B-Real doesn’t smoke blunts anymore. They used to char his larynx — and he never liked tobacco in the first place. So right now he’s rolling joints. Not dime-bag pinners, though. Five industrial, O.G. Kush candles, threaded in circular array through holes poked into an Arrowhead bottle. It’s called the Birthday Cake.
We’re at Paramount Studios (but not that Paramount Studios), in a sallow, Soviet-esque edifice on the seedy side of Santa Monica Boulevard, where nearby, every night around 2 a.m., phalanxes of transvestite streetwalkers hope to meet their very own Pluto Nash. But it’s currently 8 p.m., at a December listening party for the Cypress Hill member’s Smoke and Mirrors, his first solo turn in a storied 18-year career. Surrounded by platinum plaques, exposed brick and wood-grain paneling, B-Real (née Louis Freese) has spent the past half-hour answering a battery of banal questions from a High Times reporter in an undersized leather jacket and green parachute bloomers that suggest a female golfer from the 1920s.
When you’ve burned more trees than a rainforest developer, patience is a virtue you’ve no doubt successfully cultivated. So though he’s answered these questions hundreds of times before, B-Real responds with a probity incongruous for the dude who wrote “How Could I Just Kill a Man” and “Hand on the Glock.” “I only smoke O.G. Kush, unless I’m in New York, then it’s Sour D. Yeah, I’ve had my cannabis club card for the last eight years . I got it on day one. The one time the police pulled me over, they found my stash . a couple ounces’ worth. All they could do was tell me to put it in the trunk and get home safely.”
While fending off the fusillade, B pulls out a trash bag stuffed with enough weed to sustain the entire population of a glaucoma-glutted rest home for the next six months. Waving the joints without spilling a grain, he explains that Damian Marley was the ideal choice to grace the hook on “Fire,” the lead single on B’s new album — and the lone marijuana ode. Considering that Marley is the son of late reggae icon Bob, the logic seems salient. After all, in contemporary music, only Madlib, Red and Meth, Willie Nelson and Real have a shot at ascending to the throne as history’s greatest weed smoker, a spot the elder Marley unfortunately vacated when, in 1981, he blazed his last spliff at age 36 — the age B is now.
The volume of weed B-Real has smoked over the past 20 years is enough to make you question how the MC has any brain cells left, let alone how he remains coherent. But there he sits, alternately bemoaning and praising the contemporary hip-hop landscape while crumbling fistfuls of sticky O.G. Kush into silken powder. Finally, the Birthday Cake is ready to serve; lighting up all five joints, the slow-burning sticks suffusing the water bottle with staggering amounts of smoke, Real takes an iron-lunged hit, exhales, smiles beatifically, and passes it to the left. Within five minutes, it’s orbited the room, and judging from the swollen silence it’s obvious that the Birthday Cake has gotten us baked.
The Jamaican-dance-hall throb of “Fire” ricochets against our cochlear cavities and everyone’s giddy, acting like they’d just smoked wonder joints. After all, getting high with B-Real is like a weekend warrior playing pickup against Michael Jordan, or a handyman going to Home Depot with Bob Vila. Your 14-year-old self, smoking out of an aluminum can, would get misty-eyed were he able to see you now, lit up like a Christmas tree next to the man who, backed by a Dusty Springfield sample, taught a nation of impressionable youths how to take hits from the bong.
Two months later, on the video-ho-heavy set of “Fire,” Real, clad in baggy navy-blue jeans, black hoodie and black Los Angeles cap, explains why branching out from the trite stoner pigeonholing is one of the reasons he decided to make a solo album.
“It can get frustrating,” Real admits. “You want people to know that you’re more than just a weed smoker. At times, we’ve had to say — this weed shit — it’s a part of who we are and we champion it, but it’s not the whole thing.”
And in their ’90s heyday, there were a lot of Cypress Hill and B-Real fans, with nearly 20 million albums sold worldwide, four of their first five records earning platinum status (with ’93’s Black Sunday going triple-plat), and Real earning the designation of best-selling Latin rapper ever. But depth-demanding critics often derided the group for its inability to branch beyond addled odes to the high life and rote gangster bombast.
Sure, Cypress’ singles cannily cultivated the approbation of every dorm-room runt with a Roar, but beneath Real’s adenoidal trill, his lyrics conveyed compelling contradictions, balancing a blithe and blunted side with the Sturm und Drang savageness of his South Gate roots. In particular, the group’s third album, the criminally overlooked Cypress III (Temples on Boom), best suits this binary, with “Everybody Must Get Stoned” side by side with Wu-Tang collaboration “Killa Hill Niggas”; gang-initiation tale “Throw Ya Set in the Air”; and fuck-the-world snarl “Illusions,” probably the greatest response ever levied at people who would accuse you of smoking too much. Behind the boards, DJ Muggs — one of the most underrated producers ever — baked a batch of brooding bangers, tinctured with a turbid trip-hop that cast a hazy, hallucinatory halo.
But that was 15 years ago, and Cypress haven’t gone platinum since 2000’s Skull and Bones. Had B-Real released Smoke and Mirrors a decade ago, it would’ve easily gone gold. But times are tortuous for a veteran rapper in 2009, with the industry ever fixated on youth, and radio reticent to spin songs from even the most lionized local legends — save for Snoop and Dre, who continue to get a free pass from the payola powers that be.
“The radio stations here are different from the ones in New York. They don’t support local up-and-coming artists,” Real opines. “Sometimes, the veterans get overlooked too.”
Despite its preternatural catchiness, Real’s local roots and its Marley guest spot, “Fire” has yet to be added to Power 106’s playlist, a fact likely attributable to Real’s decision to release Smoke and Mirrors on venerable New York indie Duck Down Records. (At the present moment, Los Angeles’ leading urban-radio powerhouse does not have a single independent song in rotation.)
“I had other deals on the table but had to turn them all down because they wanted me to do what Cypress does,” Real relates. “I couldn’t do that. I needed to have a distinction between my shit and Cypress. I didn’t want to use the Cypress sound or imagery or feel. It had to be different.”
With Cypress Hill still together and tentatively slated to release their eighth studio album later this year, it’s understandable that Real would eschew leaning on his brethren. Accordingly, Smoke and Mirrors boasts no Muggs beats, with the brunt of production handled by local heavyweights Scoop DeVille, Soopafly and Real himself.
“I’ve been making beats for seven or eight years, on and off,” Real says proudly. “I never put them out there because I wanted to develop my style. I learned from watching Muggs put stuff together. He taught me that just because you make a beat, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to throw it out there.”
Ultimately, though, Real may have created Smoke and Mirrors from his own stash. Even sans Muggs and the weed anthems, his style remains singular enough to satisfy the core cadre of Cypress Hill heads. Besides, he’s still far from shying from the pothead persona, issuing a recent YouTube smoke-off challenge to Juelz Santana, and releasing the lone marijuana missive as the lead single. “Mary Jane and I are as close as ever,” he grins.
Indeed, mid-interview, as he articulates his desire to break free from the typecasting, a lanky brunette woman dressed like Xena the Warrior Princess approaches. Apologizing for interrupting, she introduces herself and hands him a business card for her weed-delivery service. The stoned raider laughs and tells her that he’ll take her up on the offer.