Two years ago, the beloved Texas rap duo UGK released Underground Kingz, their first-ever #1 on the Billboard 200. It was their first album since rapper/producer Pimp C had finished serving a lengthy prison term, and Jive Records, the group's label, had pushed its release back so many times that at many points it felt like it would never come out. So the album's success felt like a vindication, a happy ending.
It didn't last.
Six months after the release of Underground Kingz, Pimp C died in a Los Angeles hotel room, after the cough syrup he'd been drinking reacted badly with his sleep apnea. Bun B, Pimp's partner in UGK, soldiered on after his death, releasing the solo album II Trill last year. And last month, we reported that Bun was putting the finishing touches on a final UGK album. Jive will release that album, 4 Life, on March 31.
We spoke with Bun about the final UGK album, his forthcoming barrage of guest appearances, and the UGK goodbye shows he's planning in a select few cities. He is, as ever, a hell of an interview.
Pitchfork: I interviewed you about a year ago, and you'd mentioned that you were going to do this UGK project. That was the first I'd heard of it. What's it been like getting the album together?
Bun B: As far as putting it together, I didn't have to do too much running around and chasing around. A lot of the music-- and all of Pimp C's vocals, naturally-- had been laid prior to his passing away. Some of the songs were fully recorded, like from top to bottom, mixed and mastered. Some of them were done only halfway, maybe a verse from him and a verse from me. Some of them were just the Pimp C structure, and we had to build the rest of the song around it.
Pitchfork: Did he leave behind a lot of unfinished work?
BB: I can't really speak to the number of it because-- I think this is key for me to mention-- I don't control the music. I don't have the Pimp C catalogue. The estate owns, controls, and chooses how to distribute everything that's Pimp C's, that has anything to do with Pimp C. So with this album, most of these songs were supposed to go to UGK anyway. It was just a matter of getting it all there for the UGK situation because there were songs for UGK, there were songs for a solo album, there were features he had done that were outstanding. It was just a matter of getting everybody the right music.
Pitchfork: Was it a concern to make the album fit together cohesively as an album? Every previous UGK album has been planned out with a kind of narrative arc.
BB: Yeah, absolutely. The theme for this album had already been set-- pretty much everything except the title. It was going to be a continuation of the themes and context we were trying to get across from the last double album. It was really about re-shaping the thinking of the way cats is doing what they're doing. Somewhere along the line, the G-Code got twisted, so it was really just about implementing the basic rules of the street back into the game and just being smart about how you move forward. A lot of that is basically what this album is about. For me, UGK has never been the kind to just make two good singles and that's it. We've always relied on the album to sell the group, as opposed to a single. It definitely was a concern for me that if I couldn't make an album... I didn't want to just put 12 songs out, you know what I mean? I had to make an album that was going to sit on the shelf next to the other albums, or I wasn't going to do it.
Pitchfork: Yeah, you guys have absolutely never half-assed it in terms of full-lengths. Underground Kingz is an album that I love, but the one thing that was jarringly different about it was the amount of production that didn't come from Pimp and wasn't necessarily of his aesthetic, if that makes sense.
BB: Absolutely. One thing that Pimp used to always talk about was that he felt selfish. And I never understood that because I always felt like I was getting the best beats from the best producer. But Pimp always felt like he was being selfish to the point where, if I kept rapping to Pimp C beats, I would never be able to evolve as an artist. So he would go out of his way to try and incorporate other music to help me branch out more and expand myself more as a lyricist. The whole point of getting the Swizz Beatz track was not my idea. It was Pimp C's idea, because he wanted to hear me on a Swizz Beatz track. He was like, "Man, I just want to buy you a Swizz Beatz track; I know you'll kill that shit." All the dudes that are considered great rappers, they all eventually go in on a Just Blaze or a Swizz Beatz track, making those monumental records. He just wanted to give me the opportunity to make a monumental record.
Pitchfork: Is the new album put together in a similar way, with a bunch of different producers?
BB: Not so much with the different producers. The people who produced this UGK album are all the proteges that Pimp C was working with, his own production collective. A lot of them produced on the last album, so you have Cory Mo, Averexx-- who co-produced with [Pimp] on the last album-- and DJ B-Doe as well: People who he was trying to pass his sound along to to be the next generation of production from our team. It was the best chance I had of trying to keep the UGK sound intact.
Pitchfork: Did Pimp do "Da Game Been Good to Me"?
BB: He co-produced it.
Pitchfork: That is a beautiful song. It just sounds so warm and full. I didn't realize until Pimp died and all these articles about him came out, how musically involved he was with every beat he did, to the extent that he would get members of the Meters to play on songs when he didn't like the way the sample turned out.
BB: The thing was, he wanted to do things with the utmost respect. And it got to the point where he was trying to find someone to recreate the sound but he couldn't find anybody he felt was doing it justice. We happened to have people who were connected to people who had a line to the Neville family. So using those connections, we were able to actually reach out and make contact, and [Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli] was actually willing to come-- and not just play on the album, but play his world-famous guitar licks, recreating them for us. It's almost unheard of. That's only a testament to Pimp C's dedication to-- and passion for-- music and knowledge.
People do not give themselves or their intellectual properties over to the younger generation, especially the hip-hop generation. A lot of times they assume a lack of knowledge as to what they're choosing to use. Most kids will just say, "That's a nice keyboard," but it takes a real musician to know that he's using a Hammond B-3 organ. It's the subtle differences like that that musicians respect. If you're going to approach these people, that's the kind of context you need to have, and Pimp was very good at letting people know that he understood their sound and their music, had a great respect for their catalogue, and wasn't trying to rape their catalogue, was trying to create something unique through what they had created. People understood that.
Pitchfork: Just looking at the tracklist of the new album, there are songs on here that I cannot wait to hear. Like the song with E-40, B-Legit, and 8Ball & MJG-- that's a titantic lineup. I hope it's like 12 minutes long.
BB: [laughs] We had to cut it down. I think it tops out at about four or five minutes. Actually, you know what? I think that song might be six minutes. It's not a little song. It's a big boy song. You know, if you've been following UGK for the past 15-17 years, then you're probably fans of E-40, B-Legit, and 8Ball & MJG as well, because we all come from the same era. To me, that's just a little bit extra for you. If you're fans of UGK, you're probably fans of these guys, too. Wouldn't you like to hear us all on one record? This has been a dream. Everyone involved with the record wanted to hear this record. It just all came together.
Pitchfork: Also, to hear Lil Boosie and Webbie on a UGK record, that's also something I'm really excited about. They're proteges of Pimp's...
BB: Oh, absolutely. The only reason I wouldn't say that that they could possibly be UGK is they don't produce. That's the only thing holding them back from being one of the great tandems. But just the same, they're still incredible talents, and they're going to leave with footprints in the hip-hop sand.
Pitchfork: When this album is out there in the world, what's next for you?
BB: The next thing for me is lending my support to the Pimp C solo album, which comes after this. And then once that's done, I'll start recording my next solo album.
Pitchfork: Are you going to tour solo on this album or anything like that?
BB: On the UGK album? Not in the traditional sense. We're going to put together a couple of tribute concerts in the top couple of markets to try and bring a celebration to the people who have been supporting UGK all this time in the very truest sense ... No disrespect to everyone else. It's not like just because ten people bought it in a small town that those ten people don't love us any less than 50,000 people who bought it in Houston. We're going to try and bring it to the biggest selection of people that we can at the same time who support the movement.
Pitchfork: Where are you going to do these shows?
BB: Probably Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and then two more cities picked out of Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and Cleveland.
Pitchfork: I hope you do one in Chicago.
BB: Chicago's looking pretty good-- I'll be honest. They've always been really strong supporters of UGK.
Pitchfork: When Pimp was imprisoned and you were working by yourself to keep the UGK name alive, you went on this incredible tear of guest appearances that didn't really seem to abate for years. In the past year or so since II Trill came out, you haven't been doing quite as many verses on other people's records. Do you miss that?
BB: No, I really just devoted myself more to [4 Life]. I didn't take too much time giving myself over to other projects. I tried to devote as much of myself to this album as possible; I felt that it deserved my utmost attention and that it should be top priority. The best way for me to keep UGK going in this sense was to make the best UGK album I could possibly put together, whereas in the past, the best way to keep the UGK movement going was to expose myself to as many major markets as possible.
Pitchfork: Is that something you want to get back into?
Bun B: I'll be all over the place in about five minutes. I'm on [Raekwon's] Cuban Linx 2 album, I'm on the Blackout 2 album with Red and Meth, I'm on the X-Clan album, I'm on the new Drake mixtape, I'm on Currency's new mixtape, I did two songs with Uncle Murda, I'm doing something on Reflection Eternal's album, I'm on Shawty Lo's album, I'm on... Fuck, I can't even think of all the shit I'm on.
Pitchfork: You're on the new X-Clan album? How did something like that come together?
BB: I met Brother J when X-Clan opened for Public Enemy on their tour last year. We're both mutual fans of each other. He's an incredible songwriter, always has been. He asked me if I'd be interested and it was my honor.
Pitchfork: Wow. What newer rappers are you liking right now?
BB: That's a good question. There's so many great young talents that I hate to just pick one. I deal with a lot of them. If there's anybody I felt had potential to be a legend right now, I'd pick Killer Mike. I think Killer Mike has the potential to make some of the most impactful music that anybody is going to make in the next couple of years.
Pitchfork: Wow. Are you going to do some work with him anytime soon?
BB: Oh, yeah-- I'm on that album, too.
Pitchfork: I wanted to ask you about appearing in the video for "My President Is Black". That's obviously a huge song, and my friend pointed out your moment in that video, the way you look at the camera. I hope you don't mind if I ask this, but were you close to tears when you filmed that? Because it kind of looks that way.
BB: You're probably the first person to have noticed that. Your friend actually is, I guess. That's very acute. Yes, it was emotional. You have to understand, Jeezy and I have a very long friendship. And just being very real about everything with him, the complications between himself and Pimp, it caused friction in our relationship as well, by due process. Not that I had issues with him or he had issues with me, but it was obvious that something was in the middle. He's made a very sincere effort to try to... I don't want to say reconcile, because we didn't have a problem, but he's made a very real effort to reach out and show that he's never any different about me, regardless of what has happened. I hate to even bring it up, because it's really a dead issue, but it's the reality of it, and there's no sense in acting like it didn't happen.
What happened between him and Pimp happened, but the situation was being squashed between them when [Pimp passed away]. There's no bad blood; there's no grudges. Pimp would always say he never had anything personal against Jeezy; it was just something that he felt about something. Pimp was known for sometimes saying very honest, very outlandish shit in the moment; he'd normally have to come back and apologize for it. This was another one of those instances. Because of the people involved and the level of intensity, it just seemed like a really big issue. At the end of the day, we're all grown men. None of us are small; none of us are petty. Prior to his passing, Pimp was talking about making peace and moved on. Jeezy was talking about making peace and moved on. It's all good, and for us to make a video and stand together and acknowledge Pimp was a beautiful thing for people to see. I really do consider Jeezy one of my close friends. I'm really happy for everything that's happened for him and all his success.
Pitchfork: So the emotion of that moment was more about Jeezy's acknowledgment of Pimp on that song than it was about Obama?
BB: People don't understand that that's very real, what he's talking about when he says, "It's all love, Bun / I'm forgiving you, Pimp C." It's very real. People know what he's saying and know what it's attributed to, but they don't understand how real that is. Very few people nowadays, especially in the urban community... Very seldom do you see people forgive people and leave it like that. It's usually protocol to try and hold a grudge forever. He was a very big man for trying to acknowledge that he wasn't. Because he didn't have to, especially on a song like that which was bound to be a major song. But that shows the effort he wanted to make to show everyone it wasn't an issue. God bless him for it.