Before there was a family, there was the Dungeon — otherwise known as Rico Wade’s mom’s basement. It was in the magically stank Dungeon — described by Cee-Lo as “a crawl space with a bench that held a stack of blankets” — that Wade and a crew of friends smoked, slept, passed days without showering, traded rhymes and perfected an alien funk aesthetic that revolutionized what one could/should aspire to express within a single bar. This was music full of pride, personality, desire and a casual, hospitable wisdom, anchored by the earthy production work of Organized Noize (Wade, Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown). That was back in the early ’90s, and the out-of-nowhere emergence of first-wave Dungeon representatives like Outkast and Goodie Mob helped vanquish hip-hop’s coastal chauvinisms.
Those early years set a high bar, yet there was something original and exciting about every new, battle-tested rapper or singer who went from a cameo verse to their own record. Those collective dreams eventually outgrew the basement; they had to. The dozens of directions the Dungeon Family took — and, notably, still take — were part of their shared, hypercreative DNA. “Rhyme got strong/ Mind got blown,” and it’s hard to stay family when you’re no longer sleeping head-to-toe next to some keyboards and a mic stand. From Outkast, Goodie Mob and Joi to Killer Mike, Janelle Monae and Future, the family tree is a sprawling and complicated one. Started from a basement; now they’re everywhere.
Andre and Big Boi met, as many teenagers do, at the mall. They were 16, aspiring rappers in a city brimming with talent but few opportunities to be heard beyond it. The Dungeon became their after-school hangout and practice space and, in 1992, they signed a deal with LaFace to become the label's first rappers. Following a well-received anti-Christmas single ("Player's Ball") and a guest verse on a TLC remix, they released their daring debut album in 1994. The tongue-twisting title foretold its fiercely leftfield thrills: It was proudly Southern; it was filled with colorful new tropes and characters; and, at a time when samples and penitent sneers ruled rap, it was built on patient, live grooves and Dre and Big Boi's amiable charisma. Suddenly, New York and the West Coast sounded a bit provincial, as Dre and Big leaned into their country drawls one moment and then broke land-speed records the next. "Git Up, Git Out" (featuring Cee-Lo and Big Gipp) was the emotional center, a seven-minute all-in-the-Family statement of class and purpose.
According to Cee-Lo, the first record from Goodie Mob ("the Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit") was originally conceived as a compilation. At the time, Cee-Lo and Big Gipp were solo artists and T-Mo and Khujo called themselves the Lumberjacks. The four of them formed a bond in the Dungeon, however, and they decided to become a group. Their 1995 debut showcased their diversity of voices, something you realize within minutes of "Thought Process." These aren't boys passing around a crown, trying it on for kicks. "Frustrated, irritated, sometimes I don't/ Know myself, I be too numb" Khujo grunts, finding solace in his brothers, a blunt and the Dungeon. Meanwhile, the cherubic Cee-Lo pokes his head up from the grind and realizes, "I kinda like bein' poor/ At least I know what my friends here for." These aren't just great songs, they were the building blocks for movements to come: the local pride of "Dirty South" and "Soul Food," the paranoia and spiritualism of "Cell Therapy" or "Live at the O.M.N.I." If Outkast's stories promised fantasy and escape, Goodie Mob was trying to describe the feeling of visiting someone at the county jail, the micro-triumphs and aches of everyday life, the sound of a swinging screen door.
Emboldened by the success of (and perceived slights toward) Southernplayalistic, Dre and Big Boi put a great deal of thought into their follow-up. It had only been a couple years since their debut but they were no longer kids, and they tweaked their personas accordingly, as "Two Dope Boyz (in a Cadillac)" — with its "Welcome, earthlings" robot intro — showed. If Atlanta was too exotic and strange for the hip-hop establishment, then why not embrace your alien status? ATLiens was a far more confident and ambitious record than their debut, full of the unafraid, almost absurdist swagger ("I'm cooler than a polar bear's toenails," Big Boi famously bragged on the title cut) and quiet pensiveness that would power their next few albums. No longer recording exclusively in the Dungeon, Dre and Big began making their own beats, including the singles "Jazzy Belle" and "Elevators." Despite its futuristic imagery and feel, there was already a sense of nostalgia and appreciation for where they'd come from. "Every day I sit while my ni — a be in school/ Thinkin' bout the second album at the Dungeon shootin' pool," Big raps, describing just a couple years before.
Soundtracks have always provided opportunities for labels and crews to test new artists or play with unorthodox styles between projects. For example, it's where you'll find some of Outkast's strongest ("Benz or a Beamer" for the New Jersey Drive soundtrack) and most experimental stuff ("Speedballin'" for Tomb Raider and "Land of a Million Drums" for Scooby Doo). The soundtrack for the 1996 heist flick Set it Off featured a few classic Organized Noize moments. They collaborated with Queen Latifah on a really imaginative cover of Strafe's "Set it Off" and Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze and Backbone contribute the haunting, graveyard banger "Angelic Wars." But the biggest moment here — the one that helped the Set it Off soundtrack go platinum — was undoubtedly En Vogue's world-conquering "Don't Let Go (Love)," the Oakland quartet resplendent over Organized Noize's tamed swamp funk. (Random trivia: the song was originally written for Mick Jagger.)
While it remains an overlooked moment of the Dungeon oeuvre, Society of Soul's sole release captures much of what made it such an exciting movement. Released a few months after writing and producing TLC's hit "Waterfalls," Organized Noize collaborated with Dungeon guru Big Rube and singer Espraronza "Roni" Griffin" to make Brainchild. From the opening drag of "E.M.B.R.A.C.E." and the "Waterfalls"-isms of "Changes" (featuring T-Boz) to the psychedelic soul of "Peaches n' Erb" and dubby funk of Cee-Lo and George Clinton's "Blac Mermaid," it's an album that captures the Dungeon Family at their diverse best: tight, thoughtful songwriting; moments of adventure and play; a sense of collective struggle. Perhaps that lack of a single, distinct personality is why Brainchild — driven by Sleepy Brown's charming falsetto, but far from an autobiographical record — is rarely recognized as one of the best R&B (or, if you prefer, "neosoul") records of the '90s — because it certainly deserves to be.
Cee-Lo, T-Mo, Khujo and Gipp followed up their 1995 debut Soul Food with the looser, wider-ranging yet no less absorbing Still Standing in 1998. Success hadn't changed Goodie Mob much — "What they know about the banana and mayonnaise?/ Slices of toasted bread on the nap-kin" Gipp goads on the slinking "Fly Away"; later, Cee-Lo reminds doubters they're still proudly from the "dirty, filthy, nasty dirty south," land of "silky drawls" and gold fronts. They tinkered with some different sounds here — the rock snarl of "Just About Over," the minimalist, crystalline crunk of "Beautiful Skin" — but the highs were familiar ones. "Black Ice (Sky High)" was one of the Family's finest moments together, a Goodie Mob-Outkast relay run over a broken-down organ wheeze. A sense of desperation resounds through the chain-gang march of "Distant Wilderness," the "chill cold south" of "See You When I See You." The album closed with "Still Standing," a stirring, piano-backed reminder of why they've chosen to walk the righteous path, even as everyone else is "running out of things to say." "Unscathed, cause this is pain," they rap together on the chorus, "This is for soldiers to feel."
Released a few months after Still Standing, Outkast's third album marked a turning point for the duo. They produced most of the album themselves and it feels intimately "theirs." This was an album obsessed with balance, equilibrium, how righteousness and evil complemented one another — even the title was a play on their increasingly unlikely partnership (Big was an Aquarius, Andre a Gemini). This embracing of difference resulted in a record that was both celebratory ("Rosa Parks," which sounded like nothing ever before) and paranoid (the George Clinton-assisted "Synthesizer"), futuristic yet rustically local, hungry for love yet still untrusting. You could get lost in Aquemini's worlds — the intersecting lives of "SpottieOttieDopaliscious," the back-in-the-day folks Dre and Big left behind on "Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 1)." In retrospect, perhaps this was the beginning of the end, this intense exploration of the-playa-and-the-poet chasm. At the time, though, that space-between represented — and sounded like — vast, open possibility.
The approach toward the year 2000 was an ominous one: the techno-paranoia and doomsday millenarianism of Y2K, that mythic string of zeroes finally upon us. Whether it was this forward-looking urgency or not, it was a truly profound moment for pop music. In early October 2000, Radiohead released Kid A, a paradigm-shifting reset of arena rock. And on Halloween, Atlanta's Outkast released Stankonia, still one of the strangest and most ambitious hip-hop albums ever made. The Outkast duo of Big Boi and Andre had already prepared us for artful contradictions, most notably on their masterpiece Aquemini. But the Stankonia moment was announced by "Bombs Over Baghdad," a triumphant, jungle-influenced oddball of a single that was nearly twice as fast as anything else on the radio. By the time Stankonia arrived, it was clear that the always-improving duo had crafted a true masterpiece. The album was like a history of the future in about an hour, and with all due respect to Aquemini it is probably the greatest distillation of the Outkast vision. There were hits that sounded instantly familiar, like the ice-water swagger of "So Fresh, So Clean" and the complex, grown folks earnestness of "Ms. Jackson." There were moments of nasty, reckless abandon, like "Gangsta Shit" or the coquettish "I'll Call Before I Come." And there were songs that yearned for or described a better world, like the post-Hendrix wail of "Gasoline Dreams" or the skyward, Erykah Badu-assisted "Humble Mumble." That Stankonia could accommodate such a range of images attests to its power. It is swampy and thick and earthy and funky; it is sleek and cold and futuristic. It is as complicated as everyday life.
The Dungeon Diaspora
Witchdoctor's 1997 debut remains one of the strongest examples of how far one could take that early Dungeon aesthetic. Judging by his guest spots on Aquemini and Soul Food, it was hard to discern whether he was a fierce, eyes-agog rapper or a blissed-out gospel crooner. When it came time to compose his brilliant head-trip of a debut, he split the difference. He's an absorbing host, lazily stuttering through his verses and then singing the cloud-high hook on "Island Koneelalee." "Lil' Mama's Gone" is stunning, Witchdoctor strumming an acoustic guitar and singing sweetly about love lost. S.W.A.T. clearly descends from the lineage of Outkast and Goodie Mob, but it takes that world-weary outlook in a different, distinctly God-fearing direction on tracks like "Heaven Comin'" and "Dez Only 1." "Atlanta got a bullet with yo name on it," he warns on "A.T.L. the Great Big Lick." For Witchdoctor, though, redemption won't come from fighting back.
When Outkast and the Dungeon Family first broke in the early 1990s, Bubba Sparxxx was just a country kid scheming for a way out of remote LaGrange, Georgia. Timbaland handled the bulk of his successful 2001 debut Dark Days, Bright Nights but Bubba brought Organized Konfusion in for a few tracks on his acclaimed and more introspective 2003 follow-up, Deliverance. Bubba tried to rebrand the region over a din of electric guitar on "New South" — "Inspired by the efforts y'all made to pigeonhole me/ I rose from the pig shit without a smidgen on me," he scoffs, laughing off all the Yank haters. The swinging horns, jittering drums and Sleepy Brown falsetto of "Like it Or Not" captured the poppier side of the early-2000s Dungeon sound, while the speed-rush pogo of "Back in the Mud" showed their more adventurous side. Bubba ended up making his allegiance to the Dungeon Family official by signing with Outkast's Purple Ribbon imprint for his third album, The Charm.
There have been a lot of great solo rappers — or rappers with great singles — who have been part of the Dungeon Family: Witchdoctor, Cool Breeze, Slimm Calhoun, Backbone. Killer Mike is the one who has emerged as the most successful. Groomed to be "next" just as Outkast was dissolving, Mike was the gruff foil to the dexterous duo on late-career tracks like "Snappin' and Trappin'," "The Whole World" and "Flip Flop Rock." Mike's best solo moments capture a young rapper slowly mastering his mentor's playbook and paying homage at every turn. He was poised to follow his 2003 debut Monster with the forceful and politically charged Ghetto Extraordinary. It was shelved indefinitely, but some of its better moments surfaced on his 2006 mixtape, The Killer. On "Bad Day Worst Day" he talks trash about Creflo Dollar, Adolph Hitler and everyone in-between over some flickering organ, while "Ni---as Down South" is a majestic, sweltering planting-of-the-flag classic. Always the dutiful disciple, "Dungeon Family Dedication" pays tribute to the ones who made it all possible, the rise and the fall.
Divisions and Diversions
It was a break-up record without any real allusions to the break-up. Instead, they holed up in their separate corners and emerged with radically distinct versions of the Outkast legacy. Andre's half tried to establish him as some kind of twisted pop auteur, and the massive success of "Hey Ya!" brought the "group" an unprecedented kind of popularity. Despite its occasionally heavy-handed conceptualism, there were some truly gorgeous tunes here — the melted thump of "Prototype," the showtunes-soul of "Roses," the IV-drip desperation of "Pink and Blue." Weirdly, Speakerboxxx is probably a better indicator of how extreme Outkast could have gotten had they stayed a mere rap duo. Dre deserved praise for his bewitchingly strange pop but Big's side was just as adventurous: the electro-onslaught of "Ghettomusick," the barnyard funk of "Bowtie," the brutally sweet melancholy of "Unhappy." The strange thing about the final "proper" Outkast album was that it yielded so few clues about Dre and Big's deteriorating relationship over the course of its two hours. They had already moved on, past where anyone could catch them.
Goodie Mob wasn't in great shape circa 2003. Cee-Lo had left a few years earlier and found success as a kind of hippie-funk charismatic. There'd always been surplus energy spilling from the goofy hard rock Gipp and that year he took a sabbatical from the group to release Mutant Mindframe, a collection of the trippier moments that outstretched the Goodie aesthetic. The daredevil flow of "Make the People Say," the bottom-heavy crawl of "Make it Happen" and the Neptunes-tinged "Wildout" (featuring the underrated Slimm Calhoun) were all solid slabs that drew from Gipp's past. But it was the spaced-out moments that brought out the best in him. He and Andre 3000 try to out-style each other on "Boogie Man" while "Creeks" (featuring Witchdoctor) sounds like an inside-out P-Funk tune. The Sleepy Brown-powered "Steppin Out" is pure ecstasy, an irresistible steppers' classic.
With his bugged-out shades, Bic-clean dome and flashy threads, Sleepy Brown was always the most visible member of Organized Noize. Released in 2006, Mr. Brown was his third attempt at developing a solo profile, after neither the Society of Soul nor Sleepy's Room projects found the audiences they deserved. By now Sleepy was well known for his appearances on hits like Ludacris's "Saturday" and Outkast's "The Way You Move," and the festive, romance/freak-centric Mr. Brown takes a more direct route to stardom. Big Boi and Pharrell — honors student at the Sleepy Brown School of Falsetto — show up for the joyous, buoyant "Margarita." Sleepy nicks a Jackson 5 tune for the majestic, carefree "Me, My Baby and My Cadillac." While they were no longer the go-to producers for their former disciples, Organized Noize showed that they were still full of ideas on the slow-motion writhe of "Oh Ho Hum."
Strength in Numbers
Expectations were unreasonably high for the Dungeon Family album, and it's a compliment to the crew's high quality of output that 2001's Even in Darkness left most fans unsatisfied. There were some great songs — Cee-Lo's spine-tingling lead-in to the anthemic "Crooked Booty," Andre 3000's cavalier stroll through the Kraftwerk-tweaking "Trans DF Express," the celebratory reunion vibes of "6 Minutes," the punch-drunk funk of "Rollin'." Maybe too much of a good thing was the problem. Organized Noize and Earthtone III (Outkast and Mr. DJ's production moniker) were in top form — Even in Darkness features some of the strongest crew productions of the era. But there was a sense of collaborative play lacking in some of the posse cuts, all these moments of individual brilliance at the cost of a larger struggle.
After the dissolution of Outkast, Big Boi attempted to recreate the Dungeon Family with Purple Ribbon, a loose collective of local survivors and Family stalwarts. The only prerequisite was style and Big's approval, which helps explain why Got Purp? Vol. II can be so simultaneously absorbing and exhausting. There's a lot going on here — limber, pristine-sounding singers (Scar, Janelle Monae), old friends (Sleepy Brown, Cool Breeze) and new allies (Bubba Sparxxx, who contributes the excellent "Claremont Lounge"). Still, the highs are a reminder of Big's adventurous spirit, especially the funhouse thrills of the posse cut "Kryptonite" to the deconstructed old-school of Big, Bun B, Big Gee and G-Rock's fantastic "808."
Slowly, the circle widened. In 2007, with Goodie Mob broken up, Gipp collaborated on an album with Ali of the St. Lunatics, who had helped do for the Midwest what Gipp and the Dungeon Family had done for Atlanta. It was a surprisingly good pairing; then again, Gipp's lumbering drawl sounds good alongside anyone. There was nothing conceptual about Kinfolk. It was heavy on features and a kind of newfound, multi-region solidarity: Nelly and the irrepressible Pimp C show up for "Hood" while Cee-Lo and Bun B bring some menace to "I Told Ya." They were all drawn by the lowest common denominator, so to speak. "Work Dat, Twerk Dat" comes across as some stripped-down, country-fied Miami Bass, a spiritual companion to the minimalist thump of the rump-toasting "Go 'Head."
The Legacy: Leftfield Pop (version 1)
Cee-Lo always had star power: his pesky scampering rapping anchoring Goodie Mob's songs, the bright, inspired moments on his 2002 and 2004 solo albums. He finally broke through in 2006 with St. Elsewhere, the first of two collaborative albums he recorded with DJ and producer Danger Mouse. Here, Cee-Lo showed off his versatility as a singer rather than a rapper, commanding his partner's quirky pop arrangements with class, wit and just a bit of grit. "Crazy" conquered the world and inaugurated the third act of Cee-Lo's astonishing career. Fitting that their first encounter was in the late 1990s after a Goodie Mob concert, Danger Mouse still and up-and-comer, pressing a demo tape into the hands of his heroes.
The Legacy: Leftfield Pop (take 2)
"I grew up on Outkast," the visionary singer Janelle Monae recently explained. "I grew up on Goodie Mob, I grew up on Dungeon Family." When Monae moved to Atlanta as an aspiring singer, she was drawn to the lineage of chart-topping iconoclasts the city had produced. She became part of Big Boi's Purple Ribbon collective and she featured on a couple Outkast songs for the Idlewild soundtrack. It was Big who recommended her to Diddy, who signed her to Bad Boy and — somewhat shockingly — afforded her the space to make The ArchAndroid, a dizzying and meticulous hour of post-everything, hooks-and-provocation soul that was clearly indebted to the Dungeon Family. Maybe it's a sign of how successful and mainstream Outkast et al became that Monae was afforded the freedom to create her galaxies in peace. She hasn't forgotten where she came from — Big Boi guests on one of the album's brightest cuts, "Tightrope," and she recently guested on the Goodie Mob reunion single, "Special Education."
The Legacy: Still Grinding
The family business is in good hands: Janelle Monae's freak flag flies on behalf of the Dungeon, while Killer Mike continues to put out fantastic, bracing records. And then there's Future, whose 2012 debut Pluto was one of the year's best albums, a captivating mix of psychedelic highs and strange, bluesy wails. It opened with a voice familiar to anyone who had grown up on the Dungeon Family: "The future is now," crackled Big Rube, whose soft, grizzled voice and inscrutable adages have been a constant over the family's twenty year run. There are plenty of current-day Atlanta rappers who grew up on Outkast and Goodie Mob, but few grew up in their presence. Future experienced it all firsthand thanks to his cousin, Rico Wade. He got the name "Future" as a kid hanging out at the studio with Wade and his friends, back when they were all working their way up. He's proven their prophecy right.