Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog on Cuba, Legalization, and Elephants on Acid

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The one sure thing you can say about hip-hop is that it’s always changing.

From G-funk, West Coast rhythms to the eclectic beats of Southern rap, the genre has had decades to invent and reinvent itself. But lately, the one thing you really don’t hear is a group who's stayed the course, dropping hit after hit while keeping its ear to the street and its music dynamic.

For nearly 30 years, Cypress Hill, the West Coast trio of B-Real, Sen Dog, and in-house producer DJ Muggs, have not only survived the transient hip-hop scene, but created their own brand of rap — at the same time staying lyrically relevant in an area of music that more and more prioritizes the constant attainment of fame and fortune.

“Rap now is different from the rap that we came in on," Sen Dog explains. "There was a message. But it seems like the message has been lost. It’s become more of a me, myself, my riches [mentality]. But there are a few artists, like J. Cole, who I think has a knowledge of old school hip-hop, and there is depth to his lyrics.”

2016 marks the 25th anniversary of Cypress Hill's self-titled debut, which featured hits like "How I Could Just Kill a Man" and" Hand on the Pump," and after a quarter century, it remains a seminal rap album not only for its use of creative sampling, but also its two distinct lyrical styles: the higher pitched flow of B-Real, and the low growl and booming voice of Sen Dog.

“When we’re in the studio, B [Real] lays his rhymes down, and I try to figure out where I can put my rhymes, where it’s going to sound cool, and it’s important where my voice comes in at just the right time. The process has always been that B goes in first, and I go in second. There are touchups, and it gets the complete Cypress chemistry.”

Born in Cuba, Sen Dog (real name Senen Reyes), came to the U.S. at an early age, growing up in Southern California, where he met future bandmates B-Real and Mellow Man Ace, the latter leaving before the release of their first album. While Sen is Latin by heritage, he doesn’t label Cypress Hill as a Latin hip-hop group.

“There are a lot of Latino artists that make music that have a big Latino vibe to it,” Sen explains. “A lot of people that don’t understand Latin culture don’t get into it. With us, we never wanted to do Latin hip-hop, because so many people like Mellow Man Ace and Kid Frost were already representing the Latino rhyme style in a big way. 'Latin Lingo' is one of our more famous songs, but we were never overly concerned with knocking you over the head with everything Latino.”

Being Cuban, Sen hopes the band can visit the island at some point as diplomatic relations with the U.S. continue to thaw. “That’s a dicey situation," he says, "but in my opinion, if the Cuban people, not the government — who lack housing, food, water, and common resources — can live better with what [President] Obama is trying to do, I’m totally for it. The time for change has come around the world, and I think it’s Cuba’s time. I think Raul Castro wants to be respected around the world. He wants to have a rich nation with a thriving economy. I think Raul is a bit more open-minded to change. 

“From what I hear, from my cousin and my aunts and uncles in Cuba, there is a change. There is tourism, there is more work. We can’t claim victory just yet, but there is progress. Cypress does want to go there eventually.”

Here at home, Cypress Hill is concentrating on releasing its ninth studio album, Elephants on Acid, as well as continuing to support the growing cannabis movement. Sen explains that for the group, this past April 20 was a pretty busy day. “My 4/20 started in Denver at midnight where we played, and after that we flew to Frisco. And in San Francisco, I can honestly say I’ve never seen so much smoke in my life, and not just from the audience, but backstage. It just looked like fog was rolling in,” Sen laughs. “And it hit me that this 4/20 thing has really taken shape, and people are actually respecting the movement. I feel very proud that we contributed something to opening eyes and minds to the powers of the herb.”

As Sen Dog and crew gear up for the 25th-anniversary tour, which hits Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale on May 3, there's no doubt Cypress Hill has become one of those seminal rap groups that will have crowds  buzzing. “Right now, we’re sticking to the catalogue for the tour,” Sen says, though “once the new album comes out, we’ll interject those songs into the tour. But there are staples that need to be part of the tour.”

From "Insane in the Brain" to "Rock Superstar," there's no lack of hits, and the anticipation is high for a next banger from the California collective. As far as the new album goes, Sen says there's a lot to be excited about if you’re a longtime fan. “The album is done. Everyone is happy with it. [DJ] Muggs is mixing the album right now. Musically, we’re exploring more options, but it’s still that Cypress vibe. We’ve had great success with different LPs, and we’re still here to say that we’re a relevant band. When we get together with Muggs, I have a strong feeling we’re doing Cypress music. It’s like the Beastie Boys — when you heard a Beastie record, you knew it was a Beastie record. I think we’re on that level.”

Cypress Hill
With Jellyroll. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $26.50 plus fees via ticketmaster.com.

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