By Jeremy Hallock
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I came late to the UGK party. I was out of the country for much of their rise from 1992-1995, and then I lived in Nashville, where their legend had not yet spread, until the end of 1997. Even after moving back to Houston, it took me a few years to come around to them—I had kind of soured on hip-hop around that time.
In fact, one of the last hip-hop albums I was really digging then was Big Mike's Somethin' Serious, which came out in 1994. I had it on cassette and had lost the insert card, so I didn't know until quite recently that Bun B was one of the guests on the posse track at the end of the record or that Pimp C had produced and sung the hook on "Havin' Thangs," one of the funkiest songs on one of the funkiest rap albums up to that point.
What I loved about Somethin' Serious was that it was resolutely, absolutely Gulf Coast hip-hop music—Big Mike had divided his youth between Houston and New Orleans, and you could hear it in his Meters samples, laid-back tempos and unabashedly Southern accent.
And then, just a couple of years ago, Matt Sonzala loaned me a copy of Super Tight, UGK's second major-label record and their first classic. My mind was utterly blown. Super Tight took Somethin' Serious to whole other levels. I have always believed that had I heard it when it first came out, my life might have taken a different direction—maybe toward hip-hop journalism instead of general music criticism.
"Sonically, it's one of the finest hip-hop albums ever to come from the South," says Pierre Bradshaw, host of a local music show on Houston's KBXX-97.9 FM The Box in the early 1990s.
It wasn't the lyrics that did it for me—it was the music, and Pimp C as UGK's primary producer was the architect of that sound. I call it gumbo funk—heavy on the church organ and bluesy guitars, it sounded not so much a break from the past as a continuance of the Texas blues, R&B and even zydeco that I had grown up on.
"First and foremost, I always liked the fact that his music was always soulful, it always had a soulful groove to it," says Willie D, the former Geto Boy, boxer and radio host. "That's one of the first things you've got to know—if you want to make good music, make soulful music."
Pimp C learned well a lesson from his stepfather, a trumpeter once in Solomon Burke's band and the band teacher at Port Arthur's Woodrow Wilson junior high. In an interview with the blog Cocaineblunts, Pimp reminisced about his stepfather's guidance: "Put some music in that shit, you know you know how to read music," his stepfather said. "Put some goddamn melody in that shit and maybe you can get some money."
Bradshaw remembers how The Box's phones would light up when he would spin "Tell Me Something Good" from the independent release that Jive would pick up and re-release as Too Hard to Swallow. "They had made an independent record that was good enough for a major to release," Bradshaw says. "That was very unusual."
And Pimp kept right on raising his game. "He was a beast on the production," says Houston rapper and KPFT-90.1 FM DJ Zin. "He was the first one to do that tripled-up hi-hat and all that. Everybody bit that from him. They were doing that shit 13 years ago. The production, the inflection of his voice, he always had that crazy-ass ringin' in your ear."
Among prominent MCs who came before him, only Willie D was as unabashedly proud of his Southern, "country" accent as Pimp C. "When we first came out, a lot of people would knock my voice, knock me," Willie says. "They'd say I was too country or whatever. But Pimp C embraced it. He always liked whatever I did. He liked it, and he would tell anybody who would listen, 'Willie D inspired me. That was why I got in the game. Willie D's my favorite rapper.' And I hear a lot of me in Pimp in terms of his realness in his music, you know, the authenticity in his music. I hear it."
Willie D says that Pimp C was consumed with his passion for the music, more so than himself and likely most rappers, who often view themselves as lyricists first. He believes that Pimp's pride in his musical craft caused him to resent his imitators more than usual. Compounding Pimp's frustration was the fact that he missed out on the fat years of the Dirty South rap boom thanks to the prison sentence (for assault and parole violation) he served from early 2002 to very late in 2005. As he sat on the sidelines, many lesser talents came to the fore, all of whom owed him a tremendous musical debt.
"When Pimp went to jail it was like, 'The coast is clear,'" says Willie D. "It was like, 'Well, Pimp went to jail. I can jack his style now.' And that's kinda what happened. You look at the success a lot of rappers had after Pimp got locked up, and it was straight jack-moves."