Punk rock, in all its splendiferous shapes and sizes, was and is the backbone of the L.A. Weekly. The surge of punk circa ’78–’81 coincided with the paper’s own sprouting as our town’s alternative source of what all free-thinking post-hippie pinheads needed to know. In a place where such a thing had previously seemed impossible, the Weekly’s reporters and critics — many of whom, such as Craig Lee of the Bags, were musicians themselves — were on the streets and in the clubs, and thus played a major part in the creation of a real music scene.
By the time the paper got started at the end of ’78, L.A.’s music biz was slowly awakening from a prolonged state of slumber. In the early- and mid-’70s, hardcore and “art” bands had zilch opportunities to play, or no say in what kind of material they could perform in the clubs, the limited numbers of which presented either Top 40 ä cover combos or, worse, were pay-to-play showcases. In these latter venues, bands actually forked over cash to club owners for the “privilege” of being seen and heard on a stage, where, with any “luck,” some major-label A&R beast would spot their commercial potential, and they’d sign away their lives and get layered hairdos.
But things here got rudely shaken up by the disgruntled rumblings of the Sex Pistols/Clash–
inspired kids of ’77; the start of a few clubs such as the Masque and of punk ’zine Slash that year had shown that something was up, and the Weekly seized the day with vigorous, pertinent (and funny) profiles of the music and the scenesters — and of those who wished these freaks would just dry up and blow away.
No doubt, down through the years, the Weekly’s editors had some hairy times grappling with the right tone to set. Since 1978, Stuart Goldman, Mikal Gilmore, Bill Bentley, Robert Lloyd, Craig Lee, Jonathan Gold, Arion Berger, RJ Smith, Sue Cummings and myself have tackled the job of establishing a context in which to evaluate and interpret what to our ears sounded like the best (and worst) music. Each has had favored areas of coverage, from hip-hop, to country, to new music, to opera, to alternative rock, ä to world music, to nu-soul, to roc en español, to jazz, plus those niggling little areas in between. Each knew that music is very big and round, with a multitude of functions, and that it means a hell of a lot to those addicted to it. Each tried to impart a piece of the story about how all this music got here and where it’s leading us.
It’s been the Weekly’s specific challenge to counter L.A.’s easy lapses into complacency. And fortunately, local punk rock (which, by an up-to-date definition, has to include rappers and DJs, art-rock and experimental music, buskers laying out hats) refuses to curl up and die. As you may have noticed, there’s no consensus on anything in Los Angeles; speaking for the previous Weekly music editors, it could never have been easy concocting a musical point of view that’d fully satisfy the motley demands of L.A.’s radically polarized fans.
Ironically, punk rock itself, which had represented artistic freedom, eventually produced not only a stylistic rigidity but encouraged a limited critical framework (lyric-oriented rock & roll) that has placed a kind of stranglehold on the pop consciousness here for lo these past 20 years — perhaps not so strangely, one hears old punks carping bitterly about the current supremacy of hip-hop and DJ/electronic music, about the dearth of meaningful “songs” and great live bands. Yet the late-’80s rise of Southland hip-hop greats such as N.W.A, Freestyle Fellowship, Aztlan Underground and Kid Frost showed that punk rock’s do-it-yourself ethos translated very well in non-rock (i.e., black and brown) circles. (To get a picture of the social milieu that produced hip-hop’s logical rise out of the ashes of punk, see the accompanying excerpt from RJ Smith’s story on South Gate’s Cypress Hill.)
Local punk was a legitimate means of expression, yet became a fashionable way of having fun, hence its overripening and withering away (and resurgence) and the inevitability of the torrent of glam/hair/
hard rock bands in the ’80s (Ratt, WASP, GN’R!, Hangmen, Tex & the Horseheads, etc.), or the eerily resilient rockabilly and ska crews that crawl out from under their rocks every other year, or the sweetly Anglophiliac goth ’n’ gloom in-betweeners who’ve been here from the start and show no intention of going away. This being L.A., nothing except nostalgia lasts, and historically, cohesive scenes here have gotten trampled by a predictable inventory of commercial/bureaucratic/encroach ing-middle-age concerns — believe it, the Fire Department, the LAPD and the City Council hate live music now as much as ever, and would love to see it rubbed out.
Today, nightlife in L.A. has again become a punishing experience; the morality-affirming constraints on human behavior meted out in the clubs — no smoking, “proper dress code enforced,” New York–
style velvet ropes — not to mention $10 parking and being patted down by muscle goons at the doors, and shoved around by more of their beefy brethren inside when it looks like you might be having a bit of fun — such Red Onion values seem custom-designed to suck the life out of people, especially the young. These are old-fashioned times the world over, so such culture-quashing must be happening elsewhere, but — live-musicwise at least — things look especially harsh in L.A. right now. Where’s the progress?
Since L.A.’s a vast assemblage of sequestered mono-cultures that have neither the ability nor the desire to talk to each other, the Weekly has to go with the knowledge that music speaks different tongues; the issue is how well musicians use the language, with what kind of fervor each suffuses a chosen style — and do they have something to say? We’re just looking for quality, basically, and figure we too might learn something by scoping it all out.
Of course, saying the L.A. music scene is fractured is like offering the pearl that Los Angeles has no center — tell us something we don’t know. Well, a lot of us like it that way, for one thing, and view it as enormously liberating. It feels possible to create one’s own center/scene in L.A. — for musicians and writers, that can be a wonderful freedom (or an incredible nightmare, but another time for that). Note, too, that we have the peerless opportunity to carve out a truly alternative music scene right in the eye of the bullshit-hurricane known as the recording industry, a peculiarly inspiring position for local mavericks who make music because it fascinates them, not because they want to get rich quick.
This punk-rock sermon has been brought to you on behalf of Music in Los Angeles; go in peace to love and serve it. Argue with us, then form a band.
Funny to think about now, but back in 1993 Cypress Hill were weirdos. Gangsta first-, second-, going-on-third generation was sitting pretty, with a sound that leaned to the brittle and transparent, and here was a dense, gnarled and murky sound, thick as a chiba cloud. In L.A., the strip malls were still smoldering and the accusations still flying, and here was a local group from where-the-hell-is-South-Gate that included a Cuban, a Mexican-Cuban and a goateed white guy getting along and tryin’ ta get over. They hailed from the most forgotten part of town, the part you don’t hear about even when something bad happens there.
Since then, Cypress Hill became a solar system unto themselves, one more balance of internal crises and border conflicts weaving its way through hip-hop’s Milky Way. But just the other night I saw B-Real, one of the group’s rappers, on Politically Incorrect, and he still sounded wise, laconic and droll as a vole — he was the only guest making any sense, come to think of it. The world may still not know where South Gate is, but all the same, South Gate keeps getting its point across.
From “The View From Cypress Hill” by RJ Smith; June 11, 1993
DJ Muggs’ beard comes to a point in four places. Each tuft has a rubber band around it. I want to ask him what’s up with the whiskers, but every time I try, Muggs is going off on another vendetta. There’s the editor who deserves a beatdown if he doesn’t put Muggs and his group, Cypress Hill, on the cover of his magazine like he promised, and the guy who didn’t give Muggs composer’s royalties for producing part of his record. The car stereo is blasting so loud — all singers Muggs is producing, all showing off his songful, scooting way with a dance tune — that it’s hard to hear exactly what he’s complaining about. But like the music, it doesn’t stop.
And when he catches his breath, his friend Everlast picks up the beat. Four years ago no jour nalists were flying up from L.A. to ask Muggs about his beard; four years ago neither he nor Everlast had made a video or hung out with Pearl Jam or put room service on the tab, all of which are what being in San Francisco this weekend is about. They both have made records that have gone platinum; they are stars. Even so, they find that when insulted, something as basic as your turf, your crew, must be defended in the old-fashioned ways of the neighborhood. And so they talk of retribution. But which turf, which crew, are they protecting? It’s not always easy to say.
Everlast is lead voice in House of Pain, a hip-hop group composed of two Irish-American rappers and a Latvian DJ. Muggs is the Italian-American anchor of Cypress Hill, whose rappers are Cuban and Mexican-Cuban. All work in an African-American form that wears the braids of nationalism the way the fearful once wore fat ropes of garlic. From the old-school days when all power flowed from shouting out your name and horoscope sign to the house, identity has always been hip-hop’s coin, but there’s been wholesale inflation in recent years. Voices more deft and influential than DJ Quik articulate an aesthetic ä of “realness,” based on whatever is deemed to sound blackest. Everything else is Belinda Carlisle.
Except, what could be more real than the thick, brown air of South Gate? In southeastern Los Angeles, amid the hulks of empty factories and brand-new industrial parks, a rough and rowdy hip-hop crew has taken root, is in the process of taking over. A decade after G.M., Firestone and more left the area, these groups are becoming one of South Gate’s leading exports. Cypress Hill and DJ Muggs are in the thick of it.
When he was growing up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Queens, New York, the Italian-American Muggs says, “Everybody always thought I was Spanish.” When he moved to Bell Gardens in 1982, most of his buddies were Mexican. There was no chance he would ever join their gang, but his friends were his friends, and he stuck up for them.
Cypress Hill’s stern-voiced Sen Dog was born in a small farming community on the north coast of Cuba. He ate mangoes every day for lunch in the years before his family fled Castro. His brother is rapper Mellow Man Ace, and like Mellow, Sen raps in Spanglish, a street hybrid of English and Latino slang. “I wasn’t brought up the Cubanest guy in L.A.,” Sen says. “I hung with the Mexican gangs. When I go home I talk pure Spanish to my mom and dad. I’m very much Cuban, understand that. But I was thrown into a Chicano environment.”
B-Real’s mom is Cuban; his dad is Mexican. He met Mellow Man Ace in high school and formed a group, DVX, with the Cuban brothers. To hear him talk, he’s the member of Cypress Hill with the most gang experience.
Cypress Hill are three guys who could only have met and thrived in a Los Angeles community like South Gate. There are more where they came from, and more nationalities. Funkdoobiest has rappers Puerto Rican and Sioux, and a Mexican DJ. House of Pain aren’t from this part of town, but like Funkdoobiest they gravitated to Cypress Hill and South Gate, and a world of barbecues, backyard hip-hop seminars and Latino house parties. Together Funkdoobiest, House of Pain and Cypress Hill form a confederation they call the Soul Assassins.
The Soul Assassins’ pileup of nationalities makes them oddities in hip-hop, where certain lines are not easily crossed. But in Los Angeles, they look like the line at the post office, at least until somebody gets around to privatizing the mail. Even the white guys are multinational. Once you see House of Pain wearing their Boston Celtics greenery in videos, it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt. Corned beef and cabbage, Guinness, shamrocks, they got the gift of gab all right. House of Pain, however, is no “Kiss Me I’m Irish” button. Everlast is a Valley kid (went to Taft High, where Ice Cube was bused) who calls himself a Muslim. Rapper Danny Boy got thrown in juvenile hall and came out with an education in Latino gangs. Latvian DJ Lethal was booted from Hebrew school for tormenting the other kids. They are unstable hooligans, living miles from Simi and other white ghettos of the mind.
As this is written days before what will have to do until a real election comes along, it’s hard to tell whether the racial coalitions Tom Bradley once found enthusiasm for are merely ripped or in ribbons. But in any case Soul Assassins are models for the future of L.A. (though if you call Funkdoobiest’s Son Doobie a model for anybody he’ll throw a Pop-Tart at you): a hardcore hip-hop compound, for whom identity isn’t forgotten while it’s enfolded in alliance.
Suppose Riordan is the mayor, or that Woo suffers a single failed term. That doesn’t make Soul Assassins any less representative. It just means that to the puny public culture of L.A. they’re oddballs. To the rest of the city they signify like crazy.