Some rock & roll activists want to save the rain forest. West Coast rappers Cypress Hill would probably rather smoke it.
''Wanna see my new electric bong?'' asks the group's 23-year-old frontman, B-Real, caressing a battery-powered pot pipe as if it were the last of the Fabergé eggs. ''It's got a little engine inside with a filter. Push the button in the back and it shoots out smoke.'' He flicks his Bic and performs a demonstration. ''The guy who thought this up deserves a f---ing Nobel Prize.''
Medical studies suggest that prolonged marijuana use can result in short-term memory loss, lowered sperm count, and lack of motivation, among other damage. In the case of Cypress Hill three glassy-eyed, pro-pot musicians from one of L.A.'s seedier 'hoods its most observable result so far has been a smash hit record. The band's second album, Black Sunday (featuring such trippy tunes as ''I Wanna Get High,'' ''Hits From the Bong,'' and ''Legalize It''), caught the music world napping three weeks ago by selling a record 260,000 copies its first week, grabbing the top slot on the Billboard chart from U2's Zooropa, and becoming the first No. 1 record in history to celebrate pot toking explicitly. Black Sunday's debut single, ''Insane in the Brain,'' sold an unheard-of 750,000 in its first two months, and with a video in heavy rotation on MTV and another on the way next month, the group's three members B-Real (a.k.a. Louis Freese), Sen Dog (Senen Reyes), 27, and D.J. Muggs (Larry Muggerud), 24 have become the fastest-rising rap stars since Ice-T.
They've also become the most famous celebrity stoners since Cheech & Chong and the most active advocates of a new movement on the music scene dedicated to the re-potting of America. Call it cheeba power or call it reefer madness, but after decades of closet puffing, musicians of various stripes are suddenly and very publicly re-embracing the wacky weed. Rapper Dr. Dre sings its praises on The Chronic, a chart-topping album with a cover bearing the motto, ''In Bud We Trust.'' On tour, the Black Crowes perform their '90s-style Southern rock with the giant image of a cannabis leaf hanging above the stage. The nouveau-hippie Spin Doctors have been pontificating about marijuana legalization in the pages of that chronicle of pot-ular culture, High Times magazine. Even some old-timers are getting in on the act: Willie Nelson (who toked a joint on the White House roof during the Carter Administration) has been outspoken on behalf of legalized reefer-he has also lent his name to the Willie Nelson Hemp Collection, a line of clothing made from marijuana plant-based fabrics.
''The media portray it as a fashion thing, that it's just a bunch of musicians with pot leaves on their T-shirts,'' says Eric Steenstra, artist relations representative for the 23-year-old National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). ''But there's something real going on here. There's a new attitude toward marijuana [among] dozens of bands. Guns N' Roses put up a NORML table during their last tour. The drummer from Nirvana [David Grohl] did a concert for NORML. Sebastian Bach [of Skid Row] did a benefit. We're even thinking of putting out a compilation album.''
''Times are changing,'' asserts High Times' music editor, Steve Bloom. ''We've got a new President in the White House and it represents a huge generational shift. Clinton tried pot even though he fudged the question about whether he inhaled. Gore admits he smoked pot in Vietnam. Even Clarence Thomas admits he smoked pot. It's no big deal anymore.''
For Cypress Hill and other neo-head activists, the pot issue runs deeper than their supposedly inalienable right to fry their brains. They say they're also fighting for the future of the American economy, claiming that marijuana could give a boost to industries ranging from the textile trade (with hemp as an affordable new fabric), to medical science (with pot as a pain and nausea treatment for glaucoma, cancer, and AIDS), to the alternative fuel industry (with, no joke, hemp-powered automobiles).
''Legalizing marijuana could bring a lot of American jobs back,'' insists B-Real, continuing his electric bonging in an empty office at their record company in West Hollywood. ''We wouldn't have to buy s--- from Hong Kong. We could use hemp for paper so we wouldn't have to chop down trees. Let's see weed get taxed. This is not a fad it's a cause!''
Sen Dog steps into the room and takes a turn with the bong. ''Pot got a bad name with the flower children of the '60s,'' he says. ''And then all these hard drugs came in, and people started dropping like flies. Today, people want to get high on something that's not going to give them a heart attack, like speed or crack.''
The two rappers' history with marijuana stretches deep into their pasts. They both grew up in a burnt-out section of Los Angeles, between Watts and South Central, known locally as Cypress Hill hence the group's name. ''I turned B-Real on to his first joint when he was 13 or 14,'' Sen Dog recalls. A few years later, they hooked up with transplanted New Yorker D.J. Muggs, and began experimenting with rap, playing local gigs and entering talent contests. Then inspiration hit: ''We would sometimes have a line about a joint or a bong in our songs,'' says Sen Dog. ''It was just something that came out naturally. But then one day we decided to do our first get-high tune.'' A pothead legend was born.
Their debut album, 1991's Cypress Hill, contains the trio's trademark elements an accessible beat, jazzy samples, spaced-out headphone effects, B-Real's sinister, cartoony vocals, and plenty of dope references. But it's on the second album that the group's sound and message reach critical mass. ''See, rap is going to a different level right now,'' explains B-Real. ''Rap isn't just rap anymore. People are learning how to write songs that mean something, with good, catchy choruses. We've mastered the way to do that.'' (Sample meaningful verse: ''My oven's on high when I roast a Quayle/Tell Bill Clinton to go and inhale.'')
Of course, Cypress Hill and the other hemp-happy bands aren't without their critics. And they're not necessarily who you'd expect.
''I smoked pot up until two years ago,'' says rapper Run of Run-D.M.C., ''but I quit because it's a false high and gives you a false security.''
''Marijuana is the enemy,'' says Kiss' blood-spitting, tongue-waving Gene Simmons. ''The only way you should be able to get weed is by prescription. This crap caused an entire generation to delude itself into actually believing the gibberish it was spewing that marijuana is 'mind expanding' or 'it relaxes me.' Crap! You can take that and some toilet paper and flush.'' Adds bandmate Paul Stanley: ''Smoking pot is an introduction to other drugs and alternatives that lead to self-destruction. I survived my dabbling, but I can count friends who didn't.''
Not surprisingly, some record companies are having problems with the new druggies, as well. Last year, Hollywood Records' pro-pot heavy-metal band Sacred Reich sent out promotional bongs to publicize its album Independent. The idea apparently bombed badly with the label's parent company, Disney, which was rumored to have ordered the mailings stopped. Hollywood Records is presumably still spooked by the incident. ''I'm their publicist, and it's my decision I don't want (Sacred Reich) talking about this issue,'' snapped Hollywood's Kathy Acquaviva when Entertainment Weekly requested an interview. Publicists for the Black Crowes wouldn't let them talk about pot, either. At least Willie Nelson had a decent excuse: A spokesperson said the singer was too busy raising money for Midwest flood victims to chat about weed.
Anti-dopers are predictably concerned that the pro-pot music movement might be igniting an increase in teen toking, but so far the evidence is inconclusive. According to a recent University of Michigan research study, marijuana smoking among college students is up but only by about 1 percent from last year. Even the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration doesn't seem particularly concerned about the pot and pop phenom. ''It doesn't really have an impact on us,'' says William Ruzzamenti, the DEA's chief of public affairs. ''It's just a few groups conducting a campaign to legalize marijuana. The American public hasn't embraced it.'' Still, Ruzzamenti has never actually heard Cypress Hill. ''The lyrics in pop music aren't my thing,'' he says. ''I like country & western.''
Back in the empty office, B-Real and Sen Dog are still sucking on the bong. ''We didn't invent weed and we weren't the first to smoke it,'' Sen Dog says. ''But we did something that caught people's attention.'' B-Real nods in agreement. ''The marijuana movement has been around for a long time,'' he says. ''All we did was wake it back up. But we never figured on going to No. 1 in the charts so fast.'' He takes another toke. ''It kind of scared me a little at first. I thought it was a dream. It was like, I must be smoking some real good stuff.'' Additional reporting by Amy Linden, Daron Murphy, and Melissa W. Rawlins