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Editor’s Note: A video playlist of the songs mentioned throughout this interview may be found here.
Among Atlanta hip-hop fans, the name Dungeon Family often evokes respect, familiarity, warm nostalgia and memories of places and people. The 20+ years the outfit has been in existence has yielded far more than their shared discography of 50 albums: they have helped craft a contemporary identity for the city of Atlanta and region at large. They’ve also succeeded in raising the city’s international profile and brought generations of local communities together while doing so.
In short: they made it cool to be from the South.
Their music also provided a particular snapshot of what it meant to be black –– especially a young, black man –– in Atlanta. Their music addresses the influences, aspirations, hardships, everyday life and politics of a particular segment of the Atlanta community who are rarely considered stakeholders in a city so often on the verge of significant change.
Dungeon Family’s discography serves as a reminder of what Atlanta was before the 1996 Olympics and the subsequent steady influx of transplants. It also reflects the reality of what Atlanta is now as a result of all those people and their dreams—fulfilled and unrealized—melding with the talents, visions and values of the city’s natives.
Earlier this spring a documentary, The Art of Organized Noize, which debuted at South by Southwest and is available on Netflix, brought the Dungeon Family’s more than 20-year run into focus, with visual evidence of its beginnings that perhaps only a few outside of Atlanta have ever seen. The documentary traces the origins and establishment of Organized Noize— the trio of Rico Wade, Ray Murray and Pat “Sleepy” Brown—as the backbone of the Dungeon Family, the Atlanta-based musical collective responsible for helping lay the foundation for the South’s hip-hop’s prominence, now entering its third decade.
Just like a biological family, the Dungeon Family is divided into generations. Its first generation consists of acts like Outkast, Goodie Mob, Witchdoctor, Cool Breeze, Big Rube, Joi, Parental Advisory and Backbone. The 2nd generation consists of acts regularly making headlines today, including Killer Mike, Slimm Calhoun, Konkrete, The Calhouns and Future.
— Organized Noize (@organizednoize) April 5, 2016
ATLiens love to laud the early days of Dungeon Family, especially the rise of its 1st generation. To place this relevance in an updated context acknowledges, and at times grapples with, the influence of the 2nd generation’s most prominent members—Future & Killer Mike—and how they present themselves as black men within popular culture.
Recently I sat down with artist/scholar Fahamu Pecou to discuss his impressions of the Dungeon Family. Pecou, whose work focuses primarily on notions of hip-hop and black masculinity, recently curated Elevate 2015, which featured a tribute to Organized Noize as a focal point—complete with a Gallery 72 exhibition where the famed “dungeon” was recreated along with other DF artifacts.
Here’s an extended excerpt of that conversation:
Floyd Hall: When it comes to the Dungeon Family, what were your first impressions when comes to them as artists as well as men?
Fahamu Pecou: You know it’s funny that you ask that because my initial reaction and my introduction to Dungeon Family was through Outkast. My initial reaction was not a favorable one. I did not like them. It was 1993. They had just come out, and I think they had just dropped that “Player’s Ball” single, and everybody was talking about it. I couldn’t understand what they were saying… the accents […] and I was New York hip-hop through-and-through and resistant to this new aesthetic.
A college friend of mine lived off campus; I lived on campus. Between classes sometimes he would take a nap or something at my place while I was at class and he was trying to push Outkast on me. He kept trying to get me to listen to it and I wouldn’t. And one day he left a tape cued up in my stereo—because whenever I would walk into my room, I’d just hit play and start doing whatever I was doing. He left the Outkast tape cued up to “Crumblin’ Erb”, and so I came in, I hit play and started doing my thing and I’m listening like, “Yo…what is…what is this?!?” YouknowhatImsaying? That’s what hooked me.
I also had an experience a couple of years later with Goodie Mob that changed my perspective of myself as an artist, how I saw myself creating work, how I saw myself contributing to the larger narrative around what it means to be an artist and what art is.
I was in my dorm room one night. I had just gotten Soul Food. I was a big fan of Goodie Mob just after becoming a fan of Outkast. Goodie Mob was just a natural progression. The song “Guess Who” came on, and it resonated with my experience of losing my mother as a little boy. Hearing them talk about the impact of their moms’ love on them, how that love helped to nurture them, guide them and prepare them to be the men in the world that they were –- not having had that experience with my mom, that was powerful for me. That moment became a watershed moment, and I began to use my experiences through my work to talk about the relationship and the tragedy of my mom’s death and how that impacted me.
That became something that led me to see what the power of art could be. I wanted to be an artist who created work that had that effect on people that that song had on me […] that could move people and change people.
And so, those are ways I was introduced to Organized Noize and the Dungeon Family, but more broadly I just really developed an appreciation for their creativity, their boldness, their fearlessness. That was something that to this day continues to speak to me when I think about the impact that they had. They were true to themselves, and that’s not something that you can say about a lot of artists—especially in hip-hop—who are posing and posturing to look a certain way, to give off a certain vibe. These guys weren’t trying to give off anything any more than who they were.
Hall: They chose the word Dungeon Family. The emphasis on “family” is interesting because it speaks to men within that. It could have been the Dungeon Gang. It could have been the Dungeon Crew. But they chose Dungeon Family. I wanted to know if you’ve ever considered that word choice as something that maybe spoke deeper about how they saw themselves?
Pecou: Yeah, I would agree with that. We’re talking about a medium that is almost completely dependent on language […]
So, as a person who works with words, I’m constantly thinking about word choices and how people choose to label themselves, because how you label yourself is how you ultimately appear to the world.
Watching The Art of Organized Noize, but also knowing Rico [Wade], I could see how that came to be. He is very much a leader […] almost paternal. He takes care of the people around him. That is something that speaks loudly, especially those first groups— Outkast, Goodie Mob, even some of the other guys like Witchdoctor and Cool Breeze —all of those guys came together.
You see the family love in everything that they did in those early projects. It was never just Outkast; it was Outkast and Goodie Mob and everybody participating, contributing to the narrative, contributing to the rhymes, contributing to the beats, contributing to the vibe. It was real, “if one person made it, everybody was gonna make it.” That’s how families move. Gangs don’t necessarily move like that. Cliques don’t move like that.
I think the idea of the Dungeon Family is something that speaks to, not just the way that they thought of themselves, but the way that they moved in the world. They moved as a unit, and I think that you still see it— well, you don’t see it so much today because you don’t have crews like that anymore. The Wu-Tang Clan, for example. Clan is just another word for family, and they had a very similar vibe in terms of how they moved in the world. If one person did it, everybody was doing it.
I don’t know…we don’t see that so much anymore today, but I feel like that’s a piece that’s missing.
Hall: They were men being able to be creative, express how they feel and be vulnerable enough to talk about it. Everything was on the table, and it didn’t lessen their masculinity.
Pecou: I agree with that, but I think a part of that is because they weren’t trying to be something that they were not. You used the word “vulnerability.” When a person is moving in truth, you are susceptible to forces that ultimately will humble you, that you have to be vulnerable to be able to grow. Rico talks about this; they didn’t want to look like New York, they didn’t want to sound like New York. They wanted to be true to who it was that they were. That takes a great deal of humility to say, “I fell, but I got back up.”
We have this rigid ideal of masculinity in hip-hop that often, I would argue, doesn’t come from the performers themselves, but from people around them, the labels and distributors who are selling a concept. This was a group of young men who were not only comfortable with being themselves but had the space to do that. You have to give credit to L.A. Reid. He admits in the documentary, “I knew nothing about hip-hop, so I trusted those guys to do what they were going to do.” Now say, if that wasn’t L.A. Reid, say it was (Interscope Records co-founder) Jimmy Iovine, who had a very specific idea of how hip-hop was supposed to look and sound. Had Organized Noize and the Dungeon Family come out through that imprint first, I think we would have seen a very different thing in the performance of their masculinity.
The liberties that they were given to be themselves allowed them to do things and to express things through their masculinity that other platforms might not have provided. That kind of stuff is really important. It was a perfect storm. I don’t know that you could have planned for that to happen the way that it did. But, the fact that it did gave them some liberties with their expressions of their masculinity, with their performance, to do things and say things that they might not have been able to do and say otherwise.
Hall: You talk about how some of their evolution was in line with your evolution, but I also think that they often presented possibilities to people that maybe they didn’t know that they had. So maybe you weren’t always comfortable doing what you were doing […]
Pecou: But they made it okay.
Hall: They made it okay […] to at least explore another possibility, and I think that’s also important.
Pecou: Yeah, most certainly. I talk about this a little bit in some of my other works. My interest in my practice that engages black masculinity came from the fact that a lot of the ideas of Because around black masculinity that we see projected through the media didn’t necessarily reflect my actual existence. I was curious about the fact that people saw me a certain way simply because I was black and male. They couldn’t see that I could be much more than just those two descriptions. Outkast and Goodie Mob, Organized Noize and the Dungeon Family at-large bucked those stereotypes.
We talk about people like Young Thug wearing all kinds of crazy things, but it was nothing for Andre (3000) to throw on a blonde wig and some pink ski pants. Like, who does that? And nobody questioned it. Well, they did question it a little bit…
Hall: At first.
Pecou: Yeah, at first. But it was because people were accustomed to […] your hip-hop guy had to have some big, baggy clothes on and a big jersey and he was like, “Nah, that ain’t me. I’m a performer. I’m an artist, and I’m ok with who I am.” And it was one thing for us to ask questions, but when you saw that his crew around him, his family around him continued to embrace him […] they didn’t jump back when he came out like that, they were right there with him.
Hall: That’s what made it okay for everyone else to say, “Alright, as long as they are still embracing him, I have no problem still embracing him as well.” And even though he didn’t need our validation, I think that we as an audience saw, again, this notion of family as we see now—if your family accepts you, that’s all you need.
Pecou: Right, right. That’s it. That’s it.
Hall: In current versions of black masculinity, in hip-hop, in Atlanta, what do you make of the related careers of (2nd generation Dungeon Family artists) Killer Mike and Future?
Pecou: Killer Mike is someone who, with or without the Dungeon Family, would be Killer Mike. From his upbringing as a child, he talks about how he was always in a book. I would love to have a book club with Killer Mike— that’s the kind of person that he is. Very well read, very thoughtful, even at a time when that wasn’t something that was necessarily considered cool. But he was always comfortable in his skin to do what it was that he wanted to do and say what he felt needed to be said.
Future is someone who still is somewhat enigmatic to me. I still haven’t quite figured out Future. But at the same time, I think that there is something to be said about the level of creativity and artistry that Future embodies. Content aside, what this guy does when he focuses his energy on creating is undeniable. His output is just ridiculous. It’s envelope-pushing. There are many people now who sound like Future, but Future’s not trying to be like anybody else; he’s not even trying to sound like the Dungeon Family. He’s reinvented the sound of the Dungeon Family, and that’s saying a great deal because the Dungeon Family put Southern hip-hop and that aesthetic on the map. And so, for someone to come along and then reinvent that as well is saying a lot.
Watching Killer Mike’s career path has been interesting. It began with a couple of verses on some Outkast joints [songs] and then he had a close relationship with Big Boi for a while and then he went away, doing his own thing but underground but then he came back, reinvented himself again. Well, not even necessarily reinvented. Just for some reason, I don’t know, a perfect storm, the visibility for him changed dramatically, and in doing so, people can see the man Killer Mike, not the rapper Killer Mike. We know him for his rap music, but we have a broader understanding of Killer Mike in all of these other capacities—as an activist, as a political body, as a commentator, as a pundit, as a dad, as an entrepreneur, as a husband. We see Killer Mike in all of these different uniforms, which again, speaks greatly to this notion of masculinity in hip-hop and bucking the system.
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I’m interested to see what happens with Future. I think he’s having a moment that is deserved. He’s worked hard to get to this point, but given the nature of hip-hop and its fickle relationship with its audience, I’m curious to see how he continues to develop. I think he’s still really young and still has a long way to go regarding his masculinity, growing into his masculinity, but I can’t project for Future. I can’t predict the future for Future.
Pecou: But I’m curious about it.
Hall: I’m wondering if Future’s lack of visible media access or speaking of the world as we know it will cause people to overlook his impact or what he has accomplished thus far, if and when the musical tastes change.
Pecou: That’s an interesting perspective. because I think Killer Mike stands out because we don’t expect rappers to have an opinion when it comes to politics, when it comes to social issues. We have become somehow—I don’t know when and where that switch happened—but we’ve become accustomed to rappers not having anything to say about those kinds of concerns. And Killer Mike stands out because not only does he have something say, but he also says it very articulately, and it’s difficult not to be influenced by what he says when he does say something.
And I think Future is silenced on, let’s say social issues [which] feeds into a narrative around hip-hop masculinity that I think is maybe encouraged by greater powers, for him not to say anything. When we hear about Future in the news, outside of his music, it’s typically something that has something to do with some bad boy antics or something gossipy. And this goes back to the earlier point I was making about earlier iterations of the Dungeon Family having the kind of liberties granted to them through their record label to do what it is that they do. We’re now more in an environment where someone like Future has labels and executives above who are controlling the narrative around him as opposed to him being able to control his narrative. And that may be something that he’s cool with, but maybe not. I don’t know. But I think it is interesting to see the different spin put on this generation of Dungeon Family as opposed to the early 90s when they were driving, they were behind the wheel. They weren’t being chauffeured through the industry the way Future is.
Hall: If your work was an album of any of the Dungeon Family’s albums, which album would it be?
Pecou: I think it would be a combination of Soul Food and Stankonia. Yeah…
Pecou: I don’t know if I’ve ever said this out loud, but I have a desire to create a visual experience that is similar to “Liberation,” which was probably one of the most powerful pieces ever to come out of Dungeon Family/Organized Noize as a collective. The bringing together of all of the artists to record this— I just wish I had been a part of that session. That was amazing to hear, to feel. I would love to do something on that level, a visual experience that does something like that. I don’t know what that looks like, but that’s like a secret fantasy of mine.