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Top 40 Philosophy: Cypress Hill, “Insane in the Brain”

Posted in Top 40 Philosophy

I promised in T40Phil: v. 1, that I’d do more rock and hip-hop for the Volume 2, so let’s do one of the only rap songs you will hear on rock radio: Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain,” from 1993.

This is another one of those songs that never went #1 but has become part of the culture to a much deeper extent than most songs that do go #1. One reason for its impact has been its popularity on “modern rock” stations — i.e., the ones that play music “from 90s grunge to the present.” Why it was accepted by rock stations and fans, when the song is most definitely rap, not rock, is a mystery to me.

I suspect, however, that what we have here is a case of musical acceptance/rejection and genre-definition depending on personality, reputation, and culture more than the music itself. Cypress Hill have done rap rock and — even though they repeatedly refer to themselves using the n-word in the song — they (like the other two rap groups whose songs get played on modern rock stations) are not black. Perhaps this made made it “okay” for usually-white rock fans to listen to them. Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” had come out the year before, furthermore, and I suspect this also paved the way.

However, I may just have too low an opinion of the early-90s “typical music fan’s” comfort with cross-cultural music-listening. Maybe there’s nothing surprising at all about “Insane in the Brain”‘s achievement of classic status on modern rock radio. I’m certainly glad it did, because it’s a great song.

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But enough historical/cultural speculation. To the philosophy!

The lyrics that everyone remembers from this song are from the chorus:

Insane in the membrane

Insane in the brain . . .

Crazy insane, got no brain.

It’s worth noting that this makes no sense.

First, a membrane can’t be insane or house insanity.

Second, brains are not membranes.

Third, you can’t be “insane in the brain” if you’ve “got no brain.”

Then again, the fact that this makes no sense fits perfectly with the theme of the song, and thus can be taken as confirmation of the song’s main thesis: the guys in Cypress Hill are crazy.

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A second thing that’s worth noting is the attribution of insanity to having a particular brain, in one line, and to having no brain at all, in another. Even though this is self-contradictory, it does match the way we talk. To explain a senseless/insane/irrational action, we say both that the person who performed it is “sick in the head” and that the person is “brainless” or has “lost his mind.”

We usually think it’s better to be brainless than sick in the head, however. If you’re brainless, you are ignorant, flighty, and dumb. If you’re sick in the head, however, you’re evil and possibly very intelligent (and thus dangerous). Homer Simpson is brainless. The Joker is sick in the head.

Notice, however, that people often claim that people who are deeply evil “lack empathy,” or are “unable to feel for others.” Having no brain is less frightening to us than having a sick brain, but having no emotions might be more frightening that having the wrong ones.

(Speaking of having no emotions, why aren’t Star Trek’s Vulcans frightening to us, like “sociopaths” are?)

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In any case, when people do something senseless, we attribute this to there being something wrong with them. But there are two different ways in which something can be wrong with you. You can either lack something you should have (e.g., you can be brainless or lack emotion) or what you have can be “messed up” or “out of order” (e.g., you can be insane in the brain or have messed up emotions).

In St. Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will, evil is said to be an absence of good, but evil is also said to be caused by a disordered will. In other words, the lack of one thing is caused by another thing’s being messed up. And — when you think about it — you could see “having a messed up x” as “lacking a proper x.” If you have a sick brain, you have an absence of a healthy brain.

In “Insane in the Brain,” both being messed up and lacking are seen as physical issues. It is the brain that is insane or missing — and because the brain has a problem (or is missing) the person is himself insane. Is this the right view? Is insanity a matter of matter (of the physical brain) — some people, on a related note, believe depression is a matter of the immune system, while others would say depression belongs to the body as a whole — or is insanity a matter of mind/soul?

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