“Back in Atlanta . . . All we had was us”: An Interview with Sleepy Brown

The Dungeon Family and ATL's rise, the Grammys performance with Earth Wind and Fire, the Future and Outkast.
By    March 24, 2015


Organized Noize emerged from a dirt floor studio with underclass tales that resonate in every neighbourhood from Bankhead to Brisbane. Sleepy Brown, Rico Wade and Ray Murray fused hip-hop, soul and funk to produce records for Outkast and Goodie Mob that are divine rap canon. Proudly Southern at a time when many Atlanta artists mimicked Miami bass for commercial ends, the trio were among the first to shift attention below the Dixie. Dubbing their collective “The Dungeon Family” as a tribute to their dank beginnings, Organized Noize’s run surpasses two decades and their contribution to quality music can’t be overstated. With credits including TLC, Future, Killer Mike, Bubba Sparxxx and Janelle Monáe, it’s fair to assume if you enjoy rap, you’ve heard a Dungeon track.

Characterized by a scintillating grin, oversized sunglasses and Superfly persona, Sleepy Brown is the trio’s retro futurist. The 45 year old’s musical ambitions were inspired by a childhood spent watching his father Jimmy perform in Atlanta funk-staple Brick, and he’s always paid tribute to the 70s. Aside from production and writing, Sleepy sung falsetto on Outkast’s No. 1 hit “The Way You Move, ” their universal player’s theme “So Fresh So Clean” and “Saturday Ooh Ooh” with Ludacris. He also maintains a solo career, which is four albums deep and includes lover’s decree “I Can’t Wait.”

A friendly and open interviewee, Sleepy didn’t exhibit signs of being jaded or arrogant despite his lengthy achievement list. He laughed while describing how Busta Rhymes influenced the conscious side of Organized Noize and shared Future’s nickname when he was still a “knucklehead.” The Isaac Hayes lookalike also described working with Curtis Mayfield as well as Pimp C, why Outkast’s 2014 tour is their last and almost every other Dungeon Fam query I had. — Jimmy Ness

You’re working on a documentary about Organized Noize.
How has that been going?

Sleepy Brown: We’ve shot a film called the Art Of Organized Noize in Atlanta and it’s about the story of Organized. It’s how we started, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Along with that movie, we’re doing an album called the Art Of Organized Noize, which to me, is sort of like a Society of Soul almost. There’s going to be a lot of instrumentals and plus I’ll be singing some stuff on there too. You’ll have guest people and groups. It’ll kind of put you in the mind-set of Brainchild, in a way, but a whole new thing. It goes along with the movie so we’re just working and we’re real excited.

How much has been completed? Do you have a release date?

Sleepy: Well, we don’t quite have the actual release date. We’re working to basically get ready to promote this because we have some companies behind us that want to promote it. I can’t really talk about it right now, but they want to push it out and everything. I would say maybe by fall, but I don’t have a specific date.

Organized Noize has been around since at least ’89. Few groups last that long. What is it about your partnership that has allowed you to work together for such an extended period of time?

Sleepy: Just being brothers, man. Just having love for each other and the music. Of course, most crews break up or get into big arguments. Even if we did that, we’d work it out. We’re all brothers and we will disagree on stuff, but at the same time, we are family and we understand each other. I think that’s what it is, we still have a love for the music and for each other. We believe in us and believe in our name. Back in the Atlanta, that’s all we had because we were trying to put Atlanta on our back. All we had was us. With that in mind, it just stays that way man. We’re always brothers to the end.

Were you the person who brought an understanding of instrumentation to the group? The Organized Noize sound is known for incorporating live rather than digital instruments and mixing soul/funk with hip-hop.

Sleepy: Everybody was already into live instrumentation and everything with our different personalities. Ray taught me about samples in hip-hop. I didn’t know that James Brown was being sampled all the time, so that’s what Ray kind of brought. For me, because I grew up in that funk era with my dad and being backstage with Brick and Cameo, my mind-frame is all funk and all live, as far as adding that with hip-hop.


Another thing is the company we were with at the time, LaFace Records. I’ll never forget they told us “look guys, we are not clearing any samples from you, so if you’re thinking about sampling, forget about it. You need to go in and learn.” That pushed us to learn even more about instrumentation because they weren’t going to clear it, so that was it too.

There was always a 70’s vibe to Outkast’s music. From their outfits to the way they styled themselves as smooth players rather than hardcore gangstas. I’ve always thought part of that came from you.

Sleepy: Yeah, it kinda did. Growing up in that era and being fans of Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, just the whole 70s era, Marvin, everybody and that cooler sound kinda comes out of me. I think that’s why we sounded so smooth. At that time period, the Chronic was out and that was the smoothest gangsta album on earth, so we had to be in competition with that. We were like “OK, let’s show them the South can be smooth.” That’s kinda what it is, yeah.

During an interview with your partner Rico, he said he looked into the crowd at one of the first Outkast shows in New York and he saw Biggie in the audience.

Sleepy: Oh yeah. We were all super cool and Biggie was definitely a fan of Andre. Biggie loved CeeLo. He was cool.

Biggie told you guys he liked CeeLo?

Sleepy: Yeah, he mentioned that to Rico when he first heard CeeLo rap. He definitely felt CeeLo, ‘Dre and Outkast, the whole movement. He was a fan, like we were fans of his. It was mutual.

How did you begin to differentiate your style from the 70’s acts you loved so much?

Sleepy: Kind of just with time. When I was first producing, my good friend Dallas Austin, I looked up to him. So I was kind of doing beats like Dallas. ‘Cause that was the whole New Jack Swing kind of thing. I was just doing what I was hearing cause I was just trying to learn and get my craft together as far as being a producer. Now when the style started coming in, is when we really did Outkast because that’s when we came with that South, cool, pimp sound and I found myself from that. I was like “Ohhhh, this is what I can do. Instead of doing something like this or like that. I can have my own lane.” So that’s where it came from. Just getting the vibe together man.

Was it hard to prevent each group you produced from sounding alike?

Sleepy: At the time it kind of just flowed that way. On Outkast’s first album that was more Ray and Ric’ and me. Then when Goodie Mobb came up that was more Rico than Ray. So that’s how each group could have their own style because we would kind of peak on each, like Rico peaked with Goodie, so that’s where the whole Stax sound came from. Then Ray, he came with the whole Parliament, Boosie, funk sound. It kind of went like that. It was all soulful, but in order for it to sound different, us as producers had different ideas, you know what I mean?

I’ve heard rumors there was a whole collaborative project with T.I. in the works for awhile.

Sleepy: Ahh . . . it really wasn’t a whole album. We did a couple of songs that didn’t actually come out. I did a record with T.I. called um . . . “We Pimpin’” or something like that and my homeboy Reese did the beat and I went and sung on it. I think that was one song that didn’t come out.

How do people approach Organized Noize about working together? You’re quite picky about who you collaborate with.

Sleepy: Well, it’s just cause the vibe doesn’t work. I would love to work with everyone, but sometimes it doesn’t match. It’s not the fact that I don’t think I could work with the artist, but you’ve got to have that sound that just works together. I think the only reason I’m picky is because I want to make sure that whoever it is, whether it’s a star or somebody that’s just starting out, it’s got to be, you know . . . you want that hit. So I think I’m picky because I really want a hit record and so I’ll say “What do you want me to say? What’s the idea you want me to come up with?” If I feel like “Oh, it’s sick” then I’m on it, you know what I mean? I’m not being picky to be like “I’m just too good for everybody.” I would never think that way, but I just want to make sure. I want them to be happy and I want to be happy when that record comes out.

Future is Rico’s cousin. Do you have memories of him being in the studio as a youngster?

Sleepy: Oh yeah, when Future was back in his knucklehead days [laughs]. He used to come around the Dungeon and he was actually in a group that Rico had put out. It was called the Connects and that was some local rappers in Atlanta. Future was in their group. He’s always been around. He’s always been in the studio. We knew one day that he was going to jump off, yeah.

Did he stand out from the rest because he worked so hard?

Sleepy: Well you know what, I didn’t know Future worked that hard. I think he stood out because he was just super tall . . . and he had flavor. It’s funny, when I came back to Atlanta one year, I’m riding around listening to the radio. I’m listening and I’m like “Man, this dude sounds real familiar! Where have I heard his voice from?” Then I’m talking to Rico, I’m like “Yeah, I’m almost there,” and then all of a sudden I was like “What’s Future been . . .” We used to call him “Meathead.” I was like “What’s Meathead been doing?” He was like “Well, you know Meathead is Future, man.” I’m like “Whaaat?!” I was hearing that he was bubbling and blowing up and then I’ve seen him in the studio and that dude is a workaholic and I’m like “That’s what I’m talking about Future!” [laughs] Seriously man, seriously, I’m proud of him.

Why was his nickname “Meathead?”

Sleepy: I don’t know. I have no idea. You’ve got to ask Rico about that. I don’t know why they would call him that, but that was his nickname.

You grew up backstage watching your dad perform with Brick. Do you have any memories of interacting with the bands your dad played with? You would see the Commodores, Parliament, Barry White and more all behind the scenes.

Sleepy: Well, not really. Not the other bands like that. The only band that would talk to me would be Brick, because that was all my uncles and they watched me grow up. I remember I was ten when “Rappers Delight” was just blowing up, Wonder Mike [from The Sugarhill Gang] was back stage at a show because Kurtis Blow was headlining the show that night and I got a chance to talk to Wonder Mike, which is incredible. That was my first time meeting a rapper. That was a great moment.

You and Jermaine Dupri were often touring together as kids. Did you hang out a lot?

Sleepy: Well no, we really just hung out when the concerts were around because his father Michael Mauldin was road manager for Brick. So I would see him every time we would do some shows. We always knew each other and I remember seeing him when he first did Silk Tymes Leather [one of the early acts JD produced]. He was producing and everything because he was the kid that could do Michael Jackson. He could dance his ass off. He was real popular then with that. We grew up backstage and it’s funny because I kind of say that to him every once and a while like “Man, I remember we were backstage blah blah . . .” We have a laugh about it.

Tell me about performing with Earth Wind and Wire and Funkadelic at the Grammys that must have been one of your favourite . . .

Sleepy interrupts: Oh my god, dude! That was so insane for me because Big Boi didn’t tell me that we were actually going to perform with them. So when we went to rehearsal in L.A. right before the Grammys, I walk in the room and see Earth Wind and Fire. I see Verdine, I see Maurice, I see Philip. I’m like “Holy shit.” I look back at Big, I said “Wait a minute, are we performing with them?” He’s like “yeah man, we’re doing “The Way You Move.” Of course, you know George Clinton that’s like my uncle right there. That’s uncle George. We know uncle George, so when I see him I just went and gave him a hug, but I still didn’t know they were performing with us. Then I’m standing there, I see Earth Wind and Fire standing in a circle and they’re like “Sleepy, come over here.” I go over there and they’re like “Sing the verse and we’re going to sing the background” and I’m like “Get the fuck out of here. Are you serious!” That blew my mind, because you know my mom used to take me to Earth Wind and Fire shows and they were just one of my favorite bands, thanks to my dad and them. Just one of my favorite bands of all time. So that was a dream come true and also, working with Curtis Mayfield before he passed was a dream come true.

Curtis Mayfield reached out to Organized Noize to work with him.

Was he familiar with Outkast and the music you’d made?

Sleepy: Yep, he loved it man. I’ll never forget we were working on New World Order, the last album before he passed. First of all they called us and said he wanted to work with us on that album and we were happy. Then he was sitting there and he told me, he said “Sleepy man, I’m loving what you do. Keep singing it man, ya’ll keep doing it, I’m loving it.” And I’m like “wooooow!” [laughs] So that was really dope. We worked on it at his studio Curtom that he used to have.

What was the song writing process like? Did you guys bounce ideas off each other?

Sleepy: We just wrote it man, I just thought about him and how he sings. I sat back and just thought “What would Curtis Mayfield say?” So that would make me come up with the song “Ms. Martha.” Just kind of talking about real stories and what goes on and that was Curtis’ whole thing. We just wanted to kind of keep that alive. It was really kind of easy to tell you the truth.

Curtis Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him at a live show in Brooklyn. During the recording of his last album he was unable to play guitar, but he still wrote, sung and oversaw the project. He had to record while lying on his back and could only get enough air in his lungs to sing one line at a time.

Working with Curtis while he was paralyzed and in obvious pain must have been an emotional, but also inspiring time.

Sleepy: He was such a good-hearted person that you would think that nothing was wrong him. He always kept smiling and always had us laughing. He was just a great guy, man, a beautiful spirit. Never did I feel like “Oh man, I know he’s in pain,” even though he was probably really tired, that’s Curtis, he would crack a joke and keep going.

In 2014, Outkast toured major festivals across the country. Do you think that will be your last ever set of shows with Big Boi and Andre?

Sleepy: Ah, the last tour with Outkast, yes that’s pretty much the last one. Now Big Boi will continue to tour and do albums, he’s working right now, but as far as ‘Dre, I don’t think Dre’s going to do any more Outkast touring or anything. Which is sad because I would love to and we had a ball doing it, but you know he wants to go to another setting, so you’ve got to respect it. We love him, you know.

After reading some interviews with Andre around the time of the tour, it feels like he thinks about his previous catalog a lot. That seems like a barrier for him when recording new music because there must be a lot of pressure to continue the legacy and make another great record.

Sleepy: Yeah, there’s always great pressure on you when you are the one that basically brought something new to the table. Everybody expects you to bringsomething even way better than that. That’s so much pressure, when you’re just really doing music that you like. It’s a lot of pressure. I haven’t talked to him in a while, but last time I did, I know he’s keeping busy and he’s working so hopefully he’ll do a solo album or something like that.

I’ve read you thought Jay Z’s track “Excuse Me Miss” with Pharrell sounds like it could be a Sleepy Brown song.

Sleepy: Yeah, I honestly said that to Pharrell when I was working with him on “Margarita.” I said “Man, I’ll let you know the one song that I wish I sung on that you did . . . ‘Excuse me.’ That was a such a Sleepy record, dude.” He was like “Yeah, I know” [laughs]. So Pharrell is super cool, that’s my dude. I love that record. That was one of my favorite records with Jay Z. “Excuse Me,” man. That’s one record I was super jealous of, seriously [laughs]. I wish I had made that record, hey!

A lot of Organized Noize’s music is known for having subtle conscious themes or references to social issues like poverty, AIDS, etc. Why were you guys inspired to put that in your work?

Sleepy: I think basically Busta Rhymes had a lot to do with that. We were working on the last couple of songs of Southernplayalistic[cadillacmuzik] and we were working in a Dallas Austin studio and Busta came over and had this book in his hand and was reading it and he just came like “Yo, have ya’ll read this shit?! This is fucking crazy man! You’ve got to read this shit.” And we’re all like “What ya reading?” And he’s like “Pale White Horse, you’ve got to read this shit!” So we all went and read this shit. It scared the fuck out of us and made us be like “Oh shit.” It changed us. What was funny is this is when we started working on the Goodie Mobb album, so that kind of changed the whole mode of what we were doing. That’s when it went more into the education.

I really liked how you imitated Busta Rhymes’ voice just then.

Sleepy: [laughs] YO! Yeah that’s my homie, love Busta man.

You’ve worked with many great artists. The last one I’m going to mention is Pimp C, one of my favourite rappers ever. What was he like as a person, outside of music?

Sleepy: He was a very smart, gifted, intelligent, but really street with his ear to it–brother. He’s still one of my favorite, favorite rappers of ALL time because as much shit as Pimp C talked about “Bitch, you better get over here and do this and do that,” honestly he was very intelligent and he knew everything about the industry backwards and forwards. Him and Bun. Bun is the exact same way. Bun is so intelligent, it’s insane. If you met Bun B without knowing that he rapped, you wouldn’t think he rapped. You’d be like “Nah, he don’t rap.” But Pimp, man, I miss him so much. He was such a good friend to me and when times were crazy for me and when times were crazy for him, we hadeach other’s back and he stayed with me. He worked with me on my first solo record, the Sleepy’s Theme album, he did that with me. There was so much love. He was such a good, genuine, great person. If he loved you, he would do anything on this earth for you.

I know this is a common question, but I’d like to hear your perspective on it. When you were starting out, what was the Southern rap scene like? Were record labels constantly turning you down?

Sleepy: Well Southern hip-hop wasn’t really too big, but you had groups like The Geto Boys. You had “My Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” You had big records from the south, but for us it was hard from Atlanta to basically get a deal because nobody believed in what we were doing. Atlanta was doing Miami beats. We were doing fast music, fast hip-hop like Luke Skyywalker. Too Live Crew, that whole sound was Atlanta ghetto music. It was super hard for us because we were kind of half-and-half. We could do hip-hop easily, New York style. For instance we did a group called PA [Parental Advisory], which was really our first rap group that came out through Pebble’s label [LA Reid’s wife] and that album was straight up New York beats, but we realized that we had to come up with our own thing. So that’s when the whole South playa style started coming in.

That’s when we started thinking that it would work. A lot of labels wouldn’t sign Outkast at first. We tried to get them signed to maybe three or four labels at the time. LA [Reid] still didn’t really want to sign them, but he liked us so much that he was like “You know what? I’m just going to try this.” LA Reid had LaFace Records and Babyface and all of this beautiful R&B that is top chart R&B music and here we come with some rap that LaFace don’t even do. So he was kind of nervous about that at the time, but he liked us so much that he said “You know what, I’m going to give ya’ll a chance, let’s just do it.” So that’s when the whole Christmas record “Player’s Ball” came up. LA was like “Look, we need a record.” He was kind of just throwing us a bone. “We need a record for this Christmas album. Ya’ll give us something and we’ll put it on there.” It was like that.

Outkast’s opportunity with LA Reid was kind of like a novelty record.

Sleepy: He just wanted something. LaFace didn’t really know about rap at all, so they were really taking a chance on us. Being us, we were like “We’ve got to make this record so that people will want to sing it, people will want to rap it, peoplewill want to dance.” We had something to prove and LA just gave us that shotman and we love him for it.

Did you have industry contacts because of your Dad’s band and his experience in the music industry?

Sleepy: Ah no, because with my Dad and them, they were on a label that had just disbanded and there weren’t really any connects in Atlanta like that. I was the first one to meet LA Reid, but none of us had the hook up until LaFace Records came to Atlanta. That’s when we had a hook up. That’s when we were like “Oh, we’ve got an outlet now! There’s a label here.” All we had was Ichiban in Atlanta and Ichiban was dirty. They wouldn’t give you nothing. They wouldn’t give you no money. They were just dogging the hell out of young people and it was terrible. When LaFace came down they gave everybody a chance, and you could actually get a check for doing music. Somebody actually cared.

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