Bun B Talks longevity, working with the next generation of rappers, and the meaning of being a 'Trill O.G.'
Earlier this week, “Trill O.G.,” Bun B’s third solo album, received a perfect five-mic rating from long-running hip-hop publication The Source. Though the magazine’s influence is far removed from the era when Eminem proclaimed it “the only source of light,” the rating presumably reflects a desire to correct past oversights.
Consider it the critical equivalent of a makeup call or Steely Dan finally winning the best album Grammy for 2001’s ”Two Against Nature” -- a belated recognition of a lifetime of achievement.
During the pre-Internet heyday of Bun B’s former group, UGK, their greatness was rarely proclaimed in East Coast-centric critical circles. Scarface and the Geto Boys and Atlanta’s Dungeon Family typically absorbed the brunt of token Southern rap love, while the commercial hegemony of No Limit and Cash Money garnered them sufficient airtime and attention.
However, UGK’s final two records received well-deserved commercial and critical acclaim, and the untimely passing of Bun B’s partner, Pimp C, helped guarantee that their legacy won't be forgotten anytime soon.
Over the last three years, the 37-year-old rapper has emerged as a hip-hop elder statesman, one with a hard-won authority and national appeal. His last solo record, 2008’s “II Trill,” debuted at No. 2 on the charts, and, most recently, Rice University announced that the Port Arthur, Texas, native would be teaching a course in religion and hip-hop culture.
He’s also been a staple on the 16-bar cameo circuit, popping up everywhere from records by trap favorites such as Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy to mixtape tracks from awkwardly labeled “hipster rappers” Cool Kids and Wale to East Coast legends such as Redman and Method Man. He appears twice on Freddie Gibbs’ new EP and made a prominent appearance on last year’s most popular mixtape, Drake’s “So Far Gone.”
Accordingly, his latest record reads like a who’s who of contemporary urban music, with T-Pain, Young Jeezy, Drake and Trey Songz appearing on the first five songs alone. And in that ultimate gesture for the rapper “who has everyone,” he even coaxed 2Pac out of his heavily fortified underground bunker for a guest spot.
Famously one of hip-hop’s most gracious and candid interviews, Pop & Hiss spoke to Bun B about the state of the industry, how he’s continued to stay relevant, and what it means to be a “Trill O.G.”
You're one of the most prolific rappers around, and you're nearly 20 years deep in the game. Does it ever get hard to write, and how do you make sure that you're still inspired?
Writing a 16 for a feature is different from writing a verse for my solo career, which is different from writing a UGK song. It's all about different approaches. With cameos, it's not about me. With UGK songs, we'd split the difference. But on my solo album, it's about me, and I'm the one in charge of direction and making sure it's consistent and good.
So how do you go about achieving that? Is it just a matter of working until it feels finished?
We just did the best we could. The one thing that really helped us is that [Rap-A-Lot founder] J. Prince gave us all the time that we needed to make a good album. There were moments that it wasn’t ready and he didn’t hesitate to let us push it back. They wanted to release the album last year in the winter, and we had enough songs to do it, but it wasn’t ready.
It seems like that's the opposite from most current situations, where the artist says the album is finished and the label refuses to put it out.
The major labels need to realize that, day by day, the artist and the consumer are making a much closer connection with each other. With Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and the blogs, artists are learning how to market themselves. Take Wiz Khalifa. He's not in rotation on radio, but if I book him tomorrow at a 1,000- seat theater, I'm going to run out of tickets. Labels think artists need them, but they don't. You can find a way to get paid without a label.
Just off mixtapes, Drake was getting paid $15,000 or $20,000 a show. Gucci was getting paid $40,000 to $50,000. If you can find a way to make that connection, you can get paid. That's why they came up with 360 deals. Artists were starting to make more money outside of the labels, and they're trying to capitalize on that.
You guest-appeared on Drake's mixtape, and he's on your record twice. After working with him, what do you think it is about him that has struck a chord with so many people?
I just feel that dude wants it more than other people. He didn’t go through the regular channels; he didn’t get disenfranchised. He's still new and fresh, and he's still learning things about the game. He still wants to learn, even at the level of success he's already had. Most rappers if they were in Drake’s shoes, they'd be like, 'I made it.' He wants to continue to grow as an artist.
You've also worked a lot with Freddie Gibbs, who obviously owes a lot to UGK. Why do you think he's gotten as much attention as he has?
Gibbs is a very special animal. He comes from a very pure place and speaks with an honesty that's not always accepted in the hip-hop industry. Rap is built on painting a picture, and every now and then, someone blatantly tells it like it is, and that's refreshing to people.
You worked with DJ Premier on your new record? Was that's something you'd wanted to do for a while, and how did that come about?
I’ve known him for a long time -- over 10 years now. He's from Prairie View originally, and I'm from Port Arthur, so we never knew each other coming up, but we've got a lot of mutual friends. Every now and then you meet someone who is just like you, and that's Primo. He's a really down to earth, really simple dude. Neither of us are into too much extra [stuff].
When we met up, it felt like we'd known each other for years, and when we collaborated, we never let the music interfere with our friendship. We'd originally tried to work together many years ago, but everyone's schedule was [messed] up. Pimp was gone, then he came home and Premier was busy working with Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston. We never had the time to put something together, but finally we made the time to turn it into a real record that incorporated Pimp.
Though you've avoided the tag, "conscious rapper," you've been pretty conscious of politics and social situations throughout your entire career. I presume you've been following the situation in the Gulf Coast very closely, and if so, what are your thoughts on how the situation has unfolded?
I live on the Gulf Coast, and the majority of my core audience is out there, so it's been heartbreaking to watch. I'm from Port Arthur -- it's a fishing town, a country town. The very same thing that makes us laugh makes us cry, so it's been a difficult thing to sit and watch people at refineries lose their jobs. There are people who suddenly have nothing to do. People will lose their jobs fishing and shrimping and crabbing. These industries won't exist on the same scale. These people depend on that for their livelihood, especially the poor people, and that will no longer be there for them. It's a tragedy.
Having collaborated with nearly everyone in hip-hop, is there anyone left you still want to work with?
There's only three MC's left: Nas, Eminem, and Rakim. The only reason why I didn’t say KRS-One is because the older I get, the less I think of him as just a lyricist. He's so much more than that I can't even lump him in the rap category. Nas was actually supposed to be on "Trill O.G.," but he was busy doing "Distant Relatives" stuff and we couldn't make it happen.
What does being a "Trill O.G." mean to you?
It's about making great music regardless of what's expected of you. I could've made a more commercially viable album, but I wanted my music to have integrity. Being a 'Trill O.G.' is about being a leader and an innovator. It's about taking risks and not trying to do what everyone else does. It's about trying to make a complete album. I'm trying to show that if you make great music you can connect with fans and be successful. You can't take the easy route.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo: Bun B. Credit: Bun B MySpace