Words by Tai Saint-Louis
Twenty years ago, Goodie Mob delivered what is arguably the most underrated classic Hip-Hop album to have come out of the ’90s. Soul Food defined Atlanta and its musical legacy; gave us one of the most easily recognizable, sample free Hip-Hop beats; coined one of the most overused slang phrases (what y’all really know about the “Dirty South?”) and established the atmosphere that would allow Outkast to take its rightful place in the Rap pantheon. “There was a revolution going on in music itself,” says founding member Big Gipp of the climate that gave birth to Goodie’s debut project. “We had always had heroes in Atlanta like Raheem The Dream and Shy D and Ichiban Records. But once L.A. Reid and Babyface really got a swing of they thing and really started showing us how to make records, that was the first time that we could say that we were playing ball on a national level and we had leaders that had earned their stripes to be able to represent artists. Cuz you have to remember: there’s a first wave of LaFace artists that didn’t sell any records. The second wave started with TLC, Outkast and us and that was a new beginning for Atlanta.
“Atlanta was its own little city fighting a battle to be looked at and recognized on a national scale as far as music,” he continues. “And we were different from everybody else that was coming from Hip-Hop labels. We was on an R&B label, doing hardcore Hip-Hop and it was the Southern version of what Hip-Hop was. Our main thing was just making sure that people were gonna respect our pen and they were gonna respect our ability to be great artists. And I think we won the war.” Yet somehow, Soul Food and Goodie Mob never quite make it into those “classic” conversations, which is ironic because part of what shaped this project was a determination to attain Hip-Hop recognition.
When Cee-Lo, Big Gipp, T-Mo and Khujo Goodie began working on their debut album in late 1994, the harsh reality of Hip-Hop acceptance had just smacked them in the face. “We had invited the world in, our sound was out there,” recalls Organized Noize co-founder Rico Wade. “Goodie Mob had been introduced. Cee-Lo had just got ‘Rap of the Month’ in The Source [for his verse on Outkast’s ‘Git Up, Git Out’]… But we had also just won The Source Awards and got booed in New York. So they were confident, but we were still fighting that battle for New York.”
For the Dungeon Family, Soul Food was an opportunity to prove that Outkast had not been a fluke; a chance to back up Three Stacks’s infamous proclamation that the South had something to say. “Dre, Cee-Lo and Big Boi, they were the same age,” explains Gipp. “The rest of us, we they OGs. We 3-4 years older than them. Cee-Lo was still in high school when we started working on the album. So it was the conscious decision of the older guys to be like, ‘We gon’ be about something! They gon’ have to respect us.’ We already knew what they was gon’ say in New York. But our thing was…you not going to be able to say we can’t rap; you not gonna say our beats is your beats and we not doing what y’all do. We gon’ do our own thing and we got the nuts to do it and we talented enough to do it.”
They made that abundantly clear with the release of their first single, “Cell Therapy.” “At the time, I think Jeru The Damaja had just dropped [“Come Clean”] and Craig Mack had dropped “Flava In Ya Ear,” both with really empty beats,” says Wade. “I knew Goodie Mob could rap, I knew that we had melody already, so I knew we could make it with just a hard beat, a really dope Hip-Hop beat.” Naturally, LaFace – which had signed Outkast because of the success of Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” and had pushed the mellow “Player’s Ball” to national success – was less than eager to get behind this dark, politically charged indictment of a very real impending New World Order. “On the first single, the business people like myself and L.A. Reid, we were like, ‘We’ve gotta make sure that y’all connected to Outkast’,” says Goodie Mob’s former manager Bernard Parks. “And their thing was, ‘We gotta make sure that we’re different from Outkast, or else we’re just Outkast’s little brothers.’”
“So after the battle went back and forth about ‘Thought Process’ (which featured Andre 3000) being the single and we went with ‘Cell Therapy,’ it was so different that L.A. and them were scared,” continues Parks. “So they made them put Outkast’s ‘Benz or Beamer’ on the B-side of their single.” Despite the label’s apprehension and an MTV ban, “Cell Therapy” remains the biggest hit of Goodie Mob’s career and, according to Wade, Organized Noize’s most sampled track.
Famously influenced by Busta Rhymes’ copy of Behold A Pale Horse, which Gipp says was passed around The Dungeon for each member of the crew to read, Soul Food came through with the same gritty realness as its first single. It introduced the world to a side of Atlanta no one outside of the city had seen before, where 13-year-olds like Gipp’s childhood friend committed suicide to avoid the consequences of a petty crime, 13-year-old girls exposed themselves to every Tom, Dick and Hank, and mamas were just as likely to bail their sons out of some mess as they were to whoop their asses for ending up there to begin with.
They also completed the image of Southern culture Outkast had started to introduce on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. “Martin Luther King Jr. is from Downtown Atlanta,” says Gipp. “For us, that meant something. We grew up with Civil Rights leaders like Andrew Young and [radio legend] Alley Pat. When we made music, we actually felt like we had to do something to make those guys proud of us. That’s why it’s always been a message in our music, because we always felt like they were listening. And if they were listening, we wanted to make sure that we represented what an Atlanta Black man and what the culture of Atlanta is to the world correctly. Outkast brought the playeristic, the pimpin’, the Cadillacs, the culture. Goodie Mob brought you the backbone. We brought you the Southern gangsta, we brought you the Southern minister.”
The carefully prepared Soul Food struck the perfect balance between the real life hood reporting of “Sesame Street,” the true Gospel of “Free,” and the lightheartedness of the title track with a pinch of Pro-Black politics sprinkled throughout: “Live at the O.M.N.I.” was inspired by Atlanta’s Rodney King riots and the idea of starting a revolution Downtown, near the Omni Center; on “Soul Food,” Cee-Lo sneaks in “Fast food got me feeling sick; them crackers think they slick; by tryna make this bullshit affordable.” Parks calls hearing the completed album for the first time one of his proudest moments. “It was a classic and you knew it sitting there,” he remembers. “You didn’t know what was gonna be first but you could tell. Because it was personal. When you listen to West Coast [music], you felt like you were gangbangin’, even though you’ve never been on Crenshaw, you ain’t know what Cube was talking about. But it made you feel like you understood. Really, at that time, Atlanta had no identity. And Goodie Mob defined it.”
“We was eager for our turn,” says Gipp of the album’s arrival in stores. “Nobody had songs likes ‘Dirty South.’ I was excited for people to hear songs like ‘One Million N***as Inside” with Cool Breeze. We wanted to show the world! ‘Oh, y’all thought it was just six of us? It’s way more than that! And we all spitters! I knew that we were bringing more to the game than Outkast did. It was more of the same. And it was such a contrast and different direction in music.”
Unfortunately, that contrast may be why Hip-Hop has relegated Goodie Mob to this role as Outkast’s slightly less-cool cousins. Where ’90s crews like the Wu-Tang Clan, Death Row and No Limit presented a unified front, the Dungeon Family’s insistence on showcasing the individuality of their two marquee groups may have caused a disconnect for some fans, even if, internally, there was never a competition. “Our fight wasn’t they fight,” Gipp says of the perceived rivalry. “We always felt like Outkast was our lighter side. But we wanted to be the freedom fighters. We were the defenders of the South. Anywhere we were, people knew they weren’t about to disrespect the South and not have to deal with us.”
“We were young, with no experience,” Parks offers. “Outkast and Goodie Mob never went on tour together. And that absolutely ended up being a disservice to all of them. They could have made a way bigger impact. By the time it was over with, Outkast just encompassed everybody which is the reason why they kept getting bigger once they had a commercial radio record. Goodie Mob never had that commercial hit.” What could have been Goodie Mob’s early crossover hit, “Soul Food,” “cracker” reference and all, was killed by a trademark dispute.
“All of the promotion around ‘Soul Food’ was based on artwork that came from LaFace,” explains Parks. “And the guy took the Tabasco hot sauce label and did our single artwork, our promo merch, everything was around that record and around Tabasco. We were on the road and the Tabasco people sent a cease and desist, told us to pull everything off the shelves, all that kind of stuff. We had all this merch, and we were like, ‘Man, we just gonna keep selling this stuff on the road.’ A month or two later, they sent another one, ‘Y’all still selling merchandise on the road.’ That’s when we knew it was serious cuz we didn’t really think the shit was that big for them to be messing with us about selling shirts on the road! But they never did go back and redo the artwork or anything. At that point, LA was like, ‘Y’all solid gold. Don’t even worry about it. Go back in and do it all over again.’”
The group followed up Soul Food with Still Standing in 1998 and World Party in 1999, both achieving Gold sales status. However, Cee-Lo would leave the group to pursue a solo career and their 2004 release One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show showed just how much Cee-Lo’s contributions meant to the group.
“I praise Cee-Lo,” says Wade. “Because when he went and did Gnarls Barkley and showed the world who he was, it opened up the doors to change the tempo for that last Goodie Mob album. Wherever he went, that’s where Goodie Mob has gone. So he expanded the picture, but we can’t leave spaces empty.”
The group reunited for 2013’s Age Against The Machine, hoping to capitalize off of Cee-Lo’s strong television popularity, but it went largely overlooked by fans and critics alike.
“I just feel like we shoulda been involved more,” continues Wade. “I think what Cee-Lo was doing was the right vibe, but it needed our original foundation. On this very last album, they needed some of that underground following. Cuz they were never founded in radio like that. Y’all woulda been better off making a jazz/blues album and it woulda been loved on the underground, because that’s who y’all are. Y’all can still go to these new horizons, but you can never leave who y’all were. Y’all were the jazz and the blues; it wasn’t meant to be as commercial. It was meant for us. Those guys are the epitome of who made it out and the conditions they made it out of.”
And so 20 years later, the anniversary of Soul Food passes with nary a special or tribute. No documentaries or anniversary concerts. No more than tons of accolades on social media, lost on a Saturday amidst college football drama and debates about alleged homelessness at Howard University.
Beyond Hip-Hop’s short memory, however, is that elephant in the room. “The thing with Cee-Lo hurt the whole group,” admits Wade, referring to Green’s legal troubles related to a 2012 incident. “Because the group was touring, they had the TV show. It was gonna lead up perfect to right now, the 20th anniversary. We probably woulda had a big concert. But it hurt the energy of the group and we’re not celebrating it enough right now. But I can’t let it go unnoticed. It meant something. Goodie Mob doesn’t get the notoriety that they deserve.”
As for Gipp, he doesn’t feel that same sense of bittersweet nostalgia. “It’s just the joy of still being able to be a force in music in a business that’s not designed for us to make it that long,” he says. “Especially being from my era. It’s just great to know that our fans know that we’re still together, the business hasn’t torn us apart, our kids still hang together and we still cool. And I just don’t think it’s no other group of men that came in the business at the ages we did and they still together like this.”