DJ Muggs Has Been Blowing Minds For 30 Years
In 2018, DJ Muggs went to Egypt. Muggs was the longtime production mastermind behind Cypress Hill, but in their later years, Cypress Hill had moved away from Muggs’ musical blueprint. They’d gone hit-chasing. Cypress Hill’s previous album, 2010’s Rise Up, had a single with Pitbull and Marc Anthony, and it also had songs with guys from Linkin Park and System Of A Down. The record didn’t work, so when Cypress Hill made the follow-up album, B-Real and Sen Dog went to Muggs and gave him total musical control over the album. Muggs took it.
Muggs had been traveling, looking for newer sounds. In Egypt, he came across a genre called street music, and he loved it. For months, Muggs lived in Egypt, working with Egyptian artists. The results are all over the psychedelic sprawl of Cypress Hill’s 2018 album Elephants On Fire. That album didn’t sell any better than Rise Up, but it sits proudly within the group’s history of zone-out music.
In the new documentary short Past Is Prologue, you can see footage of Muggs in Egypt, “on a motherfuckin’ spiritual mission,” “on that Indiana Jones shit.” The people at the gothed-out New York label Sacred Bones put Past Is Prologue together, which would explain why it focuses so much on Muggs’ mystical fascinations and on his love of psychedelic rock. Sacred Bones has made its place in the world by putting out music from experimental vibe-conjurers like Zola Jesus and Blanck Mass and by embracing film legends like Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and John Carpenter. Muggs fits into that. Muggs isn’t a revered cinematic figure like Jarmusch or Lynch or Carpenter, though he’s had an impact in that world. (The ending of Juice gets much of its claustrophobic punch from Cypress Hill’s “How Could I Just Kill A Man” blaring on the soundtrack.) But Muggs, like those auteurs, has a history of blowing minds on a mass scale.
Muggs definitely blew my little 13-year-old mind. Black Sunday, Cypress Hill’s monstrously popular 1993 sophomore album, opens with a repeating drone that gets louder and louder, playing just long enough to unsettle you. Then the bass comes rolling in — a slow, strutting riff that Muggs took from a record that the Memphis bluesman Little Junior Parker released just before his 1971 death. That intro is tattooed on my brain. I fell in love with Black Sunday before I even heard the first nasal-chirp syllable from B-Real. That opening song is called “I Wanna Get High,” and the title fits the music. Cypress Hill made a lot of money by extolling the power of weed, but it wasn’t stoner pandering. Muggs beats like that one are proof of concept. When you hear them, you want to get high, too.
Lawrence Muggerud has been making rap music since the late ’80s. As a teenager, Muggerud moved from his native Queens to Los Angeles, and he became the DJ for the 7A3, an LA group who released one album on Geffen in 1988. When the 7A3 broke up, Muggs formed DVX with three young Latino rappers from South Gate. DVX became Cypress Hill after Sen Dog’s younger brother Mellow Man Ace left to go solo. Cypress Hill’s debut album was a hit, and it stands today as a towering classic of West Coast rap, a near-perfect record. Muggs, the one white guy in the first Latino rap act to blow up on a national scale, had a lot to do with that. As a producer, Muggs had a gift for atmosphere and for twisting up familiar samples in unfamiliar ways. On “Hand On The Pump,” for instance, the first word of Gene Chandler’s doo-wop oldie “Duke Of Earl” became a mocking taunt and an endless-repeat koan.
Muggs’ early-’90s beats moved with a cartoon-funk bounce, but they always had ideas flying in every direction. On hits like “Insane In The Brain” and “Jump Around,” for instance, Muggs laced the tracks with screaming-irritant squeals that sounded like sped-up horse-whinnies. A few years later, Timbaland was looping baby gurgle-goos and Martian death-burps on R&B-radio smashes. Maybe Muggs helped prepare our collective brain for ideas like that.
Dies Occidendum, the album that Muggs just released on Sacred Bones, is a record of vibed-out instrumental hip-hop in the …Endtroducing mode, and it’s the work of a mind that clearly remains restless. The tricks that Muggs uses on Dies Occidendum — blaring fuzzed-out guitar, horror-movie vocal clips, echo, empty space — aren’t exactly new, especially for Muggs. Muggs recorded many of the tracks years ago, and he only compiled them when Sacred Bones came calling. Still, the album works as a very cool mood piece. Dies Occidendum is full of live instrumentation, and Muggs played that doomy desert guitar himself. Muggs still knows how to evoke the infinite. Dies Occidendum is a fine piece of shag-carpet zone-out music from a guy who has been inducing shag-carpet zone-outs for 30 years.
But the coolest thing about Dies Occidendum might be how it’s not a departure. In 2005, Muggs linked up with the GZA and released the collaborative indie album Grandmasters. Since then, Muggs has been drawn to mystic East Coast word-flippers. In recent years, Muggs has been releasing full-length collaborative albums with many of the standout rappers in the underground. Just in the past few years, Muggs has made entire albums with people like Roc Marciano, Meyhem Lauren, Eto, and Mach-Hommy. It’s tempting to say that Muggs is adopting the approach that has brought the Alchemist so much acclaim lately, but Muggs was doing it first, and anyway Alchemist started out as a teenage Muggs protege.
Two weeks before he released Dies Occidendum, Muggs and the gifted New York rapper Rome Streetz released Death & The Magician, and most of its dark, flickering beats would’ve worked just fine on the instrumental album. Muggs isn’t slowing down, either. A week from Friday, Muggs and the Griselda associate Flee Lord will release the new album Rammelzee. It’s named after the late art-world enigma whose 1983 avant-rap classic “Beat Bop” inspired B-Real’s whole rap style. (Meanwhile, Cypress Hill just announced their own new album, but instead of working with Muggs, they made the whole thing with Detroit producer Black Milk. First single “Champion Sound” is cool.)
DJ Muggs is 53 years old. Most of his early-’90s peers have faded into obscurity. One of them has become a headphones tycoon. Muggs hasn’t made Dr. Dre money, but the man produced “Jump Around”; it seems safe to say that he’s not hurting for money. Muggs doesn’t have to make records with Flee Lord, but he hears something in these underground rappers, just like he heard something in that Egyptian street music. That’s beautiful. I hope Muggs’ motherfuckin’ spiritual mission never ends.
1. Bankroll Freddie – “Rich Off Grass (Remix)” (Feat. Young Dolph)
“Rich Off Grass,” the breakout viral hit from the Arkansas rapper Bankroll Freddie, was already a cool regional banger in its original form, but Dolph elevates it. Dolph is one of the few circa-2021 rap stars who would’ve been big in just about any era; that easy and authoritative booming-baritone swagger is timeless.
2. ZaeHD & CEO – “Dirty Watch” (Feat. Bankroll Freddie)
Bankroll Freddie doesn’t exactly jump out as a personality, but two bangers in one week means the man is doing something right. Little Rock duo ZaeHD & CEO have a great goofball energy, and they’re not scared of hooks. Great videos, too. Maybe Arkansas rap is about to have a moment.
3. Mulatto – “BeatBox Freestyle”
“BeatBox,” a track from the 19-year-old Florida rapper SpotemGottem, has become a big viral hit in recent months, especially after Pooh Shiesty and DaBaby jumped on it. It’s been a while since we got an instrumental that inspired a whole lot of freestyles, and I’m excited for “BeatBox” to become that. On her version, Mulatto stomps all over this thing. Her charisma is huge.
4. Guapdad 4000 – “She Wanna” (Feat. P-Lo)
Maybe 2021 will be the year the Ying Yang Twins horny-whisper flow makes its triumphant return. I’m ready.
5. Bones & Deergod – “PopRocks”
The Michigan rapper Bones was making intense, muttery lo-fi underground rap before the SoundCloud-rap wave hit, and he’s still doing it after that wave ebbed away. It still sounds good, too.