When the Houston music history book is penned, a significant portion will be devoted to Bun B and Underground Kingz, the duo he started in 1987 with late childhood friend Pimp C in their native Port Arthur. Bun's poignant, down-home flow has inspired legions of other rappers, and even in the most selfish of businesses he managed to galvanize an entire industry with three simple words: Free Pimp C. Even in the face of crushing adversity, Bun (born Bernard Freeman) continues to ride "back, front, back and side to side."
Last week the Press committed the cardinal sin of interrupting an icon during his dinner (accidentally, we assure you) for his thoughts on upcoming Rap-a-Lot LP II Trill, UGK earning its first Grammy nomination for 2007 double LP Underground Kingz just two short days after Pimp C passed and whether, after 20 years in the rap game, Bun, now almost 35, is thinking about hanging it up. He's not.
Houston Press: Sorry about interrupting your meal, man. That's not very trill of us.
Bun B performs 8 p.m. Friday, February 8, at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483.
Bun B: That's okay.
HP: You've pretty much managed to make "trill" an everyday word. That's wild. We're not cool enough to just make up a word. Is there any new slang on II Trill we can get a head start on?
Bun B: (Laughs.) I hadn't planned on anything really, but the first single is called "That's Gangsta," and it's really just redefining what gangsta is because people are misrepresenting the term. We don't mean gangster, we mean "that's cool," "that's tight." If you hit the game-winning shot, that's gangsta; if you graduate valedictorian in your class, that's gangsta. You might hear that take off.
HP: Valedictorians are gangsta? Yeah, we were totally using that term wrong.
Bun B: Exactly.
HP: So what else can we expect on the new album?
Bun B: I'm really just taking it back to the basics, addressing a lot of things I feel need to be addressed for the fans in the hood.
HP: II Trill was due in March; now it's coming in April. Did Pimp C's passing have any effect on that?
Bun B: We had an idea when we were going to drop the single — in December, towards the end of the month — but of course with Pimp's passing we just kinda pumped the brakes on everything. The album was pretty much finished, but of course I'm gonna have to go back in and do a song for my homie. The themes, though — even more so after Pimp's passing, we realized we were definitely on the right path with the kind of music we're making. Real music.
HP: Fans feel like they really know you and really knew Pimp, and these last four or five months have been taxing. Can you verbalize what it was like for you to finally have Pimp home, then see him pass and, on top of that, to get your first Grammy nomination after 20 years of grinding?
Bun B: It's pretty emotional, as you can imagine. A lot of things needed to sink in at that point. We were on a very positive pass since Pimp had come home. We were having a lot of great success in our career: The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, getting a BET hip-hop [award] nomination; we were just really in a great place as a group. Then he passed. And having any accolades after the fact is bittersweet, to say the least. It's hard to be happy about that kind of stuff for yourself. We were really just happy for him because a Grammy is something he really wanted for this group.
HP: Considering your status now, when you look back at the beginning, did you have any idea your music was going to have such a profound effect, or does that just kind of sneak up on you?
Bun B: We weren't sitting around saying, "Yo, this is gonna be legendary." We were just trying to make the music we liked at the time, that we felt needed to be made. Looking back, we knew we were doing music that no one was doing, but we didn't know if it was going to be accepted or not.
HP: Will there be any more UGK work put out?
Bun B: Yeah, we're putting together some music right now with his wife. We had a lot of songs already recorded. The album will probably be coming out in June, if I had to guess.
HP: You've always been viewed as a pretty innovative artist. How do you feel about the whole aura of stagnation surrounding rap and hip-hop?
Bun B: Once people realized that you could make real money off rap, people started taking advantage of it. And at first it was cool, because a lot of people had been working very hard with their craft and really getting no return for it. Some people are skeptical about who's working for their craft and who just cares about the money, but even people who care about their craft still wanna make money.
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HP: Over the years, countless platinum-selling artists have cited your or UGK's work as a springboard for their own career, but those big sales numbers have never really come. Are you okay with artists clearly making lesser-quality work — Soulja Boy, for example — selling more units than you?
Bun B: No disrespect to a Soulja Boy, you can't really get into judging the quality because, in theory, if you're making good music it should sell. At the same time, I do pretty good units but I definitely go out on the road and do my shows, which is where most artists get the heart of their money from. I've always relied on merchandise, going out on tour, selling T-shirts, doing production work or ghost-writing to compensate for that.
HP: After everything you've accomplished — hell, you sold out the Museum of Fine Arts just by saying, "Hey, I like this movie, come watch it and you'll be cool like me" — what's left? When is it time to hang it up?
Bun B: I'm not ready to quit. I'm still pushing. We just put out the UGK skateboard deck, a collaboration with Stevie Williams from DGK [Dirty Ghetto Kids]. We just put together some Bun B and Pimp C sneakers. I'm definitely trying to bring some more hip-hop to the art community and vice versa. And really getting back to the music. I'll be doing my first concert since Pimp passed [Friday]. I'm bringing the whole UGK family, and we're gonna celebrate Pimp's legacy and keep the movement alive. It's UGK for life, R.I.P. to the Pimp.