XXL celebrates 50 years of hip-hop with this feature.
Every conversation with Bun B is like getting premier access to the hip-hop syllabus, which makes sense. In 2011, the UGK legend began co-teaching a Hip-Hop and Religion class at Rice University in Houston. Armed with the hard-won wisdom he’s earned over the course of his fruitful and, at times, challenging career, the Port Arthur, Texas native molded the minds of young students interested in learning about a kaleidoscopic culture that has stood the test of time.
Once dismissed as a fad, hip-hop has blossomed into the most popular genre in the U.S. In honor of its hip-hop’s 50th birthday this year, Bun B put on his professor’s hat and selected 10 songs he feels are important for furthering the youth’s hip-hop education. Not only does Bun find rap from the 1990s and 2000s crucial for inspiring the next generation, he also wants to illustrate just how much hip-hop has done for those who might not have flourished otherwise. Simultaneously, he welcomes hip-hop’s inevitable evolution and encourages everyone to keep an open mind.
Check out Bun B’s picks for the next generation of rap fans below.—Kyle Eustice
“Drought Season” (1992)
E-40 and The Click
I picked this song because it shows you can have a long, legitimate career in hip-hop without having to change one single thing about yourself. E-40 is a perfect example of that.
“Drought Season” was the first time I’d ever heard E-40. The Click was E, Suga-T and B-Legit. They were all The Click together. And E-40 raps and talks the same way on that song. The first time I ever heard him, we were just finishing a show in Lake Charles, and we were listening to this on the way home. I just remember, Wow. That’s when I realized that every hood was the same because they were talking about street shit and drug shit. And I was like, Damn, everybody got the same problems. This shit is crazy.
This kind of thing has always been here—the idea of people speaking to the reality of the environment they live in and trying to navigate a world that’s been primarily set up against them. This song shows you that even way back, because this song’s from ’92, so this is 31 years ago.
E-40 is still here and prevalent at the front. Not just as an OG resting on his legacy, but actually still making music right now.
“Mr. Big” (1993)
8 Ball & MJG
This was a group that rose to prominence off of a song. Don’t get me wrong. Their body of work is obviously legitimate, but “Mr. Big” is that song that really connected with everybody. And this is a song, one of these instances where a group—8Ball & MJG—puts out a solo record to represent them. This is a group that I’ve known for 30-plus years. And the only way that you can do a song like that as a single is when neither one of the artists have any ego.
Now, many people would argue over who the better rapper was—8Ball or MJG—in that group. But to them, it never mattered. And that’s important, because typically, when someone’s proclaimed the better rapper, that person tends to go solo. When they went solo, they went solo at the same time consciously. This was years before. I know this was years before OutKast had done that.
“Mind Playing Tricks On Me” (1991)
Personally, this was a big song because this was when I actually watched a local group from where I was from make national acclaim. And that’s “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” That song is the perfect example of going from independent into believing in yourself, sticking to your script and still making it right. The Geto Boys voice did not look like what typical New Yorker or L.A. rappers looked like, nor did they sound like them. But what they presented was believable and understandable.
That’s the thing. There wasn’t a lot of dressing on this. They didn’t primp this up. This was pretty raw for its time, and it still became a core record. “I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles.” Wow. It’s a precursor to actually talking about mental health. That’s literally what this song is. The song’s called “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.”
“A Bird In The Hand” (1991)
This one’s a doozy, because I didn’t write any of these down. “A Bird in the Hand” by Ice Cube. This one literally speaks to the youth of today. This is a story of a young dude trying to make it in the world, because he got a baby and shit like that. And he’s talking about, “Do I need to sell a bunch of crack” or, “Do I get help from Bush or Jesse Jackson and Operation Push?”
And it’s like, “Who am I supposed to turn to as a young man in this world? Should I turn to the government who hasn’t done anything and isn’t probably going to do anything for me? Do I turn to my community leaders? Are they actually leading, or what are they doing?” It’s really a criticism of the choices that we’re told in America we have that are so plentiful. But yet, if you’re born in a certain place under certain circumstances, you don’t have that. And I always liked this one because Ice Cube has a lot of great records, right?
But I really like “A Bird in the Hand” because it gets right to it. It’s very, very descriptive. And you could see this person sitting on their sofa trying to figure out: “Do I try to go the way that they tell me to go, even though no one from here ever makes it the normal way? Or do I just say, ‘Fuck it.’ Do I just get out here and sell dope? Do I really have an option?”
And for some people under a certain set of circumstances, they don’t believe they have an option. Young people in America wake up with their high school diplomas and enter this world that is so divisive. I would argue this song resonates deeper today than it did then.
“Be A Father To Your Child” (1991)
Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs
I believe there was an idea that hip-hop made people more irresponsible, pushed people away from their responsibilities, and was not a culture of family. And I argue that that’s bullshit. Because as an artist, I’m always asked, “Well, you guys make music and you guys don’t think about the children that hear the music.”
And I’m like, “I got children. I understand it. I have to protect my children from the same worries of the world that you have to protect yours from.” But this song was very clear that hip-hop understood there was starting to become a problem in the inner cities. And so this is proof that hip-hop actually cared and gave concern about seeing a trend, a very terrible trend in our inner cities of America where some people were obviously locked up and others may have been murdered.
But then there was a group of people who simply were ignoring their responsibility—and hip-hop was never about ignoring responsibility. You did what you had to do to take care of the family and then you went and partied on the weekend.
“Dear Mama” (1995)
The beauty of “Dear Mama” is that it’s complete reverence. The song is about a perfect love for an imperfect person. Tupac’s mother was heavily flawed in her life, and he knew the choices she made, made his and his sister’s life more difficult than it should have been. But he understood the world and environment his mother grew up in. He understood she was simply human.
It’s a song of forgiveness in the truest sense, because the purest line in that song is, “Even though you were a crack fiend, mama/You always were a Black queen.” We have to see people, we have to love people at their worst in order for to see them at their best.
“We’re All In The Same Gang” (1990)
West Coast All-Stars
“We’re All In The Same Gang” was a record made to specifically address the escalating violence in Los Angeles, and trying to help bring about a truce between the gangs and just bring it down. This was an assortment of different hip-hop artists from different parts of L.A., speaking to this violence. This was not about violence in rap music. This was about violence in the community. Now, we had something put together before with [KRS-One’s Stop The Violence Movement single] “Self-Destruction.” But this was specifically targeting the L.A. gang situation, which in the late ’80s and early ’90s was just ridiculous.
People believe hip-hop is built around a bunch of gang bangers and that hip-hop promotes this, but that’s not true. Slowly but surely, we tried to stop gang violence and gang growth in the inner cities. Many of the rappers who were on that song were gang bangers. But they saw that gang banging was starting to get out of hand and that it was time to calm it down, chill it out and pay attention to who the bigger enemy was—the system, the suppressive systemic system designed to make you believe that a gang is your only option. And it showed unity between Bloods and Crips at a time where there almost was none.
“Country Grammar” (2000)
“Country Grammar” was a song I initially resisted. I can admit to that. See, I was fighting very hard to be seen as a serious artist coming from the South, representing the South at this time. And I felt that music like “Country Grammar” was detrimental to the growth of hip-hop culture. But what I didn’t realize is that you can be true to it and all of that type of stuff, man, but if it don’t make people dance and people can’t have a good time, too, it’s almost redundant. Music at its best should inform, empower, make people want to engage, make people think. It should do all of that, but at the very least, music has to make people dance.
And “Country Grammar” was a record that told me that, because at the time I was taking myself too seriously. It’s OK to take what you do serious, but you can’t take yourself too serious. That was a song that was like, “You know what? I’m going to just have to chill out. Just accept that while I may be taking everything serious, some people out here just trying to have a good time and make some money.” Because I was just lyricist, lyricist, lyricist. And it changed my perception on engagement with crowds. I was always very stoic on stage. And I’m not saying I started doing any dances or anything like that, but it started to allow me to see the levity in the situation.
“Soul Food” (1995)
I’m going back and forth between two groups, same crew. I got to go “Soul Food” by Goodie Mob. I’m going back and forth with “Player’s Ball” [OutKast] and “Soul Food,” but I got to do “Soul Food” because “Soul Food” is not really about soul food—it’s about family. It’s about tradition and it’s about gathering. And as I get older…let’s just say one of my grandmothers was still alive when “Soul Food” came out. She’s not here anymore. So, those things about gathering at Big Mama’s house, when Big Mama passes, you see the tradition pass on.
And in families, you already know which one of your aunties is going to be the one to make sure we still gather, that people still come by, that people are still made aware of stuff. They’re the ones that are connected to everybody and know how to send the messages through. But yeah, for me, “Soul Food” is probably the most Southern rap record you can make. That’s literally, I got to imagine, if you had families, what it was like. I know it spoke to me.
Scarface featuring Tupac Shakur
This is a song that really shocked me. It was a very wild time, and there’s a lot that goes into that, that speaks deeper to me. I think the idea of creating a body of work with someone, creating some really good music, some really good content with someone, and then that person not even being around to see the success of that song; the idea that you can record a song with someone and they can pass away before the song comes out, was almost an unheard of concept back then. I think the only thing before that had been maybe the [A Tribe Called Quest] “Scenario” remix with Kid Hood, where Kid Hood was killed before the remix came out.
When you hear a song like “Smile,” you see the kinship that a person like a Scarface and a Tupac had and how much great, deep emotional music and spiritual music they could have made together. I remember we had just finished [the 1996 UGK album] Ridin’ Dirty around that time and Scarface had given Tupac a copy of Ridin’ Dirty. This was told to me by E.D.I. Mean, that Tupac had been given Ridin’ Dirty by Scarface and brought it back to the Outlawz.
This was when ’Pac was trying to regroup himself and he had partnered with the Duck Down Click and tried to bring hip-hop together, with no more separatism with the East and West Coast. And he told those guys, “Hey, I don’t know who these dudes are, but they sound like us. They sound like they on what we on. We need to get them down with what we’re doing.” He was dead within three days. So, I never got to meet him and never got to know him, but he did hear my music.