Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Albums You Should Own: UGK - Ridin' Dirty
(*I initially was gonna post my usual sarcastic, hate infused reviews on the new Beanie Sigel, Styles P, Freeway & Scarface albums but since Pimp C passed today, I decided it wasn’t necessarily in good taste so I have instead decided to do an “Albums You Should Own” Feature on UGK’s greatest album.)
I feel sorry for those haven’t heard UGK’s 1995 masterpiece, Ridin’ Dirty, before because chances are unless you are really into Southern rap like that you haven’t heard this album. And it’s a damn shame. Long before Southern rap started to get dominated by the sound of the forces of The Great Evil Of Commercial LCD Rap (I personally blame New Orleans, Master P & Mannie Fresh. Fuck 400 Degreez!) hijacked Southern Rap (And Eventually Hip Hop Itself) and turned into the Worst Music Ever In The History Of Mankind, Evar, Chad “Pimp C” Butler and his partner-in-rhyme, Bernard “Bun B” Freeman, were carving a warm, organic sound that was dripping with soul and funk and didn’t really sound like anything else in Hip Hop (save for early Outkast & The Dungeon Family). It wasn’t the relentless, menacing chopped loops and the drums of hell that beat your head in like the East Coast rap of that period or the slow, swooning synths of G-Funk that dominated the West. Instead, it was soulful, swirling church organs, swinging wah wah guitars, and funk infused horns. It was fresh. It was funky. It was the South. Bun and Pimp managed to perfect that sound by their fourth album, the undeniably classic Ridin’ Dirty, and unfortunately (or maybe just fortunately), it will end up be the record of their career.
The album opens up with the absolutely stunning and mournful lament of Ronald Isley crooning "Well, well, well, Hello Baby...” on “One Day,” the best song that anybody remotely involved in this song ever made. The song is simply heartbreaking as it speaks to everybody who has ever lost anybody that’s important to them in love, life or in prison. The pathos is palpable and touching and the regret, pain and confusion that Pimp expresses about his inability to understand how his friend’s young son can die in a house fire and killers from the neighborhood get to live and prosper is simply powerful as is when Bun touches on when he laments his brother coming home from prison after ten years inside just as he is about to go in and the pain is just too much for him. What makes this song so interesting and powerful isn’t so much the subject matter as songs like these are present in lots of hardcore rap albums but the sequencing of the song on the album. It’s the second track of the album after the "Intro" so it defies some of the cliches about songs like these which usually is sequenced at the end of the album. Often, these types of songs are placed towards the end of an album to mitigate some of the wanton violence and misogyny as if to show that the artist have a heart and I’ve always seen at it as completely cliche' and disingenuous. I’ve somewhat cynically nicknamed those songs as “The Ubiquitous I’m Sorry I Sold Crack" song but by placing it towards the beginning of the album, it amplifies the power of the song as what follows the song is some of the hardest of hardcore rap music you will ever.
The next five or six songs on the album is like the Murderer’s Row Of Southern Hardcore Rap. Starting with “Murder”, running through “Pinky Ring”, “Diamonds & Wood” and “Three In The Morning” and culminating with “Touched” (the song infamously bit by Jay-Z for the opening lines of “99 Problems) are some absolutely amazing songs. Pimp C’s production positively swings with a warm, organic swagger and both rappers come absolutely correct. Bun B blacks out and practically loses his damn mind on the final verse on “Murder” which is not only a contender for one of the greatest displays of sheer technical lyrical virtuosity but also may in fact, the best verse ever laid down by a Southern rapper if not all of hip hop itself. Seriously, he’s that damn good. Pimp C’s production is equally as good as Bun’s rapping. I mentioned in the previous post that I thought that Pimp C was the Greatest Southern Hip Hop Producer Of All-Time and I meant it. Pimp C’s live instrumented organic Southern funk is possibly one of the more influential sounds in hip hop history. He’s a direct influence on Outkast, Goodie Mob, Post-Geto Boys Scarface, Mannie Fresh and a host of Southern imitators. Prior to UGK, Southern Hip didn’t really have a sound that it was its signature. As amazing as those early Geto Boys records are, they kind of sound like NWA- Era Dr. Dre and somewhat West Coast but Pimp C gave the South a new identity in terms of his musical oeuvre. Ridin’ Dirty is Pimp’s production masterpiece. His earlier work on The Southern Way, Too Hard To Swallow & Super Tight have a somewhat more rawer and less refined sound but by Ridin’ Dirty, it was down to a cold, hard science and Pimp really spreads his wings musically as guitars are layered over horns, organs, and synths that create a warm, musical pastiche of the South. It’s quite brilliant.
The death of Pimp C stunned me today as Pimp had an out-sized personality and a certain “Don’t Give a Fuck” charisma that made him sort of endearing to his fans. He was always good for an outrageous hilarious interview or some ridiculous PCP fueled incident. However, much like Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death, it didn’t really shock me. Pimp C was as troubled as he was talented. He made no attempts to hide his copious drug use or his penchant for waving guns in the middle of a mall. He wasn’t a saint but it saddens me to see someone so talented and someone I was a fan of die. However, years of living on the edge eventually catches up to a human being and the inevitable hand of death finally caught up with Chad Butler. What we are left with now is his legacy. Pimp C is a much better rapper than his critics give him credit for. His charisma and penchant for outrageous and often hysterical boasts often elevated what on the surface could be seen as a below average lyricism but his delivery was full of passion and it simply carried him. On the year’s best song, “International Player’s Anthem”, he absolutely shined and completely stood his own amidst three monster verses from Bun B, Andre 3000, and Big Boi. He wasn’t wack. In some senses, he’s kind of a Southern RZA (and I think these days he was a better rapper than RZA) in the sense that he was both an extremely influential and pioneering producer but also a pretty talented emcee in his own right. I have a feeling due to the East Coast bias of many critics (including myself...), he’s unfairly criticized as a wack emcee and if he were from the East Coast, he’d be seen much more favoredly. He never comes wack on this album, though.
If we search hard, I think we can find a silver lining in such a strange and tragic death is that Pimp C went out on top. UGK were having up to this point, their most successful year ever. Their double album, Underground Kingz, one of the year’s best albums, was their most successful commercially to date as it landed them for the first time at #1 on the Billboard Music Chart in their long, storied career. It seemed that the world had finally recognized Pimp and Bun’s achievements and Pimp didn’t die struggling to achieve acceptance. They had found it. I think that may be the only comfort they can really have. It’s unbelievably tragic though that they never had a chance to truly capitalize and enjoy their success. I’m sure Bun B will press on. He’s too good of a rapper to be set down for good by Pimp’s death. But they’ll always have Ridin’ Dirty. I’ve been playing “One Day” all day long since hearing about Pimp’s death and it has only gotten more resonant since I first heard it. One day, you’re here baby....
And then you're gone...
(This post is dedicated to my grandmother, Janet O’Keefe, who passed on Thanksgiving this year. She was an amazing, kind and sweet woman and I truly loved her. She will be missed. Rest In Peace, Grandma. I love you.)