On Thursday afternoon, Bun B called from his truck in North Houston. He’ll be in Dallas tonight, performing at Trees in Deep Ellum, but it sounds like he’s spending as many of his free moments as he can helping the city. Yesterday, the Port Arthur native was unloading trucks full of food and water in a North Houston neighborhood battered by Hurricane Harvey. It’s been about a month since the hurricane made land on the coast before it trudged its way to Houston, where it hovered for days, assaulting the city with dozens of inches of water. Harvey then made its way to Bun B’s hometown, wiping out neighborhoods throughout the Golden Triangle of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange.
Bun’s Houston-area home was spared, which spurred him into action. He paired up with Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s hyper-connected manager, and the two got to work. What emerged was the Hand in Hand telethon, which combined a number of concerts and broadcasts on all the major networks and had more than two dozen big-name celebrities manning the phone. Yesterday, ahead of our conversation, the event announced that it had raised $55 million.
I spoke with the UGK legend about what he’s seeing in Houston, his new album, and what it’s like getting back to work. It’s been lightly edited for length and clarity. (Special thanks to promoter Premiere Live Experience and Trees’ Gavin Mulloy for setting the interview up on short notice.)
D Magazine: Congratulations on the $55 million raised. Can you talk a bit about the logistics that went into putting that event together?
Bun: Thank you, thank you. This couldn’t have happened without Den of Thieves. Den of Thieves produced the entire thing for free, but it cost $7.5 million to put together everything on all those different networks from four different locations in the country. Thank God for Den of Thieves for offering their services for free. Then, of course, Scooter Braun and his amazing staff, SB Projects. They made all the calls to the networks, they made the calls to the talent. Everyone was just more than happy to help—we had more talent offered to us that we could not incorporate into the show and the phone bank.
The actual phone bank itself took over 2,000 people working. Verizon underwrote all the phone bank services, which came out to be $2.5 million. To produce the event cost another $5 million, and that wound up being underwritten by Michael Dell and Susan Dell of the Dell corporation. They also matched the first $10 million we raised, so the minute we raised the first $10 million, we automatically gained $20.
D: Were you taken aback by all the support you guys got from that idea?
Bun: I still feel like it was the best party I was ever invited to, you know what I’m saying? Meeting people like Billy Crystal, who I’ve looked up to for years. Comic Relief being a big point of reference for me of how to use my voice for something good, and being able to thank them for being that influence. You have literally 40 other people in the room who have influenced your life. I’ve spent money either at movies or watching television shows or downloading stuff on iTunes for literally everybody that was there. And those people were exactly who I hoped they would be, even if it was just for that day.
You had people like Al Pacino sitting next to Robert DeNiro in New York. You know, people who are never in the same room together. Their identities and their careers are so closely intertwined but they’re almost never together. They actually sat together and answered phones. George Clooney and Julia Roberts, you know what their dynamic is, with their 11 films and different things. They wanted to sit together because they know their message is worth more. All of these different people were so selfless in giving themselves over to the process.
Stevie Wonder performed and opened the show. We’re at sound check doing live rehearsal for network coordination and the producers are telling me that they’ve produced events that Stevie Wonder has volunteered for over the last 12 years and they’d never seen him at a sound check.
D: Had you seen him before?
Bun: I had not in person, no. But that’s OK because he’s never seen mine either.
D: So that event has gotten a lot of press, but there’s a lot happening on the ground in South Texas.
Bun: I’m literally sitting in my truck in a community in North Houston, and as soon as I get off this phone with you I’m jumping out to help and start unloading the truck. We just finished one location, and we’re at the second location now.
D: Talk a little bit about that. I feel like once the waters receded a bit, the news coverage we were getting outside of town went away. What are some of the things that have stuck with you from being on the ground and helping people?
Bun: Really seeing what people had to do and have had to do during the hurricane and after the hurricane. There are still communities that are so tucked away—the city’s grown exponentially so we’re finding neighborhoods we’ve never heard of before. We just found out there’s a Little Cambodia in Houston. It’s 44 years old and I’d never heard of that. There are neighborhoods I’ve driven by on the highway and never taken that exit and went off. I’ve done that three times. It’s mind-blowing what nature has done, you know?
D: Is this going to be your first show since the hurricane?
Bun: This is probably going to be my third one. When this first happened, we started canceling shows. But we can’t just keep canceling shows. We’ve gotta go out and spread the message as well. So that’s what I’ve been able to do, to go out and take the message of what’s happening and take the word of it and spread it. That’s like being afforded an opportunity to talk to someone like you, it helps us to do that as well.
D: Can you talk about what it felt like getting back on stage? Did this reshape your stage show at all?
Bun: It didn’t really change anything, it’s more about letting people know that people need help. As far as the dynamic of it, we’re still getting back to work. Everybody has to at some point get back to work. Regardless of your own personal situation, you’ve gotta get back to work. We did do our first Houston show this weekend. It was a free show for the public. One of the local breweries, Karbach Brewery, put it on. People got to hang out and get their mind off of stuff. We’ve all gotta wake up tomorrow and get back to the real world. This was just a day to get back to remembering what life was and will be again.
D: Getting back to that normalcy.
D: In the Rap Radar podcast you did recently, you talk about how you didn’t feel truly inspired as a solo artist until you started recording your next album. Recognizing that lack of inspiration, does that affect how you hear the work you did previously?
Bun: I’ve never listened to myself. I don’t ride around and listen to me. I just let that sit there. So whenever I hear myself, it’s surprising. And you can perform songs all the time, but performing music isn’t listening to it. I think people would be very surprised by that. There’s a level of detachment in performance that you’re not really listening, you’re really more regurgitating and getting people involved in the overall visual experience. it’s more visceral, so it involves more than the song itself. There are a lot of components in place: The crowd, the stage, the music, all these different things.
There’s more to it than just audio, it’s not just sitting back and listening to it. But, that being said, I can make music. Writing songs and being able to create music isn’t the problem. It’s just about not really enjoying the process. We were talking about solo projects, but I was in a group. I didn’t know how to be a solo artist. I didn’t want to have to be one. We just became a victim of circumstances in that regard.
This was about finding a new level of engagement that would make it fun again, make it interesting. But I’ve gotta get back to work; I hate to be rude, but I’ve got to cut this short. Is there anything else?
D: Is there anything people from outside Houston can do to help?
Bun: Yeah, just keep praying keep local organizations in mind. We Are One, that’s the organization that myself, Trae the Truth, DJ Mr. Rogers are all affiliated with that. And then just keep praying for these cities. If you have local fundraisers, donate. We’ll be getting the word out for a lot of different initiatives to help people become a part of the process. Keep following me on Instagram, and we’ll keep you updated.