Quick — name four major rap groups that have been consistently releasing albums since 1991 and are still together in 2004.
Was Cypress Hill one of your choices? Probably not, but along with the Beastie Boys, De La Soul and Gang Starr, the LA-based unit is one of the few hip-hop groups to make it past the 12 year mark while still releasing hit albums. Still Smokin’ (clumsy title for this weed-loving crew) coincides with the release of Cypress’s seventh album, ‘Till Death Do Us Part, and features all 22 of their videos plus eight live tracks and a mini-documentary. Effectively, the collection functions as a greatest hits album, although a CD release would probably have been preferable.
Cypress Hill’s self-titled 1991 debut took a while to make an impact, but when it did it changed the face of rap forever. After 13 years, it’s easy to forget just how fresh the combination of B-Real’s playful, nasal delivery and DJ Muggs’s innovative barrage of Bomb Squad-style bombast and funky loops and samples was. As if that weren’t enough, Cypress Hill were also the first (and still one of the few) major Latino rap groups. Along with Sen Dog, who played Silent Bob to B-Real’s Jay, they proved in an era increasingly dominated by gangsta rap that hip-hop didn’t have to take itself too seriously in order to be taken seriously.
Not that street anthems like “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and “Hand on the Pump” aren’t serious. It’s just that they’re so fired-up by B-Real and Sen Dog’s energy and Muggs’s screeching, stoned-to-the-gills backdrop that they’re also pure, unadulterated fun. What’s more, the trademark sing-song choruses add a brilliant sense of sarcasm. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cypress Hill is represented by no fewer than six videos.
The three cuts from the follow-up, 1993’s international smash, Black Sunday, complete one of hip-hop’s greatest run of singles. “Insane in the Brain”, “When the Ship Goes Down” and “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That” are rightly some of the group’s best-known moments, and if they sound a bit the same, that’s only testament to how powerful the group’s formula was. Nothing from these first two albums has dated a bit, and not even dimly-lit performance videos can detract from that.
Conventional wisdom says that after this point Cypress Hill went south, but that’s not quite fair. To their credit, they embraced their growing following among the alternative rock crowd and continued to experiment with new sounds, releasing some excellent singles along the way. “Throw Your Set in the Air” and “Boom Biddy Bye Bye” find Muggs laying off the sirens and squeals, tightening things up for maximum claustrophobic effect, but they’re only slightly less enjoyable than their predecessors. While plenty of heavy rock groups embraced rap in the late ’90s, Cypress were one of the only rap groups to return the favor. While it’s shocking to hear speed metal guitars and B-Real’s guttural roar on “(Rock) Superstar” and “Trouble”, the results are far from embarrassing. Actually, considering that Cypress sampled Black Sabbath on “I Ain’t Goin’ Out…”, the progression is almost logical.
After creating such a legend for themselves early on, it’s amazing that Cypress Hill managed to last, much less deliver quality goods. But not everything on Still Smokin’‘s second half works. “Dr. Greenthumb” marks a return to the sirens and squeals of old, but this time it’s just annoying, and Muggs’s pro-pot ramblings sound like desperate pandering. “Lowrider” fully embraces the smooth G-Funk that Cypress helped to invent, but this late in the game it feels like a concession. One of the refreshing aspects of B-Real’s rhymes on the early records was that he avoided rapping about girls when everybody else was. “What’s Your Number?” represents the Jamaican feel of ‘Till Death , and while Muggs still has “it”, B-Real’s attempts at romance come up lame.
With so much going on sonically, the videos are almost an afterthought. It looks like they were for the band, too. The videos aren’t bad, but they’re also not particularly good. Apart from some plotless Mob posing on “When the Ship Goes Down” and embarrassing Little Shop of Horrors take-offs on “Dr. Greenthumb”, everything is pretty much straight performance / wandering around and posturing. The most amusing aspect is that while B-Real gets most of the face time, Sen Dog really provides the entertainment. Unintentionally, he has one of the silliest physical presences in rap. He’s a goofy dancer, and while his flow is solid, he looks more like a recently-retired uncle.
Cypress Hill have built a reputation as a killer live act, and the eight performance tracks from 2000’s Fillmore show (heard on the Live at the Fillmore album) back that up, especially when a full band joins the core trio. The “So You Wanna Be a Superstar” documentary is essentially an electronic press kit for 2000’s Skull & Bones album. While its interviews offer nothing that most fans won’t already know (Sen Dog left the band and returned soon thereafter, etc.), it does present the band as driven, thoughtful and well-spoken.
Here’s a suggestion for all but hardcore fans: ditch the video, burn the audio except for “Dr. Greenthumb” and “Lowrider”, and you’ll have one hell of a compilation.