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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."
Willie says that the worst part is that many of Pimp's (and his) imitators don't give credit where credit is due. "Take a pro athlete, and you ask them, 'Who did you follow when you were growing up?' and a boxer will say 'Muhammad Ali' or 'I patterned my style after Joe Frazier.' Barry Sanders will say Gale Sayers, or some QB will say he got his from Johnny Unitas. But with hip-hop, just because it's such a braggadocious genre of music, it's not necessarily cool to shine light on another rapper."
Willie likened Pimp to a "quiet storm," because he says his mind was always churning. "He always had something going on. He was always thinking, no matter what he was doing—thinking." And you can hear that in UGK's development—Super Tight and Ridin' Dirty are both light years beyond Too Hard to Swallow, their major-label debut. While it's hard to argue that this year's Underground Kingz was their best album ever, it did sport a few tracks that were as good as anything they had ever done and you got the feeling that it had laid the groundwork for something even better.
"They were what the down South was, the A-grade for that," says Zin. "They were the bar for what Houston was, next to Scarface, on the grimy hustler's side. Bun kind of picked up the slack after Pimp got locked up. They still held that lane, but it was a little different after Pimp got locked up, just because Bun had done so much work, you know? But Pimp was extraordinary, man. It was kinda hard to place him. He was in his own little category."
All over the Internet and in the news, moralizers are coming out of the woodwork to preach sermons on the theme of "The wages of sin is death." We don't know how Pimp C died December 4 in Los Angeles, and we won't for another six weeks. An initial coroner's report has ruled out homicide and suicide and that's about all we know now. That, and the fact that a giant of Texas music has been silenced.
Who knows what was going through his mind that final night?
"People think 'cause you got money and people around you that it means somethin', and that shit don't mean nothin'," says Zin. "And you never really know what is on a person's plate, what they are really doin'. People always say 'Man, I know him, I got all his records.' No you don't. You never know. And then just seeing some of the stuff Pimp was saying about different rappers and stuff. I think there was a battle goin' on. He really wanted to do somethin' else."
And now, tragically, all we have left in store from Pimp C and UGK is his unfinished solo record and the scraps from other sessions. His passing is as tragic and shocking as any in Texas since Selena and, going way back, Johnny Ace. The Dirty South now has its Tupac.
"The worst thing about death is the void," says Willie D. "It ain't that the person is dead, it's just that void. If Pimp was still livin' and we knew that he was alive and just livin' overseas and we just wasn't gonna lay eyes on him, [that's one thing], but it's just the void, knowing that he's not there anymore, period. And there's absolutely no chance in getting any of that extra energy and talent that he possessed. That's over. All we have now is the catalog and the stuff that he was working on. Which is real good."