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20 July 2023

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.

By Joe Dunthorne

Editor’s Note: Black Sunday by American hip hop group Cypress Hill was released 30 years ago, on 20 July 1993. In this piece from the 2017 “Long Players” series, Joe Dunthorne reflects on why it is one of his 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.

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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

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This piece is included in the book “Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them” (Bloomsbury)

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[See also: Joyce Carol Oates, online and off]

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special