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Pop: Beat generation

ONCE, CYPRESS HILL stood at the crossroads - at that point where rock and rap entwine with the hair-trigger life of LA's ghetto. On their landmark album, Black Sunday (1993), the slow, booming beats of their Italian-American mastermind, DJ Muggs, ushered in a new sound for hip- hop, and a new audience: white rock fans. They took underground rap into the mainstream and became the fastest-selling rappers ever.

But in hip-hop, reputations are made to be broken. Cypress Hill's last album, Cypress Hill III: Temple of Boom, made little impact. Their one- time collaborator, the RZA, and his Wu-Tang Clan have usurped them, with a spartan, speeding sound that makes Black Sunday sound sluggish. The forthcoming Cypress Hill IV addresses the problem, Muggs sharpening his sound and lead rapper B-Real spraying boasts till they cannot be borne.

But can such intense invention be brought to the stage? Cypress Hill start their attempt, miraculously for a rap band, at exactly the appointed hour. Muggs is, as usual, nowhere to be seen. It's left to B-Real to bring them to life, and he seems up for the challenge.

To the encouragement of an almost all-white crowd, he leads the band through a set which emphasises their blood-soaked side, Black Sunday's "Ain't Goin' Out Like That" slamming into new song, "Checkmate".

B-Real's own good humour is never far away, whether mock-shocked at a suggestion that the crowd might prefer to be at home, "watching Mr Bean or some shit", or ritually asking for a toke. He's showered with offerings. He picks one, and exhales into the dark, Robert Mitchum cool. It's in such moments that Cypress Hill instil the warmth on which live hip-hop thrives.

But the qualities that make their new work effective are not so easily achieved. B-Real's raps shoot by so fast they can't be heard, and the chasm in intent between, say, the stoner reverie, "Insane in the Brain", and the brutal "Steel Magnolia" is flattened.

Muggs's trademark sirens are mere embellishment, and the night is soon reduced to hip-hop's most basic component: the beat, thumped with chest- rattling force.

As at any rock show, it's all half the crowd want. But when Cypress Hill encore with the sound of guitars (from the album's "Lightning Strikes"), you pine again for the layers that have been lost. The band leave after only an hour. Time enough for a dance. Not nearly enough time, or space, for the more complex pleasures they're capable of.