Live hip-hop albums are relatively rare, an odd fact considering that hip-hop started entirely in a live setting. It seems that the only groups to record them are known for especially memorable live performances (Boogie Down Productions, The Roots) or are egomaniacs who like to see their names on as many releases as possible (2 Live Crew, Vanilla Ice). It wouldn't take a tough argument to put Cypress Hill in that first category, but it's also clear from their Live at the Fillmore CD that they represent a third choice, a group who uses the live stage to branch out musically.
Cypress Hill as rock stars hasn't been much of a stretch for years. Not only have they captured more of a rock audience than a hip-hop one ever since their second or third album, they've also been slowly including live instruments in their sound. This started with their concert tours, when they recruited percussionist Eric Bobo (who had been touring with the Beastie Boys) to broaden their sound in concert. By their fourth album, Cypress Hill IV, Bobo was appearing on some of their studio work; by their Spanish-language album Los Grandes Exitos En Espanol, he was a full-fledged member of Cypress Hill. Similarly, Cypress used other live musicians in concert to add a rock edge to their sound, before including a second disc of straight-on rock songs with their most recent studio album Skulls and Bones.
On one level, Live at the Fillmore is a perfect portrait of what Cypress has done live for years; turning up the volume and blowing audiences away, along with the occasional weed break (like the three-song medley here of "I Wanna Get High", "Stoned Is the Way of the Walk" and "Hits From the Bong". On a second level, however, it is a further establishment of Cypress Hill as rap and rock superstars. Nine of the 17 songs here feature two guitarists and a bassist (all from the band SX-10).
For me, this is the downside of the CD. Cypress Hill's music was rugged enough when it consisted mainly of scratchy soul samples and rough beats courtesy of DJ Muggs. Eric Bobo's inclusion added even more texture to their sound. The presence of simplistic hard-rock guitar chords takes that sonic depth away, replacing it with sledgehammers of noise. Hearing Cypress classics like "I Ain't Going Out Like That" and "Lick a Shot" in "rock" versions is interesting, and, in that way, not altogether unpleasant. Still, it feels like overkill; their music is hardcore enough without hard-rock guitars.
Plain and simple, though, if you like Cypress Hill or have liked them in the past, you'll find something here to love. Its disappointing side, for me, has more to do with the turn their career's taken than one of the CD itself. Cypress Hill's music isn't thoroughly hip-hop anymore, but Live at the Fillmore is quite an accurate document of where they are now and where they'll likely head in the near future, like it or not.