A quick note: This isn’t by any means a definitive Pimp C playlist. Over on the XXL blogs, Noz is doing an amazing job unearthing all manner of Pimp-related rarities, and you owe it to yourself to dig a little deeper and check it out.
1. Solomon Burke: “Got to Get You Off of My Mind.” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Pimp grew up steeped in music, particularly Southern soul music. His father was a trumpet player for Burke, among others. In this Noz interview, Pimp talked about being a kid and playing around with his father’s jukebox and piano, singing in his choir, and playing trumpet in his school band. There’s a great moment in the interview where Pimp talks about something his stepfather, who was also Pimp’s music teacher, told him when he first started producing rap records: “Put some music in that shit, you know you know how to read music. Put some goddamn melody in that shit and maybe you can get some money.” Pimp took that suggestion and ran with it. In the early 90s, a few other producers were playing around with live instruments and warmer, expansive tones: Dr. Dre, DJ Slip and the Unknown DJ, the Rap-A-Lot stable of house producers, a few others. But Pimp’s tracks sounded even fuller and more layered than those guys’ work. And rather than just looping up his tracks, Pimp kept new elements fading in and out for his tracks’ entire running time. Consider, for example, the piano that noses around the corners of “It’s Supposed to Bubble,” never settling into one basic figure, or the murmuring blues-guitar curls buried in “Diamonds and Wood.” Pimp’s beats could be intense and vicious, but even then they always subtly mutated and evolved. He was a musician first.
2. UGK: “Feel Like I’m the One Who’s Doin’ Dope” Preview/Buy from iTunes
One of the weird things about really early UGK is that at the beginning, Pimp was pretty much just as good a rapper as Bun. There’s something vaguely awkward and tentative about Bun’s delivery early on, at least compared to the insanely on-beat authoritative preacher’s rumble he’d develop soon enough. Pimp, meanwhile, arrived more or less fully formed, sinking his distinctive nasal drawl deep into his beats, stretching out his syllables in a mocking singsong and displaying a serious eye for lyrical detail. This song, from UGK’s 1992 Jive debut Too Hard to Swallow, is a Pimp solo showcase, and it follows the same basic narrative template as the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me”: Pimp paranoid and hallucinating, not sure he can trust himself. The twist is that here he’s a crack dealer who keeps feeling the effects of the drug he’s doing even though he’s pretty sure he’s not actually smoking the stuff. (He also kills a whole lot of people in various fucked-up ways.) Pimp also gives himself a triumphant ending: he wakes up and realizes that he’s been dreaming the whole time. If that dream is a symptom of a guilty conscience, Pimp doesn’t show it; the laugh he lets out when he realizes he’s OK is awesome. This beat on this song is just amazing: evil rumbling electro-bass, gasping ethereal “Moments in Love” keyboards, synthetic horns, slow-rolling triggered drums. Pimp was like 18 when he put this thing together, and that’s just scary.
3. UGK: “I Left It Wet for You” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Pimp’s production sound was so warm and intuitive that even a song like this one, all graphic unsettling death-threats, works as total comfort-food music, its lazily dangling blues guitars and heavy walking bassline mashing on all sorts of pleasure-centers. Pimp and Bun have a great chemistry here, like two kids trying to outdo each other, seeing who could come up with the most withering put-downs without cracking a smile. I love Pimp’s theatrically evil whispering on the hook. Super Tight, the duo’s 1994 album, might not be its definitive masterpiece, but these days I probably spend more time listening to it than I do to Ridin’ Dirty. It’s smoother and breezier, and it hasn’t aged a day in 13 years.
4. Big Mike: “Havin’ Thangs” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Pimp never did a whole lot of outside production, at least not when UGK wasn’t actually guesting on the track. But when he did take those outside jobs, he didn’t phone it in. Here, Noz has a whole bunch of tracks Pimp produced for his peers, and there’s not a dud among them. Pimp’s biggest non-UGK production is probably “Havin’ Thangs,” which he did for former Convict and one-time Geto Boy fill-in Big Mike. “Havin’ Thangs” is a slow, lilting lope of a track, its guitar curlicues and organ swells and G-funk synths an exquisite bed for Mike’s bruiser drawl. And the hook Pimp sings is a truly badass bit of insinuating Southern soul. (Like a lot of Rap-A-Lot classics, this song is only available on iTunes in screwed-and-chopped form; don’t ask me why. It’ll do in a pinch.)
5. UGK: “One Day” Preview/Buy from iTunes
The recording history of UGK is too deep and too consistent for there to be one definitive UGK track; they just recorded too many great ones. But the track that sticks to my gut the most, the one I’ve been listening to on repeat since reading of Pimp’s death yesterday, is this one: the unforgettable cold-world lament that opens Ridin’ Dirty, for my money one of the five or so greatest rap albums ever. Looking back today, it’s positively eerie how often UGK, Pimp in particular, meditated on the subjects of loss and death. Every rapper has a few dead-homies songs in the vaults somewhere, but with UGK it was always a central theme. You’d be hard-pressed to find a rap elegy more deeply felt and evocative than this one. It’s hard to say how much of the music can be attributed to Pimp; he coproduced the track with N.O. Joe and Mr. 3-2, the latter of whom also provided the overwhelming flat-voiced opening verse. But the way those guitars ripple and sigh, the way vocalist Ronnie Spencer evokes Ron Isley on the chorus, it all sounds like vintage Pimp. And Pimp’s verse here just heartbreakingly eloquent. Everyone who writes about Pimp in the next few days is going to be quoting the end of Pimp’s verse here, and I already did it yesterday, but it bears repeating: “My world a trip, you can ask Bun B, bitch, I ain’t no liar / My man Bobo just lost his baby in a house fire / And when I got on my knees that night to pray / I asked God why you let these killers live and take my homeboy son away / Man, if you got kids, show em you love em cause God just might call em home / Cause one day they here, and baby, the next day they gone.” On a day like today, it’s about impossible to hear this song and not feel like your insides have been scooped out.
6. Master P feat. Pimp C & Silkk the Shocker: “I Miss My Homies” Preview/Buy from iTunes
If I remember right, Pimp is the only non-No Limit guest on Master P’s Ghetto D, the album that cemented No Limit’s late-90s commercial dominance. That’s a tribute to the respect and reverence Pimp commanded in homegrown Southern-rap circles. Even as the East Coast remained virtually oblivious to the music this guy was making, peers like P embraced Pimp as something like a folk hero. “I Miss My Homies” is one of my favorite classic-era No Limit tracks. Like “One Day,” it’s a dead-friends lament, and its naked, destroyed sentimentality goes a long way toward redeeming and complicating the callousness that P displayed elsewhere and for which he’s constantly apologizing these days. On his verse, Pimp sounds like he’s on the verge of crying or blacking out. Like P, Pimp never had a problem playing the nihilistic gangster superhero. But when he was talking about death and loss, Pimp always sounded absolutely human and vulnerable. He never, ever sounded ready to die.
7. Jay-Z feat. UGK: “Big Pimpin'” Preview/Buy from iTunes
So: the biggest rapper in the world wants to recruit UGK, a cultish group who sells gold even though they’re still basically unknown outside the South, to rap on what would arguably become his most iconic track. He’s a Timbaland beat that sounds like a Cairo street-party being fed through a subwoofer, and he wants to fly his guests down to Brazil to film an absurdly opulent Hype Williams video. Only problem: Pimp, a guy who’s happy doing tracks with, like, X-Mob and Kilo G, doesn’t want to do it; he’s afraid a blatantly poppy track like this one will alienate his core audience. (He also, quite understandably, doesn’t want to get into a rapping contest with Jay and Bun.) Jay eventually convinces Pimp, he absolutely kills his slithery singsong verse, and it turns out to be the biggest track in UGK’s career. That UGK’s label did nothing to capitalize on their good fortune here and to turn UGK into the major stars they could’ve been just boggles my mind.
8. Three 6 Mafia feat. UGK: “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” Preview/Buy from iTunes
It seems just impossibly unfair that UGK had its two biggest hits rapping on other people’s songs, not on Pimp’s beats, though I suppose it’s some consolation that both “Big Pimpin'” and “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” are both amazing tracks. I can’t even imagine how Three 6’s ghostly codeine anthem might sound without Pimp’s eerily threatening opening track: “I’m trill working the wheel, a pimp not a simp / Keep the dope fiends higher than the Goodyear Blimp / We eat so many shrimp, I got iodine poisoning / Fuck niggas make me sick with all that pinchin’ and bargainin’.” Nobody could stretch out vowel-sounds the way Pimp could: “Treeel working the wheeeel.”
9. UGK: “Wood Wheel” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Dirty Money, the album UGK finally was allowed to release an insane two years after “Big Pimpin'” and an even more insane five years after Ridin’ Dirty, remains the least consistent UGK album, but it still bangs. “Wood Wheel,” which first appeared as the standout track on J. Prince’s double-disc Realest Niggas Down South compilation and which eventually found a home on Dirty Money, is one of rap’s pantheon car-songs, Bun and Pimp bragging about their gas-guzzling machines over a narcotically slow and woozy Texas funk beat. It feels lame to quote Bun’s lyrics here in a piece about his partner, but he kills it so hard that I just can’t resist: “Smokin’ on bionic bubonic chronic, it’s so ironic / Sippin’ gin and tonic, supersonic like Johnny Mnemonic.” In the video, they wear cowboy hats and ride horses. A few years later, the Swisha House crew took this track’s sound and ran with it, and I can think of at least a couple of tracks that got their hooks from sampling or quoting lines from this track’s verses.
10. Pimp C feat. Lil Flip & Z-Ro: “Comin’ Up” Preview/Buy from iTunes
In 2005, when Pimp was serving four years on an aggravated assault parole violation, Rap-A-Lot put together Sweet James Jones Stories, a Pimp C solo album entirely cobbled together from Pimp’s outtakes, done entirely with the label’s house producers and released without Pimp’s authorization or knowledge. That approach should’ve yielded an unlistenable mess, but it turned out that Pimp had some really good unreleased songs in the vault. I especially like “Comin’ Up,” a bright and breezy song about enjoying the spoils of your success. Back when Sweet James Jones Stories came out, before I knew the circumstances of the album’s release, I figured Pimp had recorded the whole thing in prison. C-Murder had just released The Truest Shit I Ever Said while behind bars, so it seemed to make sense. But it was weird to hear an incarcerated Pimp talking about living the good life, something he was years removed from at the time. Even with all that cognitive dissonance, it’s catchy as all hell. And so Pimp released a great song without even realizing it. (Sweet James Jones Stories isn’t on iTunes, but “Comin’ Up” showed up on a couple of mixtapes that are still available. Weird.)
11. Pimp C: “I’m Free” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Pimp’s first and only real solo album, Pimpalation, came out in 2005, about eight months after his release. It was a pretty solid album, even if the only track Pimp produced was an interpolation of “Havin’ Thangs.” Instead, it mostly rides on the Swishahouse sound, popular at the time. Coming home, Pimp didn’t seem especially interested in talking about his prison time; Pimpalation is more about cars and jewelry than life behind bars. In fact, the only track where Pimp really discusses being locked up at any length is this one, which samples Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” to beautiful effect. Over that classic-rock guitar-chug, Pimp sounds totally ecstatic and triumphant; he doesn’t lament his time away so much as celebrate its end. Still, chilling details emerge: “Pimps and players, I seen some killed with they hands / But I still don’t believe the pen is no place for no man.”
12. UGK: “Heaven” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Underground Kingz, the final UGK album, has so many great Pimp moments that I had trouble picking a single one. On “Grind Hard,” showing an unexpected burst of fatalistic conscience, couched as it is in greasy sex-talk: “Cocaine lady, I don’t fuck her no more / The bitch pussy good, but she a shystie-ass ho / She fucking up my hood, she won’t let my people go / She coming up fast, watch the fiend die slow / I ain’t Jesse Jackson, I’m just watching the reaction, bro / I keep pushing cause grinding hard’s the only life I know.” On the intro to “Quit Hatin’ the South,” saying that the West Coast did hip-hop better than the East as if it was an accepted fact. On “Int’l Players Anthem,” coming with my favorite moment on my favorite song of 2007, dissipating the offbeat starry-eyed idealism of Andre 3000’s opening verse with one impeccably sneered line: “My bitch a choosy lover, never fuck without a rubber / Never in the sheets, like it on top of the cover,” then giving a hard, nasty verse that’s still somehow as romantic, in its own way, as Andre’s. But after yesterday, the song that sticks with me the most is the one where Pimp wonders if paradise exists for people who did dirt in their lives. I can barely listen to this song anymore. Now that Pimp is dead, it occurs to me that there’s not a single living rap producer with his innate command of heavy organic funk. The sound of Texas rap might have to change, since no one could ever do it the way Pimp did. Pimp had a decade and a half of great work behind him, and if he’d lived, he probably would’ve had at least another decade and a half in him. We’ll never see another like him.
Voice review: Dave Stelfox on UGK’s Underground Kingz