Sen Dog, the co-lead rapper of the legendary multi-platinum group Cypress Hill, discusses the early days of rap and finding success through their connection to cannabis.
It’s been 30 years since Cypress Hill’s eponymous debut album, and co-frontman Senen Reyes—aka Sen Dog—is still feeling blessed. “It’s kind of surreal we’ve even made it 30 years, since we didn’t expect our careers to last this long. Our original concept was to be around for five or six, put out two albums and tour a little bit. No one thought about longevity in hip-hop in those days, so to hit this point in our careers where we’ve done our thing for 30—it’s hard to believe.”
To help commemorate the milestone, Cypress Hill will perform at Shrine LA Outdoors alongside Atmosphere on August 13, 30 years to the day of their debut album drop. Additionally, Legacy Recordings—the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment—will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Cypress Hill by releasing an expanded, 30th anniversary, digital edition of the album that features three bonus tracks.
When we connect by phone, Sen was fired up for both the anniversary album and the anniversary show, eagerly recounting Cypress Hill’s early days, the influence of cannabis on the group, and reveling in their newfound position as the “Triple OGs” of hip-hop.
Let’s start by clarifying something: It’s been said you gave B-Real his first joint when you were kids. Is this true, and if so, how integral was cannabis to the formation of Cypress Hill?
Cannabis has always been an important aspect of our lives and has always been part of the “Cypress way” in which we do our thing. I started smoking weed when I was 12—even though it wasn’t an everyday thing until 17 or 18—and around that time, B-Real wanted to try it one day. I guess he’d tried pot once before, but it was some boo-boo weed, and that day, I had a strong strain on me: Chocolate Thai weed.
“I was on my way to work and was carrying a joint to smoke after, but B-Real convinced me to smoke it with him beforehand. So I got him high, and as I’m leaving for work, I see him just standing on my mother’s front porch. I’m wondering, “Is he alright?” About nine hours later, I come back, and he’s still standing on my mom’s front porch. I said, “Hey man, are you okay?” He said, “Yeah, man. I’ve just been waiting for you.” I go, “Where, all day, right here?” He goes, “Yeah.” I understood it, though. He got really stoned because I’d smoked him his first real good bit of weed.
When did he eventually leave? Or is he still standing there?
I drove him home that night, which was one of our regular things. He would come hang out, and then I’d take my dad’s car and drive him back to his mom’s house in Gardena. The next morning, he’d ride the bus right back to my house.
It was a good system.
Yeah, it worked for us.
In terms of systems—growing up, making music, smoking weed—was the vision to always create Cypress Hill or did you have other aspirations initially?
I was big into baseball and football—though I liked football more than baseball—and for a minute, I thought I was going to be able to play in the NFL. But I got into some trouble in high school and had to go to juvenile hall and talk to all of those people. They were like, “What do you want to do with your life?” I said, “I want to play in the NFL,” and they were like, “You know, you’re probably too small. At your height, you’ll never get there.” As a young kid, you pay attention to older people telling you shit like that, and it started to turn me into this little rebellious kid who thought people didn’t believe in what I wanted to be.
I said to hell with football, started ditching school and going to ditching parties. The only reason I tell you this is because later on in life, I’d see players like Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith—little dudes—whose line I would have fit in if someone would have believed in me. That’s why I let football go, because everybody kept telling me, “You’re never going to make it; you’re never going to make it.” As a 16, 17-year-old kid, you believe them. When a kid decides they want to do something, you’ve got to back them up.
So you took the energy of not being supported, channeled it into music, and things ended up working out in the end.
Yeah, I went to a ditching party around 11th grade, and there was this kid there named Porky who was known to be one of the baddest pop lockers you’d ever see in your life. He was from Compton or something, and he didn’t want to pop that day; he wanted to rap. At the time, the only rap I’d ever heard was from the East Coast. This was pre-Ice-T and all that shit, so I was like, “Wow, anybody can do that? I thought you had to be from New York.” It wasn’t too much longer before I talked my brother into rapping Run DMC songs together when they’d come out on the radio. That’s how we started our first little rap group, and one day, we were like, “Fuck it, let’s write our own shit.”
From then on, the ball kept moving, and we were all about [hip-hop] all day, every day. If we weren’t recording, we were going to see some of our favorite guys perform. If we weren’t doing that, we were out in front of my mom’s house trying to put together our own little show. [Hip-hop] was something that consumed us. We just did whatever we had to do to be in the scene.
Was there an initial experience or win that gave you the confidence that hip-hop could actually be a career?
We had gone to this rap battle, which we had done repeatedly in the past, and every time we showed up, some other guys produced by Dr. Dre or someone like that ended up winning—even though I thought we were the best. But we perform at this battle; Muggs goes up there, plugs in his SP-12 and plays the beat. When my verse came up, I thought it would be cool to perform my entire rap by jumping on the judges’ table. When I went to come down, the table cracked, and all of the judges’ drinks spilled on them. Whoever was there just loved that shit. We didn’t end up winning, but I left that gig thinking something [important] had happened. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was at the time, but I knew we had done something good that people liked.
Many years later, I figured out that what we had touched on that night was the element of surprise, the whole “not knowing what’s going to happen next.” We’d unintentionally learned that if we hit people when they’re not expecting it, it’s going to kill every time.
On the way home from that gig, my mother had paged me to ask how the gig went. I told her, “You know, I don’t know. I did some funky shit, but everybody loved it.” That was the moment where I felt like whenever the time comes, and we’re put up on that stage, we’re going to be ready. We’re going to be over-the-top ready. The danger element of Cypress Hill had manifested itself naturally, and it was one of those things that got people to lay onto us.
If you came to see Cypress Hill, you might just catch me or B-Real landing on your ass in the middle of a song. People were like, “Whoa. We’ve never seen this in hip-hop.” The slight danger element we untapped that day, we just happened to keep with us for the rest of time.
Was the danger element influenced by cannabis, and did cannabis influence you creatively?
When I first started getting stoned, it was just that: Getting stoned and feeling trippy. Then, I got into Cheech and Chong movies—and their band—and subliminally was taken away by how creative those guys were. People always said, if you become a pothead, you’ll become a couch potato, but I saw Cheech and Chong, and they were over-the-top creative. So I was like, [this whole “couch potato” thing] has got to be bullshit.
When I first started rapping, I wasn’t stoned or anything, but eventually, weed became an everyday practice in my hangout and my creative process. It took on more of an importance than just, “Let’s blaze a doob and act goofy.” Smoking weed became—I wouldn’t say a source of creativity—but an enhancer of creativity. When we’re in the studio, and we’re blazing up, we’re on the scene, man. We’re Cypress Hill. Cannabis has always been an important part of us, to the point where one day Muggs told me he wanted me and B-Real to be the Cheech and Chong of hip-hop.
At the time, we didn’t have any gimmick. Run DMC was black-on-black with the hats—they had their own look; Public Enemy was like the Black Panthers; Beastie Boys were these wild dudes, and LL was the baddest—“I’m bad!” We were just good rappers; we didn’t have any gimmick or anything. So when Muggs told me that, it took me a little while to get used to the idea, but the more we went along with it, I was like, “I think Muggs is right; let’s run with it.” For that purpose, Cypress Hill will always be cannabis activists. We were those guys before we even knew we were those guys. That’s how important cannabis is to Cypress Hill history.
You could say figuring out your “gimmick” was really figuring out your brand.
In those days, if you didn’t have a gimmick, you weren’t going to hit that strongly. Those were the days when hip-hop was starting to blow wide open, and you had to have something for people to identify you by. We were the stoners.
With the 30th anniversary of your debut album approaching, how does it feel to still be the stoners 30 years later?
I can only say when I think about it all in hindsight, it’s been an incredible run, and we could never have done it without the support of our fans and dedicated followers. We always have to give them props, and I just feel incredibly blessed. I can’t even express that in words. I’ve been blessed to provide for my family through hip-hop.
We know we’re fortunate, and with the support of people getting behind us, here we are 30 years later, and it’s been an incredible ride. I can only hope that all the musicians who read this interview or who hear about Cypress Hill get to go on that same trip that we went on and get to experience all the highs and the lows and everything else that came along with it.
To get to where we’re at now, we’re like the elder statesmen in hip-hop. People call us shit like “Triple OG.” But, if I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat. You never know what’s going to happen until you stay the course.
Follow @sendog and @cypresshill and check out cypresshill.com for tickets and tour dates
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Author: Stephen Laddin