One of the most important, if often overlooked, moments in the history of Atlanta music is a four-minute song called "Wind," recorded in 1995 by the short-lived R&B group Society of Soul. An understated groove with breathy, barely there vocals, the track is essentially a showcase for an extended alto sax solo. Seen in another light, it's a point of convergence for two generations of Atlanta musicians, with a dramatic spoken-word introduction: "Organized Noize would like to present 'Wind,' featuring Jimmy Brown, formerly of Brick, and also my dad," says the group's lead singer, Patrick "Sleepy" Brown.
A five-member funk outfit remembered for "Soul Train"-approved dance-floor stomps such as "Dazz" and "Ain't Gonna Hurt Nobody," Brick was at the forefront of the Atlanta music scene in the late '70s, and as frontman, Jimmy Brown was its wild-eyed center of gravity. It's a legacy that Sleepy Brown has taken seriously, and as an accomplished solo artist and one-third of the Organized Noize production trio, responsible for classic albums by groups like OutKast and Goodie Mob, Sleepy is every bit as central to the story of Atlanta music as his father. He even says as much himself with the title of his latest EP, ATL = A-Town Legend, his first release in seven years.
A compact, six-song EP, ATL = A-Town Legend nevertheless covers a lot of territory, ranging from the hard-driving funk of "Some of That" to the haunting, neo-soul centerpiece, "You're My Lady," also featuring spoken interludes courtesy of Dungeon Family poet laureate Big Rube and Barry White's son, Darryl. Like all of Brown's best work, it's steeped in the sonic signatures of previous decades, evoking the subtle, instrumental flourishes of blaxploitation soundtracks and Leon Ware's sensual arrangements. But it also remains equally committed to looking forward, to the pop idiosyncrasy and experimentation that made his name.
"It's hard to sit back and watch people wondering, 'Where the hell is Sleepy Brown?'" he says on the phone from the outskirts of Las Vegas. It's where he's lived for the past couple of years, following an extended and unrewarding stint in Los Angeles. "Nobody wants to work out there, they want to party," he says of the latter city. "Vegas calmed me down."
To hear him tell it, Brown moved west for opportunity, but found its opposite. For all intents and purposes, he's been in exile. "I've been off the scene for years now," Brown offers wearily. "It's hard to get back in this game when you haven't been in it like that. People don't answer their phones. Nobody expects anything anymore."
Fragmentation and dispersal — this has been the fate of the Dungeon Family, whose spaced-out gospel swagger spearheaded the rise of Southern rap in the '90s. Coming out of the local b-boy scene that spawned old-school dances like the Yeek, Brown and the other members of Organized Noize, Rico Wade and Ray Murray, were the architects of the Family's sound, and each one brought a different set of influences to the table. "I'm more of a funk guy, that's my era," Brown says. "Rico's more of a ghetto rock star, and Ray was more of a New York-style producer, the one who taught us about sampling." The result was one of the great, distinctly regional aesthetics in hip-hop, a dark wall of sound welding live funk arrangements to stark 808s and swirling, sci-fi organs.
"All we wanted to do was give Atlanta a voice," he says, and with the consecutive releases of OutKast's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, TLC's "Waterfalls," and Goodie Mob's Soul Food, they succeeded. There followed a series of personal projects from Brown, beginning with the Society of Soul album, Brainchild, and continuing with two solo albums, 1998's The Vinyl Room (credited to Sleepy's Theme) and 2006's Mr. Brown, all of them stunning, consistently underappreciated collections of progressive R&B. In between was another record, Phunk-O-Naut, that was shelved by his label, Dreamworks, for being "too different."
He's collaborated with several of his icons along the way, from the late Curtis Mayfield, whom Brown says was "like an angel," to the late Pimp C, "my best friend and my brother." But through it all, he remains best known for the hooks he sang on such era-defining OutKast singles as "Player's Ball" and "So Fresh, So Clean."
Of late, though, the collaborator most often on his mind has been his father. Working on the new release, he says he thought of Atlanta, and of the first time he saw his father perform. "My grandma told me that my mouth was to the floor," he says laughing, "and I was smiling, and looked back at her and said, 'This is what I want to do.'"
If the EP's title didn't make it clear, Georgia is still very much on Brown's mind. "I'm going back to the A soon," he says, "I just need to finish what I started out here."