Courtesy of Kmeron via Flickr under CC BY Nc ND 2.0

Chicano photographer Esteven Oriol, born in Santa Monica, California began documenting his time on the road with popular hip-hop acts over 20 years ago. His footage has been curated for select art exhibits, developing the visual narrative of Afro-Latin and diasporic descendant art which makes up the heart of Los Angeles’ street culture. 

His latest culmination of clips tell the story of Latin hip-hop punk group Cypress Hill of South Gate, California. Before they would go on to garner mass appeal, “Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain” (2022) depicts the group’s garage days that would land them a record deal with Ruffhouse Records.

“We were street kids but we wanted to take our block, Cypress Ave, worldwide,” said Senen Reyes in one of many voiceover interviews that form the film’s narrative, offering a glimpse beneath the surface of the conceptual band. He would move to Los Angeles, California from Pinar Del Rio, a major city in Cuba. 

Cutaway clips take viewers through the sheets of a photo album which document the journey of several migrant youth including Reyes as they embedded themselves into California’s cannabis culture. It is here where he would foster his love for West Coast music alongside Louis Freese, recognizable as B-Real, the group’s eccentric frontman. 

Oriol centers each member as they describe the process it took to fuse hip-hop and punk rock together to create the sonical foundation of their records, employing dark imagery for their album covers in the style of a classic rock record.

B-Real and Sen Dog would spend the first years of their career honing in on writing structured raps while experimenting with an energetic delivery style. Drummer Eric Bobo, son of renowned jazz percussionist Willie Bobo, would serve as Cypress Hill’s final addition. His expertise in traditional Latin drums would further enhance the rich instrumentals backing the rappers’ vocals. DJ Muggs would produce the group’s work in early conception.

Joints in hand, the trio sits, naturally, listening to demo tapes and bonding through musicianship in a hazy cloud of marijuana smoke. With what began as a story of youth and addiction in their earliest years of performing, “Cypress Hill: Insane in the Membrane” showcases the bandmates as they explore their 50s. 

“Your voice back then was so, wow. Before any of the nasal thing you developed,” says Reyes to Freese on lead vocals as they land on an early demo tape of “Real Estate” (1991), which they claim was the first song they felt confident could dominate radioplay. 

Electric guitar radiates on “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (1991) as B-Real’s prominent voice sets Sen Dog up for the lyrical alley-oop. “Here is something you can’t understand / How I could just kill a man.” 

The track was used for an extensive action sequence in the film “Juice” (1992) which stars Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur. It would also make a landmark appearance as a playable track in the “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” (2004) video game, becoming a cult classic tune in its own right.

According to the documentary, this is around the time Cypress Hill began developing their concept. Influenced by the stoner-comedy genre popularized by East Los Angeles natives Cheech and Chong, B-Real decided the trio would lean into the aesthetics of marijuana use. Not only were there references to toking and smoking in their lyrical content, Cypress Hill would become infamous for their theatrical use of cannabis on stage. 

“Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain” examines years of international tours and festivals, smoke sessions, psychedelics and the toll of becoming a cultural force. “They should…put your lungs in the ‘Cannabis Hall of Fame,'” notes one of the group’s members to another, jokingly, in conversation. “Notice the resin buildup?” As they laugh, they reflect on the self-inflicted physical damage done to propel the success of their career. 

B-Real, Sen Dog and Bobo respectively represent visual juxtapositions to the violent claims that are continually projected onto Black, Afro-Latin and Latin stoners. This public discourse has historically translated into disproportionate, extended sentencing against these communities on possession charges. Adorned with bucket hats, hoop earrings and Dickies’ khakis, these young men brought regional style to a mainstream audience who still attempt to commodify and replicate it today. 

Oriol photographs the trio diving into their locally owned clothing retailer as Sen Dog measures for accurate pant sizing by wrapping the pant’s waist seam around his neck. Reyes, 56, emphasizes the importance of artists’ authenticity: “Take a break. Learn to miss it. Learn to love it again,” as the artists relax into a familiar scour for staple pieces, exchanging valuable tips that come only from the experience of seasoned cultural curators. 

Verdict: From grinding through their come up to realizing their artistic heights, “Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain” captures the humanity of the ambitious, stage diving trio.