The past 12 months have brought a full range of emotions for Bun B. After laying the foundation for Southern rap for the past 15 years, Bun and his longtime partner-in-rhyme Pimp C were finally getting their just props: Their group UGK’s critically lauded double-disc Underground Kingz debuted at #1 in August, while their OutKast collaboration, “International Players Anthem,” bumped worldwide. But on December 4, 2007–just two days before the Port Arthur, TX duo was nominated for a Grammy–Pimp C was found dead in Hollywood’s Mondrian Hotel.
The coroner’s office ruled that Pimp, who was just 33, died from a combination of the prescription-strength cough syrup in his system and sleep apnea.
The two had obvious differences: Pimp C was loud and flamboyant in his delivery and personal habits; like Kool G. Rap’s calmer Southern cousin, Bun B is measured in demeanor and conservative in dress, and known for calculated, machine-gun-like rhymes. Nonetheless, it was easy to imagine these two rapping together forever. When Pimp was incarcerated on assault charges from 2002 to 2005, Bun used his platform as one of rap’s most in-demand guest MCs to insert the mantra “Free Pimp C” into every last appearance.
Fortunately, after Pimp C passed, the still-grieving Bun B already had the answer to “What’s next?” in his back pocket. Recorded primarily last fall (while UGK was also sketching an Underground Kingz follow-up, which Bun says is still on its way), II Trill is the album where Bernard “Bun B” Freeman fully embraces his role as the Ice Cube of the South, or perhaps Nas’ country cousin. Though he has always spiked UGK’s Southern-fried G Funk with wisdom (see the life-affirming “One Day”) and a seething anger (take 1994’s police-brutality treatise “Protect & Serve”), Bun’s 2006 solo debut, Trill, didn’t build on these inclinations the way his highly informed interviews might have led one to hope. On II Trill’s “Get Yo Issue,” however, “Big Dick Cheney” sets his sights on crooked officers, hypocritical politicians, and perverted preachers. “If It Was Up to Me,” with its Junior Reid hook, tackles the environment and gentrification. Lest anyone think that he’s gone soft, “City of Syrup” is a classic Houston anthem, while single “Real Gangster” clocks studio thugs.
“I wanted to bring that old Rap-A-Lot sound back, and recreate the type of records that people like John Bido used to make,” Bun says, referring to the unsung producer behind the Geto Boys’ early classics. Along with Houston beatmakers like Cory Mo and Bigg Tyme, II Trill also features a collaboration with Expensive Taste, the super-group made up of Paul Wall, Skinhead Rob, and Travis Barker (“Travis and I [both] ride Cadillacs so that shit gotta bang in the trunk,” Bun says).
This interview–conducted as Bun returned home to Houston following the Grammys (where “International Player’s Anthem” was nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group)–came amidst an eventful week which also included the arrival of the coroner’s report on Pimp’s death and Bun’s first live appearance (at Houston’s Warehouse Live) since his partner’s passing.
XLR8R: Did the coroner’s report on Pimp C’s death answer all of your questions?
Bun B: For me, it wasn’t about asking questions. When someone passes away you have to think about what you learned from them, and what should be taken away from it. You look at things like prescription cough syrup being one of the causes, not an overdose but obviously a contributing factor… You have to look at yourself and anything unhealthy you might be doing. When you look at Pimp and a young, talented person like Heath Ledger and take these things into perspective, maybe you just have to be a little more cautious.
When we first tried to do this interview last year, you decided to attend the Jena 6 rally in Louisiana instead of coming to New York. And you’re carving a more topical path on II Trill. Has anything specific spurred you to become more politically minded?
I’m always standing up for my community. The reality is UGK has never had any real light or attention paid to them, so it would seem a lot of what you see us do is new. Prior to [Underground Kingz] I didn’t really have a publicist. There was nobody calling anybody, saying, “Bun’s down here helping these people.” I don’t really do things for [recognition]. It’s not about that. As a human, you’ve gotta keep it one hunnid [percent] and stand up for motherfuckers that can’t stand up for themselves. People stood up for me at various times in my life. If you don’t want to do it when you’re an artist, then don’t. You ain’t always gonna be an artist but you’re always gonna be a human, and there’s always gonna be some fucked-up shit going on to your people. You’re gonna have to take a stand at some point.
What did you want to do with this album?
For lack of a better description, I wanted to get my Cube on.
What about Ice Cube do you respect?
I finally got to meet Cube [when] we did a remix [of Beyonce’s] “Soldier” together, and he was just who I thought he was. That’s something I haven’t really been able to say about a lot of people. I was able to say that about Kool G. Rap, DJ Premier, Lord Jamar. I’ve been fucking with Premier a long time. We never recorded any music together but we’re very good friends. We build on totally different issues. If the only way you build with other artists is as an artist, you ain’t learning shit.
On “Get Yo Issue,” you really go in on cops, politicians, and preachers…
I’m speaking towards the fake preachers, the fake policemen, the fake politicians. Are all of them bad? Of course not. We’d be ignorant to think that just because somebody do a certain thing for a living, they wasn’t no good. Just because he’s a cop don’t make him a bad person. Just because he’s a drug dealer don’t make him a bad person.
What inspired you to write that song?
It was when your man got caught in the bathroom in Minnesota. Senator Larry Craig. That did it. I said, “These motherfuckers are going too far with this.” It’s not just national politicians. We got people representing districts in these cities and they’re not beholden to their constituents. Because people have let this shit go on for so long, these issues are getting out of hand. I’m not trying to stand on no pulpit, by no means… but it’s easy to throw rocks when that sin isn’t associated with you. If everybody held everybody according to the worst shit they’ve ever done, we’d all be hit with rocks.
Has Barack Obama’s success given you more faith in the system?
I don’t want the assumption to be made that I support Obama. I love what Obama represents, and I love also what Hillary represents. The fact that they’re able to realistically run for office is something we should definitely be praising. I want to make sure when I put my support behind someone it is very clear, because I know a lot of people that don’t know too much about this political system are looking for me to help put them in the right direction. In the next four years there has to be improvements made in the inner cities–no ifs, ands, or buts. I’m not gonna stand behind any candidate that isn’t prepared to help us address the shit that directly affects us.
People ask you for advice on things like voting?
In the hood, it’s a reverse-psychology thing. You almost have to trick people into doing shit sometimes. I try to tell people, “That’s why shit’s fucked up here, that’s why you can’t get a job. That’s why the paint’s peeling in [your kids’] classroom. Because you ain’t used the power you got to try and change this shit.” It’s that simple. I haven’t always voted, man. I’m not gonna sit here and act holier than thou. I’ve been disillusioned like other people so I can understand their frustration. All I’ve ever done is give people the game I got. I didn’t [always] have that game.
Why is it that UGK didn’t really tour that much?
UGK used to do probably 120 shows a year, two a night sometimes. It was just in small towns that don’t get any media coverage, like Hazlehurst, Mississippi. There was an infamous club in Lafayette, Louisiana called Strawberry’s that held 2,500 people, ’til five or six in the morning. We were there every other week. People used to come from other states. I’d drive from Port Arthur to see people perform at that club. It was that insane. The whole reason UGK has the following we have in the South is we were the people that went to your town, when nobody else came. Because we were from Port Arthur, Texas–50,000 people. No one ever came to our town, feel me? We felt it was our duty to go to these [places].
You’re going to be touring behind this album, though?
Southern artists don’t tour in the formal sense. We go out and do dates. This is gonna be the first time I’ve ever [done] a genuine tour. UGK was always an organic thing. A lot of that was due to Pimp–if it wasn’t right, it wasn’t happening. Because we represented for people that don’t get second chances, you gotta be real smart and thorough about every decision. Every little decision not only affects our lives but it affects the people that we employ, the people we love, and the people we stand up for. We always tried to be real with people [and they] respected us for being human with them. We did a lot of balling but we made records like “Hi Life,” talking about the conflict of being a street cat and still having faith in God, and wondering how God’s looking upon you based on your actions. That was a reoccurring theme in our songs because that was a reoccurring theme in our life.
You’ve always called UGK country rap, but blues is probably more of an accurate description.
It’s because of our parents. It’s really that simple. We make music with the sensibility of the music we heard growing up.
What was it like to step back on the stage without Pimp?
It was probably the first time I cried on stage. It was just real. But there wasn’t many dry eyes in the room. I’m not the only person that loves Pimp C, and I know it. The crowd goes through it, too, [so] I gotta help them get through this the right way. “One Day” and “Hi Life” are powerful testimonies. I never really understood, until the last couple years, how much those records meant to people. It’s a very, very real thing.