How Cypress Hill’s Self-Titled Debut LP Became a Game Changer in Latin Hip-Hop
Hip-hop's connection to the black and Latin community has been documented since its birth. Those who are familiar with the history of hip-hop are well aware that Latinos and Latinas have played a huge part in help shaping the music and culture. Artists such as Frost (FKA Kid Frost), Mellow Man Ace, Prince Markie Dee and many others were some of the early pioneers to the culture.
But one act that has played a pivotal role as contributors to hip-hop is Cypress Hill. The California-based trio is one of the most accomplished, yet unsung rap groups to have ever captured fans' attention. Big Pun is often credited with bringing Latin flavor to the forefront and commanding the respect of his peers with his lyrical skills, but Cypress Hill were the original pioneers of bridging the gap between Latin rappers and the mainstream.
Originally comprised of B-Real, Sen Dog, DJ Muggs and Mellow Man Ace, Cypress Hill was originally named DVX (Devastating Vocal Excellence), but would make the switch to Cypress Hill after Mellow Man Ace abruptly left the group to pursue a solo career. A demo the quartet recorded in 1989 piqued the interest of Columbia Records, who inked the group to a record deal, leading to the release of their self-tilted debut album, in 1991. That album, which would arrive during a year of transition for hip-hop, would ultimately go down as one of the greatest rap albums of all-time and introduce Cypress Hill to an untapped market.
Their self-titled debut LP, which arrived on August 13, 1991, kicks off with the opening salvo, "Pigs," a scathing track that details the crooked ways of corrupt police officers and is on trend with hip-hop's increased attention to the relationship between law enforcement and the residents of the neighborhoods they patrol. Rapping "This pig harassed the whole neighborhood / Well this pig worked at the station / This pig he killed my Homeboy / So the f---in' pig went on a vacation," B-Real, Cypress Hills' defacto frontman, paints an unsavory picture of those who are sworn to protect that pulls no punches.
"Pigs" may be an admirable introductory cut, but the album's second offering, "How I Could Just Kill A Man," ratchets the energy up another level and is serves as its defining moment. Released as Cypress Hill's debut single, alongside "The Phuncky Feel One," the morbid track would become the group's first major hit and would skyrocket to the top of the rap charts, making it the most successful tune from the album that was serviced to the public.
On the DJ Muggs-produced banger, B-Real muses, "Hey don't miss out on what you're passing / You're missing the hoota of the funky Buddha / Eluder or the f---ed up styles to get wicked / So come on as Cypress starts to kick it" on the first verse, while Sen Dog tackles the following stanza. But it's on the third verse where B-Real shines the most, rhyming, "How do ya know where I'm at when you haven't been where I've been / Understand where I'm coming from / When you're up on the hill, in your big home / I'm out here, risking my dome / Just for a bucket, or a fast ducat / Just to stay alive, aiyyo I gotta say "f--- it," ending one of the greatest rap songs of all-time on a high note.
"How I Can Just Kill A Man" is a tough act to follow, but "Hand on the Pump" is a worthy attempt and carries on the momentum set by the previous two tracks. From its infectious, sing-along hook, to Sen Dog's impressive showing, "Hand on the Pump" makes gunplay sound as casual as a pick-up game of basketball, but something tells you that as idle of a threat as they are, the words are not to be taken lightly.
Cypress Hill gives listeners a glimpse of a day in their life on "Hole In the Head," which recounts an encounter between B-Real and a rival gang member over a female that goes awry, as well as an additional showing of disrespect towards the police. The effects of the high are felt on "Light Another," the first in what would prove to be an constant stream of songs dedicated to marijuana that the group would release throughout their career.
Although not as revered as "How I Can Just Kill A Man," "The Phuncky Feel One," which incorporates the classic "Soul Clap" sample, is another highlight from Cypress Hill's debut that helped make rap fans fall in love with the group. Sen Dog, who often takes a backseat to B-Real in terms of airtime on the mic, catches a highlight reel moments with his verse, rhyming "Night in a stiff block, hangin' up the pimp's jock / Used to call me Pimp Poppa, cause I likes to hip-hop / Cause I'm down with Cypress, illin well I might / Begin to take your girl, your girl she's the flyest" while sandwiched in between two B-Real stanzas.
"Stoned is the Way of the Walk" is another jam that caters to the smokers, but is also packed with its share of social commentary. Lines like "Speak it like a rolla', and you know it's rolled tightly / I'm like the funky beat, so, why ya tryin' ta fight me/Pigs often site me, that's not polite G / And any hour of the day ya know I might be/Harassed by a pig real fast / They wanna Rodney King me, always tryin' crown my ass," make it clear that while B-Real and company love to get their tokes in, they're far from aloof and are very alert to the racial strife and discrimination that engulfed their community.
It may not be a constant theme, but Cypress Hill make it a point to rep for the Latin community throughout their debut, most notably on selections like "Latin Lingo," on which Sen Dog mixes Spanish with English while rhyming, one of the first instances of "Spanglish" being showcased to the public. "Tres Equis," the lone song of the album rapped solely in Spanish, also doubles as another Sen Dog solo outing on the album and was an unabashed nod to their culture which played well to their Latin constituents who had yet to have rappers of Latin descent pay homage in such a way.
Upon its release, Cypress Hill was well-received by rap fans of all hues, but highly resonated with college students and those who also had a strong affinity for rock 'n' roll, maximizing its potential as a crossover success. Selling over two million units in the U.S. alone, the album would be certified double platinum and would establish Cypress Hill as one of the breakout acts, alongside New Jersey's own Naughty By Nature, in rap in 1991.
Critics were also very fond of the album, which received high praise from the likes of Rolling Stone, which raved "Cypress Hill unveils an arsenal of sounds ranging from reggae to rock, all firmly rooted in the distinct cultures of Southern California. Rather than capitalize on the violent images prevalent in gangsta rap, this trio spins tales of reality that play down the shock factor." Entertainment Weekly also waxed poetic about the album's virtues, with writer James Bernard writing "L.A.’s Cypress Hill document, rather than indict, street life with chilling impact. Slathered with mid-tempo bass and strutting snare drums, their self-titled debut, Cypress Hill, rocks, swings, and surprises."
The success of Cypress Hill's debut would be eclipsed by their sophomore effort, Black Sunday, which would be their most successful album to date, but 25 years later, Cypress Hill remains the album that helped merge heavy-metal tendencies with boom-bap and infuse Latin flavor into hip-hop, resulting in one of the best rap albums of all-time.