1999 was an awkward year for rap music. Its latest white savior released his debut album, his mentor doubled up on classics with a squeaky clean sophomore LP, and Jay Z eclipsed the popularity of “Hard Knock Life” with an even bigger anthem alongside the Underground Kingz. Things were definitely a-changing.
Beneath the rapid commercialization of the genre, rappers were still making “underground” classics: Mos Def dropped his magnum opus, as did MF DOOM, while groups like Lootpack broke onto the scene and the Roots cemented their legacy in hip-hop. But the end of the ’90s was, quite literally, the end of an era. Cash Money Records began to flirt with radioactivity once Juvenile dropped 400 Degreez in November of 1998, just as the No Limit tank began to run out of gas. The torch was passed from one black-owned record label to another with a clear message: don’t loosen your grip on the mainstream’s neck.
Cool Breeze didn’t quite fit into that narrative. A member of the prestigious Dungeon Family and inventor of the term “Dirty South,” he was neither as out there as OutKast, nor as country as Goodie Mob. He was just Frederick Bell, a drug dealer (at least on wax) who simultaneously knew about the Lemonhead Delight and what schools taught black youths (“You was bought/You was sold”). He balanced the block and the classroom, which wasn’t exactly marketable at the turn of the century.
Or so the conventional wisdom went.
Breeze slowly made his name between ’95 and ’97, appearing on Soul Food and ATLiens as well as soundtracks for “Hoodlum” and “Set It Off,” while also dropping guest verses for Witchdoctor, Mista, and Lil’ Will. He was diligent, if not spectacular, delivering solid contributions without overshadowing anyone. In 1998, however, he signed to Interscope Records (via DF maestro Rico Wade) and a year later released East Points Greatest Hits, a project that would propel him from regional act to breakthrough MC.
The album was powered by the huge lead single “Watch For The Hook,” featuring ‘Kast and principal Goodie Mob members. Organized Noize strayed from their usual style with a sample (Merry Clayton’s “Southern Man”) and the single entered heavy rotation on MTV, boosting Dungeon Family’s profile to previously unknown heights.
East Points Greatest Hits was produced almost entirely by Organized Noize, the in-house production trio that molded the sound of every seminal Dungeon Family project. Album opener “Ghetto Camelot” conjures an outlandish image that’s bolstered by the frumpy horns of the first five seconds. They’re cut short and swiftly replaced with strings and DJ cuts, complete with a spoken intro fit for an epic poem. Breeze recalls the trap bumpin’ and balancing a triple beam as he tells the story of moving from Cleveland Avenue to Washington Road. These aren’t the abstract musings of Andre 3K or the growling grievances of Khujo. These are tactile raps with breathing characters like Paulie and Michelle. You can almost feel the particles from the dust road swirl into your lungs as Whild Peach meanders on the outro, singing of her search for “something that’s really something.” It’s almost metaphysical. In just over four minutes, the message is clear—this is a radically different journey than any other you’ve made into Southern rap territory.
What sticks out about the front half of the album are the concepts that Breeze uses as foundations for his songwriting. On “Good Good,” there isn’t any tangible storyline or deep meaning—he’s just saying the same word twice at the end of every couple lines (“I remember when I came came, I didn’t have to ask nobody in the streets to scream my name name.”) Like the last verse on De La Soul’s “The Magic Number,” it’s an almost laughably basic idea, but when you hear it in motion, it’s catchier than any hook a stiff studio exec could force.
“Watch For The Hook” made it onto TV and burst Breeze out above the Mason-Dixon line, but “CreAtine” created a splash nationally as well. Before every line, a background vocalist repeats, “I got people who…” while Breeze fills in the blank (“Who took what they got, who live for the fame/Who run from their problems, who drink to maintain.”) Simplifying things can make a world of difference to the listener.
You could say that Breeze was one of the first true Trap Rappers, if you based that distinction on drug dealing and not production aesthetics. Breeze is a neighborhood dude who loves cutty as much as the next man, but he’s also a “Black Gangster,” detailing drug deals with a level of immersion heretofore unseen in Dungeon Family releases. OutKast might wax poetic about drug-riddled peers and Goodie Mob might rail against the politics of narcotics, but Cool Breeze is the one making a living on the block. Every verse on “Black Gangster” is a zoom-in to a different character—a kingpin, a street runner, an “out of town player.” Breeze brings us right up to these guys and makes us shake their hands. They’re very real people, of flesh and bone. No fancy metaphors or rhyme structures. Like Nice Guy Eddie, nothing fancy.
They say God is in the details, and ONP must have summoned divine intervention for East Points. Whether it’s the Fender Rhodes on “Weeastpointin,” the stuttered drum programming of “Hit Man,” or the talkbox on “Doin’ It In The South,” Organized Noize didn’t skimp on the musical easter eggs. The creed of many artists is to create as if no one is watching. East Points didn’t fare well commercially, but it’s crafted with carpenters precision. It’s the small things that matter.
Cool Breeze is often forgotten in the Dungeon Family nostalgia. His rhyme style wasn’t extreme, but rather withdrawn. Like Witchdoctor, he has a classic to be proud of, even if it’s his only major-label release. DF as a whole created a new space for a Southern rap market by wedging themselves into a gap, and it led to the expansion of not only the Southern sound, but it’s perception by a national audience. What East Points teaches us is to ignore the hype. Sit down with an album that you’ve never heard discussed ad infinitum. Digest it on your own without the biases of outside opinions. Then see how you feel about it. It might change your life.