By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Art sometimes imitates life, and vice versa, in very strange ways. But the 35-year-old hip-hop group ’s first-ever orchestral concerts — including Tuesday with the San Diego Symphony — can be more accurately described as life imitating The Simpsons.
More specifically, life imitating Homerpalooza. That’s the title of a classic 1996 episode of The Simpsons, in which a Lollapalooza-inspired festival called Hullabalooza features a brief performance of Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” with the London Symphony Orchestra.
“When we did it in 1996, we thought it was a cool little sketch,” recalled Cypress Hill co-founder Sen Dog.
“It took us years to realize there was something there and we started talking about: ‘Hey, what if we really did this, like in The Simpsons?”
The veteran rapper, who was born Senen Reyes, moved with his family from his native Cuba to Los Angeles when he was 6 years old.
“My dad was always playing Beethoven and Chopin albums,” Sen Dog recalled. “And we’re related to (Cuban vocal legend) Celia Cruz, so there was always plenty of music by Celia, Tito Puente, Willie Bobo and people like that in our house.”
Sen Dog rose and Cypress Hill rose to international prominence with such songs as the Grammy Award-nominated Insane in the Brain, Hits from the Bong and I Wanna Get High.
“We’re stoners, we’re pot heads, and believe in the power of the plant, the power of the flower,” Sen Dog, 57, said. “We believe the world would be a better place if cannabis was legalized in every country.”
He laughed when asked if, in 1993, it would have been more surprising to learn pot would eventually become legal in California and other states — or that Cypress Hill would this year team with orchestras to perform the group’s top-selling 1993 album, Black Sunday, in its entirety?
“That we’re performing with a symphony orchestra is more surprising,” he replied. “If it wasn’t for (Simpsons creator) Matt Groening putting us in Homerpalooza, I don’t know if any of this would be happening now. I’m very excited.”
The biggest Latino group in hip-hop history, Cypress Hill has worldwide album sales of more than 20 million and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unlike such Los Angeles contemporaries as N.W.A, and Snoop Dogg, the group’s lyrics largely eschewed the rampant sexism that was de rigueur in the 1980s and 1990s.
Or, as Cypress Hill’s B-Real (born: Louis Mario Freese) told England’s Guardian newspaper in a 2022 interview: “We were a Latino group singing about cannabis, so there were enough obstacles without being misogynistic. We were no angels, but over the course of our career we never wanted to be disrespectful to women.”
Bucking odds after 35 years
Sen Dog took three years off from Cypress Hill between 1995 and 1998. Muggs (born: Lawrence Muggerud) bowed out in 2004, but has periodically rejoined the fold. DJ Lord is now touring with the group in place of Muggs.
But Muggs will still record with the group, noted Sen Dog, who is delighted and surprised Cypress Hill is still a going concern after 35 years.
“Let me tell you, something about what we thought would happen,” he said.
“We thought we’d have a good seven- to eight-year run, and maybe do three albums. And we thought that girls wouldn’t be into our underground hip-hop.
“We were wrong about everything!”
Sen Dog spoke Tuesday from Denver. He and Cypress Hill were rehearsing there for the first time with the Colorado Symphony, with whom the Los Angeles-based group was scheduled to perform last night at the 3,950-capacity Mission Ballroom.
The conductor for that concert, Christopher Dragon, will also lead the San Diego Symphony when it performs with Cypress Hill Tuesday at The Shell. The group will perform later this year with the Nashville Symphony.
Each of the orchestral concerts will feature all the songs from Black Sunday, performed in order. Other group favourites have also been newly arranged for orchestral accompaniment.
Should all three concerts go well, Sen Dog hopes they could signal a vital new chapter for him and his band mates — B-Real and percussionist Eric “Bobo” Correra (the son of Latin music great Willie Bobo).
“If this turns out to be all that we hope and we dig it, we definitely will do more,” Sen Dog said.
He then playfully referenced the pivotal 1996 episode of The Simpsons that planted this orchestral mash-up seed.
“We would love to do something with the London Symphony!” Sen Dog said.
Will he be wearing a tuxedo for Cypress Hill’s concert with the San Diego Symphony?
“Yes, sir!” Sen Dog replied.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s how you do orchestras.”