Supersonic like Johnny Mnemonic
This was an honor and a privilege to do, and I was nervous as hell going into it. I’ve done too many interviews where musicians I’ve loved turn out to be inarticulate dickbags in person. But there’s nothing quite like meeting a hero of mine and finding him to be a truly smart and decent human being. I walked into Bun’s publicist’s office building just before he did; when I was waiting for the elevator, I heard that rumbling voice checking in with security long before I saw him. Bun knows a whole lot about music. The part where Bun plays Zune spokesman at the beginning of the interview is a bit weird, but he really catches fire toward the end.
How long have you been in town for?
We just got in this morning around noon. We drove in on the bus. Funny shit, trying to figure out how to get into Manhattan on a thirteen-foot tour bus. After the fact, we realized that I think you can take the Lincoln in, because I think the Lincoln’s got a thirteen-foot clearance. But we ended up on the GWB and shit.
So you’re on tour now?
Yeah, a promo tour, sponsored by Microsoft Zune. They made me an ambassador for the Zune mp3 player, so of course with their financial backing, instead of just being on a bus for the normal three, four weeks or whatever, we can stay on the road for two, maybe three months, touching that many more markets, having more of a personal relationship with fans as far as being able to be in places longer and do more things in those places. Then with the different stuff they’re doing, like with the Zune, the Zune website has its own social networking site within. It’s got like its own MySpace, Facebook kind of thing going on within the site, which gives me that much more connection to the fanbase. They have what’s called the Zune tag on your profile that shows basically everything you’re listening to, all the shit you’re buying and all that. So I can look people and I can see, instead of them just saying, “Oh, I really fuck with you, Bun B, I love your music,” I can see who’s actually spending money on the music, who’s actually listening to it, what kind of a base there is. We’re in a position to say, “Thanks for supporting the music. Maybe when I come to town, you guys could come out.” And it gives them more of an incentive to stay on more, to buy more shit. So it’s a real good reciprocal relationship that I get to have with these people. At the end of the day, the longer you’re out, the more people you can touch, the more records you can sell, the more money you can make. I’m definitely all about that shit.
You did shows when the first solo album came out, but how does it feel to be out there by yourself now?
Believe me, I understand what you mean. I’ve done it by myself before, when Pimp was locked up, but it was always with the notion that at some point Pimp would come back to the process. Now, I think with anything where you have that fear and anxiety about approaching and really getting started with some shit, it’s just the initial taking action. So for me, the hardest show of course was the first show we did at Warehouse Live in Houston. Pimp passed away on December 4, and I had offers for the 15th, the 25th. I had like a 25-grand offer for New Years Eve. But for me, it wasn’t about money. I wanted to be sure that wherever we kicked this back into motion, it was in the right room with the right people under the right circumstances. So I rented the venue. I controlled everything about it. And that in itself took that much more pressure off of me. We had an incredible show, probably the greatest performance I’ve ever given onstage. And once we did that, we knew we could do it. We got up there, we did the rough songs, we cried it out with the people, the people cried. We worked through it. And it was like, you know what? We’re going to be OK.
Are you going to keep doing those rough songs? Like “One Day” and them?
Absolutely. Because you know what, Tom? At the end of the day, it’s therapy for me, and it’s therapy for the fans, too. Like the same way that we go in the clubs and get that crazy energy from people, and it’s a back and forth, like they give you energy and you give it back, it’s the same thing with emotion, with grieving. We help each other get through the grieving process. These people love Pimp C just like I did. They miss him just like I do. So it’s important for all of us to help each other get through the process.
The day Pimp died, my friends and I were calling each other, consoling each other. I haven’t seen that happen with another musical artist that people cared about that much since, like, Biggie.
I think the thing with Pimp was that people cared about Pimp because Pimp cared. Pimp C, whether you agreed with him or not, was passionate about what he did. He gave a damn about what he did. I remember my friend Frank Rivera from Weekly Drop, he called me. This was before Pimp passed, when all the different interviews was going, and he was like, “Yo, B, I just gotta say, man, I don’t know Pimp, and I don’t know if all these different things is true, but I’m just so happy to see somebody give a damn about something nowadays. Nobody really gives a damn about anything. Nobody puts themselves out there. Nobody puts themselves on the line anymore. It’s just good to see somebody give a damn again.” And I understood what he meant. If there’s one thing Pimp C does, it’s give a damn. He’s not lighthearted or easygoing about anything he ever cared about. It was passion involved in everything that he was a part of, extreme passion. There was no middle ground.
When you went on that initial tear of solo guest appearances in 2003 or so, I always had the impression that you were doing that with this sense of extreme urgency to keep the UGK name alive.
That was the best way I felt I could do it. I couldn’t really think of another way to consistently impress it on people’s minds of what it was I was trying to get across. And I was blessed to have different people like the Ludacrises and the Jeezys reach out to me and offer me high-profile cameos. Some of them I went after; some of them were brought to me. So that was a blessing within itself, and I just used all those different opportunities to try to make a lane for people. With “Free Pimp C,” it seemed like the more we did it, the more we got support for it. It just kept evolving and evolving until it became this incredible movement that translated into him coming out and literally being more recognizable – more famous or more infamous, however you would like to put it – than he was before he went into prison, which is almost unheard of. Probably the only instances are going to be Pimp C and Shyne, when he gets released, as far as going into prison and coming out and maintaining the same integrity.
Do you feel a similar sense of urgency now?
Oh, absolutely. The “RIP Pimp C” campaign is absolutely akin to the “Free Pimp C” campaign. And, actually, to me there’s more of a sense of urgency. Because now that people know that he’s gone completely, people tried to manipulate certain situations when he was just locked up in prison, so now that he’s passed away, people are trying to take more advantage of the situation than ever before. So it’s important for me to get back on track as soon as possible, with giving yourself a fair amount of time to grieve. But I just don’t want people to take the situation and think that we’re as vulnerable as they’d like to believe we are. It’s important for me to get back on my feet and get this ball rolling again.
With UGK albums and production, it almost like you inhabited your own sonic universe. There was a UGK sound. And Trill seemed to me to be more of an attempt to engage with where rap was going at the time.
Well, what it was, to be absolutely honest, was me trying to touch as many different outlets as I could. So I used the normal UGK channels, the normal underground channels, with more of the unsigned artists and the deeper-type hood stuff. But then if there was somebody that had some mainstream shit going on and they were willing to let me be a part of it, that was cool. As long as they were willing to let me scream “UGK” and “Free Pimp C,” that was fine. We definitely wanted to touch as many people as possible because I wanted to bring as much awareness to the situation as possible. I don’t regret it at all because it helped me vocalize even more what I was trying to get across, which was “Free Pimp C, UGK for life.” And in the course of II Trill there may be a few songs that people may feel like might be a little bit different or whatever, but at the end of the day, this is a movement. You have to use every outlet and every opportunity you can in order to keep it alive, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do, to touch as many people as possible, while at the same time staying faithful to the people who put us where we are.
It’s almost incredible, the situation with Jive, that when Pimp got out of prison and when you got this flood of goodwill coming toward you, that that album still kept getting pushed back. Do you have any resentment about that.
No. You know, you could sit around and question yourself all the time, but it seems to me to always be a lot easier to just say fuck it and keep moving. That’s always been our mentality. If there is a way to get something accomplished, then we’ll get it figured out, but in the meantime we just gotta do what we gotta do, point blank, period. We play our position and make it happen, and that’s just going to be what it’s going to be. If they feel it, cool. If not, then fuck them. At the end of the day, we represent for the people. If the people get it, that’s cool for us.
And you’re 100% done with Jive now?
No, we still got one more album. We actually went in, and they pretty much offered an amount of money that we couldn’t turn down for one more. We wanted the last album to go out with a bang, and they weren’t willing to let it go out the way we wanted it to go out, so we were like, “What do we have to do to make this last album a great album?” And they were like, “Just don’t make it the last album, please.” And we were like, “Give us a reason for us to want to keep doing business with you.” And they did. So we got one more album, and everyone knows now that there is no sense in trying to negotiate anything further at this point. And Barry Weiss in particular has been very understanding with the circumstances, and at the end of the day, he understands the legacy and wants to make sure nobody takes advantage of it if the integrity is still intact. Even with the Trill movement, with us going out and doing all these cameos and features, they were very smart to let us be able to do this, to keep the UGK name up to a certain level so they could still profit off it. And that’s just the reality of it. I was able to see a very human side of Barry Weiss that I probably hadn’t witnessed the entire fifteen years we’d been there. Any kind of little petty stuff that we’d all been going through – they would nutcheck us, we’d nutcheck them, that kind of thing – we was in a position now to just throw all that out the window, make the best album we could possibly make, and all present it the way we need to present it.
So there is another UGK album? And were you working on it before Pimp passed?
There is one more UGK album, and yeah, we were working on it. Once we started recording for Underground Kingz, we literally couldn’t stop. That’s why it ended up being a double album. And there were still like six or seven songs left over from that because we had already started working on the next album. We just had gotten into such a serious groove from making that music that we just kept on and kept going.
Is the album done?
No, it’s not done because, like all albums, I’m not sure what the sample-clearance issues is going to be, different cameo features. It’s definitely not a complete album, and I’m not sure how much of what we have is going to hold. You gotta think in terms of content, and you don’t want to do anything that’s going to seem in poor taste now, after the fact. Once we get all that kind of stuff figured out, then we’ll make it happen.
Can you speak on how it’s going to sound as compared to past albums?
It is going to be a difference because the reality of it is that Pimp’s not going to be as involved with it as he usually would be. But that being said, there’s definitely going to be a lot of Pimp C production on there, a lot of Pimp C features. And it’s going to be somewhat the album that he and I were trying to put together. We were able to link up with different people like Akon and T-Pain and start taking what we do to a broader audience, not necessarily doing what a Akon does or a T-Pain does but bringing them into our fold and helping them do us, and to bring it to their audience. We’re definitely going to be doing some of that. Like I said, it’s just a matter of sitting back and taking a look at everything, making sure that it can be done honorably and with respect. Because if not, then I don’t see the point in doing it.
Do you have a favorite UGK song?
Normally I say no to that question. It’s a very, very thin line there, when you start saying that. But I think back now to the first song we did when he got released, a song called “Here We Go Again” that will probably be on the new album, and I don’t know. The song says a lot about us, about what we were able to do to come back and make it happen. It was really literally the first time after he got out of prison that he and I rapped together, and it probably was the most nervous he or I had been as far as going into the booth and spitting a rhyme in a long time. He wrote his rhyme, and I wrote mine, and once he spit is and I spit mine, we realized that we didn’t have to worry about getting the chemistry back. Because it never left. It just happened. That song didn’t even make the album; we just kept it.
What do you talk about on the song?
Just the Bun and the Pimp back together again, doing it the way we used to do it.
What about guest appearances? Do you have a favorite that you’ve ever done?
Ever? I wouldn’t say that, because I’ve done so many songs with so many great people: up-and-coming artists, established people, legends, superstar-status type of people. And to give one more credit would really be to do a disservice to the other people. I’ve really been blessed to do some stuff with some great people. I’m just happy to still be here, if anything. I’m happy to have people of certain calibers that would even still want me to be involved with that type of shit.
Even while you’ve become a legend and this hugely influential figure, it’s interesting to me that you’ve sort of stayed a student of rap, whether it be getting Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap and Marley Marl on your album or working with somebody younger who’s more off the radar like a Dizzee Rascal. Does that stop you from getting burned out? I can’t think of any rappers who’ve been around as long as you have who are still that engaged with rap.
No, they invigorate me. They give me the energy to get back into it, and that’s why I seek out so many of these guys, because they have such energy. The Lupes of the world have such energy, the Wales, the Kidz in the Hall, the Cool Kids, the Z-Ros, the Traes, the Crooked Is. These people have such great energy, such great focus, such great artistry that they bring to the table that I’ve learned to feed off it the way they say they’ve learned to feed off of music that UGK put out. And I’m starting to understand the balance; I’m starting to understand the way this shit works. I listen to them, and I don’t bite their shit or anything. But the love and the energy for it that they have and the intensity that they really trying to get in and let people feel them reminds me of how bad I wanted to get in and how hard I wanted people to feel what I was doing. It just reminds me of what this shit started on, and it reminds me to stay focus.
Last year, you presented a screening of Style Wars at the Houston Museum of Arts and Sciences. What was it about that movie?
For me, it was just about a moment that was captured at the time. That was one of the last moments where it wasn’t about money. The guys in that movie were just starting to get gallery showings. The breakers, the street people, a lot of them were in that age where nobody was getting rich off it. It was all about if you loved it. It was all for the love. I remember those days, and that kind of thing you don’t really see nowadays. Everything is so commercialized, and it’s all about money. It’s not bad because you got a lot of people that are able to profit off of their art that weren’t able to profit before. But art can’t just solely be about profit.
The reason I’m asking about Style Wars is that for a Southern rapper, New York seems to be almost a fascination for you. I’ve heard you talking about KRS-One and Public Enemy and everything on the same level as a Too Short or a Geto Boys.
I’m a fan, first and foremost. Before I’m a artist, I’m a fan. I signed my deal in 92, which means I grew up on rap from like 87 up to that point. And you’d be hard-pressed to find any rap music that came from anywhere besides New York back then. You had maybe Tuff Crew in Philly, you had Aladdin and the early N.W.A stuff like Ice Cube, Illegal, that kind of stuff in LA. You had Ghetto Style DJ’s in Florida and all of that. But everybody knows that the majority of rap music coming out during that time was coming from New York, and if you idolized rap music, you looked up to rappers, nine times out of ten you were looking up to New York people. And just because the South has gotten to where we are doesn’t mean I mean to say, “Well, the South is on now, so fuck all the East Coast people that I grew up liking.” I’ve still got respect for the people that I’ve always had respect for. It’s easy for me to show my love for Willie D. It’s not even a question. People know that, and it’s easy to see. It’s easy for me to show my love to Scarface; people know that, and it’s easy to see. But people may not know how much love and respect we would have for a Marley Marl or a Kool G Rap. Because these people helped to dictate who we became as artists as much as anyone else. I used to listen to the Convicts and OG Style and shit like that, but I listened to Lakim Shabazz and Poor Righteous Teachers. I also listened to Low Profile back in the day. And different shit: the Schooly Ds, the Hilltop Hustlers, Steady B and Cool C and all that stuff. We took all that shit in. We appreciated all forms of music. It wasn’t about where you were from; it was just about how you were coming. If you came real with it, people went out and bought it and supported it. It was really that simple. We didn’t have to differentiate it between regions back then. All we wanted was rap music.
UGK has three or four of my favorite full-length rap albums of all time. It seems to me like with UGK, the album was the focus rather than the single, as a long-form piece of work? Is that the case, and is that something you want to carry over?
Absolutely. UGK was never one to really have radio singles and videos and things like that. So our records didn’t break in the traditional sense that other records normally broke. Our thing was more that you kind of have to take the whole thing in because you weren’t going to focus on just one song. So you had to take the whole thing in and accept or reject the whole album. For us, it was important to make sure that every song was strong, every song could stand on its own but also fit within a theme. Hats off to Pimp for keeping us on that note and keeping us focused on that kind of thing, because it’s not really easy to do. A lot of people wouldn’t know that every UGK album is a concept album; they’re not just albums like that. Like Too Hard to Swallow was about making music and beats so thick that it was literally too thick for you to take in; you had to step back a bit to really embrace it. Super Tight was about sonically everything being mixed perfect, all the music and instrumentation being perfect: not just using fake keyboards but actually getting a B3 and a Leslie and playing that stuff out, not just sampling a guitar but getting a guitar player. Ridin’ Dirty was about a day in the life of the average drug-dealer in the hood. It was about the good things, the bad things, the shit that most people don’t really know, the going home with the stress, family issues; all that shit encompassed that. Dirty Money was about someone who was trying to overcome everything and who had built this foundation that was based on dirty money and the way that you could turn around and do positive things with dirty money in the same way that you’re beholden to certain shit when you deal in dirty money. A lot of people don’t realize how in-depth Pimp and I would go into making these albums. We were very serious. Underground Kingz was just about us being self-explanatory; we going to be doing exactly everything that we’ve always done, and we’re just reinforcing who we are.
So does II Trill have a concept?
Oh, absolutely. I’m too trill to fall back now. I would love to go sit down and feel sorry for myself, but I’m too trill for that. I would love to go home and not have to worry about this shit and not have to take all the pressure and the stress of carrying UGK on my shoulders, but I’m too trill for that. I’m too trill for this game. I got to do it because if I don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it. Because they ain’t trill enough.
Voice review: Dave Stelfox on UGK’s Underground Kingz