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

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June.

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge