), “Alright, well you know, let’s see what we come up with. It could be really cool, if we come up with the right thing.”
“Sure enough it just started piecing itself together really…after myself and Sen Dog laid down our vocals…Jim quickly said, ‘Hey I think I could get Pitbull down here. What do you guys think?’” B-Real continued, “We know ‘Pit’ he’s our friend, we always talked about working together so this seems to be the perfect opportunity.” So they said to Jonsin, “Yeah, if you know him, call him.” B-Real is a good storyteller, so he added a touch of wonder in voice as he continued, “Sure enough ‘Pit’ made his way out…and blessed our track.”
Again with surprise in his voice, “Then as they were putting the pieces together for the track, the producer once again said, ‘Hey man, I think we should call Marc Anthony. B-Real breaks into a laugh at the very idea, “Marc Anthony ain’t gonna want to do this!” Amazed, “Sure enough he got Marc Anthony to come down and do it. A great surprise man. I’ve got to thank all those guys for being involved with a project like that…and making it the song it turned out to be.”
Already knowing I was heading down the wrong path, I still followed-up by asking B-Real if Cypress Hill had plans to move towards a Pop sound closer to “Armada Latina” anytime in the future. “I wouldn’t say we would go completely in that direction because we’re not a Pop band. That’s not really who we are…but could we do it again? If it was the right song, yeah. I don’t think we would try to do it again. Because often if you try to recreate something you’ve done in the past, it never ends up working out. That’s why we’ve never tried to do another “Insane in the Brain”. We never tried to do another “(Rock) Superstar”. We just sorta let those songs happen. Instead of saying, ‘Oh we need a hit here, we need a hit there.’ When the right song comes along, it comes along. Fortunately we’ve had whole albums come along throughout our career.”
B-Real’s voice took on an especially humble tone as he considered the new album, “This one right here is real special. We’ve got two singles, in two different formats…and they’re doing fairly well for what we expected. We couldn’t ask for more man, after a six year layoff.”
I had a chance to hear the album a few times via a streaming preview copy and so far my favorite track is “Shut ‘Em Down” featuring Tom Morello (who is also on the title track Rise Up). I asked B-Real how they met. “I met all the guys in Rage Against the Machine back in probably ’92. They were playing a small club. They hadn’t really got on the scene yet. Somebody put me on to them.” In order to put things in context, I briefly broke B-Real’s stride, by asking if Cypress Hill was already established. “Yeah we already had like a platinum record (Cypress Hill)…out. At that point we were about to release Black Sunday when I ran into those guys.”
“A mutual friend of ours introduced me to them at the show. I went to watch them. I was in the mosh pit, moshing it up and they saw me in there. Called me out. ‘Hey we see somebody in the crowd and we want to invite him up on stage: B-Real of Cypress Hill!’ People looked around and saw me in the middle of the pit and immediately put me on stage.
“After that we started talking and became friends and we started doing little things together here and there. We obviously wanted to work with Tom…but touring schedules conflicted all the time…I think at that point, when we wanted to do it back in the day, it wasn’t the time for it. But this time happened to be the right time. Because it made for something special. To have Tom Morello produce some songs for Cypress Hill. I think that’s a big deal and after a six year layoff, you want to come back with something that’s exciting and interesting…and different than what you thought was going to be.”
I mentioned that “Shut ‘Em Down” is my early favorite track on the new album. I could hear B-Real respond with a knowing smile, “Yeah, ‘Shut ‘Em Down’ is a good one. That’s a powerful song.” Since Tom Morello’s guitar is so striking I asked B-Real if there was any concern of a song sounding too much like Rage Against the Machine. “I wouldn’t have a concern with that, because for me it’s like Rage meets Cypress. It will sound like his style…and his style is synonymous with Rage even as they were doing Audioslave…but it’s going to have our flavor on it. That’s what will make it different than Rage. The way we do it. The style. The content. But that type of stuff doesn’t concern me, because even if they said that, I’d look at that like a compliment.”
Obviously we talked a little bit about 420 Culture. “We’ve been involved since day one. I guess we became the poster boys in Hip Hop for medical…just for marijuana period. Little by little we just started growing with that whole culture. Because it was us. It was who were. It’s who we are.” B-Real went on, “We throw a 420 Show in San Francisco…obviously 4/20 is the date of our release…so we’ll be doing our fourth annual 420 Show slash Release Party (streamed live on Breal.tv).” Also on the web “We do a live stream Monday through Friday called the 420 Show (music & talk) at 4:20 Pacific time in Los Angeles. It’s a two hour show where, you know, we blaze up and chill with all the people that log-in and watch and are in the chat room. We give them those two hours a day, just to hang out.”
As we were talking I could tell there is a real attempt on the part of Cypress Hill to break down of the normal barriers between a successful band and their fans. “We’ve always tried to stay connected. Back in the day it was us having autograph signing at smoking grooves…signing at every show 300-400 autographs…just being there with the fans. Giving them that time. After all that’s who we’re doin’ it for. I mean we do it for ourselves because we love to make music, but really we’re trying to entertain people and give them something from us.”
As we were talking I mentioned that the first time I saw them was at Lollapalooza in ’95 with Hole, so I asked B-Real about those early rock festivals. “Those were really great shows. It was opening us up to a whole different deal…it provided the background for some funny-ass stories at times too. Getting to play with Hole at that time. She’s always been a controversial figure obviously…she’s definitely Punk Rock…there were times she was getting carried off the stage on that tour. Fighting with fans. People were throwing shot gun shells at her feet. It was a spectacle.” Despite Courtney Love’s outrageous behavior and her smack talk about Cypress Hill early on the tour, B-Real respects Courtney Love as an artist, “Nobody could take that away from her.”
Turning to a time long before Punk, I wanted to know B-Real’s thoughts about my current area of major study, Bob Dylan. “I’ve definitely listened to a lot of Bob Dylan in the past…. Just the way he wrote the songs. The kind of honesty he wrote in the songs. His bluntness. He wasn’t pulling back. Sure there was metaphor but it was pretty straightforward too…. I learned a lot from that. I can’t say he was one of my big influences. But you try to learn from everything that you can appreciate and are a fan of.” B-Real agreed that Dylan kicked open the doors for lyric writing in Rock and Roll. “Even if you didn’t think you were influenced by him, he influenced the guy that you were influenced by. That’s what makes a great artist.”
As the interview was racing towards the agreed upon time limit, I commented that Cypress Hill always seems to give it up for the past. “You have to. You have to. That was the bridge. They passed it to you. Eventually you’re going to have to pass it on to somebody else. You can’t keep it all to yourself. It’s not meant to be that way.”
“You have to have respect for the dudes, the groups, the artists that paved the way for you. Like the Run-DMCs, The Houdini’s, The Beastie Boys… if you’re in a group…Public Enemy, De La Soul and those guys man…and Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. You have to pay homage to that.” Knowing our time was short, he rushed to try and add to the huge list rolling around in his head. “If you’re a solo artist, to Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, all types of those guys man. Those were the pioneers of it…Ice T, NWA…it’s one of those things man. You have to know where it comes from and respect it. If you really love it and if you really want to represent it correctly and do the the kind of music people respect. Stuff that’s going to be timeless. If you have no respect for the art form man, then it’s all for just the money and fame…and that doesn’t last.”
Before I let him go, I asked him the obligatory ‘what have you been listening on your iPod’ question. ” So many things…last day or two…some classic stuff like Prince and Parliament Funkadelic…listened to some Jay-Z, the new Raekwon record.” B-Real paused when he remembered who else he’s been listening to lately. “Some of our old stuff to get reacquainted,” breaking into a joyful laugh, “just in case I have to play it again.”