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Don't You Know They're Loco? Cypress Hill's Black Sunday Revisited
David Bennun , July 23rd, 2018 09:34

With Black Sunday, Cypress Hill didn’t just become one of the world’s biggest hip hop acts: they carried out a shotgun wedding between rap and goth

Sometimes the worst people in the world happen to be right about something.

I don’t mean Cypress Hill. I’ve met Cypress Hill. I liked them. Which is not to say I know them, or anything of their true characters. But Sen Dog, B-Real and Muggs, were civil, affable and forthcoming with me for a couple of hours, at the peak of their fame, and an interviewer could hardly ask for more than that.

I’m talking about Cypress Hill fans. OK, a type of Cypress Hill fan. Specifically, the white keg-party stoner type. And no, of course they aren’t really the worst people in the world, either. Not even in the top two hundred, these days. Lately, you could put them in charge of everything and they would constitute an improvement on the people who actually are in charge of everything. But in the early 1990s, they were pretty insufferable, and I say that as somebody who shared a great many of their interests. The vanity of small differences, perhaps.

You can’t judge an act by its fans, it’s true. And I’m not seeking to do so; quite the opposite. Posterity rather seems to have judged Cypress Hill by their fans, and I’d like to offer the counterpoint. Posterity has Cypress Hill pegged as that band who rapped about marijuana and had a couple of catchy hits that went down big with the kind of dudes who also seemed to think that Bob Marley, as The Onion once felicitously had it, would one day rise from his grave to free frat boys from bonds of oppression. In the whole rock-rap crossover thing that was huge at the time, Cypress Hill were the go-to rap act. They even headlined major rock festivals without anyone starting a petition.

It’s a shame if that’s how Cypress Hill are to go down in musical history. Because they were one hell of a good band back then, and a pivotal one in more ways than they get credit for. Their second album, Black Sunday is – pun somewhat intended – a stone classic that will repay a revisit with a whole lot more than just the chorus of ‘Insane in the Brain’. Which (and it’s funny how things work out) you seldom hear played out these days. What you will hear, over and again, is House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’. Which is in essence an ersatz imperial-phase Cypress Hill tune, with that brilliant and absurdly catchy Muggs production wed to the lumpen party-bro flow of Everlast rather than the lickity-split one-two head-and-gut-punch of B-Real and Sen Dog. The best-remembered example of the Cypress Hill style, and its one certified dancefloor banger, is somebody else’s hit. That must sting.

‘Jump Around’ predated Black Sunday by a year, but it post-dates Cypress Hill’s 1991 self-titled debut album, to which their second is so close in sound that it could be seen more as a refined, bigger, sleeker reboot than a follow-up. (You can hear the process encapsulated in the transformation between ‘Hand On The Pump’ on the first album and a reworked version of the same number, ‘Hand On The Glock’, on the second.) There can be no question about the origin of that particular sound – its economy and precision, its terse, funky loops, its capacity to switch pace between brisk and slumberous without jarring, those little niggles and squiggles and riffs of sampled noise around which Muggs constructed his tracks. Granted, he was not a lone pioneer of those techniques; but a pioneer he was. You only have to set ‘Jump Around’ against anything at all off the first two Cypress Hill albums to know he was only part of a whole that was greater than the sum of, etc. Cypress Hill had a rapping partnership that interlocked perfectly both between its two members, and with its DJ. In an era when you couldn’t move in rap without tripping over dogs – Snoop, Nate, Tim, Tha Pound – B-Real and Sen Dog really did sound like what dogs surely would if dogs could rap: a high, snouty yowl punctuated by intermittent, urgent barks. As the supplier of the latter, Sen Dog would come to resent his relative lack of mic time, and leave the band an album later (returning a couple of years thereafter). Even if he didn’t know it, his contribution is perfect as it stood, integral as it was to Cypress Hill’s sound; had he done more of it, it would have counted for less.

Black Sunday was a huge commercial breakthrough for Latino rap. It was a major factor in shifting hip hop’s centre of gravity westwards, and Cypress Hill’s slower, sultry, smoke-wreathed style – as heard definitively on Black Sunday opener ‘I Wanna Get High’ – was already a key influence on the change from hectic late-1980s gangsta rap to the Dr. Dre-led G-funk sound of the 1990s. Their advocacy for marijuana legalisation (the Black Sunday album insert contained a list of pro-hemp information) may in hindsight look simply as if they were being on-brand, but it was no small or easy thing. This, bear in mind, was still the time of the PMRC and the powerful political allies of its Washington Wives; only three years earlier Kansas lawyers had claimed their teenage clients carried out a killing while “hypnotised” by the Geto Boys’ ‘Mind Of A Lunatic’: “It was partly liquor, partly marijuana and – probably most of all – it was a rap tape of the Geto Boys.”

But that was then. Today, the most significant thing about Black Sunday to me is that it is the first great gothic hip hop album (a sub-genre to which the aforementioned Geto Boys made a notable contribution, by the by.) Gravediggaz’ outlandish, hilariously gruesome debut, to which they gave the inspired and outrageous title Niggamortis (aka 6 Feet Deep in the US), was still a year off. But despite its grim sepia cover design (a cemetery on a hill under a sinister sky with skeletons in the foreground), Black Sunday wasn’t a horrorcore album. It concerned itself with only two topics: weed, and street violence. And it was plentifully grisly on these subjects. Many hip hop acts have defended their lyrics by asserting they are bringing the reality of the streets into the studio. That hasn’t always meant it was their personal reality; but for Sen Dog and B-Real, that’s exactly what it was. Both had been affiliated to the Bloods, and B-Real survived getting shot in the back, an episode memorably depicted on the frantic, impressionistic ‘Lick A Shot’. The fifth track on Black Sunday, with its jazzy bassline and clattering, elliptical beat, typifies that Cypress Hill trick of feeling simultaneously mellow, moody and agitated. Which, when you put together weed and violence, is exactly what you get. Weed may pacify users who prefer gluing themselves to the couch, but it numbs, disinhibits and emboldens those whose everyday lives revolve around death – whether the fear of it, or the possibility of inflicting it.

An obsession with death need not be grounded in one’s everyday life; goth is a sensibility and an aesthetic, and anyone may lay claim to either. But it is fair to say one might have more immediate impetus for such an obsession surrounded by gang-bangers in South Gate, California than in, say, Crawley, West Sussex. You could argue that all gangsta rap is gothic, given its obsessive morbidness, but this is to misunderstand that aesthetic and that sensibility, which are never so literal; they concern themselves with the meaning, the trappings, the rituals of the veil and what lies beyond it. Cypress Hill may or may not have had the first clue about or interest in goth and the gothic as sub-cultures – I wish, in hindsight, I had thought to ask them – but artistically speaking, and intentionally or not, they are goth as all hell. The atmosphere of Black Sunday swelters as darkly with madness and murder as does the work of Edgar Allan Poe. They share motifs, too: derangement, entombment, and a certain eroticism. As distinct from Poe, sex barely gets a look-in on Black Sunday, but listen to ‘Hits From The Bong’, built with typical concision around the opening phrases of Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, and tell me that bong is not the most lovingly evoked of fetish objects. You can almost feel hands rippling over its curves and tenderly burnishing its components.

There’s barely a weak point on the record. 14 tracks and 44 minutes long, with only two numbers clocking in over four minutes, it was on the short side for a 1990s rap album – the trend towards filling up as much of a CD as possible, so what might start off as fun would end up as a gruelling test of endurance, was already under way. This relative brevity, combined with its remarkable consistency, means it zips past in a strange kind of fug; a macabre miasma of intoxication and bloodlust. For a generation of beer pong bros, it was their Exodus: a THC-infused trip into someone else’s reality, a licence to treat getting high AF as magically making them down with la Raza. But for hip hop, it was a First And Last And Always, a gateway to the gothic – into which terrain Cypress Hill would venture deeper still on their uneven but much underrated and very weird third album, Cypress Hill III: Temples Of Boom . That’s another and, in truth, less important story. Black Sunday remains their masterpiece, a first-rate album that changed not only direction of hip hop but its tenor.