Last weekend, I was stuck by the intense feeling of ‘feeling old’, a sharp stab of nostalgia prompted by the realisation that Cypress Hill’s ‘Black Sunday’ would be officially be twenty years old this year.
Listening to the album now, it sounds quaint, and more than a little bit goofy, but like any music that soundtracks a significant part of childhood and adolescence, it remains intrinsically linked to the memories of a certain period of my life. I was a fan of the album and listened to it a lot when it was released, mainly due to the fact that I was fifteen years old and had just discovered the joys of smoking cannabis.
Up until that point, cannabis was indelibly linked to the culture of the hippy; cut to images of the archetypal student in a bedsit listening to Bob Marley’s ‘Legend’ and skinning up on the cover of the Dark Side of the Moon LP. But in the early 90s, dance culture’s inevitable slide into the mainstream brought with it a new enthusiasm for recreational drug use and drugs in general. And this, combined with the smack happy Seattle sound that had begun to drift across the Atlantic, meant that being ‘bang off it’ became more socially acceptable, a drug-image rehabilitation that eventually peaked with the post Brit-Pop ‘Loaded’ generation.
It’s strange to think that initially, rap music was almost anti-drugs in its stance and politics. Grandmaster Flash warned us against ‘White Lines’. ‘Night of the Living Bassheads’ by Public Enemy was a stinging attack on drugs and drug culture, recasting hapless addicts as the walking dead in a cautionary tale meant to illustrate the effect that drugs can have on a neighbourhood. In NWA’s ‘Respect Yourself’ Dr Dre noted how he ‘don’t smoke weed or sass/because it’s known to give a brother brain damage/and brain damage on the mike don’t manage’, an ironic statement when you consider that within couple of years of this track’s release, he had hooked up with Snoop Dogg and was delivering the dope-smoke addled beats of ‘The Chronic’.
In 1993 rap had become gangsta rap. Fuelled in part by the Los Angeles riots of the previous summer, the West Coast movement took hip-hop’s quasi-militant focus on lyrics and wordplay and turned it towards the dark and cinematic. The rap persona became one of danger and menace; an outlaw image, Public Enemy number one in the Dillinger sense. During that year, both Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur had very public run-ins with the authorities, and their lyrics spoke of gang loyalty and the devotion to the ‘thug-life’. By contrast, Cypress Hill was a bit of an oddity. Although they had the requisite rhymes, and they utilised words and expressions such as ‘guns’ and ‘don’t-fuck-with-us’, they also had a sincere and heartfelt love of the weed, which offset their tales of violence and criminality with an almost cartoonish twist. Their own idiosyncratic style was showcased in their eponymously titled debut LP, released in 1991, but it was only with the release of ‘Black Sunday’ that they found and perfected their own particular peculiar sound. The album was huge success and went on to be triple-platinum in the USA, selling over three million copies.
The Cypress Hill sound was comprised of three unique elements. At the forefront was B-Real’s high-pitched nasal delivery, backed by Sen Dog’s own… ‘constipated’ style. But the real star of the show was DJ Muggs’ production. His use of obscure and crackly atmospheric samples, combined with funky bass-heavy cuts from classic tunes, created a distinct and colourful soundscape. Good to listen to while getting stoned, in other words. In an era before the wide availability of hydroponically grown weed, we would buy fiver deals of Red Leb and Slate resin and pretend that we were smoking ‘the funky, skunky, smelly green shit’ that Cypress Hill rapped about.
From the very start, ‘Black Sunday’ lays it on the line. ‘I Wanna Get High’ begins with sirens, segueing into a bouncing bass-line sampled from Junior Parker’s take on ‘Taxman’. Then B-Real’s nasal whine kicks in: ‘I want to get hiiiigh, soooo hiiiigh…’ It is completely daft, but it also manages to be warm, funky and fuzzy, and as it happens, the perfect accompaniment to collapsing onto a kitchen floor and spewing into a bin after a round of hot-knives.
The following track, ‘I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That’, demonstrates one of the reasons why Cypress Hill managed to cross over into alternative-rock so successfully, a rare feat for hip-hop music at the time, and a factor that undoubtedly fed into the god-awful rap-rock popularised by bands such as Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach at the turn of the millennium. With its driving Black Sabbath bass-line and relentless pace, ‘I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That’ translated well to the mosh-pit, and Cypress Hill became a big fixture on the festival circuit in the mid to late 90s, bolstering their live sound with electric bass and guitar.
In a way, ‘Black Sunday’ is a concept album of sorts, dealing with the various states of pot intoxication. This translates into a roughly dualistic narrative – the knock-about ganja party-anthem, best exemplified by the hit single ‘Insane in the Membrane’, and the paranoia-soaked gun and gang vignettes of ‘Cock the Hammer’ and the hypnotic ‘Lick A Shot’, the latter a track that was reportedly inspired by B-Real’s (aka Louis Freese) experience of taking a bullet to the lung.
Even its cover, a suitably dark and sketchy rendering of a graveyard, seemed designed to be perfect poster material for youthful pot-infused culture consumption. The CD booklet also came with 19 useful facts about cannabis, the cornerstone for many a rambling conversation to be had in between blasts on a bucket or a lung.
Growing up in Yorkshire in the early 90s, the discovery of rap music offered me a window onto an alien world of experience and existence that seemed just as exciting and enticing as the parallel universe occupied and offered up by guitars and NME column inches. In retrospect, ‘Black Sunday’ doesn’t hold up as well as work such as ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ or ‘Enter the Wu-Tang’, but I have fond memories of it nonetheless.
Perhaps ill-advisedly, Cypress Hill fully embraced the acceptance of the rock crowd, and eventually drifted too close to the insidious rock/rap hybrids that began to spring up in their wake. The loose, funky, almost psychedelic tone of ‘Black Sunday’ was jettisoned in favour of chunky distorted guitar riffs and ‘hardcore’ posturing, and as a result, their hip-hop legacy seems to have shrivelled to nothing more a mere footnote in the history of the West-Coast rap scene that eventually went on to have such a defining influence on modern popular American music.
However, for me, the simple genius of marrying the opening bars of ‘Son of A Preacher Man’ to a how-to diatribe about the pleasures of smoking a bong means that ‘Black Sunday’ will always be a cherished, guilty pleasure.
Because when the shit goes down, you better be ready…