Black Sunday At 30: An Interview With Sen Dog of Cypress Hill

Son Raw speaks to Sen Dog about the dynamic of Cypress Hill, learning how to get better at touring, pleasing crowds and more.
By    July 10, 2023

Image via Lynn Goldsmith

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It’s officially “lock myself in the bedroom with AC” season for Son Raw.

Sen Dog is a survivor. The Cypress Hill mainstay is an indelible part of the group’s chemistry, responsible for taking songs like “Insane In The Brain” and “Hits From The Bong” from good to great with his baritone vocals, and lacing some of Cypress’ deep cuts with high energy verses that ping pong off his partner B-Real’s livewire energy. Behind the scenes, he’s a thoughtful presence, equally comfortable talking about his band’s ’90s glory days as he is discussing his passion for motorcycles.

Over a balmy afternoon over Zoom, I got to ask about all of the above as Cypress Hill celebrated the 30th anniversary of their classic sophomore effort Black Sunday, which includes a deluxe re-release on July 20. A triple-platinum monster that debuted at #1 on the album charts, the album is the rare crossover success that never compromises, sticking to Cypress’ original up tempo, sample-heavy Hip Hop while expanding their reach to casual listeners glued to MTV and alternative kids looking to go beyond grunge.

Ignoring both the dying fumes of New Jack Swing and the ascendant G-Funk of their Los Angeles peers at Death Row, Cypress instead reveled in the darkness, tapping into hard rock’s darkness and rebellion while still rapping over some of the funkiest breaks east of the Mississippi. 30 years on, it’s clear that this lack of compromise paid off: even as the group expanded their sound to touch on trip-hop (Temples of Boom), metal (“Rock Superstar”) and even dubstep (Cypress X Rusko), fans can trust that the musical exploration comes from a place of honest curiosity, rather than a desire to pander to industry demands. And across all of these albums, Sen Dog’s energy is the secret spice balancing B-Real’s nasal twang and Muggs’ gloominess. 30 years worth of bong hits later, that’s worth celebrating.

On Black Sunday, was there like any pressure in terms of getting back in the studio, because, obviously, on your debut, nobody really knows you, but by the time like, ’93 rolls around, you’ve seen some success.

Sen Dog: We didn’t feel any pressure going into that album, and then the label called us up and said they wanted it turned in within a month, and we hadn’t even started it. So we dropped off the tour we were on, and went to work. With us in the studio, we knew we had to get it done. We were young to the game still, so we didn’t understand that the label wants the album RIGHT NOW, that pressure type of thing. But we went in there and we knocked out an album in record time.

Later on, as you get older, you find out, that the label was trying to… not really pressure us, but light a fire under us. Then, when that record came out, we had two albums in the top 5 or 10 Billboard slots – Black Sunday, number one, and then the first album, Cypress Hill, was five or six or something.

So I understood – the label knew what they were talking about. From then on, I said: ‘okay, you know, these are professionals.’ Maybe it’s better to listen to what they have to say, take it a little bit more seriously, a little bit more intently. We make the music, we don’t put the music out there, we don’t work it, we don’t sell it, that’s the label’s department. They felt like the time to strike was right then and there.

The day that we finished the album, maybe even a few days before, we got a bunch of mushrooms and listened to the record… and it was great! So we went home shortly after that, and I listened to the record completely sober and they were still just as good. So we were happy, the label was happy with it, and they picked up what they thought should be the first single and all that – which was not what WE thought the first single should be. They were telling us to trust them – ‘this song right here, it’s gonna blow the doors off everything’ and that was “Insane In The Brain.” So we went ahead with it, and in the whole process of it all, we learned a little something. The record was successful. So I think getting off for that tour and and going back in the lab for the follow up was the right thing for us to do.

Listening to the first two Cypress albums back-to-back to get like a feel about what had changed and what was the same, and on Black Sunday, there’s a real sense of you stepping up and getting more of your own verses in, beyond backing up B-Real – was that purposeful?

Sen Dog: I feel it just kind of happened like that. On the first record, my confidence wasn’t there – not the type of confidence I felt that I needed. And by the second album, I tried to work in the circle with the group and be more of a rapper – more than just doing our back and forth thing. I always felt that I could rhyme, it’s just that everything’s got to be right: the confidence, the attitude, everything has to be right.

When we first started, our roles were defined early on – and it worked! So if it ain’t broke, why fix it? We stood in our roles and that proved to be a winning combination. For the sake of the chemistry of it all and the creative process coming together and forming in the right way, we stuck with those roles. I think it’s been good for the band in the sense that people have gotten to know us and what everybody does in the band. There’s really no confusion of who does what and who goes where, and I think it helps the listener, knowing, without hearing the music, what to expect when a Cypress Hill record comes out. And here we are, you know, 33 years later.

Around Black Sunday, you start getting a lot of alternative fans as well. How did you guys feel when you started seeing those new faces in the crowd, and the audience growing and shifting a little bit away from the core Hip Hop audience?

Sen Dog: In ’90-92, we went on tour with the Beastie Boys. Prior to that, we had just been doing our hip-hop shows and it was cool and everything, but then boom, when we went on tour with the Beasties, I saw every shade of human being possible in their audience. I thought it was the greatest thing: we could actually service a whole variety of different backgrounds if we decided to go that way.

To me, it was always better to do these festival days with a lot of bands. We’d hit people from all reaches of the Earth in the audience – it just was a no brainer. I feel that extended our careers because we weren’t worried about it: there’s a crowd out there that needs to be thoroughly entertained, and we don’t care what what color they are, or what race or whatever. There’s a crowd out there – let’s go get it! And it helped and help us grow our vision of what we thought Cypress Hill could be.

Touring back then must have been intense – stage shows were really competitive in the ’90s.

Sen Dog: Well, let me tell you that I was horrible at touring back then. I wasn’t as professional as I needed to be. But it made the group kind of dangerous. I would be on stage and be mad at the world. Then I would take it out on the performance and the more aggressive I got, the more people liked it. Getting professional would be something that I would have to eventually learn and get used to.

Aside from that, back in those days, there was always a lot of cool things happening. I remember when we did Woodstock, when we came off the stage, there’s Steven Tyler standing on the side of the stage waiting for us! B-Real has smoked a big joint at that show, and so Steven, when he sees it goes, “Hey, man, was that a big bone you got out there?” That’s what he called the joint, a bone. Things like that would happen every now and then, and that made that era so cool for touring.

Right around that time was also when we did our first European festival. We had been to Europe before doing our solo sets in whatever little nightclub. But then we got to where we played a festival, I don’t remember which one, I think somewhere in England. And, you know, it was a whole festival: the shops, the beers, the merchants, everything – it was just such a great day. It woke me up a little bit, I realized I’d rather be doing this in front of 100,000 people instead of little nightclubs. It was definitely an eye opening time, as far as what the music industry could do for us in those early ’90s years. It was very educational.

What I remember that stands out in my mind is the shows with Nirvana and Soundgarden and Pearl Jam – that grunge era rock that was dominating back then. Here we are, LA kids, right in the middle of Kurt Cobain and Chris and all those dudes. I mean, wow, it felt like we’ve actually made it, we’re here. I remember looking at Bobo, and saying to him, without any voice: “Big time. We’re here.” Then we went on tour with Nirvana, we did a lot of cool things in those days. It was the kind of things that I thought we’d never do. I’m glad that we were there to take part in it. It was it was an awesome time. And I think it helped open up our audience in a big way.

Those early albums, when you guys go on tour nowadays is that still like the bulk of the back catalogue? Because there’s a lot of later Cypress records that have fans. I’m a big Temple Of Boom guy, I like Elephants On Acid a lot, of the recent ones as well. But as a fan, I guess I still expect to see like a lot of stuff from those first two records.

Sen Dog: We try to play something off of every album – if we have enough time. Normally, when you do an hour set, time is limited. When we do an hour and a half, we have a little bit more time to include more stuff from different albums. But, you know… “I Could Just Kill A Man,” “Insane In The brain.” “Hand On The Pump,” “Latin Lingo,” those are staples in our catalog and I wouldn’t feel right performing without doing those. Our mentality is to always be as diversified as we can. If we could give you stuff from every album, if time permits, then we will, but most of the time, we give them the hits, you know what I mean? Stuff that people know. We find that it works that way. But believe me, if we could do a two-hour set, we’d probably do something from every single record.

When I look at Black Sunday, that’s ’93 going into ’94, one of the big tunes off that album was “Hits From The Bong.” And one of the things I always found interesting was Pulp Fiction came out right after your album, and it used the Dusty Springfield “Son Of A Preacher Man” joint that you guys flipped. Were you guys aware of that overlap? It feels like Tarantino might have thought about it after hearing Black Sunday.

Sen Dog: Yeah, we were aware of that, all the way. DJ Muggs has always been a music enthusiast to the highest level. And, we were always into listening to music of different styles and whatnot. So I knew the [original] song that we used for that record and I thought it was a very cool idea. Those are the kinds of moves that we made that set us apart from other rap groups at that time and the production that most came with.

But more importantly, I feel like if you’ve never heard the original, and you heard the Cypress Hill joint, you probably would think it’s an original Cypress Hill track, you know what I mean? That’s the kind of respect that we have for that old music, we wanted to do something with it, but in a big way. We wanted something that’s going to make even non hip-hop fans think, “hey, that’s kind of cool.” That song right there carries that vibe about it. If you know, you know: listen to the original “Son Of A Preacher Man,” and then listen to our version of it, you can see what we did with it. It’s a precise thing. It’s not too far from the original but we flipped it.

Finally, I watched the documentary that you guys put out last year, and one thing that struck me was your interest in motorcycles. Obviously Roughriders and DMX were doing it big out east on motorbikes, but that’s a different culture than the classics you were presenting. Were you already into that at the time you were making Black Sunday or did that kind of come later in your journey?

Sen Dog: I think I got into motorcycles really heavy around ’95-96, so my love for motorcycles predates what I’m doing today with the club. When we were making an album, I had just gotten into motorcycle riding, and back in those days, I used to ride a speedbike, like a crotch rocket. When you first get into motorcycles, for the novice, I think it’s all about the speed. Before you learn about what motorcycling is really about, I just wanted to go fast, being a young guy. We used to haul ass on the bikes and I did some dangerous things, so I eventually got rid of them.

But eventually, life chills you out. I just decided to change my way as far as what I was riding on. But that really didn’t come along till later on, maybe 15 years ago or something. But for me, when you get home after a long flight from wherever you’re in the world, I’ve learned to come home and get on that motorcycle and decompress. It’s been one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. And to this day, I’m still sponsored by Indian Motorcycle, so, it’s not a bad little thing.

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