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Bun B’s 25-year Reign as King of the Underground

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

That’s how you stay in the game

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It’s hard to put into context just how long Bun B has been in the rap game, but let’s give it a try. When 17-year old Bernard Freeman laid down his first verse in 1987, the Berlin Wall wasn’t a museum piece. Gas cost 89 cents a gallon. Alf was a top-rated show.

Putting 25 years on the rap timeline only makes it seem more like ancient history. We’re talking before Nas, Biggie or Tupac, before Straight Outta Compton and the explosion of gangsta rap, before parachute pants, before stopping, collaborating and listening.

All of this is to say that Port Arthur-born rapper Bun B has been at it a long-ass time. But more than that, those 25-plus years are a testimony to his unprecedented staying power. Look around and try to find anyone else who’s kept as consistent and well respected a grind as Bun, and you’ll see an almost empty field. Can you imagine the top rappers from the advent of Bun B’s career—Kool Moe D, Biz Markie, Schooly D—still having any foothold in today’s hip-hop world? Even the figures from that era that have escaped obscurity have done so either by becoming legacy acts (Run-DMC, De La Soul) or undergoing some serious rebranding as SFW actors or personalities (Ice T, LL Cool J, the Fresh Prince/Will Smith.)

So how the hell has Bun B done it? You could say luck, but then how was Bun to know when he laid down his first verses that he had hit upon something so timeless in his approach? Even the earliest tracks Bun B and long-time partner Pimp C honed on the first Underground Kings records still sound as street ready as the day they were cut. They defined the laid-back swag of southern hip-hop, a style that, despite tweaking from the likes of Three 6 Mafia, Ludacris and Lil’ Wayne, has remained true to the vibe of it’s halcyon days.

There’s also something trend-proof about Bun B’s liquid flow, always inflected with the vibe that he’s rapping from the driver’s seat of a woodgrain Impala cruising 10 mph through the Third Ward. His lyrical content hasn’t changed much, and one could probably argue that his style is out of touch with the current crop of confessional emcees including Future, Kanye and Drake. But Bun has weathered these sorts of trends before; his versatile flow, a wide vocabulary and inexhaustible ways to define being trill always managing to keep him on top.

With a career this long and prolific, there are plenty of jumping off points from which to dive into Bun’s music. But really, there’s no better place than his early work with Pimp C as the Underground Kings. UGK’s run from 1992’s Too Hard to Swallow through their opus Ridin’ Dirty forms an arc of stone-cold classics that stand alongside the Geto Boys’ We Can’t Be Stopped, Outkast’s Southernplayalisticcaddilacmusik and Goodie Mob’s Soul Food in the cannon of essential Southern hip-hop records. Oh, and there was the whole Jay-Z collaboration, in which the pair played no small part in producing perhaps Hov’s most undeniable single, “Big Pimpin.’”

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