If there is a defining clip from Showtime‘s “Cypress Hill: insane in the brain”The new documentary about the groundbreaking hip-hop group, it’s the sight of a 30-foot inflatable stage Buddha emerging from the bong smoke like the beast from the fog in The Hound of the Baskervilles, or the landing of the mother ship in Spielberg‘s “Close meetings. “It’s exaggerated and ridiculous and creepy Spinal Tap-ish, but it captures all the bravado and hijinks and ‘give-it-a-go’ attitude of a group trying to make sense of the landscape they’ve invented. Cypress Hill was one of the first: the first hip-hop group to host the Reading Festival; first group to (successfully) transition from hip-hop to rock; first hip-hop group to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At this commercial point, Director Estevan Oriol‘s whirlwind portrait is dead; the catch, however, is that it often loses sight of individuals.
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The first person we meet is Oriol. An avid photographer and lover of hip hop, Oriol recorded the emergence of many East and West Coast stars, including House of Pain, Beastie Boys, No Doubt and The Fugees. He also worked as a tour manager for Cypress Hill in the early ’90s, during which time he got more than a few nips. His office has graffiti walls, old cassettes, stacks of DVDs, and 38 filing cabinets with stickers filled with tour diaries, laminate cards, and other Cypress Hill memorabilia. It’s pretty overwhelming to look at and there’s a fear that it’s all being dumped on us. Fortunately, Oriol introduces us to the world he has been immersed in for over 30 years, turn by turn and city by city. He never spliced before seen concert recordings from all continents with behind-the-scenes snapshots, audio clips from music journalists Rigo Morales and Sheena Lester, 90s news bulletins and of course today’s interviews with members of Cypress Hill: vocalists Louis Freese (B-Real) and Senen Reyes (Sen Dog), mixer and producer Lawrence Muggerud (DJ Muggs), and percussionist Eric “Bobo” Correa. The result is apparently chronological, but one feels as if their wild progress to fame would make just as much sense distorted.
Before crowdsurfing and globe-trotting and sun-darkening totemic Buddhas, we learn how each member was in the beginning (and we also find out which emollient brought them together). Sen Dog, a street kid whose family moved from Cuba to California, helped turn his neighborhood, Cypress Avenue – which gave the group its name, into a party block of weed smokers and music lovers. In that environment, he met Cuban- and Mexican-descended B-Real, and then a little later the record player’s hotshot DJ Muggs, who is based in Queens, NY. The trio formed bands across Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin records in an LA dominated by gang culture. It was around this time – and also in this LA – that a new sound developed in the streets and in the backyard concerts and on radio stations like KDAY: a sound that was more cruel and more powerful than anything that had come before it. There, on the verge of the 90s and the birth of a new genre, we see how Cypress Hill put together the early demo tapes and experimental tracks – including an early version of “Real Estate”, which we get an excerpt from in the documentary – that would soon turn into the throbbing ganja rap records that took the world by storm. (American producer Alchemist calls the early mixes “beautiful train wrecks.”) For Cypress super fans, all the honor details are here: from the group’s meetings with Ruffhouse Records producers Chris Schwartz and Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo, to their acquisition of Bobo from Beastie Boys (the deal is: “We had the better weed”) for their audience-expanding “Shoot ’em Up” feature in the film “Juice”In ’92. What is often lacking, however, are the emotional details. Late Dog mentions the grind of the early days, the lack of attention and the hunger; but that is what there is no elaboration (other than that they toured a lot), and there is no mention of what it meant for their families – or indeed themselves – when things started to pick up speed.
As Bill Stephney (former president of Def Jam Recordings and signer of Public Enemy) told Muggs, every hip-hop group at the time needed a “concept.” (As Ice-T puts it, “When you went to see The Fat Boys, you saw some fat boys. ”) Forward-thinking artists had to stand out far more than they do now, hence the diversity in looks and rap styles between LL Cool J and Slick Rick, or between Public Enemy and Run-DMC. It is perhaps not surprising that Oriol mainly tells about the formation and development of the Cypress Hills image – a weed-fighting “New York hardcore with LA swag” – rather than how the members themselves changed as men or artists. For example, we get a brief insight into how Cheech and Chong influenced the group’s love for and advocate for marijuana, but B-Real’s personal efforts at the cannabis dispensing business – under the name of his alter-ego, Dr. Greenthumb – has disappeared; all we see are pictures of B-Real standing among something resembling an aircraft hangar’s hash to a value (roughly equivalent to an afternoon supply to the members of Cypress Hill). The same brief change occurs for two of the band’s most significant reshuffles: Sen Dog’s break from the group in 1995 and the group’s foray into nu-metal at the turn of the century. Both segments are filled with ‘how-the-hell-is-there-a-recording-of-this-‘-type footage, but the personal stories are dazzled in a hurry. What is documented here is the group as a phenomenon – the rebuilding of their different personalities.
“Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain” is a treasure trove of invisible footage, unheard of mixes and countless touring madness. And like the video profiles of his 2020 Netflix doc “LA Originals, ”Oriol somehow manages to put together the chaotic origins story of a hip-hop sensation that had no history to lead them. (You understand that Cypress Hill was the first and last of a generation – a group located between radio and Napster.) Although some of the emotional and familial nuances are left out here, as is any attempt to recontextualize the group and its legacy in hip-hop today, the film has a springboard and a sum whole time, as if the hectic surplus energy of the 90s had finally found a place to go. [C+]