Happy 20th Anniversary to Goodie Mob’s debut album Soul Food, originally released November 7, 1995.
Within the past ten years, the undeniably charismatic CeeLo Green has earned household name status in America, largely due to a sequence of notable achievements. Most notable among his many milestones are the success of his Danger Mouse collaboration Gnarls Barkley driven by their ubiquitous 2006 single “Crazy,” his acclaimed 2010 album The Lady Killer featuring the unforgettable kiss-off anthem “Fuck You,” and his moonlighting gig as one of the rotating coaches on the hit TV talent show The Voice. But what many recently self-anointed CeeLo fans may not be as familiar with is the influential group and brilliant album that originally introduced Mr. Green to the music world two decades ago.
Formed in 1991, Goodie Mob—a backronym for the “Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit”—is the foursome comprised of Atlanta natives Big Gipp, CeeLo, Khujo, and T-Mo. A year after the four joined creative forces, the group was formally introduced on two tracks (“Call of Da Wild” and “Git Up, Git Out”) featured on Southernplayalisticaddilacmusik, the classic debut album by their Dungeon Family brethren and LaFace Records labelmates OutKast. A year and a half later, LaFace released the group’s first long player, Soul Food.
Together, Southernplayalisticaddilacmusik and Soul Food placed the “Dirty South” more squarely on the hip-hop map, alongside the proven battlegrounds of the East and West coasts, not just from a commercial perspective, but from a critical one as well. The album and their respective creators effectively debunked the inherent bias against the South and convincingly challenged both coasts’ hip-hop superiority complexes. CeeLo confided to Complex that “I hated the assumption. I hated the stereotype. I’ve said this on many occasions that I felt like we were more activists than artists because I still felt like at that time we were fighting for the civil rights of southern hip-hop to be counted.” Music journalists found themselves hard-pressed to deny the albums’ powerful mix of lyrical dynamism and sonic integrity, and as a result, they collectively began to take southern hip-hop more seriously than they ever had before.
Produced by Organized Noize—the same production masterminds behind OutKast’s debut—Soul Food was recorded at Curtis Mayfield’s Atlanta-based Curtom Studios, the significance of which was never lost on the quartet. Big Gipp explains that “To a certain extent, it made us think about things and do things a little bit different than if we had did it in a regular studio. We had to do something great, ‘cause that man could come in the house and be like ‘yo, y’all in my house doing some bullshit.’ So we always wanted to make sure that we did some music that, just in case he walked in the door, he could say ‘man, I respect that.’” The group’s self-imposed high expectations ultimately paid off in a big way, as the finished product that became Soul Food proved one of the most provocative and inspired hip-hop albums ever made.
Whereas their homeboys André 3000 and Big Boi’s inaugural LP was predicated upon vivid portraits of the playa lifestyle, Goodie Mob embraced a more overt social consciousness and spiritual focus for their southern-fried, blues-indebted magnum opus. In his 2013 memoir Everybody’s Brother, CeeLo shares that:
Right from the start, Goodie Mob wasn’t trying to get a hit record. Fools and geniuses that we were, we dreamed of changing the world. We wanted to be like Public Enemy for the Dirty South. We wanted respect as much as we wanted hits, and as with Public Enemy, we felt as if it would take a nation of millions to hold us back. And even against a nation of millions, we liked our odds. There had been Southern rap before us, but a lot if wasn’t very good or very deep. We wanted to bring Southern rap newfound respect with albums that were intelligent and progressive.
Mission accomplished. Even before one drops the needle on the record for the first time, the most cursory of glances at the image used for Soul Food’s front cover reveals the album’s thematic depth and direction, as it depicts the foursome seated together, hands extended in communal contemplation & prayer. Indeed, Soul Food is a profoundly righteous and uncompromisingly critical examination of the black community’s existential struggle and disenfranchisement fueled by the unshakable American legacy of institutionalized racism, poverty, crime, and injustice.
Across the duration of the album, all four emcees infuse their diatribes and lamentations with unparalleled humility, sincerity, conviction and passion, making for one of the most soul-stirring listening experiences I’ve ever heard. Beyond the more obvious hip-hop and soul references throughout, blues and gospel influences pervade the 19 tracks, beginning with CeeLo blessing his emotive, guttural vocals upon the album-opening hymn “Free.” He pleads for salvation to rescue his people from life’s “constant struggle,” setting the thematic tone for the rest of the album.
Propelled by one of Organized Noize’s smoothest southern-fried productions ever, “Thought Process” finds Goodie Mob and guest André 3000 delving deep into the vital importance of community, prayer and escapism as the means of coping with the tragic byproducts of America’s history of racism. The power of the track resides in how the group explores the inextricable connection between poverty and black-on-black crime with unfettered candor, as CeeLo elucidates on his memorable verse:
Sometimes I don’t even know how I’m gon’ eat
‘Bout twenty dollars away from being on the street
Shit, you might see a nigga on TV
But hell it’s almost like I’m rappin’ for free, that little money be gone
God dammit I’m grown
Gotta help keep the heat and lights on
It would be nice to have more but I kinda like bein’ poor
At least I know what my friends here for
I wanna lie to you sometimes, but I can’t
I wanna tell you that it’s all good, but it ain’t
It’s niggas hurtin’ and uncertain about
If they gon’ make it or not, that’s why we got niggas killing
Feelin’ like they comin’ up off a little dope they sold
You can get some gold but we won’t make it as a whole
Cause without you there’d be no me
And without no unity there will never be any happiness
You could smoke a pound of sess
And it still won’t relieve your stress
God bless…my thought process
In an album ripe with standout tracks, for me, “Thought Process” is the paramount highlight.
Containing a reference to Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum in title only, “Live at the O.M.N.I.”—translated as “One Million Niggas Inside”—laments the disproportionate incarceration of black men within America’s racist prison system, the modern-day extension of slavery. More broadly, the song represents the group’s call-to-arms for black unity and self-determination as the keys to combating the institutionalized forces that operate to keep the black populace subdued.
Driven by an unforgettably hypnotic piano loop, eye-opening lead single “Cell Therapy” draws inspiration from Milton William Cooper’s notorious 1991 book Behold a Pale Horse, in which the oft-critiqued author puts forth a litany of conspiracy theories, including the notion that HIV/AIDS is a man-made disease designed to subjugate blacks, Hispanics and homosexuals. Through the use of unsettling allusions to martial law, holocaust-era concentration camps, biological warfare, and the dubious protection afforded by housing projects, the group argues that “traces of the new world order” can be detected everywhere and the demise of the black man is its ultimate objective.
Other high points include the infectious bump of “Dirty South,” which formally introduced the now-commonplace phrase to the broader pop culture lexicon. The track features verses from Big Boi and Cool Breeze, the emcee typically credited for originally coining the term. The group’s heartfelt dedication to their mothers “Guess Who” assumes even greater poignancy in light of the fact that CeeLo’s mother passed away shortly before the album’s release. The sobering, strings-adorned “I Didn’t Ask to Come” waxes heavy about the fragility of life and inevitability of death. An ode to “good old-fashioned soul food,” the spirit-nourishing title track serves as a savory metaphor for the comfort and sustenance that family and community invariably provide. Meanwhile, in the song’s closing moments, CeeLo sings the praises of a “heaping helping of fried chicken, Macaroni and cheese and collard greens,” admonishing that “Fast food got me feeling sick / Them crackers think they slick / By trying to make this bullshit affordable.” The redemptive, gospel-imbued “The Day After” ends the album on an uplifting note with references to the “Armageddon in the streets of each inner city” making way for a more utopian afterlife existence that envisages the restoration and liberation of the soul.
When Goodie Mob released their slept-on gem of a fifth studio album, Age Against the Machine, two years ago, it represented their first studio effort in nine years and their first with all original four members on board in fourteen years. The underrated LP also reinforces that the foursome’s penchant for crafting exhilarating, inventive music remains fully intact. So while Soul Food arguably still stands as their career-defining achievement and a watershed moment for southern hip-hop, its brilliance should inspire us to celebrate all of their individual and collective triumphs since.
My Favorite Song: “Thought Process”