The last time Cypress Hill released an album, Barack Obama was in the early days of his presidency, Stevie Wonder was headlining Glastonbury Festival and a teenage Justin Bieber was about to unleash his debut longplayer.
Eight years later the progenitors of Latino American hip-hop are back riding a late career high with their ninth studio record, Elephants On Acid, widely acclaimed as one of the best albums of 2018. This week they arrive in the UK for a short tour.
Sen Dog, who co-founded Cypress Hill with B-Real and DJ Muggs in South Gate, California, in 1988, admits the lengthy gap between albums was unexpected but he says each of them has kept busy with side projects. “You never envisaged it’s going to take a long time,” he says. “We put out Rise Up and I think we toured it double the period of time we normally tour an album – something like four years we went out making money on the road with that record, which was cool. We were having talks about who was going to produce the record and very early on B-Real wanted to get Muggs back in the fold and we did a bunch of songs and then we scrapped those songs and started the record again, so I knew it was going to take longer than we all anticipated but I felt that it would be worth it at the end because I know when we all lock in together the three of us, me, Muggs and B, in the past the results have all been good.
“We didn’t intend on taking that long but sometimes you have to wait for the right moment and that’s what happened.”
While Muggs travelled to Egypt and Jordan and worked on his Soul Assassins project, B-Real formed the supergroup Prophets of Rage with Chuck D of Public Enemy and members of Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave. Sen Dog – whose real name is Senen Reyes – founded a rap-metal band of his own, Powerflo, with associates from Biohazard and Fear Factory.
“I was in the process of making a solo album and the more it went on and more songs and more songs I was like ‘Darn it, I’m going to have to put a band around this now’ because it the way it was coming together it sounded like a band, so I went after my close friends to help me out with it – Christian Wolbers, Billy Graziadei and Roy Lozano – and they said ‘Yeah, we’ll play with you’ so all of a sudden I had a band with all these great names in it, which was cool.
“We don’t really take to the whole ‘We’re a superband’ thing. When we’re as big as Metallica we’re going to call ourselves that, but right now we’re just Powerflo. We had a great time on tour and I’m glad that my bandmates support me and we support each other in that manner because you obviously grow as a musician and evolve as a person and when we come back to the mothership, which is Cypress Hill, you have all these experiences that you went through. It helps you grow as a musician, I believe, and if you have any more music that’s left in you that doesn’t go to your band, that doesn’t fit with Cypress Hill, then find another way to get it out.”
The three agreed that whatever they did with this record it had to build on all their previous achievements. “It’s all about the legacy, what we do in the music industry and the entertainment world, that it’s done properly, that’s it’s done correctly,” says Sen, 53. “Our legacy is very important. Going back to our beginning days, we were pulling off things that young bands hadn’t done yet in hip-hop. At this point now, 28 years into our career, our legacy is the utmost important thing to us and keeping that as a bright light that shines and people are still attracted to it – just so the fans know we respect their part of our legacy. We always want to come through correctly for them. The concert has to be done properly so that they feel that they’re thoroughly entertained, that’s all number one stuff for us.”
The trio’s working methods have varied over time. “When we first started everything was done together, the three of us in one room,” Sen says. “This was before the guys had money, cars, homes, kids, so we were always together in Muggs’ apartment but as the band’s evolved success came in and things that take you away from what you do with your band – go and start a family and stuff like that – we started doing other things. Muggs would send me a CD or something and say ‘Here, right to this’. We didn’t always have to be together all the time, so B-Real will get some tracks, I’ll get some tracks and then we’ll come up with stuff and when we report to the studio we’ll see what fits better with the tracks that he gave us and go with that. Right now at this point we could write either way – all of us together or just me in my garage and when we get to the studio I’ll get with those guys. The chemistry’s still there so it’s not that hard to tap into.”
The album’s title came from a dream of Muggs’ but it seems Sen has his own interpretation. “When Muggs explained it, it was more like a nightmare actually of an elephant on acid trying to chase him or stomp him down or some crazy stuff like that. Before I go making my own crazy rendition of what it means to me, I like the original mother concept of that dream he had, but my own interpretation of it is Cypress Hill – me, B-Real, Muggs and Bobo [the band’s percussionist] – we’re the elephants in the room and this acid is the music that we give our fans, that they crave for. An elephant is considered a spiritual, holy animal in some countries and that’s a very big thing in itself. When you put an elephant in a room it takes all the space up.
To move forward and to prove people wrong is always key in this sport because people will write you off as soon as the next guys come in. It’s very important that we prove to ourselves and the rest of the world that we’re still those guys again.Sen Dog
“I see it as us guys we came up from the little town in South Gate, now we’re hip-hop icons, actually musical icons. We’re the elephant, acid is the music and it’s meant to be that the fans should feel part of this world. Every time we make an album, especially this one, it was done with the fans in mind.”
B-Real has said he sees the album as a tale of redemption. Sen agrees with the idea that it taps into some of the darker themes of their early work. “As far as I’m concerned I think a return to our original hip-hop style was very important to us at this point. The last time we actually did a straight hip-hop record was a few years back, so I think we’re trying to prove to the world that we’re still capable of pulling off great hip-hop and not just a song or two, like a complete badass album. That’s where I came from with that, I wanted to get the respect for the band. After eight years people think you’ve broken up because they haven’t heard anything musically from you in a while but the truth is we never broke up, we did a lot of touring, but I think getting back to square one so that people can see we’re still as good as we ever were on any front, whether it be straight hip-hop or rap-metal or reggae-rap or whatever, we want to prove we’re still good at what we do. You’ve got to find some kind of quality of redemption in that too.
“To move forward and to prove people wrong is always key in this sport because people will write you off as soon as the next guys come in. It’s very important that we prove to ourselves and the rest of the world that we’re still those guys again.”
Elephants on Acid also has a spiritual side. “It could be a product of getting a little older and wiser,” Sen considers, “but growing up the three of us in our families, some more than others, we were raised in a spiritual mindset from our parental units or our aunts and uncles or whatever. In my house spirituality was an ordinary thing. You can really surprise somebody when you show that side of you, that you believe in something more than what you have on this planet. Spirituality is a big deal and some of my favourite albums carry good spirit.
“We wanted to prove all of these things not just to ourselves but to everyone that there’s a deeper, constant, more of a higher thinking that goes along with us as well as ‘Hey, I want to get high’ and ‘hits from the bong’. We’ve got something between our ears and we want to make sure that people recognise that too.”
Sen has described Cypress Hill as a “brotherhood”, whose roots are evidently deep. Today he reflects: “I think I met B-Real in 1982 or 1983, I was 17, he was 13 or 14. Those guys are friends to me. When I say they’re my brothers they’re like my brothers,” he emphasises. “We’ve always had that about us since we first met and became crew and everything. We drank from the same 40oz bottle, shared a dime bag of weed or whatever. That’s what keeps Cypress going because even through our down time or times when we don’t see eye-to-eye it’s never a thing like ‘Man, I need to get away from these people, I need to quit’. You don’t quit on your brothers. You can take some time off, that’s fine if you need it, but the whole group started before we even knew it had started, when we were teenagers and that foundation was made back in the early 80s when the bonds were made.
“I see B-Real’s mother as my aunt and he calls my mom his aunt, so it’s definitely a family thing.”
In the summer it was announced that Cypress Hill were going to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Sen Dog sees it as significant. “It’s one of those things when you hear it you have to sit down or look for a chair right away because it was like ‘What?’” he says in an astonished tone. “It’s something you don’t think you’ll ever achieve. I never thought about us having a star on the Walk of Fame.
“As a kid going to Hollywood and walking the streets and reading all the star names, it’s just the biggest names on there in entertainment. To me it was ‘Let’s just keep going and putting these records out’ and they were going platinum and double platinum but I didn’t think anybody in the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce was paying attention to us so when the word came through that they accepted us I had sit down and put my hands together and give thanks. It’s a great thing and not everybody gets to achieve that, there are entertainers that are totally worthy of it and haven’t got it. In the same class we’re going in with so is Dolly Parton – how long has she at it? She’s just getting hers now.
“You can take it for granted but I’m definitely very thankful. I’m glad that one day my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to go to Hollywood Boulevard and look at grandpa’s star on the Walk of Fame and feel special about it. I’m very proud of that, as is our whole team.”
Cypress Hill play at O2 Academy Leeds on Saturday December 1. cypresshill.com