“I Just Want To Make Music With My Middle Finger Up”: An Interview With DJ Muggs

Steven Louis chats with one of the greatest of all-time, DJ Muggs about the changing rap landscape, his New York upbringing, and the lasting impact of his music.
By    August 14, 2018

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Steven Louis is also insane in the membrane.

For more than three decades now, DJ Muggs has been holding up a middle finger and making uncompromisingly raw music with his homies. His latest, Soul Assassins: Dia del Asesinato, is a gathering steeped in blacks and grays, hypnotic guitars and grimy drums. It puts Raekwon with Meyhem Lauren; DOOM with both Gangsta Gibbs and G Rap; Mach-Hommy menacing in Spanish and Haitian Patois. It’s Muggs and his friends—middle fingers indeed up—at a potluck overflowing with malt liquor, expensive fabrics, and thoughtful reminiscing.

It will be a busy end to 2018 for Muggs, born Lawrence Muggerud. There’s an animated visual for “Assassination Day,” which features Trump & Putin cackling at an assassinated Kanye West. The project’s art will adorn shirts and skate decks through a collaboration with Diamond Supply. He produced the forthcoming Roc Marciano album, and on Sept. 28, Cypress Hill will release its first album since 2010 with Elephants On Acid. After blasting some tantalizing unreleased songs and rolling up a few joints, Muggs sat down to reflect on his long journey, one that spans the entire history of hip-hop and seems to have no conclusion in sight.

What was it like getting these sessions together? Did anyone stand out to you?

DJ Muggs:  I went to New York and rented a studio for about two weeks. Just about everybody came through in New York, except for Mach [Hommy]. We just spoke over the phone, did it like that. DOOM was the only other one we did over the phone. In LA, we had Raekwon and Freddie Gibbs come through. Everybody fucking shined on this record. I don’t think there was one stand-out, but everybody stood out, you know?

We did a bunch of songs. I’ve probably got about 130 songs right now, just sitting here, because we keep recording, doesn’t matter who’s here. Got Ghostface’s shit coming next week, Roc [Marciano]’s shit, whoever. But when I was making the record, I wanted to have multiple songs from each person. It locks it in, makes it a more cohesive project. It ain’t just a compilation. That’s why Rae has two joints, Meyhem [Lauren] has two joints, Kool G on two joints, DOOM on two joints. Then I brought this new kid I’m working with, Eto, on “Duck Sauce.” He’s from Rochester. We have an album almost finished.

Damn, Rochester?

Muggs: Back in the day, we’d be like, huh? But New York is changing, it’s gentrifying like crazy. Motherfuckers from other places are now just doing their thing.

Where in New York did you guys record?

Muggs: We were in Queens. Meyhem Lauren’s got a studio in Queens. So I worked out of there, and at Harry Fraud’s a couple nights.

I’ll tell you what, bro. G Rap, just being around his process, I love it. There are no rappers to me, from the 80s, that still have lyrics and flow like a brand new kid. If G Rap was 20 years old right now, he’d be the illest motherfucker out. Some 30 years in this shit to still be at that level and not lose anything, and still sound current as fuck? That’s a national treasure.

Old school New York cats, like that, they move different. To me, New York been a wrap since the early 90s; the New York that I knew started gentrifying by the late 80s. When you’re young and wild, that’s how you want it. Now, it’s fucking Disneyworld over there.

I’ll confess, my apartment in Brooklyn was literally in-between a juice shop and a bodega.

Muggs: Williamsburg in ‘89 was nothing but crack heads! Now, it’s another world.

What was it like, growing up in that version of New York?

Muggs:  I grew up in Queens. My mother is from Naples, Italy. They came after World War II, moved to Queens. My mom has eight brothers and sisters, so it’s a big family. I miss that shit. When you grow up in Queens, it’s a raw city, so you grow up with whites, Italians, Irish, Jews, Mexicans, Blacks, West Indians…you just grow up with so much culture, all mixed up. You grow up with real people.

Must have been a real diverse introduction to music as a kid.

Muggs:  My mom, in the house, would play Motown, or The Beatles and shit. My uncle, who moved in with us, became my roommate. He was about nine years older than me, and he had blacklights, velvet posters, lava lamps, 8-tracks, beads, incense, smoking weed…four or five years of imagery there seeped into my subconscious. That’s still my favorite kind of imagery. I’m drawn to the classic rock myths, that mystique.

I got put on to hip-hop about 1978, ‘79. Treacherous Three, all that. But when I heard “Rappers’ Delight,” it was over, dawg. I caught the fucking fever. Any kind of rap, I wanted to be listening. That was one of them songs where you was cool if you knew all the words, so in school we’d memorize the whole damn 10-minute thing and clown on each other if someone got a lyric wrong. We had never heard anything like that before. Every generation wants its own heroes, its own music. I loved what I was hearing from my family, but when I heard rap, I knew this was my shit right here.

I had the fever. I’d stay glued to the radio to hear it. I’d listen to shit I didn’t like, just to hear that shit. It was in heavy rotation, so you’d figure it would be on every two hours. I would be waiting for that. Then I got the 12-inch. But I didn’t start deejaying until about ‘84. I had just moved out here [to LA]. The summer I move, I go across the street to buy weed & smoke with my homeboys, and they was deejays. They would play high-energy shit, and freestyle shit, cuz that’s what you needed for the Latin crowds, to get the girls to dance. I just started fucking around with the turntables, and I got good. So they was like, yo, do you wanna play the house party with us? Aight! There were so many girls, I figured, why not come back next week? Then I got better than them, and that was it.

Did you play any instruments before that?

Muggs:  Nah, I wouldn’t call myself a player, nah. I was just good at [deejaying], hah. It came to me quick. These guys was practicing all the time, then they showed me, and it was like, this fool learned his stuff in a couple days, we been learning it all year! I guess it just fell into place.

Speaking of gentrification, I’m sure coming up as a deejay in that era of Los Angeles would be unrecognizable in today’s LA. What was the scene like back then?

Muggs:  They’re pushing the people out. And they demonize the youth in certain parts of the city, especially with putting these kids on gang lists to get them out and raise the property values. The people make LA, and when you push the people out, it gets fucking sterile, like going to a mall. Shit gets bland. LA was a lot more dangerous back then. Shit was more raw. That’s what I miss about New York, too, the rawness of the streets. That energy still exists, so I try to tap into that here in the studio.

When Cypress Hill became the first-ever platinum Latinx hip-hop group, was there any pushback around here over both the English and Spanish lyrics?

Muggs: It wasn’t nothing for us, because that’s just what we did out here. We didn’t wear that as a flag, because a lot of great Latin emcees in LA with Latin pride—a beautiful thing—still got pigeonholed. Some Blacks would be like, nah, that’s Mexican rap. They’d get stuck in the car show scene, for all the Spanish rappers.

We just came out as Cypress Hill. No one was gonna see us, they were just gonna hear our music, and our music was gonna be bangin. No gimmicky shit. We was gonna do what we did on Cypress Ave., smoking weed, spittin English and Spanish on the block. That’s what we gave them. We knew how quick people get pigeonholed in this game. We were competing with Pac, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Gang Starr. We had to come hard, the competition was no joke. If you were wack, motherfuckers weren’t playing your shit.

Do you remember a moment where you knew you had made it, that you belonged among that level of competition?

Muggs: First I was in a group called The 7A3. And then, when the Cypress album launched, it didn’t sell for the first six or so months. The label put out the wrong single, all that. They wanted to do their shit. But the deejays in New York flipped the single and started playing “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” All of a sudden, it was on all the big mix shows: Funkmaster Flex, Stretch & Bobbito, then Ed Lover & Dre started playing it twice a week on MTV Raps, which was the bible of hip-hop back then. Then, the movie Juice kicked in at the exact same time, and our song was in the main scene. With all that going on, we went from no sales to 10, 20, 30, 40, up to 70,000 a week. Then we just stayed on the charts for a few years. It’s like the Dark Side of the Moon of hip-hop, or even, our fans are like the Grateful Dead’s. Our shit just stayed. We didn’t care what was going on out there, or on the radio. We built our own new world. You come into our world, now, and we’ve been on that shit since the first record. You’re still coming into our world with Elephants on Acid.

People complain about the radio not letting them in now, but it’s always been like that. Part of the reason why I said fuck this radio shit was because in my day they weren’t playing Public Enemy. They weren’t playing Ultramagnetic, either. You was getting Young MC, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Run-DMC got snubbed at the Grammys, Public Enemy got snubbed. With all that said, nah man, I just want to make music with my motherfuckin middle finger up. That’s been our attitude. When you reach in and go outside of yourself looking for something, you get lost. You lose your path.

Makes sense that you guys went right on tour to colleges with Rage Against the Machine & Seven Year Bitch.

Muggs: Yeah, they were opening for us. We felt like the biggest band in the world back then. There was no internet, so the way you popped off was college radio. It was only once you were bubbling on college radio and the mix shows that terrestrial radio picked you up. The shows were fun, and just full of energy. We went out and had a party with these motherfuckers on stage. That was the sentiment of all that shit. There were fights, but never protests or anything. Motherfuckers had a good time, especially because no one likes the police. When it was time to say “FUCK THE POLICE,” everyone had a big smile on their face. This was right after Rodney King. Also, with our stance on marijuana. Up until that point, everyone in rap was saying, “don’t smoke weed or cess, cuz it’s known to give a brother brain damage.” Slow down, don’t do drugs, you know. Meanwhile, we smoke!

I used to read this book The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer. I grew up with that culture, with High Times on the table. We took what was going on, on Cypress Ave., and took that to the studio. So, smoking weed became a big thing in our music. We were the first rap group to get down with High Times, and we started playing their fundraisers so that they could raise money to lobby Congress on the legalization of marijuana. They have an organization called NORML, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. We were there pushing that line! Now, looking at the environment in 2018 where everyone has pounds of weed in their videos, motherfuckers were going to jail for lighting up some places back then.

I smoked on the set of Saturday Night Live, and we got banned for life from SNL because of that. It was in 1993, for the Black Sunday release. I smoked for the second song. I said, “New York City, can I light my joint?!” I lit it, the smoke filled up the studio, and the phones started ringing. As soon as we got off stage, everybody panicked like a motherfucker.

That’s wild!

Muggs: Like, damn, bro! It’s only a little bit of weed, just say it was fake!

You guys probably didn’t want to be boxed in as the weed rappers too, but there were a lot of stations that wouldn’t play Cypress Hill because of the weed talk. Now it feels like you have to be rapping about smoking weed.

Muggs: We were never like, let’s do a weed song. We just did what we did. Bob Marley was a huge inspiration, and we got an education from him on what the herb was about. It was never a stoner thing, because, I never got stoned out, zoned out watching the TV. It makes me want to go to the gym, or read, or go hiking, or make music, or talk. It turns your brain on. It’s not for everybody. Motherfuckers who have one beer and get drunk, you shouldn’t drink, it’s not good for you. Some people just fall asleep when they smoke, you know…but yeah, we get high, we don’t get stoned.

*Muggs lights up a joint he’s been rolling*

Being an anti-radio dude, was it weird to see success as the producer of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” at that point in your career? Did you know you were capable of making something like that?

Muggs: You can’t make a record and know it’s gonna get that big. I liked it, shit came out and it felt cool. It was a good song, you know. But you can never imagine it’s gonna be that big. Damn near 30 years later it’s still getting smashed in every city, every night. You don’t expect that shit, but it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Hope you’re getting those University of Wisconsin royalty checks, every football game, hah.

Muggs: Hah, people brought that up to me. It’s cool, though, seeing kids lose their minds. It keeps the song alive, and it introduces a new person to it. Every year some new kid steps into that school, sees [the fourth quarter celebration], and now they’re a fan for life. The song is just part of global culture at this point, one of those songs that will be here forever.

So, then you guys toured with Ziggy [Marley], right?

Muggs: Yup, the Smokin’ Grooves Tour. Everyone had the ill vibe, because when you pull up to the venue, you get there mad early. Sometimes your bus gets in the night before, and you’re at the venue by like 10 or something, even though you don’t go on ‘til night. But they had barbecues out, making healthy food with fish and veggies and shit. Just enjoying life. They had “house by the beach” vibes just standing by a bus before going on stage. They brought the church to the stage, you feel?

Did Ziggy teach you guys anything, with Bob being such an inspiration?

Muggs: I can’t say we had real long sit-down conversations, but in general, we had just never heard someone like him or his father talk about weed like that. It blew our minds at the time.

Then next up for you was the first Soul Assassins record…this is 1997 with Dre, KRS, Mobb Deep, RZA, GZA, Goodie Mobb & Cypress Hill all on one album.

Muggs: Yup, and that was before mixtapes, so doing a record like that…man, it was some work. It came from respect, because everyone respected what I was doing, and I respected them. So we got in the lab, and at that point, I built relationships with everybody that kept going. I worked on GZA’s shit, Mobb’s shit, produced some on the Goodie Mobb album and did a few soundtrack joints with them. I’m still working with Willie the Kid, La the Darkman’s son. Me and Dre still have a relationship. So that project set up a lot for me. My man Bigga B helped me out a lot. Football player-type, 300-pound dude. He worked at Loud Records, and made a lot of introductions.

Is it true that Marley Marl & Pete Rock turned off “Decisions, Decisions” during their Hot 97 broadcast?

Muggs: Yeah, that’s what I heard. Now, with the internet, that news would have been crazy. Back then, I didn’t mind. Motherfuckers just had a closed mind that day, or something. I wasn’t trippin. But that last verse, with Cee-Lo! That’s one of the best verses ever, yo. And when Cee-Lo did it, he wasn’t really sure about it. “Man, I dunno Muggs!” He was so musical, but I was giving him a drum and a loop, type-shit. Then he got Rhyme of the Month in The Source! That carried a lot of weight.

Khujo’s verse is so dope too.

Muggs: I recently found the original too, because we’re doing an archive, for a college I can’t say yet. There’s an archivist working with us now, got about 60 boxes in the back. I didn’t even know what an archive was when it was suggested to me. But, what’s gonna happen when you die? Where’s your shit gonna go? In storage, then someone will forget to pay the bill, then it’s in the trash. It’ll get all scattered around, with family maybe keeping a couple things. Might be shit that they think is most important but isn’t, and the most important stuff ends up in the fuckin trash.

An archive wants the whole story, from the beginning to end. This is the right way to preserve my shit, and to give people access to always enjoy it. I have demos from the first Cypress album, with songs with different lyrics and notes. Still have all the notebooks and journals. All these decisions we made, all these things you don’t know, you’ll be able to draw lines all the way through now. I have two Cypress albums from back then that never came out. One of them I want to be released only through the archive, where you gotta go there and listen to it publicly. People will have to go to this college on a mission, just to hear this record.

How did you become the producer trusted with GZA’s whole chess concept album?

Muggs: Whenever I work with you, I tap into what you do. That’s my job as the producer. I want to come into your world, take you, and make you bigger. So, when GZA was here, we would play chess and drink Guinness stouts every day. He’s good. He loses, but he plays some great people, he goes to the park and seeks out masters and all that. But he’s a pleasure to work with. We came up with that whole Grandmasters project in about a month. I think I’m going to do a re-mix & re-master of the album. Because of the archive, I’ve been finding everything. These are old fuckin’ computers, and I’m finding shit every day.

*Muggs throws on the instrumental of “Those That’s Bout It,” then the acapella*

I’m not going to remix the music. I’m keeping the same music, just making it sound different.

“The fact that the beat came from Muggs was a helluva gift,” GZA says there. Damn! Looking at things now, is there anyone new you want to work with? Can you tell who is gonna last and who isn’t real?

Muggs: I’m more interested in creating something from scratch. That’s why I’m real excited about Eto. Some cats in the underground know him, but, to be able to take something and put it here, from the concept of the record to videos and art and molding it, I love that.

I think all this shit is funny. The way to come up, people gotta be extra wild with their mouths on the internet. I just lay back in the cut, smile, and say, “This shit is funny.” I don’t care about rap, or what y’all do. I just do what I do, with my people. A lot of that shit is humorous, but man, you need all those aspects. I needed Vanilla Ice to be poppin on the radio, because it made me iller! It made my music iller. You need those opposites. The cornball pop radio shit makes my shit sound even better. I dig all of it, I just think it’s funny and I enjoy it. It ain’t that serious. It’s music. It’s a good time. I do my shit how I do it, and that’s all I care about.

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