A look back at Cypress Hill’s moodiest album, a truly unique specimen released twenty years ago this Halloween…
by: Douglas Grant
The world had never seen a hip-hop act quite like Cypress Hill when they emerged on the scene with their self-titled debut album in 1991. “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and “Hand on the Pump” were hard-hitting, gritty singles that had the type of mass appeal that solidified the band’s place in mainstream music. Their 1993 follow-up, Black Sunday, received even more acclaim, and went triple platinum soon after its release. Despite the upbeat optimism of hit songs like “Insane in the Brain,” here and there were glimpses of the moody tempo of DJ Muggs’s beats that would come to define the darker tone of their third album: Cypress Hill III: Temples of Boom.
Back in ’95 fans weren’t discussing artists and musicians on blogs or online forums. What I remember hearing about this album from word of mouth was that Cypress Hill had a deadline to meet in finalizing production of their third album, but they spent most of their studio time hanging out with their crew and getting high. Then one day they realized the predicament they were in, locked themselves in an alternate studio, and produced Temples of Boom in a matter of mere days. To this day I have no idea if any of this is true, but I like this story and have no intention of scrutinizing the myth by finding online evidence to discredit it.
Twenty years ago Cypress Hill was on top of the world, with two chart topping albums and several number one singles. Upon its release on Halloween Day, Temples of Boom might have illustrated their total disregard for the commercial success they’d enjoyed up until that point. This album was darker. The beats were spookier. The lyrics were grim. Even the album cover had a gloomier look, which is saying a lot when looking back at Black Sunday’s cover. It seemed that instead of riding the success of their previous two platinum albums they were heading in the opposite direction, pop culture be damned. Then something strange happened: Temples of Boom went platinum. B-Real, Sen Dog, and Muggs had put out an album that was all about them, not the mainstream or Columbia Records, and it worked. The fans remained steadfastly open to something new.
“Spark Another Owl,” opens up the album with a repeated gonging, as if the listeners are being greeted at the temple’s entrance, followed by a sedated beat that sets the tone for all the tracks that follow. This leads right into the organ heavy “Throw Your Set in the Air,” a song about the “commitment, violence, and mentality involved in joining a set.” This song was the reason for Cypress Hill’s beef with Ice Cube, but more on that later.
“Stoned Raiders” kicks off with samples of dialogue from The Exorcist, which transitions appropriately into the feminine wails and doleful piano tones that characterize the track’s pessimistic feel. “Illusions” is introduced by the sound of Indian percussion accompanied by a sitar, an instrument that becomes more prominent as the album progresses, before a wavelike, almost psychedelic melody unfolds to the accompaniment of B-Real’s disenfranchised ranting: “Some people tell me that I need help / Some people can fuck off and go to hell / God damn, why they criticize me / Now shit is on the rise so my family despise me / Fuck ‘em! And feed ‘em cause I don’t need ‘em / I won’t join ‘em if I can beat ‘em.”
After a brief prelude of mellow tones and echoing vocals, “Killa Hill Niggas” comes out blasting with Sen Dog emphatically rapping in Spanish over downplayed verses from the RZA—who produced this Muggs/Wu-Tang hybrid sounding track—before B-Real joins the fray. U-God also lends his talents, coming at the mic hard and fast before yielding the song back over to B-Real and Sen Dog as they wind down with the beat and fade into the background.
“Boom Biddy Bye Bye” is the tranquil type of song listeners might want to drift off to sleep to, if they weren’t listening to lyrics describing a man’s last fleeting thoughts and moments before being executed. “Put your ass on the floor an’ don’t ask why / I put my Glock to your dome and you start to cry / Any last prayers before you die / Rock-a-bye nigga boom biddy bye bye.” The song is a bit of a paradox.
“No Rest for the Wicked” is four minutes of pure shit-talking on Ice Cube, attacking everything from his street credit to his credibility as an MC. The apparent backstory on this is that when Cypress Hill shared a rough cut of “Throw Your Set in the Air” with Ice Cube, he soon thereafter put out a song called “Friday,” a soundtrack song for the movie Friday, with the lyrics, “Throw your neighborhood in the air.” Cypress Hill was livid, and had no problem airing their grievance on Temples of Boom with this scathing indictment. There is yet another dismally piano heavy, mournful interlude on the tail end of this track before it changes over to “Make a Move.” This song borrows dialogue from the famous Ezekiel 25:17 bible verse quoted by Jules in Pulp Fiction. The song revolves on a tight and heavy loop where B-Real and Sen Dog play off of each other’s strengths nicely, and Muggs’s beats here are as eerie as ever.
By the time listeners arrive at “Killafornia,” they’ve become well acquainted the album’s sullen formula, with morose notes that continue to rely heavily on piano hooks and vocal samples that seem far off and reminiscent of some of the most melancholy operas. Then a sitar enters once again, lazily, as if the listener is at the entrance to yet another one of the temple’s inner chambers, and then another psychedelic hymn commences with “Funk Freakers.” Here B-Real and Sen Dog wax poetic about their respective realities, before the song fades away with B-Real still rapping into the mic.
“Locotes” has a different sort of menace to it, as this track sets up the story of B-Real and Sen Dog on the verge of carjacking someone, with a sampling of police sirens serving to create a sense of mounting tension in the song’s narrative. A high speed chase ensues, where the duo are forced to abandon the car and make their escape on the bus. In the story they don’t get very far before the police catch up with them, and the final verses are of B-Real lamenting the fact that he’s been shot and is about to die. The song ends abruptly with the lines: “No longer will I be runnin’ / Last thing I heard was the fuckin’ gat hummin’.”
More mellow sitar follows before “Red Light Visions” unfolds, a brief track that serves more as a setup for “Strictly Hip-Hop,” where a simple but typically grainy beat along with samples from Procol Harum’s “Repent Walpurgis” serve as the backdrop for B-Real’s condemnation of sellouts and hypocrites in the record industry.
“Let it Rain” has the most heightened sense of urgency with its fast paced but tension-filled beat. Here DJ Muggs once again favors an organ sound over the downtempo piano he’s relied so heavily on up until this point, and it certainly creates a feeling of foreboding. The song’s hook is what stands out the most here: “Some be testin’ / Keepin’ ’em guessin’ / Smile on my face / Got the Smith & Wesson.”
Another final sitar interlude dreamily takes us to the song that closes out the album, “Everybody Must Get Stoned.” A three minute endorsement of the cannabis culture, this is the type of song no Cypress Hill album would be complete without. As the final moments of the song fade away, listeners can reflect on the journey they’ve been brought on with Temples of Boom.
This album, like most albums, is meant to be experienced as a cohesive whole, not as a radio worthy single here and there. Halloween was a perfect time to release Temples of Boom, as its dour motif is anything but uplifting. Yet it is candid and uncompromising, and makes a bold statement about the group’s place in the world this third time around. Cypress Hill still had many miles to travel back in ’95; Temples of Boom was in no way the pinnacle of the group’s career. But the album did mark a turning point in their trajectory. It remains one of their riskiest experiments, but one that paid off in the long haul. Cypress Hill III is unconventional, thematically linear, and unquestionably dark. There is no other hip-hop album like it.