In recent years, a number of documentaries have focused on the behind-the-scenes players who worked on popular albums. Standing in the Shadows of Motown helped start the craze in the early 2000s; more recent examples include The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom. The latest entry in this genre, The Art of Organized Noize, debuts March 22nd on Netflix. The film chronicles the history of Rico Wade, Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray — collectively known as Organized Noize — whose production for Outkast, Goodie Mob and others in the mid-Nineties jumpstarted the rise of Southern hip-hop, which now dominates the world of rap and regularly infiltrates Top 40 hits.
Organized Noize developed their distinctive instrumentals — a blend of live playing and crackling samples — in Wade’s basement in Atlanta, which was dubbed “the Dungeon.” They favored loose, thick grooves that were grounded in hip-hop but also remained conscious of R&B’s storied history; these allowed MCs like André 3000, Big Boi and Cee-Lo, with their Southern inflections and idiosyncratic rhyming patterns, the freedom to move as they liked. Organized Noize productions had pop appeal — listen to TLC’s “Waterfalls” or Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” — but they were also relentlessly regional: See Goodie Mob’s “Dirty South” and Outkast’s first album title, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.
Recently, several entries in the Organized Noize discography experienced big anniversaries — Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik turned 20 in 2014, and Goodie Mob’s Soul Food followed suit last year. “We were getting asked a lot of questions by different people,” Wade tells Rolling Stone. “Publications were doing anniversary stories.”
This helped prompt talk of a documentary as a way for the group to take control of its own narrative. “We were living in that world of nostalgia,” Wade continues. “We just felt like it was time for us to give a little more history about where we came from.” When Queen Latifah and Shakim Compere, who run Flavor Unit Entertainment, approached the trio about a film project, the members were ready. “We were crazy excited to do it,” Brown notes calmly.
Flavor Unit had a director in mind: Quincy Jones III, son of legendary producer Quincy Jones. Jones III has music production on his resume as well — he met Queen Latifah in the early Nineties working on a remix for Naughty by Nature, and also went on to make beats for Tupac and Ice Cube. “He is one of our peers,” Wade says of the director. “We thought he would understand being a producer. He would have an appreciation for it.” Jones’ film background includes directing or executive-producing documentaries on Tupac (Thug Angel), Lil Wayne (The Carter) and assorted rap rivalries (the Beef series). In a separate Skype conversation with RS — he’s currently serving as a judge on Idol Sweden — Jones claims to have “the biggest library of hip-hop footage in the world.”
Jones still remembers hearing Organized Noize’s production for the first time. “L.A. Reid had called me to Atlanta right when he started LaFace [Outkast’s label],” he recalls. “[Reid] was like, ‘These are a few of the things that I signed,’ and he played me Outkast’s first record. Immediately, my respect shot through the roof. From a production standpoint, [Organized Noize] are the best. When Flavor Unit called me and asked me if wanted to do the doc, I was like, ‘That would be an honor.'” Later he describes the producers as “the last of the Mohicans.”
The Art of Organized Noize is a timely movie: The influence of the trio can be heard everywhere. Atlanta rap continues to honor the group’s experimental mindset — which Wade describes as, “We never got comfortable just ’cause people liked what we were doing.” In a post-regional world, where anyone’s discography is fair game for eager young MCs, out-of-towners absorbed the group’s lessons as well. “I hear a lot of us in J. Cole,” Murray notes, while Brown suggests that Kendrick Lamar reminds him of early Goodie Mob.
Then there’s the matter of Future, who happens to be Wade’s cousin. “Not to be funny,” Wade says, “but I taught him everything.” “That’s a true statement,” Brown adds. “Future already knew how to rap,” Wade clarifies. “He already knew how to write. We taught him about music: bridges, this is a change, what a hook’s supposed to do.” Suffice it to say that Future, who has reached the top spot on the Billboard 200 three times in less than a year, was a good student. “Now he teachin’ me!” Wade exclaims. “He teachin’ the world. Now I’m proud of him. I get his mixtape, and I’m up on certain things before they happen, because he’s leading the young Atlanta generation.”
Future appears in The Art of Organized Noize, as do many other famous guests, but Jones suggests that the work of splicing together the interviews — especially the conversations with Organized Noize, André and Big Boi — was relatively easy. “No matter who we interviewed,” Jones says, “they all said the same thing. Nobody embellished; nobody took anything out. It was the same story from six guys. It was easy to edit. That’s how you could tell how true they are.”
A few people involved in the Organized Noize story couldn’t make it: Sylvia Rhone, a longtime music executive, due to scheduling difficulties, and Khujo from Goodie Mob, because of health reasons. But the group also made sure to include some whose narratives have been largely left out of hip-hop history, like Pebbles, who was married to L.A. Reid and served as the manager for TLC. She’s usually accused of causing the group’s bankruptcy, but the film shows a different side of her. “You hear so much: ‘Pebbles is such a bad person,'” Wade says, but “she was really helping people. Everybody’s contract was bad — you can’t blame [Pebbles] for everything! We all signed them contracts. Let’s blame our lawyers.”
In another recent hip-hop documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life, the members of A Tribe Called Quest can be found falling out on screen, but that didn’t happen during the making of The Art of Organized Noize. In fact, Brown suggests that the opposite is true: “We might have worked a couple things out that we didn’t know about each other.” He refuses to say what those discoveries involved — and stops the voluble Wade from giving the information away — because “we want people to see the movie.”
Wade believes that the film will “start the process” of earning the group more recognition. But he still wants to put together a script for a feature as well, following the success of last year’s Straight Outta Compton. “Then we’ll be noticed in any country, anywhere you go,” he says. Organized Noize is not done building its musical legacy, either. In conjunction with The Art of Organized Noize, Murray promises a multi-part album that will include unreleased oldies and new material with a wide range of collaborators — André 3000, Big Boi, Goodie Mob, J. Cole, Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli and Wiz Khalifa. And Big Boi’s next solo album will supposedly feature the trio as executive producers.
Though the South’s supremacy in hip-hop helps make a movie like this possible, the extent of the region’s dominance still surprises the trio. “I knew the South would stay in the game and do what we have to do,” Murray notes. “I didn’t see that Atlanta would still be on top like it is. I didn’t know that it would completely run music. That was a shock.”
But the group appreciates the part it played in cementing its city’s place in musical history. “Every time you go somewhere and somebody recognize some Atlanta stuff — we kind of feel responsible for that,” Wade says. “Regardless of if you know my face or know who we are, if I’m somewhere and they know what Atlanta’s about? I feel good. We did that.”