“Well at one time, I was saying that their legacy hopefully wouldn’t go down as the greatest story never told… But we’re about to tell it.”
The quote comes from T-Mo, member of Atlanta rap group Goodie Mob, and the legacy in reference belongs to none other than Organized Noize. “The Art of Organized Noize,” a documentary about the group, hit Netflix a couple weeks ago, and it takes viewers all the way back, more than just “a couple of years ago, to Headland and Delowe.” This is the same Headland and Delowe that was “the start of something good,” as told by Andre 3000 on “Elevators.” In the line, Dre is recalling the day he and Big Boi met up with Rico Wade, head honcho of Organized, outside of a hair salon and impressed him with their rhymes. Needless to say, Rico was a fan. He brought them back to the dungeon – his mother’s basement — and they kind of never left.
Well, Big Boi would leave for school in the mornings (3.68 GPA students can’t miss class, even if it means having to forgo hearing some magic from Ray Murray — the sonic genius behind Organized’s production), but Dre dropped out and stayed around. Beatrice, Rico’s mother, is featured in the doc and talks about growing immune to the music; it would be the first thing heard in the morning, still going strong late into the night. After a while, it wasn’t a bother. It just was.
Beatrice’s feature is just one sign of how personal the doc gets — a must-see for heads who wait around wondering when their favorite artists who contributed so much to the game will finally be displayed in a more accessible manner, for all to appreciate. Its candor is its strong suit, making the doc just as endearing as it is informative — the story behind “Player’s Ball,” for example, stands out — Outkast’s first single was actually the product of a request from their soon-to-be label to contribute a track to “A LaFace Family Christmas.” Yup, a Christmas album. So Dre and Big Boi rapped about the only Christmas they knew, and with it, burst onto the scene.
With the debut of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik shortly thereafter, they felt like they made it. And by they, I mean the entire Dungeon Family. Cee-Lo reminisced on the first time he heard “Player’s Ball” on the radio. It was while he was at work at the airport. He quit immediately after. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was everyone’s first album, not just Outkast’s: It included verses from members of Goodie Mob, production, start to end, from Organized and creative input from all. They knew they were going to make it big — getting onto the scene was just the tough part.
Organized would go on to produce some of the most important hits of our time; they’re the masterminds behind TLC’s “Waterfalls.” But no matter whom they worked with, be it Bubba Sparxxx or Ludacris, they stayed true to their roots, mixing futuristic funk with live instrumentation — their signature sound that heavily influenced future production conglomerates like J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. This is to say, Organized remained unapologetically southern through it all. And though getting onto the scene was tough in general when Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik debuted, this went twofold if you were from the South — the often neglected and still disrespected segment of the States.
Things have changed — sort of. We currently live in an interesting time where the tracks that receive plaques, and often the dances that accompany them, come from artists who aren’t even from the South, yet they’re applying the same formula understood as birthed by the third coast. Case in point: O.T. Genasis — of hits “CoCo” and “Cut It” — grew up in Long Beach, California, but one could make the claim that his sound is derivative of T.I.’s trap long before affiliating it with, say, Warren G’s g-funk. And though neither trap nor g-funk captures the creative range of either coast alone, both subgenres can trace their origins to one of the two spaces.
The implication is that if you want mainstream level success, it’s now imperative to sound Southern (only regarding song structure though, we — or the radio — still don’t want local references or a country twang). There are two points to clarify here: One — is this really the case, is this sound “Southern?” And two — if so, is this a good thing, as it puts the South on the map as the sonic norm?
First off, the sound of any locale, not just the Dirty, is dynamic, fluid and always up for debate. Being designated as grittier than the rest, a la New York for example, surely has an effect on up-and-coming artists from the East Coast as they develop their sound — a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will. And while a cadre of Southern crews do fit the formula (amplify the energy and braggadocio on party cut beats while chilling out on the complexity of the lyrics) like the Ying Yang Twins, Big Tymers and Three 6 Mafia to name a few, we quickly run into some roadblocks that prevent us from agreeing with the first claim — that the predominant sound of rap is the sound of the South.
Geto Boys immediately come to mind: one of the primary pioneers in incorporating the South into the conversation about hip hop. Hailing from Houston, the trio (though at one point there were many more than three, as even Sir Rap-A-Lot was included) not only proved the South could rap along with New York’s finest, but also developed a new sub genre of rap in and of itself. You didn’t think Eminem was the first to stuff his lyrics full of shock value, often tied to horrifying, even homicidal, imagery — right? But before we write them off as some misogynists who “condoned” mass murder, it’s important to also bring up their introspection.
“I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles.”
The line initially comes from “Mind of a Lunatic,” about as horrendous as horrorcore gets, but it was cemented into the canon of hip hop’s greatest with 1991’s “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” The song made it clear that there was a range to the South’s darkness. Geto Boys were balanced; they spent a lot of time soul searching, wondering about the roots of their violence and the role of crooked cops in it all. They made their paranoia come to life for listeners and gave a well-rounded sample of what coming up in the hoods of the South was like.
The Geto Boys make tangible the claim that the South can rap. But still, what about Big Tymers and Three 6 Mafia and, while we’re at it, even UGK – especially Pimp C? Most of that is, dare I say it, pretty straightforward:
“Smokin out, pourin up, putting dick up in yo’ slut.”
There’s more than enough to be decoded, since much of the language and terminology used by the artists is distinctly Southern: Mike Jones has a feature on the same track and raps, “Candy paint what I’m flippin on, 84’s and vogues what I’m tippin on.” With no attempt to gain acceptance by the East or West in songs like these, Southern artists felt the South was a valid enough audience itself. And so they rapped specifically for them. And there was no need to get multisyllabic with the rhymes or obfuscate the metaphors to the point of cryptic confusion. So while songs were coded, the lyrics oftentimes weren’t exactly deep. However, the South did show up and show out every time — in a different way — and this goes for Big Tymers too.
Bun B too has a verse in “Pourin Up” as well and raps, “You outta ya league / Tryna keep up wit the trill, you just might die of fatigue / You can’t carry the load, you can’t carry the weight / Not like them boys up out that Lone Star state.”
To put on properly for the Lone Star State, as Bun implies, didn’t necessitate elite lyrical prowess. To be impressive was, and still is, to be musical — in production, in flow, in delivery. Many people prefer the sounds of the South because they’re consistently euphonious: the melody, the harmony, the hooks. It’s not just easier to listen to lyrically, but usually sweeter to the ear as well. There’s an element of soul — whether imposed through Curtis Mayfield samples or created through independent interpolation — that is just as important to discuss. If we’re going to dog on the South for vapid, airy lyrics, then it’s only fair to pick on the East for cut-and-dried, formulaic beats. Both statements are generalizations, but both aspects are just as important to rap as the other. It’s about the full package. After all, Outkast aren’t the beloved darlings of hip hop due to lyrics alone. Much of their success and standing is due to sound, i.e. is due to Organized Noize.
So when we talk about Big Tymers or Triple 6 as compared to the radio-friendly hits of today, there are similarities, but there’s also a big difference. The emphasis on hooks and resemblance in song structure holds (a generalization easily dismantled through groups like Geto Boys, Outkast and so on). But you already know what the next radio hit will sound like before it’s here. To call the redundant, recycled, soulless and uninspiring sound of today’s mainstream “Southern” is to insult a space that is more moving in its musicality than even the mecca that is New York. Am I implying that mass production and capitalism have sucked the soul out of rap? Maybe — look out for the next piece to find out. But more important than all else is that we give the South its due props for its innovation and introspection.
When Outkast was booed at the 1995 Source Awards upon winning Best New Rap Group, Andre got on stage and let everyone know, “it’s like this: The South got something to say.” It’s about time they stopped being dismissed and started being taken seriously and praised for their contributions — which is to say, time they started being heard, words slurred, coming out through the diamonds in their mouths and all.