It's no mystery to Cypress Hill, the South Gate hip-hop trio, why its "Black Sunday" album entered the pop charts at No. 1, blowing away such superstar competition as U2 and Barbra Streisand.
In a word: cannabis.
"We smoke pot and we rap about it," said Sen Dog, the trio's 27-year-old Latino rapper whose real name is Senen Reyes. "That's what gives Cypress Hill our bugged-out edge."
Puffing on a joint in his manager's West Hollywood office, Cypress Hill cohort B-Real agreed.
"There's a lot of stoners out there right now and they like us because we aren't afraid to tell the truth," said B-Real, 23, whose real name is Louis Freese. He and Sen Dog are scheduled to perform a scholarship fund-raiser Saturday with partner D.J. Muggs (Larry Muggerud), 24, at El Camino College.
Cypress Hill's stoner image certainly hasn't hurt the group any. The pro-pot rhetoric has transformed the self-proclaimed former gun-toting gangbangers into a multimillion-buck merchandising machine--appealing primarily to a new wave of weed-toking white suburbanites.
Indeed, the glassy-eyed hip-hoppers--who also act as official spokesmen for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)--have quietly sold more than $25 million in records since 1991.
Plus, their line of pot-emblazoned clothing and paraphernalia is currently PolyGram Diversified Entertainment's hottest property--generating more than $6 million in sales at U.S. record stores this year alone and an additional $2 million in worldwide merchandise sales.
"Cypress Hill is saying things sociologically and politically to a growing segment of the population that feels alienated from mainstream adults," said John Scher, president of PolyGram's huge merchandising and concert division, which also sells souvenirs for pop stars Peter Gabriel, Elton John and Billy Ray Cyrus.
So far, the rebellious trio has escaped the wrath of the nation's media watchdog organizations and law enforcement groups that have pressured some stores and record companies to stop distributing other controversial rappers such as Ice-T, Ice Cube and 2 Live Crew.
But Glen Levant, executive director for Drug Assistance Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) America, suggested that Cypress Hill's record label, Sony-owned Ruffhouse, may soon be headed for legal trouble.
"Smoking marijuana is illegal and it's not inconceivable that these guys could be cited for aiding and abetting the commission of criminal acts," said Levant, a former L.A.P.D. deputy chief who served as the city's drug czar from 1985 to 1991. "It's outrageous for a corporation as prominent as Sony to affiliate itself with a group that flouts narcotic laws and espouses criminal behavior."
Is Cypress Hill an irresponsible pack of criminals or simply a shrewd triumvirate of counter-culture capitalists?
Insiders attribute much of the Latino rap crew's swift rise to their manager, Happy Walters, a 25-year-old entrepreneur who made his mark in the Midwest hawking a line of university sportswear. Walters also manages House of Pain, Funkdoobiest and the Whooliganz, who will appear with Cypress Hill in concert at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Oct. 28 and Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Oct. 29.
Cypress Hill--named after Cypress street in South Gate--hooked up with Walters in 1991, three years after the hip-hop trio formed. Walters invested his $200,000 life savings in the group and maxed out a dozen credit cards to finance touring plus development of a merchandising logo to complement Cypress Hill's unique nasal-heavy rap style.
"As far as marketing goes, man, we know what we're doing," said Sen Dog, who describes himself as a fan of such classic rock acts as Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. "The way we look and dress. The dusted-out design of our logo. B-Real's rapping style. It's no accident, man. The whole thing was an attempt to come up with something different."
Fusing stark rap lyrics with escapist heavy metal imagery, Cypress Hill released a self-titled debut album in 1991 and penetrated the MTV market, earning a reputation for lyrics that juxtaposed the futility of gangbanging with the joys of pot smoking.
PolyGram Diversified Entertainment signed the trio to a multimillion-dollar merchandising deal to produce their own line of sweats, sock hats, jams and bandannas, as well as day-glow decals, buttons and posters silk-screened with marijuana leaves or psychedelic imagery and lettering lifted from '60s hippie lore.
Unlike other rap acts, Cypress Hill toured relentlessly for two years to promote its music and merchandise, performing at hundreds of underground clubs and small venues in the United States and abroad. Following a stint on the "Lollapalooza" tour in 1991 and a concert with Pearl Jam last year, the group began to cross over big time with white alternative rock fans. The trio will share several tracks with Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth on a soundtrack to the upcoming film "Judgment Night."