Cypress Hill's Sen Dog reflects on the 30th anniversary of the hip-hop crew's pioneering debut

Cypress Hill's Sen Dog reflects on the 30th anniversary of the hip-hop crew's pioneering debut
Cypress Hill's Sen Dog (left) and B-Real.

Cypress Hill rapper and co-founder Sen Dog remembers distinctly when life changed as their self-titled debut album released 30 years ago this month found an audience.

The album had been out for several months and wasn't really selling, and Sen Dog, fellow frontman B-Real and DJ Muggs were on the road as their first single, "The Phuncky Feel One," struggled to make a mark. Then a DJ in New York played the single's B-side, and Cypress Hill's life suddenly went from cheap meals at McDonald's and Waffle House to full-blown rap superstardom and all that comes with it.

"You believe 'How I Could Just Kill A Man' was a B-side?" Sen Dog exclaims via phone to the Inlander, still sounding incredulous that Cypress Hill's calling card of a hit single wasn't the first single on their first album. "We were actually following Naughty By Nature around on tour, and they were on a tour bus and we were in like a little minivan like soccer moms drive. Then we got the call that our song was having success in New York, and they were taking us off tour and flying us to New York to make a video and do interviews, all this crazy stuff."

5 Songs To Know

"How I Could Just Kill A Man"
"Insane in the Brain"
"Latin Lingo"
"I Ain't Goin' Out Like That"
"Dr. Greenthumb"

The crazy stuff has rarely let up in the 30 years since Cypress Hill's debut landed them among the leaders of West Coast rap alongside Dr. Dre, Tupac, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg. They have sold more than 20 million albums worldwide, headlined tours like Lollapalooza, became outspoken marijuana advocates well before most of their peers, and continued to evolve with the times, whether through adding a live rock band to their show at one point, or soundtracking video games and TV commercials.

This summer Cypress Hill is on tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of their debut, and they're stopping in Spokane along with Atmosphere and Z-Trip for a show at Spokane Pavilion on Saturday night.

Listen to Cypress Hill now, and the album hasn't aged a day. That's definitely a testament to the sonic structures created by DJ Muggs, but also to the appeal of the group's two rappers. The interplay of the nasal-voiced B-Real and the booming bass of Sen Dog is one of the more distinct sounds in hip-hop, and makes them a blast to rap along to. At least that's what I've heard.

Sen Dog recalls the album taking a long time to record because there was no digital recording or editing back then.

"It was reel-to-reel, man. If you f—-ed up a rhyme they had to splice you in, and hopefully the engineer hit the button at the right time and you got the rhyme at the right part because sometimes Muggs wasn't happy with that shit and he made us kick the whole rhyme all over again," he says. "We were learning as we were going."

Muggs created a soundscape full of squeals and explosions, intertwining them with memorable samples. Cypress Hill's distinct vocal give-and-take took awhile for the group to find, and "How I Could Just Kill A Man" is the first song on which it really took hold, according to Sen Dog.

"We created that whole high-nasal and low-bottom sound by accident, clowning around and listening to Public Enemy songs," Sen Dog, now 55, says. "B-Real would rap the Chuck D part, and I would do the Flava Flav part, but in that [deep] voice. And it was just a line in the song, and we said, 'Here's something you can't understand,' and I came in with 'How I could just kill a man' in that deep voice, and Muggs stopped us right then and said, 'What the hell was that? That's your new chorus.' So he made us rewrite the song, and we put that one-two punch in there and it worked out."

Public Enemy was a massive influence on Cypress Hill, Sen Dog says, despite the New York-based group's political focus and super-serious image — two things rarely attributed to Cypress Hill despite some stinging social commentary on many of their songs, like the opening "Pigs" on their debut. The Cypress crew would play Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back album so much that their boys wouldn't want to hang out with them, so constant was that album on the stereo.

Public Enemy did more than inspire the vocal interplay of B-Real and Sen Dog, though. Chuck D's group showed Cypress Hill that a hip-hop act could deliver a seriously high-energy live show. That's something that Cypress Hill became known for throughout their career. But in the beginning, they weren't really sure how to throw down and make it memorable.

"The first shows we did with Naughty [by Nature], we got 12 minutes on stage. That's about four songs," Sen Dog says. "And a lot of the places we went with Naughty, they didn't even want us to perform, they just wanted the 'O.P.P.' guys."

Naughty By Nature cajoled the promoters into giving Cypress Hill 15 minutes, and when "How I Could Just Kill A Man" took off, Cypress Hill was abruptly headlining their own shows.

"All of the sudden we're packing these places on our own," Sen Dog says. "The crowd is bringing this certain kind of energy, and when they hear their jam, they start jumping up and down and going crazy. We had to pick up our performance, we had to match their energy. I made a point to — and the guys did, too — go back and study film and watch all the greatest in concert. What did Public Enemy do in the '80s when they first came out? What was their show like? You go back and look at a Public Enemy show, it was high energy. That was the way you needed to entertain in those days to be competitive."

Thirty years on and still going strong — their most recent album, 2018's Elephants On Acid, was a strong addition to their catalog — it's safe to say Cypress Hill learned the lessons of their influences well. ♦

Cypress Hill with Atmosphere and Z-Trip • Sat, Aug. 21 at 6 pm • $40 • all ages • Spokane Pavilion • 574 N. Howard in Riverfront Park •

Forrest Howell: Scenes and Visions @ Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center

Fri., Feb. 23, 7:30-9 p.m.
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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the former editor of the Inlander. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied at the University of Utah and University of...