How listening to a playlist and song in Cairo made me think of my lifelong friends.
Feb. 18, 1979- I’m watching TV--probably checking out the exploits of my favorite prehistoric dude, Fred Flintstone--when I’m called into my Mom’s bedroom. Back then, when my Mom called my name, it was usually bad. What can I say? I was kind of a mischievous and hyperactive child. But since today was my birthday, hearing my name couldn’t mean that I was in trouble today. Could it?
Nevertheless, I rushed into the room, where I found Ma beaming at me with pride. A sense of relief and a feeling of excitement washed over me as I sat on the bed and patiently waited for what was next. I figured that it was gift time!
As I sat on the edge of the bed facing the bedroom window, Mom came over and said jokingly, “Happy Birthday, son. You’re finally five so you now have my permission to grow a mustache!” As I smiled and thought about having the same hair over my lip as my Dad had, she handed me a flat square gift that was wrapped with the Sunday Daily News comic pages.
Now the gift being a flat square was a very good sign because it matched the dimensions of the gift that I was pining for for weeks. I ripped the Funnies off in about 2 seconds flat and came face-to-face with IT. I got IT! The Michael Jackson “Off the Wall” album!
After jumping up and down (I had hops even as a five-year-old youngin’) and hugging and kissing “The Best Mom Ever,” I ripped that shrink-wrap off, and ran straight for the record player! What I heard for the next hour or so, was pure magic.
After I lifted the needle up off the record, I felt really lucky. I remember thinking that this was the best birthday gift that I EVER got. Granted, I was five years old and this was the third or fourth birthday that I actually remembered, but you couldn’t tell me nothin’!
I got IT, and even better, I was the first of my friends to get it. I thought, “I can’t WAIT to get to daycare tomorrow!”
Feb. 19, 1979- Walking into Labor Sherman Day Care Center, the nexus of my social universe, I was the one now beaming with pride. I walked up the stairs quickly but still playing it real cool. I sauntered up to the classroom with a slow-bop (yeah, I had my walk down at five too). As I hit the door, I held up the album as if I was announcing its, and my, arrival. Even though the album fell out of the jacket because I was holding it upside-down (I've always been a little on the clumsy side), my friends knew what it was and rushed at me with excitement and disbelief. As I moved through the crowd with the aplomb of a star like Michael himself, I finally made it into the classroom. I, and the rest of the class, then pleaded with the teacher to interrupt our regularly scheduled activities for this special event. We wanted music time to be just a little longer that day. She quickly agreed because she figured that a bunch of united five year-olds weren’t going to give in no time soon. Viva la revoluccion! I also secretly thought that she probably hadn't heard it yet either and wanted to check it out. Once the needle dropped, true magic followed...again.
To this very day, this is still the best birthday gift that I've ever got. I don't think that it's because of the album, because while it's a classic, I've heard better albums over the 36 years since. I think it's because of the way I felt at the time I got it. Getting something that I was pining so hard for. Getting an album that allowed me to continue my love affair with music that was still in its early stages. Being the "first kid on the block" with something that seemingly everyone wanted. Giving my friends and I something that we could enjoy together. Being the center of attention.
While all of those things were great, the think the main reason was that my Mom was the source of all of these good feelings. I remember how I felt when I ripped the album open every time I hear a Michael Jackson song. I also remember it when I think about all of the times my Mom has come through for me because it was one of the first times that she did that I can remember.
So, here’s to you Mom for always coming through. For always giving me what I needed (even though it may not have been what I wanted at the time) and some of the things that I wanted (I’m still a little warm about all of those sneaker store battles that I lost). Thank you for giving me the best birthday gift besides my very first first one when I turned 1 second old. I love you!
The nasal flow. The guitars. The gruff, baritone responses that seem to come out of nowhere.The smoke. All of these combined to make a classic and beautiful album of organized chaos that would be our introduction to a group of two Latino MCs and an Italian-Norwegian DJ from Cali that would wind up being the most influential Latino hip-hop group of all time.
I’ll admit it. When this album’s first single, “Kill a Man” first dropped, I didn’t know what to think. It was 1991 and I was heavily into the Public Enemy sound. The boom from the beats of their production team, The Bomb Squad, sounded like they were dropping—well—bombs. Their lead MC, Chuck D added to the boom with his signature “booming-pow” voice and aggressive rhymes. The music seemed “heavy,” complete, and polished. This sound was a big part of my high school soundtrack because it helped me throw on my little “mean-mug” as I rode the subway to and from school.
Now here comes a song that, on first listen, sounded very different than P.E. The main MC’s (who we come to know as B-Real) voice didn’t have that boom. Instead, he had this really nasal, whiny voice that kind of sounded like Gilbert Gottfried on helium that sounded crazy and annoying to me. I thought, “Why would anyone sound like this on wax, on purpose?” Even though the beat had a sample from the Otis Redding classic “Tramp” that gave it that bump and that NYC boom-bap sound that seemed like the rhythm that all Black and Hispanic teenagers slow-bopped or walked to whether they had their Walkmen on or not, I still wasn’t completely sold on the song at first. I needed more BOOM! I needed something to help my mean-mug.
I was clearly in the minority though because I began hearing it everywhere. Out of rattling 3-Series Beemers (BMWs), and Audis that were too small to handle the bottom of that Tramp bump. Out of sneaker stores like Dr. Jay’s and VIM. In one of my favorite all-time movies, “Juice.” It was everywhere…at least in my world. But the more I heard it, the more it grew on me. B-Real’s voice was still nasally, still crazy. But now that crazy sounded psycho—the kind of psycho that fit perfectly with the song. I mean, lyrics like:
Cuz we're like the outlaw stridin suckers are hidin'/Jump behind the bush when they see me driving/By, hangin out my window/And my magnum takin out some puto's
Acting kinda loco, I'm just another local/Kid from from the street getting paid for my/Vocals
you kinda need to sound a little touched. The beat had the bump but also guitars, horns, and a whistle sound that made the song sound frenzied. The voice fit the song like a glove. It was subsequently added to my subway library.
Now you would think that I was an official Cypress Hill flag-waving convert, right? Not so fast! When the album came out, I fronted again. Back then, when I was on the fence about getting a certain album, the cover art sometimes determined whether or not I handed over the dough. I liked covers that look very clean, very polished, that said a lot about the mood of the album without saying too much, if you catch my drift. They would sort of look like this. Again, The Hill through me for a loop, just when I just started to feel them. I expected a cover that had them posed-up looking hard with perhaps a couple of pieces of artillery of some sort. Instead I got a blurry black and white photo with three dudes I couldn’t really see near a trashcan fire with a logo that looks stretched out to fit the length of the cover. It looked lower than low-budget. And that was the cover for the real version! Imagine how the bootleg looked!
My younger brother copped the boot (bootleg) on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and we went home to listen to it. Even though I got won over by “Kill a Man,” I was still having trouble with their sound. The other songs sounded really dusty. Just as dusty as the album cover looked. Plus, I was still looking for that boom. In their defense, I was listening to and looking at the boot. Bootleg tapes not only looked blurry but they sounded like it too.
Fast-forward to ’92. I was a Freshman in college –‘Cuse represent—and I “bought” this album along with nine other ones for a penny each. Ha! I popped it in the deck in my dorm room and I immediately felt like I was listening to a brand new album. “Pigs” sounded brand new! So did “Real Estate” and all the others that weren’t “Kill a Man” and “Hand on the Pump” (they were already classics and were played to death by then). I remember thinking, “What’s happening? Did my ear change?”
One of the amazing things about music to me is that the can be a soundtrack for different moments and stages of your life. Looking back on it, I think that I actually did hear two different albums. The first was Cypress Hill as a senior in high school still living at home in the Bronx under the watchful eyes of my family. Life was crazy but controlled, because things still had a structure to them. The second was the same album but I heard it as a college man in upstate New York living, partying, and sometimes studying with people that were experiencing their first taste of independence too. The album mirrored how chaotic, fun, new, and exciting LIFE felt at that time. That’s why I think I finally felt it.
B-Real’s served as a high-pitched tour guide of sorts for both the album and how I was feeling at the time. While I didn’t want to kill anyone or smoke the funky buddah, his rhymes and flow just had so much energy that it amplified the boundless energy I had that year. A voice that I thought was annoying when I first heard him now sounded like a beautiful instrument to me now. It blended perfectly with DJ Muggs’ guitars and psychedelic beats. It was the perfect compliment to Sen Dog’s deep and throaty baritone. It was beautiful, harmonious madness. And, oh yeah—the lyrics were gritty and gangsta too—just the way I liked them back then.
Over the years, I would bump this album at least once a year, which automatically means that it’s a personal all-time fave. While bumping it recently though, I really thought about why I love this album so much besides the way it instantly takes me back to 1992. Why do I love it simply from a musical standpoint?
I recently realized that I’ve always loved funk music and this album is FUNKEE! Electric and bass guitars are just funky instruments because they sound so dirty and DJ Muggs seemed to build his beats around them on this album. Don’t believe me? Play “Latin Lingo” again and tell me that the guitar and the bongos on it ain’t coming with some slow, gumbo-sounding funk. Tell me that the guitar squealing on “Break It Up” and the wah-wah on “Ultraviolet Dreams,” isn’t psychedelic funk that would have you in a haze even if you don’t take two and pass.
Besides the guitars, the horns on all of the songs were amazing too because they were used in different ways to elicit vastly different sounds. I used to think that the horns were only used to give the album a Latin feel, but when I listened to some tracks more closely, some of them had a jazzy feel to them. While the horns on some tracks like “Light Another” and “Funky Cypress Hill Sh*t,” did have a kind of mariachi sound to them, the horns on joints like “Real Estate ”sounded like they were part of a big-band jazz troupe.
The horns took a backseat to the guitars on most of the tracks though. The guitars and B-Real were unquestionably the stars of the show and it felt like the album was created around both of them. The guitars that were crying on “Real Estate” and “Hand on the Pump” and the lyrics on these joints seemed to back each other up and further convey the point each was itching to make.
So, if you can relate and want to take a visit back to a crazier and more free time in your life or if you’re just fiendin’ for some ‘90s hardcore rhymes over some hardcore beats, give this joint a listen again. Maybe the bedlam on the album will make you forget about or celebrate the beautiful chaos we call life, for about an hour.
Favorite Track: “Real Estate.” Instant energy!
Most Slept-On Track: “The Funky Cypress Hill Sh*t.” The woman moaning with that funk?! Crazy!
Best Listened To In: Planes. Trains, or Automobiles. You need to be in motion to get best results from this joint.
Favorite Flashback Moments: Getting the bootleg at Fordham Road; spitting rhymes from the album with my crew going back to the Freshman dorm at the ’Cuse.
How about you? What's your history with this album? Does it relate to mine? Will mine relate to yours?