- Rico Wade bites off the tip of his fingernail and stares at the tape recorder. The founding father of the Dungeon family remembers the day in 1992 when he first met OutKast like it was yesterday. A white girl named Bianca who went to Tri-Cities a visual and performing arts high school with Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000” Benjamin brought them up to Lamonte’s Beauty Supply to rap for Rico, who was then 19-years-old. Big Boi’s aunt lived up the street from Lamonte’s.
- After she passed away, Big used to sleep on Dre’s bedroom floor. They both had baldies and rocked to the instrumental from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario.” their lyrical style clearly inspired by New York rap. Rico’s longtime friend and production partner Sleepy Brown, who was up at Lamonte’s Beauty Shop that day, estimates that their verses clocked in at “35, 45 minutes apiece,” adding that “Rico saw the talent in them first, which kind of made us all believe.”
- He brought the boys to LaFace Records co-founder Antonio “L.A.” Reid in 1992, who was introduced to him by Reid’s then-wife Perri “Pebbles” Reid, who at that time managed TLC. Rico and his group the UBoys auditioned for Pebbles back in the day. She advised them to stick to producing. “Rico was the gateway to a music culture I wasn’t familiar with,” says L.A., now chairman and CEO of Island Def Jam Music Group. “He was the guy who came into my office and said, ‘Okay L.A., you need to grow LaFace now.’ And he brought me OutKast, and he brought me Goodie Mob… Rico is one of my ‘sons.’”
- But according to Island Def Jam Senior Vice President of A&R, Kawan “KP” Prather—a former member of the Dungeon Family group Parental Advisory, who was also OutKast’s A&R rep at LaFace—when Rico first brought OutKast, “L.A. said he wasn’t interested.” Rico recalls L.A. telling him to join the group and make OutKast a trio because “They wasn’t stars.”
- But OutKast’s hit 1993 single “Players Ball” changed L.A.’s mind. Sean “Puffy” Combs loved the song—a ghetto Christmas tale—and ended up directing the video with Rico, who was just beginning a long, lucrative, groundbreaking career.
- Yet currently, Dre and Big are both going their separate ways, whether pursuing solo stardom or just taking a break. “It’s going to be interesting to see what they can do,” recently returned Goodie Mob member Cee-Lo says by phone from his Atlanta condo. “I hope all goes well. But doing another OutKast album is something they need to do,” he says. “But then I don’t know the entire story...”
- On a warm, sunny day in Dallas, Texas, 33-year-old Andre Benjamin hops into a rented Chrysler Pacific, and gets situated. “Put y’all seat belts on,” he orders Seven, his 12-year-old son with Erykah Badu, and Seven’s 11-year-old playmate. They’re headed to Six Flags Over Texas, an hour drive away.
- When they arrive, Andre hops out the car and throws on a pair of dark shades. Seven tells his dad he looks like one of The Isley Brothers. “The Isley Brothers?” his father says, letting out a high-pitched laugh. He’s wearing a periwinkle blue Benjamin Bixby button down (his own line, launched in early 2008), jeans, and New Balance sneakers. His hair is parted down the center like J.T. from The Five Heartbeats.
- Andre Benjamin, a.k.a. Andre 3000, is enjoying his life outside OutKast. And who can blame him? Of all the Dungeon Family members, OutKast is the most commercially successful by far, having sold 25 million copies of their six albums, and won six Grammy Awards. Their 2000 album Stankonia alone moved over 10 million units, and while the 2003 follow-up double-disc Speakerboxxx/The Love Below sparked rumors of a split within the duo, it also sparked two No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 singles and won the Grammy for Album of the Year, one of two rap albums ever to do so. “Goodie Mob dope as hell,” says DJ Swift, OutKast’s longtime tour DJ and Andre’s confidante. “But I think OutKast was just so high it kind of overshadowed them a little bit.”
- But at one point, even Goodie Mob— who’ve weathered their own storms— were confused about the status of OutKast. Though they’ve had their share of tension, Big Boi says he and Andre find the endless break-up speculation annoying. “There was never no need to announce a break up,” says Big. “That probably would have been beneficial to both of us, because that way we could have got out of our contract.” Nevertheless, he insists that OutKast is now and always has been together.
- The strain on their partnership first became evident after the commercially successful effort Stankonia, which featured the smash singles “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean.” Lucrative endorsement deals were offered, but Dre refused to sign off on anything that didn’t fit his strict vegetarian lifestyle. Due to some shrewd real estate investments early on, Andre was financially secure enough to turn offers down. “As far as money, he was already straight,” says Rico. “He wasn’t really spending. Like, Dre ain’t got no Bentley.”
- “To be very honest, nigga fucked up some of my money,” Rico throws in. “Tide wanted to use ‘So Fresh, So Clean’ for promotion. Dre wouldn’t sign off, and Tide changed their mind.” Then came an offer from the California Milk Processor Board. “I thought the ‘Got Milk?’ ad was some cool shit,” Big says. “I [told Dre], ‘Shit man, you can get some soy milk!’ and he said, ‘Man, people ain’t gon’ know that’s some damn soy milk!’ I was like, Damn!”
- Dre stands by his decisions, but says he does regret that “taking so much money off the table” took a toll on his partnership with Big Boi. “I know it caused a rift,” Dre admits, “I know it gotta hurt some kind of way. Sometimes I sit and think, like ‘How can I show [Big] that I appreciate him keeping cool?’”
- There was much to keep cool about, including lost concert money. After headlining the successful Smoking Grooves tour in 2002, Dre informed Big that he didn’t want to hit the road any more. “He said ‘Fuck that, I ain’t going out,’” Big recalls. “I thought he was just playing… But we came out with Speakerboxxx/Love Below and he still... And then Idlewild. He really didn’t want to do it.”
- Andre’s excuse for not touring was simple: “I got bored with it.”
- But when it came time for him to explain his “boredom” to Big Boi, he struggled. “Man, those were the hardest conversations in the world,” he says. “I didn’t want to take money away from my partner so at one point I was like, ‘Let’s take somebody that looks like me, and just go out and do it!’” He pauses and laughs nervously. “[But] I was like, ‘Nah, we can’t do our fans like that. We can’t trick them.’”
- OutKast was always more than a group. From day one, their unique, experimental sound and style made them a phenomenon. Dre says that when they first met Rico, “He sold us a dream.” As they spent more and more time chasing that dream at the Dungeon, Dre’s mother Sharon Benjamin Hodo grew suspicious. “Dre’s mom didn’t want him to be over at the Dungeon rapping because that didn’t seem like the road out,” says Rico’s cousin Mr. DJ, who became a producer for OutKast and other Dungeon fam acts. “Same with Big Boi, he would have problems with coming over to the Dungeon late night with a bunch of guys hanging out, smoking and rapping.”
- Hip-hop did open new opportunities for Andre 3000. Always marching to his own drum, Dre began drifting away from the Dungeon Family in the mid 2000s. “Dre always wanted to lay his verse last. That’s some peculiar shit,” recalls Nikki, who formerly worked as Dee Dee Murray’s assistant in Organized Noize Records’ Atlanta office. “But he would still come to the Dungeon and listen to tracks, and pick up something. He wasn’t calling people. He was slowly distancing himself.”
- “The whole situation really went for a turn once Dre started putting on those wigs,” says Big Gipp of Goodie Mob, “and started doing things that our street homeboys didn’t like. I think it distanced [him and Big] from each other.”
- Dre’s wardrobe changes were widely attributed to his relationship with Seven’s mother, Erykah Badu. But Swift dismisses this notion. “If you go back to Southernplayalistic, he started off with jerseys and baseball hats,” he says. “But by the second album, ATLiens, niggas were trying to be genies and shit. Erykah ain’t got nothing to do with that.” Dungeon Family members began to joke about Erykah’s mysterious “spell” on men once she started dating Common in 2000. “The other dude after me didn’t help my case,” Dre quips. “It was just like…crazy nigga factory going on.” Dre makes no apologies for his own eccentricities. “I was young, and searching, trying to find myself,” he says. “Never did.”
- By the time Speakerboxxx/Love Below was released in 2003, it was clear that the members of OutKast were heading in different directions artistically. Big Boi’s disc was more of a traditional OutKast record, resulting in the No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 “The Way You Move.” Meanwhile Andre was singing on his disc, and he scored his own No. 1 Hot 100 hit with “Hey Ya!”
- Dre admits that he distanced himself from the Dungeon Family at one point, mainly because of his musical shyness. “I wasn’t confident with my voice,” he says, “My voice wasn’t really that strong so I had to be by myself to do it. If I’m rapping I can have dudes all in the studio, smoking out. But it’s a whole different thing to be singing, ‘I hope you’re the one but if not you’re the prototype.’”
- Andre first tried singing on “Synthesizer” from OutKast’s 1998 album Aquemini, and even then his partner was perplexed. Swift recalls the first time Big heard the track: “I’ll never forget… he was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if niggas in the streets want to hear that shit. That hurt Dre’s feelings bad.”
- Dre made The Love Below sessions extra exclusive. Swift was one of the few people who witnessed Andre 3000’s magnum opus about the thing that scares him the most: love. “Dre got an extreme level of passion for women,” he says. “This nigga love women… But I think love and life has disappointed him ... So I think he’d just rather sing about walking down that road of love than to actually experience it.”
- Meanwhile, longtime production trio Organized Noize—Rico Wade, Ray Murray, and Sleepy Brown—were left to deal with the offense of none of their tracks being used for the double album. “The records that we worked on for Big Boi didn’t make Speakerboxxx,” says Ramon Campbell, Rico’s oldest friend. “It’s one of the biggest albums OutKast put out and we didn’t have anything to do with it. And that hurts… It kind of made us look foolish.” But according to Big Boi, “That’s just how it came out. Shit, whoever was in the studio with me was who I was recording with. Sleepy Brown [whose vocals are featured on a number of tracks] was in there with me every week I was in the studio.”
- The album earned rave reviews, and everything was great for OutKast until a friend of Andre’s filed suit claiming that he deserved a percentage of publishing credit for co-writing the interlude “God.” Some Dungeon Family members believe the lawsuit was karma. “[OutKast] were trying to keep as much of the publishing as they could,” says Big Rube, another longtime buddy of Wade’s, who was not credited for his spoken-word poetry on OutKast’s first album. “They were trying to do some Michael Jackson shit—want to buy all the publishing,” he says. “But Michael Jackson break you off till where you felt cool selling him your shit. Everybody deserve to get money. Niggas helped y’all get on. Without us y’all wouldn’t be OutKast. Rico made up the fucking name. I love them, and they talented as fuck, but niggas got to realize that y’all didn’t get there by yourself.”
- By the time OutKast recorded Idlewild, some sources suggest Big and Dre were turning on each other. The song “Mighty O” was the last straw. “They were dissing each other on that,” says Nikki. Though Ray Murray, who helped produce the track, declines to comment, Big and Dre vehemently deny any rivalry.
- “That is the most hilarious thing I’ve ever heard,” Dre says.
- “My verse was intended for anybody filling out that application,” Big says dryly.
- Nonetheless, after the unimpressive sales of Idlewild Dre begin hopping on all sorts of hot southern rap records, from Unk’s 2006 “Walk It Out” to Rich Boy’s 2007 “Throw Some D’s.” Rap bloggers called him untouchable, Jay-Z referred to him as a “genius,” and in VIBE’s 2009 Real Rap Issue Eminem called him “the best rapper.”
- Meanwhile, Big Boi was feeling the pressure. “I really think Big Boi is a better rapper than I am,” Andre, who says people never compare him and Big in person, out of “respect,” claims. “Like, if I’m another rapper and I had to battle one of us, I would say, I don’t want Big Boi, let me do Dre first.”
- Rico is less diplomatic. “Big and Dre stand side-by-side, but things like ‘Hey Ya!’ put Dre in a different category,” he says. “Big Boi didn’t market himself that way. Big understands that he got to work a little harder. It ain’t Dre’s fault.” In early 2010, Big Boi plans to release his first solo album, Sir Luscious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty, featuring collaborations with everyone from Mary J. Blige to Gucci Mane. “That’s really the only reason they’re doing solo albums,” Rico says. “So it won’t look like Big’s in Dre’s shadow.”
- Details of Andre 3000’s long awaited solo debut are shrouded in secrecy. Very few people have heard any of the tracks. But Rico, who’s producing part of the album along with Organized Noize, pulls out his white MacBook and plays a track called “Dandelion.” The beat has a warrior feel to it, and the drums are heavy. In the song, 3000 does what pleases him most: subliminally going over many listeners’ heads. Using droll puns, he compares himself to a “dandelion,” then spits, “hear me roar.” On the chorus, he takes the double entendres a step further: “I raps like a mummy.”
- “He done got back inspired,” Swift says excitedly of Dre, who sometimes calls him in the middle of the night to rhyme his latest lyrics. “I heard some new verses,” Swift says, “and he goddamn killing it!”
- Big says that OutKast will definitely drop another album, but Dre’s vision for the future isn’t so clear. “I’m not sure how it’s going to end up,” he says. “I’m kind of at this point where…” his sentence trails off into a sigh. “I’m always at this point where, ‘How long will I want to do it?’ To be honest, if it wasn’t for Big Boi, OutKast probably wouldn’t be around.”
- But Swift says they must release another OutKast record. “Fuck what I say—the contract say they got to deliver another album,” he says. “It ain’t over!”
- Back in Atlanta, Rico Wade hops out of a black Chevy Suburban and walks into a Publix supermarket. After he was caught speeding Rico’s license was suspended, so he’s riding shotgun. His burly homeboy waits in the parking lot while Rico runs in to cop $50 worth of crab legs.
- Rico wears a red and black letterman jacket and jeans so baggy he has to manually hold them up. Still, he commands the attention of shoppers who give curious “Is that Rico Wade?” stares as he strolls around with armfuls of bagged lettuce and a pocketful of “producer money.” It’s one day before his 37th birthday. A decade ago, he’d be throwing a party of the century, but times have changed. “I’m going to be doing the same thing tomorrow that I’m doing right now,” he says.
- The past few years have left Rico with little to celebrate. The soundtrack work Organized Noize was getting—they have crafted music for films starting with 1992’s Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, 1993’s CB4, 1995’s New Jersey Drive, followed by1996’s Set it Off and Fled, 1997’s Home Alone Christmas, Hoodlum, and Money Talks, 1998’s Bulworth, 1999’s The Wood, The Mod Squad, and the animated series The P.J.’s, the 2000 remake of Shaft, 2001’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, 2004’s Barbershop 2: Back in Business—wasn’t enough to make ends meet and in 2004, Rico filed for bankruptcy. Though Organized Noize continued to produce movie soundtracks from 2005’s Hitch on through 2006’s Snakes On A Plane, the worst was yet to come.
- In 2007 his right-hand man Ramon went to stay in L.A. for a year. When he returned, he noticed a change in Rico. “He was going through a period where he was dealing with so much in his personal life,” Ramon says. “I wanted to be careful about how I addressed it, because he’s like a brother to me.”
- Once flashy and vibrant, Rico seemed less motivated and slightly unkempt. Rico would eventually sit Ramon and Ray Murray down in his kitchen and reveal that he had been using cocaine.
- “It’s just a mind stimulant,” Rico says. “If you was tired, it wakes you up. But for me, it’d just make me want to do music.” He says the first time he tried the drug, it reminded him of ecstasy, which he says had him walking around his house, laughing at himself, “[like] nobody was here… I was so paranoid.”
- “I didn’t go to rehab,” Rico continues. “I kicked the habit because of God. You look at yourself in the mirror and it’s like, come on man, we grew up in the hood, we’ve seen crackheads, we’ve heard stories, laughed at people. You’ve got to want to do it for yourself.”
- Though his friends stuck by him, Rico’s last girlfriend, left him during his battle with drugs. “I really feel in my heart that she left because it just didn’t seem like I was going to get better,” he says. Though she has since married another man, Rico says she called him on his birthday. “If you don’t love [a man] for thinking outside the box, then you don’t love them, because all the financial security and all that stuff—if that’s what you’re around for, then you can get that from a nigga working at UPS.”
- Back at the house, Rico, Ramon, and Money-B from Digital Underground dip into the seafood platter, and talk passionately about George Clinton, and one of 2Pac’s Death Row-era producers Johnny J, who committed suicide in October 2008.
- After being deeply involved in the hip hop industry for over a decade, it’s a wonder Rico has been able to survive so much. In May of this year he received notice that he was losing his “white house”—including the legendary Dungeon West studio in the basement—because of unpaid taxes. He moved into Ray’s home, Dungeon East, several days before this story’s photoshoot this past June.
- “The bank put a lien on the house,” he explains calmly. “The equity I got in my home I can’t get out.” He says girlfriends have criticized him for being so blasé about his financial problems. “They start thinking like, He’s never mad. Like, You need to be tripping. You need to be calling niggas right now, tripping. And it’s like, I agree, but that’s just not the way God has built me."
- Even when forced to move out of Dungeon headquarters, Rico was not bitter but reflective. “[The Dungeon artists] kept their money. But [Organized Noize] had opportunities to make more money than anybody and still be making money. So I don’t fault nobody but us…us not really being prepared.” He also blames a former accountant for failing to file taxes back in the ’90s when the biggest checks started coming. “We ended up catching a tax debt for like a million dollars,” he says.
- Despite everything, Rico seems in surprisingly high spirits. He talks a mile a minute about opening up a Dungeon café, and hitting the studio again. But once whispers of his foreclosure began circulating around the industry, Rico’s old friend Marqueze Etheridge (who’s credited with writing TLC’s Organized Noize–produced smash “Waterfalls”), called him at the studio to see if he was okay. “I was trying to be all cool on the phone, like, ‘Whattup boy!’” Rico recalls. “But he was like, ‘Rico…for real, what’s been going on?’” Overwhelmed, Rico broke down and started crying over the phone. It was the first time he came to grips with his hard reality.
- “Rico’s gon’ be alright,” says, Gipp adding that the “Family” has put aside any differences to support him throughout his humbling financial crises. “Rico’s just finding out all the love he got out there,” Gipp adds, assuring that—without going into financial details—Rico is now “good.” After all the ups and downs, the Dungeon Family may now be closer than they’ve ever been.
- In his darkest hours, Rico’s thoughts turned to a conversation he had with his mother, back before the house, when he was first bringing the Dungeon Family together to hang out, make music, and change their lives. “My mama told me once, ‘I think everybody around you is using you,’” says Rico. “‘You got a car, you pick them up, you take them home, you place everybody’s needs over yours.’ And I said, ‘Mama… what if I’m using them?’” Not understanding, she asked for an explanation. “I said, ‘They got dreams, mama, that I can make a reality,’” he pauses, reflective. “I just appreciated hearing about their dreams,” he says. “It gave me something else to believe in.” ––Linda Hobbs
a guest Jan 22nd, 2010 519 Never
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