THE EVENT ESTABLISHED ITSELF AS THE WORLD’S LARGEST REGGAE-ROCK FESTIVAL, but to define the sound of the California Roots Music and Arts Festival isn’t all that straightforward. Stars of the reggae world consistently grace the top spot on the festival’s lineup each year. Along with major reggae artists, however, is the consistent presence of hip-hop icons, from Nas to E-40. This made it easy for Cali Roots co-producer Dan Sheehan to include Cypress Hill on the lineup for the second time since their 2015 festival debut.
“They have one of the all time great Cali Roots performances,” Sheehan says. “For year 10 I thought it was important to bring back an artist that lit up the stage.”
For this appearance, the group will be performing the entirety of their acclaimed album Black Sunday. It will be an opportunity for fans to relive the recording that made Cypress Hill such a force in the West Coast genre.
Much like Cali Roots, the four-person group from South Gate, California has a sound that evades an easy definition, although not acclamation. April 2019 marked a new milestone for Cypress Hill as they became the first Latino-American hip-hop group to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Senen Reyes, known as Sen Dog, never envisioned this kind of validation when he founded the group in 1988 with close friend and fellow rapper Louis Freese (B Real) and producer Lawrence Muggerud (DJ Muggs). Sen, born in Cuba, moved from Miami to the predominantly Latino town of South Gate and befriended Mexican-American B-Real.
“When it was just me and B-Real we just wanted to establish ourselves as a rap group,” Sen says. “When we finally met Muggs we saw we had real potential.”
That potential was realized with the success of their debut single “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” The menacing track that samples Jimi Hendrix showcases the contrasts of the two emcees. B-Real’s trademark nasally delivery spars back and forth from verse to chorus with Sen Dog’s rugged vocals.
“Acting kinda loco/ I’m just another local,” B-Real rhymes on the song. “Kid from the street getting paid for my vocals.”
The debut cemented Cypress Hill at the forefront of the West Coast gangsta rap scene that had sparked in Los Angeles in the late 1980s with artists like NWA and former Cypress Hill rival Ice Cube. The self-titled debut also put the group at the forefront of Latino hip-hop. The single “Latin Lingo” finds Sen intertwining Spanish and English in confident lines like “Sen Dog is not a kid, a veterano/ I’m down, another proud Hispano.”
“We’ve always talked about raza and our culture in the music,” Sen says. “I didn’t want to rap in Spanish to be honest. It was usually for freestyles, but DJ Muggs was thinking ahead and encouraged me to do it.”
With the buzz of their debut still alive, Cypress Hill released Black Sunday in 1993. Their second studio album appeared at number one on the Billboard 200 charts upon release and earned two Grammy nominations. With songs like “I Wanna Get High” and “Hits from the Bong” (with an instrumental that features the bubbling of a bong being smoked) confirmed Cypress Hill’s reputation as rap’s most prominent potheads.
Their early work has earned them the status as pioneers in multiple realms of rap music. Cypress Hill’s nine-album discography, however, has progressively incorporated influences of other genres.
“I go back to the hip-hop purist age where a lot of people strictly listened to hip-hop,” Sen says. “But I’ve always tried to attempt to do more hardcore music.”
2004’s Till Death Do Us Part is heavily inspired by Jamaican genres like the bouncy beats of dancehall in “Ganja Bus” featuring Damian Marley and the ska-sounding love song “What’s Your Number?”
After an eight-year hiatus of creating new music, the group released Elephants on Acid in 2018 with some of their most experimental songs to date.
“Band of Gypsies,” the album’s lead single, starts with a verse in Arabic delivered by Egyptian rapper Sadat and builds up to a beat that consists of tabla drums and the horn-like mismar.
After nine albums and 30 years of recording with Cypress Hill, 53-year-old Sen still feels excitement when he takes the stage with his longtime friends.
“They’ve been my buddies since we were teenagers,” Sen says of B-Real and DJ Muggs. “The first show we ever did we were very inexperienced, and now it’s a rush.”
CYPRESS HILL performs at 3:55pm on Sunday, May 26 at the Cali Roots Stage.