DJ Muggs Recalls "Grandmasters" With GZA; Preps Work With Shepard Fairey
Exclusive: DJ Muggs remembers his early days with both 7A3 and Cypress Hill and explains mixing hackspace culture, art and music with his latest collaboration, Cross My Heart.
Iconic stature is a lofty perch in the swiftly moving world of Hip Hop. Sticking around and staying relevant is so improbable few artists remain successful throughout the decades, and even fewer remain celebrated after diligently creating a sound and flavor that was previously unseen.
DJ Muggs is such an icon. Never having dropped the “DJ” from his name—and although he evolved from mere deejaying decades ago—Muggs ranks as one of the top producers in Hip Hop.
Besides being the mastermind behind Cypress Hill (and its sound) Muggs has produced tracks for dozens of Hip Hop’s greats, including members of Wu-Tang Clan, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Snoop Dogg, and Xzibit. Outside of Hip Hop, he has produced for some of the world’s megastars such as Janet Jackson, U2, Depeche Mode, and Van Halen. His gritty, dark beats have made up collaboration albums with Tricky and GZA, and because Muggs is not a “work for hire,” he’s liable to shift his perspective at any time—which explains last year’s electro-charged Bass For Your Face.
HipHopDX caught up with Muggs on a video shoot for his latest project, a group two years in the making called Cross My Heart And Hope To Die, which features a female vocalist whose music is emotional, gloomy and nothing short of the heavy alternate-reality that Muggs is a master at creating.
DJ Muggs Details His Early Work With 7A3 & Cypress Hill
HipHopDX: How has your personal relationship with B-Real and Sen Dog evolved over the years? There is that story about how when B-Real first approached you, you told him to work on his flow to sound more distinct, a little less basic. Could you tell us a little bit about those relationships?
DJ Muggs: When we was young and we started workin’ on demos and stuff, we was all kind of just finding our way still. We made a lot of songs, we practiced, tried different things and different styles because [we were] just trying to get better. We were trying to be distinctive and invent our own style and our own sound: lyrical style, flows, and everything. It took us a few years of making demos before we started making demos that sounded like records and sounded like songs and shit.
DX: What draws you to the Soul samples that you’re infamous for and the general direction of your sound, which you have often referred to as “dark?”
DJ Muggs: Man, I just pick these sounds. When I’m makin’ music, I’m just drawn to a certain sound and that’s the sound I make. It isn’t a conscious decision. It’s just the way it is; it’s what I happen to like and what I think sounds good. I pretty much make music for me most of the time and do what I like, how I feel like doin’ it. So I’m happy people like it. But you can’t sit around tryin’ to make things for fools worrying about if everybody’s gonna like this shit or not.
DX: Was there anybody that did that for you or did you have to make it on your own?
DJ Muggs: It was a different time. There wasn’t a lot of people in the city doin’ a lot of shit when we came up. So we pretty much just came on our own. Oh, but I was in another group before Cypress Hill called 7A3, so that was kind of our introduction into the whole music business and how I started meeting people in the music business. And the people that ended up signing Cypress Hill was the people I met that produced the 7A3 album. So, that whole experience for me kinda like was my music education 101 for when it was time to do the next things. I was like, “Oh, that’s how this shit works.”
DX: What does 7A3 stand for?
DJ Muggs: It was an apartment. It was the two dudes and their mom, little kids with their mom growing up, like six, seven years old, and 7A3 was their apartment number in the Linden Projects. And then when it was the group, it was us three.
DX: Who else was in that group?
DJ Muggs: Brett and Sean B[ouldin]. They was brothers from Brooklyn from The Linden Projects in East New York.
DX: Did you have to go through a lot of that when you first started, or do you feel like people automatically felt it right off the bat without any effort from your part?
DJ Muggs: Nah, our shit started a long time before that—like doing shit with K-DAY, Rory Kaufman and different community shit, backyard parties and fuckin’ DJ contests in Bell, Cudahy, fuckin’ Lynwood and Southgate. So doin’ all that shit and goin’ through the experience with 7A3 and comin’ up, that’s just learnin’…figurin’ out as we went along and shit.
DX: Do you go that far back with Julio G, for instance, because I know he’s from Lynwood and he has a history with Cypress Hill.
DJ Muggs: I met them [Cypress Hill] guys through Julio, actually. He brought them over to my house to record a cassette one day—he didn’t have a cassette player—and he came through, he didn’t bring Sen Dog, he brought B-Real and Mellow Man Ace and a couple more of the homes from the hood: T-Bone and shit from Funkdoobiest. They came through and then Sen Dog and his brother Opie, Mellow Man Ace had a group with Julio. And me and B-Real had a group. And we all started doing our shit, and I met the dudes from 7A3 and got in their group and started puttin’ out records and doing shows and shit. I brought the homies with me, and then we got Mellow Man Ace signed up at Delicious Vinyl.
DJ Muggs Revisits Collaborating With GZA On “Grand Masters”
DX: Given how some listeners compare you and RZA, how did you connect with GZA for Grand Masters?
DJ Muggs: GZA and me was kickin’ it around for a while. We worked on the Soul Assassins record in ‘97, and I had met him before that in ‘94 when I worked with RZA, and then we just worked on songs—me and GZA, all the time. Then there was opportunity to do a record together, so he came to L.A. for a few weeks and we went in the studio and recorded it.
DX: Is there any difference experience for you when you work with artists from the East Coast or the West Coast or is it all just Hip Hop at the end of the day?
DJ Muggs: Everybody brings a different energy, a different approach and a different work ethic. I get into watching them and how these different mothafuckas work and create. I like to see ways mothafuckas do shit that I ain’t never seen before. It gets me pumped up and shit. But as long as you ain’t lazy and shit, and you come and work hard, and you know what’s wack—don’t be just doin’ wack shit cause you think it’s dope—it’s usually a good time.
DX: So with GZA for instance, he’s know as The Genius. Did you see the genius come out when you guys worked together?
DJ Muggs: Oh yeah, he’s very methodical, he takes his time, he thinks every word of the song and he ain’t tryin’ to write a hot 16 in two hours. He takes his time. He had a lot of the rhymes done before, he was half-way done or three-quarters of the way done, so when he came in, he didn’t have to write all of them from scratch. But he definitely thinks out every word that he writes. It’s like a writer, you know, good literature never gets old when it’s well written, that’s how GZA’s rhymes are: they’re kind of timeless.
How DJ Muggs Mixed Art & Hackerspace Culture With Cross My Heart
DX: Your beats have taken on different dimensions in recent years as far as the electronic influence. Do you think this is where Hip Hop is going in general or was it your personal evolution, or change?
DJ Muggs: I’m just havin’ fun with music and just trying to learn new styles, different production techniques and fuck around and just do shit that I don’t do all the time, ‘cause it just makes shit more interesting for me to do other shit. So I just do what the fuck I feel like doin’. So I felt like doin’ some electronic music for like six months and learnin’ some different instruments and sounds and stuff so…I just did that, had a good time. I’m lucky to be able to do what I want when I want and just continue to learn and try shit if I feel like it and not just be stuck doing the same shit all the time. If I wanna do the same shit, I can do the same shit too, so it’s not a problem.
DX: We’re here at your video shoot. When it comes to videos and TV appearances, you’re always the low-key one in the corner with your hat down over your eyes. Have you become more accustomed to the spotlight over the years or are you still more comfortable in the shadows?
DJ Muggs: I’m comfortable anywhere. I don’t need the shine on me like that. I’m cool, man, y’all can go ahead and deal with that shit. I would just rather chill, but when you gotta go ahead and talk and deal with this shit, then you gotta deal with this shit. It ain’t really no big deal. I just like to lay low, and I let the other people talk.
DX: Tell me a little bit about this video you’re filming today with your latest group.
DJ Muggs: This group is called Cross My Heart. It started about two years ago, and we had got together, [guitarist] Andrew [Kline] and had known [singer] Brevi and recorded something with her for me. When I heard her, I had a bunch of beats that I had done, and we went in and recorded her. We recorded a few joints that was dope, then Andrew had some more beats and we got together and started makin’ tracks and recordin’ songs. Our boy Sean [Bonner] started one of the first “hack spaces” in LA—he’s a curator and a hacker. He opened up a lot of art galleries and everything, so we brought him in to be the technology side of the group.
So this group is more like an audio, street art, music experiment, multimedia thing. Music is just one part of it. The music was done, and I just didn’t want to put music out and shit, ‘cause shit goes away too fast. We created these wooden boxes that play music when you stuck your headphones into them, and we put them up in about a hundred cities over the last two years around the world. Every time we’re out of town, on tour, we bring them with us. We’ve been putting them up, so they’re just in random cities, and you can go and plug your headphones in and you’ll hear a song. We had to create a technology within them that was an MP3 player, but when you pulled the headphones out it turned the battery off so they would last for at least a month on the corner. So we made that. We started all that.
And then we’ve been waiting for like eight months to get Shepard Fairey’s gallery to do our art show. That’s where we wanted to do our first show, so when we finally got the gallery, then I was like, “OK, let’s finish this EP. Let’s do videos now.” All the music for the album’s done. We’re like halfway done with the lyrics, but the music’s done. Now it’s just rollin’.
DX: So you’re gonna incorporate street art by…
DJ Muggs: It’s “audio” street art. That show’s on July 26 at Shepard’s gallery right here in Silverlake. We’re playing live, there’s a bunch of photographs we took. And Sean does crazy shit where he takes the pictures and puts them through shit you put MP3s through for music and shit, and they spit out this digital code, which is a photo but it’s the music of the songs. It’s all crazy. You gotta see this shit. It’s a bunch of different installations, and he’s real up on all that shit. It’s super, super technology…like he knew about Facebook three years before anybody heard of it-type shit.
DX: So this is like a first of it’s kind?
DJ Muggs: Yeah…it’s just fun. It’s a unique way for people to discover music again and have fun with a whole interactive experience. He started the first “Hack Space” hacker’s club in LA. It’s like a boys club for hackers. Sean started that. There’s all kinds of nuclear physicists and professors that go there every night and they work. It’s like a brain pool or a brain tank, so anything you want, it can get made or done in that place.
How DJ Muggs’ Artistic Influences Impact His Music
DX: I’m not sure if the stuff you read directly influences your work, but can you think of a couple of specific authors or books you’ve read that have directly influenced the music that you were making at the time?
DJ Muggs: Nah. I mean, like artwork—Salvador Dali, Roger Balin, artists like that I like—that kind of stuff influences me…a lot of visual stuff. Books do too, but I can’t think of none off the top right now.
DX: Do you read Chomsky’s works?
DJ Muggs: I read all kinds of shit. I’ve always been really into the surrealist movement that came out of France in the ‘30s, ‘20s and ‘40s, that Salvador Dali was a part of. He discovered it, he became a part of it and everything was just the draw from the subconscious and create from that space as opposed to the conscious and the right now. So that’s where a lot of this shit will come from, so we’re incorporating a lot of that.
DX: Is there anyone outside of the Hip Hop world that you would like to produce that you haven’t worked with yet?
DJ Muggs: Nah. I’d rather work with something new and create something out of nothin’ than try and go work with a big artist. I could’ve been sellin’ beats to everybody for all of these years, but I always chose not to. I chose to create groups and create projects and see it from the beginning to the end and own it. [I chose to] not have to deal with five other people and be a work-for-hire for some fool and own my shit as opposed to waiting for some mothafucka to call me ‘cause he needs a beat, and then I still don’t own the beat. And I don’t get the merch for the beat, so I don’t get nothin’ for it. So I’m always like doin’ my shit. I’m good.
DX: Did it take a lot of lessons for you to figure out the business end as far as ownership and being in control?
DJ Muggs: Yeah, definitely. I lived it. There was no readin’ about it and learnin’, so I had to go through it and then figure it out. And then I would learn more and be careful. I was careful as much as I knew how to be careful, but it took time—definitely, years to go through certain shit. But you gotta have good mentors. In the beginning, I didn’t have no good mentors and there was no good easily accessible reading material, you know? There was no bullet points you could just pull up on fuckin’ Google…
DX: There was no Google.
DJ Muggs: So that shit kept you a little more in the dark, in the blind, and you had to trust certain people to make the right decision for you. And a lot of the times they weren’t; they were just doing whatever was right in front of their face that they could get real quick because… When you’re in the music business like these people, you ain’t supposed to last more than a record or two. You’re gone, so a lot of the deals they make they get all the money right now. They don’t make the deals for the long-term, because most music business mothafuckas ain’t gonna be around for that long.
DX: So you had to come up, you had to wing it yourself. There were no mentors. Tell me a little more about that.
DJ Muggs: There was no YouTube, there was no Google and there was no MTV Making The Band. You just had to figure that shit out, and there was no fuckin’ DJ music school. You listened to the radio, and you learned how to do it by listening to the radio. Period. And that’s how I learned how to scratch: by listening to this shit and tryin’ and tryin’ and tryin’ and tryin’ until I figured it out.
DX: Do you remember the specific couple of things you were listing to as far as the scratching?
DJ Muggs: I was listening to the Mixmasters on K-DAY. I used to listen to Tony G all the time, and that’s how I learned how to scratch and shit, from listening to K-DAY.
DX: We were just asking about the language of Hip Hop, and you were saying how people talk a certain way now, everybody’s saying this or that…
DJ Muggs: What I was saying was that Hip Hop didn’t take over the world. Hip Hop was in a small little corner over here, and Hip Hop was still like this urban sub-culture. Now it’s become, after pop, it just took over the world—every aspect of entertainment. Hip Hop took over everything: R&B, movies, the President, everything has Hip Hop in it.