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; 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 unmistakably dank aroma of weed, dirt, and chicken wings, he and fellow Organized Noize members Patrick “Sleepy” Brown and Ray Murray tailored 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 were given the opportunity to hone their craft in a very distinct Southern familial environment.
Organized Noize remain among the most respected producers in music. Their most impressive contributions extend 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 The Art of Organized Noize shows that Organized Noize’s most respectable quality was 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 present 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 velvety slide of Brown’s voice and his knack for songwriting, and Wade's top-level architecture, Organized Noize brought the complete opposite to the table. Director Quincy Jones lll, who also dabbled in music production, was blown away by the Organized Noize sound after L.A. Reid gave him a preview during LaFace Records' early days.
“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 transcendent 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 cloudy when college isn’t an option due to lack of interest, a solid academic background, or the 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 cousin who transitioned from Outkast’s DJ to producing Grammy-winning songs for the group, explained during the documentary. Of all the acts in Organized Noize's stable, 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 thrust everything honed in the Dungeon into the mainstream.
Initial introductions are always raw, primarily when they involve artists either 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 add up to the Dungeon maxim of the early ‘90s. “Ain’t No Thang” was all youthful aggression, a recklessness 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, was inspirational in its aggrieved restlessness. 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—particularly all of the players and hustlers in low-riders, ‘77 Sevilles, El Dorados, and Cadillacs—with such vivid specifics, 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 helped push the sales of TLC’s CrazySexyCool to diamond status, but also paved the way for Wade, Brown, and Murray to produce “Don’t Let Go (Love)” for En Vogue and earn 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 euphoric 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 the core. While Organized Noize worked with new artists, Outkast and Goodie Mob relied on them less. There were fewer appearances 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 reached their crown—claiming the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2004 with their own diamond album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—they did it without Organized Noize because Wade, Brown, and Murray raised them 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 underscores 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, 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 extolled 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.”
The Dungeon Family has outgrown the Dungeon, but not each other. Shared experiences, especially those involving a unifier like music, create indestructible bonds. Despite not receiving the merit they're worthy of, Organized Noize is revered within the music industry and responsible for an influential ripple within Southern hip-hop. The Dungeon Family is an extended one, as Future, Rico Wade’s cousin, is the current exalted scion of their eccentricity. Young Thug, Father and the Awful Records camp, and even Raury, as Cee-Lo said during the film, are descendants, falling under the family tree due to a shared creative trait that originated in Southeast Atlanta nearly 30 years ago.
The Art of Organized Noize celebrates underappreciated legends with the purple-hued Behind the Music they deserve. But, more importantly, it dissects the true art of Organized Noize: some of the best music ever created, without question, and a commitment to family and sense of community.