B-Real: Vato Loco

"The worst thing about this whole Ice Cube thing," says Cypress Hill rapper Louis "B-Real" Freese, "is that if this was back in the day, I would have taken care of him already."

A few definitions to clarify:
"This whole Ice Cube thing" refers to Real's recent accusation that fellow L.A. gangsta-rap artist and former compadre Ice Cube nicked a beat from an early mix of "Throw Your Set in the Air"--the first single off Cypress Hill's new album Temples of Boom--for use on the Cube-produced Friday soundtrack.

"Back in the day" refers to a period from the late '80s through mid-1990, when B-Real was living la vida loca, "the crazy life," as a core member of the Neighborhood Family, a notorious Bloods set in south-central Los Angeles.

And coming from B-Real, "take care of him already" means exactly what it sounds like.

"I may not miss the rush of the gang life, but I'll say this much: Sometimes, I just get that taste in my mouth to go and fuck up my enemies real bad," Real says.

"I know that's a bad thought, but, in my head, it's not an automatic 'don't do it,' you know? I have to weigh shit out. I have to ask myself, 'Do I really want to go and take care of this punk and risk all that I have?'

"The answer is no. Now, I have too much to lose. Then, I had nothing. And I miss that. I miss not having anything to lose, because what I learned from that time was never let any motherfucker get away with anything.

"These days, I find myself letting things slide too often."
The way B-Real tells it, early last summer his group and Ice Cube were chillin' in thestudio where Cypress Hill had just recorded a cut for the soundtrack the former Niggaz With Attitude (N.W.A) member was putting together.

Real says that after they all went over Cypress Hill's Friday cut, he busted out a take of "Throw Your Set"--one of the first songs he and sidekick rapper Senen "Sen Dog" Reyes and their DJ, Larry "Muggs" Muggerud, had put on tape for Temples of Boom--and asked Cube if he'd like a preview. Real says Cube dug the cut and asked if he could sample it for another song on the Friday album.

"We told him no," says Real, "Two months later, our shit was on his single anyway."

Ice Cube has said he remembers hearing the early version of the Cypress joint and realizing he had already used the same beat for his song on Friday, but didn't want to say anything in the studio that day because it would have been awkward. He also denied asking permission to sample the song from Cypress Hill for any purpose.

"Whatever," is Real's summation. "He says he didn't ask to use it. I say he did. He says he already had that number. I say I know in my heart he didn't."

I've never rapped on an R&B record, and I never will/I've got these phony motherfuckers talking 'bout keep it real/They don't know how to take their own advice, going out, doing soda-water advertisements, commercializing, fucking sellouts/Nigga, this is hip-hop, not fashion, so get the hell out.

--"Strictly Hip-Hop"
(from Temples of Boom)

The thing with Cube was just the icing, Real says. Last year, as a whole, took the cake.

"1995 was not good for me. There was a lot of personal darkness: friends who turned out to be enemies. Lots of people full of shit. Friends dying, still caught up in all that gang shit. Bad memories. Lots of nightmares. Pigs fuckin' with me for no reason, pulling me over all the time and searchin' my shit for weed or guns. Like I'd ever slip up and let those fools take me."

(Despite the bravado, Real did get popped on a weapons charge about a year and a half ago.)

Not all of the friends turned enemies are in the rap game, says Real. In fact, most of them are gangbangers who resent that he took a different path, one that led him out of the concrete killing fields into the greatest crossover success of any rap act since the Beastie Boys, and the greatest ever by any group that isn't all-white (Sen Dog is African Cuban, Muggs is Italian American and BReal is the son of a Mexican American and an African-Cuban mother who fled Cuba on a makeshift raft in 1968).

"A lot of these people decide not to like you because maybe you made something of your life and they didn't," says Real, who until recently continued to live in his old neighborhood of South Gate, a working-class district of Los Angeles that's right across the tracks from the south-central badlands.

Real moved to the considerably more exclusive Hollywood Hills area after three men in ski masks kicked down his door, put a pistol to his head and stole all the cash in the house (along with five ounces of pot--afact Real says didn't make it into the police report).

"People don't understand. You leave the neighborhood and they're like, 'Oh, look, he's too good for us now,'" says Real. "No. Not true. If I stayed, I was too accessible. Sooner or later, someone was going to knock on my door asking for an autograph and put a bullet in my head. You can't live as a sitting duck just waiting for the sharks to come in.

"A lot of people rapping about the gang life never lived it, and that's why it comes off fake, like a cartoon. But I earned the right to rap about this shit."

How do you know where I'm at/When you haven't been where I've been/Understand where I'm coming from?/While you're up on the hill in your big home/I'm out here, risking my dome/So here is something you can't understand: how I could just kill a man.

--"How I Could Just Kill a Man"
(from Cypress Hill)

B-Real and Sen Dog were brothers long before they were rappers.
Real says Sen was one of the first by his stretcher side in 1988 when he caught a .22caliber slug in the lung, an experience he recalls in chilling detail on "Lick a Shot," a song on Cypress Hill's 1993 album Black Sunday.

Taking a bullet, however, did little to suppress Real's appetite for the locura (crazy action) of gang life. "I thought gangbanging was the shit back then," he says. Watching his friend cough up blood was evidently enough for Sen, though. He got out of the gang and started working as a security guard for JC Penney.

The two friends kept writing rhymes as ahobby until an influential deejay named JulioG at the L.A. rap-powerhouse station KDAY introduced them to Muggs, who had moved to California from Queens, New York, and quickly established himself as a premier underground deejay.

Muggs had an idea for a concept album based on the experience of hanging out on Cypress Avenue in South Gate. Real and Sen were up for it and, by the spring of 1991, the trio's landmark debut LP, titled Cypress Hill, was on the street.

The album was an instant classic--a relentless, adrenalized blend of lowrider grooves, odes to the joy of burnin' Yesca (pro-pot anthems are now ubiquitous in hiphop, but Real and Sen were the first to champion the renaissance of weed) and vicious street fables where the moral is always shoot first and often.

Cypress Hill was revolutionary on several fronts: Muggs made an indelible mark onhiphop production with his innovative use of warped acoustic bass lines, swirling piano loops, spooky synthesizer squeals and East Coast-flavored "boom-bap" drum beats. Also, Real and Sen came out with a new style of rap vocals that melded Rastafarian patois with Spanglish, much of it rendered by Real in his signature, gritty, nasal whine. Lastly, there were the album's lyrics. A departure from the action-flick-violence standard of West Coast gangsta rap, Cypress Hill was loaded with lyrical vignettes that didn't glorify gang violence so much as they simply described it with sociopathic detachment. The overall effect was frightening. And, of course, extremely attractive.

Cypress Hill sold 1.5 million copies, and BReal's gangbanging days were done.

But, evidently, not forgotten.
Released late last year, Temples of Boom is more or less a treatise on the psychological toll of gangbanging. The lyrics are confessional, introspective and often paranoid, a look behind the mask of the mad-dog killer on Cypress Hill that reveals a pair of eyes full of fear, guilt and despair.

"I saw and did a lot of bad shit back then," says Real. "Shit I can't get out of my head, that I dwell on. What happened on this record is I tried to tell everyone about it, to get things off my chest. I wanted to use the record as therapy."--David Holthouse

Cypress Hill is scheduled to perform on Saturday, January 27, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with 311, and the Pharcyde. Showtime is 7 p.m.

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