“I’m Always Keeping Myself Open”: A Conversation With B-Real

The rap royal on Serial Killers, Cypress Hill’s legacy, meeting Chuck D, his influence on Latin hip-hop and more. 

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B-Real performs with Cypress Hill at a drive-in concert in California in September. Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images.

B-Real has been in the game for over three decades, and he’s still looking to break new ground. The MC born Louis Freese in 1970 is a founding member of Cypress Hill, an entrepreneur in the livestreaming industry and a part of the rap supergroup Serial Killers with Xzibit and Demrick. From 2016 through 2019, he toured and recorded as a member of Prophets of Rage alongside his hero Chuck D. With Cypress, Freese blazed trails for rappers of Latin descent and became part of the best-selling Latin hip-hop group of all time. His impact on the culture is enormous, especially considering how many rising MCs today are proud Latinos.

This legacy could easily make for a comfy career filled with legends tours, deluxe reissues and vacation time. But as he explained to TIDAL, “Challenging myself as an artist has always been what’s driven me. If something comes along that compels me and I feel like it would be a great challenge, I do it.” In this instance, that means the recent offering from Serial Killers, Summer of Sam, the follow-up to 2018’s Day of the Dead. Rather than engage in a normal Serial Killers session, though, B-Real wanted the new effort to reflect the divisive, racist political and social landscape of 2020. Serial Killers albums are known for sharp bars and sparring; here, however, they ditched the competition in favor of something more communal and meditative.

Perhaps the most staggering thing about B-Real’s career is how consistent he’s been. Many rappers stay in the spotlight long past their expiration date, without realizing their time has come and passed. B-Real is still very much in his prime, conjuring new ways to innovate and keep himself entertained. Between the success of Serial Killers, his media conglomerate, Breal.tv, and the occasional new Cypress album, he’s plenty busy. And we imagine he has a few more projects in the works.

At this point in your career, how important is it for you to be a guiding light, or a figure for younger people to look up to? Do you see yourself as a leader in that respect?

I think people expect us to be [leaders] whether we look at ourselves like that or not. It’s just like athletes back in the day: They didn’t really look at themselves as role models until someone told them that they were. I think the same went for rappers for a long time, so we could choose to be in that situation or just choose to do what we do and not really think about that.

But in terms of myself, X and Demrick, we thought it would be more than right to talk about what’s going on right now. I mean, look, we could have done what we normally do on the previous albums and just verbally flex as MCs, but that ignores what’s going on. Instead, we chose to tackle the experiences of what people and even ourselves obviously are going through. We took it upon ourselves to do that. No one told us that we had to; we just sort of did it. And I think you’re a role model by choice. I don’t know if any one of us would look at ourselves as that, but we’re in that position and we felt we needed to say something.

Xzibit gets overlooked, I think, just because of his career pivot, but he’s an all-time MC. What’s it like working with him and rekindling some of that magic?

He’s got a great energy, man. You’d be around him in the studio and he works. He expects excellence, no pun intended. But he’s great to be around ’cause he brings this fucking energy that just uplifts in the studio. And the other thing is when he gets on that skill set, which is pretty much every goddamn time, if you’re someone who’s like me, who likes to step up to the challenge of being on records with someone of that skill set, it takes you up a level. … Verbally and stylistically, he’s fucking sharp — sharp as he’s ever been.

When you’re working with a great MC, you have two options: You can either up your game or you can fold. Xzibit’s always made me up my game. He’s a great songwriter, but he’s also always asking the right questions. He’s always trying to figure out interesting ways that his music can change directions. He’s always trying to find new ways of attacking the beat. It’s great to work with guys like that. It makes my job easy.

How much preparation did you guys have before making this record? How long were you talking about making another Serial Killers album?

I’ve been doing so many fucking things so it wasn’t on my mind. I got a call out of the blue, I think from Demrick, and he was like, “Hey, what do you think about doing some shit?” I’m like, “Alright, fuck it.” Because it’s always very spontaneous. We never really have a plan. We just go and that’s the tradition of us working together — we will say, “Fuck it. Alright, whatever we’re doing, we’ll knock some shit out.” And that was very much the way of it. ... It’s like when the super team forms: When the call to action is made, everybody goes to action.

You have had an insane year. What keeps you doing so many different things and pushes you when you already have a status that is unimpeachable in rap music?

I love making music, and again, I like being challenged. If it’s doing a different thing than what Cypress Hill is, or doing my own shit, or doing something that’s not hip-hop, or just challenging myself as an artist, that’s always been what’s driven me. If something comes along that compels me and I feel like it would be a great challenge, I do it.

I go to it with Prophets of Rage, with Serial Killers, and the stuff I do with Berner. I want to be a well-rounded artist who has done what they feel they wanted to do. I could’ve just stuck with doing a certain type of hip-hop, but I was always wanting to challenge myself and do different shit. So that one thing just always keeps me moving. And I listened to everything. I’m always keeping myself open.

What younger MCs are you into?

Oh, shoot. Jack Harlow’s been catching my ear here and there a lot lately.  

Cypress Hill overshadows a lot of the other projects you do, just because of how massive that group is. Do you have a chip on your shoulder to prove that you can do other things, or are you mostly happy with that success on its own terms?

No, I’m cool. I know that Cypress is my foundation. That is the mother ship. I’ve never been resentful if it overshadows the other stuff because it’s supposed to. I don’t even think about that. I just go do the other stuff and say, if it goes, it goes; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t; if it’s in the middle, cool or whatever. I just do it. You want people to hear it because you know that there will be people to connect to it, whether it’s a mass amount of people or a smaller amount of people. The key is making the music and creating awareness around the drop of your music.

Do you view yourself as an example for Latino kids growing up who want to be in the rap game?

Yeah. I think they could use [Cypress] as an example, for sure. We didn’t really look at ourselves that way, with what we were trying to do in those times, because we realized that the record companies, more often than not, would try to market us to a Latin audience rather than just a music audience or just a hip-hop audience. At the time that we came up there wasn’t a big market for Latin hip-hop records or anything like that yet; it hadn’t been birthed yet. So we were very much letting Sony know that we didn’t want them to market us as anything else but a hip-hop group. … [Listeners] could find out that we’re Latin later.

DJ Muggs has had an amazing run the past few years. Can you talk about your relationship with him and what you like about his work as a producer?

Oh, well, he’s a visionary. That’s my brother. While we work together there’s very much a certain vibe, and we sort of tailor our work to each other. When we know exactly what the other wants to hear, it’s just crazy how we can get on the same page. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his genius, on his chop game as a producer. He created the Cypress Hill sound, but to me, he was so much more than that, and still is.

Chuck D and B-Real in Hollywood in 2018. Credit: Jerritt Clark/Getty Images.

I think you were probably 18 when It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back came out. So what was it like linking up with Chuck D later on in your career, and standing next to someone who was a peer in some ways but also a legend while you were growing up?

It was surreal, man. I could never have called that happening. I met him one time in a club called Penthouse Lounge here in Los Angeles. Xzibit definitely knows that club. We was all at it. I met him there. He didn’t have his hat on. He was kind of incognito. [Cypress] were just doing demos then, we were very new, and I went there to meet DJ Muggs. We saw Chuck by the elevator, and he was just chilling with some people, and we’re like, “Oh shit, is that Chuck D? He don’t got his hat on?”

I went and gave him props, which is something we’ve never done. We know how motherfuckers are in terms of being here in Southern California, how you could get treated by a celebrity back in that time. None of us ever did that, but we saw Chuck D and we threw all that shit out the window: “Yo man, you guys are the shit. Hopefully we’re going to be doing what you do one day, man.” He was really cool about it. He was like, “Hey man, I appreciate that. Keep making music and keep doing what you’re doing and maybe one day you will be over here, man.” 

So to meet him later and work with him on Prophets of Rage, then doing other projects with him is just surreal. He’s my big bro and he was my mentor and inspiration for a long time. It was great to record with him with the Prophets of Rage and then tour the world with them for like three years, like rockin’ massive fucking shows with him and the other guys. It was just crazy to look to my right and see Chuck D right there. Fuck, that was like a crazy feeling. He was one of my fucking idols; now he’s my bandmate.

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