Cypress Hill: Look back in ganja

In 10 years Cypress Hill have sold 15 million albums inspired by marijuana and gun culture. James McNair finds them older and (slightly) wiser but still in thrall to dope and mayhem
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The Independent Culture

You know you've made it, they say, when you appear on The Simpsons. And the Latino/ Italian American hip-hop outfit Cypress Hill have already had their episode. It was the one in which Homer and co attended an alternative rock festival. An officious roadie at the "Homerpalooza" event accuses the group of booking the London Symphony Orchestra while stoned. Cypress Hill, no strangers to the green, green grass of home, can't remember if they did or didn't, but happily take custody of the classical musicians in any case.

Rising to the occasion, the cartoon orchestra proceeds to play a version of the group's zillion-selling single, "Insane In The Brain", the staid players unaware that they are performing a soft-drug anthem. You see, with the possible exception of Guns & Ammo magazine, nothing has inspired more Cypress Hill tunes than marijuana.

I meet the group at Smashbox studios in Los Angeles and it initially seems that little has changed. B-Real, Sen Dog, DJ Muggs and percussionist Bobo arrive in dribs and drabs, and with their attendant "homies" – badinage and rolling giant spliffs is clearly a speciality – the gathering's starting to resemble a house party. But the band are here to work – they're posing for a cover shoot, and the magazine concerned has hired in various lights and a dry-ice machine. The dry-ice is superfluous, however. Consuming their greens with relish, the group have already smoked up a pea-souper of their own.

The cover shoot is to promote their new album, and like 2000's platinum-selling Skull & Bones, Stoned Raiders is an eclectic and committed record that finds Cypress Hill further refining their rock/rap crossover. When they formed in South Central LA in 1989, their primary influences included Public Enemy, Run DMC and The Beastie Boys. In the interim, they, in turn, have influenced both the sublimely gifted (Eminem), and a welter of ridiculously attired, far less talented "sports metal" bands (cf Limp Bizkit). They've also sold more than 15 million albums.

Siphoning off the numerous "you know what I'm saying"s that clog Sen's locutions, I learn that he and B-Real first honed their rhyming skills at informal, backyard parties. "The problem," Sen says, "was that the DJs noticed that every time we rhymed, other guys would want to battle us. They tried to stop us rapping, but we bought these little $20 microphones, and as soon as someone played a beat that was dope, we'd just plug into the PA. Did it take balls to get up there? Sure, but we were used to practising in the street. If you can get down on the kerb and breakdance, spin on your back, you can sure as hell get on the mic, you know what I'm saying?"

But even as Cypress Hill were obsessing over Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, they were also listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. And even before electric guitars had permeated their sound, the mysterious, gothic artwork of albums such as their 1993 breakthrough, Black Sunday, had hinted that this was a band that respected the Grateful Dead as much as they did any hip-hop outfit.

DJ Muggs, much lauded for his production work with and without Cypress Hill, believes that the anonymity of his group's album sleeves has also contributed to a career longevity that's rare in hip hop. "The record labels wanted to sell our faces," he says, "but for a long time all people got was the imagery and the music. Once people know everything about you, something is lost and they tend to move on." Quizzed specifically about the gruesome skulls that grace the band's sleeve art, meanwhile, B-Real agrees that they are a momento mori and so something that everyone can relate to: "We all look the same when we go, right? There ain't no shit in that coffin but bones."

If such ruminations seem a tad morbid, Cypress Hill's Mexican-Cuban frontman has a history that invites them. In the mid-Eighties, when he was a teenager living in LA's Southgate region, his older brother was a gangster, and "to some extent" his father was too. It was when B – born Louis Freese – was initiated into the notorious Crips gang that he first encountered the gun culture that Cypress Hill tracks such as "Lick a Shot" and "How I Could Just Kill a Man" subsequently documented.

"In our 'hood," he says, "there were a lot of Vietnam vets who had guns, and sometimes they'd trade them to kids for drugs. You could also get them on the black market, or from police holding places." In tones free of braggadocio, B goes on to explain that initiation into gangs such as the Crips could involve shooting a member of a rival gang or, in slightly more lenient circumstances, burning the rival's house down. "Actually, Cypress don't like to talk about shit like that," he says, perhaps realising that our conversation has strayed a little "off message". "I can't sit here and tell you I never took a life, though," he adds. "I pray that I didn't, but frankly I never stuck around to find out."

Does he still own firearms? "Yeah, but they're legal now, and I don't take them out in the car with me. About six years ago some people broke into my house, and if that 'him or me' situation was to come up in the future, it would still have to be him." But if neither of you had a gun, I suggest, surely it wouldn't have to be anyone? The gist of B Real's answer is that the vendettas that extant gun-cultures engender will always make people reluctant to surrender their firearms. And criticise though we Brits may, the shootings at So Solid Crew's London Astoria gig were a reminder that guns are now a fixture of British dance culture, too.

To be fair to B-Real, one would also have to concede that his lyrics on Stoned Raiders – he's said that "Trouble", "Bitter" and "Memories" all reflect on the events of his youth – have a tangible spirit of remorse. And, even though B is probably the Cypress Hill member with the shadiest past (he's dealt cocaine; he's been shot in the lung) he now exudes a warmth, humility and life-wisdom that I failed to detect in DJ Muggs or Sen Dog.

It's when discussing the tattoos on his alarmingly muscular forearms that he's most revealing. Having confided that it's the designs on his right arm that are the most personal, he starts talking me through them: "This here is LA, so you've got the helicopters watching us, the graveyard with my dead homeboys, and this here is a big fat spliff." And the girl? "Erm... that's someone who once meant a lot to me," he says. Questioned further, he reveals that it's Carmen Electra, a former lover and Baywatch actress who has since married Dave Navarro, a guitarist with Jane's Addiction. Has he ever considered having her removed? "No," he smiles. "She held up a mirror that taught me a lot, man. Up until then I never realised how difficult it could be to go out with someone who works in entertainment."

Back in conversation with DJ Muggs, I'm starting to wonder if I've got him all wrong. He's telling me how recent fatherhood has changed his outlook, and I later learn that during another interview, he scratched baby Francesca's name on a wooden desk. It's a sweet gesture, all right, but his response to whether Cypress Hill will be touring Britain this winter has me deducting more charm points. "Britain in January, with those chanky-ass hotels and the shitty food? Listen, man, I'm used to a California King with Egyptian cotton sheets and a fine-assed bitch at my side. We'll wait for the summer festivals."

Cypress Hill's 'Stoned Raiders' is out now on Columbia