Bang a Bong

DJ Muggs is tired of talking about reefer, so if you don't mind could you give it a rest, please? With an unmistakable hint of exasperation, the turntable whiz and musical mastermind behind Cypress Hill says yes, the members of the Southern California rap trio smoke pot -- a whole lot of pot. Yes, they have been the official musical spokesmen for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). And yes, whether they're on-stage, in the studio, or hanging around their respective West Coast abodes, a jumbo spliff is never far from the hands of Muggs and MCs B-Real (Louis Freese) and Sen Dog (Senen Reyes, who has reportedly left the band). But the 28-year-old Muggs (born Lawrence Muggerud) claims there's more to the critically praised and massively successful group than endless odes to the recreational pleasures of the mighty cannabis.

"Last year we were doing all these interviews, like hourlong things with CNN and shit, and none of them wanted to talk about anything but weed," Muggs complains by phone from his basement studio in Los Angeles. "No one wanted to talk about the music. But without the music, there's nothing else. No one's going to be buying songs about weed if the music is shitty and the words are shitty and the beats are shitty. Everything else has to be tight or else it don't mean shit. When we were making the new record, I told everyone, 'Let's touch on the subject but move on.'"

Actually, Cypress Hill's third and latest thump-and-bump creation, III: Temples of Boom, is laced with reefer references, and contains two ready-made anthems for the hip-hop stoner nation: "Everybody Must Get Stoned" (not a version of Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35") and "Spark Another Owl." The latter kicks off the disc with a spoken intro -- "Once again the powers of the herb open up the mind" -- before flowing into a throbbing, vintage-soul soundtrack over which B-Real relays his craze for chronic in the nasally voice that's become Cypress Hill's most recognized aural trademark.

Nevertheless, Muggs does have a point. Despite the group's obsession with pot, Cypress Hill's best work A on their new album as well as the '91 eponymously titled debut and '93's Black Sunday A cuts through the bong haze to examine the complexities of inner-city street life with stunning insight, accuracy, and clarity. From "How I Could Just Kill a Man," the group's maiden single, to "Illusions," the creepy highlight from III, Cypress Hill has lent an evocative voice to hip-hop's cultural and sociopolitical concerns.

The group's first album remains a classic -- a passionate mingling of East Coast Latin hip-hop and the slower grooves associated with West Coast rappers and producers -- that helped expand the sonic barriers of the genre. Ultra-spare beats, acoustic bass lines, the darting vocal interplay of B-Real and Sen Dog, and Muggs's dense, noisy montages made Cypress Hill one of the most significant and influential rap albums of the past ten years. Muggs's innovative use of found sounds, low rumbling beats, and oddball instrumentation rivals the ground-breaking sonic backdrops constructed in the late Eighties for Public Enemy by Terminator X and the Bomb Squad. Sampled guitar riffs screech and wail in chaotic unison with tape-looped horns and squealing sirens; percussive bumps and smooth-rolling beats provide the rhythmic bedrock for B-Real and Sen Dog to trade lines and swap stories.

That combination has kept Cypress Hill on hip-hop's A-list for the past five years and earned them a fanatical following on the alternative-rock trail. They've played on three Lollapalooza tours (including a co-headliner slot in last year's edition), were featured at the Woodstock '94 festival, and in '93 collaborated with post-punk darlings Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam on the soundtrack to the film dud Judgment Night.

Muggs sees the crossover appeal of his group as a testament to its quality and to his attention to minute production details. "This is my music, so I don't like to let the shit come out before its time," says Muggs, a studio perfectionist whose persnicketiness kept him working on III up until three days before the album was to be delivered to Ruffhouse, the group's Columbia-distributed label. It has also made him one of rap's most sought-after producers and remix engineers; he's rolled tape for numerous groups, including the Beastie Boys, House of Pain, and Funkdoobiest. (Muggs's outside production duties will prevent him from making the Hill's upcoming Miami concert; he'll be replaced for the show by DJ Scandalous.)

"Everything's got to be kicking at the same time," Muggs says of his work m.o. "Rappers can lay down some slamming rhymes over shitty beats and it'll be the worst thing you've heard in your life. And you can have some incredible beats but if the rhymes don't work you've got a piece of shit on your hands. I like to mess around with a lot of sounds and do a lot of experimenting with different things. With 'Illusions' I had this sitar track that I was fooling around with one night, and when B-Real heard it he started writing around it. We finished the whole song by midnight. It usually doesn't happen that fast, though. I always try to take my time and come up with some new shit for each record."

That's one reason the members of Cypress Hill profess a blatant dislike for Black Sunday, which they had to record in two months at the insistence of their label, which was eager to capitalize on the success of the group's first album. Although Black Sunday debuted at the top spot on the Billboard pop and R&B charts, yielded a Top 20 single ("Insane in the Brain"), and sold more than three million copies, no one in the group was happy with the disc.

"We felt like we were rushed into doing the album," Muggs complains. "When we formed, we had been doing demos for about two years before we did the first album. Then when it came out, we were on the road for about two years straight. We weren't used to being on the road, and the fame and interviews and all that shit, so when we got off the road we thought we were gonna be able to lay back and catch our breath for a while. But the label said, 'No, we need more product,' so we had to rush through shit just to fulfill our contract and meet our deadline. We didn't know a damn thing at the time -- like we could've said no, for instance -- but all you can do is live and learn by your mistakes. And we learned. We weren't happy with the record and now we'll never work on deadline again. We like to take our time and let the shit marinate for a while."

Muggs believes the new album, which the trio worked on for most of '95, breaks as much new ground as their trailblazing debut did five years earlier. It probably won't rearrange the furniture in hip-hop's living room, but III represents a vast improvement on the poorly designed punk-metal moves on Black Sunday. Some of Cypress Hill's best material is here: "Throw Your Set in the Air" chronicles B-Real's teenage gang years; "Killafornia," "Locotes," and "Boom Biddy Bye Bye" are crime dramas worthy of Quentin Tarantino (fittingly, a snatch of dialogue from the director's Pulp Fiction appears in another song, "Let It Rain"); and "Strictly Hip-Hop" is a slow-grooving defense of what Muggs calls real hip-hop.

"I think the people who like our records like hard, rugged music, and that's what we do," he explains. "They like the rough, hardcore stuff A not this weak-ass shit that everyone's doing now. You got all these smoothed-out songs that people are doing just to get their thing on the radio, putting singing over rap beats and calling it hip-hop. We ain't going out there. We ain't gonna do that. I want our shit to be almost medieval. That's why the new record's got that ominous and Gothic feel to it. It's taken us to someplace different than we've been before. We've got to keep changing things -- keep reinventing ourselves and taking off in different directions. You've got to do that, but you still have to sort of stay the same as well. That's the art to doing this shit right."

Cypress Hill performs Saturday, April 27, with opening bands L.U.N.G.S. and Roots, at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd; 358-7550. Showtime is 7:00. Tickets cost $23.

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