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Bun B, Solo Without Pimp C

Michael May

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Cover for Bun B's latest CD,
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This is a big weekend for hundreds of thousands of hip hop fans who will be glued to their computers. Rapper Bun B has posted his entire new solo album -- II Trill -- on his MySpace page. The album is due out Tuesday.

For nearly two decades, Bun B performed with his partner Pimp C as the Houston hip hop group UGK -- that's short for Underground Kingz. They're one of the longest-running groups in hip hop history.

But one half of that duo, producer Pimp C, died in December. Reporter Michael May talks to surviving partner Bun B on the eve of his solo release.

A couple months ago, I was fighting my way through the throngs of 20-somethings at Austin's South by Southwest. I figured I'd have no trouble getting in to to see veteran Houston rapper Bun B. He's been making music since the '80s, so by hip hop standards, he's old news.

Instead, I turned the corner and immediately entered the world of the Dirty South. Bass boomed out across the pavement from the packed club. At least a dozen people were pressed up against the glass doors of the club. One guy pulled a roll of twenties out of his pocket and attempted to bribe the doorman.

Lesson learned. If you live in Texas, and want to see Bun B perform, show up early.

Bun B grew up as Bernard Freeman in the small Gulf Coast town of Port Arthur, where blacks and Hispanics live right up against the fence line of oil refineries, which leak toxic fumes and occasionally explode. People here typically end up in one of two places: at the refineries or the local prison, either as guards or inmates.

Bernard was a good student. He had ambition. In 1989, in high school, he took on the name Bun B and hooked up with a rapper and producer named Chad Butler, or Pimp C. "Pimp was a lot more boisterous, flamboyant," says Bun B. "I was more of an introvert. More action, less talk."

Bun B says they were a perfect compliment when it came to making music. Together they formed the rap group UGK, or Underground Kingz. Bun B even turned down a college scholarship to keep the group together. Folks in Port Arthur thought he was crazy.

"I came from a small town, you know what I'm saying?" he says. "There were times when we weren't making any money from what we were doing, but we were still trying to move forward, and people didn't understand that. Thinking we could make records that would go gold or platinum. Talking about making Port Arthur into a major thing in America. Nobody really understood what we were going though but each other."

Pimp C did the production for the group at his parent's house. One day, his stepfather told him their music sounded like noise -- typical dad stuff -- but then he said something that made an impression on the young producer. He said if Pimp C could figure out a way to put some music in it, he would get rich. So Pimp started producing hip hop that sounded like a natural extension of soul and blues. One of UGK's first productions updated a classic Rufus and Chaka Khan song.

UGK's signature sound was soon in full effect. The melodic drawl in the vocals, the relaxed groove -- it was hip hop that made you feel all right. They released their first cassette within a year of graduating high school. It was called "The Southern Way," and it sold 50,000 copies within four months. It was the beginning of a sound made by and for the people of Texas.

In 1991, they signed with Jive Records, then the premier hip hop label. And they began to fatten their sound with live instruments. Their classic record, 1996's "Ridin' Dirty," sold 500,000 copies, despite the fact that Jive records didn't release a single off it, or make a video. In 2000, Jay Z had them on his mega-hit "Big Pimpin'." By 2002, UGK seemed poised for stardom, and Texas hip hop was dominating urban radio from coast to coast. But Pimp C was perhaps living a bit too true to the game. In 2002, he was put in prison for brandishing a gun during a fight.

"Initially, the assumption was my career was going to fall apart," says Bun B. "That was the assumption from a lot of people, including myself."

Bun B never had any urge to do a solo record, but Pimp C convinced him it was the right thing to do. "'Cause at the end of the day, it was the best decision for the group, to keep the legacy alive," says Bun B. "But I didn't want to come to that decision and seem like an opportunist."

Bun B's album "Trill" went gold, but his loyalty to his friend never waned. He virtually turned the phrase "Free Pimp C" into a rally cry for Southern hip hop. So when Pimp C finally was freed in 2006, UGK went right back into the studio. Their self-titled 2007 album stayed true to form -- it was unabashedly soulful and unapologetically gangsta. It debuted at number one on the Billboard charts.

But in December of last year, Pimp C was found dead in his hotel room. The cause was a combination of sleep apnea and Texas hip hop's drug of choice: codeine cough syrup. Two days later, UGK was nominated for a Grammy.

"The loss is devastating," says Bun B. "If you are not in strong state, it can destroy you. Easily."

I asked him what he missed most about Pimp C.

"His company," he replied. "It's really that simple. It's not about music, or performances, or any of that stuff. I just miss not being able to talk to him."

  • Music Bridge:
    Life is 2009 (Featuring Too Short)
    Artist: UGK
    CD: Underground Kingz (Jive Records)


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