I just finished reading the amazing book Sweet Jones – Pimp C’s Trill Life Story by Julia Beverly. It tells the story of Pimp C, UGK, and a family that couldn’t be denied. What follows is my UGK story, and some thoughts on the book. Before we jump in, I just want to say thank you to Julia Beverly for providing this awesome window into Pimp C’s life.
I was a square. I’m still kind of a square I guess, but in 2000 when Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin” hit, I was an “L 7 weenie”. I went to King High, so I had that going for me. If you’re from Tampa, chances are you know a few stories about King. It had a very urban demographic. Our football team sucked, but our band was pretty darn good and I played Tuba. Some of my favorite memories of high school are hanging out with my friends and playing the latest hip hop song by ear. As a tuba player, my responsibility was the bass line, which is very important to hip hop. And since I went to King, and since I was in the band, I loved Hip Hop. Back to “Big Pimpin”.
Jay-Z was already a mega star in 2000. His album Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter was huge, and Big Pimpin was the 5th single from that album. FIFTH!!! That’s Taylor Swift territory – no one gets 5 singles out of an album. Needless to say, it was a huge hit. I knew who Jay-Z was – Everybody did. But who were these other 2 dudes that go by the name UGK? The second guy to go… Bumpy? Was that his name? It was immediately clear that he was an incredible lyricist, going bar for bar against Jay. The third guy, Pimp-C? His verse was not technically impressive, but it was damn cool: “EVERYBODY WANNA BALL, holla at broads at the mall” and “If I wasn’t rappin baby, I would still be ridin Mercedes” are so much fun to say when adopting Pimp C’s southern drawl.
Then I heard a song called “Sippin On Some Syrup“. I knew a little bit about Three Six Mafia thanks to a song called Late Nite Tip. So when I saw the video for “Syrup” come on I was expecting something good. I wasn’t expecting the first verse to be the same guy from the Jay-Z song. And right out of the gate he hit me with more style, more swag than pretty much any other rapper could ever hope to have. “A trill workin the wheel, a pimp not a simp!” Man. That’s cool. The song closes out with another verse from that Bumpy guy (whose name I finally figured out was Bun-B) and I was hooked. I had to know more about these guys. Remember, we’re talking 2000 here, so guess what I did?
What a time to be alive! From 1999 to 2001, you could get any song you wanted for free. And boy did I. I used it to discover a group that to this day gives me all the feelings. I downloaded every UGK song I could get my hands on, because every song I got my hands on was amazing. Then I went out and bought the CD’s. I’m not just saying that to sound cool, I really did go out and purchase all of their catalog, which at the time included “Too Hard to Swallow“, ‘Super Tight“, “Ridin’ Dirty” (which came out in 1996), and a bunch of great features on other artists albums. I grew to really love their work with Tela, Too Short, 8Ball and MJG, and Outkast. By 2001, solidified as a fan, I’m happy to say that I was able to purchase “Dirty Money” on it’s release date. Why was I a fan? Well, here goes.
“Put some music in it.” That’s what 16 year old Chad Butler’s step dad had to say about the hip hop beats Chad had just showed him. In retrospect, that is the best advice Chad would ever get, because it shaped the sound of his future rap group, UGK. Chad Lamont Butler, aka Pimp C, joined forces with Bun-B (Bernard Freeman), to become the most important hip hop group in the South. C never forgot his step dad’s words. Listen to any Pimp C produced track to see what I mean. His beats just sound different, more musical, than any other producer in hip-hop. Timbaland is cool, and Swizz Beats is alright, but there aren’t too many blues musicians singing their praises. Pimp was the first artist to reach out to the musicians that he admired, and he was the first artist to ask them to play live on his beats. Check out this quote from Bun-B, “Pimp was very respectful of the [musicians] that came before him. R&B, jazz, different blues and stuff; he was a big Wes Montgomery fan, he was a big [John] Coltrane fan, he was a George Benson fan. He was really respectful of music in that sense and he was respectful of the fact that he knew the opinions and the way that our elders looked at our music at the time; this was in our earliest inception. His father was a musician and was highly critical of rap itself — not him but rap in general, the old saying that it’s a bunch of noise. Above all things, he wanted to show the musical inclinations of UGK — we didn’t just sample the music. Pimp worked very hard to get live musicians to play music and record live organ sounds. And reaching out to Leo Nocentelli from [New Orleans funk legends] the Meters and saying, “I want this sound on the guitar and nobody can really play this sound on the guitar but this man,” and going to the man and asking him, would he do it? And imagine one of the Meters — instead of sampling them, having one of the guys there playing the riff for you. That was his commitment. And because of [Pimp’s] love … that was the reason a person like that would consider recording with some 20-year-old kids from Port Arthur, Texas. And he was extremely, extremely passionate about showing that. If nothing else, UGK’s music was at its very least musical. It had a full, rich sound. And that’s kind of what separated our music from a lot of people, it had that live instrumentation.” Anyone with an ear can tell that UGK is different from the rest. In fact, Pimp and Bun even coined a new term to describe their music. “We ain’t makin hip hop records, we making country rap tunes” Pimp C would say. That was due in part to the sound that they were creating, and in part to the fact that they were discriminated against by much of hip hop.
Coming up in the early 90’s, rap was basically a localized art form. Sure, the south had Geto Boys, but no one really paid attention to them outside of Texas. And it stayed like that for a long time. Pimp C became so frustrated by this freeze tactic that he lashed out, a theme for the entire career of UGK, and proclaimed that if east coast hip hop didn’t want them, then they didn’t want hip hop either. They would make “country rap tunes” instead of hip hop. Pimp was careful not to alienate the few New York artists that had opened their arms to him, but for the most part UGK would remain a regional success until 2000. UGK always felt that their New York-based record label treated them unfairly as well.
Part of Pimp and Bun’s appeal is the struggle. Nothing came easy for them. Whether it was getting national recognition, a fair music video budget, or even a decent manager that wasn’t looking to rob them, the group struggled to find comfort. It got so bad, Pimp’s mom, Mama Wes, became their road manager. And before the internet exploded and changed our lives forever, it made finding a group like this even more attractive. I remember scouring the web for any nugget of info I could. They had a Geocities (Geocities…. I think that’s right. Anyone remember that?) site that was run by a fan. I would go there often and look at pictures of Pimp and Bun performing. It also seems that UGK was always fighting with their label. If it wasn’t for Jay-Z and Big Pimpin, who knows what would have happened to UGK after their third album.
“He was adamantly opposed to doing that song. His bodyguard said it was like an act of Congress to get him to rap on the song. I think he kind of liked being underground. He didn’t want to become a pop star, and alienate their fan base.” Julia Beverly
The biggest hit in UGK’s career and Pimp C didn’t even want to do it. He was so against it, he didn’t rap his full 16 bars. He only rapped 8. After it’s huge success, Jive, UGK’s label, was ready to do a part 2. They wanted to get Timbaland to do a beat, and have Jay feature on it, and they knew it would be a success. But again Pimp C balked. He didn’t want to go pop and “turn his back on the fans.” So their album kept getting pushed back and pushed back, and when it finally did drop, Pimp was in the middle of legal woes that would ultimately send him to prison for 4 years. Another break that went against UGK. They were poised to take the world by storm after Big Pimpin and Sippin on Syrup, but with Pimp on ice for 4 years, the group would probably die. Luckily for us, UGK had a profound impact on many of the day’s rap stars. And lucky for us, Bun B wouldn’t let us forget Pimp C.
The “Free Pimp C” movement was unavoidable. While Pimp was in jail, southern hip hop became cool. It went main stream (Hilariously, the breakout hit was “Still Tippin” by Mike Jones, basically the worst rapper ever who stole his only good gimmick from Pimp C). And every artist had been impacted by UGK, and was quick to say so. They knew they owed their success to the trails blazed by Pimp and Bun and artists like Scarface and The Geto Boys. They reached out to Bun B and featured him on a number of songs, and in each one, they would shout “Free Pimp C.” The result was that Pimp was more famous when he got out of jail than he was when he went in. On his release day, December 30th 2005, he was met by Bun, Mama Wes, and a few other people in the UGK circle. They handed him a phone and a stack of cash, Rap-A-Lot Label owner J. Prince provided a Bentley and then… It was on. In 2006, Pimp began to feature on the tracks of these artist’s that looked up to him, and eventually ended up in the studio with Bun making “Underground Kingz”, a double album that will be remembered as a classic rivaling their best record “Ridin Dirty”. Finally. UGK had done it. They beat the odds and were looking forward to a lengthy career of hits and side projects. And I was thrilled. But…
On December 4th, 2007, Pimp C died. It was most likely the result of Pimp’s sleep apnea and the drug codeine, from the “syrup” that many southern artists enjoy. Or, maybe there was foul play? I won’t get into that here, but please buy Julia Beverly’s amazing book for more info on that. What I do want to mention is my experience with her book. I finished reading it one night at 5 am. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried a little. As ridiculous as it sounds for a square from Tampa to be that emotionally invested in a “Pimp” from Port Arthur Texas, I was that invested. I had avoided UGK’s last album, titled “UGK 4 Life”, which was released posthumously in 2009, because I thought it would be bad. Most albums put out after artitst’s deaths are. But as I was finishing the book, I thought I would give it a try. It played in the background while I read the afterword of the book, one of the few times we get to hear directly from Julia. And we had a moment. I don’t know anyone in my day to day life that is as big of a fan of UGK as I am. So it felt cathartic to hear someone else talk about Pimp C the way I did. I listened to the album, which featured vintage Pimp C like production, and was thankful for the life of Pimp C. I was thankful for UGK. I was thankful for the family, Mama Wes and Chad, that wouldn’t be denied their dreams. Chad loved people that couldn’t be stopped. He was that kind of person. Once he put his mind on something, he went after it. UGK was his dream ever since he was 16 years old, in high school with Bun and his other buddies. They all fell away and went different directions in life. Not Pimp and Bun. They did it. And I’m proud to say, for me, it’s UGK 4 Life.