The Wire

In Writing

Ultraviolet dreams: An Interview with DJ Muggs

October 2018

The groundbreaking producer and Soul Assassins founder talks to The Wire's Deputy Editor Joseph Stannard about Cypress Hill, collaboration and changing while remaining the same

When Cypress Hill released their self-titled debut album in 1991 – a year which also saw landmark albums by Main Source (Breaking Atoms), De La Soul (De La Soul Is Dead), Black Sheep (A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing) and KMD (Mr Hood) – they presented hiphop with a new aesthetic. Thick, bottom-heavy and organic sounding, replete with jazz, R&B, psychedelic rock and metal samples and topped off by the weed-fuelled aggression of rappers B-Real and Sen Dog, the trio immediately distinguished themselves from everything else around. Clad in its bleakly beautiful skullscape sleeve, 1993’s Black Sunday saw producer DJ Muggs digging deeper, producing stoner anthems (“Insane In The Brain” and “I Ain’t Going Out Like That”) without a hint of compromise. 1995’s III: Temples Of Boom was more introspective, as illustrated by the spectral single “Illusions” (“Some people tell me that I need help/Some people can fuck off and go to Hell”).

The group continued to produce successful albums, some incorporating elements of rock and dubstep. In the early 2000s Muggs shifted focus to the Soul Assassins label and collective, solo projects and collaborations with numerous rappers including Meyhem Lauren (on 2017’s Gems From The Equinox LP and 2018’s Frozen Angels EP) and Roc Marciano (on the imminent KAOS album). Ever active, one of the three full-length albums Muggs has produced this year is Cypress Hill's Elephants On Acid. It's first to feature the head Soul Assassin as sole producer for 17 years, and it’s quite a trip. The Wire’s Deputy Editor Joseph Stannard took the opportunity to speak to Muggs about the new album and more.

Joseph Stannard: Elephants On Acid is the first Cypress Hill album since 2001’s Stoned Raiders to be produced entirely by yourself. How did this come about?

DJ Muggs: It’s time man. The sleeping dragon was in hibernation. It was time to wake up and reclaim my domain.

Did you feel any pressure to make this a special record?

Well, it’s an interesting thing. When you put hiphop records out for 30 years, you want to bring that energy that everybody loves about you, but you have to change. So how do you change but stay the same? That’s the riddle. For me it was just creating my own universe, creating my own world that was Cypress Hill. Anything that was going on in contemporary music I didn’t even look at, I didn’t even care. I was just about creating this surreal world that you can tap into and come down the rabbit hole.

B-Real has been recording and touring with Prophets Of Rage (essentially Rage Against The Machine co-fronted by B and Public Enemy's Chuck D). Did it take a lot of coordination to get everyone together?

All of the tracks that I made for this record, except for three of them, I made in 2013. A lot of the stuff was recorded in 2014 and 15 and then that’s when Prophets came. I went and took some of the stuff for a few years and put it on hold and came back to it and started wrapping it up. Before I even started working on it, I already knew the title and I already had the vision. I was really digging deep into the subconscious and pulling from there, pulling from inwards instead of pulling from inspiration outwards.

And that’s why the album is different to anything else out there?

Absolutely. Yeah, you’ve got to… we put music out, but I’m also here to learn and I’m also here to teach. You don’t need to fit into the square holes – go against the grain, man! Carry your own sound, have your own look. That’s always been a principle of ours, to create our own world.

That comes across strongly with Elephants On Acid. Is this the most psychedelic album you’ve ever produced?

I don’t know. I have got to leave that up to the people to tell me. But what we have done is definitely a fucking experience, you know that.

It seems to trace a gradual descent into madness from beginning to end. Is sequencing something that you consciously spend a lot of time on?

Absolutely. Always when I finish a record, I can take up to a month to sequence the record sometimes. I sequence it, I drive around with it, I don’t listen to it for three or four days, I smoke some weed, I play it again first time, you know what I’m saying. It's definitely something that I put a lot of time into.

It has a cinematic, narrative quality…

100 per cent. The difference with me is, the kind of producer I am, I guide the songs, I come up with a lot of the concepts and the choruses and put the visuals together. I see the album cover in my head. I have an image in my head of what this record is going to be. Then you have a complete body of work that is like this, on its own. A lot of it isn’t logical. If you are looking for logic in here you are not going to find it. Everything is really abstract from my angle anyway.

With B-Real and Sen Dog you have two of the most distinctive vocalists in rap. Is there a particular approach you take in making tracks for them to work with?

Yeah, I know how to make them sound better than anybody can make them sound. They sound better with my music than anybody else’s. Other people can make better music than me, but I’m about authenticity and being unique. I know what I can get out of B-Real and Sen, I put them together and make them sound, like, if you have never heard Cypress Hill ever and you came to this record, you’d be like ‘Who the fuck is this? This is visionary and brand new shit I have never heard before’. Nobody can make them sound like me.

It’s definitely the freshest sounding Cypress Hill record for some time.

Y’know it’s a funny thing. People think rap is a young man’s game, but do you know what it is? Pop is a young person’s game. Pop music. You don’t become a master at rap until your forties and when you learn more, you learn that age is an illusion and it don’t matter at all. I’m just getting going.

You're well known for using unusual sample sources not just in terms of the music you sample from –from funk, soul and jazz to krautrock and metal – but also different kinds of sounds, like sirens, elephants, horses. How does a potential sample grab your attention? Could you be watching a film when you hear something that makes you think ‘That would make an amazing hook’?

Yes, you know I have a visual thought first of all and that excites me and on the conscious side of it, I’m always looking for things that are awkward. And I don’t put my music on the grid. I was working with some engineers on this record and at the end they were like, ‘It’s not on the grid!’ Stop listening to music with your fucking eyes man! Listen to the sound. I don’t care if it lines up on the grid. I came from tape machines where you didn’t look at the music, you know? There is no rule for music, man, what can I say? If it doesn’t line up on the grid I’m not going to get into a fight with a cube, you know.

Is that a big problem with contemporary music, that it's too grid based? So you constantly have these blocks moving past your eyes…

Not for everybody, I can’t just throw a blanket over everybody. For me, personally? Yes. For me.

The first Cypress Hill album predates Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by two years. Do you feel you get enough recognition for pioneering that murky, bass-heavy style of hiphop production?

The people who know, know. But the story isn’t finished. It hasn’t been written. So everybody is going to know. I know where it came from. Nobody was doing my style before me, nobody was smoking weed before us, you know what I mean? Nobody was rocking tattoos as hard as us before us. That was when we got into this game, man, and it’s not a sprint but a marathon. Who can endure? Now I’m going to show you who is the greatest. There is no one coming after 30 years making music like this. I think you can go back to any rap record in the history of time and I don’t think nobody has achieved this yet.

Kevin Martin (aka The Bug) came up with the term doomhop to describe your music. I’m interested to know what you think of that.

I don’t know man! [laughs] That is funny. Once we put Black Sunday out and people had seen the cover… y’know, I come from a classic rock background, I come from looking at Black Sabbath and Zeppelin album covers, so me putting all that artwork and visuals into my covers is just natural for me. When we came out with Black Sunday, we brought the skulls into the game. Everybody wants to put a tag and define, but I’m undefinable. You cannot define what I do. It is about creating your own recipe, not tapping into what’s next because I promise you anything you hear on the radio or anything anybody produces, I can mimic anybody. You won’t even know it's not them. But that is not what this thing is about. It is about the culture, making the culture bigger and pushing the envelope not just of the music but of yourself and what you are capable of doing. I’m just expanding.

Is there a particularly underrated Cypress Hill album?

For me those first three or four records represent a different time, man. It isn’t only the music you are making, but what you're going through in life personally, who you're hanging out with. All those records are good, man. The only record we did that I didn’t like, my part of it, was Stoned Raiders. We were all on a different page, everyone was busy doing their own thing. We used to work in my house and come up with all the ideas. We did Temples Of Boom in my kitchen, you know what I’m saying? We came up with it in my dining room. We hung out every day by the time we got to Stoned Raiders we didn’t hang out any more and my heart wasn’t into the record. Like ‘Ah man I’m not into this and it just feels weird but we have to hurry up and get it done’ so it was just one of those things. Like I said, when you are in a marathon, there are going to be some peaks and valleys and they are good running experiences, to keep going. A lot of times people fold when they go through certain things in their lives and it's like, ‘Whatever happened to so-and-so?’ You know what I’m saying? You got to get back up man and go.

How were your solo albums Dust (2003) and Bass For Your Face (2013) useful for you as producer and artist? Was it that they gave you the opportunity to experiment?

Yes, absolutely. I did Bass because I’d never even used a computer yet, so I just wanted to learn these production techniques and use them for hiphop. I needed to start making shit like this and not only did I start making it, I put it out. I took some time to re-educate myself, open different parts of my brain up and learn some new shit, because you always have to stay a student. It’s really important, you always have to keep learning. I just took a year and educated myself on different techniques and that’s what that was all about for me. From the outside looking in, motherfuckers are like, ‘Oh my God, what is he doing? Why is he doing this?’ Shut the fuck up. It ain’t about that. This is my own journey, me figuring some shit out, having some fun.

That’s a bold move, to make your experiments public.

Absolutely, that is exactly what that was for me. That is why Cypress Hill made another record because all of this shit I’ve learned, I’ve kind of cleaned my brain out. Clean slate, so when I came back to make some hiphop, it was fresh, it was new and basically it was all back to embrace the simplicity again. It ain’t so simple to be simple and that’s where the magic is. The silence between sounds. I learned and I got back to where I was. Sometimes along the journey you can stray off, you start going further and further, you start getting more complicated and you realise, ‘I don’t need to go further, I just need to start over’.

That makes sense in light of your recent work with Meyhem Lauren. What do you get from that collaboration?

Well, me and Meyhem are starting a new group and working on our next album, which is coming out next summer. When I have a vision in my head and I have an artist who I know is going to make that, that’s what enables me to go to my studio and create. Meyhem grew up in Queens, where I grew up, and when I met him I felt like I’d known him my whole life because he just has that character and that fit with what I grew up with. We were just friends instantly, like ‘Boom!’. I like hanging out with him. The people that you see me work with now, I love hanging out with them. That is the most important thing.

You can hear the camaraderie on the records.

Right. I just work with people I like. I have turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars to just work with people. I don’t need it. I just do the fuck what I want to do. That’s what I’m all about.

Do you have a piece of gear that you refuse to part with? Something you've used from day one that is integral to what you do?

I still have my SP-1200 and I use that sometimes to change the texture of drums and samples but I’m pretty much in the fucking box now. I do everything in the computer. I use KONTAKT, I use BATTERY, I learned how to flip them so you don’t know that I’m sampling a record and you don’t know that I’m using the SP-1200. I learned how to get in there and manipulate it. It took me some time to figure out but I’ve got it locked now.

It sounds as richly textured and organic as any of the early records, perhaps more so.

The thing is there are only two samples on the whole record. Part of this for me was that dealing with samples is a bunch of bullshit. Either you get charged or the records are so obscure you can’t find shit out. I was like, ‘I’m not going to have this problem’ so making it sound like records was the ultimate goal here. It sounds like I’ve sampled these records, like, ‘Where did you get these sounds from?’ but I made all of this shit.

Do you think it is fair to say that a lot of current underground hiphop – Griselda Gang with Conway The Machine and Westside Gunn, Waistdeep Clique and Backwoodz Studioz for example – owes a lot to the style that you pioneered?

Nah, nobody owes nobody nothing. Go and do your thing. I dig what Conway does, I really like him as a rapper. I think Westside Gunn is mad entertaining. I have met him a few times and always got a smile on his face. I think they are really good for the music. I think there is a big resurgence – people call it underground or whatever – and that’s a beautiful thing because everybody talks about SoundCloud rappers, but the flipside of that is the kind of music that I love, this style of hiphop that we did pioneer, and there is as much of that out there as well. I got a radio show every Friday night and all we play all the new shit that nobody plays, just to champion it, because I think that the underground is strong and it is coming. It is all going to surface again. It all goes in circles. Another weird thing, my children go to high school and they’re entranced to be finding hiphop for the first time. To them that style is brand new.

Cypress Hill's Elephants On Acid is released by BMG. DJ Muggs X Roc Marciano's KAOS is released by Soul Assassins on 19 October

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