Pimp C was one of the finest producers the south has known, and fashioned a tremendously influential subgenre all his own. He called his songs “country rap tunes,” and took pains to distance himself from the supposed sophistication and elitism of New York Hip Hop. As a man, he was a true Hip Hop original. He railed against “dick-in-the-booty” artists (famously, and scandalously, citing Ne-Yo and Russell Simmons as examples), but groomed himself meticulously. He loved the finest clothes—furs, hats, shoes—and insisted on lavish wardrobe budgets for his group UGK’s videos. He got manicures, and even while in prison meticulously filed his finger and toe nails. When he was traveling, he burned candles in hotel rooms to keep things smelling fresh.
As we learn in author Julia Beverly’s excellent biography, Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story, he was a walking contradiction. Despite his outsized persona, he suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, often bunkering down inside for days at a time. Owing to bad luck, bad timing, and, frankly, dumb decisions, he was often deep in debt, even during the height of UGK’s popularity in the ‘90s and ‘00s. He didn’t truly become the resplendent, controversial Pimp C we remember today until after returning from incarceration in late 2005, stemming from a probation violation. He served four years, but the entire thing could have been avoided if he’d simply done his community service, paid his fine, and stayed clean.
But that wasn’t the Pimp way, and Sweet Jones brings him to life in all his madness. The project itself has a Pimp C quality. It’s the Infinite Jest of rap books; more than 700 pages of small type, many of them with footnotes that nearly require a magnifying glass. The amount of research and reporting Beverly undertook is breathtaking to consider. She began doing interviews for the tome about five years ago, talking to and unearthing court documents relating to just about all the main characters in the story, not just Pimp and his UGK partner Bun B, but the pair’s family, earliest recording partners, and label brass, not to mention the real-life pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers Pimp ran with. Visually, the book is stunning, packed with gallery upon gallery of full-color pictures, many taken by Beverly herself.
It’s been a great year for southern rap books, including the Scarface memoir Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and the Roots of Southern Rap, co-written by Benjamin Meadows Ingram, and Luke Campbell’s The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City. Those were both released by major publishers, but Beverly decided to put hers out independently after the rejection letters started mounting. She was well-positioned to do so, having acquired a wide-ranging network while publishing her venerated southern Hip Hop magazine, Ozone. She started it in the early aughts in Orlando, building it into a regional powerhouse through sheer will and hard work. At a time when Southern Hip Hop was blowing up, most of the New York rap magazines were left flat-footed. But Beverly had the scene’s biggest acts on speed dial, and documented southern rap’s takeover in vivid detail.
She utilized her contacts to great effect for Sweet Jones, using interviews with important figures like Scarface and Rap-a-Lot Records boss J. Prince to flush out the details of the DEA’s long-running (and largely futile) investigation into the Houston label. She visited Pimp C in prison, took pictures of him when he came out, and talked with him regularly. According to his mother, known as Mama Wes, he even considered making Beverly his manager. Mama Wes was equally enamored of the author, and she provided Beverly with dozens of hours of interviews, not to mention documents of his life, from childhood pictures in Port Arthur, Texas, to a thank you note from Carnegie Hall representatives, where Pimp and his high school choir performed in 1990.
Mama Wes, who became UGK’s manager and biggest supporter, passed in 2013, six years after her son, who died in L.A. due to a combination of prescription cough syrup and sleep apnea, according to the coroner’s office. In the book we get her perspective on just about everything her son was involved with. This contributes to its bloat, and her influence may have colored Beverly’s reporting on Pimp’s widow, Chinara Butler, who declined to be involved and has protested Sweet Jones’ publication. Butler comes off badly in the book, which in chapter 41 describes a scene where Pimp talks to his mother about issues with his wife. “Although it was never explicitly stated,” writes Beverly, “the conversation led Mama Wes to believe that Chinara was smoking crack.” It seems unfair to print such an allegation, without so much as citing an eyewitness.
But elsewhere Beverly’s penchant to include everything, warts and all, pays great dividends. Though Texas rappers’ penchant for syrup is well documented, Beverly’s account of Pimp and Bun’s experiences smoking fry – marijuana cigarettes dipped in liquid PCP, sometimes known as sherm—are illuminating, as are their various record industry financial disputes. We also learn that Pimp and Bun, though forever aligned publicly, nonetheless usually lived in different cities and disagreed on most things besides their music.
We also learn that Pimp could be a colossal asshole, once delaying a video shoot while he picked up a prostitute from the airport and then—for no good reason—sitting around and twiddling his thumbs. The book’s narrative really starts to pick up near the end of his life, when he gets back into drugs and goes on his famous rants, calling out rappers who he doesn’t believe know correct cocaine prices, and insisting that Atlanta isn’t actually the south, since it’s in the Eastern time zone.
Even at his most unhinged, Pimp C was an original thinker, a pure artist, and probably a genius. Beverly’s account will surely stand as the definitive portrait of the man, and the Hip Hop world is undoubtedly a better place for the effort she put in.
Ben Westhoff is a Guardian Hip Hop columnist and author of Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip Hop