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Old School Archives

How Cypress Hill and Sonic Youth helped rap rock evolve

It’s 1993, and a new phenomenon is making a slow creep into the world of popular music. Inspired by years of one-off collaborations and false starts, the global appeal of a new fusion genre is getting harder and harder to ignore. White kids from the suburbs, who want to experience the intensity of hip hop without sacrificing their love of the guitar, begin to champion a combination of the two. They want rap, and they want rock, but is the world ready for rap-rock?

At this specific moment, the answer is clearly yes. From the Beastie Boys to Run-DMC to Red Hot Chili Peppers, there are plenty of forefathers pioneering this specific fusion. But leave it a four-piece out of California to completely redefine the form: in 1992, Rage Against the Machine released their highly charged self-titled debut. Rage had the kind of political platform that separated them from most musical acts, but their aggressive intensity was so intoxicating that it wasn’t uncommon for most listeners to completely miss the message.

But the success of Rage was impossible to ignore, and suddenly there was a major market for rap-rock. So much so that a completely unmemorable Hollywood film called Judgment Night could call together 21 different artists from across rap and rock to collaborate on songs for the film’s soundtrack. Nobody has seen Judgment Night in years, but the soundtrack continues to be a fascinating line of demarcation in popular culture.

Some of the collaborations make sense: Slayer and Ice-T share a similar face-melting power, while Faith No More had plenty of rap-rock in them already to make their pairing with the Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. seems perfectly natural. But it’s the unexpected and somewhat questionable team ups that remain the most fascinating: Scottish indie kids Teenage Fanclub and New York’s chillest group of jazz rappers De La Soul cutting a quasi-Tom Petty cover? Mudhoney and Sir Mix-a-Lot recording a song called ‘Freak Momma’? Just bizarre, and not always in good ways.

But the single most ridiculous pairing comes from the collaboration between New York no-wave noise rockers Sonic Youth and California-bred, eternally baked hip hop group Cypress Hill. Cypress Hill actually appear twice on the Judgment Night soundtrack, and their other collaboration with Pearl Jam is wonky but nothing really worth writing home about. Their Sonic Youth track, however, is completely wild.

Starting with atonal scratching noises that Sonic Youth basically invented, ‘I Love You Mary Jane’ eventually drops into a smoky haze. It’s a typical Cypress Hill, down to the complete lack of subtlety. The only real contribution from Sonic Youth comes from Kim Gordan, who intones the central hook. Whereas most of the Judgment Night soundtrack goes the aggressive route, Cypress Hill and Sonic Youth go for the trippy, weed-heavy feeling that was essential to Cypress’ appeal.

These were the salad days of rap-rock. No Limp Bizkit, no calls of appropriation or musical gentrification, and no overblown silliness. The Judgment Night soundtrack hasn’t aged particularly well, but it’s a fascinating time capsule into the fusion of music’s biggest genre of the past and the soon-to-be most popular genre of the future.