LOS ANGELES – Pimp C, who spun searing tales of Texas street life into a key role in the rise of Southern hip-hop, was found dead in an upscale hotel on Tuesday. He was 33.
The rapper formed Underground Kingz with partner-in-rhyme Bun B while the pair were in high school, and their often laconic delivery paired with wittily dangerous lyrics influenced a generation of current superstars like Lil' Wayne. T.I. had the group on as guests when he remade their 1994 song "Front, Back and Side to Side" for his "King" album.
To a mainstream audience, Pimp C was best known for UGK's cameo on the Jay-Z hit "Big Pimpin'," and for "Free Pimp C" T-shirts and shout-outs, ubiquitous in rap several years ago while he was jailed on gun charges. On Tuesday, his MySpace page had been changed to read: "C the Pimp is FREE at last."
Born Chad Butler, Pimp C was found dead in a room at the Mondrian hotel, a longtime music industry hangout not far from the House of Blues on Sunset Strip, where he had performed Saturday night alongside rap veteran Too $hort. Capt. Ed Winter of the Los Angeles County coroner's office said Butler had apparently died in bed.
"At this time there's no signs of foul play," Winter said. "It appears to be possibly natural, but pending autopsy and toxicology we can't say the cause."
Butler had been in Los Angeles to work on his next solo album for Rap-A-Lot Records, according to James Prince, the Houston-based label's CEO. Manager Rick Martin identified Butler's body, and said in a statement, "He was my best friend and I will always love him."
Though they never enjoyed massive pop chart success, UGK's early CDs are considered landmarks for the then-burgeoning Texas hip-hop scene, which also featured the Geto Boys. Signed to a deal with Jive Records, they released "Too Hard to Swallow" in 1992, "Super Tight" two years later, and "Ridin' Dirty" in 1996, considered a rap classic.
Over laid-back beats, they laid out incisive details that remain Southern rap mainstays: descriptions of sex and conspicuous consumption, wood-grain steering wheels and triple-beam scales used to weigh drugs.
Butler led off Three 6 Mafia's 2000 ode to drinking cough syrup to get high, "Sippin' on Syrup," with the lines: "I'm trill working the wheel. A pimp, not a simp. Keep the dope fiends higher than the Goodyear blimp. We eat so many shrimp I got iodine poisoning."
Butler was jailed for three years in 2002; he had plead no contest to aggravated assault for brandishing a gun during an argument with a woman at a mall, then fell behind on required community service. UGK's rise was derailed, but the "Free Pimp C" slogan caught on and an unauthorized album of Pimp C's freestyle rhymes was released while he was in prison.
When Pimp C and Bun B finally put out an album this year, they felt such a need to re-establish themselves they titled their album "Underground Kingz," as if to underscore a new start.
Critics praised the CD, which included the hit "International Player's Anthem (I Choose You)," featuring OutKast. Pimp C's verse riffs on high-class women and cars: "I'm pullin' Bentleys off the lot. Smashed up the gray one, bought me a red. Every time we hit the parking lot we turn heads," he raps.
Barry Weiss, CEO of Jive, said in a statement: "We mourn the unexpected loss of Chad. He was truly a thoughtful and kindhearted person. He will be remembered for his talent and profound influence as a pioneer in bringing southern rap to the forefront."
Butler, who grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, came from a musical lineage. His father was a professional trumpet player, and the rapper studied classical music in high school. He even received a Division I rating on a tenor solo at a University Interscholastic League choir competition.
"That's how I came up listening to everything," he told The Associated Press in a 2005 interview. "Music don't have no color or no face. It's a universal language. I think being exposed to all that kind of stuff influences the way I make records."
Butler is survived by a wife and three children.