[Ed. Note: This memorandum was originally published on December 4, 2012.]
Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads, selling his soul so he could master blues guitar. Keith Richards sneering at a 1967 jury and saying, “We are not old men, we are not worried about petty morals.” Nas watching a flick, illin’ and rooting for the villain. The iconography of the anti-hero has long held a prime spot in the history of American music.
Gangsta rap has, of course, exploited this phenomenon more thoroughly than any other musical genre. And no gangsta rapper ever has quite realized the anti-hero iconography more fully than Chad Lamont “Pimp C” Butler, who died five years ago of an overdose of promethazine/codeine syrup on December 4, 2007.
Born and raised in the Gulf-Coast oil town of Port Arthur, Texas, Pimp C formed the duo UGK with his high-school buddy, Bun B, during the late 1980s crack boom. The silky, soulful beats he created made a warm backdrop for cold rhymes about selling drugs and cuckolding herbs; and the greasy, high-pitched drawl he rapped in was the perfect foil for Bun B’s stentorian baritone. One listen to classics like “Pocket Full of Stones” or “Cocaine in the Back of the Ride” or “It’s Supposed to Bubble” or “Murder,” and you know they knew it—the UGK sound was seductively sinister.
As C himself said to XXL in 2006, soon after his release from a four-year prison bid for pulling out a gun during an argument with a woman in a mall: “I was an animal for a long time. I wasn’t nice. I hurt people’s feelings and I could see it. I was going to be the bad guy if I had to. Fuck you if you don’t like me. You can like Bun. You ain’t gotta like me.”
There’s no easy defense for pulling a gun on a woman in a mall or for the fact that his lack of self-control ended up costing him his life at the far-too-young age of 33, costing his friends and family so much pain, costing hip-hop so much brilliance. But artistically, he was always in full control—well aware of the power in his persona.
Listen to the way the bass notes warp at the beginning of “I Left It Wet for You,” the psychedelic sizzle of Leo Nocentelli’s wah-wah guitar, the evil tick of the treble-end percussion. Then an eerie worm synth comes in and C’s whispered hiss. “I left it wet, I left it wet, I left it wet…” What’s he talking about? For anyone with any doubt, he makes it very clear at the end of the song. “What a nigga tryin’ to say is, shiiiiiiiit, niggas be straight up fuckin’ your gal, fool. And what you gonna do then, what you gonna cry?”
Years later and there’s still nothing nice about it. But there’s nothing less than thrilling, either. As Bun put it after his patna passed: “Hip-hop without Pimp C is boring.” UGK put the “Dirty” in the Dirty South and Pimp C put the dirty in UGK. In the realm of art where “bad” can mean both bad and also good—not just good but the very, very best—Pimp C was the baddest of them all. Five years later, hip-hop still misses Pimp C. —Dave Bry