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View From the Hill

Cypress Hill's Muggs is out to prove that it's possible to have multiplatinum success and keep your street roots too.

May 04, 1997|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

To track down Cypress Hill member Muggs at the group's headquarters, you have to maneuver through a labyrinth of one-way streets and alleys to a dead-end corner of an industrial strip just east of downtown Los Angeles.

With its dilapidated front stoop, the two-story building looks like an abandoned warehouse--not what you would expect for the home base of one of hip-hop's most respected and successful groups. The multiracial trio was a featured performer on Lollapalooza '95, has been nominated for three Grammys and has sold an estimated 6 million albums in the U.S.

This is living large?

"It's perfect for us," explains Muggs, 27, inside the massive structure, which houses everything from the group's clothing business (Joker) to its recording studio.

"Why spend a whole bunch of money on studio and production offices in some place that's gonna overcharge us and where we can't get any real work done?" he says. "Nobody knows where this is, and only the people we want here end up coming around."

Lead rapper B-Real is the high-profile face of Cypress Hill, but Muggs is the musical catalyst who lays down the infectious sound behind B-Real's nasal vocals.

It's inside the comfortable studio--a plush contrast to the bleak facade, complete with furnished loft and kitchen--that Muggs (whose real name is Lawrence Muggerud) holes up for days at a time creating the beats that have made him one of hip-hop's most influential producers.

His sound joins heavy funk beats with wailing blues guitar, harpsichords and strings with marauding jazz horns and ominous squeals. It's Mozart and Muddy Waters battling at the pop crossroads in a hip-hop showdown. Muggs is an in-demand remixer for everyone from Janet Jackson to Metallica, and he's just released the first album on his new, Columbia-distributed label, Soul Assassins.

'Muggs Presents . . . Soul Assassins Chapter 1" features funky contributions from Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan's RZA/GZA, Mobb Deep, KRS-One and the Fugees' Wyclef Jean. The album is an inventive work--Details magazine, for one, applauded, saying Muggs has "cooked up a funky, cinematic collage of blunted hip-hop that mixes East Coast noise effects with low-riding West Coast bass lines."

It started off strongly commercially, entering the Billboard charts last month at No. 20. But it has since slipped out of the Top 100.

Muggs isn't flustered by the album's failure to match the multiplatinum pace of his Cypress Hill efforts.

"I could have gone [more] commercial, but I [wanted to] go back to . . . that basic underground basement production that made all of this possible in the first place," he says, looking around the apartment.

"Each of the tracks for the album were recorded in one night and were often mixed the same day. I just wanted to prove that you can still do underground records and go gold. Just doesn't make sense to remake old songs just to get played on the freakin' radio, yunno?"

You could say that mixing runs in Muggerud's family--his mother is a bartender.

Instead of drinks, however, DJ Muggs concocts intoxicating beats. Cypress Hill's popularity may stem largely from its party-going, marijuana-toking, gun-toting image, but Muggs supplies a cutting-edge creativity behind all the flamboyance.

"I always look toward other types of music for my inspiration," the Queens, N.Y., native says. "Moms played Motown, my uncle played Led Zeppelin and the Doors, and my aunt liked disco. Rap was on the streets in 1979. Music was everywhere when I was coming up."

Muggs' parents separated when he was in grade school and he eventually moved to California with his mother, settling in Bell Gardens. Although he is white, he ran with Latino gangs during his early teens before finding a safer passion: deejaying.

After a stint with the group 7A3, he formed Cypress Hill in 1989 with longtime friends Louis Freese (B-Real) and Senen Reyes (Sen-Dog). They were signed in 1991 by Ruffhouse Records, a Columbia subsidiary, and released their debut album in 1991.

Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo, co-owner of the Philadelphia-based Ruffhouse and a prominent producer on the East Coast rap scene, noticed Muggs' talent early on. He initially signed Cypress Hill to record a single, but was so impressed with the material that he decided to go for a whole album.

"The mark of a great producer is a person who can make tracks that you want to listen to over and over again, songs that can last through the years," Nicolo says. "Even six years later, the tracks on the first Cypress Hill record still sound as good as they did when I first heard them. He's constantly trying to stay a step ahead, but he'll always sound like Muggs--tracks with a very loopy, sinister feel to them. That's who he is."

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