Eric Bobo: High On Cypress Hill

Eric Bobo

High On Cypress Hill

Cypress Hill drummer and percussionist Eric Bobo, son of the great Latin jazz timbalero Willie Bobo, is known for his versatility. When Cypress Hill is in hip-hop mode, Bobo blazes on congas and Latin percussion. But when they shift to rock, Bobo’s just as comfortable behind the drum kit. He’s one of the most visible Latin percussionists in pop music and one of the most modest. Working in the studio, he strikes a fine balance between live percussion and the loops and samples that are the bedrock of the Cypress Hill sound.

“The challenge is to be able to blend my drums in with the sounds the producer gives me and not overshadow them or overdo it,” Bobo explains. “I know how to play a simple rhythm that doesn’t have to be heard consciously, and put it in where it needs to be. We use beats that intertwine and play off each other, so in the live shows, there’s a lot of give and take between the DJ and me. We’re bouncing parts off of each other, just like I would if I was working with a horn player or another drummer.”

The Beat Beast Unleashed. Bobo showed off his ability to complement the DJ’s turntable technique during the summer of 2009, when he toured as a duo with DJ Rhettmatic of the Beat Junkies Crew. As Rhettmatic spins and scratches, Bobo lays down a blistering Latin beat, bobbing and weaving like a champion welterweight as he attacks the congas, bongos, and timbales. Rhettmatic’s scratches play off Bobo’s intricate rhythms and, when Rhettmatic drops a sample of Tito Puente or Kraftwerk into the mix, Bobo incorporates the new beats into the rhythms he’s laying down.

“We have a raw, interactive sound,” Bobo explains. “There’s a song on Meeting Of The Minds, my first solo album, called ’Bobo Meets Rhettmatic.’ It’s me playing drum loops and him scratching. When opportunities for live gigs came around, we thought we’d take it to the stage and see what we could do.” On stage, the two musicians tune into each other almost like they’re channeling the music, mashing up Latin jazz, hip-hop, alternative rock, salsa, and house. The blend of Bobo’s live percussion and Rhettmatic’s turntable dexterity creates a hybrid that’s organic and funky. As Bobo dances behind his drums, his intensity is palpable. You can see why critics have dubbed him a percussion madman. “I always give 500 percent of myself when I’m playing,” he says. “I love to play live and interact with the fans. It comes from growing up on stage with my father and being a performer from an early age. When I start feeding off the crowd, I transform myself into something else – a rhythm monster.”

The Son Also Rises. Eric Bobo was born in Hollis, Queens, the neighborhood that gave the world Run DMC and Russell Simmons. “My family moved to L.A. when I was 13 months old, so I grew up in Cali,” Bobo recalls. Bobo’s father Willie played timbales with Tito Puente, George Shearing, Cal Tjader, and Mongo Santamaria. As a bandleader, Willie cut Spanish Grease, an album that influenced the development of the West Coast Latin sound and inspired a young musician named Carlos Santana. “The story is that Bill Graham [Santana’s manager] approached him and played Spanish Grease for him,” Eric Bobo says. “My dad had the original hit on ’Evil Ways.’ Santana used my father’s arrangement for his version. He also adapted ’Spanish Grease’ and called it ’No One To Depend On.’ He gave my dad co-writing credit.”

Bobo first played in his father’s band when he was five. “My mom tells me I was banging on pots and pans when I was a three and I was messing around on the congas almost before I could walk. I don’t remember how I got on stage with my father for the first time, but when I was five, I was sitting in with him at Dante’s jazz club. I was still too short to reach the drums, so I had to stand on a stool to play the timbales and congas.

“I was never formally in the band, but he’d always let me jam on a couple of songs, provided I kept up my grades. He was strict about my schooling and, since I was feeling the passion to play, I stayed on track in school. He sent me to music school too, to make sure I could read and write music. He played by ear and never learned.” Eric was a featured player in his father’s band, but never became a full-fledged member. “I played with him at the Monterey Jazz Festival or local clubs in L.A., but never toured outside California. He was adamant about school and said he didn’t want me to miss my childhood.

“When he got cancer, I played with him more.” When his father passed away in 1983, Eric took over the band for about a year. “I kept it going, but I was feeling disillusioned with the L.A. jazz scene. Clubs were folding and there was no respect for the music. When I was growing up, there was a vital scene. Art Blakey and Dizzy would come out to play here. Now the originators are passing and you don’t get any musical education in school until you reach college.”

But for Bobo, opportunities for musical education were everywhere. He began sitting in with Poncho Sanchez and Tito Puente. “My father started out with Tito and played on a lot of his classical recordings. To be on stage with someone who had showed my dad how to play was a blessing. My dad and Tito had a friendly rivalry and had timbale duels on stage. People were really into seeing another Bobo up there with Tito.”

Puente had a big influence on Bobo’s style, but his mother was as strict as his father about his schooling. He could play as long as he kept up his studies at USC, where he was a jazz studies major. “The most influential player after my dad was Buck Clark, who played with Les McCann, Cannonball, and Herbie Hancock. I reformed my dad’s band as The Eric Bobo Project and asked Buck to play with me. He was semi-retired, but joined the band and taught me a lot about playing and performing. He died during a rehearsal for the Long Beach Jazz Festival. He had a heart attack and passed right in front of me, which was hard. He turned me onto playing the djembe, and after he passed, his wife called me up and told me he’d left me his djembe. I never played it, but I added djembe to my set to simulate the sound of an 808. I play it without triggers, just the natural sound of skin on skin. That was due to Buck.”

Bobo kept his grades up while playing Latin jazz nights and weekends, but it was tough. After playing three sets a night, he’d be in school the next day. “I wanted to have that Latin flavor in whatever I was doing, but I wanted to experiment with different kinds of music. I didn’t think Latin jazz was the route I should follow. I knew I’d always be compared to my dad and the chips might have been stacked against me. I liked rock, blues, and hip-hop and wanted to branch out.”

Ironically, it was one last Latin jazz gig that allowed Bobo a chance to break out, and put him on the path he’s following today. “I got a call from Adrock [Adam Horovitz] of the Beastie Boys in 1992. He was getting married and asked me to put a jazz trio together to play his wedding.” Adrock was impressed by Bobo’s skills and asked him to go on the road with the Beastie Boys for their Check Your Head tour. “It was risky,” Bobo admits. “I had to drop out of USC, and there were no other live percussionists playing hip-hop at the time.” I dropped out and went. Playing with the Beastie Boys made me realize how much musical influence my dad had on me. The Latin jazz feel never leaves me.”

Bobo stayed with the Beasties for almost two years and contributed to Ill Communication and Hello Nasty. When the Beasties took a break from touring, Bobo was recruited by Cypress Hill for their Black Sunday tour. He was asked to join the band full time in 1994 and has since become an integral part of the group, adding his torrential energy to the band’s live shows and contributing to the collective songwriting process.

Ahead For The Hill. Bobo is currently gearing up for a tour to support Cypress Hill’s new album, Rise Up. “It’s the first record we’ve done without Muggs producing the whole thing,” Bobo explains. “B-Real produced a lot of it and we brought in Pete Rock, Tom Morello [Rage Against The Machine], Daron Malakian from System Of A Down, Mike Shinoda [Linkin Park], and Jim Jonsin [Li'l Wayne, Beyonce]. I think it’s the most diverse album we’ve made, but it still has that Cypress Hill sound. We have our own studio and, since we didn’t have a label deal, we didn’t have any time limit. We were able to be creative and come up with fresh ideas without any pressure.”

Rise Up is Cypress Hill’s first new album in six years, and took three years to produce. “We didn’t work on it exclusively,” Bobo says. “Everybody was doing solo projects, as well as Cypress Hill shows. We really got in gear after we’d been working on it for about a year.”

As on stage, Bobo’s Rise Up studio setup is sparse. “I use LP congas, LP Generation II wood bongos, and LP Karl Perazzo model timbales. I also rock an 18" Remo djembe and I’m looking to add a dumbek for extra color. I may also bring in shekeres, cowbells, wind chimes, and hand cymbals, but I don’t over do it. I don’t want a massive kit. When I see drummers with a 15- or 17-piece kit, I want to see them hit every drum, but most of them only play four or five pieces. The rest is for show. I only bring the stuff I use and play.”

As for composing his parts, Bobo says tracks can start from anywhere. “Someone may bring me a beat and I study it, then go in the studio and do my thing. Sometimes I bring a rhythm or an idea and we build on that. Sometimes we improvise like a jam session, and chop up the different sounds and put them together. Or someone can hum a few bars and ask me to put in a break that’s a bit more complicated, or they tell me to go ahead and play whatever I hear. On this album, I put samples and live sounds together to make things more original, but you can still tell it’s me. I live to be live, but the more tools you have, the more sounds you can put together.”

The sounds on Rise Up cover a lot of ground, from the wah-wah blaxploitation guitar that drives “K. U. S. H.,” to the thick bass tones of “Light It Up,” the gospel-tinged harmony vocals on “Carry Me Away,” and the alt-rock-meets-hip-hop-meets-Armenian-folk-music vibe of “Trouble Seeker,” produced by System Of A Down’s Daron Malakian. Bobo’s particularly proud of “I Unlimited” and “Armada Latina.”

“That’s Cheech and Chong riffing off each other at the beginning of ’I Unlimited’ and me on congas. B-Real produced the track and the combination of the congas and programmed beats has a real swing to it. That goes back to my training in Latin jazz: How do you go into the groove and swing it? Even though the count is 1-2-3-4, you don’t play it flat. You have to give it a bit of swing, kick a little oomph to the rhythm. People hear it and say, ’Wow, your part sounds like it’s part of the sample.’ I know how to play in the pocket and still swing.”

“Armada Latina,” the album’s first single, may be the most pop tune Cypress Hill has ever made, and the most surprising. The melody is based on a sample of the Crosby, Stills & Nash classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and features reggaeton star Pitbull and the soulful vocals of Latin pop idol Marc Anthony. “This was the last track we made for the record, when the creativity was really flowing. Jim Jonsin [Li’l Wayne, Beyonce] produced it. There’s nothing threatening, it’s just Latin pop and the mix is a bit crazy. Getting Pitbull and Marc Anthony together was a long shot, but Marc came out and it happened. I play cowbells and timbales and Marc wrote a new Spanish lyric for the melody that talks about Latin pride and people getting together.”

On The Horizon. Bobo will be touring heavily with Cypress Hill to promote Rise Up, but it’s not the only iron he has in the fire. “I plan to release two more projects in 2010,” he says. “I’m working with producer Richie Londres on Cultura Londres Proyecto, a progressive Latin hip-hop album with MC Tago rapping in Spanish. We released an EP in England in 2009 and should have the album out before the end of the year. I’m also mixing metal, drum ’n’ bass, and electronica in Sol Invicto with Stephen Carpenter of the Deftones, Richie Londres, and AJ Cookson of Necro Deathmor. It’s heavy-duty stuff that takes the percussion a long way from what I normally do. We have eight tracks finished and hope to have it out at the top of the summer. The only question is, do I have time to do all the Cypress Hill shows and finish both of these albums? I don’t know, but whatever happens, I’m going to be busy for a while.”

For now, Bobo is content to have finally found a way to combine all his influences into a sound that’s all his own. “A lot of my jazz contemporaries still ask me why I’m playing in a hip-hop band,” he says. “They don’t think the music is challenging enough. But in a time when a lot of Latin musicians can’t make it, I’m performing and doing my thing and I always talk about where I came from. No matter what I’m playing, I always have that Latin jazz feel. People know what the Bobo name means when they come and hear me play.”

Bobo’s Big Rig

Drums: LP
11.75" Conga
14" Super Tumba
7" and 9" Generation II Bongos
14" and 15" Karl Perazzo Timbales
20" Remo Custom Djembe

Cymbals: Zildjian
15" K Crash
17" A Crash
14" Azuka
12" A Splash
8" A Splash
16" K Crash

LP Cowbell, Jam Block, and Jam Bell
Roland SPD-S Sampling Pad
Drumtech F.A.T. Pedal

Eric Bobo also uses Zildjian sticks, Remo heads, and LP hardware

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