“We Wanted Atlanta to Be Proud”: An Interview With Sleepy Brown

Caleb Catlin speaks to Sleepy Brown about working with legends like Curtis Mayfield and Pimp C throughout his career, growing a bond with Big Boi and much more.
By    May 11, 2023

Image via Sleepy Brown/Instagram

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Caleb Catlin wants to live in the reality where Young Dro could’ve and should’ve been one of the best rappers ever.

My granddad was a mack. Every notion that you have about what 70’s R&B and its overall aesthetic appeared like, my granddad was that. I spent years trying to figure out what made him so cool. Was it the buttoned down white silk suits with the shoes to match? Was it the glistening Rolex and the sparkling chain on his chest? Was it the strut in his walk that made him undeniable or the beaming grin that dazzled every man and woman who he met? Granddad did everything to instill his knowledge of The Game to me. He’d always ask me how I was doing with the ‘lil girls at that school.’ In some sense, The Game is nothing more than building bulletproof confidence that makes you irresistibly charming. He fit the part. But as much as I theorized about what made him who he was, he always told me I had to have that soul.

As cliche as it is, granddad was right. No matter how much I’ve fruitlessly interrogated components of soul, I can’t break down its true meaning. You either know it or you don’t. Sleepy Brown knows it better than anyone. The son of the multi-talented Jimmy Brown, lead singer for Soul group Brick, Sleepy was blessed to see his dad perform alongside masters like Cameo and Funkadelic. As a child, he was enamored by the Jackson 5, even role playing as its sixth member, “Patrick Jackson.” But ultimately, the idea of making his dad proud made Sleepy want to pursue music. “It was the love and passion that goes with it,” he says. “I used to see my dad and think I wanna be just like him. My whole career was just me wanting to make my dad proud – that’s my whole career, my purpose.”

The soul Sleepy Brown gleaned from his childhood altered decades of Southern music. But his career took off after a chance encounter with Rico Wade at a beauty salon, after their mutual friend T-Boz of TLC introduced them. Later, he met his other future partner in Organized Noize, Ray Murray at a studio session. With Ray’s mind for sampling and the group’s combined affection for 70’s soul, they crafted music that was tailored for Monte Carlos cruising the Atlanta streets.

By the time Outkast came into the picture, the Dungeon Family vision was already fully realized. Sleepy recalled his first time meeting Andre and Big Boi when speaking with Complex in 2016: “They were different from the beginning because at the time little dudes in high school weren’t rocking bald heads and dressing like that. It immediately caught my eye. Each verse they spit was like 45 minutes a piece, and they kept going back and forth. We were very impressed from the very start.”

Andre 3000 and Big Boi were the perfect storytellers to match Dungeon Family’s distinct vision for Southern music. Their muggy debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is a red clay traditionalist’s perfect album, something of a tour guide for those uninitiated in southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. ATLiens, Aquemini, and Stankonia widened the scope of how the entire region could be considered. It reflected the entire crew’s absorption and embodiment of the funk and the intergalactic soundscapes that had been pioneered by cosmic kings, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Isaac Hayes. Cadillacs Devilles were their spaceships, strip clubs and the Texacos on every corner offered portals into different dimensions. Big Boi summed up the Aethos best: “Sir Luscious got Gator belts and patty melts and Monte Carlo and El Dorados.”

Of course, there are few acts to rival the importance of Outkast when we think about southern music. Still, the Dungeon Family exists to most as *vaguely gestures* Outkast. You might even get a sprinkle of Goodie Mob if you’re lucky. If Outkast existed as the spokespeople for Atlanta and the South’s greater worth, they needed the proper amplifiers to broadcast what the South is all about. Sleepy Brown was always at the center, the purveyor of cool. He reunited with Big Boi on The Big Sleepover in 2021, welding massive fur coats and Braves hats with alien textures and soundscapes. I spoke with Sleepy about his numerous, fascinating solo ventures, the legends he worked with along the way, and his strong relationship with Big Boi that helped craft The Big Sleepover.

I wanted to ask about the making of Society of Soul’s only album, Brainchild.

Sleepy Brown: Brainchild came out after Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Outkast was starting to go in a different direction but [Ray Murray] and I were doing music that was still in the vein of that album. Big Rube started getting on these records, Esperanza joined in later, and we just decided to make a group out of it, and that became Society of Soul, it was really the offspring of Southernplayalistic.

Around that time, you were also working with TLC. T-Boz is on the third track, “Changes” and it happens to have similar horns to the TLC hit “Waterfalls.” Were they recorded during the same time?

Sleepy Brown: We actually did “Changes” first, then we did “Waterfalls” in the next couple of days.

What was it like working with your dad (saxophonist and lead vocalist of Brick, Jimmy Brown) on “Wind”?

Sleepy Brown: That was a dream come true. I always wanted to do a record with my dad; that was the first song we actually recorded together. He came right in and killed it in one take, it was a trip.

What did he think about you making music?

Sleepy Brown: He was very proud. I’ll never forget: I had a demo of “Pushin” and I met him somewhere, it was him and [Regi Haris], the guitar player from Brick, rest in peace. I played the record for him and I was so nervous, they looked at each other, and they said, “That’s it?”

What do you think you picked up from your father when you first started making music?

Sleepy Brown: The love of music, first of all. Just the love and passion that goes with it. I used to see my dad and think I wanna be just like him. My whole career was just me wanting to make my dad proud – that’s my whole career, my purpose. I picked up so much from him, anything he played, keyboard, bass, it just came easy to me. I learned how to perform, how he reacted to people. I was a 70s baby, I was backstage, me and Jermaine Dupri. Jermaine’s dad was the road manager for Brick at the time, and actually, Jermaine and I would always be at the funk concerts: Con Funk Shun, Cameo, Parliament, we saw everybody. That came with me when I started making music myself.

Do you remember having a favorite group when you were growing up around this?

Sleepy Brown: My favorite was the Jacksons, heh. I was one of them, I was Patrick Jackson [laughs]. That was my number one group but I loved Brick. I used to love to watch them rehearse, the love I used to see them have for it, it was incredible to see so many different musicians put this beautiful sound together. It was like a dream come true.

Do you remember his first reaction when you played “Wind” for him?

Sleepy Brown: He loved it, he loved it! He talked about it to everybody, it was a really great thing. I just sang the hook. He plays all the horns: trombone, saxophone, flute. Anything you hear on Brick, that’s all him. He would go into the booth and just kill it like that. He’s incredible with the horns, he can get on it like no problem.

Could you tell me about the making of The Vinyl Room?

Sleepy Brown: It was a result of what I was going through at the time: I was on probation, being unfaithful in my marriage, just being a crazy dude. Everything I went through was on that album. It was some time after Society of Soul and I just wanted to do something funky, so I went and got all the best musicians that I knew in Atlanta and talked them into doing like a funk band. The main objective was to have my own theme music, it turned into a movie. We were mixing it in California, we got to play “Private Party” for Barry White. It was an incredible experience with that album, getting the chance to shine. I wish people could really hear it, that was a moment. When I got out on probation, I got in the Benz, dropped the top, and started smoking a blunt. That album was what I was living, it was very special to me.

Listening to The Vinyl Room reminds me a lot of Superfly and Pam Grier’s work in the 1970s. What role did those movies play in the making of the album?

Sleepy Brown: Just the vibe of the era. When you listen to Sleepy’s Theme, it’s basically a movie. It starts out with the beautiful intro, it goes into the first scene, it starts taking you on an adventure, you think “what’s goin’ on, it sound like somebody’s runnin’.” The problem that we had with Sleepy’s Theme was we just didn’t have a budget for it, I was paying out of pocket for a lot of it. We couldn’t really get it on a major. It ended up being on Sony, but they didn’t really do anything with it.

Given that you had to do so much of it yourself, do you feel like you had more freedom and creativity to unleash?

Sleepy Brown: I did that album with Ray, Pimp C, and the band. We did “Contemplate” and Eddie Stokes, the keyboard player, actually made that line you hear in that song, but he was playing it fast, it was jazzy in a way. So when I heard it, I was like, “wait, wait, wait,” this is what flipped the whole thing. I said to slow it down and make it sound like some High Times Players shit. The band had a lot to do with it. On “Can’t Let Go,” I did the keyboard at the house and Pimp C heard me play it and he put the beat to it. It wasn’t a solo project, but it was the first time I had full control over it.

Did Pimp C just handle production or did he oversee the whole album?

Sleepy Brown: Pimp really helped me on that album. He helped me keep it soul as f*ck. I’m an Aquarius, bro, so my mind be on some weird shit with music and sometimes I just go somewhere totally different when I didn’t have to, and he made sure I kept it funky and soulful. I would go to his house ’cause we were hanging really tight back then. Some songs didn’t have vocals on them and he would sing the melody for them. In fact, he sung the melody to me for “Can’t Let Go,” it was a whole vibe and I just said, “oh shit.” We had a great time making that album.

Do you remember Pimp C mentioning UGK or working with Bun B at the time?

Sleepy Brown: I was around both of them. Bun would come into town and they would work. Nobody actually knows this but I co-produced “Look at Me.” We did that record at my studio at my house back in the day and what happened was, they had the bassline so I started playing… to it to give a hard jazzy feel, and [Billy Odium, guitar player for Sleepy’s Theme] played the guitar for it, so we did that beat right there. Me and Pimp did a lot of stuff together.

I remember you worked with Curtis Mayfield on his last album, New World Order, before he passed. Tell me about the last time you saw him.

Sleepy Brown: He was struggling, but he was at peace. He was ready to work, it made his spirit feel good being in the studio. Even under those circumstances, his voice was getting stronger again. I’m in the studio and I’m nervous and he says to me, “I really like what you did on that record ‘Player’s Ball,’ keep doin’ it,” and it blew my mind. That was my last memory of his magic. We did that last album and it was great just to know him.

What do you think you learned from Curtis in the small amount of time you were with him?

Sleepy Brown: Be humble, man. Appreciate what you got. Just appreciate everything around you, don’t let things change who you are. If you’re genuine with people, it’s the way it should be.

Tell me about working with Sly & the Family Stone.

Sleepy Brown: To tell you the truth, that was something that Big Boi’s DJ, Swift hooked that up. I didn’t really get a chance to actually meet Sly or anything like that, I kind of just sung a few things on the record. It was cool, but we were never in the same room. My coolest memory actually was the Grammys [in 2004], I didn’t know we were performing with Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire. I go to rehearsal and I walk in and I see George Clinton, then I see Bootsy, then I look over to the left and I see Verdine [White]. I said “wait a minute!” I see the whole original Earth, Wind & Fire, even Maurice! Right there, bro, I was like a kid, it took me back. When I was a kid, we didn’t have videos, we had album covers, and we used to stare at the covers and read what person did what, so when I finally got the chance to meet them, it was like a dream come true. Next thing you know, they in the circle, and they like, “Sleepy, come in.” I’m over here singing with Earth, Wind & Fire, bro, it was amazing! I still get chills thinking about it. I was like a kid.

Could you tell me about the making of “SpottieOttieDopalicious?” Do you remember what mindset Big Boi and Andre 3000 were in at that time?

Sleepy Brown: During Aquemini, Dre was on some kind of Blaxploitation, pimp shit. When I heard the record, I was blown away by how smooth it was, I’d never heard Dre do anything like that. He looked at me and said, “I just want you to go in there and sing about your day, what’s goin’ on, how you start.” That’s where the whole vibe came from on that record, the relationship we had was really cool because it was about singing and the funky Parliament shit, bringing back those kind of vocals. I love to perform that song to this day.

“SpottieOttieDopalicious” doesn’t seem too far removed from what you were working on with The Vinyl Room.

Sleepy Brown: Actually, the drums, that’s Victor Alexander from Sleepy’s Theme and, I mean, that’s the Sleepy’s Theme band! That was the band. That was Vic, that was Billy [Odum], I’m not really sure, I know that’s Preston [Crump] on the bass.

You said in an interview before that Busta Rhymes helped cultivate some of the lyrical themes in Organized Noise’s music. How did you meet him?

Sleepy Brown: We met Busta at Dallas Austin’s studios. We were working on “D.E.E.P.,” all of a sudden Busta came in with this book (Milton William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse, and he was like, “Yo, y’all need to read this shit, this shit is f*ckin’ ill, yo, this shit is f*ckin’ mind-blowin’. Yo, y’all need to read this shit!” So, some of us read it, scared the shit out of us, you know, what’s in line to happen. When we did “Cell Therapy,” it made sense to talk about it ’cause it was so hard. To me, “Cell Therapy” is like a rock record, like a classic rock record – that shit’s so wicked and so beautifully thought, it’s so educated on what’s going on and what’s going to happen, what you’re seeing right now is exactly what they talked about on that record. The thing about us, we always wanted to teach our people but we didn’t wanna bang them over the head. We wanna make it cool, like when we’re saying something, you be like, “okay, yeah, you right.”

How do you think you applied the themes of Behold a Pale Horse to life in Atlanta?

Sleepy Brown: That’s on Goodie Mob, they the geniuses that wrote it, I was just along for the ride. They kept it gutter, they kept it exactly-what-they-were-going-through. They didn’t make it sound pretty, they didn’t make it seem like they had something going on, they were really just spent, it was some shit they caught on to. They were like, “Look, this is what’s really goin’ on, bruh.” Those teachers, you love to hear ‘em do it.

You’ve been around for 30 years now and you’re still here carving your own path, furthering the Organized Noise legacy. Do you ever feel like you’re running out of ideas?

Sleepy Brown: I’ve been waiting so long to get on it. I’m just trying to figure it out; the one thing with Sleepy’s Theme was I tried to bridge the gap between young and old. I remember one time, this young girl came to me, “I really liked your album but I had to stop listening to it.” I asked why and she said, “My parents started playing it more than me, that ain’t cool” and I said, “That’s what it’s supposed to do!” When I was growing up, whatever my momma played in the house, that’s what it was. So I learned about everything in the house with my momma, with music, but I saw the experience with my dad. I think we just found people at a time where they wanted to hear somethin’ different. God bless Outkast for having the mindset of wanting to be different.

Do you ever feel pressured to keep up with younger artists?

Sleepy Brown: You always feel like that, bro. It kind of messes with you but not really because then everyone’s doing what you used to do. So, we have to sometimes catch ourselves and not go in over our heads again.

What do you think about the current landscape of Southern music?

Sleepy Brown: I like everything I hear. I love Young Thug to Lil Baby, everything about what’s going on in the South. It’s just another generation and what they learned from us, I’m proud of ‘em because they’re doin’ it different, they’re bein’ different, they take on challenges, it’s beautiful.

You have artists like Pink Siifu and his album GUMBO’! that’s rich with the sound of Organized Noise. There’s a guy in Nashville named Brian Brown, I think those people are so directly inspired by what you, Goodie Mob, and Outkast have done.

Sleepy Brown: That’s kind of what we wanted, we wanted Atlanta to be proud. If you believe in yourself, to take that challenge. We had to come in with Dre, Puffy, we had to go into battle, to represent Atlanta. You know, it worked out.

Are there any artists right now that interest you or keep you motivated?

Sleepy Brown: I really like Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, I like what they’re doing right now. It’s a lot of R&B artists that I haven’t heard. When I was in California, my boy had a playlist, I was like, “Who is this? And who is this?” It’s like this whole dark, funky R&B thing right now and I can’t explain it but I love it. It’s real dark and funky with it, I just can’t name any of the artists but I’m trying to learn ‘em. It’s some kind of R&B movement right now that’s really dope.

You mentioned Young Thug and Lil Baby. Someone in that orbit is Future; you and Rico Wade have gotten to see Future evolve from Meathead into one of the artists that have defined the last decade. Could you speak to working with Future on the Superfly remake?

Sleepy Brown: I was on the road with Big Boi and I had just heard that he got the gig. He hit me up and said, “I know I need you on this.” As soon as I got to the A, I went to the studio and met up with him, we started vibing. I love Future, I love everything he’s done for hip-hop, he’s really represented. To come up from being in Rico’s house to completely turning into a monster with it, I’m so proud of him and how long he’s been in the game and is still on top of it.

How did you play off of his creative process?

Sleepy Brown: I just follow him, whatever his vibe is, I just try to do something funky with it. Future is just so dope, man, he just let me vibe out and we just came up with “Struggles.”

You and Big Boi started rolling out singles for Big Sleepover back in 2019 and y’all said the album was done. Was it hard not to keep adding to it?

Sleepy Brown: Once you listen to it over and over again, you gotta be like, “Well, it might be this kind of record.” Before [the] pandemic, we were doing Goodie Mob [songs] too. I think it gave us time to really take our time, we didn’t wanna rush it.

Can you speak to how your relationship with Big Boi has grown over the years?

Sleepy Brown: On the first album (Southernplayalistic?), we really bonded. We’ve always had this bond of doing records together; some records Dre didn’t like it or didn’t wanna be on it, but Big and I always had this vibe together. It’s just being brothers, man, understanding each other’s vibes. As artists have to grow, I had to grow over the years, stuff like that. I think this is the perfect time to do this group with Big Boi, so we can fully enjoy doing it.

What made now the right time to release a project like this?

Sleepy Brown: I don’t know, we kind of just looked at each other like, “Bro.” Big had some beats, the first one we heard was “Can’t Sleep” and we were vibing to it and we said, “why don’t we just go and do this album, let’s get it.” It kind of built from there. Over the years, we’ve always done special records together, it kind of seemed like it would’ve made sense to do the album a long time ago.

You could’ve done this album in 2008, around the time Big Boi released Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. How do you think your new perspective shaped how this album turned out?

Sleepy Brown: I just think it makes us appreciate what we’ve done over the years. This album, it’s us, it’s our vibe. To hear it all together and sit there lookin’ at each other saying, “Wow, we finally did an album together.” I really think it’s gonna be a special thing for everybody, almost like a collector’s item. I don’t know if we’ll do another album or not, I just wanted everyone to enjoy it. That’s why we kept trying to get together and just put singles out.

My dad wanted to know: what’s your go-to order at The Varsity (a restaurant chain in Atlanta)?

Sleepy Brown: When I used to go to The Varsity, I used to get two chili dogs with cheese and onion rings. I would always get a Coke, that was the go-to right there. Now that I think about it, it was actually four hot dogs ’cause they were small. I don’t know what kind of grease they had in that thing, but you had to go home quick.

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