Photo courtesy of Soul Assassins Records.
Reflecting on a Career of Hits, DJ Muggs Says the Underground Keeps Him Young
Cypress Hill member and rap producer DJ Muggs is one of the greats. In a candid interview with Thomas Hobbs, this veteran touches on everything from his new record Soul Assassins 3: Death Valley, to perfecting bong hit sound effects and not caring about the critics.
With nearly 40 years in the music business, you might expect a burned-out DJ Muggs to finally slow down and stretch out his legs in a seaside hammock while the royalties for Cypress Hill’s “Insane In The Brain” come rolling in. However, this legendary producer is still putting out his trademark pulsing yet gloomy rap beats at such a prolific rate that it feels like he’s on a personal mission to eviscerate all ageism in hip-hop.
Over recent years, Muggs has evolved far beyond his role as the architect of the sticky, blitzed-out Cypress Hill (which includes members B-Real, Sen Dog and Eric Bobo) sound, acting instead as a conduit for contemporary underground rap via memorable production credits for the likes of Jay Worthy, Roc Marciano, Flee Lord, Rome Streetz, The God Fahim, Mach-Hommy, and Mayhem Lauren.
Back in August, he released the third chapter of the celebrated Soul Assassins series, with its 19 tracks playing out like an ode to tripping on mushrooms (just check out “Check In”) while channeling the funk innovators from the 1970s. Despite the advancing years of some of its guests (which include Ghostface Killah, Ice Cube, Slick Rick, and Scarface), each artist sounds completely re-energized under Muggs’ auteur-like direction, with NWA veteran MC Ren’s bar about being “still hungry like I’m fasting” on closer “Dump On Em” emblematic of how the record’s creator also feels.
“I’m still a baby, bro!” agrees the 55-year-old during our late-night phone interview, speaking with a woozy passion I rarely see from artists even in their twenties. “I have not even got to my peak yet. I’m inspired by artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, who did some of their best work when they were in their 70s. All I care about is inspiring the next generation and all those motherfuckers who maybe think they’re too old to still be rapping! If you’re in your 50s then you’re still a kid, trust me.”
Despite Muggs’ longevity, and the Italian American being responsible for some of hip-hop’s most recognizable mosh pit anthems (think: House of Pain’s “Jump Around”, Cypress Hill’s “How Could I Just Kill A Man”, and Ice Cube’s “We Had To Tear This Motherfucker Up”), his name often gets left out of the ‘best rap producer’ conversations; something utterly baffling when you consider his consistent inventiveness behind the boards.
On Roc Marciano’s “Wild Oats” Muggs balanced a spluttering electric guitar solo with regal sitar notes, making these two instruments sound like they were tensely exchanging different cultural philosophies. With Mayhem Lauren’s “Aquatic Violence”, meanwhile, he turned a high-pitched violin into a death rattle and utilized underwater bubbles to conjure up visions of a James Bond villain cackling in his underground lair while feeding a failing henchman into the piranha tank.
Even further back, with Cypress Hill’s “Cock The Hammer,” Muggs created the rap equivalent of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”, thanks to a moody, ominous, rain-soaked beat. It perfectly captured the eerie stillness of walking through Los Angeles’ alleyways at night, where it can feel like the bright lights on the horizon might just melt away into gang violence at any given moment.
“When I make music, I always have to test it out in the car at 3 a.m. first,” Muggs says of his sound. “All my beats capture the atmosphere of nighttime. I like minor key dark shit. Any guitar with that bluesy, Albert King’ twang; that is just the sound that comes out of me naturally.”
DJ MUGGS - Dump On Em ft. B Real, MC Ren & Ice Cube (Unofficial Video)www.youtube.com
These are just three moments of producer brilliance across a career filled with examples, but they capture how Muggs is able to build dread and create the kind of tension you usually find in golden-era crime noir murder mysteries. His beats are just like movies and it’s therefore not surprising Muggs has spent 2023 making more concrete moves into Hollywood: he’s scored the Steven Soderbergh-produced sci-fi, Divinity; an upcoming Mel Gibson cop thriller called Confidential Informant; and even turned Soul Assassins 3: Death Valley into its own trippy short film.
“Why can’t I win an Oscar for doing a film score?” Muggs explains further, with one eye clearly on his future. “I’m all about staying a student. Hip-hop culture might change, but I’m always going to take notes and embrace everything that’s new. You can never shun something and be like: ‘Nah, we used to do it like this!’ Being an innovator is about changing with the tide. That’s what keeps you eternally young.”
To celebrate the release of Soul Assassins 3: Death Valley and yet another vintage year for DJ Muggs, Okayplayer spoke to the producer about bong sound effects, being raised on guitar music, a hatred for cruel critics, and being one of the innovators behind cannabis becoming so mainstream within hip-hop culture.
Photo courtesy of Soul Assassins Records.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Thomas Hobbs: What I love about DJ Muggs’ beats is those little details buried in the background. The sound of the pager going off in the “Insane In The Membrane” beat or how the rippling water effect on “Hits From The Bong” sounds like it’s beatboxing somehow. Why are these touches so important?
DJ Muggs: Those imperfections and little details are what give each section of a song its own unique identity and personality. Like with the water ripples: that was me recording B-Real hitting the bong live in my bedroom, and adding it into the beat so it becomes seamless and serves the function of a percussion instrument. Our bong was a one-footer! It was dirty as fuck, too; that motherfucker had resin all up in it! You know, I probably made the “Hits From The Bong” beat in about 10 minutes flat.
Do you think Cypress Hill gets enough credit for normalizing weed culture within hip-hop? It wasn’t cool to smoke weed when you guys arrived, with Dr. Dre even rapping about how it gave people brain damage. It was taboo back then, right?
Motherfuckers in hip-hop at that time smoked weed, sure, but they rarely talked about it on their records. It was still taboo, definitely. Remember Cypress Hill was just before The Chronic! We were the ones who took weed and made it popular in rap. We were fighting to reform weed laws, too. Shit, we sold so much weed in the streets bro! Even when Cypress Hill was getting Gold records, we were selling pounds and pounds of weed. Even when we were guest-starring on The Simpsons, we were still selling weed on the black market.
I wanted to take things back a little. When rap producers use rock guitars it can sound corny, but you were sampling Black Sabbath on “I Ain’t Going Out Like That” in a way that sounded like the riff was someone spitting raw bars. To achieve that so well, I imagine rock music had to have been a big part of your childhood.
Definitely. On one side it was Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, as my mum’s little brother was into that shit. I’m talking about the 1970s, so all that music was still fresh! Then my mom was more into the Delfonics, Elvis Presley, and all the MoTown shit. These are all the things I would later sample. The moment I became really obsessed with music was when The Sugarhill Gang dropped “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. I would sit for four hours just waiting for the radio to play that one song, even just once! It was an obsession; I’d never heard music like rap before.
Cypress Hill - "Hits From The Bong" (Live at Lollapalooza 2010)www.youtube.com
Before Cypress Hill, you were a member of The 7A3. What’s the biggest lesson you learned from that period?
The other two members (brothers Brett and Sean Bouldin) were from the Linden Housing Projects in New York, which was a really wild environment! They wanted to rap about going to the beach and getting away from the violence, while I was more on some dark shit. That’s probably why it didn’t work out between us. But I took everything from that experience and applied it to Cypress Hill.
The 7A3 had a Gold record and were doing stadium tours supporting MC Hammer and Salt-N-Pepa. I remember one day I went into a meeting with Bill Stephney, who was the executive producer for Public Enemy at the time. He said: ‘Do you guys have a logo?’ I was a teenager and I didn’t know what the fuck a logo even was. Bill said: ‘What is your concept?’ He told me how LL Cool J was the lover; Slick Rick was the storyteller; and Public Enemy were the new Malcolm X rebels. That’s when it all clicked!
When I left the 7A3 and we formed Cypress Hill, I knew weed had to be our brand, because it was a big part of our ritual when we hung out. We had to rap about weed just like Cheech and Chong! With Cypress, the whole energy was laughing in the face of disaster. Someone could pull up on us with guns and we’d still have sly smiles on our faces. So yes, those early experiences taught me everything about our future branding and how to become successful as a group.
I’ve always wanted to ask you about producing “Jump Around” by House of Pain, as it’s one of those rare rap songs that White people will always dance to, no matter the occasion. To me, it carries the energy of a raucous Irish wake, where everyone is tipsy and dancing in honor of the dead…
Back then I used to hang out in the reggae clubs a lot, and they had all these songs where the hook was about jumping around. The crazy thing with that beat is I offered it out to a lot of people before it even ended up with Everlast and the House of Pain, but nothing ever worked out! I knew I had produced a hit, so I didn’t want to just give it to a motherfucker who did something half-assed over the top. They had to earn the right to take it from me, you know? Everlast came through and the rest is history.
Monica Lynch was an executive at Tommy Boy, and she’s part of the reason the song blew up like it did! She was Irish and I remember she once said: ‘The energy reminds me of my two brothers. They go to church and then they get drunk at the bar after and get into fights.’ Monica knew exactly how to market that record.
Another part of your legacy I admire is how you always experiment with different genres. In 2003 you released Dust, an underrated album that’s more alternative rock and trip-hop than gangsta rap. The song “Cloudy Days”, for example, could be by Radiohead. Why is taking those risks so important?
I am the master of all styles bro. From Van Halen to Simply Red to U2 to Tricky to dubstep; I can do it all. The reality is I get bored very easily. With rap, it is easy to make the same song over and over. So, I like to experiment with other genres and clean my palette and take a break sometimes. Then I come back to hip hop and I am excited again, which is why I am able to still make classics like Soul Assassins 3, today. I need something to make my brain think differently. I can’t drive the same way every day to work; I will go a different way, even if it adds an hour onto my journey! That’s just the type of person I am.
If it all stopped tomorrow, what would you want them to say about DJ Muggs’ legacy?
My kids are doing great, my girl is doing great, and we all get to travel the world. The people who matter - the Dr. Dre’s, the RZA’s, the Janet Jackson’s - they all respect me. So I don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks or says: I’ve already got everything I need!
You can’t trust the good reviews, or the bad reviews, either. So many of these critics never made anything! What gives someone who never made a rap beat in their whole fucking life the right to critique me, Dr. Dre, or the RZA? Who cares what they think? What really matters is meeting kids on the underground circuit who are successful and they say: ‘I make music because of you, Muggs!’ That’s all that matters. That makes me feel better than any review.
DJ Muggs’ Soul Assassins 3: Death Valley is out now on Soul Assassins Records.
-Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the U.K. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out.
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