When Cypress Hill got rolling in the late 1980s, they drew inspiration from their Southern California hometown and the bruising hip-hop beats coming out of New York. But they also took their cue from metal. “We looked at Black Sabbath’s first album, the one with the old man on the front and no band members,” rapper Sen Dog said recently. “It was like, ‘What am I looking at?’ We wanted to be like that. We didn’t want to show ourselves. If you look at our first album cover, you can’t see any of our faces. This was at a time when hip hop was pretty and clean and everybody was on their album cover with fresh Nikes and gear. We look like we’re having a liquor party in some kind of alley or something. It was definitely a discussion about being dark and mysterious.”
This was a time when rap was in the midst of a creative flowering, conquering the charts while branching out into different styles and worldviews. Then came Cypress Hill, who projected a grungier, marijuana-scented vibe, becoming the first major Latinx hip-hop group during a period when most of the prominent acts (except for Vanilla Ice) were Black. Laidback but dangerous, funny but edgy, Cypress Hill had gang affiliations and talked about killing people, and yet their music rocked many a house party. Their heyday wasn’t long, but it was great while it lasted.
It’s been nearly 30 years since their biggest hit helped define the summer of 1993. In popular culture, “Insane in the Brain” has become synonymous with feeling like you’re just about to lose it, its catchy, squealing chorus drilled into our brains as the embodiment of the stress and anxiety of our daily lives that pushes us to the breaking point. It’s also a time capsule of a very specific hip-hop era that wanted to be hard and danceable simultaneously.
In the beginning, they were known as DVX, short for Devastating Vocal Excellence, all living in South Gate, California, just working on demos. “Before we started doing this professionally, it was just something that was a hobby,” rapper B-Real recalled in 2016. “It wasn’t anything that I thought I would make a living off of. It was something we loved as fans, and our influences like Public Enemy and KRS-One inspired us. Just like if you were a fan of baseball, you aspire to try to be like the people who influenced you.” The group consisted of B-Real (born Louis Freese) and Sen Dog (born Senen Reyes), who were joined by beatmaker Lawrence Muggerud, better known as DJ Muggs. Early on, Sen Dog’s younger brother, Mellow Man Ace, was also part of DVX, but when he left to pursue a solo career, the trio renamed themselves Cypress Hill.
Even in those early days, their love of hip hop was intermingled with their love of pot, the drug of choice for West Coast rap, whose signature album of the era was named The Chronic. “[T]hat weed aspect was already there prior to, you know, ever making a song,” Sen Dog said last year. “And we would get the High Times magazine the first day that it would come out every month. We would be on it, reading through it, looking through the interviews. Every aspect of that magazine, we’d cover from front to back. And, through that magazine, we understood what we loved about cannabis more than just some kids on the block getting stoned. So, we decided to immerse ourselves in that knowledge of cannabis. … I think we were always ahead of the curve as far as, like, cannabis went.”
When Public Enemy frontman Chuck D started his career, he modeled his and sidekick Flavor Flav’s vocal style on that of James Brown and his onstage partner-in-crime Bobby Byrd, who together created an addictive call-and-response rapport. Chuck’s voice was rough, Flav’s was screechy, a beautiful mixture of bark and whine. And although not exactly the same, B-Real and Sen Dog offered a comparable aural juxtaposition: B-Real often took the lead on vocals, his nasally tone both taunting and hostile, while Sen Dog’s gruff delivery served as a bare-knuckle rejoinder. B-Real’s father was Mexican and his mother Cuban, and Sen Dog was actually born in Cuba. Those roots helped them stand out from other aspiring rap groups, and early on they leaned into their Latin heritage, while trying to figure out their rapping style.
“We were doing demos, and most of them were driven by [the] Spanish [language] stuff,” B-Real once said. “Back then I was barely starting to rap in the high-pitched voice that has become my trademark and what people know me for as far as my vocal tone. I was rapping in my talking voice, and it didn’t really resonate toward the tracks, it wasn’t something that stood out. The conversation was, ‘You have to do something with your voice or you’re going to be writing raps for Sen Dog.’ That kind of motivated me.”
Released in the summer of 1991 through Sony, Cypress Hill’s self-titled debut very much felt indebted to the Bomb Squad’s sample-heavy, blistering sound, but from a West Coast perspective. Grimier and more stoned than N.W.A., Cypress Hill made no secret of their violent thoughts on tracks like “How I Could Just Kill a Man” or “Hand on the Pump,” with B-Real bragging, “Actin’ kinda loco / I’m just another local / Kid from the street gettin’ paid from my vocals.” The steely portrait of gang life wasn’t fantasy: B-Real had been a member of the Bloods and a drug dealer, nearly dying after being shot in his teens, the bullet puncturing his lung. “When I was laying in a stretcher coughing up blood at [the hospital], Sen was one of the first people at my side,” B-Real said in 1995. “You never forget something like that. Sen and Muggs saved my life, because they believed in my talent and gave me something to live for.”
As for moral watchdogs who tisk-tisked the group for rapping about murdering people, B-Real insisted he was just expressing the perspective of those he knew. “There’s no programs keeping them off the street, and a lot of them come from broken homes,” he told The Independent this year. “You’ve got to realize too, some of the gangsters, their fathers were veterans who came back with issues and had no help from the government, no help from the state, had no help from anyone. Their kids were out on the street looking for different mentors, and not all their teachers are going to be teaching them good shit in life.”
Critically acclaimed and certified double-platinum, Cypress Hill made the group instant stars, sending them on tour and establishing them as part of a burgeoning L.A. hip-hop scene. Riding that hot streak, Muggs soon after came up with the beat for “Jump Around,” which would become a massive party anthem for House of Pain. But that group only got the song because, according to Muggs, B-Real wasn’t interested in it for Cypress Hill, saying he “didn’t want to go back into the studio so quickly.” Muggs actually then offered the track to Ice Cube, who passed. The beneficiaries of those other artists’ shortsightedness, House of Pain rode “Jump Around” to No. 3 on the Billboard charts.
Inspired by what he’d come up with, Muggs wondered how he could integrate this more danceable strain of rap into Cypress Hill’s street sound. “I assembled [‘Insane in the Brain’] in my apartment, putting the horns together with the bassline,” he said, later adding, “It took about a day to do the beat, three hours to write the lyrics, then about an hour to record it. There was a lot of weed smoked, but we were pretty prepared. When the vibe’s right, the shit’s right. We’d just go in and attack.”
Because this was hip-hop’s Wild West period, sampling was rampant, without artists necessarily worrying about compensating the musicians whose beats and sounds were being lifted. Cypress Hill had a few blatant, brilliant samples — for instance, “Hand on the Pump” brazenly swipes “Duke of Earl” — but Muggs has disputed some of the songs others say are infused in “Insane in the Brain,” like Sly & the Family Stone’s “Life.” But one tune that’s definitely crucial to its DNA is “Get Out of My Life, Woman” from Trinidadian-American musician George Semper. “It was just the bounce, man,” Muggs told Sound on Sound about that track’s drum break. “There was something about that. It just had a certain sound and a certain feel to it that fit with the sound I created for us. You might as well have said that was our drummer, y’know. There needs to be a musical identity.”
The lyrics to “Insane in the Brain” could easily be confused with any high-octane brag, especially when B-Real starts off like this:
To the one on the flamboyant tip
I’ll just toss that ham in the frying pan
Like spam, get done when I come and slam
Damn, I feel like the Son of Sam
But “Insane in the Brain” was based, in part, on a feud the group was having with hip-hop artist Chubb Rock over a perceived slight. “Chubb Rock did a song called ‘Yabba Dabba Doo’ [sic] in which he flipped some of our lyrics,” B-Real would later write, “and we took it as a dis [sic] so we used ‘Insane in the Brain’ to throw some shots back at him.” What’s extremely funny is that the Rock song, “Yabadabadoo,” is astoundingly not provocative: In one verse, he raps, “He’s buzzing / Comin’ atcha’ / And you know we had to watcha,” mimicking some lyrics off “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” It doesn’t even sound like he’s making fun of them.
Nonetheless, “Yabadabadoo” set Cypress Hill off. The band was also at odds with Kid Frost, one of the few other prominent Latino rappers at the time. “Before anybody had a record deal, we were real tight with him,” Sen Dog told The Guardian. “Then, when he got a deal, things changed. We went overnight from being friends to not. The fact that I was dating his sister didn’t make it any better. … I’m not much of a diss rap kind of guy, but at the time it was appropriate because a lot of people we knew were caught up in it.”
Sen Dog shut down Frost by making fun of his weight:
Do my shit undercover, now it’s time for the blubber
Blabber, to watch that belly get fatter
Fat boy on a diet, don’t try it
I’ll jack yo’ ass like a looter in a riot
My shit’s fat, like a sumo, slamming dat ass
Leavin’ your face in the grass
‘Cause, you know, I don’t take a duro, lightly
Punks just jealous ‘cause they can’t outwrite me
As for the chorus, it was a riff on street slang. “Yeah, it was just gang shit,” Muggs told Sound on Sound. “Like, motherfuckas would say some shit like, ‘Crazy insane got no brain, Bristol gang.’ It was just about being insane and being out your fucking mind. [‘Insane in the Brain’] turned into a quasi pop record, but it was just taking shit that was said on the street. All the gangs would flip that shit in the streets and change it to their gang.”
While Cypress Hill’s flag was firmly planted in the rap world, their baggy clothes and stoned demeanor also made them popular with rock audiences. The video for “Insane in the Brain” illustrated how well the group merged those two fan bases, the clip featuring the guys performing in front of a crowd-surfing, stage-diving crowd of mostly white kids. Near the end, Cypress Hill even wreck their instruments like they were Nirvana. Anybody who’d grown up around B-Real and Sen Dog wouldn’t have been surprised — after all, they’d been enamored with hard rock and metal since they were teens.
“There were [metal] bands everywhere in South Gate,” Sen Dog said in a recent Spin interview. “When you went to parties, it might be a DJ party or a rock ‘n’ roll party with guys playing their instruments in the backyard. The music levels in that city were incredible at that point because you had metalheads, hard rock dudes, b-boys breakdancing and pop-locking, and some people just barely starting to rap. I went to these metal parties just to get drunk or smoke, but I started paying attention to the music. I became more of a metalhead as the years progressed. The first concert that I ever went to, I was 15 or 16 years old. My partner in my science class invited me to a show at the quad in South Gate. My partner’s name was David [Lombardo], and they played a bunch of songs. Little did I know that that band would become Slayer.”
The video’s other prominent element was its psychedelic vibe: There were occasional scenes of the band performing straight to camera, the image distorting like you were tripping balls. Whether it was B-Real’s “insane in the membraaaane” chorus hook or the whining/wheezing sample that runs throughout the track — Was it a siren? A horse? A guitar? — “Insane in the Brain” sported this woozy feeling, the sound of a contact high as you bounce around the room like a grinning idiot. (And, of course, the song’s third verse was all about B-Real bitching about cops who “come and try to snatch my crops.”)
Often in Cypress Hill’s career, B-Real and Sen Dog would tag-team on a chorus, the different tenor of their voices offering a seductive sweet/savory pairing. But they outdid themselves on “Insane in the Brain,” with each of Sen Dog’s “Insane in the brain!” replies a deeply pleasing slam dunk after B-Real’s graceful alley-oop. (Best of all, though, may be Sen Dog’s “Crazy insane / Got no brain!,” which pops up like a bizarre aside occasionally, as if he’s suddenly playing a peripheral character commenting on the main action.)
“Insane in the Brain” was the lead single off their sophomore disc, 1993’s Black Sunday, which dropped about a month after the song hit radio. Black Sunday remains their only No. 1 album, going triple-platinum, and “Insane in the Brain” is their only Top 40 hit, peaking at No. 19. They played Lollapalooza and Woodstock. They did a cameo on The Simpsons. Capitalizing on gangster rap’s ascendance while sporting a Cheech & Chong-style pothead playfulness, they were huge. Nominated for a Grammy, “Insane in the Brain” may have been intended to put the band’s haters on blast, but it sounded like a fun summertime anthem. The chorus was goofy and catchy, and, hey, who doesn’t feel a little insane from time to time? The song was universal — it had attitude but didn’t have an objectionable chorus like “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” It was perfect.
“When Black Sunday was released, our first album was still on the charts one and a half years later and when Black Sunday hit number 1 we had two albums in the Billboard Top 10 at the same time,” B-Real wrote on his website. “I believe we were the first hip-hop group to do that. All of this happened very fast for us and we had to learn to deal with the sudden success that followed. It was very strange to go from a nobody — someone that couldn’t give a CD away — to someone that people actually sought out. People were handing us CDs left and right, asking for pictures and autographs. … Everything we did was under a microscope and we lost alot [sic] of our privacy”
When the time came to record the follow-up to Black Sunday, Cypress Hill III: Temples of Boom, Cypress Hill had hit a bit of a wall after years of touring. “The label wanted us to do some more ‘Insane in the Brain’ type of stuff but we were in a dark place at the time and our music reflected that,” B-Real wrote. “We were having problems with our management … there were new people at Sony that didn’t know or necessarily like our music, Sen Dog took a break from the group, and Sony lost faith in us after Black Sunday and didn’t think III would do as well and as a result of that it didn’t get the push it deserved from the label as far as promotion goes. Muggs produced alot [sic] of dark beats and I wrote lyrics to complement that and to reflect where I was mentally at the time.”
Indeed, Temples of Boom felt like it came from a more despairing place, like a drug trip that’s gone bad, dragged down by paranoia and freaked-out feelings. By the time of their fifth album, 2000’s double-disc Skull & Bones, they were fully embracing their love of hard rock, devoting one record to rap songs and the other to head-bangers, both of them featuring a track — titled either “(Rap) Superstar” or “(Rock) Superstar” — that loudly lamented the fickleness of the music industry and the pitfalls of fame. Lacking the sly sense of humor that bolstered their earlier work, Skull & Bones found Cypress Hill sounding like weary veterans, putting the party anthems behind them for a more sober outlook. They weren’t kids anymore, and they were grateful to have survived a business that had chewed up myriad rap acts along the way.
“It feels good to have longevity, man,” Sen Dog, who’d returned to the group, said at the time of Skull & Bones’ release. “A lot of cats come in and they have, like, one or two good records, and for some reason they have a tough time with that. I’m not saying we haven’t had that same thing happen, but throughout it, our fan base has always been there for us, and our concert turnouts have always been good.”
As the new century dawned, Cypress Hill struggled to find the same level of success. By that point, their love of weed started to feel like shtick, and their attempts to further expand their musical approach — such as incorporating Latin styles and rock elements — weren’t all that persuasive. And like a lot of hip-hop lifers of their era, such as Public Enemy, their recent albums are solid, if unspectacular.
This past week, they put out Back in Black, a stripped-down collection of minimalist rap tracks, declaring that the next album they make will be their “final traditional” release. “In a world where this particular musical genre has tossed substance out the fucking window, there are those of us that strive to still make something that says something,” B-Real groused recently. “You have all this shit out there that’s talking about what you have and what you want in terms of materialistic things. For us, we’ve always felt compelled to talk about the realities of life. That’s where we come from, from that first Cypress Hill album all the way down the line.”
When they were coming up, Cypress Hill talked about how they wanted to be the Grateful Dead of rap, the Cheech & Chong of hip hop. “When I first started getting stoned … I got into Cheech & Chong movies — and their band — and subliminally was taken away by how creative those guys were,” Sen Dog said last summer. “People always said, if you become a pothead, you’ll become a couch potato, but I saw Cheech & Chong, and they were over-the-top creative. So I was like, [this whole ‘couch potato’ thing] has got to be bullshit.”
Pot became the band’s trademark, proudly producing oversized prop bongs on stage, encouraging legalization long before the movement became mainstream. “I’ve been pulled over many times here in California when I’ve had a tremendous amount of cannabis on me,” B-Real said earlier this year, “but [the cops have] been stupefied that I haven’t tried to hide it. Law enforcement hasn’t given us as many problems as you might think. I don’t think they believed that we had the audacity to actually smoke cannabis on stage in front of their faces, but they were wrong.”
Heard today, “Insane in the Brain” feels very much a product of its time, its roots in gangster rap as apparent as its nods to a growing mainstream that was embracing uptempo hip hop as feel-good pop music. Even the song’s slightly stoned essence now feels like a relic of a bygone age when smoking pot was somehow “dangerous” outlaw behavior. And while it tends not to be a large part of their legacy, the fact that they helped open doors for Latino hip hop shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Back then we were just trying to do our music without really letting our Latin background be the main factor,” B-Real has said. “And fortunately I guess the fact we were able to achieve what we achieved, being Latino but without really exploiting that side of it, showed like a whole generation behind us how you could have that success without being labeled as just one thing. Because back in the day, when you were labeled ‘a Latino rapper,’ the record companies would only try to market you to that Latin fanbase, which didn’t really exist yet.”
Now dipped in nostalgia, the song just sounds like a catchy novelty, a shorthand for wanting to let loose for a few minutes. That it was inspired by a deeply petty feud just seems adorably quaint — no one who’s listened to “Insane in the Brain” over the last 30 years and enjoyed its disorienting, funky vibe has ever pondered the song’s deeper meaning. “Insane in the membrane / Insane in the brain” is just an incredibly fun thing to shout along with Cypress Hill. And like marijuana, the song has incredible medicinal value. Life is goddamn stressful — the three-and-a-half joyous minutes of “Insane in the Brain” always made it slightly more tolerable.