FAMILY VALUES


HOW THE DUNGEON FAMILY PUT ATLANTA HIP-HOP ON THE MAP

On any given day in the early 1990s, 15 to 20 people would funnel into the basement of Rico Wade’s mother’s house in Atlanta’s Lakewood Heights neighborhood to work on music. The late Wade, co-founder of the production team Organized Noize, who died suddenly on April 13, had set up a makeshift studio, better known as the Dungeon, where Outkast’s first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and Goodie Mob’s Soul Food debut were realized.

With its red-clay dirt floors, creaky stairs and barren walls, the Dungeon wasn’t a professional studio by any means. In fact, it was the polar opposite. There often wasn’t enough space for everyone, so it wouldn’t be atypical to see Dungeon Family members André 3000, Big Boi, CeeLo Green and a young Future (Wade’s cousin) lining the steps as history was being made. Of course, none of them could have predicted it at the time, but the sounds emerging from the Dungeon would forever change the hip-hop landscape, not just regionally but nationally.

“The Dungeon was what they call a crawl space,” CeeLo, one of the original members of Goodie Mob, remembers. “There was a chair on the ground that somebody had salvaged from an old Chevy Blazer. There was another busted-out seat that just had the wood framing; the center of it was missing. Those were the only two chairs down there. Everybody sat on the ground or on the stairs. It was red-clay dirt, just dirt. The only thing down there besides the few pieces of equipment was a water heater.”

Despite its lack of amenities, the Dungeon became like a sanctuary for the blossoming collective throughout the 1990s, which at this point included André 3000, Big Boi, Goodie Mob’s Big Gipp, Khujo, CeeLo and T-Mo, as well as Big Rube, Mr. DJ, Parental Advisory and, of course, Organized Noize producers Wade, Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray. Recruiting André and Big Boi had been a no-brainer for Wade, who recognized the duo’s talents when they were just teenagers.

“They were so much like my little brothers, but they could rap their little asses off,” Wade recalled. “One would rap for three minutes, then the other would rap for three minutes.”

Meanwhile, Brown—whose father, Jimmy Brown, was a member of ’70s funk band Brick (most popular for the 1976 single “Dazz”)—always knew music was his calling. A popular dancer in high school, Brown was dating a girl who was a friend of a young woman named Tionne Watkins, better known as T-Boz of the group TLC. She, in turn, introduced him to Wade, and the dream team began to form.

“Rico found out that I was into music, and we ended up being really good friends,” Brown says of meeting Wade. “I used to have a little Tascam 4-track, Casio keyboard and Alesis drum machine. I would do these beats and play it for Rico, Big Rube and everybody, and they really liked them. Rico was such a go-getter at a young age, and we thought he should be our manager. From there, we kind of teamed up and started going to my dad’s new studio.”

Murray, already a known producer and graffiti artist in the Atlanta area, would come along to impart his knowledge. “Once we all got together and saw we all had the same dream, we just went for it,” Brown says.

With the trifecta complete, Organized Noize worked tirelessly with André 3000 and Big Boi on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, but the environment in the Dungeon made it challenging.

“The basement was totally unfinished,” Brown says. “Sometimes if it rained too bad, it might get flooded. We went downstairs one time and the equipment almost got messed up, because there was just water everywhere. It was so small, and it smelled like weed and musk. It was just an all-out raw experience, almost like boot camp.”

Undeterred, they forged ahead. As Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik came to fruition, Organized Noize’s production style began to take shape as well. Combining live instrumentation with soul and funk samples led to songs such as “Player’s Ball,” “Git Up, Git Out” and the title track.

“Sleepy grew up with live music, and Ray was hip-hop driven, like where we used to go digging in the crates,” Wade explained. “Ray just didn’t have the money to buy the records, but I had a job, so I’m like, ‘Where can we buy these records?’ We bought all the breakbeats that came out in New York and it kind of helped desensitize us to how amazing New York was. It was like, ‘Oh that’s where LL COOL J got that from.’ It helped us understand that these guys wasn’t just coming up with this shit out they ass.”

By this time, Outkast had signed a deal with LaFace Records. Founded in Atlanta by Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds as a joint venture with Arista Records, LaFace was under the BMG umbrella from its 1989 inception until 2004. Reid’s younger brother, Bryant Reid, was the company’s only A&R executive and used his finely tuned ear to sniff out talent. In addition to discovering Usher at a local talent show, Bryant is credited with bringing Outkast to LaFace in 1992. After many trips to the Dungeon, Bryant invited Wade, Murray and Outkast manager Ian Burke to the LaFace offices to play Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik for the team.

“I’ll never forget that day,” Bryant says. “It was incredible. L.A. and Babyface hadn’t heard it. Ian Burke, Rico and Ray Murray, they all brought it up and played the title track. The whole staff came to my office, and I was jumping up and down. It was magical.”

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, released in 1994, helped further define what Southern hip-hop was and could be. While Arrested Development had won a Grammy for Best New Artist for 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of… a year prior—the first time a hip-hop group had won in that category—Outkast’s arrival signified the beginning of a shift in attitude toward Southern rap.

André 3000 famously summed it up at the 1995 Source Awards when he uttered the now-famous battle cry, “The South got something to say,” to an audience that had just booed them for winning Best Newcomer.

Killer Mike, who is considered a member of The Dungeon Family’s second generation, witnessed firsthand just how challenging it was to break hip-hop from his region.

“The big money marketing was out of New York and L.A., and New York and L.A. were brewing this rivalry that got stoked by media that made everybody money,” the proud Southerner says. “So the South was just an afterthought—and I’m not just talking about Atlanta, I’m talking about [the fact that] the South was an afterthought in general.

“But we grew up fans. We loved A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers. We grew up listening to this shit and trying to figure out how to do our version of it. It hurts to get people overlooking you, and that’s what Andre was saying, like, ‘We won’t be taken for granted. We got something to say.’ And look, 30 years later, we here still saying something.”

CeeLo agrees. “Atlanta may have been the last to be recognized,” he says, “but we had an ample amount of time to be influenced and siphon through what the East, West and Midwest had to say early on. Then, of course, we added our two cents.”

Goodie Mob, meanwhile, had started work on Soul Food (LaFace/Arista) in 1994, the same year Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik dropped. With all eyes on Atlanta, the pressure was ramping up to execute something equally groundbreaking. CeeLo had crushed his verse on the Outkast single “Git Up, Git Out,” and Dungeon Family fans were expecting more greatness from him. As it turned out, they all delivered. Soul Food was released in 1995, anchored by the lead single, “Cell Therapy,” and was certified gold six months later.

“The Dungeon was more like a pre-production setup,” CeeLo confirms. “We were just kind of living there. It was like a boys club or youth home—a shelter from the war outside. It wasn’t a means of recording there. We actually did the bulk of Soul Food in Curtis Mayfield’s home studio. We weren’t even aware Curtis lived in Atlanta for all those years. It stayed in our neighborhood. Nobody knew it.”

The Dungeon also served a bigger purpose for CeeLo, if not for everybody who walked through its doors: “It definitely saved our lives. No doubt about it. I was going nowhere.”

The same goes for Killer Mike, who had been struggling to find his path. Through his friendship with Big Boi’s little brother, James Patton, he was eventually welcomed into The Dungeon Family with open arms.

“Big Boi would hear the demos I was doing with James,” Mike says. “A couple years later, when I was like 21, James played my independent record, ‘Slumlord,’ that me and my crew had put together. And he was like, ‘Yo, who’s that guy? I like him.’ Big Boi heard me in CeeLo’s basement while he was getting his hair braided or something one day. He’s like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna give you a record deal,’ and he ended up making good on it a few years later.”

With that in the back of his mind, Killer Mike pressed forward and continued making songs. He didn’t meet André until 1996, when Outkast was working on its sophomore album, ATLiens. It was a pivotal moment in Mike’s life.

“I’m 22 years old,” he recalls. “They was doing a birthday dinner for Big Boi’s Aunt Rene, Big Boi’s mom’s sister. We were downstairs. I remember coming to the house and Big Boi had a Lexus GS, and this motherfucker was wearing Jordans every time I seen him. I was like, ‘This motherfucker’s rich. He’s badass.’”

Killer Mike, who described himself as a “punk-ass college dropout” back then, was still trying to figure out his purpose. But that day it became clear.

“We were in the basement in Big Boi’s little pre-production studio listening to beats, and he was playing ATLiens,” he continues. “It was incredible. My mind was blown by the sophistication of the music, and I’m sitting there like, ‘Yo, I gotta step my shit up. I can’t just be looping the sample.’

“Big Boi brought out some weed, and it was bright orange. I’ll never forget. This motherfucker smoked until the point I was brain dead. We were so fucking stoned. When his mom came down to tell us to come up there and sing happy birthday, we were too high to get up and sing. I remember leaving, like, ‘I gotta have his life. This rap shit’s for me.’ That was the day, I was like, ‘I’m gonna make it.’”

Still, Killer Mike admits he was “nervous as shit” to meet Organized Noize. The trio had long ago moved out of the Dungeon and into a professional studio, where they produced TLC’s monster hit, “Waterfalls.” The song spent seven weeks at #1 and earned Grammy nominations in 1996 for Record of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

“[Organized Noize] were mentored by Curtis Mayfield,” he says. “Who the fuck better to mentor you and teach you the way in the system and appreciate live music? I was just inspired.”

He was also fascinated by the approach Organized Noize took when it came to production. While New York and L.A. hip-hop were relying heavily on samples, Organized Noize incorporated live instruments.

“You’re searching for soul, not necessarily samples—not that you won’t sample or use samples, but what you’re looking for is to capture the soul in a song,” Mike says. “You’re looking to capture a moment. You’re not imitating other people; you’re figuring out your own thing and leaning into it. You’re embellishing live instruments. You’re using voices and vocals. It’s distinctly Southern and purposely Southern.”

In 2001, Outkast asked Killer Mike to contribute a verse to “The Whole World,” one of 16 tracks on the duo’s first (and only) compilation album, Big Boi and Dre Present… Outkast (LaFace/Arista). Produced by Earthtone III, the song took home a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 2003. After 20 years of grinding, Killer Mike found even more notoriety with his 2023 solo release, Michael, which swept the rap categories at the 66th Grammy Awards in February 2024. “Scientists & Engineers,” which won Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, featured two Dungeon Family members: André 3000 and Future, another example of the collective’s immense staying power and authenticity and something Killer Mike credits to Atlanta.

“Atlanta’s a diverse, weird, wild, successful city for Black people,” he says. “The beautiful thing about The Dungeon Family is you’re allowed to be the version of yourself that you’re most comfortable with. Outkast and The Dungeon Family gave the South permission to be more than what we were expected to be. Whether that was booty-shaking music, or whether that was simply get buff or crunk music, they gave us permission to be whatever we defined ourself as at that time. The only rule is there are no rules, except you gotta push yourself to be better than your last version of yourself.”

Even though The Dungeon Family shared a close bond, they were still forced to make difficult decisions. Following TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Organized Noize took it to another level with En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)” and Ludacris’ “Saturday (Oooh! Ooooh!),” both huge hits.

“It kind of separated us from the guys,” Wade admitted. “But it also inspired them to reach higher. We had to let them go. That’s the yin and the yang. Because we had so much success, how can we tell them not to do what we’re doing and work with other people? With Outkast, they didn’t work with nobody else—they did it themselves. But how could I tell y’all not to reach for the moon? Not to shoot for the stars? Because we’ve already kind of laid that blueprint. The rap royalties is not paying what ‘Waterfalls’ or En Vogue is paying.

“We always say we wish we would have been able to stay together and just been stuck in one house. But don’t nobody really wish that. Everybody wanted a way out. Everybody wanted cars and nice things.”

Decades into their careers, the bulk of The Dungeon Family can definitively say they “made it.”

“We’re just a blessed crew,” Brown concludes. “I’ve talked to Rico about it. I said, ‘Man, it’s been 20-some years, and Killer Mike just swept the Grammys, Big Boi is still going strong and Future too.’ It just feels like we’re blessed, because we’re still relevant. Andre has his New Blue Sun album out right now and his tour is going really great. People are very happy. I’m really proud of everybody because I never knew it would last this long… but I was hoping.”

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