For a moment, the show is over. Cypress Hill, the mostly Latin hip-hop trio whose name has become synonymous with marijuana, is taking a break. B-Real, 23 and the band’s lead rapper, is tucked away on the tour bus on the way to Milwaukee, while the group’s 24-year-old DJ and producer, Muggs, is knocking back a tall shot of Crown Royal with his low-calorie beer. Cypress Hill’s other rapper, Sen Dog, 28, leaves the hard stuff alone on this humid night. The two have stayed behind to shop for records and visit family. They’re seated at a slowly revolving bar in the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans.
Before separating, the two of them talk about the old days, about just how long they all have been B-boys. About how the crew toured for free, opening for Naughty by Nature in the summer of 1991. B-Real, Sen Dog and Muggs, in an old van, followed Naughty’s tour bus across the country, putting themselves up at motels when they could afford to. The trekking worked: Their debut, Cypress Hill, a compilation of two-years work, went slowly platinum. And their second album, the recent, already platinum Black Sunday, recorded in eight weeks, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop and R&B charts. The paranoid songs on both albums – about guns, smoking weed and watching one’s back – made the hip-hop nation raise its eyebrows and take notice, if not notes. Now Cypress’ pulsing, erratic sound is much imitated, and Muggs produces music for everybody from Ice Cube to the Beastie Boys.
This time around, Cypress Hill are headlining. Called the Soul Assassins tour – with House of Pain, Funkdoobiest and the Whooliganz (all managed by Happy Walters, a 27-year-old Jewish Hoosier) – it’s perhaps the first rap tour in history in which African American performers are most conspicuous by their absence. From Houston to New Orleans, Cypress Hill perform like maniacs and smoke every blunt as if it were the last one ever.
NEAR THE Rice University campus, Houston is bland. It looks wholesome and plain, like dry wheat toast. In front of one of the oldest hotels in the city, an already full van awaits House of Pain’s lead MC, the goateed, New York-Irish Everlast. He finally appears, raucous and unapologetic, with a young woman from Dallas. Her black hair falls down to her waist, her breasts rebel against the confines of a complicated halter top, and her face is powdered with Revlon colors. She is almost fluorescent with the dazzling glow of a Girl That Got Picked.
The rest are there: B-Real, with his braids fuzzy from sleep; the boys of Funkdoobiest – Cypress Hill wanna-be’s from Los Angeles – as well as the young rap duo Whooliganz; plus management types. Everybody is drowsy and quiet except Everlast. He expresses loud opinions on the rap magazine The Source, the tour’s shows and various record labels. He says the word nigga casually and often, as emphatically as your average brother or your average redneck.
Tonight’s venue is a place called the Unicorn Ballroom. A big supermarket in a previous life, the makeshift arena quickly becomes dank with teenage perspiration and marijuana, clove and tobacco smoke. The crowd is about a third each black, white and Latino and about 4-to-1 male to female; without music as a catalyst, the mass begins moving. The fiercest and most devoted of the crowd hit the pit, surrounded by a panting, less gymnastic throng. The promoter says it’s a full house at 3,700 people. Walters says it looks oversold.
When the Whooliganz emerge – two adolescent white boys rapping hardcore over B-Real’s production – the pit surges frantically in reaction to the bass. The house responds to them; the place teems. People pass out or get knocked out, and security guards in mustard-colored shirts and blue latex gloves carry off the unconscious. As if they were wounded champions, the insentient kids are cheered by the crowd. By the time House of Pain come on – and later on Cypress Hill – you don’t have to be moving to be sweating, even backstage. Between sets, the performers eat little of the thick crew food: barbecued beef, bright-yellow potato salad, guacamole, enchiladas and coleslaw with raw white onion, dill-pickle chips and jalapeños. They walk around instead, mopping their sweat with white terry towels, gulping bottles of Evian, smoking. B-Real, silent, groggy and a little bit high, has changed into his performance gear: black jeans, black boots, black knit cap. His black T-shirt reads life is short, smoke hard. He watches Funkdoobiest and House of Pain from a quiet spot, and, when it’s his turn – after Everlast, his cartoonish crazed-convict look and demeanor honed to a science, has fired up the crowd with his hoarse, desperate rhymes, and it is glowing and hot, ready to consume – B-Real dashes out, going ferociously through “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and “Hand on the Pump,” then running back off, exhausted. He hangs his tongue out in universal sign language, and somebody hands him water.
The show goes on, and the vibe is more rock than rap. B-Real’s strident, hypnotic whine is echoed by Sen Dog, always the co-singer, who backs up Real with a haunting baritone. Muggs is up high on a platform, behind the turntables, near the giant, hanging marijuana leaf made of horse and cow bones. His dais, embellished with what looks like human skulls, is like a throne, and he cuts and scratches, spinning records, giving the crowd something other than the bass to feel. Fifty minutes into the 60-minute set, B-Real rolls out and unveils a gigantic thumb and forefinger holding a huge, smoking joint, and the crowd bucks with excitement. They want to prove to Cypress, it seems, that they are clear on the concept.
There are rumors that Treach from Naughty by Nature will be at the show because he is in Houston co-starring in a movie, Jason’s Lyric. After a short lecture from B-Real about other rappers he thinks are “fake,” Treach walks onstage, freestyling. Everlast joins him. B-Real sits on a monitor, exhausted, grateful for the diversion. Cypress close with “Insane in the Brain,” and B-Real, tall and gangly, polite and intent, is off, back in the fume-filled tour bus, hitting the weed.
INTERSTATE 10 RUNS from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla. From Houston to the Texas-Louisiana border, it’s a gray line cutting through a dusty tapestry of car dealerships, carpet warehouses, La Quinta motels and McDonald’s billboards. The highway cops drive IROCs.
“The hard thing about hip-hop is that on [follow-up] albums, kids wanna hear last year’s shit, but different,” says Sen Dog, a Cuban (“black, just not American”) whose actual name is Senen Reyes. He looks through the long, tinted window at the occasional patch of Texas scenery. He says the only other thing he would like to be doing is playing professional football. He was a running back at Los Angeles’ Centennial High 12 years ago and received letters from college recruiters. “Maybe if I had stayed in school,” he says. “But I started fucking up hard. Drinking, cutting school, going through a rebellious stage.” Sen played semipro ball as recently as 1992, with the Bellflower Bears. “Defensive back,” he says. “Those running-back days are over.”
Sen moved to the United States from Cuba with his family when he was 5. His accent is strong, disarming. He and B-Real, a k a Louis Freese, who is Mexican and Cuban, go in and out of Spanish frequently. Muggs (Larry Muggerud) is of Italian descent. “Cypress doesn’t focus on being Spanish,” the DJ says. “There’s my brother, [former Capitol recording artist] Mellow Man Ace, A Lighter Shade of Brown, Kid Frost – they concentrate on Spanglish lyrics, the whole thing. Cypress would rather concentrate on saying something important.”
Such as? “Not necessarily world news,” Muggs says, “but something people can relate to. For example, everybody told us the crowds in Japan would be kind of conservative. But it’s like, onstage, you just have to not be embarrassed to show out. You can’t be afraid to dance, to clown. They feel you letting go and just acting the way you feel. Then they start flipping each other and shit.”
He wonders aloud about how people might relate to the gun images – “Cock the Hammer” comes to mind – and Cypress’ notorious stoned lifestyle. “I started hanging out with B-Real ’cause he was friends with my brother Mellow,” says Muggs. “They’re younger, but I hung with them anyway because they weren’t afraid to do crazy shit.” Crazy shit? “Gangbanging. Getting drunk. People might think that shit isn’t normal. But in our neighborhood, in Southgate, it seemed like everybody was doing it.”
“Policia,” Sen announces calmly to Joel, the bus driver, and Joel slows down as his radar detector beeps. Sen goes to the back of the bus, where the 24-inch bong rests and the television with the video games sits. “The guys spend a lot of time back there, playing those games and smoking,” says Joel. “It’s a distraction. You can get wrapped up in your own mind real easily out here.”
B-Real chomps through an ice-cream sandwich while sucking on a handful of Jolly Rancher candies. As the big silver tour bus pulls out of a gas station in Prairieville, La., he says, “It’s hard to breathe out there,” commenting on the sweltering afternoon. Then he begins to meticulously clean resin from a glass bong with a tissue and a bottle of peroxide from the bus’s first-aid kit.
You could almost say that Cypress Hill’s mesmerizing sound – B-Real’s nasal incoherence, Sen’s haunting echoes – is a byproduct of the smoking plant. The band members even say that not one song on their new album was recorded while they weren’t high. (Then again, that could be the case with a lot of bands.) But “it’s not a plus in our lives,” B-Real assures, “it’s just a part of our lives. It may enhance an idea, but we can be creative without it. Anybody who needs it to get creative in this business needs to get out.”
LOUISIANA IS SUDDENLY much greener than Texas. Once in New Orleans, Cypress Hill’s tour bus, sandwiched between House of Pain’s in front and the Whooliganz and Funkdoobiest’s bringing up the rear, rolls out onto a boulevard called Elysian Fields toward the University of New Orleans’ Lakeside Arena. The silver buses pass Brother Martin High School, the Archangel St. Raphael School, a place that sells shrimp po’ boys and doughnuts, three for 65 cents.
In New Orleans, the crowd is less frenzied. The temperature is lower here, for one thing. And B-Real is rested. He is commanding the stage, stalking it. Sen is in fighting form. He’s in B-Real’s rhythm, aware and on top of his every rhyme. Sen stomps frenetically through his occasional verse, his easy smile never appearing onstage. Muggs comes down from his podium and hypes the crowd through the mike. Eric Bobo, Cypress Hill’s sometimes percussionist, tonight on bongos and timbals, breaks a stick and goes right back to his knuckles and the palms of his hands.
Perhaps a bit more goes on in New Orleans than in Houston, but the Houston crowd was fanatical, cohesive. In New Orleans, the racial breakdown is about the same, with maybe fewer blacks and Latinos. “Everybody in this house is a bad motherfucker,” B-Real yells. And the college kids, almost as anxious to confirm him as the working-class teenagers in Houston, crank it up a bit and start flipping each other, just like Sen likes them to. “We find honesty in the hardcore,” B-Real will say later. Truth is the central, unyielding part of hip-hop. “And we vibe off the audience as much as they vibe off of us.”
“We ain’t going out like that/Not going out like that,” Cypress Hill are now rapping onstage from their hit “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That,” the second single off Black Sunday. B-Real’s got his hands pointed straight up at the ceiling, then out toward the thrilled crowd. What matters at Cypress Hill shows is not the words, camouflaged in concert by screaming fans, electronic distortion and marijuana, as much as the intoxicating loudness, the plentiful perspiration of abandon and the blissful freedom of imagined power.
Sen asks me how the show looks from the audience.
“Big,” I say.
“I always wonder.”