It’s a numbing feeling when colleagues die. Just as the faces evaporate in the film Life, I’m struggling with the ever-changing terrain of Hip Hop. The first time I felt this way was at the time of Proof’s death almost two years ago. The passing of Pimp C, nearly a week ago was another such feeling revisited. I knew these men, and while we weren’t friends by any stretch of the imagination, there is sometimes a kinship in Hip Hop – those living in it and those making their livelihoods within it. Although I have seen numerous friends, family and peers pass, there is something challenging about mortality in the workplace. Although Chad Butler won’t likely get the vignettes appropriated to Janis Joplin, Otis Redding or Charlie Parker, as a writer and an acquaintance, I wanted to pay tribute to what made Pimp C meaningful to Hip Hop.
In recent years, Pimp C will be remembered for his unpredictable outspokenness on the microphone and in interviews. However, there are quiet, oft-ignored merits to what made Pimp C special as a musician, as a poet and as a Hip Hopper.
With a signature rhyme pattern and trademark delivery, Chad Butler not only gave credibility on a tracklisting to younger rappers, his voice resonated with the passing-of-the-torch from the pioneering ‘90s to the contemporary air of the ‘00s. For Young Jeezy, T.I. or Young Buck, sharing a verse with Pimp C meant that you had the cosign of the music and the streets, and that your music played into the lineage of those before you. Pimp C’s work with Three-6-Mafia, albeit on a mutual veteran level, was revolutionary in unifying sects of the south, as well as making Reality/Loud Records’ best kept secret accessible not only to crunk audiences, but those of the Houston/Port Arthur slab. Whereas younger rappers’ bragging often appears as ill-advised banter about murder, dope or money, Pimp C made an art out of bragging. With a “catch me if you can” attitude, Pimp C’s verse on “Sippin’ On Sizzurp” said, “We eat so many shrimp, we got iodine poisonin’ / You punk niggas make me sick with all that pinchin’ and bargainin’” was something so downright ridiculous that it made boasting fun again, like the Ultramagnetic MCs or Kool G Rap. Five years later, Pimp rhymed about crashing his gray Bentley, then quickly purchasing a red one on “Free.” Bloggers and online rap fans rejoiced, knowing the truth in the story. UGK made you believe in the videos, believe the lyrics, and believe what most certainly could-not-have-been the hype.
Like DJ Paul and Juicy J, Pimp C benefited greatly from the age of outsourced production. He was welcomed into No Limit Records releases with full creative reign to complement the bounce beats of Beats By The Pound on releases from Master P, Young Bleed and C-Murder. Rap-A-Lot, a home away from home for Pimp, also celebrated the man’s production in the mid ‘90s. After his incarceration, Pimp C’s production was often underplayed. It’s safe to assume that the man was too busy with a label, live shows and making a double-disc CD to craft out beats on the level that he once did. However, just over a year ago, I met with Bun B and Pimp C in Sony Music Studios in New York. As Bun graciously agreed to participate in our lengthy interview (after a day of lengthy interviews), Pimp C fiddled, beside a staff of engineers, with reels of “Pocket Full Of Stones.” It was remarkable to see, in the corner of my eye, a man moved from producer-to-rapper, remind us that he still know his way around the boards. Energized, he scanned the reels for an unused mix, something he was trying to sample, screw or revisit. The only parallel I can draw is watching a seasoned athlete return to an old position, and defying age with familiarity – Biggio at catcher, Bettis on first down, Butler at the boards.
Beyond just being a competent producer, Pimp C was glorious. Revisiting UGK’s major debut Too Hard To Swallow, that’s apparent. He was chopping up The Isley Brothers’ “In Between The Sheets” simultaneous to DJ Pooh’s exploration for Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day.” In fact, Pimp used the same approach that was revisited nearly 15 years later by Just Blaze, perhaps purposefully, on Jay-Z’s “Ignorant Shit.” Moreover, on that same debut release, Pimp C truly outdid himself with the production work on “Feel Like I’m The One Who’s Doin’ Dope.” To me, this song has always been as a colorful and as dynamic as the blueprint for the 808 hits it lifts, The Beastie Boys’ “Shake Your Rump.” Mainstream critics considered The Beasties’ Paul's Boutique effort to be one of the finest produced rap albums of all times. With a slower tempo, we can hear the simmer in the bassline from Pimp C. Slab music is definined with the gliding horns, the scratches and the unadulterated bass that would give the south, moreover it’s Texas corner an identity to sustain through the ages. The same is true of “Front, Back and Side to Side.” The organs that tear between the N.W.A. boom bap and the G-Funk synthesizer line are what made UGK unmistakable. They were as rugged as your hardest gangster rapper, but sporting that feel-good music over a decade before the term became cliché. In addition to the sampling, the instrumentation, Pimp C used drum programming that gave an entrance to his sound that lasted throughout his career. Just as DJ Premier uses a homogeneous blend of silence and sound to trademark his tracks or Dr. Dre adds that low-end bass, Pimp C had drum patterns that created visions of Cadillacs to us urban folk just as Elvis’ vocals did to the Country community. There was a rhythm that was shared to the world every time.
The other thing that made Pimp C so remarkable was his love of Hip Hop. Like Bun B’s, Pimp packaged an appreciation for all facets of rap music that could have put him on the editorial staff at any of the major magazines. Although he might be misconstrued as a flagrant defender of southern Hip Hop in his last months, Pimp was highly educated on New York and west coast rap. The man collaborated with Lord Jamar and Keith Murray on “Live Wires Connect;” he reunited Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane and Marley Marl on “Next Up,” and he produced and featured on “Murder Man Dance” for Spice-1. Beyond this, there were collaborations with Talib Kweli and Dizzee Rascal; Pimp C made the music fun and kicked down the walls he was wrongfully accused of building. On the latest UGK album, Pimp borrowed a cadence and rhyme pattern from yet another labelmate, Too Short, on “Life is 2009.” The delivery and word choices were carefully studied in the same vein which Black Thought and Dice Raw mimicked the aforementioned Juice Crew members on The Roots’ 2004 album cut “Boom.” Confusing Pimp C for just a rhyming producer or a self-involved artist is criminally minded. Moreover, the work outside of Hip Hop was equally remarkable. Whether interpolating The Red Hot Chili Peppers on “Pocket Full of Stones (Remix)” or Bob Marley & The Wailers on “Cocaine in the Back of the Ride” or Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on “Free,” the work wasn’t Diddy-like coverage, but rather H-Town-ified nods to greats beyond the walls, and making them accessible to urban youth. To see his man’s iPod or his record collection, like Bun’s, would be an education in of itself.
Pimp C was one of Hip Hop’s final characters. As the smash-cut in the video to “International Player’s Anthem,” (during Andre 3000’s verse) deems, he was Hip Hop’s pimp. While Ice-T might have a foothold in the actual facts, Pimp C, with his lavish wardrobe, his signature glasses and undeniable deuce-chucking, was the total package. This was a man who studied the way Kool Moe Dee, X-Clan or Ice-T himself rocked it, and he created his own character. This was all the more reason, when soliciting that production, that guest verse or simply purchasing a UGK or solo album, the check-writer knew what he was in store for. No fact checking was needed with Pimp C. Even if the man was embellishing, just like Kool Keith or KRS-One, it didn’t matter. Hip Hop’s suspension of disbelief was never tampered with, and the stories and style were warmly received.
With the deaths of J Dilla and Big L, Hip Hop has grown to love its icons after the fact. Just as Folk music fans understood Nick Drake and Soul folks received Nina Simone, Chad Butler, whose music passed our ears, eyes and hearts for nearly 20 years before he left us, will be better understood in time. Like 2Pac, the last two years of his life may have been spent in haste, making product that seemed to be means to make ends, all of this work, the slow cooked and the rushed alike, will carry prophecy that Hip Hop will undoubtedly need in its steps forward.
Chad Butler, we only shared air on a few occasions, but to say so makes me both proud and mournful. While our exchanges were short, and perhaps not memorable (on one side anyway), it is with humble honor and firm belief that I believe your impact on all of our lives and love of this thing of ours will reveal itself a bit more each day, each phase and each spin. Thank you and rest in peace.