Anytime I get out Cypress Hill’s debut album, I can’t get beyond the first four tracks. Why? Because I just repeat-play those for about a week. I’m sure you will think of others, but no rap album I know opens so strong and so deep. Absolutely classic early Muggs production, unfortunately still spot-on bloody-slice-of-hood-life lyrics (“Being the hunted one is no fun!”), defiant MCing courtesy of B-Real–plus the “Pigs” / “How I Could Just Kill a Man” / “Hand on the Pump” / “Hole in Your Head” sequence is ridiculously catchy and pithy. The rest of the album is fine, but in contrast it might as well be filler. I’m still re-running them this morning–third time, after five times yesterday!
But, what I’m writing to report are two personal memories the record conjures. As a 30-year-old teacher in Missouri, I had few friends who were hip hop fiends. Really, two: my wife Nicole and my buddy and groomsman Mark, who out of the blue could bust multiple bars from Cypress Hill with pinpoint accuracy and attitude. At the time, immediately after he’d explode into MC mode and expostulate, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I think he probably wanted me to kick in a few bars myself, but a) my memory and articulation weren’t as precise, and b) where Mark had command and rhythm (by the way, did I mention how addictive the accents are on this album?), I “rapped” the way you would imagine a Kansas-farm-rooted white boy might–um, uncertainly. What I did feel like doing was clapping and nodding my approval at Mark’s performance, which seemed a paltry thing in the face of his enthusiasm, commitment, and interpretive skills. Bottom line: 26 years later, I remember his eruptions very fondly.
The other memory is of a moment in the classroom. The school I taught at housed students even a fan like me would have a hard time scooping when it came to the freshest hip hop. Actually, most of the time, I was the student: Spice-1, Brother Lynch Hung, X-Clan, and MC Eiht are just a few acts about whom I specifically remember receiving wisdom. However, shortly after Cypress Hill was released and had become heavily-rotated in our home, I found myself teaching a young man who is still in my pantheon of most enjoyable, intelligent and enriching students I ever shared space with for 180 50-minute classes (that’s 1/6th of a teacher year). “Dice” was damn-near a man at 15: over six feet tall, with an athlete’s build, both an easy, good-humored manner that made him friends and a subtle edge that probably gave most strangers pause, and a mature sense of humor and world view. These gifts were not enough to keep him out of trouble–in fact, they (and the fact he was black, more than occasionally) could land him there. In my class, however, he was a star. He was always on top of our class reading, and he had a talent for being able to voice controversial opinions passionately without creating an apoplectic state among his less-enlightened peers. He was also incredibly receptive; when we read Shane (yeah, it was a novel first!), I figured he might tune out, since he had no obvious ways in. Quite to the contrary: he was engaged in the book beginning to end and simply adapted it to the truths of his world. A damn pleasure to teach–and he knew his hip hop!
One day, just wanting to give something back to him, I cautiously asked him if he’d heard Cypress Hill, expecting to be gently ridiculed.
“Naw! Who’s that?”
The next day, I slipped him a dub of it on cassette, and he returned the following day with this report:
“Mr. O, that shit is wild! They’re on the real, and they’re bilingual! Thanks!”
As much an obsessive as I am, you’d think I’d have had many moments like this in my educator guise, but no, not really–especially where rap is concerned. I will always treasure that moment when I enlightened the student who was consistently enlightening the teacher.
When my Cypress Hill jones kicks in, it always brings memories of Mark and Dice, two of the most impressive men I’ve known. I just hope one day I play it and the problems at the center of “Pigs” and “How I Could Just Kill a Man” are things of the past.
William Faulkner Reads from His Works (The Sound and The Fury and Light in August)–I always thought he’d sound taller and deeper-chested! Still, I always wondered how you’d read this stuff aloud, and he delivers it with, what else, “an inexhaustible voice.”
Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady–Swirling, turbulent jazz on the cusp of madness. Plus, ain’t this the second time I’ve written about it in ’18?
Peter Brotzmann and Fred Lonberg-Holm: Ouroboros–Another second-time subject, and…it’s confirmed…a 21st century free jazz masterpiece.
Jamila Woods: HEAVN–If you missed this poignant poet and gentle singer’s 2016 classic, hey, plenty of American recorded music isn’t disposable. There’s still time for you to be enlightened, inspired, and bewitched by one of Chicago’s finest.