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A Coronation for Kingz

Twenty-five years ago, UGK released their magnum opus, ‘Ridin’ Dirty.’ Largely ignored in its time, it’s gone on to become one of the most influential Southern rap records ever. Here’s how.

Richard A Chance

No year in hip-hop history sticks out quite like 1996: It marked the height of the East Coast–West Coast feud, the debut of several artists who would rule the next few decades, and the last moment before battle lines between “mainstream” and “underground” were fully drawn. The 1996 Rap Yearbook, a recurring series from The Ringer, will explore the landmark releases and moments from a quarter-century ago that redefined how we think of the genre. Today, we’re exploring the UGK’s certified classic, Ridin’ Dirty.

Ridin’ Dirty opens in prison. Not in the fictional, part-of-a-lyrical-narrative or dramatic-skit sense. Literally. The first minute of Pimp C and Bun B’s third album as UGK—which reimagined the sound of the South and should’ve immediately garnered the Port Arthur, Texas, duo the renown and reverence they know today—was recorded inside a Mississippi penitentiary.

Smoke D, who guested on “Front, Back, & Side to Side,” began serving time for manslaughter and drug trafficking sometime after the release of UGK’s sophomore album, 1994’s Super Tight. During recreation hours, Smoke strolled the prison yard holding a portable DAT recorder roughly the size of a Walkman. (Bun B claims he and Pimp C sent the recorder, but in Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story, Smoke told Julia Beverly he smuggled it in.) Guards probably believed he was singing along to the tape in the machine, but Smoke was recording an audio documentary, rumbling in his resonant Southern drawl about everything he witnessed and soliciting commentary from an animated fellow inmate. He mailed these dispatches to Pimp C, who played them while driving around Texas, en route to work on Ridin’ Dirty.

Pimp C always envisioned Ridin’ Dirty as a movie. He initially planned to pull clips from the Max Julien and Richard Pryor movie The Mack for skits. But UGK’s label, Jive, was either unable or unwilling to clear dialogue from the film, which offered sharp social commentary via a story about an Oakland pimp. The label’s negligence or stinginess (or both) was a blessing in disguise to the group. Pimp realized Smoke D’s recordings about never getting “no peace” in prison better aligned with the aim of Ridin’ Dirty. He and Bun were only a few years removed from moving cocaine in Port Arthur to pay for the studio time that yielded their 1992 debut, Too Hard to Swallow; they’d lost friends to homicide and felony sentences. Smoke’s penitentiary monologues reminded listeners of the consequences for serving on corners or supplying them.

Ridin’ Dirty specifically was a very insular conversation directed at a specific group of people that didn’t necessarily have anyone speaking to them, or for them,” Bun told The Source in 2016. “When you were in the streets, you lived this lifestyle and you made that choice, so while we couldn’t do anything about that, the best thing we could do was make sure you were navigating the streets correctly.”

UGK first gained national recognition by narrating the realities of that lifestyle. On “Pocket Full of Stones,” which appeared on the platinum-selling Menace II Society soundtrack, they play swaggering crack dealers. But listen closely and you’ll hear them rap about the dehumanizing toll their product has had on its users in unsparing detail. That single appeared on Too Hard to Swallow, which became Billboard’s no. 1 “Heatseekers” album in the south-central U.S. in November 1992. In many ways, though, Too Hard to Swallow presaged the first act of UGK’s career: They would be a massive regional success continually thwarted by their record label. Even before Jive released Too Hard to Swallow, the label reproduced songs to avoid paying for sample clearances. Super Tight spent more than six months on the Billboard Top R&B Albums chart, but Jive’s stinginess and seeming disrespect would continue.

Ridin’ Dirty was released on July 30, 1996. Despite scant marketing from Jive, zero music videos, and virtually nonexistent journalistic coverage, the album sold 67,200 copies in the first week, peaked at no. 15 on the Billboard 200, spent 13 weeks on the charts, and eventually went gold. Though far from a bicoastal success, Pimp C and Bun B realized their group name in Texas and throughout the South. Ridin’ Dirty made them Underground Kingz.

On Ridin’ Dirty, the duo blurred the lines between grim, day-in-the-life documentary and the brightest moments of a vibrant, color-saturated Blaxploitation flick. They were at once (purportedly) wealthy yet weary hustlers, unfazed pimps torn up by relationships, and lyrically gifted rappers who threatened homicide while wondering why God doesn’t smite murderers. While Pimp and Bun chronicled the psychological, carceral, and potentially fatal tolls of street life, they repped the Houston subculture born out of it: creeping candy-painted slabs that shimmer like constellations; actuator-popped trunks with subwoofers blaring the warped and sluggish haze of DJ Screw tapes; perspiring double cups brimming with kaleidoscopic admixtures of soda and codeine cough syrup. The low-end-heavy productions from Pimp C, N.O. Joe, and Sergio were as thick as the lean, slowed fusions of Southern soul, funk, and blues that were the sonic equivalent of murky bayou water mixed with red Texas dirt. These suites scored intoxicated, postcoital cruises at “3 in the Mornin’,” meditations on mortality (“One Day”), and spiritual crises (“Hi-Life”). Never preachy or moralizing, Pimp and Bun’s “insular conversation” has resonated for a quarter-century and become the jewel in the crown of UGK’s logo.

In 1996, though, coastal biases and label acrimony ensured Ridin’ Dirty was far from a coronation. We’re lucky it came out at all.

If Pimp C “told you [Jive] numbers” in the ’90s, you would’ve thought he was lying. Super Tight reached no. 95 on the Billboard 200, but, according to Sweet Jones, Jive never paid UGK any royalties. Pimp and Bun made some money touring in ’94 and ’95, but the pair often relied on cash from features. Rather than returning to hustling, Pimp remained at his mother’s home and leveraged his minor recognition as a producer to work with groups like Louisiana’s X-Mob on songs like “Watcha Gone Do” and Critical Condition (see CC Water Bound, on which Pimp has six tracks).

Meanwhile, Bun developed a working relationship with N.O. Joe, the New Orleans native who migrated to Texas to score acclaimed albums from the Geto Boys (Till Death Do Us Part and The Resurrection) and Scarface (The Diary), as well as songs from Rap-A-Lot artists like Big Mike. Joe ushered in the richer, organ-heavy sound that bumped like Texas’s answer to Dr. Dre’s synth-laden G-funk. After months of recording and bonding over bottles of Bull Ice malt liquor, Bun confessed to Joe that Pimp C greatly admired Joe’s production. The feeling was mutual. Joe recognized Pimp’s producing talent in the more musical suites on Super Tight, several of which featured contributions from Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli. When they finally spent time together at Pimp C’s birthday party in 1995, Pimp and Joe forged a friendship over their fondness for funk and soul artists like (of course) the Meters, Donny Hathaway, and Solomon Burke, with whom Pimp C’s father had once played trumpet.

Jive reportedly gave UGK a reasonable advance for Ridin’ Dirty, but they blew through the bulk of it on recording sessions in New York and Chicago. When Pimp and Bun returned to Port Arthur, they played the demos for Pimp’s mother, who was their longtime road manager, biggest champion, and harshest critic. She said the demos were “the worst shit I ever heard in my life.”

Forever angry with Jive for their perceived exploitation and inadequate funding, Pimp C considered scrapping Ridin’ Dirty. Fortunately, N.O. Joe agreed to work on the album for a fraction of his going rate. He believed in UGK and essentially became its third member during the Ridin’ Dirty sessions. Before they began, though, Joe had to convince Pimp to continue.

“C got into it with Jive and was like, ‘Fuck that! We’ll just do our shows. Fuck this album!’” Joe says today, delivering one of many flawless, high-pitched Pimp C impressions. “I said, ‘C, the longer you sit here with this record, the longer you’re under contract.’”

UGK blows copious amounts of West Coast weed (courtesy of The Hemp Museum docent B-Legit) and pours up from seemingly bottomless pints of codeine on Ridin’ Dirty, but recording sessions were relatively sober and studious affairs. “A lot of this stuff was done during the daytime—minimal weed smoke, really no drinking. Clean,” Joe says. The trio kept a regimented schedule, recording 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday at three studios: John Moran’s Digital Services studio, Joe’s home studio, and Skip Holman’s studio in Katy, a Houston suburb. “They may have gone outside and smoked a little bit, but those sessions were not about weed, liquor, and bitches.”

N.O. Joe and Pimp C quickly developed a constructive synergy. If one party felt a bass line needed to be scrapped or reworked, the other didn’t argue. The pair brought in session musicians to replay portions of Curtis Mayfield, Bootsy Collins, and the Fatback Band songs to create the warm layers of their open, live-sounding productions. Corey “Funkafagez” Stoot supplied guitar and bass, Nocentelli returned to play on “Diamonds & Wood,” and keys came courtesy of several players, including Holman. For songs that didn’t feature replayed samples, Pimp and Joe used bits of live music they’d accumulated in their respective careers. For this part, Joe had runs on a Hammond B3 organ that he’d recorded in New Orleans, bass lines that needed only an additional fill-in from one of the session players. If you’ve ever wondered why the drums on Ridin’ Dirty have a distinctive swing, why they feel more human and less digitally rigid than other rap albums in the mid-’90s, that’s because Joe played many of them live on his MPC and left them unquantized. Apart from the pitch-perfect, Ronald Isley–like singing from Ronnie Spencer—the veritable Nate Dogg of Texas rap—Joe and Pimp, who’d been a lauded tenor in his high school choir, also handled much of the singing on the hooks.

“C would bring all his ideas to the table, along with what I had, and we combined stuff. We went record for record. He would bring in the skeleton of a track, and then I would finish it. Or I’d let him hear part of a record, and immediately he would come up with [a hook]. He’d go into the vocal booth and lay it out,” Joe explains. The only two beats on which he and Pimp C didn’t produce were “Good Stuff” and the eerie, jangling “3 in the Mornin’,” which both came courtesy of Sergio. Fearing that he might overshadow Pimp C, who was then trying to assert himself as producer, Joe says he tried to preserve as much of Pimp’s sound as possible and declined to take a coproduction credit on many songs.

“I never imposed a lot of N.O. Joe stuff because I know he had a signature sound, so I kept some of his high-hats and a lot of the stuff that he did,” Joe says. “Then I incorporated my stuff within it. That made it a polished UGK record. That’s what made it stand out. Everything that was missing from the earlier records was put together right on this one.”

Ridin’ Dirty sounds best when driving in your car, when each song seems to sync with every turn and traffic light. That was by design. Following a few weeks of recording, Pimp C and N.O. Joe spent an entire week riding around in their respective cars, laboring over the track sequencing. The two compared notes daily, eventually finalizing the track list.

“We tried to make music people could actually live to, not just party to,” Bun B told The Source. “Pimp’s interpretation was that the record was a weekend in the ‘hood. On Friday, you got your hustling done, Saturday you partied, and on Sunday, you reflected.”

Viewed through this lens, Ridin’ Dirty begins on Sunday with “One Day.” One of the magazine ads Jive ran for Ridin’ Dirty called “One Day” a “smash single,” but it didn’t chart anywhere. Perhaps Jive didn’t push it to radio DJs. Or maybe those same DJs were running back “Tha Crossroads,” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s multiplatinum requiem that, like “One Day,” borrowed from the Isley Brothers. Radio play notwithstanding, “One Day” works brilliantly in the context of Ridin’ Dirty and sets the tone for the album. Soulful and somber yet knocking, it encapsulates the feeling of confronting mortality and the precarity of freedom too often and too young, and moving through the world without being able to mourn long enough before another friend is killed or incarcerated.

“One Day” opens with a verse from 3-2, a fixture in Texas rap (see: Convicts and Blac Monks) who sampled the Isley Brothers’ “Ain’t I Been Good to You” for an unreleased song that inspired Pimp to do the same. 3-2 details life as a teenage drug dealer and the fatalism that leads him to believe he’ll be buried next to the liquor store before he gets to see a world beyond it. Bun follows with reports of the perils facing Black men in New York and California before lamenting the death of his friend, Pots, who died over a “funky-ass dice game.” In the final verse, Pimp’s lyrics cut the deepest, as he grieves for Bo-Bo Luchiano, the group’s onetime hype man, whose son was killed in a house fire: “And when I got on my knees that night to pray, I asked God / ‘Why You let these killers live and take my homeboy’s son away?’” On the hook and between bars, Spencer’s floating, Isley-esque tenor and falsetto deepen the song’s funeral sadness. Spencer’s inclusion was Pimp’s idea.

“C had the ear like that. He was the brains for the song ideas and hooks,” Joe says. “Bun was more of the MC. He was the killer. I remember C used to say, ‘I’ll put Bun with any of these hoe ass n----s out here! You can’t fuck with Bun. Bun will rap circles ‘round you n----s!’”

Pimp gave Bun that song with “Murder,” which plays like retribution for the pain of “One Day.”

Little more than a deep, rubbery bass line and a fusillade of crushing percussion, the beat exists as a backdrop for Pimp and Bun to assert that Southern rappers could be as lyrically intricate as their East Coast peers. Pimp comes out blazing, rapping about “cocaine numbers” while jumping from Benz to Cadillac. Halfway through he begins to swagger, leaning on his vowels in an almost exaggerated drawl as if to remind people he’s from “South Texas, motherfucker.” Bun never switches. With a barrage of interlocking internal and end rhymes, he jacks tricks, moves weight, and well, commits murder. Though Bun had the option of punching in his vocals with the then-recent advent of Pro Tools, he recorded syllabically stacked and overflowing bars like this in one breathless take:

We can sell more fuckin’ yayo, get the scale, no
Other bullet duckers can shove us out of this game
They better buck us, ’cause the cluckers, they love us
Make them glass dick suckers shake they jelly like Smucker’s
I hit like nunchakus, ’cause Short Texas bring the ruckus

If Ridin’ Dirty has a primary musical influence, it’s DJ Screw. In the early ’90s, the Houston native became infamous for pitching down, slowing, and chopping rap records into hallucinogenic swirls. If Twin Peaks had been set in Houston, Screw tapes would’ve jammed in the Black Lodge. Many of Screw’s tapes, which he sold by the thousands from his home, showcased local rappers. Before recording Ridin’ Dirty, UGK recorded a Screw tape (Chapter 182) and even tried to convince perplexed Jive execs to commission a Screwed version of the album. Though it almost goes without saying, Jive passed.

“Diamonds & Wood” was UGK’s brilliant compromise, the closest they came to a Screw track on Ridin’ Dirty. A woozy, funky, and warbling crawl built around an interpolation of Bootsy Collins’s “Munchies for Your Love,” the hook features the soft croon of Reginald Hackett, who N.O. Joe met at a Guitar Center, and a screwed sample of .380’s “Elbows Swang”: “I flips down the ave, you know I’m looking good / I’m banging Screw, diamonds up against that wood.” Though the instrumental lends itself to boasts and musing on mack life, Pimp and Bun spend most of the song weary of homicide and incarceration, plagued by the guilt of selling drugs to their community. In the last line of his verse, Pimp C reveals that riding around stoned and listening to Screw is his only escape: “I’m smoking the skunk and popping the trunk to make me feel good.”

Ridin’ Dirty isn’t all lows. “Pinky Ring” and “Good Stuff” are basically horny and pimped-out fantasies, the rise of Goldie in The Mack. But the flash and flesh are only distractions, short-lived highs. “Good Stuff” plays between the twin bluesy codas of “Hi-Life” and “Ridin’ Dirty.” On the former, Bun articulates the socioeconomic factors informing every aspect of the dope game in Texas with the same granular, novelistic detail David Simon focused on Baltimore in The Wire. “Ridin’ Dirty” serves as both Pimp and Bun’s final words of caution. Pimp warns against snitches and wire taps, and Bun tells those working with “them birds” to beware of illegal search and seizures.

Jive’s marketing team fundamentally misunderstood the album’s fairly overt subtext. “If you ain’t Ridin’ Dirty, you ain’t goin’ nowhere,” read the magazine ad they ran in The Source. Maybe that explains why they didn’t commission any music videos for Ridin’ Dirty, or maybe Pimp C’s long-distance tirades to Jive executives in New York deterred them from digging deeper into their coffers. While other Southern rappers—like the Geto Boys, UGK’s violent and twisted Texan progenitors, and Outkast, Atlanta’s astrologically entwined mack philosophers—received national recognition, UGK had none. They weren’t interviewed for The Source, Rap Pages, or Vibe, the major rap publications in the mid-’90s. Vibe printed the sole extant review in their December 1996–January 1997 issue. To call Vibe unimpressed seems charitable: “Nuthin’ new here, though a few standout tracks raise UGK above gangsta boredom.” The Source had reviewed Super Tight favorably, granting it three and half out of five mics in 1994, but Ridin’ Dirty was conspicuously absent from their reviews section. Ridin’ Dirty also wasn’t included in The Source’s “Best Albums of the Year” list from their January 1997 issue, which included Outkast’s ATLiens, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, and Geto Boys’ The Resurrection. In 1996, UGK and their now-undisputed magnum opus was practically written out of history. It succeeded on merit alone.

“Nobody knew the record was out,” Joe says. Shortly after the release of Ridin’ Dirty, though, Joe heard customers mention the album at his local barbershop. “In a month’s time, everybody was like, ‘Oh my god, that record’s jammin from top to bottom, n----. I can’t take it out my deck.’ It just snowballed from there … [Jive] threw the record out in the sea to drown, but it came to the surface.”

Joe attributes Ridin’ Dirty’s resonance today to the perfect union of music and message.

“The tone of the music and the soulfulness of it, the combination of dirt and clean … it also had a positive message. It wasn’t just about, like, ‘I did this here and I got away with it. I was a dope dealer all my life and blah blah blah.’ It dealt with the ups and downs of life, coupled along with the music. It was just a perfect match,” Joe says. “UGK was more conscious.”

In 2007, Pimp died of a codeine overdose (DJ Screw also died of a codeine overdose in 2000). Though UGK’s profile rose significantly in the wake of their appearance on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and the last UGK albums recorded during Pimp C’s lifetime, he didn’t live to see any Ridin’ Dirty retrospectives. Today, as UGK’s stature and import grows with each year, Ridin’ Dirty remains too relevant. The list of rappers who continue to promote and struggle with codeine addictions is too long to list.

“It’s not about what the album did for us, it’s about what the album did for other people,” Bun told The Source. “It’s no surprise this album still makes sense years later. We tried to tell the truth, and the truth remains.”

Max Bell is a writer from Santa Monica, California. His work has appeared in NPR, the Los Angeles Times, SPIN, and more.

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