The Anniversary

Ridin’ Dirty Turns 20

A few years ago, Kanye West made a bold claim on Twitter: The second verse from “New Slaves” was the greatest rap verse of all time. Now: I absolutely appreciate the confidence it takes to make that statement, and it really is a great verse, but there is no way in hell that it’s the best verse that’s ever been laid to tape. I’m pretty sure Kanye himself would tell you that now. But that raised the question: What is the greatest rap verse ever? It’s a question without a real answer. There are too many great verses and too many ways to evaluate them. I honestly hadn’t even considered the question before Kanye made that claim, and I still have no idea what the answer would be. But someone on Twitter — I think it was the Irish wiseass Sean McTiernan, who’s a great follow — put a good candidate forward: Pimp C on UGK’s “One Day.” I can’t think of a better answer than that one.

“One Day” is the first song on Ridin’ Dirty, the third album from the great Port Arthur, Texas duo UGK. Ridin’ Dirty is the duo’s unquestionable masterpiece, and it turns 20 tomorrow, which is why we’re talking about it today. UGK made the album when they were still very much a regional phenomenon, with a placement on the Menace II Society soundtrack being their only one real national-spotlight moment. And “One Day” was a curious way to start an album that, you’d have to think, would be the duo’s introduction to a whole lot of potential listeners. UGK excelled at greasy street-talk, at rendering small-time drug-deals as concrete cinematic scenes. But that’s not what “One Day” is. “One Day” is a mournful fog of a song, a heavy-hearted meditation on all the fucked-up things that could cut your life short or confine you to a cage.

It’s a classic song even before Pimp shows up. The beat is Pimp, of course, taking the deep-breath heaviness of the Isley Brothers’ “Ain’t I Been Good To You” and muting it, flattening it out. The first lines we hear come from the guest-rapper Mr. 3-2, his voice a deep-twang monotone, sounding absolutely numb and drawing his vowels out as far as they can possibly go: “Mama put me out at only fooooouuuurteen / So I started selling crack, cocaine, and coooodeeeeiiine.” When Bun shows up, he’s choppy and authoritative, but he’s speaking to real loss and hopelessness: “My brother been in the pen for damn near 10 / But now it look like when he come out, man, I’m going in.” It’s a deep crush of a song, a velvet suffocation. And then Pimp shows up.

Pimp C is one of rap’s all-time great shit-talkers, but that’s not what he does on “One Day.” Instead, he turns his focus inward, using all his dank, lived-in bluster to wonder why the world is so fucking fucked up. He’s cold with his imagery: “AK loader as I get swallowed under city lights.” He’s hard and distrustful: “Niggas be looking shife, so I look shife back / Can’t show no weakness with these bitches, get your life jacked.” Another things that’s always at the forefront of Pimp’s mind is avoiding prison: “Them bitches tryna lock me up for the whole century.” (He really would spend much of the rest of his life in prison.) But even beyond street rivals and law enforcement officials, Pimp takes aim at something greater: an unjust God. “My man BoBo just lost his baby 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 son away?'” There are many, many other great rap verses. But there’s only one that reduces me to a puddle every time I hear it, and it’s this verse. If anything, it’s a verse that’s only grown in power over time, when you consider that barely a decade later, the genius who rapped it would end up dead in a hotel room, a victim of codeine cough syrup and sleep apnea.

What’s crazy about Ridin’ Dirty, though, is that it has another best-rap-verse-ever candidate, and that that candidate shows up one song later. It doesn’t come from Pimp, either, though Pimp’s verse on the harder-than-fuck “Murder” is one for the ages. Instead, it comes from his partner Bun B, so often the detached, scholarly, virtuoso balance to Pimp’s emotionally erratic swagger. On “Murder,” with its thunderstomp dancehall-laced beat, Pimp is all miles-deep vengeful sneer: “I’m still Pimp C, bitch, so what the fuck is up? / Putting powder on these streets cuz I got big fuckin’ nuts.” But then Bun appears, and my brain just short-circuits.

Bun is an all-time great, a rumbling voice-of-God master, and he never had a better moment than the “Murder” verse. He hits the ground running: “Well, it’s Bun B, bitch, and I’m the king of moving chickens / Not them finger-lickins / Stickin’ niggas that be trickin’.” But as the beat continues to hammer, he picks up steam, switching up his flow at will. He finds a vowel sound and a cadence he likes and just sinks his fangs into them: “No other bullet duckers can shove us out the game / So they better buck us / Because the cluckers, they love us / Make them glass dick suckers shake their jelly like Smuckers / I hit like nunchuckas.” By the end of a very long verse, he’s a motherfucking boulder rolling downhill: “Now I done ripped out my Barrelli / Flying through your Pelle Pelle / And some smelly red jelly is dripping out of your belly.” You have to take a deep breath when he gets done, but you don’t get time, since the album careens directly into the next song, the deeply funky “Pinky Ring,” with no pause.

The album never reaches the peaks of those first two songs, but how could it? And it stays close. As a producer, Pimp had things figured out. He had his own sound, which he called “country rap,” but that doesn’t quite describe what he was doing. He’d absorbed lessons from West Coast producers like Dr. Dre and DJ Quik, putting their cinematic musicality to work. But he was also deeply in love with the sound of ’70s Southern soul, with stuff like Stax and the Meters. Like Dre, he’d use deep, heavy samples, and then he’d augment those samples with studio musicians who’d help flesh out the sound and make it three-dimensional. Unlike Dre, he’d bring in musicians like Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli to help fill out the sound of their own old records. And he’d do all this on a tiny budget, in his own home studio. That, combined with his own nasty-as-fuck lean and Bun’s deep, analytical flow, made UGK a powerful sonic experience.

They also had a great internal dynamic, one that becomes more apparent the more you listen. Bun was what drew me in at first. He was hard but elegant, and he took clear joy in figuring out new flows and new ways to describe dark street shit. He’d come from the same drug-dealing background that Pimp had, but in those ’90s UGK albums, you can already hear him fully removed from that. He’s still an active rapper now, though he’s mostly been doing the same verse over and over for the past few years. But he’s also teaching college classes and covering political conventions for websites, and you can hear some of that intellectual-at-leisure detachedness on an album like Ridin’ Dirty. (This might be a good point to mention that Bun came up with the “once upon a time not too long ago…” bit from Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” It’s the way he starts his verse on the Ridin’ Dirty deep cut “Touched,” and it’s a rare example of Jay quoting another rapper in a way that seems more bite than homage.)

For the longest time, I thought of Bun as the great rapper and Pimp merely as the producer — sort of like how everyone puts up with the Havoc verses on Mobb Deep records because he made those incredible beats, even though everyone agrees that Prodigy is the better rapper. Pimp’s style takes some getting used to, but once you learn to hear it right, he was absolutely Bun’s equal as a rapper. His gift was in presence, in sneering so hard that his words took on a life of their own, in delivering standard rap lines that turned into hooks in his mouth. And even though he was the sonic sculptor and mastermind of the duo, he was also the wild one, and you could always picture Bun as the big-brother type there to talk him out of trouble when things got too nuts. Within their interplay and subject matter, you can hear the whole sonic identity of Texas rap forming. On Ridin’ Dirty, they namecheck lean and DJ Screw tapes before the rest of the country figured out that you could get high on prescription cough syrup, and before DJ Screw became a late legend.

Those first four UGK albums, all recorded before Pimp spent five years in prison for violating parole after an aggravated assault charge, are basically flawless. And they had a huge audience; Ridin’ Dirty sold hundreds of thousands without much label support or even so much as one music video. But this was the pre-internet era where the regional stratification of rap music was still a real thing. A group like UGK could be absolute stars in one part of the country and complete unknowns in another. When Bun and Pimp delivered their scene-stealing verses on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin'” in 1999, I’d never heard of either of them, which is embarrassing to even think about now. But, to an extent, they liked it that way; Pimp had to be talked into rapping on the song because he didn’t like how far the Timbaland beat was from his own underground sound.

It’s crazy to think that I was in high school, listening to Reel Big Fish and the Rev. Horton Heat and shit, when albums like this were coming out — that I had no idea about them. I have no idea how an album like Ridin’ Dirty sounded when it came out, and I’ve been kicking myself over that since. But a nice thing about masterpieces is that they really don’t age. Pimp’s “One Day” verse continues to hold up as, arguably, the best verse that anyone has ever rapped. And if you’re discovering an album like this 20 years after it came out, you’re still discovering it. So, if you’ve never heard Ridin’ Dirty, which I consider one of the straight-up best rap albums ever made, stop wasting time. And if you do know of its greatness, then listen to it again; you might not fully realize how great it really is.

Tags: UGK