Basements are sanctuaries, hallowed retreats that offer shelter, but also serve another communal purpose. Be it your own basement or a friend’s, descending the stairs is entering another dimension. Whether this subterranean paradise hosted sweaty house parties that concluded with damaged walls or marathon Madden tournaments that left everyone present feeling like zombies, it was the locus for something special. Sometimes, that something is artistic genius.
There’s a scene in The Art of Organized (on Netflix now) where Rico Wade, the visionary third of legendary production team Organized Noize, steps inside of a modest brick home in Southeast Atlanta. The address is 1907 Lakewood Terrace, but in the old Yo! MTV Raps footage spliced into the scene, a young Andre Benjamin (not yet Andre 3000 yet; back then, he was just “Dre”) refers to it as something else: The Dungeon. Wade turned an unfinished basement that’s called a “crawl space” several times during the documentary into a makeshift studio. There, amidst the distinct aromas of chicken wings and weed, he and fellow Organized Noize members Patrick “Sleepy” Brown and Ray Murray crafted brilliance for artists like Outkast and Goodie Mob at the onset of their careers. He also transformed the home where he lived with his mother and sisters into somewhat of a group home where young men received the opportunity to hone their craft in an environment that was familiar to the point of becoming familial.
Organized Noize remain among the most respected producers in music; their most impressive contributions extending from Outkast and Goodie Mob’s debuts to the remarkable success of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” Each illustrate the quirky details that comprise the trio’s pioneering sound: a peculiar, yet irresistible ambiance that lent credence to southern hip-hop at a time when it was treated like the genre’s foster child, but ultimately went beyond the realm of hip-hop. But The Art of Organized Noize shows that Organized Noize’s most respectable quality had little to do with music, and more to do with how they treated their frequent collaborators—the Dungeon Family—like actual family.
Atlanta has been anointed the nucleus for all things young, exciting, and new about hip-hop’s current climate. This honor exists in stark contrast to how the scene was regarded 25 years ago. Atlanta hip-hop, like all Southern hip-hop, was written off as basic, unrefined, and inferior. Through Murray’s penchant for beat-making, the velvet slide of Brown’s voice and his knack for songwriting, and Wade playing architect to it all, Organized Noize brought the complete opposite to the table. The name Organized Noize even denotes that they harnessed a cosmic slop of sounds and found beauty in the madness. Director Quincy Jones lll, who dabbled in production during the early ‘90s, was blown away by the Organized Noize sound after L.A. Reid offered him a glimpse of during the early days of LaFace Records.
“Even though I wasn’t living in Atlanta, I felt really connected to [their sound] because I got a sneak peek,” he said. “That’s where my admiration for [Organized Noize] as producers started. If you’re a producer, you know when you hear someone else who’s next level, so when I heard their stuff I was an immediate fan. So for me, it came full circle when Flavor Unit called me and asked if I wanted to take a meeting with Organized Noize to tell their story.”
And it’s through Organized Noize’s story that the stories of Atlanta’s first big hip-hop acts are told. The producers served as older brother figures, running their mentoring program out of the Dungeon. Late adolescence, the period where your decisions dictate your future, becomes even more confusing when college—the “right” decision—isn’t an option due to lack of interest, a solid academic background, or financial resources. The Dungeon provided a fraternal atmosphere that gave everyone present, be they producer or artist, a focus. They were all united by ambition.
“That vibe cultivates character,” David “Mr. DJ” Sheats, Wade’s first cousin who transitioned from Outkast’s DJ to producing Grammy-winning songs for the group, explained during the documentary. Of all the acts Organized Noize worked with, Outkast always had the highest ceiling. Subsequently, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was more than the group’s first album, it was the entire collective’s brazen, Southern-fried introduction—the template for the Organized Noize groove that took everything honed in the Dungeon out into the mainstream.
Initial introductions are always raw, particularly when they involve artists at the end of their formative years or a few years into the 20-something haze. They’re liberated, they’re energetic, but they’re also honest. The Art of Organized Noize highlights the songs from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik that convey each of these emotions, which amount to the Dungeon maxim during the early ‘90s, Atlanta-specific stamp and all. “Ain’t No Thang,” is all youthful aggression, a recklessness that was only calmed by the referenced weed cyphers in the Dungeon. “Git Up, Git Out,” which featured Cee-Lo Green and Big Gipp of Goodie Mob, is inspirational in how its aggrieved restlessness shines through the nihilism. Then there’s Outkast’s debut single, “Player’s Ball,” which was a very precise depiction of Atlanta. Because the lyrics painted the imagery of a multi-faceted black utopia—all of the players and hustlers in low-riders, ‘77 Sevilles, El Dorados, and Cadillacs—with such rich elements, the video had to match.
“They were the first ones to make a music video representing Atlanta,” Jones said. “They were representing with the [Atlanta Braves] hats and all of that, and that [sense of identity] was the beginning of everything you see now. One of the things we wanted to do with the documentary was talk about how they set off this whole movement, but also talk a little bit about Atlanta history. Another crazy thing is that Diddy had a part in it.”
Many forget that Sean “Diddy” Combs, a New York avatar if there ever was one, was hired to visualize “Player’s Ball.” “I was trying to capture the Atlanta lifestyle the way it really was,” he recalled of his quest to accurately frame the Atlanta that birthed Outkast and Organized Noize. Integral to this was some representation of the Dungeon’s dynamic, and The Art of Organized Noize shows Wade walking through his old living room just as he did at the video’s beginning while recounting the story.
Success unprecedented for Southern hip-hop opened doors for the entire Dungeon Family, including opportunities for Organized Noize to branch out from that space. The Art of Organized Noize makes note of how the explosion of “Waterfalls” not only pushed the sales of TLC’s CrazySexyCool to diamond status, but paved the way for Wade, Brown, and Murray to produce “Don’t Let Go (Love)” for En Vogue and yield Grammy nominations for both. Suddenly, Organized Noize’s achievements were independent of the artists they introduced, and the newfound demand led to them departing LaFace in favor of a $20 million Interscope deal.
Enjoying simultaneous success with extended family is enchanting because the money and fame, things that would normally separate people, bind you. The Dungeon Family grew in terms of size and profile, but so did the distance between them. While Organized Noize worked with new artists, Outkast and Goodie Mob relied on them less. Their production credits grew less frequent on each album, and not because the pupils felt above Organized Noize—it’s because their tutelage set them up to eventually be independent of them. By the time Outkast, who was always ambitious to the point of complete reinvention, reached their commercial peak by claiming the Grammy for Album of the Year for Speakerboxx/The Love Below, they did it without Organized Noize, because they were raised to be self-sufficient.
It’s a decision Wade called “arrogant as shit” in the film, but not one he harbors a grudge over. The Art of Organized Noize’s most rewarding reveal is the producers’ dedication to their integrity. That included leaving $17 million from the Interscope deal on the table when the label felt it wasn’t getting its ROI because they felt as though they failed, as well as refusing to take their artist’s publishing. According to Jones, that moral uprightness and belief that blood is thicker than currency is why their legacy isn’t as robust as it should be.
“I think part of it is because they’re nice guys,” Jones said. “There were a lot of questions that came up during the movie about why they didn’t do this or why they didn’t sign this person, and their [concern] was always that the more [they got] aggressive with the business, the more [they] might lose what made [them] special, which is this pure love for the music. That’s what I love about these guys, and to be honest with you, working on this documentary with them made me respect them even more. Everything they did was 100 percent for the purity of the music.”
Revisiting the basement of the home you grew up in is like stepping into the past. The scuffs on the ceiling and scrawlings on the wall are memories—traces of a coming of age period. The Dungeon Family may have outgrown the Dungeon, but not each other. Shared experiences, especially those forged during your late teens and early 20s and especially those involving a unifier like music, create indestructible bonds. Despite not receiving the credit they truly deserve, Organized Noize are a music industry pillar revered across each region, not just the South, but what they created was an influential ripple effect within Southern hip-hop. The Dungeon Family is an extended one, as Future, Rico Wade’s cousin, is the scion of the purple-hued eccentricity that defined the Dungeon. Young Thug, Father and the Awful Records camp, and even Raury, as Cee-Lo says during the film, are descendants, falling under the family tree due to a governing creative trait that started in East Atlanta nearly 30 years ago.
The Art of Organized Noize signals the story of underappreciated legends finally being told. But it also dissects the true art of Organized Noize: some of the best music ever created, no arguments, but more importantly, a commitment to family and sense of responsibility and community.