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To Campbellton like Camelot

Even in Darkness, the Dungeon Family dreams the impossible dream


The 14-plus members of the Dungeon Family could do far worse than associate themselves, as they have, with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Like the chivalrous noblemen of legend, Atlanta's most accomplished hip-hop makers form a brotherhood of soldiers, brought together by common values, comparable talents and noble aspirations, collectively sharing an elevated stature in the land they honor and call home. As such, they exist -- like Arthur's knights -- partly in reality and partly in mythology. Or, as the case may be, self-mythology.

You can't miss the connection drawn on the cover of the Dungeon Family's new album, Even in Darkness, the first collective release by the crew comprised of producers Organized Noize, the groups OutKast, Goodie Mob and Society of Soul, and solo rappers Cool Breeze, Backbone and Witchdoctor. There they are, in circular formation, adorned in chain mail, breastplates, sorcerer's robes and other outlandish accessories.

Arthurian imagery also appears on record -- in the rousing, orchestrated gospel-soul of "Excalibur," where Society of Soul's Big Rube and the members of Goodie Mob wax historical, mystical and downright apocalyptic on everything from the very real Atlanta child killings to the metaphorical snatching of "the sword up out the stone." It's also heard on the honey-sweet, P-Funky "Trans DF Express," on which OutKast's Big Boi relates the Dungeon Family's SWATs (Southwest Atlanta) to Arthur's legendary realm: "Dungeon Family got my sword and shield/To Campbellton like Camelot let's smoke a joint and chill."

Sure, it's a laughable overstatement -- anyone who's been to Greenbriar Mall knows it ain't no royal castle. But like a band of Dirty South dons Quixote, the Dungeon Family knows the quest -- for fraternity and uplift -- is the thing. Their delusions of grandeur turn charming, even mock-heroic in the best possible sense.

If the Dungeon Family had a King Arthur, it would have to be Rico Wade, the 29-year-old producer and facilitator who serves as the crew's de facto figurehead. It was in the red-clay basement of his mom's Lakewood house that, nearly a decade ago, he and his Organized Noize partners -- fellow musical Merlins Ray Murray and Pat "Sleepy" Brown -- first set up a studio they dubbed the Dungeon. And it's in his current house -- moved to the basement of his estate off Cascade Road, in a far ritzier section of the SWATs -- that the Dungeon continues to churn out the kind of first-rate R&B, funk and hip-hop that populates Even in Darkness.

On an early November afternoon, Wade and Murray sit in the Dungeon's control room, sharing a blunt in celebration of their reunion. It has been three months since they've seen each other, since before Murray left for L.A. to work on Raphael Saadiq's solo album and the score to the upcoming Ali film. While a handful of younger guys -- collectively known as the Dungeon Family's second generation -- hang out on the couch watching videos in the next room, Wade and Murray recount how the Dungeon Family first came together.

Most members knew at least one or two others from as far back as elementary school. But the first to get together musically were Wade and Sleepy Brown, as part of a late-'80s vocal/dance group Uboyz. While Sleepy had grown up surrounded by music -- the son of Jimmy Brown, the multi-instrumentalist leader of Atlanta's popular '70s jazz/funk band, Brick -- Wade had little musical background or ability. "I can't sing, I was just fly, a local celebrity," says Wade. "I had a car, girls liked me, I had a perm. I danced and I looked like I sang. I was the hustling nigga; I was the one who knew how to get money."

Murray was the DJ/producer in a group with Goodie Mob MC Big Gipp, and he hooked up with Wade through Gipp. After helping out with recording some Uboyz demos, Murray teamed up permanently with Wade and Sleepy, reactivating the name of a short-lived girl group Wade and Sleepy had put together, Organized Noize.

At first, their roles were specialized: Murray, with his hip-hop DJ background, provided the beats; Brown, who sang and played instruments, took care of the melodies and arrangements; and Wade, whose main access to music was as a consumer, served as consulting producer -- the guy, Murray says, "who'd be like, 'OK, that sounds dope.'"

Their first professional production job came in 1992 with P.A., a local rap trio who'd signed with singer-turned-label-head Peri "Pebbles" Nixon's Savvy Records. While P.A. remain peripheral Dungeon Family members (P.A.'s Mello shows up on Even in Darkness), Organized Noize weren't fully satisfied with that first producing collaboration.

"We had just finished the P.A. album and were having some creative differences," Murray recalls. "They as artists wanted to see themselves one way, and we as producers saw the music going in a different direction. Me and Rico were out front of this hair products store that Rico worked at, and we were saying to ourselves, 'Man, we need two fly-ass MCs from Atlanta, two young cats that we can really help shine and nurture.' Right after we said that, these two bald-headed dudes came walking over the hill."

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