An Atlanta Utopia For The Rest Of Us: The Art Of Organized Noize

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on the foundation of Atlanta hip-hop

In 1994, the title track from the debut OutKast album, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” hit the airwaves, and just like that, kids like me who had barely been outside of Ohio saw Atlanta for the first time. Even before the video arrived, if I pressed "play" on that song in a dark room, I could see the gleaming Cadillac grilles across the ceiling, feel a new warmth pressing through the walls, feel the sweat of a band hard at work. All that was due to the magic of Atlanta production team Organized Noize. The new Netflix documentary The Art of Organized Noize serves as both a celebration of their work and a melancholy meditation on unrealized potential.

In an earlier era, producers were unsung heroes, celebrated in the studio and nowhere else. What rap allowed for in the ’90s was a platform where the producer could also be a star. A producer could leave a mark, could dictate our understanding of a scene and its sound. Bad Boy had Puff Daddy’s Hitmen, Death Row had Dr. Dre and Daz Dillinger’s haunting instrumentation. And in Atlanta, there was Organized Noize, the production team made up of Rico Wade, Sleepy Brown, and Ray Murray, a trio that managed to build walls of sound that were frantic and sublime. Drawing on vintage funk, live instrumentation, and unexpected samples, their songs were a complete clinic of sound, of how to use the studio itself as an instrument.

Organized Noize came from where their artists came from. When someone is rapping about the same hood you danced out of, you know what kind of sound they need. OutKast’s debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and the first Goodie Mob album, Soul Food, gave a clear window into a city. Its history, its struggles and triumphs, its place in the world. That window existed because of the rappers themselves, but also because of the rich and palpable world built in the production of Organized Noize. Their beats were rapturous waves of sound, ones that grabbed you and demanded sweat. Each instrument wrote its own separate gospel, converged in the center, and built a new, holy noise.

In the documentary, members of Organized Noize talk about their legacy, bracketed by clips of their collaborators and friends: Ludacris, Goodie Mob’s Big Gipp, and even Puff Daddy, who enters the frame with a hasty air of noblesse oblige, claiming, “It’s my birthday. That’s how you know I love Organized Noize. I’m doing this on my birthday.” About halfway through, it’s clear the documentary is here to plant a flag in the ground rather than speak on the depth of Organized Noize’s history as beatmakers and influencers. It doesn’t do much to shift the narrative of Organized Noize as an unheralded team of geniuses, doesn’t open the door on their work. Merely by existing, the documentary informs an entire generation of rap music fans that these people were architects of a sound that became foundational to Atlanta’s musical and cultural dominance.

When the documentary turns to talk of TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Organized Noize’s greatest success, there is a melancholy tone in Rico Wade’s voice. So many artists chase the song that changes everything, but once it arrives, it’s hard to walk in the life it leaves you with. “Waterfalls” got Organized Noize money, a massive deal with Interscope, and unfettered access to all they wanted — everything but more hits. From there they produced a couple of respectable albums (Cool Breeze’s East Point’s Greatest Hit and Witchdoctor’s A S.W.A.T. Healin' Ritual), but nothing beyond that point matched even their smaller successes with Goodie Mob and OutKast. The groups they’d help raise had in turn started to produce for themselves. As Sleepy Brown says, “We taught them the Dungeon Family formula, so they didn’t really need to work with us anymore.” His tone is measured: a tangle of pride and sadness.

As the documentary winds down, there are stills of Organized Noize in the studio with newer, younger rappers like Nipsey Hussle, J. Cole, and Future. “It’s different now,” Rico Wade says. “We go into the studio with these young rappers, and they don’t know what they want from us. They just want us to create the sound that we used to. But … it’s just not that easy.”

It can’t be easy to build the Taj Mahal and then be asked to do it again with new tools, in a country that loves what you built but does not know your name. Organized Noize asked me to imagine gold rims and thick-leaved trees blocking out an impossible sun in a city that did not look like my own. I celebrate them for this. I still hear them in every song that asks me to imagine a different kind of home.