Jeff Pearlman

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Bubba Sparxxx

#157
The highs of a single that sells 3 million copies. The lows of addiction. A hip-hop visionary explores the love of music and the perils of fame. POSTED June 5, 2014

bubba

Last year, when Florida Georgia Line and Nelly blew up the charts with Cruise, one person after another seemed to praise the apparently revolutionary merging of country and hip-hop—two genres (the story goes) that never before touched.

I call complete, total bullshit.

Eleven years ago Bubba Sparxxx, the creative and wide-open rapper from LaGrange, Georgia, brought forth Deliverance, an album that was about, oh, eleven years before its time. The songs were country. The songs were hip-hop. They were inventive and explosive, and so incredibly good that the lame medium that is FM radio refused to touch it. Hence, while Deliverance is known to true hip-hop heads, it sort of vanished into the mist.

Sparxxx (real name: Warren Mathis), however, refuses to vanish. Now signed to Average Joe Entertainment, the veteran rapper recently released his latest single, Made On McCosh Mill Road. He tours all over the place, appears in songs with seemingly everyone and offers up a song that is—and always has been—uniquely Bubba.

One can visit Bubba’s website here, his Facebook page here and follow him on Twitter here.

Bubba Sparxxx, welcome to LaQuaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Last year Florida Georgia Line and Nelly generated a ton of attention for their country-hip-hop merging … something you first went with in 2003, when you released Deliverance. Did all the attention they received Irk you at all? It seems people forget that you were ahead of your time And did you always think country and hip-hop as a marriage made sense?

BUBBA SPARXXX: It’s crazy, but I’m thrilled to death what’s going on. I’m actually signed to a label out of Nashville now, and I spend a lot of time up there songwriting. I just got my first country music songwriting hold with a country music singer this past year. And I mean, I’m pretty stoked about it overall. But it’s also a little comical to me—people just typically don’t associate me with the whole thing. I’m like, hands down, this is what I’m doing 10 … 12 years ago.

J.P.: It was a weird marriage. My first job was in Nashville, and I did a story in 1995 about country and rap ever emerging. And a lot of the country singers were like, ‘Rap? That’s not even gonna be around five years from now!’

B.S.: Hahahahaha …

J.P.: There was one guy in particular, Neal McCoy, who thought rap would be gone in a second.

B.S.: Neal McCoy is actually a pretty good friend of mine. And Neal McCoy covers rap songs at his concerts. He has at different times. Neal’s a great guy. A great guy. And his new song that’s getting some play on XM Radio is very … I’m not gonna say it’s the hip-hop influence, but it feels popish and it’s definitely not traditional country.

Neal and I went on a USO Tour to Kuwait and Iraq 10 years ago, and he always seemed open to it.

J.P.: How did you develop the idea in your mind that you could take these two foreign genres of music and merge them together?

B.S.: Working-class people just aren’t that different—period. No matter what the ethnicity. There are these invisible lines placed between the different races, but lower-middle class and down, and people are pretty much the same. The same mindsets. Their lives are pretty stressful. They deal with what they deal with on a day-to-day basis, and then when they cut loose they wanna have a good time. That’s something I knew at a young age. I just knew the people weren’t that different, because I grew up in a rural town—LaGrange, Georgia, about 60 miles southwest of Atlanta. Pretty much a 50-50 black and white community. And as far as my own story relates it to it all, I grew up in this place. There were some old South leanings where I grew up, hands down. But I grew up in this place, in this era when hip-hop music was exploding. And I guess it’s when you could say hip-hop music became mainstream; when it became popular music. And everybody was listening to it. Obviously some people more than others. And I just knew, where I grew up, white kids—quote-unquote rednecks—were riding around in jacked-up trucks, and in their CD cases they had Tim McGraw, Hank Williams, Jr., Outkast, Tupac, Nirvana. You know what I’m saying? I feel like my generation was the first generation that pretty much listened to everything.

And it really just boils down to the fact that I’m a country dude. I’m a country dude. I believe I’m pretty forward thinking, but I’m a country dude, I was raised in a rural area outside of a rural area. And I fell in love with hip-hop music. I grew up on the farm, grew up hunting and fishing and all that stuff. But I fell in love with hip-hop music. So I always just believe there are always ears for the story. I just always believed it.

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J.P.: I’m like a liberal Jewish guy from New York. And there would be a perception of a kid like you, in small-town Georgia, white kid, you’d think he’d grow up with parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, who would be not happy or if he dates a black girl …

B.S.: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

J.P.: So how did you emerge out of that?

B.S.: I’ll just say, neither one of my parents ever went to school with black people. To me, there’s no excusing ignorance. But there are just certain generational stances or views or shapings that … people born before, maybe, 1960 in the South … my dad never went to school with a black person. He just never did. So natural was separate in his eyes for a long time. Now he’s come a long way the last 20 years. Especially seeing my career, and some of the things I stood for. And the fact I couldn’t have been any more different than he was. He just has kind of grown to accept it and even evolve.

I went to school with black kids. I was around black kids. My parents never were. It’s a generational thing, to a degree. So I just feel like the generation I grew up in shaped me. Now we all come to a crossroads and we all have decisions to make. We can all take the right fork or the left fork. I definitely felt, even for my generation, I took the road less traveled. Not to put myself on a pedestal, but at a young age I just kind of gravitated toward questioning things and bucking the system and debating whether what I’d been told was the way it had to be. So that was who I was. And hip-hop music and the explosion that was taking place was just kind of shaping me. It became who I was.

It’s just become even more so the case. It’s just like … when I look at Donald Sterling. It was crazy, because all this stuff happened, and I was reading about him in your book. I look at it like this—those people are just gonna die, man. You know what I’m saying? I believe very few people are all bad or all good. I believe most everybody has some good parts and some bad parts. The people of that particular mindset—they’re gonna die. And I believe at some point there won’t be very many, if any, left on the planet. I’m not saying I wish about anybody’s death. It’s just the way the world is changing and evolving.

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J.P.: There’s always talk out there about the N-word in hip-hop, the N-word in sports. You’re from an interesting place. I’m sure you grew up hearing it from whites, and now there’s a lot of ‘Nobody should use that word! White or black!’

B.S.: I heard a lot of the one with the ‘e-r’ ending growing up, that’s for sure.

J.P.: Right. What do you think? To me, it’s, ‘I can tell a Jewish joke, you can’t.’ Can a black person take ownership of that word that, perhaps, you and I can’t?

B.S.: I definitely agree with that. I think that, as far as what’s happening with the use now, I just think the youth don’t give a shit. Whatever this generation is, the youth, whether it’s kids in the 1950s wanting to listen to rock and roll … whatever a generation is focused on, the youth is going to do what they want to do. So as far as the way kids today … I’m strictly speaking in terms of the word with an ‘a’ at the end, kids are just gonna do whatever they want. It doesn’t mean the same thing to kids today as it did when I was in high school. It doesn’t mean the same thing. But as far as me—I know where I come from and I know who I am, and I know the responsibility I place on myself. And it’s not something I’m going to do. Yes, I’ve had black friends and I could have said it. But it’s just not the route I choose to take. Because, once again going back to the generational thing, I don’t think it’s righteous for a man in his mid-30s to say, ‘OK, since it’s cool now I’m gonna start saying that!’ I’m not a part of this generation. If this generation is rocking that way, cool, I’m not gonna judge or fight it. But it’s just not something for me.

At the end of the day, I’m talking about black kids, white kids, Asian kids, Hispanic kids—everybody’s just saying it. Everybody’s applying it to themselves, to their friends. It is what it is, as far as the kids. But it’s never been something I felt comfortable saying, because I simply felt like, coming from where I come from, I understand the meaning of it in a deeper way.

J.P.: I love Ugly. Love it, always loved it. For all I know you hate it and never want to hear it again …

B.S.: The song I hate is Ms. New Booty. Ugly for me is—I wish more people, when we read the history books, I wish more people would focus on Ugly and Deliverance than they do Ms. New Booty. But it just is what it is.

J.P.: What’s the back story of Ugly?

B.S.: Well, it was the last song I recorded with Timbaland when I went to L.A. to record. I had put out an independent version of Dark Days, Bright Nights, and we decided we were going to keep about half of those songs for the Interscope release, for the Beat Club release. Which was Timbaland’s label. And then we were going to make the second half of the album with Tim. So we go in, and we probably do seven songs, and it’s two days before I’m supposed to leave. And I’m like, ‘Man, I just don’t really feel like I have a vintage Timbaland beat yet. I want one of those beats where, when you put it on, everyone says, ‘There’s that new Timbaland banger.’ Probably seven minutes later—this is his process. I’d be like writing to another beat over the loud speakers in the studio, and he’d have his headphones on and be playing with his keyboard or whatever. And probably seven minutes later he told the engineer to cut the beat he was working on on the big speakers. He did that and it was Ugly. And I was like, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ That was the last song we actually did for the first album.

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J.P.: I find it interesting when artists—I’ve heard Eminem do this to his Relapse album; Mandy Moore hates her biggest song. What’s your beef with Ms. New Booty?

B.S.: I’m not going to apologize for a single that sells 3 million downloads. It’s not like I’m not grateful for it. But here’s my thing with it. Basically what you had is, I had a situation where I had the success of the first album, then we came back. Did you ever listen to Deliverance?

J.P.: Of course.

B.S.: Well, I felt like I had something to prove with that second album. Like, with the Ugly video, we presented these provocative visuals of rural life. We showed some real culture in there, and we also did some things for effect. It was supposed to be entertaining. But some real culture was captured in there. Tim didn’t feel like the sonics matched the visuals, and culturally who I was and where I came from. We basically just made a … it was more urban-leaning. Club bangers and that type of thing. And also we felt like a lot of people took it as a joke. So we sort of took it upon ourselves on the second album to not only make some viable music with a backbone, but to also sonically delve into bluegrass, different country-leaning instrumentation. Harmonicas. Fiddles. So on and so on. And create that sonic landscape that was Deliverance. That really backed up what the visuals of the Ugly video were. So we take this chance and have this critical darling of an album—everybody raves about it. But commercially it flopped.

It sold 400,000 albums. Nowadays they throw a parade for you. Back then you get fired. That’s basically what happened. It was kind of the beginning of addiction settling in in my life. It was the beginning of a very turbulent time. So I go through this period. It was like a bank robbery. Tim goes his separate ways from Jimmy Iovine and Interscope. Me and Tim went our separate ways. And there I was for, like, two years. I’d spoken with Big Boi from Outkast. We’d had a really cool relationship. And I knew he was looking to do another label situation somewhere, and we talked about that. But I go through these two years where I’ve accumulated all these things—a couple of houses, cars, whatever. And slowly the money is starting to dwindle. I’m slowly losing the means to facilitate this lifestyle that I’ve gotten adjusted to. And basically we then signed a very lucrative deal with Purple Ribbon, which was Big Boi’s imprint. And Virgin Records. At that particular time it was like I’d gone through this whole movement, in that I really, really believed in the country-rap thing. I really believed in what I was doing. I had a fan base. A pretty loyal fan base, loyal to what I was doing at that time.

And man, you know what? When I signed that deal with Virgin, they wanted a club banger. Ying Yang Twins were hot. I loved those guys, so grateful for those guys getting on that record with me at that time. Grateful, grateful. And like I said, it sold 3 million singles, huge hit, one of the biggest records in the world that year—but it just wasn’t in line with what I had been building. If that makes sense.

That’s my only gripe with it. I’m not going to say that it wasn’t me, because it was a component of me. But artistically, I know it threw a lot of my fans—my true fans—for a loop. So basically what you have now, for that period, what you had was … and I still don’t think it would have been such a big deal had I continued from there. But that happened to be the point when I just completely feel apart, went to rehab for the first time, just completely fell apart personally. I did just stop. But it looks like I quit. I didn’t. I just needed to deal with more important issues in my life and gain some perspective. So to a lot of people, my fan base that loved my first two albums, it sucks, and they’re pissed off that I did this big pop record that’s obviously just a trendy attempt at trying to make a record relevant to that particular era and fit into radio.

Where we struggled with Deliverance is it fell between the cracks. You didn’t have YouTube and Vevo and all these other mechanisms for reaching fans. Back then if you didn’t have radio or MTV or BET, guess what? In hip-hop, you’re not going to reach your fans. Deliverance was too urban for rock or country radio, and it was too rock and country for urban radio. It was what it was. When Virgin was like, ‘Can you make a viable record for radio?’ I did my best. But it conflicted.

Now you have these kids who look at me as this one-hit-wonder guy who did Ms. New Booty. Then you have my older sect of fans—true hip-hop heads—who know what I did earlier on. It’s just kind of … a dichotomy.

J.P.: I’ve spoken with guys from Blind Melon, and they don’t exactly love No Rain. And they have the frustration that comes with knowing you’ve done 800 better songs. Is that something you know and understand?

B.S.: Well, and really you hate being judged by that. You just hate for that to be viewed as your crowning achievement. And you know you’ve done so many more substance-filled songs. It’s a frustrating thing. It really is. But at the end of the day I’m not a sour grape guy. Because I had a career. I’m a kid who grew up on a farm, and I made a career in hip-hop music. I truly am just grateful for hip-hop, because I always say nothing more than religion has unified people and brought people from different walks of life together more than hip-hop and hip-hop culture. And I’m just a part of that. I’m tickled to death to be able to do 100 shows a year. I still go around, making a living. I just put out a new album in October. I know I’ll never have what I had … I’ll never go platinum again. Well, I’ll never say never, but I doubt very seriously that I’ll ever go platinum again, but I believe I can put out an album once a year, sell between 50,000 and 100,000 units, do 50 to 100 shows a year, sell some merch. I’m doing a different type of thing now, and it’s working. It took some time to get it going, but it’s going. And where country rap is heading—well, it’s exciting.

J.P.: Addiction is fascinating. Here you are—talented guy, rolling along. How do you explain the ability of addiction to fuck everything up?

B.S.: I honestly think the substance just brought it to a head for me. I can only speak for myself, and as it pertains to me, I just had some issues. As they say, I was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. I was batshit crazy. I had a sickness in myself where I could never be satisfied. To me, it’s much deep-rooted stuff. I think I would have just went through life had I never acquired the means to do my drug of choice every day and to allow it to take a hold of my life and nearly kill me. I think I probably just would have gone through life just being miserable and not knowing why. From a young age, I had this thing that just gnawed at me. Any time I’d walk into a room I didn’t feel like I deserved to be there. This goes back to elementary school. Walking into a classroom, and if someone’s laughing I automatically think they’re laughing at me. When I pick up the drug, that soothes it—in the beginning. It was like when I first took a drink. It alleviated that edge. This underlining gnawing feeling that wouldn’t allow me to be comfortable. When we talk about the disease of addiction, they’re talking about the dis-ease. The dis-ease. That’s what it is. That’s the best way I could put it. A lot of it, I think, is growing up. I think, a lot of people, if you give them millions of dollars in their 20s … look at NBA athletes. Especially when you’re first generation of accumulating big-time money. Nobody is there to teach you how to handle it. So I think many people who get millions in their 20s fuck it up. Not to make excuses for myself. I mean God, I wish I hadn’t. But I think a lot of it is growing up. People who have success beginning in their 30s appreciate it more, and understand the realness of it all. When you’re 23 and you have that money, it feels like a lottery ticket. Sure you worked, but if you work from 20-30, I think you have more appreciation for it. And in terms of decision making in general, obviously it improves as you gain experience in life. Not that it explains addiction in full. But it’s a component of it. Sometimes you just grow up. And you learn how to live and stay out of situations.

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J.P.: Ninety nine percent of society is not only riveted by fame but, to a certain extent, jealous of fame. It’s the reason we buy People and Star—because we think there’s something amazing about fame …

B.S.: Jay-Z said it—fame is the most dangerous drug known to man. And I’ll tell you, there is nothing … there is no aphrodisiac I’ve ever encountered … there’s nothing ever invented that makes people go more crazy than having seen somebody on the idiot box. I have no idea why that is. We can travel down this street for a minute—there’s something about television that seems larger than life to people. They don’t understand that it’s really just somebody standing in front of a person with a camera. A person just like you, standing there. But they think it’s really magic.

J.P.: Does fame live up to the hype? Would you rather have a kid and he goes on to be a doctor or lawyer—successful but not famous. Or do you want fame?

B.S.: At this point, I’m not gonna say I didn’t enjoy it. It was never something I really, really craved. I think I was scared to death of it, and then I went through a period where I was on tV all the time, and it was cool to talk in the mall. And people go crazy recognizing you. The first time I was ever on TRL, the same trip, when I was in New York, I’m walking in Times Square, and I literally get mobbed in Times Square. Me, from LaGrange, Georgia. From a farm—I get mobbed in Times Square. So it was all cool, but you just can’t turn it off. That’s the most frustrating aspect of it.

I always think about Little John. Me and my manager talk about this. Can you imagine how miserable it is for him to be at an airport at 6:30 in the morning, and some dumbass comes up to him, talking about, “Yeaaaaah, Ohhhhkkaaaaaay!!!!” Can you imagine? I can’t imagine having to be Little John all the time at 6:30 at an airport, with some dumbass running up and saying that. Whatever it takes for someone to have a good life, and that looks different for each person, I support. But my word of advice to my son will certainly be, ‘If you can find fulfillment in life and have a successful life and make a lot of money without that, you’ll probably be better off in the long run for it.’ Especially if you’re wired like me.

J.P.: Justin Bieber is fascinating. Because as much as the 13-year-old girls loved his rise, people really enjoy his fall.

B.S.: That’s America for you. America, man. People love the ascent. They love being a part of the people’s champ, the underdog. And once you get there, and they see you do something they perceive as a change. Which means you’re really just adjusting to where you’re at now … it’s like, ‘Uh-oh, we have to drag him down.’

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J.P.: It seems you have a mature approach now to your career. You don’t think you’ll have a song blow up as it once did. Can you play a room of 500 people, but it’s not sold out. The Ballroom in Brewster, N.Y. But they absolutely love the show …

B.S.: Yes! Yes, I can. One thousand percent. I appreciate it all more than ever. I literally went at one point almost two years without going to the studio one day. I had completely thrown in the white towel. I was done. This was probably 2010. I went to rehab initially in 2006, had some clean time, then had a relapse and went back in 2008. I got arrested in Tampa in 2009, and those charges ended up getting dropped. I had medication on me I was prescribed, but I didn’t have them in the container. TMZ reported all that stuff, but it wasn’t as newsworthy when the charges were dropped two weeks later. I really just had it with myself. I was still doing shows, but that’s when I started the process of surrendering in a positive way. Surrendering to the fact I really had an illness. I had tried to control it. I tried to do things on my terms. In 2009, it was the first time I said that my plan wasn’t working, and I needed someone else’s plan. So from 2009 until the beginning of 2011, I just didn’t have any use for music. I kind of had this cycle where I would get away from music and then I would have some clean time and get my act together. And then I’d go back to doing shows and recording, and I set the timer. It was just a matter of time before I started using again. I started thinking the problem was music. Or the lifestyle. And to a degree it was. But really the problem was me. A lot of people have fruitful careers in the music business and don’t use. Part of it, too, was I didn’t understand what I had to say. When music started changing, and I was in my 30s, hip-hop is becoming more of a deal—and as old as Jay-Z gets, that’s how old someone can be and stay relevant in hip-hop. If Jay-Z is 63-years old, we all can be 63 and rap.

Anyhow, around this time the guys at Average Joe Entertainment in Nashville started building this whole country-rap thing. And it was becoming a force. You have to see it. It’s the damnest thing you’ve ever seen. I’m talking about 3,000 kids, and rappers are performing … there’s black kids, white kids. This whole culture started exploding, and I was invited to be a part of it. And I realized even though I quit, and was totally removed from it, the seed I had planted had started to grow. It started to sprout. Over time it had been nurtured, and I wasn’t even aware of it. The whole thing is going crazy.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BUBBA SPARXXX:

• Five greatest rappers of your lifetime?: Andre 3000, CeeLo, Jay-Z, Eminem, Ice Cube.

• Ever thought you were gonna die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember?: Not an actual plane crash, but I used to have horrible nightmares about dying in a plane crash. The worst thing that ever happened to me was a really, really turbulent landing into Miami at one time. And I think a lot of people thought the plane was gonna crash. But I was pretty experience at that point. I didn’t think we were going to crash.

• Celine Dion calls, wants you to do a rap interlude in her new song for the Titanic II soundtrack. She’ll pay you $500 and a lifetime supply of Celine CDs. In?: No. Well, maybe if I get royalties. That could be a pretty big movie.

• Five reasons for one to make LaGrange, Georgia his/her next vacation stop?: 1. Because we play the best high school football arguably in the whole United States here; 2. We have a beautiful lake, West Point Lake; 3. We have a mall. 4. Um … let’s see. We have Charlie Joseph’s hamburgers. The best hamburgers you’ll ever eat. 5. And, I guess, it’s the birthplace of Bubba Sparxx.

• Meanest thing you’ve ever done to someone?: Hmm … meanest thing. Toughie. Oh, shit, my friend, Trey, he had a real hairy chest. I’d hold him down and put tape on his chest.

• Two memories from your senior prom?: I got very drunk and I had sex.

• Openly gay rappers—not a problem in the hip-hop world, or tough?: I think it’s just a matter of time. It’ll be smooth. Because that’s just where the world’s at. The person will probably be able to present it in such a fly world, people will be on board.

• Worst and best songs you’ve released?: The best song I ever released is Nowhere, which is off the Deliverance album with Kiley Dean. And the worst song would be a song called Regardless off my first album.

• What is Vanilla Ice’s legacy?: I think he was one of the first huge, huge pop stars who was a hip-hop artist. No one would have any problem today with any of the issues they had back then. He kind of knocked down the door for dancing entertainers, like what Puffy became. He wasn’t the greatest MC ever, but he was a helluva entertainer. He kind of gets a bum rap. And he’s an awesome guy. The dude sold 15 million albums. Everybody liked that song when it came out. Everybody.

• You’re driving in your car and Ugly comes on. What do you do?: I listen to it. Ms. New Booty—maybe not so much.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life