Bun B: Underground King

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Excerpts from Jesse Serwer’s interview with Bun B, the rap stalwart of the Dirty South.

To read the Bun B feature from Issue 116 of XLR8R, visit our magazine section

XLR8R: You just got back from the Grammys. Was this the first time you went or did you go with Jay for “Big Pimpin’”?

Bun B: No, this was my first time. Jay-Z boycotted in ’99.

What was the experience like?

It was cool. I don’t really expect too much from things nowadays. So that doesn’t give things the opportunity to let me down so much, you know what I mean? It was really interesting. I got to meet Lee “Scratch” Perry, that was kind of dope.

He was at the Grammys?

Yeah, he was nominated. I think he lost to Stephen Marley. Lee “Scratch” Perry and Ben Harper were chilling together.

What did you talk to Lee about?

Nothing. I don’t bother people in that sense. I didn’t have a conversation with the man other than that I knew who he was and I appreciated his contributions.

Did he know who you are?

Oh, no. I have no idea. I don’t even introduce myself as an artist. If I sat there and took the time to impress upon him who I was, I’m sure I could have got some kind of relevance but who’s gonna take up Lee Scratch Perry’s time like that?

You’re a fan of his?

If you think about it, he’s kind of like my brother as an artist. He really just did his thing, you know? People respect him for that.

How did “Next Up” [UGK’s collaboration with Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rapp from Underground Kingz] come about?

Pimp and Marley Marl had linked up a couple years ago and become good friends. Talking about a lot of things, music being definitely one of them. And Marley had been wanting to do a “Symphony”-like record of the newer generation with the older generation. From my understanding, it was a record he had tried to do in New York, and no one was really receptive on it. He ran it by Pimp one time and Pimp was like, “Let’s do it.” I was like, ‘How can we do it different from the way other people have done it?” Keith Murray and them switched up on “Symphony 2000,” that was fresh. We had to do our own little twist on it. My thing was I always rocked to the little piano shit that Marley was playing when they walked into the saloon. Rap videos used to have instrumental moments in it. You used to be able to do damn near anything you wanted in a five, five-and-a-half minute video. Now everything is 3:30, that shit gotta fit into a format. We’ll get into that later, though. So yeah Marley’s like “Yeah, I can do that,” so he did it. We had met Big Daddy Kane at Summer Jam when we performed with Jay in 2000. We had built up a friendship with him, definitely had a lot of respect for him. You look at Big Daddy Kane and you really think about his flamboyance, how fly he was, getting G’ed up in a suit and always being a player. Pimp was definitely a student and a child of him. If you look at my persona, my lyricism, the way I speak on things, my flows, the way I carry myself, and you look at G. Rap, it’s a reflection. It’s more than obvious the influence that the man had on me, and we wanted to bring that across on the record. And I think it’s because of the underlying mutual respect [that] we made the shit happen and made it happen so beautifully.

All over Underground Kingz there were interesting collaborations: Dizzee Rascal, OutKast. Have you kept that up on II Trill? Also I hear there is still going to be another UGK album?

I definitely did something different. I did a song with Junior Reid. Much respect to Junior Reid, that’s definitely a real legend. People can call me a legend, but that’s a real legend. That is different–it’s a real reggae-type song. He’s chanting, I’m just spitting; the beat is produced by Blackout Movement and it’s a different type of song. It’s real. Even when we did these different collaborations, we still kept it as UGK. At the end of the day, that shit gotta bang in the trunk.

All you older Houston cats really love dancehall, it seems. What’s up with that? Outside of New York, when I try to talk to anyone about dancehall they’re like ‘Huh?’ Like they don’t know shit about dancehall in LA, for example. Is dancehall a big Houston thing?

For one, the Jamaican community is very big in Houston. And two, a lot of that, believe or not is due to three clubs that Houston had over the years. One was called Soca Village, it was in the hood but it was a Jamaican club and a lot of people hung out. And down the street they had a club called Rhythms, which is still going to this day. And that’s on West Belford, right in the hood, across from some real cold hard project type shit, you feel me? That’s a whole Jamaican strip mall area right there. A lot of Houston’s Jamaican community originally lived in that West Belford area. But the biggest club of all, which was Houston’s biggest nightclub for about four, five years, was a club called Jamaica Jamaica. That club, more than anything else, really helped imprint that Jamaican lifestyle and gave Houston that Jamaican sensibility. It would have, like, an hour rap set, an hour-and-a-half dancehall set, and then a half-hour R&B set. Then that would repeat. During the concert era, when we would have EPMD and NWA and Salt N Pepa and all these different people come down, Shabba Ranks came down to Houston. The Jamaican community would bring their stars in too. You’d see a Shabba Ranks concert or Yellowman or Supercat, people like that. You’d see these concerts one Sunday and then the next Sunday see a rap concert. We had that shit. And even on Screw tapes. Screw was a big fan of Steel Pulse, and a lot of screw tapes had “Stepping Out” on them, a lot of them. That was Screw’s jam.

Alright, nothing against Sean Kingston, but when people think of a song called “That’s Gangster” by Bun B., Sean Kingston might be the last person that would come to mind as a collaborator. How did that come about?

When you see a title like “That’s Gangster,” you probably think it’s me talking about how hard or how gangster I am, but it’s not. It’s about how not hard and not gangster a lot of these niggas out here are. Actually, what I’m trying to get across with Sean being on the record is, I think he’s a great artist. He can sing his ass off, he sounded good on the hook and, at the end of the day, Sean is not accountable for my words. I understand what you’re saying. I see the blogs and shit.

It seems like people judge music before they hear it now, though, and people will see his name and be like what, that’s not right…

I’m gonna go out on a limb here. Nelly’s a good friend of mine. I remember when Big Gipp called me and told me Nelly had done a song with Tim MCGraw. I was like “OK, that’s it. It’s over. I don’t understand this, I don’t get this, this can’t be a good thing.” I had drawn a conclusion about it before I heard the song. I heard that song and that was my jam. It was probably a lot of other people’s jam that never admitted it, though. Once you start putting labels and limits on music, that’s when it’s all bad. Once you start talking about what hip-hop can’t be, that’s trying to make this shit too much yours. This shit is for everybody.

One of UGK’s manifestos has been “It’s not hip-hop. It’s country rap.”Do you have love or straight country? Would you collaborate with a country artist?

Here’s what it is: When you’re from Texas, whether you want to or not, you’re going to hear country music. You’ve got to really never ever leave your apartment to not hear country music. Eventually with everything, whether you like it or not, because music is that universal, you’re going to hear one you like. People fight against shit because they’ve already made up their opinion, and then one day you hear something, and that music hits you. You don’t even know how or why but it just hits you and that connection is made. In Houston, you’re going to hear country music and you’re going to end up actually end up liking [a song]. If you work in a job and they pipe in that Muzak all day, eventually one of those songs they pipe in, you’re going to end up loving one of them. To keep the sanity, you have to make peace with things at certain points. Also Cowboy Troy is a friend of mine. Cowboy Troy used to work at Foot Locker at Sharpstown Mall in Houston for a long time. A lot of people from back in the day probably know Cowboy Troy, but don’t know that’s who Cowboy Troy is, the same way Atlanta people know Fonzworth Bentley from working in the Polo store probably don’t remember that’s who that is. Troy and I have been trying to figure out how we can do something together. We’re not really sure if it’s gonna work, that’s why we haven’t done anything. We’re not just gonna do it for the sake of doing it. I respect him as an artist but at the end of the day, that shit gotta make sense to the people we make music for. We can make some shit just for us, he can get a copy and play it in his truck, I can get one and play it in my truck and that be that. But when you talk about really making music and exposing it to the masses… when done the right way music can be powerful, music can really change things. If nothing else, it can make some money.

The biggest thing in Houston every year is two things. The Budweiser Superfest, which is the big urban concert. It’s really a tour that comes to Houston that’s a real staple in the Black community. It usually always stars Maze. And that’s what Houston is. Houston is Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. We also get what’s called the Livestock Show and Rodeo, a 13-day big ass music event. Actually, that shit’s like almost 20 days now. They have all these different artists come down. If you live in Houston, you gotta go to the rodeo with all the food and the rides and the carnival. You gotta take your kids there. And they’re piping in that country music.

Did Pimp produce anything on II Trill?

No, I didn’t get a chance to do the Pimp track. He was working on his stuff and he called me to come and listen, “if you see something you like just take it.” But I hadn’t had a chance to get that stuff yet. A lot of the people I worked with are local artists. People like Mr. Lee, Big Time and Cory Mo. And also Jazze Pha. They all have that type of soulful inflection already. Like I said, I wanted to get my Cube on and I had a distinct kind of sound… I really wanted to bring that old Rap-A-Lot sound back, try to recreate some of that stuff. Make the type of records that people like [Rap-A-Lot producer] Jon Bido used to make.

How are you going to do another UGK album? Did Pimp leave behind a lot of beats and vocals?

Yeah. There definitely is enough material. I think his wife is going to put together a solo album as well.

Did you already have the blueprint for an album before he passed?

Oh yeah, we had the first single done with Akon and everything. We had another joint that T-Pain was jumping on, this Lenny Kravitz record we had been working on. We couldn’t get it cleared for Underground Kingz, so we kept it for the next one. Lenny is a globetrotter [so] we could never catch up with him. They’re going to make it happen this time.

Is that something that will come soon or in a few years?

I believe that you will see that album this year.

What are some of your specific plans for this year?

[Microsoft Zune] is going to be a major source of promotion for this album. I’m doing a tutorial for the device, so when you log on and try to figure out how to put music on it, sync songs, I’ll be one of the people giving you that tutorial. I’m the first person with a page on Zune.net. When you come to the show this year, bring a camera and tape the footage because we’re gonna put up a Youtube channel where fans can submit their footage from shows, and take the best of that material and put it up on the artist page. We’re going to have a Facebook page with video updates every day from the Youtube page and the best of those are going to Zune page. Microsoft is making a lot of things possible to touch my people in a way that I’ve never really been able to, on all sides. Really, getting me out there and making me visible. And were going to be reaching out to Boys and Girls clubs and all kinds of places. We can’t keep going to cities and just going to the radio station and retail stores and clubs. I’m gonna be on the road for two months straight.

You’re doing a straight tour?

This is gonna be the first time that I’ve ever been able to do a genuine promotional and paydate tour with the bus, impacting these different markets. Zune is giving me a real opportunity, and because of it I don’t want to waste it on just selling records. Yeah, we want to sell records, [and] they want to sell devices. But the same way UGK is not just about making money, Zune is not just about selling music. They got social networking on there—you don’t have to buy music and still be on the website for hours. There are different ways of connecting with people right now. The market is changing, [so] we have to consider different ways of touching our people. I’ve never had any kind of real corporate sponsorship. I’d never be able to go to 40 or 50 different cities in 60 days and touch all these different people. That’s a big thing for me this year.