Introducing a new series, where Miguelito highlights the best behind the boards in LA.
Cypress Moreno is a poor listener, but it doesn’t affect his music. “As weird as it sounds, my listening skills are terrible,” he tells me in his East L.A. studio. “I tune people out and don’t answer questions properly, but I can hear music. I can tell you what’s a hit, what’s gonna work—bring this snare up, what key the song’s in; this music shit is my language.”
Maybe he should be more forgiving to himself. The Los Angeles-raised DJ and producer is one of many fueling L.A. rap’s trajectory. Moreno has adopted, modified, and sometimes abandoned the templates of West Coast hip-hop to burrow into the city’s eclectic tradition, one whose minor chords and p-bass strummings have directed formative smoke sessions and helped test the efficacy of open container laws from Gardena to Pacoima.
Since 2015, he’s produced for G Perico, Freddie Gibbs, Mozzy—staples of the last half decade—and burgeoning L.A. crops Shoreline Mafia, SOB X RBE, 03 Greedo, Rucci, The Stinc Team, and 2Eleven. When I arrive at the studio, a graffiti-peppered warehouse not far from Route 60, he’s upstairs parsing through a hypnotic beat made earlier that afternoon. He’s dressed modestly, draping a gray hoodie over his slim build, save for the golden shimmers bouncing off his bottom row of teeth.
“It looks good, but that shit ain’t comfortable,” he smirks before removing the grill and giving me a tour of the space. Downstairs is littered with stages, lights, and miscellaneous furniture he and others use to practice live performances, while his second-story cove has a suite attached that could sleep No Limit’s production crew at its height if necessary. Signs of life include unwashed dishes and nearly expired toothpaste he vehemently denies owning.
His focus is apparent, but still his eye contact and thoughtful responses convey a kindness and gratitude for the chance to speak. He apologizes for the ashes and discarded candy wrappers that accessorize the studio before resting at the console to catalogue heights of his work. Two Blinky PacMan lights rest on opposite edges of the console, coordinating their phasing colors with each song’s tempo and keeping dutiful watch just below the security feed.
His production has hundreds of thousands of plays on Soundcloud alone, but his DJ role takes precedent. “I’m a DJ first,” he says. “It’s really been in my blood. I feel what shaped me was listening to the radio DJs get down growing up. Being on the radio in L.A. was a big thing, its own kind of celebrity. I grew up listening to Eric D-lux, DJ Felli Fel, DJ Reflex, DJ Eddie One, all of them.”
Despite growing up in Central L.A., about twenty minutes away from the sprouting ground of Cypress Hill for whom he’s named, it would take a failed college stint to push Cypress into production. Although a highly active listener, only asking for iTunes gift cards at Christmas to collect the sounds of his city, he never ventured into creating music. After playing defensive back in high school (a career that recorded two punt blocks), he opted for an exclusively academic life at the University of Arizona. “I was lazy and undisciplined,” he admits, “I’m disappointed in myself as a college student.”
The school’s perennial quest for indulgence bragging rights gave Cypress opportunity though. “I’d always bring my laptop to parties,” he continues, “Even without the equipment, I could still rock a function.” A friend loaded Ableton on his computer, so he began exploring and making mixes, not yet creating original music. After three taxing semesters at Arizona, Cypress hitched a final ride back to Los Angeles with a friend, leaving behind a lease and possessions too large for the journey.
“I came home and thought, ‘What the fuck am I gonna do now?’,” he explains. “I get back from Arizona and see an ad for L.A. Recording School. I checked the date and the open house was the next day. My parents both went to college, did grad school, all that, so there was really no excuse for me.” It was difficult for him to make that initial call, still in the fledgling stage of reorienting his life, but he credits his mother for the support that led to his enrollment. He began the 18-month music production program a few days later, in January of 2014.
Last year showed a promising returns on that investment. “I wanted to make my mark as a producer in 2017,” he says. “Since 2014-15 I’ve been a DJ/producer, but for 2017 I wanted to be a producer first, in the studio working with different artists. I feel I’ve made progress.” His eyes dart to the ground and a smile peaks out of the left corner of his mouth, as if he’s watching his own highlight cuts and pleased with them.
As a producer, Cypress gives stylistic credit to the groundbreakers of L.A. hip-hop. He cites Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, and BattleCat as primary sculptors for his model of what the West Coast sounds like. “I was born in 1994, so that really influenced me. I feel like I have the West Coast stuff on lock: Kicks, snare, clap, bass, that ‘come to L.A. and you know what people are bumping and smoking weed to’ music.”
Shuffling through the credits proves his claim. Cypress’ production takes lead from the rhythmic experimentation of DJ Quik and assertive force of BattleCat’s claps and riffs, but doesn’t feel constrained by these early guides. “That’s Out,” produced for Inglewood rapper 2Eleven, melds classic examples of g-funk progression and emphatic claps with Cypress’ mastery of hi-hat timing and manipulation. He doesn’t construct beats with hi-hats in a skeletal way like Southside or Don Cannon, instead using them to carve grooves into a track that are exploited at the artist’s discretion. 2Eleven accelerates his cadence when they dart through “That’s Out,” but builds a hook around the hi-hats for “Understand Me.”
2Eleven, the West Inglewood native formerly signed to Jeezy’s CTE World label, was one of the first L.A. rap players to embrace Cypress and connected him with G Perico when Perico opened a show for Quincey White (previously known as Dubb) a few years back. “[2Eleven] kept saying, ‘Perico is one of the hardest crips in the city’, but I wasn’t really feeling it,” admits Cypress. “It sounded like some L.A. shit, but I was looking at it as a DJ. No one wants to hear twenty bars before a hook in the club from an underground artist.” Perico’s stage presence, sans a DJ, impressed Cypress and sparked a working relationship that now extends beyond the studio.
After seeing Perico perform again without a DJ and still deliver an engaging set, Cypress approached him about filling that role. Now Cypress watches his hi-hats swarm through a crowd for tracks like “One Two” and feels the walls of a stuffy venue concede to the rhythm of “Million Dolla Mission” bass picks. On stage or off, Cypress inserts himself in the loudness tradition of Dr. Dre, who set new limits for rap RMS (Root Mean Square) measurements with 2001. (RMS measures the average voltage level of electrical signals, which reflects the perceived loudness of the music. Zero being the maximum, 2001 hit -8.0 RMS and producer/engineer wizards like Mike Dean would use that reference for a decade.)
You can hear reverberations of the Good Doctor’s level-testing in Cypress’ quaking bassline for the Shoreline Mafia & Stinc Team collaboration “Who R U,” creating a space in which Stinc Team member Ketchy the Great’s frantic hooks thrive. (You should be following Ketchy’s solo work and praying for his freedom.)
Moreno gained confidence seeing fans ecstatic over beats, especially ones just made to forget the heat of a Southern California summer. He says he wasn’t as confident on those summer days as he is now and that’s bleeding into his production for other artists. His recent loosie with prolific, rising Watts sensation 03 Greedo, “Slaving Over the Stove,” is an example of the “free format” he applies to production. The opening melody is soft and reminiscent of the one buried beneath the attention-arresting swagger of Quik’s “Tonite” record, though the two producers use this tone to different ends. For “Slaving Over the Stove,” Cypress slows down the track’s other elements to match and coax the Wolf of Grape Street into melodic form.
While in the studio with Greedo, Cypress saw the benefits of his proactive workflow. Caught without his laptop, he could only play music from the Notes app on his phone. He swipes through his Notes section, scrolling past dozens of unused beats, to show me the 03 instrumental was originally tagged “Tiller-Next Door,” for Bryson Tiller and Partynextdoor. The file dates go back to 2015 and the artist tags range from Gucci Mane to YG, so he’s always loaded no matter the setting. “I have beats I can play for anybody, ready to go,” he says. “It could be called thinking big I guess, but if I’m in the room with a Bryson Tiller, I wanna be prepared and confident in what I have. Work speaks.”
Though a shorter offering, “Slaving Over the Stove” best illustrates Cypress’ patience with a beat, which is a shared characteristic among today’s forward-thinking beatsmiths from Monte Booker to Parker Corey. Initially, a soothing melody guides “Slaving” through the beatific wasteland that exists between trap and R&B. During the last thirty seconds, Cypress inverts the chords and pitches them to atmospheric levels, steering the track to a sinister conclusion.
The original melody fit well, but he didn’t put the onus of keeping the track engaging solely on Greedo. Much like his gridiron years, Cypress still has the almost masochistic drive to constantly improve and surround himself with challengers. “I can’t just be around ‘yes men’ all the time,” he says before I leave him to Ableton and his LED ghouls. “Naw…tell me my shit sucks, I haven’t heard that in a minute. I want it though.”