Once known as “the city too busy to hate,” Atlanta has seemingly turned into “the city too busy to remember.” In its desire to become a hybrid of New York’s grind and Los Angeles’ shine, many of the cultural landmarks that made the city what it once was have disappeared. Remember the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium where Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record? It's now a parking lot. Such streets of infamy as Stewart Avenue and Bankhead Highway have been renamed. Earwax Records got squeezed out by the iPod. Even the sports memorabilia shop Distant Replays is a distant memory. Compound that with the Atlanta Housing Authority's nearly completed plan to erase every last trace of housing projects from the landscape, and it seems the city's becoming a soul-less shell of its former self.
But on a recent August afternoon so humid and hazy it would leave local TV weathermen Glenn Burns and Ken Cook speechless, four recognizable brothers donned in throwback red Adidas jumpsuits stand outside the West End soul food restaurant Chanterelle's. They resemble a blast from the not-too-distant past.
“Gipp?” a random Atlanta native shouts out, spotting a member of the crew.
“'Sup, folk,” Big Gipp hollers back.
“Aw man! What you doing out here?”
“Just working. We got a show coming up.”
“Yep, come on out, folk.”
“Hell yeah! I’ll stab a nigga for y'all man, for real.”
“’Preciate it, folk,” Gipp laughs.
That's the kind of unrefined Southern hospitality only Goodie Mob could provoke. Since the crew's upcoming reunion concert was announced two months ago, Dirty South devotees have been crawling out of the woodwork hungry for the glory years of Atlanta hip-hop when, as Andre of OutKast memorably proclaimed nearly 15 years ago, "the South [had] something to say." Today, the four members of the Mob have convened upon Chanterelle's for a photo and video shoot that will re-create their original Soul Food album cover for a series of commercials and fliers designed to remind people of the impact their 1995 LaFace Records debut made.
Judging from one fan’s willingness to shank someone in honor of the group, Goodie Mob is far from forgotten. But much of what they stood for while expanding the Southern rap legacy, along with their southwest Atlanta-based Dungeon Family cohorts OutKast and Organized Noize, has long since been forsaken. While the scheduled Sept. 19 show at Masquerade Music Park is being billed as a night to "Remember Atlanta," Big Gipp, Khujo, T-Mo and Cee-Lo hope to make it a beacon for the future of the group and the city.
While Goodie Mob never acknowledged their split as an official breakup, it became hard to deny that things had gone awry when the three remaining members — minus a solo Cee-Lo — dropped the 2004 album with the not-so-subtle title: One Monkey Don't Stop No Show (Koch).
They've managed to put that period so far behind them that they're reluctant to talk about the creative differences that once severed the group. “We may have not been together in a working or professional capacity, but personally we were still family,” Cee-Lo says with a grin and glare that almost reveals more than his select words.
Though it's been 10 years since the group released an album with all four members present, they haven't exactly kept quiet. Gipp started out a solo career with 2003’s Mutant Mindframe (Koch) and later collaborated with Nelly’s St. Lunatic family. T-Mo and Khujo formed the Lumberjacks and released Livin' Life Like Lumberjacks (Koch) in 2005. Khujo also released a pair of solo albums and recently dropped a collaborative project, Georgiavania (Lex Records), with producer Jneiro Jarel under their Willie Isz moniker. Meanwhile, Cee-Lo released two solo albums himself before hooking up with some barely known mashup producer from Stone Mountain named Danger Mouse to form Gnarls Barkley. Their first single "Crazy" caused such a stir back in 2006 that artists ranging from Billy Idol to Beyoncé wound up putting their own spin on it.
Despite their individual endeavors, and Cee-Lo's startling success with Danger Mouse, die-hard fans continued to see the group as a force greater than the sum of its parts.
“I ran into Cee-Lo once around the time [Gnarls Barkley] had the No. 1 record with ‘Crazy,’" Gipp recalls, "and I had a hit record with ‘Grillz’ [featuring Nelly, Jermaine Dupri and Paul Wall]. But when people saw us together, none of that mattered. People asked us, ‘When is Goodie Mob getting back together?’ It's like no matter what we do, we’re still Goodie Mob.”
When Gipp (Cameron Gipp), Cee-Lo (Thomas Callaway), T-Mo (Robert Barnett) and Khujo (Willie Knighton Jr.) hit the scene with Soul Food, no one could have predicted the impact the album and group would have on Atlanta, the South or hip-hop at large. After all, they had to emerge from the shadow of success amassed by their Dungeon Family brethren OutKast just one year prior. Even that success was tempered by an East Coast/West Coast dominance that had ATLiens tuned into Bad Boy's notorious flows and Death Row's interplanetary G-funk. Despite OutKast's platinum-selling debut, it wasn't until the song "Dirty South" (track No. 4 on Soul Food) began to resonate in every ATL ’hood — "from Adamsville to Pool Creek" — that homegrown hip-hop heads began to rock those fitted Braves caps with pride.
The Dirty South represented more than a mere spot on the map. While Andre and Big Boi had cast themselves as quintessential Southern playas, Goodie Mob represented the city's ghetto renaissance man. Dubbed "hardcore with a conscious," they infused their rhymes with the cultural affluence and conviction of an Alonzo Herndon (Atlanta's first black millionaire), but lived the life and articulated the experience of someone who grew up in the very housing projects named after him. They found lyrical inspiration in everything from such new world order conspiracy tomes as Behold a Pale Horse to Old Testament parables from the Holy Bible.
“We always felt more like activists than artists,” says Cee-Lo. “We were fighting for the civil rights of Southern hip-hop, that’s why we had to be responsible.” Their 1998 follow-up Still Standing upped the ante in an era defined by Puff Daddy’s shiny suits and Master P’s No Limit fatigues.
“Awareness was higher [back then] than it is right now,” reflects T-Mo. “We were nothing but a spinoff of Public Enemy and NWA mixed all in one; we followed them. There’s groups that followed us, too. We raised these groups that are out right now.”
But with two gold albums to show for their efforts at LaFace at a time when the label was known for producing multiplatinum releases for such artists as OutKast, TLC, Usher and Toni Braxton, Goodie Mob sought further shine by shifting its musical agenda with 1999’s World Party. From the time the first singles, “Chain Swang” and “Get Rich to This,” hit Atlanta radio, Goodie fans felt perplexed. How did the group known for such lines as “I kinda like being poor/at least I know what my friends here for” revert to rapping about material wealth?
“On Soul Food we were humble,” Khujo says, offering an explanation. “On Still Standing we were rebellious. With World Party, we came down to y'all's level.”
The release wound up being Goodie Mob’s swan song and its last proper album together. Since then, Atlanta’s sound has drastically changed. With no father figures to continue ushering the movement, a bevy of young artists — from Pastor Troy to T.I. to Ludacris — laid stakes on the throne left vacant. Lil Jon followed suit, catapulting his burgeoning crunk subgenre into the mainstream. And fast on its tails came the snap-and-trap era, powered by a spectrum of artists ranging from D4L to Young Jeezy. Fast forward through a span of years in which only one OutKast album (Idlewild) was released, and it's evident that the Dungeon Family virtually became voiceless at a time when Atlanta hip-hop was reaping the benefits of the foundation it laid.
Now, with Atlanta’s biggest rap stars either incarcerated (T.I.) or flirting with Hollywood (Andre 3000), the playing field has been left wide open for new players including Gucci Mane, OJ da Juiceman and other flavor-of-the month artists to take the ball and run with it — often, with no real sense of direction.
“Today’s music entertains itself,” says Cee-Lo, pointing out how those among his generation had such elder statesmen as Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D to school them. "It's like babies having babies. It's not procreation, it's casual sex."
And it seems to give birth to a new Jeezy or Gucci Mane knock-off every month. But too few of today's Southern MCs are following in Goodie Mob's footsteps.
“It would be flattering if that fire would be lit by someone young. But truthfully, today’s music is just young kids being young," Cee-Lo says. "I was 17 years old when I wrote my verse on [OutKast’s] ‘Git Up, Git Out.’ We chose the road less traveled at a young age.”
From the start, Cee-Lo rapped with a spiritual authority that outstripped his years. Though he was the youngest in the crew, most fans always considered him the de facto leader — even if the rest of the members saw him as the baby bruh of the clique. But the experience he's earned since then makes his current role within Goodie clear-cut.
"Cee-Lo has always been the leader," Gipp acknowledges. "But this time it will be more recognized that he is the leader because of the things that he’s done. We were the big brothers at first because he was the youngest. When we didn’t know [it], he knew [it]. Us coming back into this situation, he can teach us more at this time. That’s nothing but leaning on who got you. Me, Jo and T recognize that now and everybody should know it."
As early as 2006, rumblings of a reunion began to surface. By late ’07, the group made it official by announcing on-air with Ryan Cameron of V-103 (WVEE-FM) their plans to reunite and record again. But two years later, the Mob still prefers to table premature talk of future release dates while they focus on stirring up anticipation for their return.
"Really, it ain’t about an album right now, it's all about this show," says Gipp. "We're gonna start with this show and it will put a resurgence in the people to buy the records. It’s a history lesson, because what we’re doing and what [the younger generation is] doing is not the same."
That missing ingredient initially inspired the promotions team behind the upcoming Remember Atlanta show to approach Goodie Mob about giving a reunion concert.
“I think this is needed for Atlanta,” says Jabari Graham, one-fourth of Shameless Plug. “Not knocking what’s going on right now, but I’m from here and there's a void. People in my age range have grown up, graduated college and are starting to have kids. But we still remember that it was groups like Goodie Mob and the Dungeon Family that raised us, and it felt like their contributions were starting to be forgotten.”
At a time when Atlanta’s urban music and nightlife has further split into three divergent camps — from black Hollywood to the club scene that grew out of MJQ to the straight hood-hop scene — a civil war of sorts has brewed: new Atlanta vs. old Atlanta. The split is a painstaking reminder of the mid-’90s, when an influx of transplants seeking cheaper mortgages and better salaries invaded the city. Back then, the only glue that held the town together was a common interest in real hip-hop.
“We're coming back into the game at the same time that we entered the game,” says Gipp. “We’re needed. It's surreal, but we know we got a job to do. That job, at the end of the day, is to let people know we still stand on the principles we did when we entered the game. That’s to push the boundaries and tell the truth."
And if the Dirty South's legacy is restored in the process, that's one less cat who has to shank a %$@!# for Goodie Mob's sake.