Soul Food Turns 20

Can you believe Liquid Swords and Soul Food came out on the same day? How wild is that? If I’d had to write an Album Of The Week column in 1995, I don’t know what the fuck I would’ve done. I would’ve jumped out the window. Some decisions are just too impossible. Here we have two world-historically excellent rap classics hitting stores on the same day, both of them bringing dense and singular atmospheres and showcasing voices that might not have ascended to rap stardom in any other era. They both gave us vivid and forceful voices, and they both showcased gifted visionary producers who had the leeway to craft entire albums, to make them work as cohesive experiences. If I had to guess, 1995 me on 1995 Stereogum would’ve probably given Album Of The Week to Liquid Swords. Wu-Tang brand loyalty was a powerful force, and Liquid Swords, in a lot of ways, felt like the purest expression of the group’s sound and personality. But looking back on that decision a few months or years or decades later, I might’ve regretted it. Goodie Mob’s debut is, I’d argue, every bit the equal of the GZA’s album. It’s just as wise and intent and atmospherically dense. And the influence of Soul Food runs deeper. Liquid Swords was an album that captured a specific sound about as well as it could be captured. Soul Food is an album that straight-up changed the sound of rap.

Southern rap was still a pretty new thing when Goodie Mob made Soul Food, but it’d had a chance to exist and develop and register its existence out in the world. Most obviously, Goodie Mob’s Dungeon Family compatriots OutKast had released their classic debut Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik the year before, and all four members of Goodie Mob had rapped on it. The Geto Boys and UGK and 8Ball & MJG had all released albums by 1995, and they’d all cultivated strong regional fanbases. The Miami bass sound was out there, and the South had been responsible for plenty of huge pop-rap hits, like “Whoomp! There It Is” and “Jump.” Arrested Development had been, for a brief moment, the most critically acclaimed rap group on the planet. Atlanta was on its way to becoming a center for commercial R&B. But before Soul Food, nobody with any sort of national platform had really rapped in the way that people in the South talk: Slow but not necessarily deliberate, emphatic, conversationally theatrical. OutKast were motormouthed kids, and they rapped so quickly that you didn’t always register their accents. The four members of Goodie Mob, in contrast, leaned in to those voices, letting their natural twangs and deliveries drive the music, turning the music into a new thing. They were confrontationally Southern. That was new.

They also had a complete control of their sound and their voices. The Organized Noize production crew crafted a sound entirely distinct from the sound they’d put together for Southernplayalistic. They recognized the mystical, incantory qualities of the Goodie rappers’ voices, finding a sound that fit and enhanced that quality. Like the G-funk producers who were on top of the world in the mid-’90s, they used lush, thick live instrumentation, padding the mix out with fluttery guitars and heaving organs. But they also stripped away most of their sounds, leaving room for those voices to echo and slide. And just like the RZA, they were besotted with strange sounds, like the broken pianos and eerie rattles of “Cell Therapy,” the group’s breakout single.

Organized Noize also had access to a sound effect that nobody else had: Cee-Lo’s deranged preacher-squeak voice. It’s hard to even imagine this now, after Gnarls Barkley and The Voice and the rapey Tweets, but there was once a time when I thought Cee-Lo was the best rapper on the planet. Nobody else sounded like him. He sounded like a cartoon character, with all that treble and all those elongated vowels. But he spoke with such emotional force, about paranoia or hard-times desperation or his own dying mother, that he never, ever came off as silly. His was a completely ridiculous voice, but it had character. It had skill, too. He could take off into a furious double-time flow, or it could slow to this drawling conversational thing. When he wanted, he could sing in this craggy gospel howl. Even the stuff he ad-libbed between verses sounded musical. And because the other three guys in the group had different forms of heavy, thick, grimy baritone voices, his stood out immediately, every time.

But Soul Food was about a lot more than one guy. It was a deep-dive into a whole world, one that rap had never really explored before. Southernplayalistic was a starmaking experiment, and it’s an absolutely complete musical document in its own right. But Soul Food was deeper and starker and headier. It plunged us all the way into the swamp, showing ways that rap music could be spooky and spiritual and haunted by American history. It created a whole world, with characters like Cool Breeze and Witchdoctor stopping through and adding to the mythology. It did a lot of new things, and all those new things were quintessentially Southern in one way or another.

Earlier in 1995, the Source Awards had been the site where the encroaching tensions between rap’s East and West Coasts had their first real flashpoint. The New York crowd booed the fuck out of everyone not from New York, which means they booed OutKast when OutKast won a Best New Artist award. Amid those boos, André Benjamin famously grabbed the mic and declared, “The South got something to say!” It’s too simplistic to think that one incident had too much to do with the creation of Soul Food, but I like to imagine that Goodie Mob were doing their best to make good on André’s declaration. “The South got something to say” could be an unused alternate title. This was, after all, the album where Cool Breeze coined the term “Dirty South.” And on the song “Dirty South,” we hear the group robbing a car that comes through blasting what was, at the time, a canonical New York rap anthem: “When they pulled up bumping ‘Rock The Bells’ / We took what we want and left ‘em quiet as hell.” Message sent.

Tags: Goodie Mob