B-Real Details How He Developed 1 Of Hip-Hop’s Most Distinctive Voices (Video)
Guru famously proclaimed “It’s mostly the voice” on a Gang Starr song of the same name. Like the late, great Keith Elam, Cypress Hill and Prophets Of Rage member B-Real has one of the most recognizable voices in music. The Los Angeles, California veteran raps with clarity and a nasal breathing pattern. Live, songs often sounds just like they do on albums, which is one reason why his groups have dominated the festival circuit for nearly 30 years. Even before Cypress showed their faces on early single covers or their 1991 eponymous artwork, B’s voice (along with Sen Dog’s) stood apart from the Rap pack.
The MC/producer/entrepreneur and media host is the latest guest on The Joe Rogan Experience. In the last several days, the newly-inducted member of Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame gives an incredible two-hour interview about his passion for cannabis awareness, his teens in a street-gang, and how almost overnight, Cypress Hill became celebrities that had a hard time being in public places.
At 48:00, Joe Rogan asks B-Real when he developed his trademark vocal style. “Once we started working on our Cypress Hill demos,” B responds. “[DJ] Muggs came to me and said, ‘Ay man, you gotta do something different. Otherwise, you’re gonna [only] write for Sen [Dog].’ ‘Cause Sen had a good voice; his sh*t was locked-in. My voice, I was rapping in a voice similar to the one I talk in. Although the rhymes were good, it didn’t cut through on the style on the beats. It just sounded like some regular sh*t. So…I didn’t want to be someone’s writer; I wanted to write for myself. There was a guy we used to listen to, coming up, his name was Rammellzee.” The New York City graffiti writer, painter, MC, and sculptor gained profile through Wild Style and Style Wars. The latter film, a documentary, included the K-Rob collaboration “Beat Bop.” Rammellzee died in 2010.
“He was this rapper who was very obscure, but he was an artist too—a graffiti artist [and also a professional artist in galleries]. What he’d do is he’d rap in a regular style, like his talking voice, ‘This is the brother they call the Ramm-ell.” He had a deep voice like that. And then he’d flip, right in the middle [of a verse], ‘Take it uptown to Cypress Hill with the shotgun.‘ We were always freaking out that he had two styles. So I tried throwing my voice in that sort of similar style. And it ended up sticking. I didn’t think anybody was gonna like it.” They did. B-Real recalls exactly when this transformation happened. “I think the first song that came about in that style was the song ‘Real Estate.’ That’s where I tried it the first time. They liked it, so then [‘How I Could Just Kill A Man’] came next, then ‘Hand On The Pump.’ It just became [my] flow after that.”
B-Real notes that the effort caused him strain on stage. “For the few years, I was trying to do the voice and I’d be getting over-hyped ’cause the crowd is hype, and I’d start yelling the verses instead of rapping them, like on the record. I’d throw my voice out. My voice would get scratchy; I’d start sounding like Busta Rhymes and sh*t. It took me five years to actually harness how to actually do the shows with this voice. I had to go to this Opera singer coach. Using former Opera singer and Hollywood veteran vocal coach Elisabeth Sabine, B-Real learned to project through his diaphragm, use circular breathing, and preserve his unmistakable voice. “I never went hoarse again after that. People often compliment me on sounding close to how the records are. I gotta give all props to her.”
At 39:00, B-Real opens up about surviving some severe trauma in the streets of South Gate. Joe Rogan asks B-Real about his lung health, given all the years of heavy marijuana smoking. “I get physicals and stuff like that. Occasionally, I’ll have my lungs checked, and they’ll tell me they’re [in] great [condition].” The MC says that his fitness is to thank. “It’s a funny thing, ’cause in [approximately] 1987, I was 17, and I was gang-bangin’. I got shot. I got hit by a .22, and it—as hollow point [bullets] do, it broke into three pieces. One of them punctured my lung on my left side.” B-Real says that as a teen scared for his privacy, he did not divulge to doctors that he was an active pot smoker at the time of the shooting. “They said, ‘That’s good [you do not smoke], ’cause you’ll never smoke again. They punctured your lung.’ They thought I was gonna have to work off of one lung. But in the three days [of hospitalization at Lynwood’s Martin Luther King Hospital], they were able to get the blood out of the lung. I was able to get it back through the exercises they told me [to do] to get it back to its regular size. I’ve never had a problem since then, knock on wood.”
B-Real adds that the bullet fragments are still inside of his body. He reveals that the other two pieces are near his heart and spine. The one piece near his lung has moved. B-Real admits that he feels the lead on cold days. “I was livin’ crazy before I got into the music; the music saved my life.”
Moments later, Dr. Greenthumb is very transparent about how street-gangs recruit. “Falling into the gangs, it’s easy. If you don’t have a good home-life, the guys on the street are your second family. They eventually become your first family. If you don’t have a father-figure at home, one of the guys in the gang becomes your mentor. He could become the guy you look up to as your father-figure. There’s that. Again, there’s not enough programs out there to keep people [engaged in] doing something different than falling into that. Sometimes it’s just a matter of you growing up in this neighborhood. If you have to walk down that street and they approach you and say, ‘Hey, you live in this ‘hood; you gotta be with us. If you don’t, we’re gonna make it hard for you.’ So there’s that peer pressure,” B-Real says. “Fortunately, I had friends that weren’t gang-bangers. They had talent for music, which was Muggs and Sen, and Sen’s brother Mello [Man Ace]. I did music as a hobby before I got into gangs, and they got me back into the music. ‘Cause they recognized something in me, and said, ‘Hey, we want you to come back where we got these opportunities over here. Come join us.” Elsewhere in the interview, B-Real admits that he was always carrying a handgun between 1989 and 1997, well into Cypress Hill’s stardom. At 43:45, B-Real is very blunt that one can never really leave a gang unless they are “jumped out.” However, he says that he changed his ways around 1988 when he was 18 years old. “I was too into it to be jumped-out like that. That wasn’t something I was gonna do. My boys that I ran with, they understood that I was trying to do something different. I made a choice to try the music and leave that sh*t alone, ’cause there’s no way you do both. If you do both, you see the results today with what’s happening with a lot of cats…when one bleeds into the other, it f*cks everything up.”
At 57:00, B-Real recalls Cypress Hill getting on. Philadelphia’s Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo was instrumental in getting the group signed to RuffHouse/Sony Records. Additionally, the MC says that EPMD helped spread some of Cypress’ biggest awareness, despite no formal affiliation. “When Sony put out our snippet tape, guys like EPMD [rallied for Cypress Hill]. They were one of our favorite groups in the world. They were Top 5 for Cypress Hill. It was Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and EPMD. F*ck, they were the sh*t. Those were the guys that took our snippet tape, and they were showing our snippet tape to other rappers. Like, ‘Hey guys, look at these new f*ckin’ guys.’ Busta Rhymes told me this story: ‘Yo son, I heard your sh*t from EPMD way back in the day. They was playin’ it for Public Enemy, and I just happened to be in the room.’ Ice Cube, when we met him for the first time—and we had our ups and downs with him—but he’s one of my homies, he [said the same thing]. They were like our first street team, man. EPMD.” B-Real plugs Erick Sermon’s just-released album, Vernia.
Later in the interview, B-Real reveals that his rapping style emerged out of writing poetry first. He says that he planned for a career in journalism and adapted those principles of non-fiction storytelling to songs like Cypress’ “Throw Your Set In The Air.” Elsewhere, he recalls House Of Pain’s Everlast “choking out” somebody in the Rainbow Room for continuously talking about him from a nearby table. The MC praises KRS-One as one of his leading influences.