Playa Prophets, Prison and Pimp Tales: UGK’s ‘Ridin’ Dirty’ Turns 20
In the lexicon of classic hip-hop albums, there is an ever-growing canon of remarkable records; the albums that made legends, defined eras and continuously redefined genres. Not all of those albums are perfect: Fear of A Black Planet's second half fails to match the inspired brilliance of its first nine tracks; "Mamacita" is a regrettable moment on the otherwise transcendent Aquemini; both Life After Death and All Eyez On Me have an inordinate amount of filler. Though there has to be a consistent high-quality listenability for an album to even enter the conversation; said album can be a classic without necessarily being "perfect"--sometimes a particular LP's musical highs are just so high that a singular misstep (or two) is forgivable.
But UGK's Ridin' Dirty is perfect. And on their third studio album, the Underground Kingz delivered the South's quintessential rap manifesto.
20 years after Bernard "Bun B" Freeman and the late Chad "Pimp C" Butler released their seminal third album, southern hip-hop has become the genre's mainstream standard. And in the last ten years, trap music has become southern hip-hop's most recognizable style. Obviously, contemporary trap music is more musically digital and detached than the southern-fried sound of classic Underground Kingz; but the subject matter--that combination of confrontational gangsta shit and pimped out poetry--that ideology was born of the Pimp and the Bun. And the greatest musical statement born of that ideology was and is Ridin' Dirty.
The album’s sound; while putting UGK in more consistently accessible territory than ever, was still rooted in the stripped-down southern funk and soul that had informed Pimp C’s productions from the very beginning. But this time around N.O. Joe was riding shotgun, and these two boardsmiths teaming up for Ridin' Dirty added variety and, to a certain extent, polish to UGK's sonic template--without turning the duo into a crossover act.
This was two of the South's most era-defining producers collaborating. Both of UGK's previous albums had been almost entirely produced by Pimp C, and N.O. Joe was fresh off of recording Scarface's masterwork, 1994s The Diary. After developing a friendship with Bun B, Rap-A-Lot's in-house producer was asked if he would be interested in recording with the duo for their new album.
"Bun was like 'man, Pimp C wants to work with you, but he doesn’t know kinda how to ask you,'" Joe recalled to Jimmy Ness in 2015. "He’d never brought anybody else in [to work on UGK records] and I told Bun 'what!? Man, dude! I’d love to work on a UGK record, bro.'”
Released just weeks before their contemporaries OutKast would drop their futuristically-themed classic ATLiens, UGK doubled-down on their street identity and unapologetic embrace of gritty hood tales. And unlike Scarface's darker-than-thou psychological examinations, UGK was undoubtedly torn without sounding unrelentingly tortured. But they weren't solely reveling in glamorized pimpspeak--this was hood commentary of the most unpretentious variety.
"All the niggas that I went to school wit
Shot pool wit, went to fool wit
Out there sellin' that white shit
Niggas holding pistols, dependent on the game
What ya want me to do, it's like somebody cut my throat
Got $20,000, tryna turn it to a hundred
And ain't nobody got no dough..." - Pimp C
While Pimp C's production prowess was reinvigorated by working with N.O. Joe, Bun B’s rhymes had undergone a significant leap in both intricacy and flow. The rhymer’s distinctive baritone had been a focal point of UGK’s sound, but, noteworthy as his flow had always been, his rhyme style wasn’t altogether as recognizable or as fully developed as it suddenly became on Ridin’ Dirty. Bun had been in ciphers with Mr. 3-2 of the Southside Playaz and ex-Geto Boy Big Mike for months leading up to recording sessions for the new album—and he’d sharpened his skills considerably.
"These muthafuckas ask is it the bark or the bite
It's both--chillin' on streets you scared to park on at night
Just forfeit just like
I'm becoming part of the light
And you? You gonna be the biggest mark at the fight
I never understood what made you think you was handlin'
You half-ass runnin' thru my neighborhood vandlin'
Next time I'ma light your world up like a candle an'
Get some Italians to play your ass like a mandolin
These cocaine wars got my mind in a frenzy
The feds tried to confiscate my 'Lac and my Benzy
Colombian assassins Hunt a nigga like Lindsey" - Bun B
Jive had flown the duo to Chicago to record their follow-up to 1994s classic Super Tight, but the sessions yielded mediocre offerings that didn’t impress anyone--including Mama Wes, Pimp C's mother and manager. The lukewarm early recordings convinced everyone that UGK should record in a UGK atmosphere. Recording for the album was resumed in Texas, and it was from these sessions in UGK's home state that Ridin’ Dirty was born. The Texas setting and the infusion of N.O. Joe's sensibility proved to be a perfect catalyst for Pimp and Bun's creativity; and the partners-in-rhyme pushed each other to higher plateaus. The result of that spark would be one of the most successfully-realized and musically inspired rap albums of the 1990s.
Ridin' Dirty didn't feature radio singles or videos--this was as unadorned a major rap release as the Port Arthur, TX duo's earlier albums. In a year when hip-hop was crossing over at an unprecedented rate, UGK's third album arrived in stores that summer with little fanfare--but the streets throughout the South already knew who these guys were. Pimp and Bun had an established pedigree--but it was soon obvious to fans and critics that Ridin' Dirty was a new level for the Kingz. It would eventually become UGK's best-selling album, and an oft-cited benchmark for classic Dirty South hip-hop.
From the infectious menace of Bun B’s flow as he raps “For what it’s worth, it’s the birth of some niggas doin’ dirt” on the bobbing “Murder,” to the gleeful misogyny of the quintessentially Pimp C “Pinky Ring,” the duo’s chemistry and creativity continued to peak on Ridin' Dirty. This is street testimony from two of the best to ever do it, and it's not ever pretty; but it's plenty compelling. And UGK make it sound like you've never heard anyone address the dope game, scandalous sycophants or murderous paranoia as effectively as Pimp and Bun do here.
"I don’t think a lot of people even know this, but Ridin’ Dirty is one of the first rap albums ever recorded on ProTools," Bun B told Complex earlier this year. "At the time, ProTools was really only used for commercials and things like that. I was against it at the time because they were trying to push upon me the ability to punch in. And I had just written 'Murder.' That was about to be my greatest lyrical example, my greatest performance on record. And I was like 'I don’t give a fuck if you have the ability to punch in and shit, I’m gonna do this with breath control, not eight bars and punch in.'”
The laid-back feel of the album was the result of obvious influences; specifically, a growing syrup-sipping scene and an influx of weed from British Columbia into Houston. "We just tried to implement everything that was really happening in the music," Bun said. "Talking about the whole explosion of BC weed coming into Houston at the time and being an artist and trying to make music, but still hustling on the side and being on the grind. You know this was when syrup was still very early. My people used to laugh at me and say I was crazy for sipping syrup, and now I don’t sip syrup and everybody else does."
Those circumstances inform the sound and the subject matter from front to back of UGK's third album. That spirit reaches it's apogee on “Diamonds & Wood;” one of the greatest southern rap anthems ever produced; a perfect mélange of slow-rolling soul, real-ass rhymes and a mood that feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon, smokin' something on a back porch or riding slow around the neighborhood with the system loud. A perfect sample of Bootsy Collins’ “Munchies For Your Love” provides the backdrop for Pimp and Bun to lay down some truth. “Say man, I stopped smokin' with them haters back in 94,” Pimp famously raps. “But niggas be thinkin' that a Sweet gone get 'em through my door/And niggas talk a lot of shit in a safe place/I know, cuz he can't look me eye-to-eye when he in my face.”
Ridin' Dirty's sonics and atmosphere are as effective as they are layered; this is a sound that is quintessentially southern. While the album's deft samples range from Wes Montgomery to the Isley Brothers, the resulting vibe of Ridin' Dirty evokes a muggy richness that recalls Muscle Shoals and Hi Records as effortlessly as it connects to Suave House and the Dungeon Family; it's almost a cross-section for all black music that emerged out of the American South in the past 50 years. Most of the tracks are as syrupy and warm as classic Staples Singers or O.V. Wright, interrupted by bursts of hip-hop aggression to remind you that this is rap music, this is 1996 and you better act like you know. This is music for folks who love Isaac Hayes and for folks who love Poison Clan.
Smoke D’s interludes add a conceptualism to the album. The excerpts were actual phone recordings from the rapper’s stay in a state penitentiary in Mississippi. Pimp C extracted bits from these phone conversations and featured them throughout the album--adding a thematic framework to Ridin’ Dirty’s realness. Twenty years later, and with more than 850,000 albums sold, the album's successes are obvious and it's legacy is cemented.
Almost a decade after Pimp C's untimely death at the age of 33, love for UGK has only risen. 2 Chainz, Big K.R.I.T., Boozie Badazz, and even Drake are all connected to the Underground Kingz untenable legacy; they are a linchpin in contemporary hip-hop and loom large as an influence on the attitude and presentation of 2000s southern hip-hop, specifically. Bun B is one of rap's most respected elder statesmen and a cultural commentator and lecturer; Pimp C is one of the game's most lionized legends--a sage of street politics and unfiltered Down South authenticity. UGK's Ridin' Dirty stands as a watershed moment in the career of one of the game's greatest acts. It sounds as good today as it ever has. UGK may be gone but they ain't ever leavin.' Country rap songs forever.
It don’t stop and it damn sho' don’t change.