How We Live
"I’ve got a new name,” says Chad to Bernard. “Benny D!”Chad’s face spreads with a Texas-sized grin as Bernard leans back in his chair, cocks his head to the left and strokes his chin.“Benny D?” says Bernard. “Hmmm.”“Ben Dover!” Chad laughs. “You should hear what I can rhyme with that.”
“Well, if you’re gonna be Benny D, I’m gonna be S. Butts.”
There is a pause. Then, as if on cue, they chime in together: “Seymour Butts!”
The two slap hands and laugh the easy laughter of old friends. If you hadn’t already figured, given the accompanying photos or the blurb on the table of contents, Mr. Butts and Mr. Dover are the new, pseudo monikers of Bernard “Bun B” Freeman and Chad “Pimp C” Butler, known collectively as Houston-based rap legends UGK. “Shit gets boring,” says Pimp. “So we create the aliases to have fun. Get off into another character. When this shit ceases to be fun, it’s time to stop.”
It’s been almost 20 years since UGK dropped their first album, The Southern Way, available on cassette only, through the independent Bigtyme Recordz, back in 1988. That’s an extraordinarily long career in rap. But despite the fact that they’ve released seven albums, including a best-of collection, for Jive Records, despite their contributions to Three 6 Mafia’s breakout single “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” or their hijacking of Jay-Z’s smack-down classic “Big Pimpin’,” despite their unlikely increase in relevancy over the four years Pimp spent incarcerated in a Texas prison (a time during which a new generation of Southern stars—T.I., Paul Wall, Mike Jones, et al.—explicitly cited UGK’s influence), despite all this, they still make a good case for hip-hop’s most known unknowns status. (Especially now that Three 6 have added that new member named Oscar.)
“UGK as a group still hasn’t gone platinum,” says Bun. “As many people who are open to us, our message still hasn’t reached the masses.”
UGK’s last studio album, Dirty Money, came out over six years ago. The musical landscape has changed since then, and in a way that would seem auspicious for Pimp and Bun. Houston blew up, becoming a rap capital in the league of Atlanta and New Orleans. The success of young artists like Lil’ Flip, Paul Wall, Mike Jones and Chamillionaire has indoctrinated a nation’s worth of screaming TRLers with H-Town slang and country swagger—softening the market for all Texas rappers. (Bun B’s solo debut, Trill, rode the rush to gold certification last year.) With that kind of groundwork laid for their own upcoming double disc, UGK: Underground Kingz, you’d think that Bun and Pimp would count their region’s rise as money in the bank.
You’d be wrong.
“The question is, who’s gonna ride with us when that fad is over?” Pimp pops a rubber band on his wrist for effect. “We’re going back to that fan base that’s been riding with us for 15-plus years.”
Bun agrees. “DJ Screw and [Michael 5000] Watts might have gotten everybody’s attention,” he says, referencing the Houston DJs most responsible for developing the city’s scene. “But it’s not gonna keep ’em here. Eventually, y’all gonna have to put your lives on the line. It’s too hard to live up to these images. Now, there is no curtain to hide the wizard. You gotta let people know who you are from day to day.”
It’s exactly one week before Christmas. With temperatures in the 70s, though, and smog obscuring the tops of tall buildings, Houston’s downtown area shows no signs of welcoming ol’ St. Nick or his reindeer. Upstairs, in the lux, cozy penthouse suite of the Icon Hotel, Pimp C bellies up to a table and removes the lid on a chicken club sandwich and a plate of shrimp wrapped in bacon. “I eats pork,” he says. “We eat a whole lot of it where I come from.”
That would be Port Arthur, Texas, a refinery town almost 100 miles outside of Houston. There, at Thomas Jefferson High School, two part-time hustlers planted the seeds of success in the underground. Though Bun, a strong student, was offered scholarships to attend San Jacinto College and Texas A&M, he opted for hip-hop. Pimp, on the other hand, dropped out of high school in his senior year. “Who knows what I’d be doing if I went another way,” Pimp says. “I might have invested in a studio and gotten into the music business that way.”
Today, more than 15 years later, Pimp C stands by for a photo shoot. He expresses himself with the charisma of a Baptist preacher—all pregnant pauses and loaded inflection. He rolls the words around in his mouth, accents his points with a squint of the eye, a poking of the table. It was Pimp who famously protested doing “Big Pimpin’,” which turned out to be the biggest song of UGK’s career, but he makes no apologies. “At that stage in my life, that wasn’t the record I was supposed to be doing,” he explains. “You gotta understand, I come from a DJ Screw culture, where if you step wrong, you fucked up. And to me, that was a step in the wrong direction, when I first heard it.”
He pops a shrimp into his mouth. “But Jay was right,” he says, chewing. “He was. It was good for us in more ways than it was bad for us.”
After “Big Pimpin’” hit the top five of the pop charts in 2000, it seemed like the stars were aligned for a UGK breakthrough. But shortly after their fourth album, Dirty Money, hit stores the next year, Pimp C was sent to jail for brandishing a gun in a mall during an argument with a woman and her friends.
It was the kind of momentum stoppage that could have spelled the end for the group. Undaunted, Bun rallied his efforts around a slogan, “Free Pimp C,” and hit the mixtape circuit like a man possessed. Jumping on every track available, lending a verse to anyone, seemingly, with studio time booked, he did everything he could to get the word out: UGK for life.
The full-court press panned out. It’s been a year since Pimp was released from jail, and he’s integrated into the thriving Southern hip-hop scene seamlessly, producing, guesting on tracks and helping to promote the UGK comeback. “When he first got out, he wanted to go straight to the studio,” says Bun. “I had to tell him to chill. That’s why I worked like that, so you wouldn’t have to do all that hustling when you came out.”
Whereas Pimp C’s manner of speech has an almost physical presence, Bun’s approach is more cerebral. He makes his points quickly, precisely and without pomp and circumstance. Today, he shuffles into the hotel suite wearing Adidas slippers and a black T-shirt draped over his belly that says “Quit Hatin’ the South” in metallic gold print. Since rapper beefs have hopped regional lines, the bickering between the North and the South has saturated lyrical content, chat boards and, alas, T-shirt designs. “Yeah, I think the South is getting hated on,” Bun says. (His shirt’s slogan is also a song title on the new album.) “But most think we’re talking to New York MCs. Nas is getting a lot of heat for that. But Nas is a good friend of Pimp C.”