New Cypress Hill Documentary 'Insane in the Brain' Chronicles a Blazing Triumph

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(L-R) Sen Dog, DJ Muggs and B-Real of Cypress Hill in their '90s heyday. ('Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain'/Showtime)

If you come to Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain expecting weed smoke, raucous live footage and a gritty back story—congratulations! There's an ample amount of all three.

You'll also get the usual documentary staples: archival footage, personal stories, and a smattering of glowing commentary from hip-hop insiders, including Ice-T and Chuck D. What elevates Insane in the Brain—a Showtime production premiering, naturally, on 4/20—is its journey through the sheer unlikelihood of Cypress Hill's success, and the barriers they overcame to achieve it.

The film is directed by Estevan Oriol—a longtime friend and tour manager to the band, as well as a talented photographer and music video director in his own right. Across 87 minutes, Oriol effectively breaks down the great number of cultural and legal barriers that could have prevented B-Real, Sen Dog and DJ Muggs from becoming global stars with record sales exceeding 20 million. And he does it from a uniquely personal perspective.

First, the Los Angeles group managed to get out from being under gang affiliations, and the danger that posed. (B-Real recounts getting shot in the back by rival gang members in the 1980s.) Second, they had to wheedle their way into a hip-hop scene sorely lacking in Latino representation. (Cypress Hill was the first Latino rap group to go platinum.)

Third, they had to stay out of jail while publicly flouting anti-marijuana laws all over the world. (Much is made here of the fact that Cypress Hill were one of the first artists to openly and enthusiastically smoke weed on stage nightly, including during a now-infamous appearance on SNL that earned them a lifetime ban from the show.) Fourth, they needed to transcend genres. A major source of their success in the 1990s was winning over crowds at alternative rock festivals like Lollapalooza and the UK's Reading Festival. (They warmly recall their time on the road with Nirvana and Hole here.)

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Insane in the Brain explains exactly how Cypress Hill smoothly scaled all those hurdles. And the trio's combination of savvy, tenacity, talent and plain old-fashioned good luck is fairly remarkable to behold. One particularly delightful portion features DJ Muggs admitting he'd never heard the word "concept" until Def Jam's Bill Stephney told him Cypress Hill needed one. Muggs went home, pondered it, then told his friends: "Y'all gotta be the Cheech and Chong of this motherfucka." (Stoners will be thrilled to hear that the weed movie legends do show up for a bizarre interview.)

Certain nuggets in the documentary seem tailor-made to delight hardcore fans—particularly some early demos, recorded before B-Real had landed on the nasal delivery that gave Cypress Hill their unmistakable sound. But casual viewers will enjoy it as a story about triumphing over odds, and one that also happens to come with some hilarious anecdotes. (The night Sen Dog took too many mushrooms and got into a fight with a hat someone threw onstage is worth a viewing alone.)

That's not to say the documentary doesn't take some liberties. The narrative that Cypress Hill were underdogs because they were from the West Coast doesn't hold up to even casual scrutiny. And there's an unchecked assertion by one commentator here that Cypress Hill is the biggest selling hip-hop group of all time. They're not—the Beastie Boys are. (The story of Cypress Hill luring away the Beasties' percussionist Eric Bobo in the '90s is told in some depth here, so knowledge of the New York trio's success shouldn't be news to Oriol.)

Still, it's impossible to finish watching Insane in the Brain without a heightened respect for Cypress Hill. Not just because they took Southern California Latino culture to a worldwide audience, but because they made it look easy when it patently wasn't.

Insane in the Brain is also a reminder that when Cypress Hill was calling for the legalization of cannabis 30 years ago, it wasn't just a schtick. They constantly advocated for the proposal at a time when—nearly three decades of reggae anthems like Peter Tosh's "Legalize It" aside—such a prospect still felt impossible. That B-Real owns a chain of dispensaries now (see: Dr. Greenthumb's in San Francisco's Mission District) is a major vindication.

The documentary closes with a juxtaposition that drives home the heart of the movie. Shortly after seeing Cypress Hill receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—the first hip-hop group to do so—the credits roll with a section dedicated to the plethora of their friends who didn't make it. That these three misfits from South Gate did defies almost all of the odds.

'Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain' premieres Wednesday, April 20, at 8pm on Showtime. Details here.