Jagged Little Trill

| August 25, 2010 | 0 Comments

 Bun_B

 Bun B. is one of hip hop’s most incredible MCs regardless of regional affiliation. Along with his late partner, Pimp C., their pioneering group, UGK, sets the tone for Southern rap and hip hop to become a dominant force in pop music. Now considered an icon for a generation of contemporary hip hop artists, the Texas-based rapper/intellectual, almost entering his second decade, is blessed with the good life: a critically herald third album, a keen understanding of his fans, tenure at a university, a stable family, multiple deals on the table and an iconic career that most rap artists could only imagine.

It’s 7:33 p.m. on a Tuesday in August. The wall perspires from the heat. The paint peels from either aging or from the sounds bouncing off the surface. Eerie, haunting music with a heavy bass line, deep cuts and scratches and hard-hitting snares booms from the speakers. The sounds blare so hard, even the graffiti inside the speakers vibrates a tad. Then, a commanding and majestic voice echoes from the mic: “Bun is on the mic/Premier is on the track/The South is in the house/Now what can fuck with that?/ And what can fuck with this?/ I take shots and don’t fuckin’ miss.” The bars are quite an understatement considering the delivery is from a thought-provoking, provocative and sought after voice – from no other than Bun B.

The hip hop icon rehearses “Let ‘Em Know,” his long overdue collaboration with famed producer DJ Premier (also a fellow Texan), from his third album, Trill OG. The effort is considered yet another classic in his almost 20-year catalog – earning the coveted five mics honor, the first in a five-year gap since Lil’ Kim’s The Naked Truth but the first in his career, from The Source Magazine, considered to be a rare accomplishment for the canon of hip hop albums. It’s an hour and a half before Atlanta’s installment of Red Bull EmSee: The Road To 8 Mile, a seven-city freestyle competition, which features Bun as a judge and guest performer. He wraps up his soundcheck on the catwalk stage at The Masquerade, a gritty rock club, with Cory Mo, one of his longtime collaborators.

Bun (nee Bun Beater or Big Bun B-Da) has his black fitted cap turned back as he paces in his flip flops, footie socks, white v-neck tee and blue cargo shorts. He is somewhat exhausted now yet pensive. He takes a deep breath as he steps offstage and stares outside the club’s entrance. He slides his feet as he grabs a chair. He plays around with his phone as he sits – placing his earpiece in his ear and scrolling through a playlist. His head faces down and stares at the screen. Six minutes pass and now Bun grabs a seat on the floor. He crosses his legs, places his hands on his knees and his phone to his right side. As the interview progresses, he starts to slowly unwind. He smiles more. If he agrees with someone’s comment, his “right” replies is reminiscent of his deep-voiced ad-libs on “Front, Back & Side to Side,” one of his classic recordings with his legendary rap duo, Underground Kingz (UGK). He kicks his flops off. He leans back and rests on his arms. He nods his head nod from time to time. He poses for a few photographs but is always down to share the spotlight. “Somebody should just shoot photographers,” he jokingly says.

Now, showtime commences. Bun — now dressed in a blue fitted cap with the Lone Star etched above the brim, a navy blue BAPE t-shirt, his signature platinum name chain customized with the fancy “B” on polar ends of the charm, khaki cargo shorts and blue patent leather hi-tops — takes the towel out of his back pocket and lays it over his bald head. The crowd rushes in the club in droves as DJ Lord, famous for his work with hip hop group Public Enemy, spins old school hip hop and classics. When Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” comes on, Bun starts to play the air bass, rocks his head and sings along. Just earlier, the Southern rap impresario (his self-proclamation from his 1999 collaboration with Jay-Z, the Timbaland-produced “Big Pimpin”) lets it slip that he finds pleasure in British comedy; he’s a huge fan of Ricky Gervais, Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. “I like a lot of old shit,” he says.  Once Bun B. takes the stage to perform a medley of his classics, the audience shows mad love. Up and down the catwalk, Bun daps up the front row members in sequence. The marijuana smell begins to rise and fills the space. The audience, made up of people of all races, belts out his bangers harder than he does: “Pushin,” “You’re Everything,” “Draped Up,” “Get Throwed,” “Big Pimpin,” “International Players’ Anthem (I Choose You),” “That’s Gangsta,” the latest cuts “Chuuch,” “Trillionaire,” “Let ‘Em Know,” and a custom rendition of Rick Ross’ “Blowin’ Money Fast.” Bun rocks the crowd so hard during “Big Pimpin,” the crowd continues as the music silences. Bun, at the moment, epitomizes the power of a living legend.

“It’s about makin’ music that, you know, is not tied in today,” Bun believes. “Just like I can make a song today about what’s goin’ on today, but I don’t have to speak exactly about the situation. The more general you can make and situate the situation, the broader the scope of the song and the broader the audience that you’ll reach.” Known for his depth-laden subject matter; laid back (and sometime staccato-heavy) precision in delivery; ingenuity and impeccable flow, Bun – a forerunner for Southern rap music — knows his expertise is right for the job. Born Bernard Freeman on Mar. 19, 1973, Bun B. is the slickest export out of Port Arthur, TX next to the Spindletop, the world’s most productive oil derrick. He is raised in humble beginnings to a private nurse mother and a janitor stepfather. His father, a minister, is a recovering alcoholic. As a kid, Bun recognizes his crowd-pleasing tendencies. He is an overachieving honors’ student in school and a thespian. He earns lead roles in school productions of A Raisin in the Sun and Romeo and Juliet. He earns two full college scholarships, one for academics and the other for acting. Fortunately for the hip hop community, Bun has other plans to master.

Armed with a knack for vocabulary and an undeniable passion for rap, Bun joins his first group, 4BM, or Four Black Ministers, which also includes Chad “Pimp C.” Butler. Two other members leave the group because of their commitment to sports. Bun and Pimp change the group’s name to UGK. The duo signs to the indie Big Tyme Records and releases two rare EPs, The Southern Way (1991) and Banned (1992). Shortly thereafter, UGK secures a five-album deal with Jive Records and embark on, along with Scarface and the Geto Boys; Miami’s 2 Live Crew and Memphis duo 8Ball and MJG, ushering in a movement in hip hop and rap music that would totally change the way music is marketed, produced and perceived by the public. Beginning with 1992’s Too Hard to Swallow, UGK would release six additional classic albums over the next 17 years: Super Tight (1994), Ridin’ Dirty (1996), Dirty Money (2001), the compilation set Side Hustles (2002), the chart-topping double-disc Underground Kingz (2007), and UGK 4 Life (2009).

UGK’s sound, courtesy primarily of Pimp C.’s production, is marked by live instruments: funky rhythms via thick guitar licks, heavy bass lines, 808 crashes, Sunday morning organ loops and melodic keyboard lines. Their lyrics are localized narratives and slang-oriented verses, primarily conceptualized by Bun, that present a raw intelligence from their visceral observations and syrupy dialects. Pimp C. coins the UGK sound as “country rap tunes:” introducing their fans and an ever curious hip hop crowd to Texas terminology, personal experiences, sociopolitical commentaries, gritty hood tales, their roadmaps to independent wealth, hypermasculine sexualized themes, regional pastimes, laments on artist credibility, customized car culture, drug wars and their personal indulgences. Of course, Southern hip hop, especially from UGK, is met with some reservation from the masses. Their organic brand of Southern music, counter to the minimalist bouncy 808 drumming and siren synth melodies, is the anti-thesis of the rugged snares, Timberland-rockin’, down bubble coat wearin’ acts from the East Coast or the Chuck Taylor sportin’, low-ridin’ switch hittin’ G-funk sounds comin’ from the West Coast. No radio station or video programmers would play UGK. Or let alone even know who they are. The media marginalizes Southern acts: labeling the music as worthless, the content as ignorant and in most cases, not even documenting the culture at all. Hip hop fans suggest that Southern artists couldn’t rap. Bun, the pioneer, always begs to differ when he hears such criticism and utterances. “Fuck ‘em,” as he mildly puts it rubbing his knees. “I couldn’t say it any better – really.”

Consider UGK as agents of change if you will. As grassroots forerunners of social networking pre-Facebook; Twitter and MySpace, UGK influences a generation – still achieving gold certification for two albums (Ridin’ Dirty and Underground Kingz), a Grammy Award nomination in 2008 and a BET Award that same year. This doesn’t phase the trend-setting rap act one bit. UGK hits the road via impressive chitlin’ circuit tours in clubs and small venues: playing before sold out crowds. Word of mouth becomes an effective vehicle for UGK – people walking up to them in the street and giving them praise. They work up a reputation large enough to make massive cameo appearances with edgier hip hop acts and those with loyal cult followings (i.e. Bay Area acts E-40, Too Short and Spice-1 to name a few). The road to become rap’s championship tag team is a vigorous one for Pimp C. and Bun B., but UGK finds their place and respect in rap and hip hop.  Bun knows UGK expanded hip hop’s attention span to respect their skills and musical abilities.

“Some people are bred by, you know what I’m sayin’, someone who may be as good or even better than them,” he says. “If I feel like somebody is good as me, then maybe they have as much to offer to me as I do to them. If I feel they better than me, then they definitely have something to offer me. I look to learn from people. I don’t look to learn just about people; I look to learn from people. That’s just part of the human experience. And once you start puttin’ up walls regardless of circumstances, then you start to cut yourself out of that collective human experience. That, to me, is real social networking. It’s not ‘tweeting. It’s not Facebook.” The Internet, according to Bun, is a convenient method to finding and securing a niche. “It’s really about the interaction with the people,” he believes. “You’ve never been able to interact with fans on this type of level before. It’s really one step away from them havin’ your phone number and callin’ you and askin’ you questions. It’s exacting and almost in real time. You know they’ll tell you what they like. They’ll tell you what they don’t like. You know you got that kinda built in judgment right there. Also, they let you know when you get it right, too. And at the same time, it’s something – it’s almost unavoidable.”

UGK’s legacy hits other radars. The late Notorious B.I.G. called “Pocket Full of Stones” one of his favorite rap singles and said that Bun B. was one of his favorite MCs (Bun even admits that he didn’t think he was a good rapper until he and B.I.G. met). In addition to Jay-Z’s request for UGK to appear on “Big Pimpin,’” Academy Award-winning, Memphis-based group Three 6 Mafia also recruited the pair to appear on the 2000 hypnotic banger, “Sippin’ on Some Syrup,” an ode to codeine made into a highly consumed libation from a baby bottle or Styrofoam cup.  UGK is the inspiration to a legion of Southern hip hop acts to follow such as OutKast, Goodie MOB, Young Jeezy, Lil’ Wayne and T.I. as well as Houston acts Slim Thug, Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Lil’ Flip, Mike Jones, Trae, Z-Ro, Lil’ KeKe and Devin the Dude. Neither a gold nor platinum plaque along with any music award can touch what Bun and Pimp have achieved in their careers. “I’m just happy to be a contributing factor,” Bun says. “You got a lot of cats that come in and out this game that didn’t do anything to this game. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t inspire anybody. They didn’t create a movement. They didn’t do anything. All they did was try and take as much from this culture as they could. You know what I’m sayin’? So I’m just happy that I actually gave something instead of just takin’ it. That’s all you can ask for.” Of course, UGK experiences its share of tribulations. Pimp C. gets hit with an aggravated assault charge in 2002 but is released in 2005. Jive drops UGK from their roster over what is perceived as ill-fated promotion and mediocre album sales. Bun B. carries on – leading campaigns on record and clothing to “FREE PIMP C.” or “FREE THE PIMP.” Tragedy strikes again in 2007 when Pimp C. is pronounced dead in a Hollywood hotel with sleep apnea combined with a codeine overdose. It seems that the road ends.

Still, Bun carries the torch. He releases an acclaimed mixtape, Legends, in 2005. That same year, he signs a deal with Rap-A-Lot Records/Asylum and releases his impressive debut solo effort, Trill, which debuts at #6 on the Billboard 200. His second effort, II Trill, is released in 2008 and peaks at #2 on the Billboard 200. He forms a side project, Mddl Fngz. His cameo appearances — collaborations he says are not about him but by different approaches to the music — include Ludacris, Juvenile, Rick Ross, Beyonce, Dizzie Rascal, Talib Kweli, Master P., Lil’ Jon, Dem Franchize Boyz, Yo Gotti, Killer Mike, Lil’ Kim, Twista, Yung Joc, Gucci Mane, Jermaine Dupri, Wale, Cool Kids, Cam’ron and Ying Yang Twins among others.  On record, Bun B., as well as UGK, consistently gives listeners an earful of commentaries advocating against music critics, record label executives, and artists that create false images. The music stands the test of time for not letting such forces determine the fate of their success. After years of touring, guest spots and blazing a trail for contemporary hip hop under his belt, Bun knows a combination of connecting with people and making quality material is the formula for ensuring longevity.

“People always worry about record deals, 106 & Park and all of that shit – that ain’t got shit to do with shit,” he says. “If you don’t make music that the people like, then it don’t matter if an A&R likes it. It don’t matter if a CEO likes it or a DJ likes it. It don’t matter. If people don’t like it, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. You don’t need nobody to help break you in this game nowadays with [YouTube and] all of this different shit. You give your music directly to the people, and they will put you on top. As long as you sittin’ around thinkin’ that you need somebody, that’s just more and more time that you throwin’ away.” Bun believes in taking chances. He believes the opportunity for Southern acts to take over hip hop was there the entire time; it was just a matter of being prepared for the commercial success due. “I’ve been in New York, and I’ve met people that love every kind of music,” he says. “What I think is happening is [Southern] music, whether it be [Southern] hip hop, R&B, or whatever it is, is gettin’ presented better. We never really had ourselves presented in a proper light. We never really had the media set up. We never really had the TV looks. We never really had the radio correlation, so now we have all of the different aspects that, you know, one uses to help promote it further themselves and at our disposal. And we’re able to put everything together at the right place at the right time and make things work.”

Standing in the presence of Bun B. involves respecting hip hop royalty. Trill OG (the album Bun says is the first for the rest of his career), was released after a full year of re-recording and taking the time to properly develop the music. Trill is a compression of “true” and “real”, while OG is an acronym for “original gangsta” – counter to a literal context of a negative, gun-totin’ archetype but a respectable griot that preserves and knows the value of community, respect and integrity. The cover art features Bun in a grayscale image standing on a porch next to a close up of a classic Chevrolet grill and a caricature of Pimp C. posted in a window. Trill OG not only suggests the third album for Bun but a testament to his status in hip hop culture and rap as an honest MC that holds true to his craft and his personality. Originally recording under Asylum/Warner Music Group, Bun has since switched his distribution deal with Fontana/Universal. The deal allows him to take more independent streams to market and brand his music. In The Source, Trill OG goes pound for pound with reviews – and earning classic status (Bun is even called “Mr. 5 Mics” on Twitter) — of Big Boi’s Sir Luscious Leftfoot: Son of Chico Dusty, Eminem’s Recovery, Rick Ross’ Teflon Don, Fat Joe’s The Darkside (Vol. 1), Drake’s Thank Me Later, and The Roots’ How I Got Over.  There’s quite some debate amongst music critics and bloggers questioning whether Trill OG deserves such recognition. Bun is an advocate for quality – especially his own.

He knows he’s long overdue for the perceived “hip hop Bible.” “I don’t want to start much for arguing,” he says. “I don’t wanna start arguing over other people’s music. I just argue over mine. I feel UGK’s album Ridin’ Dirty is a classic, but I do feel also that it was probably a little ahead of its time. That’s why I’ve never been really upset with [UGK] never winning certain awards or gettin’ certain accolades ‘cause I knew a lot of people didn’t understand what we were doing. We were really talkin’ about things that people weren’t ready to address. We talked about the harsh realities of life, and people were still in party mode. You know what I’m sayin’? So we knew we really weren’t gonna be grabbin’ or gravitating towards that. At the end of the day when I walk out, people are like ‘Yo, I got your album. I like y’all. Y’all tight.’ It’s really all I can ask for. You know what I’m sayin’? If the consumers love it, you know, then the hell wit a critic.”

Trill OG’s tracks keep that classic UGK sound relevant and fresh.  Bun B., as always, rides the beat flawlessly. The album’s opener, “Chuuch” features Rap-A-Lot Records’ founder J. Prince and is laced with a heavy organ banger that solidifies Bun’s acclaim and success with the intention to keep it moving. The Drumma Boy-produced “Just Like That” features Young Jezzy trading off with Bun over 808s and a string-like synth melody. “I Git Down 4 Mine,” with its black college football halftime overtones, opens with a rock guitar only to morph into some marching band stadium bump. “Ridin’ Slow” is for the slabs, a local Houston term for customized vintage automobiles equipped with paint and a state-of the art stereo system – a trunk-rattlin’ number equipped with distorted screwed ad-libs, a soulful chorus, and a bass-thumping beat. “Right Now” is a posthumous joint featuring a nasal-voiced Pimp, a high octane spittin’ 2Pac, and R&B vocalist Trey Songz on the chorus. On “Speakeasy,” Twista’s trademark speedy tongue lays over bluesy drums and Cedric the Entertainer’s comic laments. Drake brings along his signature sing-song flow on Boi-1da’s “Put It Down” and “It’s Been a Pleasure,” the album’s closing track. When it comes to understanding what makes a classic album, Bun knows that a masterpiece collection of songs can’t fit into one musical genre, appeal to a specific group of people or depict the same type of emotion track by track. At an album’s best, the music track by track has staying power. “You make an album that speaks to people in all walks of life, all colors of skin and all cultures across the planet,” he believes. “You talk about real life situations that real people deal with on a daily basis. A five-mic album doesn’t consist of a lot of club records. Five-mic records don’t consist of a lot of records that talk about what you got and what you drive, how big your house is – you know what I’m sayin’? Five-mic albums are the kind of albums that when you’re home by yourself at night, that’s what you listen to. You wake up in the morning and you ridin’, that’s what you listen to. A classic album is something that makes just as much sense to you sober as it does when you fucked up. It’s gotta make just as much sense in a good mood as you are in a bad mood. Gotta make just as much sense to you goin’ to the club as it does goin’ to church. That’s what a classic album is all about.”

Trill OG is the first album that is completely recorded without Bun’s partner contributing to the project. Still, Bun remains loyal to his late partner-in-rhyme’s memory in determining his musical criteria – even considering Pimp C. an instrumental executive producer for all future albums and songs. “Oh, [Pimp C.] is still the limit’s test for what we do,” he says. “Like everytime we make music or we make songs, we put it up next to something that Pimp C. did. When we play a beat, it’s gotta feel like a Pimp C. beat. If we come up with a hook to a song, it’s gotta get you movin’ like a Pimp C. hook. You know what I’m sayin’? When we touch on subject matters, we gotta make sure we keep it 100% trill just like Pimp C. did. And we still have to go through Pimp to be honest in order to make it.”

These days, Bun is set to achieve greater marks. He’s taking his skills and expertise to the podium – signing on to teach Religion and Hip Hop Culture in America at Houston’s Rice University beginning in the spring semester of 2011. The teaching opportunity is a partnership with the H.E.R.E. (Houston Enriches Rice Education) Project that seeks to offer advanced research and course opportunities. “The whole point of doing it is to try different means of communication to the students and the form of education,” he believes. “If it’s something that works and catches on, it’s not so much about me teaching it. We would love to get this and show it off to other professors. Hopefully to see this work on a collegiate level and maybe it teetering down to high school, middle, and elementary.”  Teaching comes in the wake of Bun guest lecturing a course in the fall semester 2009 and having a conversation with Rice’s director of religious studies, Dr. Anthony Pinn. The two propose to create a new syllabus and lesson plan in the academic community. The course will discuss the parallels between religion and hip hop and the tensions that come with both cultures.

“We’re gonna speak to what the struggle is with maintaining the doctrine of one’s religion as opposed to keepin’ it real as an MC,” Bun clarifies. “And it’s definitely an internal struggle that a lot of MCs have to deal with on a daily basis. I think it’s a side of hip hop that’s not talked about. That’s the kind of exploration that we want to offer the students who choose to take the course.” The hip hop scholar acknowledges hip hop’s different types of MCs. He runs down that there are Christian, Baptists, Lutheran Methodists, Catholic and Jewish MCs. “You’ve got MCs that either don’t subscribe to any form of religion or subscribe to an offset religion. But in hip hop, we have Orthodox Muslims and Five Percenters.”

It’s evident that Bun is in a class by himself. In the midst of his status in rap music, he’s a family man who’s been married for 12 years to his wife, Queenie, and has two stepsons. He’s also an astute businessman who spreads his brand. Along with Pimp, he was the head of a record label, UGK Records. He’s signed on with Boost Mobile to perform free concerts and host food drives to benefit the Houston Food Bank. He’s a brand ambassador for Conjure Cognac, the spirit co-founded by rapper Ludacris. Now a jeweler, Bun has teamed up with Meister Watches to design the limited edition “Trill OG Chief Watch” valued at $250. A fashion icon, Bun is also developing signature t-shirts with Amongst Friends and Crooks and Castles, Stevie Williams (who is also developing a custom skateboard) and Kreativ Sole. There is an apparel and footwear lines courtesy of Cadillac. GoodWood NYC is releasing a Chace Infinite-made keychain etched with Bun’s name and the Trill OG. In the midst of these endeavors, Bun still loves rapping and doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. Becoming a professor or entrepreneur for the remainder of his life is something that Bun is not opposed to. “I’m still kinda happy with my day job,” he says. “I’m not in a position to switch careers just yet. Let’s say rapping is over and done for me 15 or 20 years from now. It’s something I can maybe have potentially to fall back on, but right now, it’s a little too soon to tell.”

The born leader and true innovator of hip hop knows who he is: dedicated, sincere, focused, passionate, precise, attentive and meticulous. He keeps a serious work ethic and is quick to sum up his personality. “Bun B. is a trill OG; you know what I’m saying?” he says. “Bun B. is the cat from the ‘hood that’s posted up on the corner that’s kinda like the problem solver. I’m the guy that when things ain’t goin’ right at home, you call me. I give you that good advice. You got things goin’ on in the street, I show you how to work those situations out. When you got a problem that you can’t solve, then I come in and I help you rectify that issue. But everybody needs an OG in their life. Everybody needs somebody that they can go to for advice; that they can go to for any situation. I had OGs there for me, and now I’m just tryin’ to be that OG for them.”

 Photos by Carlo Cruz

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