To the layperson, especially those older than say, 45, the idea that hip-hop and religion intersect is absurd. To some people, hip-hop seems so sinful, even the idea that there can be “Christian rap” is laughable, as all rap is the music of “thugs” and drug dealers and others utterly estranged from God. 

Especially that of Bun B (seen above, at left, next to Dr. Anthony Pinn of Rice University), whose group UGK, in its earliest days, was consummately street, as song titles like “Pocketful of Stones,” “Cocaine in the Back of the Ride,” and “Murder” attest, and whose more recent solo work contains some of the same themes and plenty of salty language. 

According to a fairly recent statistical analysis of profanity in hip-hop from 1985 to 2013—yes, somebody when through and counted all the cussingUGK’s self-titled album was the third-most profane record of all time (793 naughty words) and Bun’s solo song “Some Hoes” (113 cusses) the most profane rap song of all time.  

That was why it was such a big surprise to hip-hop agnostics and haters when, in 2011, Bun (born Bernard Freeman) was asked to be a distinguished lecturer at Rice University (that ivoriest of Texas towers) for a course called Religion and Hip-Hop Culture, under the auspices of that school’s Religious Studies Department and its head, Dr. Anthony Pinn. (The course is now available online.)

Freeman responded at the time to critics of the hire:

Yes, I do have some music that would probably, in a religious aspect, be indefensible; some of it would even be considered immoral. I can agree with that and I can handle that, but that’s not the only message I’ve sent through my music or that you’ll hear in hip-hop.

All I ask is that you don’t judge me and this course based upon the bad rap that you’ve heard, even the bad rap I have done, because, quite honestly, hip-hop doesn’t deserve that. Hip-hop has done more than that, been more creative and inspirational than even [it] has been able to show.

Those words come from the mouth of Bun B, one side of Bernard Freeman’s complex personality, and those you hear in the classroom come from “the Prof,” another of his facets. And never the two shall meet, at least not between the hedges on the Rice Campus.

Speaking recently on NYC’s Ebro in the Morning radio show, Freeman announced that he had turned down a total of “over six figures” to perform there. “I won’t rap at the school. They’ve asked me to do their Spring Fest every year since I started teaching. And I turn it down every year, because I don’t want to compromise the integrity of the course.” 

Or compromise the integrity of Bun B, one might also imagine. Some of Bun’s lyricsespecially on the early UGK albumsare capable of drawing pearl-clutching gasps even from veteran hip-hop heads today, and it’s easy to imagine that they would not be well-received by some in the Rice administration and even among some students. Editing all of that out of the set would be less than “trill,” the slang word for “authentic” popularized (and lived) by Bun and his late UGK cohort, Pimp C. 

Bun addressed that tension in “The Story,” his autobiographical account of the rise, fall, and rebirth of UGK.

After scuffling out of the Port Arthur ghetto with hardcore raps on tape and CD, Bun and Pimp got signed to major label Jive Records and came to the attention of Jay-Z, who gave them a prominent guest shot on “Big Pimpin’,” a huge hit and eventual Grammy winner. As is almost always the case in the music business, Jive tried to force UGK to make a carbon copy of that single in hopes of replicating its success.

Grammy nominated can’t believe that we made it
And we got a call from Jive that left us all faded
And it stated, that due to the success of the track
We here at Jive records, would like to piggy back
Get another beat from Timb, then get a verse from Jay
Let Hype shoot the video and we’ll be on the way
Sh*t it sounded okay, but me I had to ask
If we don’t do Big Pimpin 2, would you still put us on blast
A song like that would might take a n***a to the top
But my true fan base, might think a n***a flop

It’s never been about compromises for Bun B, even when the world was at his feet. And from hearing him speak about his lectures, he guards the integrity of the course just as jealously. “Rice is not easy to get into and it’s not cheap, so everyone who’s in my classroom is making a serious effort to get informed,” he said earlier this week. “That’s different than a high school classroom [and] I have to respect that intention.”

“And keep in mind this is not a music course,” he said. “This is under the religious studies department.

Or as he put it another time:

There’s this notion that a rapper teaching a course means that the students will get to learn a lot of cool things or meet cool people. And there’s room for that, but we have to establish that this is a very serious course. And in order to embrace and understand everything that Doc [Pinn] and I are doing, you’re gonna have to embrace the literature, you’re gonna have to embrace the lectures, you’re gonna have to get involved in every aspect of the classroom and in conversations outside of the classroom. We let people know early on this is not some place to drop your demo off. This is a real course, taught in a real way; Doc and I take it very seriously, and if you plan on being in this classroom, we advise you to take it very seriously as well.

Outsiders have a few misconceptions about the course and its teacher. Regarding the latter, those who get bogged down in all Bun’s cussing can’t see the other side of the man, the secular preacher and fiery truth-teller in songs like “If It Was Up II Me.”

That dichotomy is almost as old as rap. Producers and artists alike have always contended that you had to bait the hook of your message songs with others about drug-dealing, violence, flashy cars, and loose women. (Sadly, too often songs like the Geto Boys “City Under Siege” have been lost amid all the controversies over the stomach-churning sadism and gore in “Mind of a Lunatic,” which, if nothing else, got them the attention to survive long enough to release “Mind Playing Tricks,” the song that truly put not just Texas but the South on the hip-hop map to stay.)

And UGK was no exception. Their early records were studded with tracks like the anti-hard drugs dirge “Stoned Junkee,” the perils of casual sex admonishment in “Ain’t That a Bitch,” and the meditation on mortality that is “One Day.” Then there’s the conflict between the game and God inherent in “Living This Life,” which finds Pimp C rapping that he rolls around with both a gauge and a pistol in his car but yearns for the community of church. If only he didn’t feel branded as an outcast. “I wanna go to service / But I ain’t been in so long, kinda make me feel nervous / Cause they be lookin’ at me funny / Watchin’ the plate when I tithe, put in my money.”

Bun has spoken of feeling much the same way. “I didn’t necessarily need a good preacher, but a good house of faith, somewhere I could go and feel comfortable praising and taking in the message without having to dress a certain way just to be a member, or where I had to sit in the back row,” he said in 2011, just as he began lecturing at Rice.

Freeman was born into a staunch Southern Baptist home and has spoken of serving as an usher at a north Houston church as a boy. After his parents’ divorce, he remembers that church became less of a priority and even more so as his rap career ascended in the nineties. It was Pimp C who ushered him back into the church, uninintenionally, and not once, but twice.

The first time was when he went to prison and Freeman believed his rap career was over, as were his days as a strong provider. “Initially, I was a very lost soul. I was concerned about the future of my family, his family, and the career that we had built. With this came depression, with depression came more drinking and more drugging until I felt like I had almost hit rock bottom spiritually. I came out of it knowing that I needed to start anew—a rebirth so to speak.”

That rebirth manifested in his launching a successful solo career while Pimp C was incarcerated. And then, so soon after his release, Pimp C passed away, the victim of sleep apnea and an overdose of codeine. Bun found a way to emerge from that tragedy a better and wiser man, and his artistry only grew. As did the gospel influences in his music, as you can plainly hear via the sanctified organ on “Chuuch!” the opening track off his 2010 album Trill O.G.

Yeah, there are a couple of F-bombs in there, but one of the lessons “Prof” Freeman and Dr. Pinn stress is that hip-hop itself can be seen as a religion of its own. It’s more than just the music, and religion is more than a gathering of people in a building officially designated as “holy.” 

Southern rap and gospel are entertwined more so than that of other regions, and on no song ever is the dichotomy of sacred and profane more clearly on exhibit than on “Mr. Scarface,” Scarface’s 1991 single, in which some of the most explicit lyrics spill out over the most maniacal church organ ever recorded. Likewise, some of Scarface’s cadences on the mike come straight from the pulpit, as on “Never Seen a Man Cry.”

Songs like those two Scarface jams made me question an article of faith about rap I accepted in or around 1990. One summer, I was touring the eastern U.S. in a beat-up Oldsmobile with the late David Schnaufer, a LaMarque native who was the greatest mountain dulcimer player who ever lived, a jazzman at heart. 

As we drove some lonely road through dark Maine forests one night, the talk turned to rap. I was a big fan. Schnaufer, a generation older than me, was not, though he was open enough to actually listen to it. And engage with his buddies about it. Around that time he was performing and jamming some with West Coast acoustic guitarist and twentieth-century folk music scholar Duck Baker. Schnaufer recalled that he had just asked Baker what he made of rap.

“Black music has left the church,” Baker pronounced. It was a remark that has stuck with me ever since, at first because I believed it to be so profoundly right, and now because I believe it to be so profoundly wrong, at least on some level. My understanding of Baker’s remark was that rap’s lyrics were so profane and the music so rhythmic, so shorn of gospel melodies and call-and-response vocals, that it was a complete divorce from holy African-American music, the font from which sprang blues, soul, rock and roll, R&B, and the earliest forms of jazz. 

Though I was a huge Geto Boys fan at the time, I had yet to hear Scarface’s solo work, and since then, thanks to his records, UGK’s records, OutKast’s records, and others, I’ve come to see things in a different light. In musical structure, rap was a shifting of focus from the choirs and their soloists back to the preachers, only now they were called MCs and they swore in their pulpits. In content, when at its best (a variety hard to find in mainstream pop culture today)—when hip-hop is delivering messages or functioning, as Chuck D. once put it, as “black America’s CNN”—it can be as powerful as any church service.

Take Chuck D’s Public Enemy, for example. Greg Ellis, manager of soon-to-open Groover’s Paradise record shop outside of Austin, saw PE back in their eighties glory days. “That really was a lot like church,” he says. “They had the preacher in Chuck D., the deacon in Flava Flav, and the choir in the S1Ws.” And D’s messages were fiery exhortations about black pride and moral uplift and, though tinged with spirituality, not out-and-out religious, except in the context of hip-hop being its own religion. Which is just what Pinn and Prof Freeman are driving at.

“When most people think hip-hop, they think rap music, and when they think religion, they think church,” Freeman said, speaking to Ebro on the morning show the other day.

“I think hip-hop is a culture and I think hip-hop is something you do religiously,” Ebro responded.

“You get it!” Bun said. 

(Photo courtesy of Imagesbyq/Erik Quinn via Facebook.)