The Pot Shop Boys
Cypress Hill's B-Real looked genuinely distressed. This wasn't pot paranoia, but a snapshot from back in the mid-'90s, long before the rise of your neighborhood marijuana dispensaries, when a man's stash was sacred and not so easily replaced. The rapper had just arrived for an afternoon interview, dressed entirely in black, parking his gleaming new $60,000 Mercedes by the curb outside his West Hollywood management office. His was the tough, nasal whine bouncing to the menacing beats of "I Wanna Get High," "Hits From the Bong" and other platinum anthems to SoCal cannabis life from the hip-hop trio, and he was now beginning to lose his cool. "Oh, man, that's fuckin' ridiculous," he said with alarm, searching through his pockets. "I lost my weed."
That was a difficult incident for the man also known as "Dr. Greenthumb" and "the Buddha," the connoisseur of cannabis and possessor of the mighty Excalibur, his custom-made, 8-foot glass bong.
B-Real (born Louis Freese) has made the proselytizing of pot nationwide his mission and the center of Cypress Hill's music and existence, lighting up onstage, in the studio, in public and in the shadows. He's never far from his favorite herb.
B-Real also wants you to freely enjoy pot without fear of law or politics. Nearly a decade after Californians voted to legalize the use of medical marijuana, and with a new initiative aimed at total statewide legalization on the November ballot, Cypress already lives in a world B-Real and partner Sen Dog say is at least partly of their making. Even they are amazed at the widespread dispensaries and collectives across 14 states. "I tell my son, who is 19, 'Dude, it wasn't always like this,'" says Sen Dog with a laugh.
For many of the last 13 years, Cypress has hosted the Smokeout Festival, mingling rap with the hardest rock and spreading the good news about weed and hemp products for your every desire. "It feels good to know we created some of the awareness, and we contributed a little something to that movement," says B-Real, who has high hopes for the "Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010." "It's a good time, man. God willing, people will go down in November and vote and make it happen."
The mission continues on Rise Up, the group's first new album in six years (just released, on 4/20 of course, by Priority Records). It features cameos by cannabis icons Cheech & Chong, and B-Real name-drops fellow travelers in "K.U.S.H.," rhyming with comic swagger: "Yeah, Willie Nelson is down with us, who the fuck you think drives the ganja bus?/Dionne Warwick she's down with us, she got popped at the airport with joints and such ... Dave Chappelle is down with us, Halle Berry too, but don't tell no one."
That last name is a joke, B-Real claims. Her habits are unknown to him. "I've never smoked with Halle Berry in my life."
Rise Up is the group's first under a new deal with Priority, under the auspices of the label's creative chief exec Snoop Dogg, another well-known smoker. "We're all stoners," says Sen Dog. "All of us in that world understand each other. I look forward to having meetings with my boss now."
Much of the album was recorded at B-Real's home studio in Northridge, as tracks collide hard-rock guitars with hip-hop vocals and samples (echoing the grinding riffs of 2000's "Rock Superstar"). Mad metal shredding comes from local fire starters Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and Daron Malakian (System of a Down). "I don't smoke," says Morello, who contributes the title track, "but whenever I'm in a room with them, I always have a second-hand blast-off that takes a few days to shake."
During sessions for "Trouble Seeker," Malakian provided drums, guitar, bass and backing vocals, spending many blissed-out hours in the Cypress studio fog. "There's quite a bit of weed smoking going on," says Malakian. "Any room that I'm in is gonna have weed, so if you put me and those guys together, it's a pretty smoke-filled room."
B-Real can recommend many of our city's more than 500 marijuana dispensaries. He has "special" sources, he says cryptically, but makes occasional stops at his favorite neighborhood shops: Suite 105 in North Hills, the Green Valley Collective and Green Happiness Healing Center, both in Northridge. "I see what they've got, see what's poppin'," B-Real says. "They have really good strains. But there's so many collectives." Just don't offer him a hit off your low-rent rag-weed, which tastes like stale cigarettes to his palate.
Weed is like fine wine to him. "Mine is the best in the world," he boasts. There is no debate about this within the Cypress inner circle. But what about their friend Snoop, committed consumer of the very best chronic, the famously baked rapper of "Smoke Weed Everyday"?
Cypress percussionist Eric Bobo says no way: "Better than the Buddha's? Nah, B-Real has the best shit."
Cypress Hill's rappers met as teens in South Gate, the local Latino kids most likely to be found poring over the newest High Times magazine. They never missed an issue, ogling full-color centerfolds of glistening buds of the finest weed imaginable. "We were the kids that experimented with how many pot plants we could grow in our mom's backyard," says Sen Dog, aka Senen Reyes. We were those kids that sold weed on our block, and sold weed at school. We were known for that shit."
When B-Real, Sen Dog and producer DJ Muggs created their earliest beats, it was Muggs who urged the rappers to rhyme on weed as both lifestyle and mission statement. They were living it, and it was Muggs' vision to step beyond the gangsta pack and maybe appeal to the grunge masses.
On the group's 1991 debut was the first anthem, "Light Another," as B-Real taunted: "Wanna feel the effects of the high, brother? I'll light another." They later included marijuana-growing tips on the group Web site, but the Cypress view of drug culture couldn't have been further from the groovy good times of the Grateful Dead caravan. They were no hippies. N.W.A was a more relevant model for tales of madness and the violent life such as "How I Could Just Kill a Man." In those early days of struggling to be noticed, the trio rolled across the Midwest in a smoke-filled minivan, like a buzzed Cheech & Chong wandering your streets in a camper made of bud under the nose of police Sgt. Stedenko.
It all came natural, though not every audience got the message or the joke, Sen Dog recalls. "We definitely wanted to get the word out there and be almost freedom fighters for weed. When we first came out, and we were playing in New York, we had a blunt and were taking a puff. Girls would go 'Ewww,' and people went, 'Oh, my God, get out of here with that!' Five years later, the whole fucking club is burning blunts."
The new album is their first without a steady dose of Muggs; he has only two tracks on Rise Up. Though he remains a lifer for the cause (he even got Cypress banned from Saturday Night Live for lighting up on-air), he's now busy with other projects, a much in-demand producer considered a genius by many. "He's definitely always going to be a member of the band," B-Real says of Muggs. "He let Sen and myself do the creative part of it this time around to just get a different vibe, a different feel."
B-Real will carry on, first at Dr. Greenthumb's Spring Gathering festival with his wasted brethren Method Man and Redman, the Kottonmouth Kings and Fishbone, on May 8 at the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino. He'll follow that with Cypress's two-day Smokeout Festival in October, featuring Slipknot, Cheech & Chong, Deftones and Bad Brains.
"It's good and bad," B-Real says of the ongoing pothead rep. "Obviously, some people look at you and think, 'Oh, I've got to do business with these fuckin' potheads.' On the other hand, our fans love us for it. And we're still rollin'."
And fans still approach bearing gifts. Eric Bobo was recently in line at a Glendale restaurant and a young woman, barely into her 20s, spotted him. She smiled and immediately offered a taste of her stash, a usually welcome suggestion. Yet the time was just wrong.
"I can't right now," he told her, gently shooing her away. "I'm here with my mom." Freedom to smoke: Cypress Hill
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.