Even at the time, it was obvious that the 1995 Source Hip-Hop Music Awards were going to go down as a seismic pivot point for hip-hop. Held in New York City on August 3, the event was a tense one, bringing artists from New York’s Bad Boy Records and Los Angeles’ Death Row together in the same room just as the simmering East Coast-West Coast rivalry was about to spin tragically out of control. The two labels split most of the night’s awards, and all of their biggest stars performed. In an acceptance speech, Death Row’s pugilistic capo Suge Knight took some barely concealed potshots at Bad Boy’s Sean Combs from the stage. Combs responded with slightly more subtlety later on. The crowd was vocal throughout.
Yet one of the night’s most significant moments came from an unexpected break in the overarching East v. West narrative, when the young Atlanta duo OutKast won the best new artist award. The audience revolted, openly booing as Andre 3000, Big Boi, and a group of their associates took the stage. This response had little to do with who OutKast was, but rather where they were from: Southern hip-hop was still largely dismissed by the genre’s coastal elites, and Atlanta was hardly even on the map. With boos still ringing out, Big Boi tried to diffuse some of the tension from the podium. Next up was Andre, visibly frustrated, who ended his short speech with a simple declaration that would quickly develop into a regional mantra: “It’s like this though — the South got something to say.”
Over the next quarter century the South indeed had its say, and Atlanta in particular would gradually eclipse both New York and Los Angeles in overall influence, to the point where it now stands as the unofficial world capital of hip-hop. A lot of that transformation had to do with OutKast, who became one of the biggest-selling and most respected artists on the planet within half a decade. But equally important was the group of men who accompanied Andre and Big Boi to the stage, a foursome who not only hailed from OutKast’s hometown, but also worked out of the same unusual studio, relied on the same producers, were signed to the same record label, and were co-authors of the Atlanta aesthetic that would take over the world in the coming years. They were the Goodie Mob – Khujo, Cee-Lo, Big Gipp and T-Mo – and their debut album, “Soul Food,” would be released just a few months later.
If OutKast’s first four albums were the Matthew-Mark-Luke-and-John of Atlanta rap, “Soul Food” was both its Leviticus and its Book of Revelations: simultaneously defining, refining, and expanding the parameters of what the South had to offer. Cooked up in “the Dungeon” – the basement studio of the production trio Organized Noize, who had helmed “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” a year earlier – Goodie Mob’s debut offered a heady mixture of g-funk, gospel, blues and street-corner sermons, featuring four MCs whose styles were as different from one another’s as the group’s overall vibe was from the sound of contemporary rap radio. The album sold respectably at first, but its stature only grew.
Rejecting the false binary between street-level and “conscious” rap, Goodie Mob contained multitudes: these four could posture and battle with the best of them, sure, but they also paid emotional homage to their mothers, mourned lost friends, pondered the divine, fretted about white supremacy, and extolled the life-giving properties of the Black American culinary tradition. “Soul Food” could be funny, inspiring, and deadly serious, often all in the same verse. They demanded to be met on their own terms, referencing barbecue joints, neighborhoods and street intersections that would be entirely unfamiliar to anyone outside Atlanta, but trusting listeners could piece together their significance from context alone. (The group’s vernacular followed suit – when terms like “Dirty South” and “the trap” inevitably find their way into the Oxford English Dictionary, “Soul Food” will likely be cited as their first recorded usage.) And in an era when crass materialism was fast becoming the coin of the realm of mainstream hip-hop, Goodie Mob proudly spoke from the perspective of young men who were “twenty dollars away from being on the street,” and at times almost preferred it that way. As the album’s first proper track testifies: “It would be nice to have more/But I kinda like being poor/At least I know what my friends here for.”
Then there was the album’s first single, “Cell Therapy,” which could well have been subtitled “The Paranoid Style in American Hip-Hop.” Over a creeping, creaking loop that sounded like a haunted house’s player piano, the foursome spilled nightmare visions of black helicopters, race wars, child sexual exploitation and government surveillance, all punctuated by an incongruously catchy, half-sung refrain: “Who’s that peeking in my window? Pow! Nobody now.” Improbably, “Cell Therapy” managed to breach the top 40 of the Billboard singles chart. Two decades later, a best picture Oscar winner would play the song almost in its entirety over a key sequence. Two years after that, Travis Scott would liberally sample and quote it for a song about an illicit affair. That this unlikely hit continues to stretch its tendrils so broadly across pop culture is a testament to “Soul Food’s” ever-simmering influence.
To commemorate its 25th anniversary, Sony Music will release an expanded version of “Soul Food,” with previously unheard outtakes as well as a cappella and instrumental tracks, on Nov. 6. And Goodie Mob is still alive and kicking: after a long hiatus, the group reformed for 2013’s “Age Against the Machine,” and its recently released single, “Are You Ready,” features a guest appearance from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, and production from Organized Noize. The four rappers joined a conference call with Variety – Big Gipp was delayed due to connection issues – to discuss the album’s legacy.
How does it feel to think about “Soul Food” being 25 years old? What does that mean to you guys?
Cee-Lo: It makes me feel two ways. On the one hand, 25 years is a long time since the beginning, but 25 years is still young. I get zeal from it. I feel invigorated because of it. It doesn’t feel like a weight, it feels like a prism. Something that was a singular effort, multiplied by many different beautiful colors.
Khujo: It makes me feel like: finally, recognition. It makes me feel like the flowers are being gathered down and brought to us.
T-Mo: It lets me know good music stands the test of time. Effort, patience, perseverance took over on that project. And wisdom: making the right decisions, taking our time, writing quality verses, having quality music. It was a process. We recorded…s–t, maybe 20 songs for that album? We really gave ourselves an opportunity for greatness by taking our time and being patient. So for it to be 25 years, it’s unbelievable to me that all of us have been preserved, everybody’s still healthy, everybody still wants it. It’s a beautiful thing right now. I’m still proud to say I’m in the Goodie Mob, how ‘bout that?
There was a lot going on in the months around “Soul Food’s” release. You were there for the Source Awards and Andre’s speech, there was the Million Man March, and you had the ramp up to the Atlanta Olympics the next summer, and in its own way the album kind of touches on all of those things. How heavy a time was that for you guys, and did you realize then that you were all in the midst of some pretty important moments for hip-hop and for Atlanta?
Khujo: I had no idea about that while we was making “Soul Food.” My idea was just to represent for Atlanta at that time, so you could probably say the album might have been one of the soundtracks to what the hell was going on. And gentrification wasn’t even really a word you heard back then, but I guess you could say that was the start of that, because a lot of people were coming to Atlanta, Georgia for all of those things, and also because some of the music they was hearing, and the landmarks we were talking about… I guess that album was an event on its own, you feel me? But Goodie Mob didn’t really give a f–k about what the Olympics were doing. Just representing Atlanta was the main focus for me. Atlanta was growing too, and becoming that place that everyone wanted to come to and set up shop in, thanks to LaFace being that major record label in the area. It was just good timing.
There’s such a huge mythology that’s developed around the Dungeon; the idea of all of these records and artists having their origin in this little basement in Atlanta. What feelings or scenes or memories of that place stand out for you from that era?
T-Mo: What really stands out to me, man, is the way [Organized Noize co-founder] Rico Wade’s mama and two sisters would be in the house around all these men looking to get into the music industry, and they just opened their doors and were welcoming to all of us. Just being generous enough to allow us to come in and create and treating us like family. It was a beautiful situation. And then the Dungeon itself, you think about how legendary it is, but it was just this man’s basement, in the dirt. And then you had thousands of dollars’ worth of studio equipment embedded in all this dirt, and maybe a couple chairs down there, and everyone would go down and freestyle battle each other, just spitting rhymes all day, weed smoke in the air, and goddamn, just good vibes all around. It was a lovely time in my life, I can’t even lie about it. It was a beautiful place of refuge. It was almost like a recreation center that had a studio in it. It was a place you could go to stay out of trouble and do constructive things.
Khujo: It facilitated our style, because life in the South at that time, at twentysomething years old, it was either you get a job or you’re going to college or you’re playing sports. If you’re not doing any of those things, there was a lot of pressure on you about what’re you gonna do in life. So you took that little bit of experience you did have as a twentysomething-year-old, and you brought all that stuff to the Dungeon. Writing raps at the house, filling up all our notebooks, and waiting until we got to that one central location to get the lead out. And if it was good enough? S–t, then it was maybe gonna be recorded. All of us wanted the same thing, which was to represent for Atlanta and try to make something of ourselves.
Cee-Lo: The first memory that comes to mind is I see myself coming up Conrad, which is the street the Dungeon was on, and depending on the night or the occasion, there could be a line of 12, 13, 20 cars, and you’d have to park all the way down the street and walk up to the house. And there would be people just hanging out the front door. It’s like four or five steps before you walk into the front door, and it’s somebody on every step: Up against the wall, passing a blunt, with a quart or with a deuce-deuce in their hand, rocking all the fashions of that time. I just remember giving a thousand pounds and hugs before I even got inside.
Cee-Lo: Because you never knew who you’d bump into over there. It was magnetic. People gravitated to it intuitively, as if they knew that this had potential and the promise of something. Even if you didn’t want to be in music and didn’t want to be there in a formal way, you wanted to go just to have an eyewitness account. People just wanted to stand around and support it and cheer it on, and bear witness to the work and the labor. And then take that energy out with them into the world and do whatever it was they did for a living. Not everybody there was an artist, but everybody there was an extended family member. I still get nostalgic for that smell of blunt smoke in the air.
Considering you guys all had such distinct styles, were there tracks where you really had to work to get things to cohere? What were the toughest songs on “Soul Food” to get right?
Cee-Lo: You know what was cool about that? Especially at that time we had different styles, but we were familiar with each other’s styles. The Dungeon was like a house of styles. It was like you were doing fittings for wardrobe there, and a beat was like an outfit. Organized Noize was like Saville Row. Pay them in tracks. Made-to-order type s–t. Like a little haberdashery. You feel me?
We had many, many, numerous freestyle sessions, this that and the third, but we were fans of each other. So the way we would engage wasn’t like battling each other, it was like being in a cypher together. It’s like if you look at the etiquette of martial arts: when you spar, somebody’s gonna fight with the drunken style, and somebody’s gonna fight with the crane style, and they go at it, but at the end they appreciate each other. You feel me? It was all about individual mastery. We could respect and identify with each other. And we were almost like the Village People. We were a community of eccentrics: thugs, killers, poets, politicians-in-the-making, the Dungeon had everything. So all of those energies and identities were infused into the body of work, into an aesthetic that we were able to adopt as our own.
Khujo: For me, the hardest verses I ever had to get through were “Guess Who” and “Fighting.” “Fighting” was just because it was a long-ass verse. But putting “Guess Who” together, that was tough because it was one of the most emotional verses I’d ever written.
Cee-Lo: I can remember when we was doing “Guess Who,” and T-Mo will remember this, we were at the Purple Dragon Studio, and the song was done, but T was deliberating over his verse. Because that was a serious song, it was about our mothers. And I remember T falling asleep on the couch in the front room and everybody else leaving, and T spent the night at the Purple Dragon, then woke up the next morning and finished the verse, and it was a damn classic. Am I right, T?
T-Mo: You’re damn right, that’s what I was gonna say. I remember being in that motherf–ker all night long, just trying to figure out what to say, to make sure I was saying it right. That was one wild night. I rolled over there with Big Boi to the studio, he left, and I ended up riding the bus back to the Dungeon to get my car the next morning. That was a hard one to come up with, I ain’t gonna front.
Is there anything that surprises you about “Soul Food’s” longevity or its influence? When you see “Cell Therapy” playing in “Moonlight,” or Travis Scott sampling it…
Khujo: That’s the surprise there. I don’t think we had intentions of making an album that was gonna have that much longevity. But I’m happy and surprised about that, because young MCs are going back and pulling out some of our stuff. Before that, you’d see the next generation going through somebody else’s stuff, sampling whatever, but when they start doing it to us, it makes us feel a little more accessible. Because the music we were making…you wouldn’t necessarily go out and hear our s–t knocking in the club, you dig? Maybe something like “Soul Food,” but you didn’t hear “Cell Therapy” in the club. So you’ve gotta really be digging through the history of different genres of hip-hop for some type of reason [to find us]. You’ve also got your boy Lil Bam, he just sampled it, and then like you said Travis sampling it, so that’s our s–t crossing over to the next generation, and that s–t is boss. I like that.
Big Gipp: I don’t think people really understood what “Cell Therapy” meant until we went into quarantine. So I feel like now people can really, really identify with the song, and it’s only gonna grow bigger, because truth outlasts a moment in time always.
Working on new music together, working with Organized Noize again, did it take a period of adjustment to get yourselves back in the Goodie Mob mode?
T-Mo: You could separate us for 50 years, and put us back in the studio and we’ll make a song in an hour and a half, I can guarantee it. It’s unexplainable why our subject matter is the way that it is, we never intended on doing it like this, it just comes out this way. But the difference between making new music and “Soul Food” is that we did that one totally organic. We didn’t know what people wanted from us, or what people were expecting from us, and now we do. We know what to give them. It’s like when you start a new restaurant, you don’t know what in the f–k people might connect with. But now it’s like the franchise is already there, we just opened up another location. We know exactly what they want from Goodie Mob.