“What these fellas did for the city of Atlanta and hip-hop, not just southern hip-hop, is monumental,” says ONE Musicfest creator J Carter of the Dungeon Family. It’s the same sentiment many hip-hop heads have reserved exclusively for the ATL-based hip-hop/soul collective, whose members have included a range of talents including Rico Wade, OutKast‘s Big Boi and Andre 3000, Goodie Mob‘s Big Gipp, Khujo, T-Mo and Cee Lo Green, as well as Killer Mike, Slimm Calhoun, BlackOwned C-Bone and Backbone. The Family first appeared on the scene 23 years ago, with extraterrestrial flows and styles that put their native Southern metropolis on the map.
Earlier this month, the entire crew (minus Khujo, who was dealing with health issues) took center stage at the Lakewood Amphitheater in Georgia’s capital. The group’s first-ever reunion show went down at ONE Musicfest, in the process reviving the soul of Atlanta, which has shifted with its ever-evolving music scene to see the rise of crunk, trap and a mix of everything in between.
After a stellar performance, several members of the Dungeon Family caught up with Billboard to discuss their joyous homecoming, the key to longevity in a here-today-gone-tomorrow industry and what the future holds for the trend-setting pioneers.
Why was now the right time for a Dungeon Family reunion?
Rico Wade: Well to begin, I’m a fan. I’m a part of the Dungeon Family but when OutKast did the 20-year anniversary tour, I realized we didn’t do a lot of the D.F. stuff and [our debut] Even in Darkness was approaching its 15-year anniversary without [us] ever performing songs on that album. So the fact that we got to do some of them was a dream come true for me.
I’m hoping it can be the beginning of something new, because we’ve never really gone out as a new brand. Of course everyone knows the brand, which is reassuring, but we also knew how important it was that we hold our flags for Atlanta like other crews in hip-hop have done. If we couldn’t get back together and do stuff, then something’s wrong.
Big Gipp: Yeah, some of those songs we hadn’t done since the conception. We’ve only probably performed “Trans DF Express” once, and we never performed “Home Alone” live, so it was like a homecoming. It’s something I think we’ve been owing the city for a long time. To see the city still loving all of our verses was great. People were crying, falling out on some Michael Jackson s–t. I was tripped out, but at the same time, I really got to see how much we really mean to these people on the low.
Backbone: To the public it was a reunion, but for us it was more of an offering, because we see each other a lot. I run into Big Boi just about every day over at Stankonia [Studios], I speak to Gipp, I talk to Cee Lo, Andre randomly. So we’re always in touch because we’re a brotherhood before the music. I had just done the Funkfest with Goodie Mob last year, but to do it as one unit, the entire Dungeon Family, that was something very special. The city really showed love.
BlackOwned C-Bone: I had a great time. It was definitely what we needed for the city at the time. It was like medicine. See, Atlanta is split up these days. You’ve got [affluent district] Buckhead, you’ve got your out-of-towners, but we’re from Atlanta, so the real Atlanta natives needed something for their soul.
Slimm Calhoun: It was a blessing. We’ve been doing music for so long, and to have people still that interested in what you did so long ago is great. The first single I had was “It’s OK,” which actually came out 16 years ago. So to still have people react and still want to hear that vibe is always a beautiful thing.
Can you recall what that first rehearsal was like?
Ray Murray: The first rehearsal was the first time we had all gotten back together. Everyone was there, minus 3000 and Khujo. Khujo couldn’t actually perform for physical health reasons. 3000 was just not here yet and was still trying to figure out how he was going to perform. He’s very conscious of all of his moves, but it wasn’t a thing of isolation or singling out, as much as it was the logistics and timing. Most of the time, that’s primarily what it’s about.
It was electric. The closest thing to it is probably the show, but the practice was better than the show. The only other time close to it was when guys were trying to get signed, before any songs were done. So, there will be no precedent for the first practice for the show, as there is no precedent for the show.
Backbone: When I walked in and started to see my brothers in one room at one time, that was an emotional moment. To see each other and know the job that was upon us — we knew what we had to do, and it felt good to be in that situation.
What do you think has been the key to your longevity?
Rico Wade: Space and creative freedom. Outkast was signed to Organized Noize at first, but we let them out of their contracts as soon as we did our deal with Interscope. We never held each other up. It was never any bad blood or negativity as far as finances. So by being that way, it left things to where it was always open.
Also, musically we’re still trying to push the edge, which is a big part of it too. We all be trying to see what everybody has cooking, and once you see what’s going on, you’re motivated to go back to the lab. We still be checking over everybody’s shoulders to see who got that heat, because you know someone’s going to come up with that good sound and before you know it, we’ll all be back at it. Even when everybody heard the Andre verse that Frank Ocean got [on Blonde], I hadn’t heard it, but I already knew how people felt and what they were thinking because I feel that way every time.
I’ve heard about six or seven verses that he’s got from his solo album, but you’ve just got to know it’ll come out when it comes out. I’m going to do music regardless if I sell it or not. It’s important that we stay going forward with it.
Slimm Calhoun: Just being conscious about what’s going on, and our relationships. We’re all family so that makes the transition just to being able to work and keep the process going a lot easier. Pretty much all of us have been doing music since we were kids.
Of course over time, what you want to do and your thought process creatively changes, and you might want to go in a different direction that might not be the same that the other guys want to go in. And everyone is trying to stand on their own two feet as well. Like I said, I came up under OutKast. I was their first artist, and came up around all the guys. But at the same time I have to do what I have to do to make my name stand out amongst those guys. So sometimes you step out and venture out.
Future and Killer Mike are probably the younger affiliates of the Dungeon Family in today’s musical landscape. Would you guys ever consider bringing on more people?
Ray Murray: Evidence of there being a wider development and more involvement from more people is definitely the fact that you have Future and Killer Mike, who were not founders. But their addition is so impactful and powerful in terms of [our] generational reach.
I’d love for the D.F. to expand outside of the United States. I’m looking for some international leaders because in trying to change the world, our best, peaceful vehicle is the music. So we need to spread the community beyond where it is now. Like Wyclef [Jean], he’s doing essentially the same thing consciously that we’re striving to do with the Dungeon Family.
What we’re going to be in the end is going to be different from what we are now. But right now, we’re unified by the entertainment and by the sense of self and knowledge inside of what we’re talking about: Take care of yourself, look out for your family, we can work together better than apart or against each other.
It seems like the reunion ignited a fire for the Dungeon Family. Any chance you may expand this past show to tour or put out new music?
Rico Wade: I definitely see us putting out more music, I just don’t know when. We’re working on an Art of Organized Noize record of instrumentals but I see us as a collective going back at it. We push music forward so I’m going to make music everyday looking for something new, and when I catch it, y’all gon’ know. I don’t care how long it takes, y’all will know.
Ray Murray: I can’t say yes and I can’t say no. You know, God’s timing is perfect, not ours. I’m not saying this is the end, but the future is to be written, it’s untold. So, I’ll leave a big question mark by that.
Big Gipp: It would be cool to take that show on the road and tour for the fans. But personally, it’s TV now for me because one thing they haven’t got yet is the true Atlanta story. I would love to see our lives on TV because there’s so much stuff that people don’t know. We’re going to do music like we do music. You know, music at this point man is just like a old h–; everybody f——g with it.
Lastly, what’s your favorite Dungeon Family moment?
Ray Murray: I remember when we decided to do the Dungeon Family album. All the founding members were sitting in the room and we said we were doing to do an album. We got on the phone with L.A. Reid and he asked what we would want to make it happen. We said it, and he said, “It’s a go.” We went downstairs and did “Follow the Light” and “Trans DF Express” that night. It was out the blue. That’s how that album started, so to see the performance of those actual songs and fast forward 12 years or so to now, I guess the show is the crowning moment.
BB: I remember when Goodie Mob was shooting the “Black Ice” video and Big Boi handed me a cassette tape with “Slump” [from OutKast’s 1998 album Aquemini] on it. One night, I’m in the hood chilling and they called me. I think they were at Doppler Studios and they were like, “Yo, you ready to lay your verse?” I was like, “Yeah, I got it.” So I went in there, laid my verse, came out and Andre was like, “You don’t have a hook?” I lied and said yes, went back in the booth, put the headphones on, and told them to turn the mic off for a second. I said a prayer, “Lord, this is my opportunity. Whatever you’ve got, give it to me.” I turned the mic back on and it just came out, and the rest is history.
Big Gipp: [Our first Goodie Mob tour] was with The Roots and The Fugees. It was [The Fugees’] first album and to see [Lauryn Hill], man, she was so raw and straight out the block. You wouldn’t even see her doing soundcheck. She would just come out and kill “Killing Me Softly” live. Our first show [in Atlanta] was at Variety Playhouse, and the special guest that night was D’Angelo, singing “Brown Sugar.” That was the first time he ever performed. So I’ve been able to watch so many greats come after us.
But what was so great about that tour was that Goodie Mob and The Roots battled each other on [the radio station] 89.3 before the concert. That was the first time that they got to see that we could actually rap, and that we could actually keep up with them.
Rico Wade: Recording “So Fresh So Clean” was so important. Ray taught me more a lot about producing, so we used to wake up every day and talk about what we worked on the night before. Sleepy [Brown] would come to my house to the studio everyday to see what I was working on. One day, he came over, played the melody, and it was so important to me that I showed him that I was focused on what we was saying.
So the very next day, I asked him to sing the melody and I had the beat already done. He was like, “Ooh Rico, that goes right with it.” We put that down and the next day and I just started singing, “Ain’t nobody dope as me…” I just love how it came together because it wasn’t the stress of having to make something, it was just the fact that he and I created something that was good enough to be on OutKast’s level.