To Campbellton like Camelot

Even in Darkness, the Dungeon Family dreams the impossible dream

The 14-plus members of the Dungeon Family could do far worse than associate themselves, as they have, with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Like the chivalrous noblemen of legend, Atlanta’s most accomplished hip-hop makers form a brotherhood of soldiers, brought together by common values, comparable talents and noble aspirations, collectively sharing an elevated stature in the land they honor and call home. As such, they exist — like Arthur’s knights — partly in reality and partly in mythology. Or, as the case may be, self-mythology.

You can’t miss the connection drawn on the cover of the Dungeon Family’s new album, Even in Darkness, the first collective release by the crew comprised of producers Organized Noize, the groups OutKast, Goodie Mob and Society of Soul, and solo rappers Cool Breeze, Backbone and Witchdoctor. There they are, in circular formation, adorned in chain mail, breastplates, sorcerer’s robes and other outlandish accessories.

Arthurian imagery also appears on record — in the rousing, orchestrated gospel-soul of “Excalibur,” where Society of Soul’s Big Rube and the members of Goodie Mob wax historical, mystical and downright apocalyptic on everything from the very real Atlanta child killings to the metaphorical snatching of “the sword up out the stone.” It’s also heard on the honey-sweet, P-Funky “Trans DF Express,” on which OutKast’s Big Boi relates the Dungeon Family’s SWATs (Southwest Atlanta) to Arthur’s legendary realm: “Dungeon Family got my sword and shield/To Campbellton like Camelot let’s smoke a joint and chill.”

Sure, it’s a laughable overstatement — anyone who’s been to Greenbriar Mall knows it ain’t no royal castle. But like a band of Dirty South dons Quixote, the Dungeon Family knows the quest — for fraternity and uplift — is the thing. Their delusions of grandeur turn charming, even mock-heroic in the best possible sense.

If the Dungeon Family had a King Arthur, it would have to be Rico Wade, the 29-year-old producer and facilitator who serves as the crew’s de facto figurehead. It was in the red-clay basement of his mom’s Lakewood house that, nearly a decade ago, he and his Organized Noize partners — fellow musical Merlins Ray Murray and Pat “Sleepy” Brown — first set up a studio they dubbed the Dungeon. And it’s in his current house — moved to the basement of his estate off Cascade Road, in a far ritzier section of the SWATs — that the Dungeon continues to churn out the kind of first-rate R&B, funk and hip-hop that populates Even in Darkness.

On an early November afternoon, Wade and Murray sit in the Dungeon’s control room, sharing a blunt in celebration of their reunion. It has been three months since they’ve seen each other, since before Murray left for L.A. to work on Raphael Saadiq’s solo album and the score to the upcoming Ali film. While a handful of younger guys — collectively known as the Dungeon Family’s second generation — hang out on the couch watching videos in the next room, Wade and Murray recount how the Dungeon Family first came together.

Most members knew at least one or two others from as far back as elementary school. But the first to get together musically were Wade and Sleepy Brown, as part of a late-’80s vocal/dance group Uboyz. While Sleepy had grown up surrounded by music — the son of Jimmy Brown, the multi-instrumentalist leader of Atlanta’s popular ’70s jazz/funk band, Brick — Wade had little musical background or ability. “I can’t sing, I was just fly, a local celebrity,” says Wade. “I had a car, girls liked me, I had a perm. I danced and I looked like I sang. I was the hustling nigga; I was the one who knew how to get money.”

Murray was the DJ/producer in a group with Goodie Mob MC Big Gipp, and he hooked up with Wade through Gipp. After helping out with recording some Uboyz demos, Murray teamed up permanently with Wade and Sleepy, reactivating the name of a short-lived girl group Wade and Sleepy had put together, Organized Noize.

At first, their roles were specialized: Murray, with his hip-hop DJ background, provided the beats; Brown, who sang and played instruments, took care of the melodies and arrangements; and Wade, whose main access to music was as a consumer, served as consulting producer — the guy, Murray says, “who’d be like, ‘OK, that sounds dope.’”

Their first professional production job came in 1992 with P.A., a local rap trio who’d signed with singer-turned-label-head Peri “Pebbles” Nixon’s Savvy Records. While P.A. remain peripheral Dungeon Family members (P.A.’s Mello shows up on Even in Darkness), Organized Noize weren’t fully satisfied with that first producing collaboration.

“We had just finished the P.A. album and were having some creative differences,” Murray recalls. “They as artists wanted to see themselves one way, and we as producers saw the music going in a different direction. Me and Rico were out front of this hair products store that Rico worked at, and we were saying to ourselves, ‘Man, we need two fly-ass MCs from Atlanta, two young cats that we can really help shine and nurture.’ Right after we said that, these two bald-headed dudes came walking over the hill.”

A mutual acquaintance had sent 17-year-old rappers Andre Benjamin and Antwon “Big Boi” Patton, known together as OutKast, to see Wade. “They just looked different,” Murray says. “They didn’t have any hooks, they were just busting. They just had the raw energy and talent we could be experimental with, because Organized Noize was fixing to experiment, clashing the East and West and South to make something.”

By then, Organized Noize had impressed Pebbles’ husband at the time, L.A. Reid, to where he was handing them production work and looking to them to find new talent for LaFace Records. The money they made from LaFace enabled Organized Noize to put together their own studio in Wade’s unfinished basement, and the Dungeon was born.

“Every day after school, OutKast came to the Dungeon,” Wade says. “They’d spend the night, go to school from the Dungeon sometimes, stay over on weekends. That’s what the Dungeon was about. My momma treated everyone like her kid.”

After OutKast debuted on an Organized Noize remix of the TLC hit, “What About Your Friends?,” they began work on their own tracks. By the end of 1993, OutKast’s “Player’s Ball” was becoming an underground hit, and Reid signed them to LaFace. Their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, came out the following spring. An immediate success, it set the course for what would define the Dungeon Family’s sound — a style that stood in sharp opposition to the one-dimensional, bass-heavy booty music that had marked Atlanta hip-hop.

“We slowed it down,” Murray says. “Down-South music has always been fast. We slowed it down to make you listen to the MC. We love to hear somebody say something on a record — fuck just having that repetitive drum pattern. So we put the energy on the inside, made the MCs rapid fire. And that was OutKast.”

OutKast wasn’t the only group hanging around at the Dungeon. Murray’s former partner Gipp had teamed up with a duo called the Lumberjacks — T-Mo and Khujo — and they took on the name Goodie Mob. Cee-Lo, a friend of OutKast’s, had been quietly lurking around the Dungeon as well, though Organized Noize didn’t take note until they happened to catch him freestyling — his unique, rascally rasp out-shining everyone — at a barbecue. Cee-Lo joined Goodie Mob, and in 1995, the quartet became the next act signed to LaFace.

Goodie Mob, who are, on average, a couple years older than OutKast, presented a somewhat more cultivated and soulful take on the Dungeon Family sound. “OutKast is like a shined-up shellacked Cadillac, Goodie Mob is like an old-school dependable Cadillac,” Murray says. “There’s not any difference in the quality of the work as much as it is just an older model.”

A third Dungeon Family act, Society of Soul — featuring Organized Noize as performers, along with rap-poet Big Rube and singer Esperanza — came out through LaFace in 1996. By then, declining sales led Organized Noize to look for a new label with which to work. “It’s hard to sell records in the Southeast if you ain’t coming from the streets, breaking it from the grassroots,” Wade says. “That’s why OutKast did good originally, and why Goodie Mob kind of slowed up. LaFace never put the same force they put behind OutKast, they thought they could play off of OutKast’s success.”

A new deal came quickly through Interscope, and a second trio of Organized Noize productions emerged: Kilo Ali in 1997, Witchdoctor in ‘98 and Cool Breeze in ‘99. While the first two disappeared fairly quickly, Cool Breeze — a longtime Dungeon associate — scored a No. 1 rap single with “Watch for the Hook.” A frenetically paced track starring OutKast and Goodie Mob, the track introduced Cool Breeze while the entire crew rapped over a loop from Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” as covered by a soul singer. Both dazzling in its lyrical display and subtle in its use of sampling as cultural reference, the track was the Dungeon Family’s grand debut as a combined unit. But while it sowed the seeds for Even in Darkness, it didn’t ignite Cool Breeze’s debut, East Point’s Greatest Hit. By 2000, the Interscope deal had ended as well.

Despite the lack of new commercial breakthroughs, the Dungeon Family’s reputation as the vanguard of sophisticated and distinctly Atlanta-flavored hip-hop was secure. They’d become folk heroes at home and ambassadors abroad for an organic, highly melodic and live-oriented style at least as potent as the so-called East Coast and West Coast hip-hop sounds. The Dungeon Family embraced their role as the keepers of culturally rich, down-home hip-hop.

In most versions of the Arthurian legends, the story ends badly. Sir Lancelot, the knight with the most star quality and skills, becomes a rival to King Arthur — almost by accident, doomed by circumstance. Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, falls for Lancelot, and the trouble that ensues leaves Arthur mortally wounded and the Knights of the Round Table destroyed.

“We’re all leaders,” Murray says, “but relating it to a castle or a kingdom, Goodie Mob are like royal soldiers, the ones who stand closest to God. OutKast are like the emissaries, the ones that go out to spread the word. And everybody else in the Dungeon Family plays different roles. Cool Breeze is on the street, his stuff is raw, unadulterated. His particular leadership is for people who identify with that. We all associate with a million folk and we try to make them leaders, so they can make another million leaders. So we can change the world.”

While Organized Noize has enjoyed steady success working with outside artists (TLC, En Vogue, Bubba Sparxxx), they’ve continued cultivating new acts to carry the Dungeon Family flag. Young second-generation rhymers pop up on records — including Backbone’s debut album earlier this year and the track “Curtains (DF 2nd Generation)” from Even in Darkness. While these MCs, including the reggae-influenced Killer Mike and the Latino rapper Boulevard International, show promise, only Cool Breeze protege Slimm Calhoun has scored his own album and hit song — through OutKast’s recently activated label, Aquemini Records.

Indeed, OutKast has proven to be the branch of the Dungeon Family with the golden touch. With the 1998 album, Aquemini, the duo crossed over into the pop realm with its hit “Rosa Parks,” and began to formulate an empire of its own with Aquemini Records and its recording studio, Stankonia. Last year’s multi-platinum and critically lauded Stankonia album and “Ms. Jackson” single turned OutKast into major stars, their faces gracing magazines and driving international tours.

Increasingly, Dungeon Family tracks — including the majority of Stankonia and four of Even in Darkness’ 14 tracks — are actually created at Stankonia by ET3, the production company consisting of Dre, Big Boi and OutKast’s DJ David “Mr. DJ” Sheats. Now, as the dynamic Even in Darkness promises to shine light on the family as a whole, Wade acknowledges the possibility that it might get overshadowed by Big Boi & Dre Present OutKast, the group’s new greatest hits album, which arrives the first week of December. After all, L.A. Reid’s Arista, the label putting out both releases, will need to prioritize its promotional efforts.

Still, it would be inaccurate to characterize the growing disparity between the commercial success of OutKast and its Dungeon peers as a source of tension — the family remains united, fiercely loyal to each other and almost completely free of openly aired drama.

“People are trying to see who’s doing what inside the organization,” Murray says, “trying to define the leaks and the cracks and the holes. And you’re never going to find that. The tapestry is so fucking interwoven.”

But as any sibling can attest, imbalance takes its toll one way or another.

By now, the group of Dungeon Family veterans congregated in the studio control room has grown to include Big Rube and Khujo. Dre and Big Boi might have been here, too, but they had to fly out to L.A. to shoot a video for one of the greatest hits album’s three new tracks.

Meanwhile in the lounge, where the group of younger cats has grown as well, the video of OutKast’s first hit, “Player’s Ball,” pops up on BET. Excited, the second-generation MCs crowd around the screen to catch glimpses of their older friends, circa 1994. In the control room, no one moves to catch the video, in which some of them actually appear. As Wade’s attention is drawn away by a game of Playstation football, the conversation returns to Camelot.

“Not to sound like we’re patting ourselves on the back too much,” Rube says, “but just to put it in some extremely short terms, we almost singlehandedly stopped gangbanging in Atlanta.” When the Dungeon Family first emerged, he explains, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic reigned in the hearts and minds of Atlanta hip-hoppers.

“Young kids were associating the gangbang style with hip-hop,” he continues. “Next thing you know you have gangs popping up, like Crips and shit. But when we came out, the young kids had something to look up to that wasn’t necessarily gangsta. It was like putting a fire extinguisher on the fire that was starting.

“That first OutKast album represented all our asses, the whole energy of the South. You could literally drive around listening to that album and find some shit — muhfuckas were talking street names and all that. Campbellton Road — it used to be a hot area back in the day, but it was dying down. Then, after OutKast came out big-upping Campbellton Road, next thing you know there’s more people coming over to get their hair done, get something to eat. Greenbriar Mall made a comeback. And the next thing you know, they’re widening the road to four lanes. And I’m not saying it’s just because of that, but it was a catalyst to make everybody want to be over there.”

Past is prelude, though, as Murray relates these real or perceived deeds back to Even in Darkness. “This album is just the roof on the house we’ve been building since ‘92, ‘93, of some brothers down South trying to say something besides being just entertainers. It’s going to stand out because, in the South, even though you have a lot of rappers, you don’t have a lot of hip-hop. Hip-hop ain’t got nothing to do with a style of clothes or what music you listen to — it’s a way of life. We stay true to that. The world is going to see a real family. The turmoil, love, growth — they’re going to see leadership. That’s what we’re trying to bring forth.”

Member of the Dungeon Family perform live at Kaya Thurs., Nov. 22. Doors open at 10 p.m. 404-874-4460.