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CYPRESS HILL (Buy CDs by this artist)
Cypress Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia) 1991
Black Sunday (Ruffhouse/Columbia) 1993
III: Temples of Boom (Ruffhouse/Columbia) 1995
IV (Ruffhouse/Columbia) 1998
Los Grandes Éxitos en Español (Ruffhouse/Columbia) 1999
Live at the Fillmore (Columbia) 2000
Skull & Bones (Columbia) 2000
Stoned Raiders (Columbia) 2001
Stash EP (Columbia) 2002

To the increasingly outlandish pathology of West Coast gangsta rap, Cypress Hill brings an element of sarcasm and casual, pot-stoked serendipity, embodied by the cartoonish high-sinus drawl of B-Real. At once comical and fierce, Cypress Hill talks about two primary 'hood ornaments — Glocks and blunts — and suggests that the second is a necessity to escape, if only briefly, from the first.

That the interracial trio, from the Latin quarter of Los Angeles near the South Central warzone, had a different take on street violence than its hip-hop peers was immediately apparent on Cypress Hill. The opening track, "Pigs," starts off as just another street-thug vignette, but as soon as B-Real starts bustin' rhymes in a nasal whine, it's clear that the Hill gang has a fresh approach. The homophobia in "Pigs" is a pathetic cliché, but it's about the only place on the debut where the group falters. Even at their most explicit, B-Real (Louis Freese) and his wheezing sidekick Sen Dog (Senen Reyes) retain a sense of humor that distinguishes the group from the blinding rage of Ice Cube or the laid-back menace of Snoop Doggy Dogg. Just as "Pigs" is a comical inversion of "(Fuck) tha Police," the threat in "Hand on the Pump" is undercut by an absurdly catchy sample from Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl." The debut is packed with low-rider funk grooves associated with the Dr. Dre-led Cali school, but the group's third principle member and producer DJ Muggs (Lawrence Muggerud) also brings in denser, East Coast flavors: the churning "How I Could Just Kill a Man" bombards the listener with high-pitched squeals in a bring-the-noise mix reminiscent of Public Enemy. The group also introduces its other key theme in "Light Another" and "Something for the Blunted," which serve primarily as homages to the lethargic bong-hugging "comedy" of Cheech and Chong.

In contrast to the relatively uptempo vibe of its predecessor, Black Sunday rolls in like a bad dream, a grim landscape of sawed-off shotguns and deadly encounters that portrays the unglamorous consequences of the gang lifestyle. The mood is set by the migraine-inducing hum that swirls though "I Ain't Goin' Out Like That," punctuated by a few nasty bleats from a saxophone and anchored by the deep tones of a string bass. The narrator in "Lick a Shot" gasps from a lung wound and watches his world go black, while "When the Shit Goes Down" expresses something like remorse for a misdeed chronicled on the first album: "I didn't want to kill a man." Once again, the only relief is inhaled ("Hits From the Bong"); for the second album in a row, there isn't a single female character or even a hint of a romantic, let alone sexual, interest.

This loner attitude dominates III: Temples of Boom, one of the bleakest commentaries on the gangbanger lifestyle ever made. Whereas previous Cypress records offered at least some celebratory moments, III is introspective and insular, with creeping rhythms underscored by imploding psychedelic effects, sitars, marimbas, string bass and even the looped voice of an opera singer in full cry (on "Killafornia"). The triumph of "Throw Your Set in the Air" becomes hollow in "Illusions," and the bravado of the barrio stick-up men in "Locotes" is shattered by their deaths. The impact of these narratives is diminished by the tacked-on closer, "Everybody Must Get Stoned," while the swipes at Ice Cube (in "No Rest for the Wicked") and House of Pain (in "Strictly Hip Hop") resort to petty tit-for-tat posturing. Still, for a group that began almost as a caricature of gangsta rap, III is a coup, a hardcore album that serves as a critique of the gangsta myth.

[Greg Kot]
   See also Everlast