Tupac, Biggie, and Jay-Z: the three Mt. Rushmore candidates of hip-hop, the three guys you were most likely to see mentioned in profiles of up-and-coming rappers when XXL and The Source still did lengthy profiles of up-and-coming rappers. It made intellectual sense that say, Papoose would compare himself to those guys, because they represent the three archetypes of MCs. Tupac: The prodigiously talented, unstable, prolific rapper (see: Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane). Notorious B.I.G.: The up-from-the-projects self-made success story with a fatalistic streak (basically every rapper from New York since). Jay-Z: The mega-star who bowed to corporate America and became this generation’s Beatles (what everyone else hopes for).
But then the hip-hop bubble burst, around 2006, and even rap was subject to the mini-movements that have marked rock music since the 1970s. It suddenly became foolhardy to openly think that you could be the new Jay-Z, or even the new Tupac, when major labels were sitting on albums from the likes of Big Boi and 50 Cent, and other certified hitmakers. It was more realistic to hope for a solid career, to not chase major label dollars and the strings that come with them, and to at least say you represented where you came from. Which is why, somehow, UGK suddenly became the godheads for a new wave of rappers. UGK, a group of cough syrup guzzling weirdos from Port Arthur, Texas, were made for these times, made to influence these times. UGK laid groundwork for an entire generation of Southern rappers, like Chamillionaire, Big K.R.I.T., Slim Thug, Yelawolf, and G-Side. How did that happen?
The idea that UGK are maybe the most influential Southern rap group of all time takes some mental gymnastics, and mostly because of three groups: the Geto Boys, Outkast and Goodie Mob, the three consensus picks for canonization of the ‘90s Dirty South. All of them make sense, particularly due to the strength of their catalogs (OutKast in particular, obviously). But while OutKast may be the consensus pick for the best Southern rap group of all time (a distinction I will not argue), their influence lies in getting a generation of indie rock kids interested in hip-hop through albums like Aquemini and Stankonia. And Goodie Mob and the Geto Boys were invaluably important in making clear to the rap cognoscenti that Southern culture was important in the larger realm of hip-hop.
However, you can’t really measure the influence of any of those groups (well, apart from Goodie Mob inspiring OutKast to rap), mostly due to all of them breaking through to mainstream rap culture (however briefly) thanks to their easy relatability to heads living on the coasts. All three fit into rap archetypes already prevalent: Outkast were the Southern answer to Native Tongues and Goodie Mob and Geto Boys fit into the gangster rap mold.
And so did UGK, technically, but Pimp C and Bun B had something else going for them: They were staunchly regional, devoting much of their time on wax chronicling the distinct vernacular of the small town South through their unique sound. Their earliest hit, “Pocket Full of Stones,” was one of the first Southern-centric drug dealing tracks to reach (modest) wide acclaim, but the group’s reliance on earmarking their music with touchstones of Texas living—they arguably have more songs about big cars than any other rap group—and Texas phrasing (“Ridin’ Dirty” was their phrase well before it was Chamillionaire’s), kept them marginalized on Jive Records, their longtime label.
UGK finally had a real breakout moment in 2000, when they appeared at Carnivale with Jay-Z in the “Big Pimpin’” video. The group even eventually had a number one album—2007’s Underground Kingz—before Pimp C’s untimely death from cough syrup intoxication-related causes. But Underground Kingz wasn’t a smash hit: It really hit number one because the music industry had cratered by then, making it possible for a beloved cult group with a lot of built up good will to bum rush the top of the charts. But it was through that earlier marginalization, and modest success, that the group was able to build that cult following, which ultimately led them to being the ideal rap group for an entire generation of rappers.
UGK were a niche group before being a niche group could be a rational career option. You no longer need to be signed to Interscope, or to have a song on the pop charts, or to make million-dollar videos. It’s possible to have a small but devoted following—through the Internet—allowing you to make a career out of being a mixtape champion, or a regional phenom.
Without UGK, G-Side aren’t able to stay in Huntsville, Ala., make well-received albums, and still perform at the Pitchfork Music Festival. In the past, they would have had to at least move to Atlanta or Houston. Without UGK, you don’t have YelaWolf making a career out of rapping really fast (like a cross between Pimp C and Eminem) about rusted-out cars while repping Gadsden, Ala. Without UGK, you get no Chamillionaire, or Slim Thug, or any other Houston-based rapper who has built a career on phrases that UGK made popular.
And without UGK, you don’t get their most influenced son, Big K.R.I.T., who has taken to shouting out UGK at every opportunity (in songs and at live shows) and who even appeared on Pimp C’s recent posthumous solo album, Still Pimping. “I can’t explain it,” he told XXLMag.com about the experience. “When I was approached with the opportunity, I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ And then it dawned upon me, when the record came out and it said UGK featuring Big K.R.I.T.—my folk was like, ‘Yo, you have a record with UGK!’ I never would have dreamed in a million years—to be influenced by them so much, to actually have a record, an unheard Pimp C verse, and to be able to be on it? It’s crazy, man.” K.R.I.T. is the rapper who has taken the lessons of UGK most to heart, spending his time on wax pontificating about sacrifices needed for careers (a UGK favorite), cars, and using the vernacular of his hometown of Meridian, Miss., in a way that UGK used to (see “Just Touched Down”).
UGK maybe never sold the kind of albums that they should have, or never got the push from Jive that they needed, or didn’t have their importance really recognized until one of them died. OutKast will always shine brighter, and rap heads will continue to leave them out of the debate between who was better between Goodie Mob and Geto Boys. But UGK’s influence will continue to be felt across hip-hop, as new waves of rappers follow the path laid down for them by UGK’s trailblazing work. UGK were like the Sex Pistols of Southern rap: They showed a generation of kids from the backwoods south that there was a way they could do this, that they didn’t need to be on the coasts or in Atlanta. They could be from Port Arthur, Texas, and still be stars.