In retrospect, this collective-effort posse record isn’t just the culmination of a decade’s hard work cultivating the ATL hip-hop scene according to its most creatively ambitious clique — it’s a transitional torch-passing. Goodie Mob were falling apart after the negative reception to the creatively-compromised World Party, OutKast would follow up their experimental watershed Stankonia with what was essentially a double-solo album, and albums like Cool Breeze’s East Point’s Greatest Hit and Witchdoctor’s …A S.W.A.T Healin’ Ritual wound up cult classics instead of unit-moving blockbusters. But they all sound so amped and freed and alive on Even in Darkness that cuts like “Follow the Light” and “6 Minutes (Dungeon Family It’s On)” still feel career-peak caliber. And while the future of Organized Noize in the 2000s lied more in scattered hits than the album-length session-band statements that made them feel like the Bar-Kays of the ’90s, this big last hurrah doesn’t feel like a finale. Instead, the collective does what they do best: invoke the past (the long tail of the spark that happened when Kraftwerk and P-Funk started showing up in the same crates) while perceptively anticipating the future (solo breakout Cee-Lo; a young-and-hungry Killer Mike) that would take the Dungeon Family diaspora through unexpected routes to crossover success.
Southern hip-hop had countless architects, numerous hitmakers, and more than a handful of genuinely transcendent artists to usher it from regional-scene niche into the mainstream rap conversation over the course of the ’90s. But nobody really did it quite like Organized Noize: as a production unit that centered live-band session-player tradition but still valued rap and R&B’s creative futurism, they got as far as they did because they were also a crew that operated like a tight-knit and distinctly Southern family. Where their regional and chronological cohort’s concerned, only Timbaland and the Neptunes really gave the same amount of genre-agnostic freedom to the artists they produced and wrote for. And while those Virginians were giddy experimenters with little use for a rearview mirror, Organized Noize and their Dungeon Family unit never let you forget they were rooted in a vision of the South that had to reckon with its generations-old musical heritage as much as it had to envision a way to transcend it.
That they did this while downplaying one of hip-hop’s more important young traditions is worth pointing out: while they might have integrated sampling into their sound, they made it sound like a means instead of an end, more elusively evocative than clearly referential. (Of course, they were by no means above a good clear reference every so often — for instance, the interpolation of “Strawberry Letter #23” in OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” being the best thing to happen to Shuggie Otis’s song since the Brothers Johnson.) Organized Noize made beats, sure, and they had deep crates — their work on OutKast’s first album drew from artists ranging from Isaac Hayes to Black Sabbath to Soft Machine — but they turned the forms of loops and breaks into a sort of seamless, near-invisible component, subsumed and streamlined into a style that felt completely organic compared to the lo-fi loops of, say, RZA, or the Bomb Squad’s highlight-the-edits explosiveness. Considering contemporaries The Roots and, to a lesser but still palpable extent, Dr. Dre, that approach seems inevitable; you could even slot their sound as a midpoint between the live sound-and-feel of early ’90s Chronic funk and the Soulquarian groundswell later in the decade. But in itself, that sound of theirs really sprawls: even if you pinpoint it as an updated soul tradition, their ability to evoke the plaintive ache of an Allen Toussaint ballad one moment and the galactically profound absurdity of George Clinton’s high-concept party funk the next is impressive in itself, even before you factor in their role in defining an entire swath of the ’90s.
Sleepy Brown, Rico Wade, and Ray Murray were the collective minds behind the initial emergence of Organized Noize, and despite the potential for the usual interpersonal tumult and “artistic differences” restlessness, still operated in a way that relied on mutual motivation and never intended to elevate any individual above the group. (Brown’s status as a self-taught second-gen musician is at least worth spotlighting; imagine growing up with the frontman of Atlanta’s own Brick as your dad, and then hearing that band’s big hit “Dazz” become Ice Cube’s backdrop to burn all his N.W.A bridges on “No Vaseline” as you’re trying to break into the business circa ’91.) Brown bonded with Wade at an MC Hammer concert, and by the time Murray joined the crew there was already an artistic core beginning to form — specifically the emerging rap groups OutKast and Goodie Mob — that they would eventually call Dungeon Family, after the dank, dirt-floored, crawlspace-sized Wade family basement room where Organized Noize first started making beats. Their initial route to stardom ran through TLC, whose member T-Boz had introduced Brown and Wade to each other in the first place. She put in the good word that got them on board with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid’s LaFace Records, and after Reid donated ten grand worth of equipment for the Dungeon, Organized Noize notched an early but crucial gig remixing TLC’s 1992 hit “What About Your Friends” (and introducing OutKast to the world in the process). Working with Reid allowed them a certain creative freedom, but his budgetary limitations meant their sample-clearance budget was next to nothing — and so he demanded that this young production unit rely on their own chops as much as possible. And despite their hip-hop-scholar reverence for what was going down in Los Angeles and New York at the time, Organized Noize set about building their own vision of an Atlanta sound as though they had chips on their shoulders and a relentless need to show everyone else just what their city was capable of. So they’d start with the party-music basis of their city’s musical heart — where Freaknik was Mecca and hits were broken in strip clubs — and build a secular church for introspective sinners on top of that foundation.
If that meant using the R&B-steeped Reid’s comparative lack of savvy over street-status hip-hop to win him over with an OutKast Christmas song, no worries: that song turned out to be “Player’s Ball,” which skyrocketed from a novelty holiday compilation track to a highlight on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik that made #1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Tracks. It didn’t need a Diddy-directed video or an R&B mogul co-sign to become a hit, but every musician involved did their damnedest to justify earning those benefits, and its note-perfect fusion of updated classic funk and lyrically-focused, almost idiosyncratically regional rap would be Organized Noize’s strongest calling card for the rest of the ’90s. One way to get where they were coming from is to realize that Brown has expressed surprise at being left out of the conversation around “neo-soul,” and that makes a lot of sense; as one of several parties involved in blurring the lines between hip-hop and R&B production back then, you could easily imagine D’Angelo or Maxwell or Erykah Badu inhabiting the same beats that OutKast and Goodie Mob did. Then again, with their biggest crossover with the R&B world turning out to be the rep-making ’95 TLC smash “Waterfalls,” the doors that opened for them could lead damn near anywhere.
The catch was that eventually they’d wind up trading their financially-skinflint yet creatively autonomous tenure at LaFace for a big-dollar 1996 deal with Interscope that put corporate stress on their ambitions (and their psyches). They wanted more “Waterfalls,” and what they got instead were albums by unproven Dungeon Family artists like Witchdoctor and Cool Breeze and their own Brown-fronted neo-funk project Sleepy’s Theme — artists with more deep-scene cred than mainstream crossover appeal, who worked better as ambassadors for the Atlanta rap scene’s less compromising side and got some of Organized Noize’s strangest stretched-to-the-brink creative experimentations. After a mid-decade post-"Waterfalls” peak that went from one album-length show of strength (Goodie Mob’s Soul Food) to the next (OutKast’s ATLiens), and with a handful of choice R&B singles and deep cuts to go with it (En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)”; Andrea Martin & Queen Latifah’s “Set It Off”; Xscape’s “Keep It On the Real”), the Interscope fiasco led to another case of money and expectations leading to drugs and discord — one that a return to LaFace couldn’t entirely repair. But for every subsequent disappointments like Goodie Mob’s commercial-compromise World Party, Organized Noize still had enough juice at the cusp of the new millennium to give OutKast some of their last great collabs for Stankonia (“So Fresh, So Clean”; “Spaghetti Junction”), even as they recognized that the sound they’d given to OutKast was now being outdone by OutKast themselves. (That said, the fact that they were left out of the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below entirely still remains a bit of a sore spot.)
It seems a bit like Organized Noize’s prominence has faded — not fully, but enough that they’re more likely to appear as occasional welcome-presence credits on production-by-committee affairs for Atlanta’s finest (an "I Like That" here, a "Kill Jill" there) than the album-length partnerships which showed them at their brightest-burning best. And even now, their greatness still seems like an open secret — enough to earn a career-spanning Netflix documentary, say (The Art of Organized Noize, 2016), but not enough to keep that documentary from vanishing off the streaming site entirely. Still, being a legacy artist is nothing to scoff at — especially when your legacy includes not only some of the greatest hip-hop to ever emerge from a tight-knit artistic family, but the ripple effects it caused throughout the next generation or two of hip-hop. (Turns out the future of the sound Organized Noize pioneered was, well, Future.) These albums aren’t the entirety of their greatness, but greatness isn’t hard to find here.
A decade before Williams Street made him labelmates with Dethklok (and an antecedent of future Dungeon Fam [adult swim]mer Killer Mike), Witchdoctor’s connections notched him an Interscope debut too uncanny for the majors. As a rapper, his whole style is an enigma: a lyrical simplicity that scans like a lesson plan, a perspective that uses the supernaturally unreal to make reality clear, and a voice that seems almost uneasily measured no matter what abyss he’s staring into. It helps that he makes the rules of surviving that abyss feel like koans, run through with spiritual-minded meditations on what happens after the triggers get pulled and the product hits the streets: a potential killer who strives to be a mental healer, made a collective effort with high-grade guest verses from his DF cohort (Goodie Mob and OutKast alike, along with an on-the-brink Cool Breeze). And Organized Noize give him one of their most intensely somber blocks of beats, the kind of sweaty-palmed, stuck-inside-your-own-head minor key funk that skulks like gospel for goths.
Taken on its own, the first album by College Park, Georgia’s MCA debut is a solid-if-unspectacular debut. For a Southern rap record, it feels like it’s still searching for a unique sonic identity, looking out one eye towards Quik-conversant West Coast g-funk (“Manifest”; “Milk”) and out the other up north to the murky jazz-gone-raw sounds of boom-bap practitioners like DITC (“Da Boom”; “Maniac”). And its lyrical core — Mello, KP, and Big Reese — rap like Atlanta’s geographical position on the East Coast necessitates toning down the drawl and spitting like Das EFX. But listen with the future in mind, and it suddenly clicks: this is Dungeon Family in prototype, the first glimmers of a sound that Organized Noize would nurture to fruition on OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik the following year. If that makes Ghetto Street Funk feel a bit lacking in comparison to the decade’s worth of ATL-sound revolution it kicked off, its status as a fascinating progenitor makes up for it — and at 45 minutes, with only a couple unintrusive skits, it’s too efficient for bullshit. Subsequent P.A. albums Straight No Chase and My Life, Your Entertainment are more characteristically Dirty South, but it’s still worth hearing the genesis that led to so many revelations.
Goodie Mob’s sophomore album — and last truly great one — starts with Cee-Lo laughing bitterly over the effects of white supremacy on the Black psyche and ends with him mulling over how to maintain a legacy through music. Every voice you hear in between is seething with pain and frustration and doubt: Khujo dekeing his own flow to hemmorhage resentment, T-Mo dissecting the mechanisms of oppression with unflinching clarity, and Big Gipp murmuring with impressionistic anxiety (and given his own showcase as a counterpart to OutKast’s self-assured dichotomy on “Black Ice”). Still Standing is lyrically blunt and uncompromising but not defeatist, and even when the bleakness of fight-or-flight desperation (“I Refuse Limitations”) and the corpse-scattering consequences of hustler life (“Gutta Butta”) seems to seep in from all corners, there’s respite in spiritual reflection (“Inshallah”) and comfort in inspirational women (“Beautiful Skin”). Organized Noize’s Southern gothic soul provides another source of strength, too — eclectic when necessary (you want rap-rock, “Just About Over” will knock you out of your A.D.I.D.A.S.), but at heart a long simmer in their moodier, marrow-deep side of funk that aches every bit as deep as the blues that preceded it.
The category “Southern rap” has its allusive properties — a regional aesthetic that spans from Gulf Coast Texas to Miami Beach, from sinuous live-band funk to 808-driven macro-bass, from battle-flow intricacy to hooks-first shout-alongs. But few entries in this regional pantheon feel like the South South of a cross-Mason-Dixon imagination, the one torn between deep old times and an ongoing re-Reconstruction era drive towards a liberatory future, than the debut from Atlanta’s Goodie Mob. It’s not just in the examinations of Black disenfranchisement and the coping mechanisms that come with it, individually and collectively (“Thought Process”), or the immersion in the region’s particular history with the drug trade and its tolls (phrase-coiner “Dirty South”), or the title cut’s comfort and sense of home and belonging evoked through family meals. It’s in the voices — Cee-Lo’s humming warmth, T-Mo wavering between tension and catharsis, Big Gipp’s measured yet emotional precision, Khujo growling unpredictable emphases — that build a powerful ensemble depiction of being young Black Southern men. Early-phase Organized Noize provide a deep landscape to settle yourself into, too — nuanced when it needs to be in its efforts to retool ’70s-rooted funk and R&B into headnod hip-hop, but also right-to-the-gut when they need to instill a sense of stoned yet deep-focus defiance (thrumming with guitar doodles and submersed keyboards on “Goodie Bag”) or embattled, justified anxiety (has a simple piano hook ever riffed off stress quite like “Cell Therapy” did?). At its heart, Soul Food is built around a more profane and frustrated collection of lyrical insights than your typical gospel album, but concerned enough with the prospects of what salvation means to keep company with one.
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is remembered as the South-got-something-to-say mission statement, Aquemini as their godhead, but between those two is one of Southern rap’s true stunners. Andre 3000 and Big Boi were already comfortable in their contrasting power/spiritualism dichotomy, so they slip into Organized Noize’s noir-soul bass-rattlers like the velvet bench seat of a classic land yacht and glide into an Afrofuture as anxious as it is uplifting. You may die, but if the afterlife sounds like this, heaven is real.
With OutKast’s Aquemini, Goodie Mob’s Still Standing, and Witchdoctor’s …A S.W.A.T Healin’ Ritual under their belts, you could safely say that Organized Noize had a strong ’98 without even needing to factor in this largely-overlooked showcase for producer-singer Sleepy Brown and his production unit. But The Vinyl Room is fascinating in itself: if one of Organized Noize’s biggest strengths lie in their ability to reconcile ’70s soul-auteur classicism with ’90s Southern hip-hop gloss, this is where they get to indulge that impulse to the fullest. The tempo of this jam-sesh-vibe set of laidwayback funk never even flirts with triple-digit BPMs, and the atmosphere is comfortably stoned with a side of vague ambient horniness, but it’s all played and arranged and produced so meticulously that you can also geek out from pure audiophilia. Sure, the peak-funk ’70s signifiers are slathered on as broad as a leisure suit’s lapels — brace yourself for an undiluted dose of headswimming wah-wah guitars, Mayfield falsettos that expand on the universe glimpsed in Sleepy’s “Player’s Ball” hook, glimmering laconic Fender Rhodes chords, and rumbly warm-bath basslines that occasionally congeal into burbling Bootsy-oid space-goop. But The Vinyl Room doesn’t come across as either a snickering Afro-wig irony cosplay or a meticulously over-reverent replica of an idealized past. For a group that’s never relied prominently on straight-up sampling, they still personify hip-hop’s strengths in giving formative sounds of a previous era a context less dependent on (or trapped in) a time-limited lifespan.
Every hip-hop collective eventually releases a solo album by someone who seems like they’re mostly along for the ride, and the debut of Cool Breeze — who first made his name on guest spots for tracks like Goodie Mob’s “Dirty South” and OutKast’s “Decatur Psalm” — looks, at first glance, to be that kind of record. Even the big single, “Watch for the Hook (Dungeon Family Mix),” hinged on the presence of those two crews going steel-sharpens-steel posse-cut berserk over an Organized Noize beat, which is one of the most circa-’99 sure things you could ask for. But Freddie Calhoun refuses to be an afterthought on that track, much less the whole album, so his hunger carries the momentum of an album that might otherwise be best-loved for its production. Organized Noize were on the cusp of burning out at this point, but they went out of their minds providing the lion’s share for this one: “We Get It Crunk” and its gelatinously twangy bass-loop monomania is rawer than any big successive hit’s 2000s attempts to claim that term’s status, the smooth-spreading “Butta” is like the apotheosis of their church-organ sacred profanity, and the exclamation-point percussiveness of closer “The Calhouns” demands headnods that require Brock Lesnar-caliber neck muscles. As for the headliner, he’s only ordinary in the company of his peers, and still shines as a lyrically zero-bullshit storyteller: whether he’s spinning a narrative (pulpy and lurid on “Black Gangster”; self-reckoning and enlightening on “The Field”) or just providing a you-are-there documentarian vibe check, Cool Breeze knows he needs your attention and gets it the most straightforward way he can.
For an all-too-brief moment in the mid-’90s, Mista seemed like a potential big-deal R&B group. Bobby Valentino, Darryl Allen, Brandon Brown, and Byron Reeder were four young men whose teenaged ’80s-baby birthdates technically qualified them for boy-band status, but broke through with a minor hit in “Blackberry Molasses” that positioned them as introspective beyond their years. That song’s themes of resilient just keep holding on secular-gospel soul-searching and its stunning ability to build widescreen vistas off a Shuggie Otis-esque rhythm-box minimalism made it a gem in the Organized Noize discography, but an outlier in Mista’s — a hard first-single/album-opener act to follow, one that wasn’t matched by the rest of the album’s less-ambitious “hey, you like Jodeci?” agreeability. But if you absolutely need to hear peak mid-decade Organized Noize ATL soul put to the service of a teenaged close-harmony R&B group, Mista makes up for its relatively ordinary songwriting through the album’s wholehearted commitment to wringing every last bit of melismatic vocal prodigiousness from its singers and enveloping them in some of the most intensely luxurious neo-soul flourishes the production unit was capable of. And in the 1996 of ATLiens and “Don’t Let Go (Love),” they were capable of anything, including making four out-of-nowhere teens sound like they’d be ruling the charts a lot longer than they got to.
This might not have been the first hip-hop full-length to prove, per André 3000’s defiant ’95 Source Awards declaration, that “the South got something to say” — it was more of a reminder, really, whether you preferred Geto Boys or Arrested Development. But how it was said? That’s where OutKast’s debut cranked the bass up (and the tempo down). Organized Noize’s production can be absolutely languid in its funk in ways the West Coast hardly dared, but staked a powerful claim off that negative-space/bass-canyon glide; the 6 ½-minute swing-down-sweet-chariot Society of Soul showcase slow jam “Funky Ride” isn’t even rap, but after decades of ATL’s legacy it sure as hell sounds hip-hop. And if you were an East Coast head fixated on lyrical proficiency and intricacy, you had to recognize the still-teenaged Dre and Big Boi were absolutely going out of their minds on cuts like “Hootie Hoo” or “Call of da Wild” — not to mention second-half centerpiece “Git Up, Git Out,” featuring the soon-to-amaze Goodie Mob, which still stands as an all-timer statement of disenfranchised frustration yearning for something greater. OutKast’s outsider-status Afrofuturism would get more elaborate and experimental with successive albums, but their rocketship spit flames on takeoff.
The lineage of Southern hip-hop ran through some locales that either get taken for granted or outright forgotten nowadays. For instance: hot on the heels of OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and practically concurrent with the recording of Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Organized Noize backed poet/Dungeon Fam voice-of-god Big Rube and soul singer Espraronza “Roni” Griffin on a blissfully mellow yet unapologetically funky and philosophically reflective neo-soul album that’s steeped in the same contemplative-player mode as those two Southern rap classics. It’s just viewed at a different angle: think their euphoric “Funky Ride” showcase on OutKast’s debut, but stretched out into a series of poetry-jam sermons and half-throwback/half-eternal soul vamps that touch on everything from relationship drama (“Changes”) to underground-economy work ethic (“Pushin’”) to the contradictions and conflicts of organized religion (“Migratenation”). If the message occasionally skirts preachiness, it’s in the necessary service of figuring out all the entanglements and contradictions that come with Black existentialism, and Organized Noize’s other sonic priorities — building off their Mayfield-ian sense of funk as a music of deep emotional uplift, whether it’s aquaboogie psychedelia (“Blac Mermaid”), classic Eldorado opulence (“Ghetto Fuh Life”), or dubby, trip-hop-simpatico futurism (“Peaches N ‘Erb”).
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was here’s who we are; ATLiens was here’s our revolution — and then, for album #3, came here’s what the revolution can get us. Like a camera on a satellite, Aquemini flies in the rarefied outer orbit of Southern hip-hop’s future-funk ambition but zooms in with pinpoint detail to prosaic real-world POVs. If the first singles promised victory laps — the stylin’-on-you mastery of “Skew It on the Bar-B”; the anti-stagnant resilience of “Rosa Parks” — it’s the deeper cuts that build out and cultivate Big Boi and Andre 3000’s tendencies to explore their own empathy and perspective around their peers and community. The two-part “Da Art of Storytellin’” alone feels like a stunning culmination — a reckoning with casual rap-star sex and their relations to the women involved in it, followed by a direct stare into the eyes of the apocalypse’s ultimate Fucked Vibe. But their perception stays roving, whether it’s the scenes-from-a-nightclub character study multi-perspective monologue “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” ("Now who else wanna fuck with Hollywood Court?!") or their almost prayerful meditation on spiritual autonomy “Liberation.” While Organized Noize take a reduced role in OutKast’s increasingly in-house beats, the organic-yet-futurist sound they’ve cultivated shines through their own work (orchestral-Moroder epic on “Return of the ‘G’”; refined-traditional with deep diamondinthebacksunrooftop soul on “West Savannah”), and that inspiration’s powerfully reflected in production unit Earthtone III’s free-flowing omnifunk. When the only argument against an album’s immaculate greatness is “eh, the hook to ‘Mamacita’ is kind of repetitive,” it’s easy to see why conventional wisdom places Aquemini as the greatest OutKast album — this, in a discography where even the ones that miss the podium are worldbeaters.