They rap different in the South. The urgency and foreboding that dominate the sounds coming from the Coasts are all but eliminated, traded in for an almost chilling casualness. At its best, Southern rap sounds warm, charming, and deliberate. Even the threats sound like easy conversation.
Bun B might just be the chief architect of that style. Born Bernard Freeman, Bun is one half of the Port Arthur, Texas, rap group UGK (Underground Kingz), one of the region’s—and the country’s—most revered groups. Over five albums beginning in 1992, Bun and his partner Pimp C helped craft the template that would catapult numerous artists of the next generation to success. Bun, in particular, emerged as a mercenary lyricist, capable of intense rhythmic complexity and astute narrative construction. Innovation, though, can be rough business strategy—nationwide notice came slow to UGK, who first came to wide prominence guesting on Jay-Z’s gargantuan 2000 single “Big Pimpin.’” Soon after, Pimp was incarcerated for a probation violation, and Bun became one of hip-hop’s most in-demand guest artists, rapping on scores of records and helping to kick-start a new generation of Texas hip-hop. Last year, he released his solo debut, Trill, and a few months later, Pimp was released from prison—they hope to have a new UGK album completed by year’s end.
This interview was conducted over the phone in late March. Bun was at his Houston home, resting in between show dates. BET was playing on the television in the background, and he was preparing to take his mother to a Houston Rockets game that evening.
I. “IF YOU AIN’T QUACKING, YOU AIN’T NO DUCK.”
THE BELIEVER: What was Port Arthur like when you were young?
BUN B: Port Arthur as a town was incorporated in the late 1800s. It did fair business as a port town. But what really caused the explosion of the area in general was the discovery of the Spindletop oil derrick in Beaumont, Texas. The Spindletop oil derrick was the most fruitful derrick in the world. At its peak, it gave up about a hundred thousand gallons of oil a day. They were shipping it out from Port Arthur, so the oil industry, of course, brought a boom to the small town. If you go to the town now, you will see what are now defunct Chevron, Texaco, and all these other refineries. Pretty much everyone in the Beaumont part of the area from probably the early 1900s on up about to 1985—when everything in the oil industry went downhill—was employed by the refineries or made their money off the refineries. Either you worked for the refineries or you provided some service for the refineries or for the people that worked for the refineries.
BLVR: And the people would basically live in Port Arthur and work at the refineries—it wasn’t a commuter town.
BB: If you go to Port Arthur today, you see these big-ass fucking tanks, right in residential areas. And in the past there’s been a few times where we’ve had some problems with that.
BLVR: That’s what I was going to ask. First of all, the smell. I’ve never smelled a town like Port Arthur. It’s so distinctive, and so you know that has to do with the oil. There must be health repercussions with that.
BB: Every now and then something will leak… I had a brother who moved to Port Arthur, and he was living a little closer to the refinery than we did. There was some kind of chemical leak or whatever, and a lot of people got sick. And I’m like, I bet this happens a lot more than people know. But you can’t go biting the hand that feeds you.
BLVR: Did your parents work for the refineries in some capacity?
BB: No, my stepfather was a janitor and my mother was a private nurse for invalid patients. She would do personal care, which basically means wiping their ass and bathing them and feeding them. And my stepfather was a janitor, which basically means cleaning up after people who can shit and feed themselves, but don’t know how to do it like regular people.
BLVR: Your mom and your dad split when you were relatively young, right?
BB: When my parents were together, my father was an alcoholic. It’s not like I’m speaking ill on the man—if I put you on the phone with him, he would tell you this. He’s reformed and rehabbed now. He’s a preacher. But in spite of him being an alcoholic and a gambler and adulterer and whatever these things he was—understanding the nature of people, if I know him to have all three of these things, I’m good for one of them.
BLVR: You never held it against him?
BB: Once I got older I understood, yeah, I have a propensity to drink. Yeah, I love a good dice game. Yeah, I love the hoes. Once I got to an age where I understood these things, which was like probably twenty-one or twenty-two, I was like, “You know what? I understand you a lot better now, because I understand me. And I am of you.”
BLVR: Were you a good student in school?
BB: I was a pretty smart kid; I always made good grades. Most of the kids that made good grades, I didn’t like. I was like every other kid trying to figure out what he wanted to be and where he wanted to go. And what was going to work with where his friends wanted to go and who they were trying to be. You figure, OK, I want to be this when I’m around my friends and when I’m home I kind of want to be this.
BLVR: What was that split—public vs private Bun—like for you?
BB: It was a pretty big difference because in high school, there weren’t too many young black kids watching David Letterman. I was into Rich Little. If they were out there, they didn’t admit it.
BLVR: What about acting? I know you did some acting when you were young.
BB: I did A Raisin in the Sun, a couple of other plays. My drama teacher told me, “You know what? You got a lot of foolishness in you, but it’s not bad foolishness.” I ended up getting two college scholarship offers—one academic and one for acting.
BLVR: So you forwent both of them to rap?
BB: Once I’d accepted that that was what I wanted to do. It was all about proving my parents wrong, and you can totally understand the tenacity of a teenager trying to prove his parents wrong. That’s 151 percent. I was like, I got to make it now, otherwise they’re right. And I’m not going to give them that.
BLVR: When they first heard The Southern Way, what was their response?
BB: From my parents? My parents never actually heard Southern Way. My mother didn’t really understand I was a rapper ’til probably around “Big Pimpin.’”
BB: My parents are from a whole different culture. My parents are from small-town Louisiana. It’s like, if it walk like a duck, talk like a duck, then it’s a duck. And if you ain’t quacking, you ain’t no duck. My mom’s whole thing was, “Why ain’t you on TV? Everybody else that makes music is on TV.” So I’m like, “Well, they don’t really deal with Southern people.” And she’s like, “That’s not true, ’cause Ray Charles is from the South and James Brown is, too.”
BLVR: So how did she think you earned a living?
BLVR: So her assumption was that you earned a living exclusively from the street?
BLVR: And at that time, what percentage of that was true?
BB: By the time Southern Way came out, 50 percent, tops. After that album, we started doing shows, and it declined.
BLVR: Do you miss the street at all? People sometimes get nostalgic, romantic for shit like that. Do you ever have that kind of semi-irrational response?
BB: No, because whenever I sit back and think about the dumb shit I did, I honestly cannot believe I got the fuck away. I know guys who are gone forever who did the same dumb shit I was doing. And I think I may have did it a little worse than them. Like, I was literally on the highway, with cocaine on the dashboard, car on cruise, with my feet out the window, smoking a blunt. Begging a state trooper to take me away for the rest of my fucking life.
II. “YOU CAN’T WRITE A BOOK IF YOU’VE NEVER READ A BOOK.”
BLVR: So when you realized “OK, this is a career option,” what rappers did you want to model yourself on?
BB: At that point, KRS-One. This was really before KRS got, what most people would say is—
BB: Nah, not insane. But at least contradictory, on certain points—
BLVR: I’ll say insane. You don’t have to say insane.
BB: I really don’t want to disrespect the man because the man was great. He’d done many great things before I did. So kudos to that. Just because he had a few bad ideas maybe after the fact, you can’t knock what he’d done before. He is my OG.
BLVR: Yes, I hear that. At a certain point he was your OG.
BB: He’s still my OG. I say this right now to you and I hope you put it in print. KRS is my OG. Simply because he was the first guy that was like, “Fuck it. I’m a rapper. I’m in the hood. Me and my homies got guns, but you know what? I’m not ignorant. This is a personal choice some of us have made, and as soon as we can get away from it we will.” Like Andre  said, every cat with braids ain’t down for the cause. You know what I’m saying?
BLVR: And in terms of your actual rap style, what were you thinking in terms of how you put words together?
BB: Now here’s the thing, Jon. Here’s where we come to a bump in the road.
BLVR: Tell me.
BB: I honestly never gave it that much thought.
BB: I honestly never sat down and said “OK, here’s my style,” because my whole thing was knowing everyone’s style. Everything I’ve ever written has bits and pieces of everything I’ve ever heard. Any rapper that tells you different is a liar. You can’t write a book if you’ve never read a book. And if you’ve read five books and you try to write a book, your book will mainly encompass the themes and the context of the five books you’ve read. Now, the more books you read, the more you can bring to a book when you decide to write one. So the more rap I learned, the more I was able to bring to rap when I decided to rap. But this was all subconscious.
BLVR: How did you know that you were getting better?
BB: People were telling me. That was the only fucking clue I had. Everybody was like, “Man, you killing it.” I didn’t honestly believe I was a rapper, like a real fucking rapper, probably until I met Biggie [Smalls] and Biggie knew who I was.
BLVR: How did he know who you were?
BB: From the “Pocket Full of Stones” remix on the Menace II Society soundtrack. I met Biggie when he was on promo tour with Craig Mack. This was the time when “Flava in Your Ear” was the hottest record in the country. Craig had gone gold, and Biggie was still at three-something. And I met him at BMG, so of course with the label, they was all about Craig. But I’m a rapper. It’s all about Big. So I was like, “Yo Biggie, you’re a bad motherfucker.” I had to tell him. Biggie was the first real bootleg, the first time everybody wanted somebody’s album before it came out. He was like, “I heard your shit too, I know who you is.” I was like, “No shit.” And he was like, “Yeah, ‘Pocket Full of Stones’ is my shit.” Wow. [Pause]
I’m sorry. I’m distracted—I’m listening to myself talk on TV right now.
BLVR: What’s it like listening to yourself talk?
BLVR: Do you feel like you sound like you actually sound when you see yourself on TV?
BB: Yeah, I do. But I can’t believe I look like that.
BLVR: What do you look like?
BB: Every time I see myself in print or on TV, I feel like a little white girl. I feel fat.
III. “IF HE USES TEN SYLLABLES IN A LINE, I’M GOING TO USE FIFTEEN.”
BLVR: So a lot of the work you’ve done in recent years—before your solo album dropped—has been guest appearances on other people’s records. I’d like to know a little bit about the practice of writing those rhymes.
BB: Well, the first thing I do is I try to listen to whatever rapping is already on the track. I listen for cadence and melody to see how the track’s already been written, and to make sure that whatever flow or flows I decide to run with, or patterns or melodies that I decide to put into the song, that they’re not already in there. Then I try to see if there’s a different part of the subject matter that I can talk about. If there isn’t, I try to see if I can analogize it, break it down, flip it another way. If that can’t be done, the best thing I can do is pretty much out-rap the guy. And when I say out-rap the guy—say, if he uses ten syllables in a line, I’m going to use fifteen. If he uses fifteen, I’m going to use twenty, twenty-five. If he’s rhyming two or three words within two bars, I’m going to rhyme four or five words in two bars. I’m going to out-skill you.
BLVR: Treat it as a technical exercise.
BB: And just put more into it. Basically, I’m going to take what you did, the bare-bones structure of what you were trying to do, how you were attacking the song, and attack it in pretty much the same way, just with more intensity to show you that you could’ve come harder. Like, I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to tell a cat how to rhyme his rhyme.
BLVR: He didn’t know how to spit it.
BB: Saying it all wrong. You know, like, that’s not how that bends. Which is pretty funny to me, because it means that subconsciously, you can rap, but your conscious mind won’t let you go hard. It might be that they get intimidated. I’ve been intimidated before, you know, but I stepped up to the plate.
BLVR: In what situations were you intimidated?
BB: Well, you know, the first time I rapped with E-40, because, first of all, you’re not going to out-rap him. If E-40 is going to invent a word, you know what you got to do to take away from that.
BB: Sure. What about Jay-Z?
BB: Absolutely. Jay was intimidating to the point where I was totally intimidated before I even got to the booth. But I was like, this is going to be a test of my mettle. In the South, I’m regarded as the guy who, quote unquote, out-rapped Jay-Z. A lot of Southern rappers would say that. Not saying that I’m a better rapper than Jay-Z, but I was able to out-rap Jay-Z on a track. The reality is that I probably took that song [“Big Pimpin’”] a whole lot more seriously than Jay-Z. Because that was a lackadaisical, laid-back party track, and I attacked it. You know, for me, I’m a rapper. And I’m on it with Jay-Z.
BLVR: You’d better be hot.
BB: Yeah. In all fairness, I did hear it first. I got there and I realized he’s playing with it. Like, didn’t he even think to think that I would take into consideration the fact that I’m rapping with Jay-Z and might go—
BLVR: And try to devour him.
BB: Not even that much. Like, I know Jay-Z. The reason he called us to get us on the song was because of respect for what we do. So I know that he knows, on some level, in some form or fashion, that I tend to think of myself as a lyricist. And he had to know that, rapping on a song with Jay-Z, I was probably going to give it my all. But I don’t even think he thought that I was going to try to do anything, try to get my rap on. I honestly don’t think he took that song as seriously as I did.
BLVR: Let’s talk about that example in particular. When you heard his verse, how long did it take you to put yours down?
BB: Probably fifteen, twenty minutes. No longer than any other rhyme I’ve written. The hardest thing for me to do, as far as writing a rhyme, is figuring out how it’s going to go.
BB: Once I get in my mind that it’s going to go “da da da dadada da da,” then it’s kind of like filling in the blanks.
BLVR: You figure out the pattern first, the pattern and cadence first, then the words?
BB: I take the typical words, or I pick a two-word, three-word pattern. One of the things I’m known for is I was one of the first rappers to end their bars rhyming multisyllabically. The other day I put Curb Your Enthusiasm in a rhyme.
BLVR: What’s the rhyme?
BB: It’s “Tell your homeboy to curb his enthusiasm before I point my motherfuckin’ Uzi at him.”
BB: I’m sure that would tickle Larry David.
IV. “I WOULDN’T DARE PUNCH IN MIXED COMPANY. JESUS.”
BLVR: Are there things that you want to bring into your raps, but you have felt for whatever reason that you couldn’t or shouldn’t?
BB: No, I just haven’t gotten around to making those records yet.
BLVR: But you could go into the studio tonight and make a record about whatever and find a home for it. You could put it on a mixtape and put it out there.
BB: Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to take away from it. Like, for the longest, UGK and dead prez have talked about making a song. They expect dead prez to say “fuck the government” and shit like that, but when dead prez and UGK say “fuck the government” and we’re both breaking it down in our own respective ways, I think it makes it that much more of an impactful statement. We could actually make a major statement in the hood. That’s the thing that I think we all took away from “Big Pimpin.’” Like, this is a good record, but this isn’t the record that it could’ve been. This is UGK and Jay-Z. We are major representatives of our culture, our region, and our people. We could make a much more impactful record for the streets, to motivate niggas.
BLVR: Do you see motivation as a big part of your role?
BB: Initially, we were the guys from a town that nobody came to. So we would do a show in Jackson, but then we would also do a show in Pritchard, Alabama, or Tuscaloosa. We were the cats going to towns where people wouldn’t go. There was that small-town camaraderie, especially on the chitlin circuit in the South. You didn’t see us on TV, you didn’t see us in the magazines, but you could still see us onstage. We’re all country boys. I’m up there talking just like you talk, acting like you act. So, goddamn, you could probably make it, too. At that time, I was eighteen. Pimp was seventeen. There were no young guys really repping for kids, for young adults. You had Pimp representing for the fly boys, who the women liked. And then you had me, who was there for the rough cats as well as people who respected the art form. So really, there was no stone left uncovered.
BLVR: What do you think a 2006 UGK record is going to sound like?
BB: I think you’re still going to have records close to a lot of what you heard on Ridin’ Dirty and Dirty Money. But then I know that Pimp, he’s going to want to compete with the likes of Just Blaze and Pharrell. Pimp understands that, as a producer, the kind of energy that’s being brought is the kind of energy that’s being demanded of the song by the producer. Pimp made “Murder.” “Murder” is a song that demands more of you as a rapper. He made that because I told him “I want a song that I can go off to.” And he was like “OK, well, I’m going to give you a song to go off to.” After I did that record, I went to sleep. That song put me to sleep.
BLVR: Because it was that tiring?
BB: Because it was that demanding. And this was back when I had certain rules I went by. Like I didn’t punch in. I don’t punch in on verses.
BLVR: Very old-school.
BB: So that was like thirty-two bars, and it was like eighty-eight, ninety BPMs.
BLVR: Did you punch on “Big Pimpin,’” or was that also one shot?
BB: I wouldn’t dare punch in mixed company. Jesus.
BLVR: [Laughs] Yeah, but it was thirty-two bars.
BB: I wouldn’t dare.
BLVR: I’m just saying, thirty-two bars, you might be allowed a punch.
BB: Sorry. I maintained my integrity to the fullest in them days. Back then, when I needed the monster on the track I said, get me some Henny in there. I’m gonna eat it up. Every now and then I’ve walked into the booth and I’ve had some cats tell me, “Yo, you’re not going to beat me. I know you been out here wrecking niggas. You’re not wrecking me today.” And I’m like, “Don’t underthink me, and don’t overthink me. Don’t underestimate me, and don’t overestimate me. Just do you.” That’s all you can do up against a guy like me.
BLVR: Who do you feel, right now, is lyrically impressive?
BB: I still think Eminem. I listen to Em and I’m like, “You know what? You’re just playing with it now.”
BLVR: Oh, no, he is. It’s like he’s not even trying.
BB: I listen to Em right now and I can almost see him rolling his eyes in the booth. And I’m not knocking him for it, because when you’re so fucking good at what you do—it’s the same reason why Andre 3000 won’t rap anymore. He’s like “OK, gimme a challenge in rap. Because what they’re doing right now isn’t challenging. I can do that with my eyes closed.” What some people don’t understand is that maybe you’re the one to bring the challenge to rap.
BLVR: That you’re obliged to bring it.
BB: The problem for Andre 3000 is that there is no Andre 3000 for him. And that’s what bothers him. It used to be people—the Big Daddy Kanes, the Chubb Rocks—people who just attacked the game differently. And I don’t think there’s enough people doing that now. I’ve definitely had different people pushing me, a lot of people that don’t let me rest on my laurels. I got people like Young Jeezy, who are taking street music to another level. He’s calling me “OG.” “You gotta get ’em, OG. You gotta go out here and get ’em. Show us how it’s done.” Even these people who are changing the game, you know, expect me to change it after they’ve come. “That’s what you do. You come out and change the game.” And it’s like, yeah, but that’s what some of you cats are doing now. “It don’t matter. You taught us how to change, and you still gotta change it again. You gotta make me rethink me.”