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I've interviewed Cypress Hill four times, but on each occasion, Muggs, the DJ/architect of the rap act's sound, was conspicuously absent. It's not that he's shy, or hates reporters, or wants to maintain a low, mysterious profile. It's just that he has better things to do.
Like make records.
He's done songs and remixes for everyone from George Michael to U2 to Sonic Youth to Tricky, and has worked with too many hip-hop stars to name. But he's best known for the raw 'n' rowdy energy, driving bass lines, and freaky, tweaked, horn bleats of Cypress, who, after 10 years and six platinum discs, are rap's longest-reigning superstars. His other big claim to fame is "Jump Around." Crafted for House of Pain, that perennial party hit still generates fat royalty checks.
"I don't give a shit about interviews, pictures, videos. I'm in this to make music," the goateed producer asserts from behind orange-tinted glasses. "I don't care about fame. People who need to know me, know me, and I'm respected. I do this because I love it."
Muggs doesn't make eye contact much, but when he does, his piercing gaze goes through me, even from behind the shades. He answers questions, but doesn't freely add a whole lot more. In other words, Muggs doesn't care about me or you, just about making beats.
The occasion of his sparing interview-time out of his beat-making schedule is the release of Muggs Presents Soul Assassins II (which hits stores on October 3), a project near and dear to his heart. The producer wants to make sure folks know about it, so amid a recording session, he's given us a few minutes.
Like Soul Assassins I,its critically acclaimed 1997 predecessor, II is a collection of all-star MCs busting rhymes over Muggs tracks. Both discs move the producer out from behind the boards and into the limelight, not unlike New York knob-twirler Marley Marl's '88 classic, In Control, and Dr. Dre's g-funk masterpiece, The Chronic.
While the first Soul Assassins set boasted chart-topping names such as RZA, KRS-One, Wyclef, and Dre, the sequel leans more toward the underground. You get heavy-hitters such as Xzibit, Kurupt, and Everlast, longstanding cellar-dwellers like Ras Kass, up-and-coming buzz act Dilated Peoples, and still-unsigned, unknown newcomers such as Self-Scientific and Krondon.
"There's a lot of albums coming out like this, and everyone's running around trying to get the flavor-of-the-month MCs," Muggs notes. "So I did the exact opposite--got brand-new name fools I like, underground MCs. Even successful rappers that I use weren't gonna be household names like a DMX, Jay-Z, and Busta Rhymes. You've still gotta be into the culture to know GZA and Kool G. Rap [both on the album]."
On some tracks, Muggs replicates the artists' usual sonic milieu. On others, he pushes them in new directions. The classical bow-work and tremulous operatic vocals on "When the Fat Lady Sings" don't seem like much of a stretch for the Wu-Tang's GZA, while Kurupt takes a break from Long Beach party anthems on the sparser, East Coast-styled "When the Pain Inflict." Yet, despite the variety of voices and styles, the disc sounds like one cohesive work, tied together by Muggs' hallmark style: moody, ominous, sample layered upon sample. But the strata isn't so dense that you can't hear each element--horns, strings, keys, eerie vocal parts--on its own. Think of the orchestral compositions of Wagner, minus the bombast, from a b-boy stance.
One final Muggs trademark: no radio-friendly, harmonized R&B chorus. "Fuck that," he shoots back with a slight sneer. "My shit is dark--that dusty, smoked-out vibe. I always make nighttime music. That's how I like it, that's what I want to hear."
L.A. hard-core rap pioneer King T, who also appears on the new disc, echoes the sentiment: "He's kinda quiet in the studio, but when something doesn't sound right, he'll say, 'That shit is wack, do it again.'"
"He's like a conductor," adds Chase Infinite, an unsigned MC whom Muggs has taken under his wing, and who graces two tracks on the new disc. "I have a tendency to get real excited, and my voice will pitch up a little, but he likes my vocals more midrange. It's hard to argue with someone with such a proven track record of artistry and success."
Says A-Love Miller, a friend and host of KPWR-FM's Xero Hour show in Los Angeles: "He's no bullshitter. He's no pussy."
It's true: Beyond self-assured and no-nonsense, Lawrence Muggerud is tough--not someone you walk up to and slap on the back with a "Wassup, Larry?!" No doubt this temperament is a product of his upbringing. Born to Italian-American parents in 1968 in a rough part of Queens, N.Y., he grew up during the birth of hip-hop culture, "writing on walls, breakdancing, stealing car stereos, getting high--regular kid shit," as he tells it.