Pimp C’s Diverse Musical Talents & Mental Health Struggles Remembered in His Definitive Biography (Interview)
This December marks eight years since Pimp C passed away. The man born Chad Butler built a career around making a well-seasoned gumbo with his far-reaching love of music. UGK, the Underground Kingz that Pimp C and Bun B established in the late 1980s, sprinkled Hip-Hop with elements of Blues, Funk, Soul, Country, and Gospel. Combined with uncompromising accounts of street life and attitude-heavy deliveries, the Port Arthur, Texas tandem would eventually garner a #1 album, and the mainstream adoration that alluded them, despite critical praise and peer-respect from Too Short to Brand Nubian, WC to Kool G Rap.
Understanding Chad Butler, even for those who knew him, is complicated. He was brash, yet sensitive. He was a hustler, yet a perfectionist. He was a studio genius, who battled mental health challenges. Author and photographer Julia Beverly documented Pimp C and UGK through her third coast-essential OZONE magazine. She came to know Butler, and the two artistic mavericks bonded. After Chad’s 2007 death, it was the Orlando, Florida-based Beverly who worked with Mama Wes (Pimp C’s) mom in putting his life story to print. Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story not only unearths the legend behind the lyrics, the self-published, 700-plus page book aims to raise the bar on Hip-Hop biographies. Filled with rare photographs, and elusive documented information, this text shows how the musical persona was an accurate extension of the fearless musician. Speaking with Ambrosia For Heads, Julia Beverly reflects on the last two years of Pimp C’s life and career, debunks his solo discography, and reveals some deeper forces at play as to why one of Hip-Hop’s greats is not here to see his impact.
Photo used by permission from Julia Beverly.
Ambrosia For Heads: There are certain figures in Hip-Hop who seem to change drastically over time. Tupac Shakur is one of them, early in his career, versus the last two years of his life. Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, even the late Guru seem to have undergone noticeable transformations. I met and came to know Pimp C after his incarceration. You were around before and after. How did that experience change his demeanor, personality, and his creativity?
Julia Beverly: Well, I actually didn’t meet Pimp [C] until he was in prison. So I personally didn’t have the experience of knowing him prior to him going in. But I know a lot of the people that I talked with talked about how crazy he had been, or how out of control and wild [he was]. He was really struggling with a lot of things, prior to him going to prison. Depending on who I talked to, different people had different perspectives. Some of his friends felt like it was a drug issue—that things were really gettin’ out of control. His mom had kind of an opposite perspective. She wasn’t naive to the fact that he was using drugs, but she felt like that was more so a symptom of things he was dealing with, as far as mental health issues. He was actually diagnosed bipolar. He thought that he had a touch of schizophrenia. And he had pretty severe depression issues. So I think the biggest thing [with] him being incarcerated, he was able to not only detox, but I don’t think he started taking his psychiatric medication prior. That was part of it as well: he was dealing with his mental health issues, and he didn’t have the drug issues causing extra problems for him. That was probably the biggest thing: him being in a real great, clear state of mind.
A lot of his friends that were real close to him—Big Gipp, Too Short, and guys like that, talked about how impressed they were with the clarity he had when he came home. He had been able to get his head right and get some perspective on where he wanted to go in life and things like that.
I don’t know that I’d say he changed. A lot of people would hear him later on in life, in these wild statements that he’d make and the crazy interviews [portrayed as] the flamboyant Pimp C character… but I think that was always in him. Even going back to his high school record, he started out dissing the high school bully. He thought Rap-A-Lot [Records] had stolen a beat from him, and he did a diss record. If you can picture a kid who’s 16 years old or so making a diss record against one of the most powerful record labels in the area, he always had that ballsy kind of attitude. He was never afraid to speak what was on his mind. So in that sense, I don’t think he really changed. Even people who had known him for a long time, when they heard that infamous HOT 107 interview when people were like, “he’s crazy”—people who knew him were like, “That’s nothing. That’s normal.” It just had never been put on that platform before, where it reached so many people.
I don’t know that I’d say he changed, but being incarcerated definitely gave him a new perspective and mellowed him out a little bit. I think he always had both sides to him: he had that loud, flamboyant character that he created—but him personally, he was a really shy, thoughtful, introverted person.
Ambrosia For Heads: Your book went to the “trill” itself. You interviewed and gathered information from not only family and peers, but street figures from Pimp’s life. To what extent did this feel like investigative journalism, beyond simply a biography?
Julia Beverly: It definitely was an investigative journalism excursion. Because we talk about so many things in the book that are actually documented, and nobody had taken the time to dig [them] up—of not necessarily just Pimp, but other [items]. There were a lot of documented sources as far as court cases and things like that. Yeah, I think journalists have gotten lazy, especially in Hip-Hop. I read an article very early in the process when I was working on this book—I want to say it was [an interview] with KRS-One, I could be wrong—somebody like that was talking about how Hip-Hop journalism is lazy, and a lot of people hear something in a song and assume it’s a fact, and use it as that. They’re kind of just repeating the same story, over and over again, without actually talking to people who were there. So yeah, I definitely put in a lot of effort to track down people who were there when different situations actually happened.
For example, if something is discussed in a song, is this actually what happened? What was the actual story that led to these lyrics being put into this song? I’ve always been a big reader of all different types of books, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of history books from even 100 years ago. I remember reading a book about the hurricane that came through Galveston, Texas around 1900 or so. It just had so much detail in the book. I just thought, if someone can research something that happened 100 years ago and have the details on what they were wearing, what the dialog was, and stuff like that, how hard can it be to do something like that with [an event] of the last 20 years? So I definitely wanted it to be an accurate, historical portrayal, and not just be repeating things that had already been said.
Ambrosia For Heads: OZONE really has been instrumental in capturing the fellowship, the fashion, and the diversity of Hip-Hop, particularly in the South—it took equal billing to the interviews and articles. I always attributed that to your photography background. In writing and creating this book, how did your photographer’s sensibility shape it?
Julia Beverly: That’s an interesting question. I’m glad that you viewed OZONE that way. I don’t know if it was all the way intentional, but I always wanted OZONE to be viewed as cutting-edge, as far as visually. I did most of the photography myself, more so out of not having a budget to hire anyone else, but I also enjoyed the process of capturing something visually. In terms of the book, I kind of wrote this book for myself. As I was writing, I was thinking, “What would I want to read?” ‘Cause I am an avid reader, so I wrote it for someone who reads like me.
It bothers me when I’m reading something and I can’t picture what the person looks like. Rather than read [a poor description], I’d rather see a picture. [The book] has more than 150 pages of images: photos and documents. It’s a lot of stuff that I took later in his career and a lot of stuff his mom gave me from earlier in his life. I’m happy with how it came out. People said to me when this came out, “Oh, ‘Hip-Hop people’ don’t read books.” There’s a little truth to that, but I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “I have to buy this book. You don’t know long it’s been since I’ve bought a book.” I’ve actually had a lot of people tell me, “I’ve never actually sat down and read a book before, but this is a topic I’m interested in, so I’m gonna read it.” I felt like [for these people], the visuals would [make this] a collector’s item, as well.
Ambrosia For Heads: From the UGK records to Big Mike, Pimp C was an incredible producer—with Blues, Soul, and Funk sensibilities. From your understanding, why did he seem to move his focus to just rapping?
Julia Beverly: I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think production was always his focus. But he didn’t produce for artists on the level where you’d hear the record. That was kind of interesting to me. He did a lot of production, it was just a lot of underground stuff. It’s definitely a shame that there isn’t more of his production backed by other well-known artists.
If you’re asking me about like when he came home… when he came home, he knocked out that Pimpalation album real quick. He did more rapping on that than production, but I think that was more in the interest of time. They just wanted to get something out; he had made a deal with Rap-A-Lot to put that album out as kind of a compilation. So he wanted to get something out immediately. Really, I think the reason is that he was such a perfectionist with his production. Even with his solo album, Bun [B] had mentioned that Pimp had been plannin’ on doin’ a solo album ever since high school. He had put together a tracklist for it in the late ‘90s, he had worked on some music. But really, Pimp C never put out an album, himself. The only technically “solo” albums that came out were while he was in prison, and after he passed. He never truly put out an album of his own that he considered a solo project.It was almost like a Dr. Dre Detox, he just had such high expectations for it. Sometimes when artists have such high expectations for themselves, creatively, it’s hard to get there. That was always a battle between him and people that worked with him on the business side, or with his label. They wanted product to get in stores, and he was just so insistent that it be perfect. That was one thing that [former Jive Records CEO] Barry Weiss talked about, during [Too Hard To Swallow], that he’d just get so frustrated with Pimp, ‘cause he was just constantly trying to tweak everything. Jive was like, “Hey, we have a hit record. We need to get an album in stores so we can make money.” There’s always that creative-vs.-business conflict.
I know later in his career, he talked about putting out a solo album. That was gonna be his only album. Then he was gonna solely focus on production. Really, he had a vision for transitioning into more of a singer—even like a Blues singer. That was the direction he wanted to go. A lot of people close to him mentioned that had he lived longer, he would have become an actual Blues singer, and transitioned away from Rap.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mentioned Barry Weiss. Many people can look at UGK releasing all their albums on Jive Records and assume things were great for both parties. Your book gets to the meat of that. Was that aspect surprising to you? Do you think that’s why both Bun B and Pimp C became so devoted and loyal to Rap-A-Lot?
Julia Beverly: For people who were around in the ‘90s, that was pretty well-known. UGK was pretty vocal about the problems with Jive, that they felt like they were in a terrible contract, and that they were in a bad situation, financially. To be honest, they could have just churned out albums and just fulfilled their deal and then moved onto something else.
Wendy Day was a consultant who worked with them in the late ‘90s, trying to help them either redo their deal, or get out out of their contract. She said she felt like there were errors on both sides of the table. Although it was true that Jive wasn’t spending the same amount of money on UGK that they were putting into other acts, that maybe were not selling as many records, she felt that maybe Pimp in particular and UGK had unrealistic expectations for what Jive was going to do for them. Technically, Jive was still an independent label when they signed them. I don’t think Pimp really understood the sampling process, as well. Every time you sample a record, that’s money being paid out. I saw a royalty statement from when he was incarcerated for a six-month period. [Hypothetically, let us say] they sold $25,000 in records. They [were] paying out more than that in what’s called “producer debits.” A lot of the samples they used, no matter how many records they sold, they were actually [resulting in] negative [earnings]—coming up in the red on the financial side.
Pimp was obviously proficient on the creative side. On the business side, I don’t think that was really his thing. I think there were a lot of mistakes made in terms of when they negotiated their deal. When they first signed their deal, they were 18 years old and didn’t really realize what they were signing.
Ambrosia For Heads: When Pimp C’s mom, Mama Wes passed in 2013, to what extent did that add the importance of publishing this book for you—to the whole Butler family?
Julia Beverly: I was supposed to bring her the rough draft of the book. That was kind of our next step. When I heard that she was in the hospital, I was surprised, first of all. She was very active. The last time I was out there, we went to the Free Press Festival. She was very active, and out and about. I printed out the rough draft, or some parts of it, and said, I need to make sure I get this to her A.S.A.P. I flew out to Port Arthur. She was already sedated, and she passed within 48 hours of me getting out there.
Just being there with the family for the weekend, and experiencing that whole process, that definitely took it beyond…I was definitely more than just a journalist at that point. Having somebody basically on their deathbed wanting you to complete a work that they wanted release, that made it heavy. Definitely. I was already motivated to finish it, but that definitely put the extra motivation to hurry up, set aside everything else, and get the project out.
Ambrosia For Heads: Looking at Pimp C’s discography, group and solo, what record did you feel best exemplifies his spirit and way?
Julia Beverly: That’s a good question. There’s a lot of them. One of my favorite records is “I’m A Hustler,” which was actually supposed to be on his solo album, and ended up coming out while he was in prison [on The Sweet James Jones Stories]. He kind of redid it [as] “Down 4 Mine” was gonna be one of those first records from his solo album that he started working on when he was home, again. That’s probably one.
“Quit Hatin’ The South” was always kind of a funny record to me. I think that was his whole attitude towards the Rap game: “If you guys don’t respect us, we’re just gonna create our own lane, and do our own music.” That record kind of exemplifies that as well.
Ambrosia For Heads: I personally feel that Pimp C (and UGK) is arguably the most influential Hip-Hop artist to the genre’s sound of the last five years. The attitude, the gestalt of sonic sources, the drugs, the outlook, the demand for authenticity. Having watched it all happen in real-time and reflecting over the last eight years, how do you analyze and perceive his impact?
Julia Beverly: I think the impact is definitely still there. One of the things I talked about in the last chapter—I was quoting an online article think-piece about how some of the artists today idolize Pimp so much that it’s hard to grow beyond that or to develop their own status. Because they are so focused on duplicating what he’s done, or honoring him. The influence can be a great thing, but it can also be a limiting thing. How are they gonna develop their own style and their own personas? When you look at Pimp C, he was a star. Not just the music, but his whole image and presentation, he was a star. I feel like a lot of artists today, while they might be talented rappers, they don’t have the same charisma, the same style as he did. I don’t think there’s a lot of superstars anymore. There’s people who have records. But it’s not the same as it once was.
Ambrosia For Heads: In your book, it focuses on how certain events in the mid-2000s—including the incarceration shaped Pimp C greatly. As a friend and an expert, do you think stress is the real reason Chad Butler is not with us?
Julia Beverly: [Pauses] I would say that he wasn’t as careful as he should have been about the people who were around him. When you’re in any type of position like that, once you get in the spotlight like that, you attract all kinds of bullshit. Then it gets harder for people who actually genuinely care about you to have access to you, if that makes sense? I think it was more so the people around him contributed to maybe not havin’ the greatest support system. ‘Cause he was in a great place when he first came home, and then it seemed like he had more people around him who were maybe more concerned with “being with Pimp C” rather than Chad Butler’s well-being.