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UGK 4 Life

by Published on
photo by Rodic Allen
A mural dedicated to UGK in their hometown, Port Arthur. Bun B is on the left, Pimp C on the right.

In 1992, Houston rap duo UGK released their major-label debut, Too Hard to Swallow, and became the flag bearers for a new underground hip-hop movement. The group comprised Bun B and Pimp C, who had been making music together since their high school days in the Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur. The son of a professional musician, Pimp C drew on the soul and R&B records he grew up on to produce a new sound, mixing molasses-slow beats driven by skittering hi-hats with soulful bass lines, horn sections and wah-wah guitars. Combined with the duo’s Southern twangs and slang-driven tales of life in Houston ghettoes, the tracks marked the beginning of a local sound and movement that went national in 2003—Houston hip-hop’s annus mirabilis, which saw MCs Paul Wall, Mike Jones and Slim Thug (all UGK protégés) slip the restraints of regional success.

As MCs, Bun B and Pimp C were a classic hip-hop partnership. Bun B employed a rich, authoritative baritone, Pimp C a nasal whine. Bun B was stolid and unflappable; Pimp C was a loose cannon. Bun B’s flow was virtuosic and rich in wordplay and rhythmic variation; what Pimp C lacked in skill he made up for in brashness and style. When Jay-Z enlisted UGK to guest on his 1999 hit “Big Pimpin’,” the group rose to national fame, to the disappointment of some Houston hip-hop fans who saw UGK as a symbol of regional pride.

One year before Houston’s big break in 2003, Pimp C went to prison for a parole violation stemming from an aggravated assault charge, and Bun B was left on his own. Initially reluctant to release records without his longtime collaborator, he appeared on dozens of tracks by other artists before releasing his solo debut, Trill, in 2005. Since Pimp C’s death in 2007 because of a combination of sleep apnea and codeine cough medication (“syrup” in Houston hip-hop slang), Bun B has released parts two and three of his Trill trilogy: 2008’s II Trill and the recent, cleverly named Trill OG.

Trill OG finds Bun B surrounded by 24 guest artists. This may be a reflection of the scene he comes out of (in Houston, everyone performs on everyone else’s tracks), but I can’t help wondering if, after three years alone, Bun B isn’t itching for a new musical partner. As a producer and an MC, Pimp C was the ideal foil for Bun B, providing him the slowed-down, soulful soundtrack to flow over and the vocal counterweight to play off of. On Trill OG, Bun searches in every corner for that kind of chemistry, from the depths of the Southern underground, where he finds unapologetic materialists Gucci Mane and Yo Gotti (“Countin’ Money”), to the heights of MTV fame, where he summons hip-hop “it” boy Drake (“Put It Down”) and autotune master T-Pain (“Trillionaire”).

The album’s most telling collaboration takes place on “Right Now,” which starts with a verse by Pimp C. Over a track featuring a sparse electro-beat and some old-fashioned R&B horns (just like the old days), Pimp C and Bun flow as if nothing has changed and no one is gone. Bun B has worked with the top MCs in the business—from Jay Z to Lil Wayne to Ludacris—but Bun B is still at his best with his original partner, and he knows it. The duo pledged to stay “UGK 4 Life,” and Bun B seems determined to follow through—no matter what.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.