Cypress Hill's crossover classic launched the group into the mainstream — and without sampling a single horse...
Thanks to its distinctive bounce‑along beat, James Brown grunts, horse‑like percussive neighs and rappers B‑Real and Sen Dog's tongue‑twisting rhymes, Cypress Hill's 1993 hit 'Insane In The Brain' is rightly renowned as one of the landmark tracks in the history of hip‑hop. The first single taken from the group's second (and subsequently US number one) album Black Sunday, it was the dementedly catchy crossover hit that brought Cypress Hill to the attention of a wider audience of alternative rock as well as hip‑hop fans.
But Cypress Hill's turntablist, beatmaker and producer DJ Muggs is surprisingly honest today as he looks back on 'Insane In The Brain'. "Y'know, it wasn't my favourite record on the album," he admits, "but it definitely had to be the single. That's when you have to know your shit, like, OK, this is the right record to push. It isn't my favourite, but this is the right record right now."
'Insane In The Brain' definitely caught the mood of the early '90s, when alternative rock was going slacker and stoner, neatly mirroring Cypress Hill's open endorsement of marijuana in other Black Sunday tracks such as 'I Wanna Get High' and 'Hits From The Bong'. This was hip‑hop with party‑starting energy and cartoonish humour, in stark contrast to the punchy political messages of Public Enemy or the proto gangsta rap of NWA. Which made Cypress Hill stand out all the more.
"From the very beginning, I just thought they were the shit, man," says Joe 'The Butcher' Nicolo, the producer and record company owner who signed Cypress Hill to his label Ruffhouse and also mixed the trio's tracks. "I thought they were great. Y'know, there was just really nothing like this..."
One of Cypress Hill's unique selling points was their classic rock influence, as seen in the dark and brooding, Black Sabbath‑like album cover of Black Sunday and in the heaviness of their beats. It's an influence that dated back to Muggs's childhood days spent sharing a room with his teenage uncle.
"He took over the room," Muggs laughs. "He put velvet posters and black lights up, he put in lava lamps. He had eight‑track tapes, reel‑to‑reels. He would show me how to use the reel‑to‑reels and I'd listen to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. This is stuff that's getting absorbed by my subconscious. As I matured, I was just a fan of classic rock, as well as the Motown stuff my mom would listen to. But then as I got into figuring out my own music, that's when I discovered rap."
At the age of 14, Muggs (real name Lawrence Muggerud) moved with his mother from his native Queens, New York, to the South Gate area of Los Angeles County, where he began DJ'ing at house parties. "I just had the old school belt‑driven turntables where you couldn't really pull the record back," he remembers. "I got one from Radio Shack for, like, $49. And for the other turntable, I used a house stereo system which had the cassette player and the radio built in. That was about eight inches tall and the other one was flat. So I had these two things that were opposites."
In 1987, after winning a local DJ competition and pocketing the $300 prize money, Muggs bought his first pro Technics SL1200 deck, saving up to buy another to make the pair. "I needed them badly," he says. "I needed to step up. That was like the Holy Grail at the time, to get yourself some Technics 1200s. But I caught the fever. When you catch the fever, there's no stopping you. You're gonna figure this shit out."
From here, things moved fast for Muggs. First of all, he met a local rap outfit, DVX (Devastating Vocal Excellence), which featured his future Cypress Hill bandmates B‑Real and Sen Dog. Around the same time, he met another group, the 7A3, who'd moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn. Muggs stood in as their DJ one night when their regular turntablist failed to show up. Impressed, The 7A3 asked him to join them on a permanent basis.
At this point Muggs met Joe Nicolo, the Philadelphia‑based producer being part of the team who worked on The 7A3's 1988 album, Coolin' In Cali. The experience of making the record made Muggs realise that he wanted to be more than a DJ. Namely, a producer. "But I was a kid, man," he stresses. "I had all these ideas, but I didn't have a drum machine yet, and I didn't know how studios worked. After that record was done, I was pissed off. Because obviously they produced all my ideas. And then I was like, No, I wanted it to sound like this..."
The creative breakthrough for Muggs tech‑wise came with his purchase of the hip‑hop beatmaking workhorse of the time, E‑mu's SP‑1200 drum machine/sampler. "That was the machine," he says. "I had to ask my boys, 'What should I get?' They were like, 'You need to get the SP‑1200.' So I got it. Little did I know how limited it was for sounds and sampling. But with those limitations, it just made you be more creative and then figure out ways to bend the reality of the machine."
The maximum sample rate in the SP‑1200 was 26.04kHz at 12‑bit, lending it a characteristically gritty sound, which many hip‑hop producers, including Muggs, found a way to further enhance. He'd sample beats from 33 rpm albums at 45 rpm, then slow them down inside the sampler, making more use of the limited sample time and adding character to the loops, particularly in the bass end.
"The thing with the SP though," he recalls, "is you had to sample the record perfectly on time, 'cause you couldn't go into little increments. You could only go in increments of 6 bpm. So you couldn't move it from 101 to 102 to 103. You had to go from 100 to 106 to 112. You had to get it right on time when you sampled it. But when you had it on 45 and you slowed it down, it brought this ring and crunch to it that gave it a sound unique to the SP‑1200. You could put Wham! in there, it's gonna be gritty..."
Additionally, being able to sample only tiny snatches of records forced Muggs to piece together sonic collages for the demos that he made with B‑Real and Sen Dog as the newly‑named Cypress Hill. "You'd take a lot of these little things and just make a collage," he says. "It wasn't like taking big, big samples and just looping them."
All the while, Muggs continued to shape the Cypress Hill sound through his dedication to crate digging for obscure records to sample, often spending two days a week in his search. "Absolutely, that was part of my job," he says. "If you want to be successful in anything, you better make it your job. So with that comes eight hours a day of dedication to whatever you're doing. Y'know, you want to be a fighter, you want to be a writer, you need to go do that shit. So that's what I did. I would take a couple of days a week and just go and buy records all day and the rest of the time I'd make beats."
The original Cypress Hill demos recorded at Muggs's house on a Tascam four‑track quickly won them a deal with Joe Nicolo's Ruffhouse Records. From there, they began the sessions for their self‑titled 1991 debut album at Image Recording in LA, with Nicolo and engineer Jason Roberts.
But in spite of his dogged record collecting, Muggs was working from a limited palette of sounds on Cypress Hill, namely two crates of vinyl. "Yeah, I didn't have a lot of records," he says. "I wouldn't just listen to a record. I would keep going back and going back and finding little things and going between the cracks. Going through these records with, like, a microscope, just pulling little bits and pieces off of them and just playing them, and slowing them, and running them through guitar amps."
"They had a Trident A‑Range console at Image," remembers Nicolo. "Then the three of them came to Philly and we finished that record, and actually started working on the second record. They had so many great ideas, it was like, 'Let's just continue recording and we can put some of this stuff on the next record.'"
Muggs remembers, "Joe said to me, 'I wish I could just keep you guys in the studio and record for the next two years.' I didn't understand what he meant, but every song we did was dope. We didn't do nothing that wasn't good. When you're locked in, you're locked in."
Upon release, the Cypress Hill album quickly began picking up heavy rotation on both hip‑hop and college stations, which, combined with eight months of touring by the trio, earned them over two million sales. In approaching the follow‑up, Black Sunday, though, Muggs only upgraded his recording setup in a modest way, with the purchase of a second SP‑1200. "I got one more, so I could play two at the same time," he says. "But we recorded in my apartment in New York. With Black Sunday, every beat, every rhyme was done in six weeks."
For 'Insane In The Brain', Muggs used as its principal beat one that would appear in various mangled forms on other Cypress Hill tracks — the drum break from jazz‑funk artist George Semper's 'Get Out Of My Life, Woman', released in 1966 on his Makin' Waves album.
"It was just the bounce, man," he says of the swing of that particular breakbeat. "There was something about that. It just had a certain sound and a certain feel to it that fit with the sound I created for us. You might as well have said that was our drummer, y'know. There needs to be a musical identity."
Muggs claims to have a foggy memory when it comes to the other samples used on 'Insane In The Brain'. The website Whosampled.com meanwhile lists the likes of James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, the Youngbloods and particularly the horse neigh from Mel & Tim's 1969 track 'Good Guys Only Win In The Movies' as all featuring on the track. But Muggs refutes the latter in particular.
"That's weird," he says. "Everybody thinks that's a horse, but it isn't. I've seen that a bunch of times on these sample sites. That's a sound I made from a blues guitar pitched. At the time I used to run some sounds through guitar amps. When I heard that horse thing, I was like, Oh, that sounds just like it. Honestly to God, those sample sites get a lot wrong. They have some shit right, but I'll go, I never used that. I don't where they gather their information. Sometimes they're spot on, but sometimes, I'm like, 'Yo, you guys are off.'"
The phrase "insane in the brain" meanwhile definitely had its roots on the streets of LA, having previously been used by Cypress Hill on the track 'Hole In The Head' from their eponymous debut. "Yeah, it was just gang shit," says Muggs. "Like, motherfuckas would say some shit like, 'Crazy insane got no brain, Bristol gang.' It was just about being insane and being out your fucking mind. It turned into a quasi pop record, but it was just taking shit that was said on the street. All the gangs would flip that shit in the streets and change it to their gang."
Getting the tempo of 'Insane In The Brain' right involved some trial‑and‑error for Muggs. "It was about 6 bpm slower," he says. "It didn't have this thing. So I sped it up 6 bpm. As I say, the SP‑1200 could only go up in increments of 6. I think it was 96 bpm and I sped it up to 102 and it gave it this other bounce."
The programming for Black Sunday that Muggs had done in his dual SP‑1200s was taken into Joe Nicolo's Studio 4 recording facility in Philadelphia, which he'd first set up in 1980. "We had two rooms," says Nicolo. "The A Room had a Neve 8048 34‑input with 1081 EQ/preamps in it. And a whole plethora of outboard gear — an LA‑2A, some LA‑3As, a couple of 1176s. But most of that stuff was used really for the mixing of Cypress Hill. We mixed [in the B Room] on an SSL E Series with a G computer."
The first task for Nicolo when Muggs brought his tracks into the studio was to stripe the two‑inch 24‑track master tape with SMPTE code and then print the programmed tracks from the individual outputs of the SP‑1200. "Since the SMPTE was on the two‑inch," says Nicolo, "if we wanted to go back and change something or add something, we had timecode to lock other things up. I sometimes would feel like it might need a little extra black pepper, so we might add an 808 or stuff like that. We would add kick and snare samples.
"We used a Bel [sampling delay]. It was one of the earliest samplers that had a trigger mechanism, so that we could trigger any kick or snare sound and we could change the pitch. I had my sample reel and we could just go through and change them. It was a revelation back then to be able to change the kick and the snare sample that easily and that quickly.
"A lot of the rhythm tracks on that record were just two or three tracks, with kicks and snares. So a lot of the pulling out of those tracks was really with the API graphic EQs, just to really dig in with thickness to those loops, to try and give them some balls."
Recording B‑Real and Sen Dog's raps, Nicolo had three key mics at his disposal at Studio 4, although he tended to settle on one in particular. "We had three Neumann U87s, two silver and one black one," he says. "The black 87 we called Black Elvis. Especially for rap, for me, that was the go‑to vocal mic.
"Some of Sen's ad‑libs [from the home demos on the Tascam four‑track] we definitely used in some of those backing tracks. B‑Real had a nasally vocal delivery obviously, but we accented it by really peaking that vocal sound. If you listen to just those tracks, they're very mid‑rangey but that was the edge that cut across the top of this heavy bass track. I remember specifically using an 1176 on B‑Real's vocals in order to get as much out of the rhythms."
Like most of the tracks on Black Sunday, 'Insane In The Brain' was mixed in one day, with perhaps a half‑day recall to fix details later. Although the mixes are fairly sparse, the key for Muggs and Nicolo was to get the bass end sounding tight and punchy. "Oh yeah, absolutely" says Nicolo. "Very thick in the bottom end, but not muddy."
To achieve this, Nicolo employed a subtractive EQ method that he'd first learned when working with rock/disco producer and founder of The Power Station studio in New York, Tony Bongiovi (Jimi Hendrix, Gloria Gaynor, Talking Heads).
"Tony taught me how to engineer," says Nicolo. "He'd say, 'Don't think of it so much as how much bass you have to add, but how much mid and lower mid you have to take away, which will accent the bass on the bottom.' And by doing that, it gave you space. It gave all that bottom‑end space because you were pulling out what we called the 'mush'. That was a key to getting those records to having the bass that they had without being overpowering."
Effects were used sparingly in the mix of 'Insane In The Brain'. Touches of reverb were either supplied by an EMT 140 tube plate or a Yamaha REV‑7. The only delay unit used was a Lexicon Primetime II. Muggs points out, "You gotta think if we finished a mix and we took it down and we wanted to fix one little hi‑hat, it would take about two hours just to reset the mix. You didn't just go in the computer and turn it on and change the hi‑hat. That shit was a mission. If there weren't big changes, we'd wait til the end, take the last few days and just recall all the mixes and go in and fix everything. You really had to be dialled in, and there wasn't no taking your time.
"I mean, I'm just in the bass," he adds in reference to his fine‑tuning of the bottom end on the mixes. "You drove cars in California, so LA hip‑hop was always about bass."
"'Insane...' was really simple to mix," says Nicolo. "The last track on Black Sunday, 'Break 'Em Off Some', that was a little complicated. There's a record scratch across it and Muggs being the perfectionist that he was, to get that scratch to start thick and then whip up, I remember taking a long time doing that.
"I also remember mixing some tracks from that album on mushrooms," he adds with a chuckle. "I don't even know if we ever used them. Because I think when we were done and stopped laughing and came down, the next day we both looked at each other and went, 'What the fuck is this?' But I remember, man, just tears rolling down our faces. Obviously we did too many stems. But those were the days..."
Spin forward to today and Muggs's recording setup looks very different. For the making of Cypress Hill's latest album, the brilliant, return‑to‑form psychedelic hip‑hop of Elephants On Acid, he worked using Logic in his LA studio. "I use a laptop with Logic," he says, "and I pretty much do everything in the box. Sometimes if samples are too clean, I'll throw them in the SP‑1200 and see how they sound.
"I love Logic 'cause that's the first thing I learned when it came to computers. Y'know, Ableton does some things better. But I just like Logic now that I'm locked into it. I think that every one of these programs is really good and they all have things that they do better than other ones. But my thing is, find something you like, and master it, so you don't even have to think about it any more. When you can create music without thinking, and it's just flowing, that's when it's good. When you're sitting there trying to learn and figure it out, it's too much, man."
Often Muggs finds himself trying to recreate some of the grittiness of the SP‑1200 in Logic. Instead of sampling records, though, these days he goes out and collaborates with others, which for Elephants On Acid included recording street musicians in Egypt and working with Warp Records artist Gonjasufi in the desert of Joshua Tree, California. "Creatively, in the box," he says, "I've figured out how to make it sound like samples now. Even though 90 percent of the new album is live. You get into a place with Cypress Hill where you've gotta pay a lot of money for samples. So it's like, How do I create the same sound without using samples?"
Much of his technique now involves degrading sounds with plug‑ins and avoiding quantising. "I make my shit sound like a live band. I don't truncate it perfect, I don't lock it in on the grid. Does it feel right? Stop looking at it. It's like, How do I bring that feel from the first three records, but make it new? So I've got to keep one foot in 1993 and put one foot in 2018."
Meanwhile the legacy of 'Insane In The Brain' continues to grow. At last count, it has been sampled in no fewer than 58 tracks by other artists, including 'December 4th' by Jay‑Z, 'Vato' by Snoop Dogg and 'Yesterday' by the Black Eyed Peas. "Really?" laughs Muggs, jokingly. "Oh shit, I better start going and suing some people. Y'know, man, it's like you just started as a kid making shit off of your block and you see it going international. And for me to be able to travel the world and meet some of the cool people I've met, and see the world because of music that I just do for fun... I'm blessed. I've got the best job in the world.
As to why 'Insane In The Brain' has become a classic track, both Muggs and Joe Nicolo have their own theories. "It was really that beat and the hook and that twirly thing on the top of the record," says Nicolo. "It was just the perfect storm of those three elements that made everybody love that record."
"I think songs about going crazy, everybody can relate to them," decides Muggs with a laugh. "It was the bounce and B‑Real being the illest. But go back and look at all the songs about going crazy. I bet you most of them are hit songs."