Back in Black sees Cypress Hill return to the raucous boom-bap that first saw them achieve unparalleled success. We spoke to Sen Dog about the legendary group’s long journey.
In an industry that continues to evolve, adapting to change is what Cypress Hill pride themselves on. Throughout their illustrious run, the West Coast luminaries broke boundaries by collaborating with Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam, dabbled in dubstep and reggae, and embraced psychedelia. “Even back when we started, we were doing things that no other hip-hop crew was doing,” says Sen Dog, a founding father whose gruff vocals complimented fellow frontman B-Real’s high-pitched flows for over 30 years. “Stuff like stage diving and allowing fans to jump on stage with us was common in rock and metal but not in rap. We were to the left of everything that was going on in hip-hop at the time, and that opened up doors for us. Doors that we left wide open for future generations to come through and be successful, too.”
Innovation comes with the territory for the Californian hip-hop heavyweights, who have held it down for LA County since their eponymous debut back in 1991. Their seminal debut bucked early conventions by introducing the world to weed rap, more than a year before Dr. Dre’s The Chronic popularized the subgenre. Their lifelong advocacy for cannabis didn’t just pave the way for legalization in California, but also shattered misconceptions that West Coast rap was boxed into one of two categories — the nihilistic candor of N.W.A. or the breezy radio-friendly hits of Tone Loc and Young MC. Black Sunday, their 1993 follow-up, leaned further into that 420 aesthetic, with stoner anthems such as “Legalize It”, “I Wanna Get High”, and “Hits From The Bong” propelling them to massive crossover success.
Since then, Cypress Hill have gone on to become immovable pillars of pop culture, becoming one of the biggest bands of all time with over 20 million albums sold. Platinum plaques and Grammy nominations came their way, as well as being immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and they memorably appeared on The Simpsons where they coaxed the London Symphony Orchestra into playing a rendition of “Insane in the Brain.”
Now entering their fourth decade, the group have just released their 10th album, Back in Black, entirely produced by renowned Detroit producer Black Milk. Unlike its experimental predecessor Elephants on Acid, Back in Black sees the trio return to the raucous boom-bap that first saw them achieve unparalleled success. “When we met up with Black Milk and heard the nature of his music, I was like, ‘Man, taking it back to our roots would be very clever right now,'” Sen said. “This is exactly what we need, because at the end of the day, we’re a hip-hop band.” Recent interviews have seen Cypress Hill become critical of today’s output, decrying the lack of substance and realism in music where artists are seemingly more interested in collecting clout and championing materialism. “Similar to the ‘80s, where rock ‘n’ roll was experiencing a ‘glam rock’ takeover, we’re seeing that in today’s hip-hop,” Sen said. “I think rap nowadays underwent a similar transformation, with the diamonds and jewels and throwing money and all of that. In my mind, I thought it was very important for a group of our stature to come back to our roots, almost like we’re going full circle. As no matter where you’re at in life, no matter how many records you sold, you gotta remember where you came from.”
Recorded whilst in a COVID-enforced lockdown, Back in Black is a ten-track throwback that combines their knack of searing socio-political nous with contemporary cannabis culture. Cypress Hill remain as in-your-face as ever, hell-bent on reintroducing themselves to another legion of rap fans as evidenced by the uncompromising intro “Takeover.” There’s an undercurrent of rage against the machine throughout the record, with the Dizzy Wright-assisted “Bye Bye” being the clearest example of their dissatisfaction with the system and the harsh realities of street life. They even hark back to a cinematic classic in “The Original,”which samples soundbites from Goodfellas’ embattled Henry Hill — someone who Sen appreciates as a kindred spirit. “He was the ultimate gangster. He lived the life, lived to tell the tale about it, and made money in the end.”
Having a beatsmith as adventurous as Cypress Hill in Black Milk behind the boards was a masterstroke. The J Dilla disciple’s fondness for hard drums and live instrumentals proved that he was more than ready to fill in for DJ Muggs and his sampledelic mayhem. He matched Sen and B-Real’s unflinching raps with beats that were just as rugged and riotous. “We’re not the type to have a million producers or guests on our records, so it felt very normal to roll with someone as easygoing as Black Milk on this record,” Sen said. “He impressed us with each beat he gave us, and he just let us rhyme over whatever he created, which made me feel comfortable. That was good enough for me.”
One of Back in Black’s highlights is the group’s salute to their good friend and fellow West Coast great 2Pac. In a tribute to the departed legend’s haunting thug sermon “Hail Mary”, Cypress Hill channel him in the hazy “Come With Me” which further showcases their love of the good herb. Sen is left with no doubt that had ‘Pac still been around, he would have been a prominent guest on the new album — a process that they rarely venture into themselves, given the lack of features in earlier records. “Back in the day, when the good brother ‘Pac was still amongst us, the plan was to get him in the lab for our albums,” Sen said. “‘Come With Me’ was the perfect homage to him because the guy had an impact on all of our lives… The dude was solid from day one. There’s just so many good things I could say about him that would take over this whole interview, because he truly was one of the best around.”
In another album standout, “Open Ya Mind,” they continue their mission to educate listeners on the legal aspects of cannabis. While their undying support for weed has long been one of their most enduring trademarks, their affinity for it runs much deeper than just sparking up a slew of blunts. Despite a progressive shift in laws and attitudes towards cannabis since they first formed, they are still intent on letting listeners know that further learning is still mandatory. “Even with all these gains that have been made, the struggle still continues,” Sen said. “You have to worry about state and national governments and how they would change and regulate laws and all that. When I grew up in the backyard of my mother’s house, I didn’t have to worry about that. But the war rages on, and we still have to be vocal about it.”
Twenty twenty-two promises to be another banner year for Cypress Hill. They are scheduled for a run of dates with metal mainstays Slipknot and punk rap trio Ho99o9 this summer as part of the nationwide Knotfest tour. Before that, a Showtime documentary focusing on their groundbreaking influence will fittingly air on April 20th. Furthermore, they are preparing for what will be their last album as a trio, with Sen and B reuniting with Muggs for a final victory lap after Back in Black. Despite their impending retirement as a collective, Sen maintains that they’ll still be around, but not in the way that longtime fans will expect. “Even though we’ll have one last album after Back in Black, you will stay hearing Cypress Hill material but we’re just gonna do things a lil’ differently,” Sen said. Much like they captivated audiences since 1991, they are still as eager to illuminate a newer generation, and Back in Black should go a long way in fulfilling their aims. “You can tell everybody that we’re back.”