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Side Tripping 

DJ Muggs smokes alone

Thursday, Mar 27 2003
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Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp” was such a near-perfect slice of barbecued funk when it was released in 1967 that Otis Redding and Carla Thomas covered it just four months later. Then Joe Tex answered with “Papa Was Too (Tramp),” Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll weighed in across the Atlantic with a British “Tramp,” and in 1968 the Mohawks even turned it into a reggae instrumental they called “The Champ.” But in 1991, all covers of “Tramp”’s scraping guitars and crackling drum breaks got upstaged when an Italian-American kid making music on a drum machine in his Bell Gardens bedroom used it to change the sound of hip-hop.

Lawrence Muggerud, a.k.a. DJ Muggs, was already a regular on the Latino house-party circuit and respected as a KDAY Mixmaster who rocked Bloods-only parties at Skateland and had won the 1989 West Coast DMC championship. He made “Tramp” the principal building block of “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” the grimy fuck-it-all gun blast that announced the arrival of Cypress Hill — a trio he formed in the late ’80s with South Gate MCs B-Real and Sen Dog that would soon be reaching a gangsta-to-frat-boy nation of millions.

The song was the highlight of Cypress Hill’s 1991 debut album, which sounded like nothing else in hip-hop, east or west. Hammer was dancing; Cypress were faded on a couch with goatees, Afros and doo-rags. Dr. Dre was proclaiming that he didn’t smoke weed; Cypress made the blunt their calling card, Muggs’ beats the thick cloud that slipped them all into darkness. And while everyone else was sampling Funkadelic and James Brown, Muggs turned to Folson, Gene Chandler and Syl Johnson.

Before he moved to Bell Gardens to live with his mom, Muggs shared a bedroom with his hippie uncle back in Queens, New York. Out on the block, it was the prime time of early hip-hop — double dutch, Kool Herc, breakdancing, stickball — but at home it was still the ’60s, and Muggs’ uncle gave him an education in stoner psychedelia: rock, blues, sitars, black lights, velvet paintings and pot. No matter whom he would go on to work with as a DJ, the aesthetic would stay with him over (count ’em) nine Cypress Hill albums and two Muggs-helmed Soul Assassins compilations. Blunted, blissed, experimental.

The new Dust, his first solo spin, was bound to happen — an album by a hip-hop DJ known for coloring outside the lines (check Cypress’ rock-rap trailblaze “Rock Superstar”) that isn’t hip-hop at all. Sitting in the lounge of his new S.A. Studio compound in Burbank, where Dust was made while Cypress took a year off, Muggs cites Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd and calls Dust “a psychedelic blues record, a cross between Black Sabbath and Sade.”

You can hear the Sabbath from Dust’s opening guitar howl, Morricone and Floyd in the album’s reach for imaginary film-score status, but instead of Sade we get breathy punk chanteuse Amy Trujillo, Buckcherry’s Josh Todd, old Muggs crony Everlast (Muggs put the bounce and squeal into House of Pain’s “Jump Around”) and ex–Afghan Whigs singer Greg Dulli. “I had a wish list of who I wanted to work with,” says Muggs, surrounded by framed gold records (from Bad Boys to Bulworth) and a framed Cypress Hill High Times cover. “Greg Dulli was at the top.” But no matter who’s on the mic, Dust is Muggs’ show, a methodical collection of beat-driven mood pieces that hover like ominous rain clouds.

“I just got bored with hip-hop,” he says while still looking hip-hop in an oversize Timberland sweatshirt, a blue doo-rag and all-black Chuck Taylors. “I was doing it nonstop — making it, listening to it, watching it. Dust required a whole other mindset. I had to make a total departure. I didn’t buy any hip-hop albums the whole year. I didn’t watch videos. I didn’t read The Source. I didn’t listen to the radio. I needed to get into another space, because hip-hop is an aggressive mind state, an urban punk rock mind state. This is more of a softer, loving, peaceful mind state. You go home and hug your children, hug your wife, pet your dogs. I wanted to bring that emotional state into the music.”

For all of Dust’s distance from Muggs’ hip-hop work, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. There were traces of it on Cypress’ third album, Temples of Boom, their most sonically adventurous and radio-unfriendly release, where Muggs pushed the limit of textures and density. “I wanted to rebel against the pop success we were having,” he says of Cypress, who by 1993 had made it onto Saturday Night Live (and were quickly banned after Muggs lit a joint while the cameras were still rolling). “I wanted an album with no singles on it.” There were traces of this slant when Muggs lent his skills to the muddy, abstract trip-hop of Juxtapose, a session with Tricky and Grease. And there were traces in his often un-hip-hop choices for remixes, production and collaborations: U2, Depeche Mode, Manu Chao, Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam.

But he first felt it really coming together in 1995, just after Cypress released Black Sunday. Muggs had been in Europe to produce tracks for vocalist Ingrid Schroeder. The album was never released, but the ideas it generated in Muggs — a hip-hop mentality applied to blues, rock and electronica — stayed with him. When his daughter was born a few years later, he knew it was time. “I experienced feelings I could never imagine when she was born,” he says. “Dust is straight love.”

Go to www.italianrap.com, click on the “diaspora” link, and you’ll find a listing for Muggs. Muggs’ birth name is Cavassi (Muggerud came from his stepfather), and as hip-hop was infesting the streets of Queens, he was considered less a white kid than an Italian kid.

“If you knew my family,” he says, “you’d know I have to identify as Italian. We had plastic on our couches. My grandfather had grapevines in his back yard. Wine every night. Pasta every day. Everybody yelling. Cheese hanging in the kitchen, cappuccino machine. Grandma in polyester. I have like 20 fucking cousins. It’s a great culture, it promotes family, love and life.”

When Muggs moved to Bell Gardens, he wasn’t Italian anymore. He was a white kid in an all-Latino neighborhood. Compared to Queens, L.A. felt segregated. The black kids were in South-Central. There were no Jewish kids or Irish kids — in L.A., they were white and they lived on the Westside or in the Valley. At Bell Gardens High School, which Muggs attended until he dropped out in 10th grade, “He’s dope for a white kid” became his middle name.

In the ’80s, Bell Gardens — along with Watts, Compton and South Gate — was a capital of postindustrial L.A. The working-class community watched as local manufacturing plants vanished, unemployment became part of life, and funding for civic and recreational programs got scarce. The Bell that Muggs moved into was full of kids looking for something to do. “It was straight culture shock,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a McDonald’s, a movie theater, a bowling alley. No after-school activities. There was nothing for kids to do. That’s why all the kids just gangbanged.”

Muggs transferred his boredom into deejaying and sampling. The SP-1200 sampler he used to chop up “Tramp” for the first Cypress record still takes center stage in the new studio where Dust was given its all-digital birth. But as big, crisp beats for the third Soul Assassins compilation roll off the hard drive and Muggs gets ready for Cypress’ 10th album and a summer Anger Management Tour with Eminem and 50 Cent, the slow, quiet meditations of Dust seem a world away.

“With Dust, I couldn’t bounce back and forth between projects like I am now,” he says. “I had to be totally in that mindset. But now I’m totally back into hip-hop. I can’t even imagine how I made this record now. I listened to it the other day and was like, wow. It’s a different me.”

If you picked this up on Thursday, March 27, you can catch DJ Muggs’ midnight set at Rootdown at Gabah, 4658 Melrose Ave.; (818) 759-6374.

DJ MUGGS | Dust | (Anti/Epitaph)

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