In the mid 1990s the south was riding a wave that was set to wash the slate clean. A young duo named OutKast stood defiant before a jeering crowd at the ’95 Source Awards. Master P’s No Limit Records approached its most prolific phase. The Geto Boys and UGK had already entered the hip hop hall of fame, leaving a trail of nationwide copycats in their wake. Decades of musical history passed down through ears and bloodlines had finally resurfaced in the most sophisticated rap to ever emerge from the states of Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas. It was a movement that would not only surpass the cloudless groove of Los Angeles and the bitter fatalism of New York but offer something entirely new to hip hop’s increasingly restless audience.
OutKast led the charge but Goodie Mob proved their success was more than a regional fluke. Incubated by the same community networks of Atlanta – most notably recording crew “The Dungeon Family” – the group released their debut album Soul Food following early appearances by central figures Cee-Lo and Big Gipp on OutKast singles such as ‘Git Up, Git Out’. The basement of Rico Wade – one-third of the local production trio Organized Noize – played host to these young hopefuls and encouraged lengthy freestyle sessions in the subterranean heat. Wade, Ray Murray, and Sleepy Brown had already honed a musical style that could squeeze the soul out of any instrumental lineup. Their production offered an entirely appropriate backdrop to Goodie Mob’s soul-searching tale of a salvation forever slightly beyond reach.
Soul Food celebrates the resilience needed to navigate a life of near constant pressure. The group detail the daily slow-burn struggle, not often thriving but simply surviving, hustling for the next elusive pay check. It’s the same kind of existential pain which teased the blues out of the Mississippi soil over one hundred years earlier – the endless labour, the gut-churning hunger, and the gnashing jaws of poverty. Cee-Lo’s plea to a higher power in the album’s opening chapter ‘Free’ is almost crushingly fatalistic, flirting with the idea of death as the realisation of a freedom which will not be achieved in life.
Despite this, Soul Food is far from a miserable experience. Amplified by Organized Noize’s dark, vintage, deeply-rhythmic production, Goodie Mob salvage real beauty from the detritus of defeat, sustaining the soulful yet gritty sound popularised by the likes of James Brown or Curtis Mayfield (whose studio in which the group recorded much of their debut). One of the album’s most sentimental moments, ‘Guess Who’ pays tribute to the maternal influence of women such as Cee-Lo’s mother, who passed away not long before Goodie Mob began recording. The tenderness of the song’s subject matter is almost offset by the caustic, through-gritted-teeth delivery of Khujo, who seems unwilling to let the mask of masculinity slip for even a moment. It speaks to the instincts of loyalty and protection provoked by having so little – as Cee-Lo summarises on ‘Thought Process’: “It would be nice to have more but I kinda like bein’ poor / At least I know what my friends here for.”.
That sense of pride and wisdom is rarely dimmed and present throughout Soul Food. The album’s two biggest singles, ‘Dirty South’ and ‘Cell Therapy’, both dwell on the moral ambiguities of crime and punishment. The former renders the dubious thrill of living outside the law, of having the drive to take what’s yours and make what you can on the drug trade’s black market. Skills are gained early and lessons are learned young, turning young men below 21 into world-weary survivalists. ‘Cell Therapy’ feels less like a celebration of this lifestyle, exploring instead the social ramifications of endless police raids and warring factions. This manifests in the kind of paranoia that nags the mind about a “new world order”, trained “assassins” of the United Nations, and the inevitability of a “race war” – an indictment of the severe distrust between the black community and local law enforcement.
Goodie Mob had trouble sustaining their success beyond the mid ‘90s due partly to inter-group tensions and the three-year gestation period of their followup; the underrated Still Standing. Fellow dungeon family members OutKast continued on the upward trajectory thanks to the success of classic albums such as ATLiens and their masterpiece Aquemini, which set the high watermark for southern rap in the decades that followed. But while Andre 3000 and Big Boi were an incredibly inventive and singular force they arguably failed to capture the realism of everyday life in the same way that Goodie Mob did. The group’s lack of artistic pretension is what made their music so interesting. Soul Food is the broken heart of Atlanta’s hiphop community.