ATL’s Sleepy Brown and Organized Noize created a slept-on gem
Society of Soul's Brainchild
Beginning in the mid-’90s, Organized Noize was one of the in-demand production teams to emerge from Atlanta, Georgia. Featuring the blunted talents of Sleepy Brown, who also sang, Rico Wade, and Ray Murray, the trio began their careers producing OutKast’s first pimpadelic hit single, “Player’s Ball.” Indeed, if it weren’t for them, OutKast would just be two strange dudes who dressed funny instead of international b-boy superstars.
Like other ATL producers of that era, most notably Dallas Austin (TLC, Monica) and Jermaine Dupri (Kriss Kross, Da Brat) before them, Organized Noize merged hip-hop and soul music into a brand-new funk. In the process, they soon became an essential element in defining the (then) new songs of the South. Atlanta might not have invented rap music, but they didn’t have a problem with trying to make it sound better.
Walking in the sonic footsteps of their aural ancestors—such as Willie Mitchell (Al Green), Allen Toussaint (LaBelle), Al Bell (the Staple Singers), and Isaac Hayes—Organized Noize blended new-school sampling techniques with vintage instrumentation, wild electronics, and many bong hits of potent pot to create an intoxicating Southern sound that still sounds fresh today.
While some believe Southerners are backwards, Organized Noize was forward-thinkers unafraid of taking chances in the studio. Their sound could be as brooding as DJ Premier and RZA, or as avant-garde as Tricky and Trent Reznor. As a collective, they went on to produce memorable tracks for TLC (“Waterfalls”), Cee-Lo Green (“Childz Play”), Macy Gray (“Do Something”), Ludacris (“Saturday”), and their hero Curtis Mayfield (“Ms. Martha”).
Under the moniker Society of Soul, the Organized crew wrote, produced, and performed the full-length album Brainchild. Released on LaFace Records in 1995, the same year as D’Angelo’s influential Brown Sugar, another Southern soul record that toyed with the groovy songbooks of ’70s music, the disc should have been one of the biggest of the year.
Instead, it quickly faded away when the label didn’t really know how to market it correctly. Yet, in the many years since its release, Brainchild has become a forgotten gem from the label that also signed TLC, Toni Braxton, Usher, and Pink.
However, as LaFace proved in 1992 when they couldn’t break Dallas Austin’s dream project, the Jodeci meets the Bad Brains musical merge of Highland Place Mobsters, the otherwise platinum hit factory had problems breaking artists that strayed too far left of center. If you don’t believe me, just ask Living Colour’s lead singer Cory Glover, whose 1998 solo joint Hymns was shitted-on by the label.
In 1995, while working as the resident soul music writer for an urban magazine, I spent lots of time at home blasting Maxinquaye (Tricky), The Infamous (Mobb Deep), Liquid Swords (GZA), and Post (Bjork). Soon after I received the Brainchild advance, the blunted funk textures went into constant rotation.
Although it was the ’90s, Society of Soul reminded me of music I grew up listening to in Harlem. Transporting me back to good old days when I was an eleven-year-old mack with a big Afro and bell-bottomed jeans, when Fred Williamson was my hero and Bobby Womack was singing “Across 110th Street.” I’d bet even money that somewhere in his Blaxploitation wonderland, Quentin Tarantino has a few mint condition copies of Brainchild in his basement.
After begging my editor to let me write about them, I hopped a flight to the land of Dixie one Sunday morning as though I was doing the Lord’s work. “The group will be here in a few minutes,” publicist Lisa Cambridge assured me. Within the half-hour, which is the hip-hop equivalent of a few minutes, Society of Soul and I were sitting on the outside deck talking about their music.
When Organized Noize formed in the late 1980s, they were just teens messing around with drum machines and listening to old-school soul music at Rico’s crib in East Point. After befriending “Mercedes Boy” pop singer Pebbles, who managed TLC and was married to LaFace head honcho L.A. Reid, the trio was offered their big break in 1994 when they were hired to remix TLC’s single “What About Your Friends,” featuring OutKast.
Impressed with the finished product, LaFace Records signed OutKast and retained Noize’s production prowess for Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s first single. “The first song we did with OutKast was ‘Player’s Ball,’ which we recorded for the LaFace Christmas album [in 1993],” Sleepy Brown said. “We started vibing, called in a few guitar players, and Ray played bass and came up with the funky beat. I put a little organ on it, and our sound just went from there.”
However, in the beginning of their production career, they decided to step in front of the cameras and microphones and created the laidback funk group Society of Soul. “We had finished working with OutKast on ATLiens and was getting started on Goodie Mob’s debut Soul Food when we decided to make Brainchild,” Brown explained.
Hanging out with Rico and spoken-word artist Big Rube, who supplied the street corner poetics on Brainchild’s title track, the three conspired to do “a Curtis Mayfield thing,” and Society of Soul was born. After signing to LaFace, the ATL soulsters gathered at the Curtis Mayfield–owned Curtom Studios and began laying down their own brand of ’90s funk.
While Organized Noize was capable of constructing futuristic tracks, on Brainchild the crew was determined to expand the retro rhythmic aesthetic heard on OutKast’s 1994 Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. The result was a daring foray that was sexy and smart while still country as a plate of fish and grits. “The reason we named the album Brainchild is because our record is designed to nurture the brains of the youth,” Big Rube said.
“The first song we completed was ‘Peaches n’ Erb’; after that, we knew what we had to do,” Brown said. “Peaches n’ Erb” was as laidback as the tracks Dr. Dre made with Snoop, and one could almost smell the weed smoke in the room. “That song set the tone for the entire album.”
Besides a guest appearance from TLC member T-Boz on “Changes,” newcomer Espraronza was the only female singer on the project. Coming from South Carolina originally, she was raised in her grandparent’s church. Having seen Society of Soul perform at an Atlanta club, Espraronza was instantly caught-up in their rhythmic rapture. “I had never heard music like this on the radio,” she said. “They were on a ghetto funk vibe, and I felt like I wanted to be part of it.”
Luckily, Society of Soul was looking for a female singer to pour some honey on the grit. Espraronza, who worked at a cosmetic’s counter, went to Noize’s studio the Dungeon. “When I went to audition, I mentioned something about demos, and Sleepy says, ‘We ain’t working on demos, we finishing the album.’ ”
Although the fellows played video games while Espraronza sang a cover of Regina Belle’s “After the Love Has Lost Its Shine,” she got the gig. “Sleepy called the next day and said it was mine. I’m not even sure if I quit my job; I think I just left. We shot the video the following week, and things just went from there.”
Sleepy Brown, whose father Jimmy Brown was the lead singer and saxophonist for popular 1970s soul group Brick (“Dazz,” “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody”), got into the funk when he was a kid. “I’d go to my dad’s house and watch Brick working on material, and there was so much love in the room,” he recalled.
With pops also taking him to concerts, young Sleepy’s funky foundation included healthy doses of the Bar-Kays, Cameo, Con Funk Shun, and George Clinton, who he later collaborated with. On Brainchild, he played alongside his dad on “Wind,” a smooth jazz song. “I always promised myself if I ever did a record, I’d have my pops on it. That was just a small way of giving back all that he taught me.”
While the tracks “Right Tonight” and “Ghetto Fuh Life” were perfect, funky party songs, the first single, “Pushin’,” had a pimpish laidback vibe that was pure Iceberg Slim. The video, which showed Society of Soul cruising in a Cadillac convertible through the streets of Atlanta, looked like a clip from a lost Blaxploitation flick and set up Sleepy’s bluesy Shaft vibe perfectly.
The group’s second single, “E.M.B.R.A.C.E.,” was a sweaty love song. Sleepy’s brandy-laced voice drawled and twanged without shame while co-singer Espraronza kept it church. In the house party shown in the video, the group is hanging out at a party filled with pimped-out players and arty bohemians, both sects grooving to chilled bass line.
Yet, it’s not until the gospel driven “It Only Gets Better” that Espraronza really revealed her amen-corner roots. “The first time I sang in my grandparent’s church, I was three years old,” she said. “I didn’t sound like a little kid, but more like a little woman. People started screaming, crying, and praying.”
As a fan of Brainchild, I have always been slightly miffed that Society of Soul didn’t do better and only released one record. “Man, those brothers are like the Ralph Ellison’s of funk,” I once told a friend. “Brainchild was their Invisible Man.” As a production clique, Organized Noize stayed together throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, constructing funky hip-hop for numerous artists.
While Sleepy might’ve been premature in 1995 when he declared that Society of Soul was going to be, “the Wu-Tang of R&B,” for the short time they lasted, the group was something special.
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