Still I Shine So Clean

By  |  September 9, 2015
Bun B ‘Draped Up’ video shoot (2005) by Peter Beste | peterbeste.com Bun B ‘Draped Up’ video shoot (2005) by Peter Beste | peterbeste.com

Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story, by Julia Beverly. Shreveport Ave., 2015. 726 pages.

While the rapper and producer Pimp C was in prison, fans wrote him letters from all over the world, many of them desperate and oddly personal. There was Raven in Hawaii, who advised him to grow out his goatee and offered to send him chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. There was the woman who sent a printout of the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” along with a Post-it note that read, “I Love You Chad!!” There was Stephanie, a mother of three, who begged him to write back, promising she’d “fuckin’ frame it.” Often he did write back. “You got to go thru sumthin to get to your blessing,” he wrote Ansel in New Orleans. “Don’t settle for scrap iron when you should be fuckin’ with platinum,” he told Heather in Dallas. I don’t know whether or not he responded to Lars from Norway, who wrote him about the recent death of her daughter’s father. She told him she’d been listening to his song “One Day” on headphones, when her daughter laid her head on her shoulder and “started crying, as if she knew what you were saying. I felt I had to tell you how your music has travelled from Port Arthur, Texas, to Bergen, Norway, and how it touches people so far away.”

He wrote songs in prison, too, hundreds of them, in all caps, on whatever paper he had handy—IRS notices, usually. He cleaned toilets (in one unit, his nickname was Windex) and, whenever he could, worked shifts in the prison library. He read Sun Tzu and James Patterson, Machiavelli and Iceberg Slim. He avoided the community television, preferring to spend his time in his cell listening to a smuggled clock radio. He was manic depressive and bored and lonesome. He gained one hundred pounds and told one interviewer, “I had never been around this much death before.” When he slept—when he could trick himself into falling asleep—he lay beneath a sketch of an angel that hung over his bed. “She protects me at night,” he explained to a friend.

Altogether, Pimp C, born Chad Butler, spent almost four years behind bars, owing to an ambiguous incident in December 2000 in which he showed a gun to a woman at a Houston mall. During these years, on the outside, a mythology was built and sustained in his absence. A refrain, “Free Pimp C,” began migrating from homemade t-shirts to high-profile rap verses, interviews, and music videos. It became a ubiquitous slogan, universally accepted, as though an entire subculture were demanding his release. Despite having pioneered Southern rap in the mid-1990s with his group UGK, he had started his sentence feeling unrecognized and underappreciated. By his release in 2005, he was an icon. He was greeted at the prison gates with mink and money and jewelry. “All those ‘Free Pimp C’ T-shirts and baseball caps can be put away,” reported USA Today.

The contrast between Butler’s life before and after his imprisonment is one of the principal dramas at the center of Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story, the frustrating and fascinating new biography by Julia Beverly. Self-published, occasionally sloppy, and overlong, the book can sometimes read like a blog post or the longest Wikipedia article in history. It can be maddening and hagiographic (and borderline libelous), but it can also be passionate and engrossing. The book is a bizarre document, and a necessary one: by the time of his death in 2007 at age thirty-three, Pimp C had become recognized as one of the most exciting and influential producers in rap, his drawling, raspy snarl one of the genre’s most iconic guttural expressions (a high-pitched eee to rival E—40’s ooh or Master P’s uhh). Not unlike Pimp’s earliest releases, the overall impression of the book is of a kind of scrappy, endearing tenacity. Its existence is a feat of endurance. One can imagine Beverly selling copies out of the trunk of her car.

 

Butler was raised in Port Arthur, an oil refinery town on the Gulf Coast, ninety miles east of Houston. He was named after an actor on the CBS drama Medical Center. His father, Charleston, had once played trumpet and sung backup for soul singers like Otis Redding and Solomon Burke, until he was drafted into the Army in 1967. He enlisted a good friend to take his place in Redding’s band just six months before the friend and Redding were both killed in a plane crash in Wisconsin, an incident that haunted Charleston and petrified his musical ambitions. Already stoic and emotionally distant, Charleston was permanently imprinted by the war as well. “I don’t think he ever really came back from Vietnam,” Butler’s mother, Weslyn, says.

Weslyn, “Mama Wes,” plays a dual role in Sweet Jones, as both its primary source and secondary protagonist. It is in large part from her perspective that we view the first reel of Butler’s life, so it’s probably not a coincidence that the young Pimp C we meet during those years is thoroughly spoiled and committed to his loving mom. In his early days, Butler wore suede trench coats and high-priced Bally sneakers; he maxed out Weslyn’s credit cards and binged on snack food from her vending machine business. Because she went on to serve as UGK’s manager for a number of years, out-bluffing concert promoters and posting herself up on stage behind the DJ booth, she is a much more useful source than most artists’ mothers would be. Their relationship is touching, though not without its odd complexities—she describes her son more than once as a “master of disguise.” We learn that with his share of the proceeds from UGK’s first show, Pimp bought his mother a cocker spaniel named Brandy, who they nicknamed “the original UGK bitch.”

Though his father’s background and record crates influenced Butler’s musical leanings, it was his stepfather, Monroe, a band teacher, who lavished him with expensive recording equipment and spent late nights training him to manually synchronize vocal tracks. “The problem with that shit is that it’s noise,” Monroe supposedly told him of the proudly abrasive eighties rap he was emulating. “Put some music in that shit, boy, and you gonna win.” Butler dropped out of high school his senior year, walking out during an open book test on Macbeth, but not before he had mastered every instrument in the marching band, save for the flute, which he claimed made him “get head dizzy.” (Years later, when he first heard the beat for Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin,” which would become his best-known guest appearance, his response was, “I don’t know about them flutes”.)

Pimp’s rich musical imagination and ear for unusually textured arrangements set him apart from most other producers of his era. He was known as an inspired perfectionist, playing the organ in instrumental sessions and never above interrupting the band to play an old funk LP so that a bass player could hear a specific tone he’d envisioned. His go-to sample sources were his father’s records—Curtis Mayfield and the Isley Brothers—though early on he became drawn to the possibilities of incorporating live performance. Enamored with the seminal swamp funk of the Meters, he recruited that band’s guitarist, Leo Nocentelli, to play live on early UGK recordings. His own accomplishments as a musician would probably be better appreciated were it not for the obscurity of his primary instruments—unlike the Stratocaster or the Hammond B3, there’s no real place yet in pop mythology for the Roland R–8 drum machine. Not that this makes Pimp’s abilities any less impressive, or his effort any less rigorous. “We’re so serious about our music that we never got to have a good time making music,” he’d say later. “I’ve never had a fun album in my career; everything was like giving birth to a baby—painstaking and such.”

None of this should surprise fans of UGK’s most fully realized records, which are warm, densely quilted, and deceptively easygoing. The sound was earned. On the strength of a messy, precocious seven-song cassette EP, The Southern Way, and particularly its massively popular regional radio hit, “Tell Me Something Good,” Pimp and his partner, Bun B, signed a contract with Jive Records when Butler was eighteen years old. Their debut album, 1992’s Too Hard to Swallow, was a creative failure, but a crucial one—Pimp’s attention to detail became too much for Jive, who finished it without him. All the songs from The Southern Way are there, but thinned out and meddled with. The result sounds rudimentary, the production too dry and clunky and on the nose. Pimp later dismissed it as “garbage.” Like David Lynch’s Dune, the album was the project that taught them the importance of securing final cut, of following their own impulses, at their own pace, above all else.

With 1994’s Super Tight and 1996’s Ridin’ Dirty, Butler hit a new kind of stride as a producer, repurposing studio tricks he’d picked up from Too $hort, glassy eighties boogie, and the great, insular funk auteurs like George Clinton (another of his favorite sample sources). Only a handful of Southern artists—including Atlanta’s Dungeon Family, whom he always considered his most like-minded peers—were aiming for this sort of formalist scope. Songs like “I Left It Wet For You” and “It’s Supposed to Bubble” and “Diamonds & Wood” sound cavernous and fluid, with an energy and opioid repetitiveness that could suggest either bliss or barely concealed hostility (what John Cale must have meant when he spoke, in another context, about “an attempt to control the unconscious with the hypnotic”). They reward re-listening, car stereo amplification, and altered states. Heard from a certain angle, these are psychedelic records, intended to simulate and respond incandescently to the stoned brain. Pimp kept a pound of free-for-all weed in the fridge during these sessions, and he and his friends had already discovered the downbeat deliriousness of codeine syrup. Less remarked upon is the fact that PCP was circulating at the time as well—they’d dip blunts in embalming fluid and space out in front of the TV (“I thought that was what made me a good rapper,” Bun B once said of the drug).

That Butler was mostly miserable during these years is one of the book’s bleak revelations, though in hindsight the signs were there. His best verses were peppered with allusions to ruined relationships and personal tragedies, to “wicked women” and “clone men” and friends losing children in house fires—references Beverly has dutifully tracked down and determined to be mostly autobiographical. When he addressed us directly, it was usually to threaten or insult us, and the portrait of Texas Butler painted was always a broken one (“Some get erased and misplaced trying to win the race”). “I would venture to say that C was depressed 80 percent of the time,” his mother says, startlingly, noting that his bipolar disorder could so disrupt his routine that he’d sometimes sleep for forty-eight hours straight. He was paranoid, distractible, and kept a gun under his pillow. Privately, he worried he was schizophrenic, and more than anything else, he feared losing his ability to create. “I was always afraid that if he ever hit a dry spot,” his mother says, “it would take him out, it would destroy him.” Pimp’s own assessment of these years was equally dark. “We were all drug addicts,” he told a Texas newspaper after the death of DJ Screw in late 2000. “We got too far out there with the drugs, all of us did.”

 

“Anytime you met Pimp C there was a story,” Bun once said. “If you met him three times, you had three stories to tell.” Beverly proves this theory several times over in her book, having interviewed “more than 250” of Pimp’s friends and collaborators, each of whom have stories she seems to feel obligated to recount in full, whether or not they contribute to the narrative flow or even make sense. We learn that Pimp was repulsed by sushi, that he filed his fingernails and toenails daily, that he was once bitten by a brown recluse. But many of the stories she tells have the muddled, unfinished quality of dreams, as though just one essential piece of information has been withheld, the crucial one that would have raised the anecdote to the level of coherence. Late in the book, the aggressive banality of many of the scenes—the radio interviews and blogger feuds and VIP sections that constituted Butler’s day-to-day career in his last few years—starts to have a deadening effect. Beverly also begins to insert herself into his world, quoting text messages and late-night voicemails he sent her (in her capacity as the editor of Ozone Magazine), which are nearly always unflattering and usually dull. As an eyewitness, you’d think her testimony would make for a more three dimensional depiction, but the opposite tends to be true.

The book is salvaged by the screwball vibrancy of Pimp’s universe, one of all-night studio sessions with Three 6 Mafia and real life conspiracies involving Al Gore and the F.B.I. He gets high with Queen Latifah and eats shrimp linguini with Birdman. His circle of friends is large enough to include a producer named Mo B. Dick, a pimp named Ocean, a chainsaw-wielding hype-man named Bo-Bo Luchiano, and a mysterious, possibly murderous figure called Four-Fingered Larry. Pimp himself was known to spontaneously shout phrases like “alligator souffle!” in normal conversation, and he occasionally consulted with psychics, once asking the spirit world its opinion on Snoop Dogg. Though he did eventually find fame and commercial success after his prison stint, the bulk of his best work was already behind him. He began farming out the production of UGK records to other producers, and when asked by a journalist whether his rapping had improved since his incarceration, he candidly answered no. “I was a beast and a Viking right before I left,” he said.

The heart of Sweet Jones is Pimp’s relationship to Bun B, his lifelong artistic collaborator. Their partnership mattered so much to both of them, though they eventually drifted apart and, by the end, hardly spoke. The two still backed each other publicly—despite often disagreeing in private. Asked by a magazine about the last time he saw Pimp alive, Bun remembers the two of them meeting up at a Young Jeezy concert, not long before Pimp was found dead in his hotel room in West Hollywood. “We met, we hugged, said we loved each other,” he says. “When we separate we always make sure we hug and say we love each other.” This is what the book offers, finally: a sense of the fullness of the duo’s history (“You got to go thru sumthin to get to your blessing”). To know that they met in high school is one thing, but to see them there—Bun with his acting scholarship and Pimp standoffish but sharply dressed—is something else. These are kids who sold drugs together to finance their first album, traversing the Southeast chitlin’ circuit in their late teens. They were ambitious that way. As one customer put it, spotting Pimp’s textbook, “What kind of dope men do homework?”

Will Stephenson is the author of the series “Outskirts of the Southern Canon” on OxfordAmerican.org. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, FADER, Pacific Standard, and the Paris Review Daily.