UGK - Biography
By David Downs
UGK helped to popularize and legitimize Southern rap, beginning in the late 1980s. The longtime collaboration between Southern rappers Bernard “Bun B” Freeman and Chad “Pimp C” Butler resulted in aggressive and thuggish minimalist gangster tales that reveled in the dark and profane side of life. The duo went mainstream in 1992 for Jive Records and released a total of eight albums, beginning with Too Hard to Swallow (1992 Jive) and Super Tight… (1994 Jive). 1996’s Ridin’ Dirty (1996 Jive) found mainstream radio airplay and the group appeared on the legendary hit song “Big Pimpin’” with Jay-Z in 2000. UGK’s rise to popularity was stalled when Pimp C was jailed for several years. After he was released from prison, Underground Kingz (2007 Jive) became a Billboard 200 number one in 2007 with help from the hit “International Player’s Anthem (I Choose You),” featuring OutKast. Pimp C died later that year, and the subsequent and final release, UGK 4 Life (2009 Sony), charted at number six on the Billboard 200 in 2009. A New York Times article published August 7, 2007 claimed that UGK “helped inspire a generation of Southern Hip-Hop stars, from OutKast to Lil Wayne.”
Chad Butler was born on December 29, 1973 and raised in Port Arthur, Texas. His father was a trumpet player and he grew up listening to blues and soul records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He learned how to read music and sung in choir as a youth. In 1983, while visiting family in Louisiana, Butler heard Run DMC for the first time and became transfixed on the emerging art form of rap. Run’s minimalist narratives over stripped-down instrumentals had a lasting impact on Butler. Also influenced by party animal Rick James and the decadent Prince, Butler began producing his own demo tapes by high school. There was no rap music scene in Port Arthur at the time, but Butler befriended fellow resident Bernard Freeman. The two began collaborating, inspired by the Kool Herc of Texas, DJ Screw.
Pimp C and Bun B’s music was intensely regional and experimental. It was gangster and minimal, and they could care less what outsiders thought. Their independent debut EP cassette, The Southern Way (1988 Bigtyme Recordz), was released in 1988 and expanded their audience in Houston, making them regional players. By 1992, the major label Jive came calling with a five-album deal. The duo released Too Hard to Swallow (1992 Jive), which was minimal, hard, and full of shotguns, crack rocks, Cadillacs, and making bail. Unforgiving and controversial, Too Hard to Swallow showed the rap world that it had found a new voice. 1994’s Super Tight (1994 Jive) was softer and found a spot on the Billboard 200 charts. “It’s Supposed to Bubble” offered guitar-filled, smooth funk and gained more casual fans.
Mellower and more produced than ever before, the landmark album Ridin’ Dirty (1996 Jive), released in 1996, hit number two on both the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and the Billboard 200, and ultimately went gold. The remainder of the ‘90s was relatively quiet for UGK. They had ground out several LPs over a decade of touring and recording. In 1999, “Pimpin Ain’t No Illusion” became a Hot Rap Single number six and UGK appeared on the legendary Jay-Z track “Big Pimpin’” in 2000. But 2000 turned out to also be a year of problems for the duo. Pimp C brandished a gun at a woman while inside a shopping mall – an act that would later derail UGK’s career. Furthermore, Pimp C appeared on Three 6 Mafia’s ode to drinking cough syrup, “Sippin’ on Syrup,” while that same year UGK’s hero DJ Screw died of a heart attack after an overdose of codeine-laced cough syrup and alcohol. Rapper Big Moe, another fan of the drug, also died that year of a heart attack.
Dirty Money (2001 Jive) restored UGK to the top of the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart in 2001. Devin the Dude, DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia, and Too Short all appeared as guests. Two versions of the album were released – one “clean” version and another laden with sex, guns, and drug talk. Pimp C ended up in jail in 2002 for violating his parole after the handgun conviction and he served four years. 2002’s Side Hustles (2002 Jive) appeared amid the full-scale rise of Houston rap stars Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, and Slim Thug. With Pimp C in jail, a slew of less than excellent work emerged such as 2003’s Best of UGK Live (2003 Jive) and 2004’s Chopped and Screwed (2004 Jive). Also in 2004, Pimp C released Sweet James Jones Live from the Harris County Jail (2004 Pimp C Family Records), under the alias Sweet James Jones.
Bun B rapped on Beyonce’s Hot 100 number one hit “Check On It” in 2005 and in 2006, the now 32-year-old Pimp C (who had sold well over 1 million records since 1992) was released by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Terrell Unit. 2007’s Underground Kingz (2007 Jive) was a true come back, with Scarface, Jazze Pha, Juicy J, and DJ Paul guest-producing. A Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for the song “International Player’s Anthem (I Choose You),” soon followed. The double-disc features UK garage rapper Dizzee Rascal, T.I., Talib Kweli, Rick Ross, Kool G Rap, Too Short, OutKast, and Three 6 Mafia. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200.
The rise was short-lived, though. In December of 2007, Pimp C – who claimed to have gotten clean in prison – was found dead in a hotel room at the age of 33. The death was ruled accidental; a combination of promethazine/codeine syrup found in the rapper’s system coupled with the sleep disorder sleep apnea proved to be fatal. By this time, the rap scene that UGK helped create had become synonymous with codeine syrup abuse. In 2006, four local pharmacists were found guilty of selling more than 2,500 gallons of it.
UGK 4 Life (2009 Jive), released in 2009, is comprised of some of the final recordings by UGK. The album hit number two on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and number six on the Billboard 200. In terms of side projects, 2005 saw Pimp C’s solo album The Sweet James Jones Stories (2005 Rap-A-Lot) debut at number three on the Billboard Top Rap Albums chart and Bun B issued the gold-selling solo album Trill (2005 Asylum). Pimp C is survived by a wife and three children. Bun B continues to produce and perform.