Cypress Hill. Photo: Getty
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Joe Dunthorne on Black Sunday by Cypress Hill: “My favourite way to get blazed”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in 1994 and I am 12 years old, sitting on the floor of my attic room, holding Scabeiathrax the Bloated to the light, admiring the septic wounds on his belly that it took me two days to paint. On the carpet, the rest of my Forces of Chaos are lined up for battle against my neighbour’s Wood Elves. I watch him neaten his ranks of bureaucratic archers. If I want to defeat this hideous pragmatism, I will need to make use of my home advantage.

I go into my older sister’s room, find a tape that – judging by the cover art – looks like it will perfectly soundtrack the victory of darkness. On the cover are the words Black Sunday written in gothic font, a parental advisory sticker, a hill built from skulls and graves, and the silhouette of a spooky tree. Perfect. Presumably heavy guitar music. I put it in the machine and press play. The first notes are a slowed-down horn, an eerie klaxon. I don’t know it then but this is a warning knell. I am about to be conscripted into that most frightening army of all: middle-class white boys who love gangster rap.

From that day on, I listened to Black Sunday constantly. I learned the lyrics, usually interpreting them through the lens of my narrow life experience. When B-Real said “my oven is on high when I roast the quail” it seemed a moment of endearing domesticity. I would only learn later that quail, in this instance, was both a low-yield marijuana strain known for its smooth and creamy flavour, and a reference to the Republican vice president at the time the album came out, Dan Quayle.

Most of the lyrics are about smoking weed and most are not subtle. There are songs called “I Wanna Get High”, “Hits from the Bong” and “Legalize It”. I knew nothing about getting stoned. The great achievement of Black Sunday is that DJ Muggs’s production allows even the straightest listener – the prepubescent boy playing Warhammer – to feel stoned, to feel, in fact, utterly baked, without ever having to inhale. When B-Real croons “I want to get high, so high” he is audaciously out-of-tune – like when you hear someone singing to themselves with their headphones on. His lack of self-consciousness can only be, we presume, blissfully narcotic. There’s the stumbling double bass, scratchy drums, and that spooky horn. The album veers between tales of cartoonish violence and stoner life, all narrated over funk and soul samples that have been elegantly deranged.

When I listen to this album today, I feel a little sorry for Cypress Hill. What can they rap about now that marijuana is legal in California? I also feel nostalgic for my 12-year-old idea of how great getting stoned would be, before I discovered the paranoia and my underlying mental health issues. For this reason, listening to Black Sunday remains my favourite way to get blazed. 

Read the rest of the series here

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist