It’s a good bet that Cypress Hill co-founder and multi-dispensary owner B-Real (Louis Freese) might be celebrating the unofficial national hemp holiday 4/20 even without a full plate of projects. But you could say his bong is overflowing.
Tonight, Showtime will premiere the group’s feature-length documentary, “Insane in the Brain,” while the seminal rapper will be spending the day visiting several of his six Dr. Greenthumb’s locations — one each in Sylmar, Lincoln Heights, Cathedral City, San Francisco and San Diego, with his latest opening near LAX airport in the La Tijera/La Cienega area. He’ll be marking the release of his new budget-conscious cannabis strain, Dr. Greenthumb, named after the alter ego he introduced on the song of the same name on 1998’s “Cypress Hill IV,” which had a video portraying a mad scientist grower who demonstrates how to farm the plant while avoiding police surveillance from above.
“We keep our plate pretty fucking full,” says B-Real. “But it’s great to be busy.”
Cypress Hill was formed 30 years ago in the South Gate area of L.A. by locally born Louis, son of a Mexican father and Cuban mother, along with Cuban-born Sen Dog (Senen Reyes) and New York City transplant DJ Muggs (Lawrence Muggerud). The Showtime documentary begins there, at the cross-section of Cypress Avenue and Firestone Blvd., just seven miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
“We were getting stoned to the bone like for real,” says Sen in the film, bonding with B-Real over a joint at that very spot, alongside his younger brother Ulpiano Sergio (Mellow Man Ace). They share their musical tastes, which included arena-rock like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Doors and Parliament-Funkadelic.
B and Sen hit it off at once, but their vision didn’t crystallize until Muggerud, who was adopted by a Norwegian family which moved into the L.A. hood, brought his New York-honed turntable wizardry to local hip-hop group the 7A3 before hooking up with the two distinct frontman MCs.
“They sounded like the crazy Mexicans that were on angel dust, but it was dope,” marvels Ice-T in the documentary. Like Ye’s three-part feature, “Jee-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” “Insane in the Brain” benefits from a director who was there from the beginning — Esteven Oriol, who not only documented the band from the start in photos and film, but served as Cypress Hill’s tour manager, press rep, travel agent and trusted aide.
“I preserve memories for people,” says Oriol at the start of the doc, and that is just what he’s done in the film, starting from the trio’s inception through the climax, in which they are awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In between, there are moments of controversy, like DJ Muggs famously lighting up on “Saturday Night Live” in 1993, during their performance of “I Ain’t Going Out Like That,” a move that got them banned them from the show. It also has their triumphs, including appearances at Woodstock ’94 (where they introduced percussionist Eric Bobo, son of legendary drummer Willie Bobo, whom they purloined from the Beastie Boys) and Lollapalooza, where they somehow fit in alongside alternative icons like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, Hole, Beck, Pavement and Sinead O’Connor.
“Insane in the Brain” puts Cypress Hill’s longstanding activist role in cannabis legalization front and center, sometimes even overshadowing the band’s impressive catalog, which includes such standards as “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” “Hits from the Bong,” “Throw Your Set in the Air,” “No Rest for the Wicked,” “Boom Biddy Bye,” “I Wanna Get High” and “Hand on the Pump.”
“It’s hard to capture 30 years in 90 minutes,” says B-Real. “Estevan had to edit and shape a story from all that footage, but I think people are really going to dig it.”
The documentary comes at a time when legalization is spreading across the country, as B-Real wonders what a cannabis activist like the late Jack Herer – whose name has been used for a legendary cannabis strain — would think of how it was rolling out.
“There’s still a fight,” he says, “including the taxation situation here in California, and the legacy people who remain in prison that must be released. Jack taught us about the politics and the possibilities. He was my educator. If he were here, he’d be screaming for fairness in this industry.”
On Cypress Hill’s latest album, “Back in Black,” their 10th studio recording and first since 2018’s “Elephants on Acid,” Sen Dog raps on “Open Ya Mind” about how the real legalization battle has just begun. “Now I’m fighting a case / But the laws in the state / Ain’t the same as the federal / So now these charges hold weight.”
“Insane in the Brain” tells the story of Cypress Hill’s climb to stardom, starting with a trip to New York to audition for Def Jam president Bill Stephney, who turned them down, but sold the group on creating a brand, with a logo and a concept. That inspired B-Real to come up with a “joint” mission, to become the Cheech & Chong of hip-hop, and both members of that comedy duo are interviewed in the documentary about their influence.
“We definitely put the work in,” says B-Real about the band’s cannabis activism over the years. “We were the potheads, the ones with the weed songs. Listen to the albums and there were only one or two cannabis songs, but somehow all we talked or rapped about was weed. We’re more than a fucking weed group. We’re a hip-hop band, a rock band… It’s part of who we are, but not everything.”
The group landed on Philadelphia-based gangsta-rap pioneer label Ruffhouse Records, home of a then-unknown Eminem’s first band the Outsiders as well as Nas, DMX, Schoolly D, Kool Keith, Beanie Sigel, the Fugees, the Goats and John Forte. The label, which had a distribution deal with Columbia Records, was run by producer Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo and partner Chris Schwartz.
“New York hard-core with L.A. swag,” said Nicolo about what drew him to Cypress Hill.
The Alchemist (Daniel Alan Maman), a noted Beverly Hills-born hip-hop producer who worked with Cypress Hill as well as Dilated Peoples and Mobb Deep early on, described them in the film as “beautiful train wrecks… they transcended hip-hop, their look was monumental. A mixture of east and west coast.”
It wasn’t until “Shoot ‘Em Up” appeared on the soundtrack for the 1992 film, “Juice,” which starred Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur, though, that Cypress Hill’s self-titled debut, released the year before, took off. By the time their follow-up, “Black Sunday,” came out, it debuted at No. 1 with the then-largest opening week ever for a hip-hop act, thanks to the crossover success of “Insane in the Brain.” The band toured around the world, performing in Australia, Mexico City, South America, South Africa, Europe and Japan, often FedEx-ing weed to the location before their arrival.
Like the Go-Go’s doc, the Cypress Hill documentary should put into perspective their pervasive influence and groundbreaking, Latin-tinged hip-hop crossed with booming metallic rock for Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voters. Though they have never appeared on the ballot, Cypress Hill’s B-Real is a voter, and he has some strong opinions about his band’s case.
“We have some haters, some bad blood,” he admits. “But to be truthful about it, I don’t give a fuck. We didn’t start this for achievements or awards. If it happens, awesome, great, but our passion was making music and connecting with people.
“We’ve always been underdogs. We’ve been overlooked because of who we are and what we stand for. But we rapped about some serious shit on our albums. And a lot of opportunities didn’t come our way because of that. But I would not change a fucking thing because here we are 30 years later. I feel we’ve had more impact on the cannabis legalization movement than any other artist.”
Or as he puts it in the doc, “It was all organic… no pun intended. ”
Variety contributor and former High Times editor Steve Bloom, who put Cypress Hill on the publication’s cover, offers some props in the doc. “I liked the music and they seemed to be all about weed. It was a perfect fit for us. They were pushing the envelope by lighting up on-stage in places like Alabama.”
As far as the group’s legacy goes, B-Real argues, “We also like to prove motherfuckers wrong, like [on the belief that] hip-hop is a young man’s game. Record labels don’t know how to market to the older fans, to make them aware the artists they grew up with have no music out. Hip-hop is one of the genres where the fans don’t necessarily stay loyal to the older groups. The major labels and radio airplay just perpetuate that.”
Cypress Hill remains as active as ever, having just released its new album, “Back in Black,” last month and planning a U.S. arena tour later this spring, followed by visits to Canada, Austria and Belgium in the summer. The band just played a gig at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver on Tuesday night, and today B-Real returns to L.A. to take care of his “other” business.
“4/20 is a national holiday, celebrated in places where it’s not even legal yet,” says B, who notes how he went from playing 4/20 gigs in the Bay Area at the Fillmore and Warfield in the early 2000s to headlining a show in Vancouver before 150,000 fans. “It’s fucking unbelievable and it’s just going to get bigger and bigger. But every day is 4/20 for me.”