“I’m bad, bad, bad, bad,
— ZZ Top, “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” 1979
Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads, and sold his soul so he could master blues guitar. ““We are not old men,” said Keith Richards, sneering at 1967 jury. “We are not worried about petty morals.” Nas used to relax by settling down to “watch a flick, illin’/And root for the villain.” The iconography of the antihero has long held a prime spot in the history of American music.
Gangsta rap has exploited this phenomenon more fully than any other genre. And no gangsta rapper ever realized the antihero iconography more fully than Chad Lamont “Pimp C” Butler, who died of an overdose of promethizine/codeine syrup December 4, 2007, five years ago today.
Born and raised in the Gulf-Coast oil town of Port Arthur, Texas, Pimp C formed the duo U.G.K. with his high-school buddy Bun B during the late ’80s crack boom. The silky, soulful beats he created made a warm back-drop for cold rhymes about selling drugs and cuckolding herbs; and the greasy, high-pitched drawl he rapped in was the perfect foil for Bun B’s stentorian baritone. One listen to classics like “Pocket Full of Stones” or “Cocaine in the Back of the Ride” or “It’s Supposed to Bubble” or “Murder,” and you know they knew it: the U.G.K. sound was seductively sinister.
As C himself said to XXL magazine’s Jon Caramanica in 2005, soon after his release from a four-year prison bid he caught for pulling out a gun during an argument with a woman in a mall, “I was an animal for a long time. I wasn’t nice. I hurt people’s feelings and I could see it. I was going to be the bad guy if I had to. Fuck you if you don’t like me. You can like Bun. You ain’t gotta like me.”
On a personal level, sure, you can imagine that Pimp C might not have been the most polite guest to have for afternoon tea. There’s no easy defense for pulling a gun on a woman in a mall. Or for the fact that his lack of self-control ended up costing him his life at the far-too-young age of 33, costing his friends and family so much pain, costing hip-hop so much brilliance. But artistically, he was always in full control—well aware of the power in his persona.
Listen to the way the bass notes warp at the beginning of “I Left It Wet for You,” the psychedelic sizzle of Leo Nocentelli’s wah-wah guitar, the evil tick of the treble-end percussion. Then an eerie worm synth comes in and C’s whispered hiss. “I left it wet, I left it wet, I left it wet…” What’s he talking about? For anyone with any doubt, he makes it very clear at the end of the song. “What a nigga tryin’ to say is, shiiiiiiiit, niggas straight up be fuckin’ your gal, fool. And what you gonna do then, what you gonna cry?”
There’s nothing nice about that. But there’s nothing less than thrilling, either. As Bun put it after his partner passed, “Hip-hop is real boring without Pimp C.” U.G.K. put the “dirty” in the dirty south. And Pimp C put the dirty in U.G.K. In the realm of art where “bad” can mean both bad and also good—not just good but the very, very best, Pimp C was the baddest of them all.