"I'm the fourth member of Cypress Hill," Meyhem Lauren declares with a laugh, while brandishing a cleaver he's using to cut up a Thanksgiving turkey meatloaf topped with thick glazed strips of duck bacon. Dressed in a navy chunky-knit Ralph Lauren Polo sweater overlaid with a gold Jesus piece medallion, the Queens-raised rapper has rustled up the festive dish for a spot on Munchies, where he's become a presence in the kitchen alongside his long-time friend and MC cohort, Action Bronson. But today's quip about Cypress Hill is prompted by a different hip-hop figure: DJ Muggs, who's sitting to the side of the set engaging in small talk about comic book author Alan Moore and the philosophy of magicians. Together, the producer and MC have teamed up to craft Gems From The Equinox, an 11-track album that matches Meyhem's steely flow with soulful beats striated with dusty crackle. It's a combination that would have you believe they've been recording together for decades.
Muggs might be renowned for his role as the sonic architect behind California's sativa enthusiasts Cypress Hill, but collaborating with Meyhem has allowed him to tap into his formative New York City roots. The veteran producer was born in Flushing, Queens, and spent the first 13 years of his life with the city as his sandbox. During that time he became enraptured by the sounds of Spoonie Gee's old school standard "New Rap Language," while arguing with classmates about the precise lyrics of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Then came Run-DMC with "Sucker MCs": "It was over, they had me, I caught the fever," says Muggs, in a studio next door to the Munchies test kitchen along with Meyhem. "The culture was so raw and so pure that was like our shit, it was new and I was like that's where I belong."
While Muggs was making music with Cypress Hill, Meyhem Lauren was also finding his way into the culture; first through graffiti art, where he became a founding member of the Smart Crew collective of painters, and then by spitting at venues around town and embracing the mixtape circuit. In one case, Action Bronson, who also claims graffiti roots, remembers Meyhem picking up the mic during a party at an industrial venue called Fun Factory, which was later to become the graffiti monument Five Pointz. "Meyhem was rhyming at the rave," he recalls. "They'd stop the ravey shit and he'd just take the mic and start rapping, hype the crowd up." Bronson adds that Meyhem inspired his own hip-hop career.
Meyhem Lauren's lyrics often pay homage to his "graffiti-oriented" roots—2010's "Got The Fever" is a tribute to spray paint culture that has clocked up over a million views on YouTube—while also bragging about his collection of Ralph Lauren Polo clothing. Like Bronson, he's also a gourmand of the hip-hop world, happily titling songs "Pan-Seared Tilapia" and pushing home his seafood connoisseur status. Signing on to record an entire album with Muggs has anchored Meyhem's lyrical formula with a cohesive production base. The two met at the producer Alchemist's studio in Venice Beach during a recording session for Action Bronson's Rare Chandeliers. "I'm in the room with a legend playing some heat—how can I not rap on this?" Meyhem recalls. After Muggs passed some beats his way, Meyhem says at first he found himself "over rapping" in a bid to "murder everything"—but then, under Muggs's tutelage, he was encouraged to relax, embrace his instincts and "smooth it out and get where we need to get."
Impressed by a combination of Meyhem's work ethic and MC skills, Muggs says, "His voice is flavor, it's smooth, it reflects off the beats and it's something that's easy on my eardrums." The timbre of Meyhem's voice is a smart fit for Muggs's beats, which have always embraced an east coast patina dating back to Cypress Hill's breakthrough era in the early-'90s. "I was in elementary school when Cypress's first two albums was popping," says Meyhem. "I actually thought they were from New York at that point because Cypress Hill is a street in East New York and we used to drive by the cemetery and be like, "Oh, they from over there.""
Muggs and Meyhem's paths never crossed when they were both running around Queens—although the former laughs and says, "We was probably sitting in the same restaurant and didn't even know it!"—but Gems From The Equinox has united them in a seamless fashion. As the project unfurls, they conjure up a similar sort of cult pulp fiction world to the one Action Bronson's been describing for years, but with a crucial stonier edge. On the raucous, brass-propelled "War Drums," Lauren boasts about scarfing down $100 scallop dinners as snacks before connecting the food and street scenes by liking "hand-made pastas" to "hand held hammers that we purchased off the rastas." Guests of the caliber of Roc Marciano, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, Conway and Brownsville's departed punchline specialist Sean Price underscore the hardcore texture of the experience, while Bronson's three vocal spots embellish proceedings with a touch of the absurd: On the bluesy "Szechuan Peppercorns" he finagles famed chef Wolfgang Puck to prep his duck after returning from a bout of naked knife fights in a Turkish bathhouse that involved herpes-infected blades.
Bringing Meyhem and Cypress Hill's world full circle, B-Real fittingly adds his patented nasal flow to the album's closing cut, the menacing and boisterous "Tension." It's a feature that causes Meyhem to say, "It's definitely a bucket list feeling, the same as working with Muggs." Then with a sly grin taking over his face, he adds, "I almost feel like I got a Cypress Hill record now—we should have had Sen Dog on those ad libs, man!"
Gems From the Equinox is out today. Watch the video for "Hasashin" featuring Conway above.
Phillip Mlynar is a writer in NYC. He considers himself the world's foremost expert on rappers' cats. His work has appeared in Deadspin, NYLON, RBMA and Catster. You can find him on Twitter.