DJ Muggs: By Design
By Alexander Fruchter
"Do cool shit with your friends." Sounds simple enough. For DJ Muggs, it has been a steady 30-year blueprint for success.
"Let's keep it in the family," he elaborates. "Let's build our own world right here, help each other out and get paid."
The Queens-born/LA-Based DJ, producer, and leader of the Soul Assassins Crew, has implemented that philosophy into a hall of fame worthy career which has stretched over 30 years.
As a producer, Muggs helmed three classic LP's out the gate with Cypress Hill — simultaneously introducing a new ripple in Hip Hop's growing sonic wave — with his sinister, yet funky productions.
"After it's all said and done, those first 3 records are standouts in the world of classic Hip Hop," says Chris Schwartz, the co-founder of the Ruffhouse Records label, which was home to Cypress Hill, The Fugees, Kriss Kross, and others in the 90’s. "There's not too many groups that have 3 records in a row like that."
Beyond Cypress Hill, Muggs produced Hip-Hop hits such as Ice Cube's "Check Yo Self" and House of Pain's "Jump Around" — easily one of the most recognizable songs ever made.
Rather than chase more major placements, Muggs decided to go his own way and has helmed critically acclaimed producer/rapper projects with multiple generations of MC's which includes GZA, Sick Jacken, Meyhem Lauren, Rome Streetz, Crimeapple, and Roc Marciano.
When he got a little bored with Hip-Hop, he stretched his wings into electronic music, releasing instrumental projects like Bass For Your Face and collaborations with Die Antwood. When he joined me for our interview in early March of 2021, he was coming off the release of Death & The Magician with Rome Streetz and a few days away from the fantastical instrumental album, Dies Occidendum.
"I've been doing this shit a long time," Muggs says.
"You go through periods when you get bored. "There's so many other things I'm into. Music is a little part of my life. I just want to always keep the creative juices going, so it's a muscle I always try to keep exercising. If I'm bored, I don't want to stop, so I'm like, 'Let me do this.'"
The “this” stretches beyond just music. Muggs put together a squad in Soul Assassins that includes other Hip-Hop bonafides like Cypress Hill, House of Pain, and The Alchemist, as well as non-music heavyweights like tattoo and graphic artist, Mr. Cartoon and photographer/director Estevan Oriol.
"I look at Muggs as a master," says Oriol, the photographer behind the iconic "LA Hands" photo. The accomplished and famed photographer has an intricate knowledge of Cypress Hill. He was entrusted with their first demo tape years before it’s release, and served as Cypress Hil’s tour manager from 1994-2005. His first job was getting them successfully through Woodstock ‘94.
"He's a master of producing, [and] he's a master of putting people together. He never was just a DJ.
"He's like the glue and the backbone of one of the sickest, tightest crews in our culture. We don't just do music."
"I'm a master architect," Muggs explains. "I'm aware of what's happening. We have one of the most diverse and talented crews ever in the history of the arts. There's never been a crew like this."
I started high school in the fall of 1996. The bus would pick me up in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, and take me through other Southside neighborhoods like Gresham and Chatham on its way to Beverly's Morgan Park Academy
This was my first time going to school in a different neighborhood, and taking the school bus of any kind. Very early on I learned to never leave my Discman at home, keep extra batteries in my backpack, and to carefully select the days' CD's. I spent many of those hour-plus bus rides listening to music. The CD's took me elsewhere. While I had an eclectic taste in music, I had a small rotation of albums that never left my backpack that included Ill Communication, The Score, Ready To Die, and Cypress Hill III: Temples of Boom. The latter album won out most days over the others, and I knew it front to back and back to front.
Cypress Hill presented an alternate universe for me. Putting on Temples of Boom made me forget that I was in a school bus riding through the Southside of Chicago. In my backwards discovery of their first three albums, my mind was blown at how immersive the music became. I could not articulate it at the time, and definitely had no idea how any of it was made, but I could tell something special was going on. As I grew, and I learned more about music creation, and the music business, I truly began to appreciate how focused and conceptual the group was, and how much the production played a large role in their overall sound, style, and imagery. Cypress Hill constructed a world that was parts smoking weed and chilling, and parts ducking and dodging the ills of street life.
The trio’s first three albums became funhouses with various doors. Open door number one, you may find B-Real providing a lecture on the benefits of bong usage, "put the blunt down, just for a second, don't get me wrong, it's not a new method," he professorially raps on "Hits From The Bong."
Open another door, and you're in a confrontation with police, or on the run from Captain O'Malley.
Yet another door leads you deep into gang turf wars, and battle preparations. Through another door you could catch a vicious kidnapping and torture, calls to legalize marijuana, or another lecture methodically breaking down how they could actually kill someone if push came to shove.
In my estimation, DJ Muggs was the reason why Cypress Hill's music felt like it could go in any direction.
"Maybe he's not the leader of the group as far as what you see onstage — because you see B-Real out front — but what you're hearing is the music, and that's Muggs. What you're hearing is the way he assembled those songs. He conducted B-Real and Sen in the studio/"
Oriol continues, illustrating Muggs' role in the group, which extended beyond the studio and into the office.
'He's like a producer, a conductor, and he was the main guy talking to the labels and management," Oriol says. "They'd have a good cop, and a bad cop. Where [the label] would go to B-Real, and B was the cool guy and all that. But when it came time for somebody to put a foot down, it was Muggs. He'd be like, 'No, we're not doing it like that. It's my group..' He was a guy who was pushing for the integrity of the group, the sound, everything.”
Muggs didn't just help shape the sound of Cypress Hill, but he also influenced their name, logo, how they dressed, and how they established an early fan base in New York City. He placed importance on Cypress Hill being unique in what they said, how they said it, how it sounded, and what it looked like — most lessons he learned from his early years working and touring with 7A3 and under the guidance of Rush Management.
Sean Bouldin and his brother/bandmate, Brett, were members of 7A3. Despite being from New York (The Bouldin Brothers were from East New York and Muggs grew up in Queens before moving to LA to live with his mom as a teenager) 7A3 and Muggs first linked up in Los Angeles in the late '80s after Muggs booked the group to play at one of his parties in South Gate’s Bell Gardens.
7A3's DJ was still a minor, and his parents would not let him make the trip out West. Muggs was a budding DJ at the time. He taught himself how to mix on his friend’s turntables, and then picked up turntablism, regularly competing in and winning DMC competitions. He volunteered to DJ for 7A3 that day, and it became a life-changing decision.
The duo had growing buzz off the single “7A3 Will Rock You” and were on the cusp of a deal with Geffen. Just a few days after subbing in, Muggs was with 7A3 getting the stage warm for Ice-T, and then onto stadium tours opening up for MC Hammer, Kid-N-Play, Tony! Toni! Toné! and others. Sean recalls that time, as well as Muggs' early aspirations.
"We all were students," he tells me via phone from Los Angeles. “Muggs had aspirations. That's the best way I would describe it. He already had a talent, but he was utilizing 7A3 and the opportunity we presented him to invest in that talent. To be the DJ that Muggs was, he already had to put in the work to enhance his skills. He was one of the best DJ's, literally! His work ethic as far as learning his skill was always impeccable. He was focused on learning even more every day. I recognize his work ethic, which was a lot more intense than mine at the time."
"I learned everything from 7A3," Muggs confirms.
During the making of 7A3’s Geffen debut, Coolin In Cali, Muggs sat back and watched producer Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo. Muggs learned the "right" things to do, and observed what he would do differently if given the chance.
"I learned everything just sitting there," he says.
"Watching this record being made. I was like, 'Fuck, this record's supposed to come out like this...' I was kind of mad. I got a drum machine after that. I was DJing at the time and then got a drum machine and went in. I was doing Cypress demos all year. After about a year, we did "Real Estate" and it was the first demo that we did that sounded like a record. Everything else sounded like some kids trying to figure shit out. But that all of sudden was like, 'Yoooo.' We just locked in. Then we did "How I Could Just Kill A Man" and everything locked in again at this other level. Then we couldn't miss. The next 6 years we couldn't make a bad song."
Cypress Hill's persona was equals parts hippie and hoodlum — benefiting from Muggs' east coast roots and west coast adaptations. As a result, their music hit multiple audiences, and had massive commercial appeal.
"We didn't know it would be that impactful, but we did know that it was trendsetting," says Sean Bouldin about the early days of Cypress Hill.
Even before there was a formal group or anything out, Bouldin began to name drop them in interviews and magazines. "It was very intentional to rhyme about weed, which nobody rhymed about weed on records," he says.
7A3 was under Rush management, and Muggs took full advantage of being in the room when business and marketing was discussed.
"I remember being in a meeting with 7A3, [Rush] was like, 'What's your concept?' I was like, 'What's a concept?' I'd never heard that shit," he says. "Then they said, 'Do you have a logo?' I was like, 'What's a logo?' They showed me Public Enemy, Slick Rick and everybody... They broke it down for me. ‘RUN DMC are the gangsters of Hip-Hop, Slick Rick's the storyteller. Public Enemy's this.' Boom. So, I'm like, 'Oh shit, I need a logo for Cypress.' What's our concept? I just got a cheat code.”
Muggs went to work and decided to figure out the music business using friends he'd met such as Mellow Man Ace and his brother Sen Dog, as well as B-Real, who were all messing around with music to various degrees. Muggs told Delicious Vinyl that Mellow Man Ace rapped in Spanish, when in reality it was actually his brother Sen Dog who was the fluent bi-lingual rapper. With a little help from Mellow's mom, it was enough to finish a demo and get Mellow Man Ace a deal on Capitol Records, further ushering Muggs and crew into the industry. Muggs clicked with B-Real right away, and the duo formed a group. Sen Dog joined and Muggs modeled the sound after the groups that inspired him, most notably, Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad, who he met through the production outfit’s work with 7A3.
"The way they layered things, and the way they approached the format of the song with bridges and breaks and everything," Muggs says about PE and their production crew. "It was like rock music. Rock would have bridges and pre-choruses, and after chorus bridges and go off into other sections and breaks. And also, I inserted Sen Dog as a sample, cause I needed samples. I insert Sen Dog. It's like Fat Boys, Public Enemy where B-Real was the lead with the high, and Sen Dog was the backup with the other vocal. I definitely was inspired by Public Enemy. That first Public Enemy album was crazy. That shit was so ridiculous. That shit was on another level."
EPMD, Rammellzee, DST, Marley Marl, and Run DMC were just a few of the other early acts that made Muggs say, "I gotta do this." Like many greats, he took those inspirations and made them his own, further adding to the tapestry of Hip Hop. "Cypress Hill is a worldwide act that pioneered in its own way," says Chuck D of Public Enemy and Prophets of Rage, which includes B-Real. Chuck acknowledges that Muggs drew early inspiration from the Bomb Squad, who also worked on those early 7A3 albums, but, in the words of Chuck D, "Muggs took it to be a monster from there."
Muggs had the vision for Cypress Hill as well as the concepts. He taught himself how to produce, and ended up creating his own signature sound. And it didn't happen by accident. "I knew," Muggs admits. "You have to have your own sound, bro. You have to have your own sound musically. You have to have your own sound vocally. You have to have your own look visually. And you have to have your own slang, your own shit that you say, that nobody else says. Now, if you take what I just said, I just named Wu-Tang, I just named Gang Starr, I just named Public Enemy. They all got their own sound, they all got their own words, they all got their own shit. That's what I mean by creating their own shit! And that was big for me, having my own shit. This is my sound! Yeah, I'm inspired, but then it comes through my filter and it comes out like, 'boom.'"
With ubiquitous hits such as "Insane In The Membrane", "Check Yo Self", and "Jump Around", I sometimes wonder why Muggs isn't more of a household name and didn't go onto produce for everyone, the way other producers often do when they achieve hit records. The key lies in Muggs' character and ethos - "having my own shit." Muggs never sought to be famous, nor did he seek to produce for everyone under the sun, preferring to work with artists that he shares a common bond and respect.
"At the beginning I was like, 'Nah man, I'm not trying to stand in line and hopefully they pick my beat for their album. I'm doing my own shit,' Muggs recalls. "I remember I tried one time, I sent some beats out. No one used them, but then later I heard something was kind of replayed off my shit. Then I tried one more time, 'alright I'm gonna go to this session, and there were 10 producers waiting to get in the room. And I left, 'I'm cool with all this shit.' This ain't my shit. I'd rather build my own shit. I'm not here for all that. I'm not trying to be a songwriter and get on your record. I'm gonna build my world. The Jimmy Paige school. Build your own shit like Led Zeppelin. I wanted to build Led Zeppelin again. That was my goal with Cypress Hill. To build something that fucking stands the test of time, that's gonna be an institution, that's gonna be a fucking industry within an industry."
Muggs created that industry with Soul Assassins, a crew that also included a young Alchemist, whom Muggs met when Al was just 14 years old. "That environment," Al told me about Muggs' space. "B would come over, a lot of homies would be over there. He had a crazy backyard, we used to BBQ all the time, it was a creative zone. It would open my mind up."
For Chris Schwartz, much of Muggs' greatness comes from his outlook and integrity. “The one thing I know about Muggs, he won't work on something just to do it. Just for money. It has to really be something that matters to him,” Schwartz says. “Coming out of the gate, this is the guy that, just from what he makes on House of Pain and Cypress Hill, would never have to work another day in his life. He's one of those artists that really picks and chooses what he does. It has to mean something to him."
Muggs continues to pick and choose, and he continues to make the right decisions. Muggs is producing at a prolific pace, and also creating some of the best music of his career. It's not a surprise to Estevan Oriol, who continues to soak up knowledge from his friend of 30 years, and with whom he can’t recall a single argument. "I learn from Muggs every time I'm around him," Oriol says. "I never think, 'oh, he's maxed out. He's done everything he can do. He made the best beat he could ever make...' I don't even think like that. Every time I see some new shit, I'm like, 'oh man, there goes another one. What's next?!' That's just how I think of our crew. Every time I do something I feel like, 'oh shit, I'm just getting started. Wait til you see these next ideas.'
Muggs likes to keep his projects close to the vest until they are fully cooked. Whether it be a new clothing drop, a solo instrumental project, or new food truck ventures, Muggs has one constant goal. "My goal is just to do what I feel like doing. Painting the pictures I feel like painting. I make music for me. I like it, 'oh shit, that feels good.' And then I figure something out along the way,” he says. At the root is trusting himself and what he feels. “My instincts are in-tune because I realized with music, it's all about instincts. I have classically trained keyboard [players], greatest fucking musicians come here, they couldn't write a hit song, they wouldn't know what they are. You know what I mean? I noticed I got an instinct and when I get these feelings, I can tell when I made another hit. It's like, 'oh, this is that shit again.'
Whenever the next shit comes along, or whatever form it takes, it’s a good bet to think that it will be uncompromised, intentional, and by design.