“Neck Uv Da Woods” – Mystikal featuring OutKast  (produced by Earthtone III)

There’s an important conversation in hip hop production that rarely takes place publicly regarding OutKast’s musical production and much of the Dungeon Family’s work from ’96 through ’03.  Organized Noize (ONP) has rightfully been given a massive amount of credit, and it could be effectively argued that they don’t get enough credit, for their groundbreaking and region defining production work with OutKast, Goodie Mob, TLC, En Vogue, Witchdoctor, Cool Breeze, Society of Soul, Sleepy’s Theme, Lil Will, Backbone, The Calhouns and many others.  Yet in the appreciation of the production work specifically related to OutKast, and occasionally related to other Dungeon Family acts, some key names are often overlooked and under-appreciated in the production credits: Andre Benjamin (Dre or 3000), David Sheats (Mr. DJ), and Antwan Patton (Big Boi).

There are certainly many reasons why Organized Noize get the lion’s share of the credit for the production behind the music created by the Dungeon Family.  For one, the musicality and instrumental work that Organized Noize brought to the table in mid-nineties hip hop and R&B, were truly revolutionary.  Although marginally credited to the notion that Pebbles told Rico, Ray, and Sleepy not to bring her beats with samples in them in order to avoid legal issues and unnecessary costs, Organized Noize effectively one-upped Dr. Dre’s interpolation technique from The Chronic, and placed original live instrumental production at the table in rap music permanently on the game-changing Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and Soul Food and other 1st Generation Dungeon Family releases.  Organized Noize is responsible for creating the sounds that defined the regionally identified organic southern rap music, and their techniques still permeate the way – with greater musicality and less reliance on samples to create melodies - so many southern producers have created beats over the past two decades.  To put it simply, Organized Noize Productions (ONP) brought the type of innovation that producers, and production nerds, geek out on, and they created a lot of classic music in the process (check this compilation from DJ Trackstar if you want to be brought up to speed on some of their work, outside of the must-own OutKast and Goodie Mob work).

A second reason is that Organized Noize’s sound and instrumentality so clearly permeated the first two releases by OutKast and Goodie Mob, even if a fair share of the sophomore albums, was put together by other producers.  For instance, although Mr. DJ may have been responsible for producing “Black Ice,” “They Don’t Dance No Mo’,” and the title track off Still Standing, Organized Noize still played the instruments on “They Don’t Dance No Mo,’” and both Mr. DJ and OutKast still used the same techniques and stable of in-house musicians that ONP used for their instrumental work, making the initial transition from entirely Organized produced work to predominantly OutKast and Mr. DJ produced work relatively seamless.

“Black Ice” Goodie Mob  featuring OutKast (prod by Mr. DJ)

“They Don’t Dance No Mo’” Goodie Mob (prod by Mr. DJ)

A third reason Mr. DJ and OutKast are often overlooked for their own production genius, is as simple as an evolving naming convention, as well as fact that at times they produced as a collective, and at other times they produced separately.  ATLiens tracks not produced by ONP were produced by OutKast – primarily under the direction of Andre – while the scratches alone are credited to Mr. DJ.  With Still Standing and other releases, between ’98-’00 Mr. DJ showed his own production acumen, creating some great beats for DF acts as well as affiliates and those outside the inner-circle, including the stellar, “We Don’t Give a F*ck” and “Throw Your Hands Up,” for Eightball & MJG, Cool Breeze’s “Gangsta Partna,” one of the best cuts on the Witchdoctor’s S.W.A.T. Healin’ Ritual, in “Heaven Comin,’” and the countrified crunkfest “Flaw Boyz,” for Jim Crow featuring Juvenile.  By the time Aquemini rolled around ‘Kast had begun to work with Mr. DJ on production, while Dre and Big took the lead on other tracks, and only four tracks were produced by Organized Noize.  Unlike in ’93, ONP had plenty of other artists they were working to promote and create music for in ’98 (eg Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze, Lil Will, Witchdoctor, Society of Soul, Sleepy’s Theme), but the truth was that Andre had taken the tutelage of Ray Murray, Rico Wade, and Sleepy Brown and was pushing his own musical agendas by this point.  Dre embarked on this journey with the support and collaboration of Big Boi, Mr. DJ, and ONP as well as the same set of in-house musicians Organized and DF had come to rely on, but he had usurped Rico as the musical visionary on OutKast’s work by the time Aquemini came out.

Six of the most important, and 12 of the 16 in totality, Aquemini songs, “Rosa Parks,” “SpottieOttieDopalicious,” “Liberation,” “Aquemini,” and “Da Art of Storytelling (1 & 2),” were all produced by OutKast, Mr. DJ or some combination of the three individuals.  Notably, and again pointing to the influence of Organized Noize’s “formula,” arranging live instrumentation over rap production, none of these beats were made without live instrumentation.  While ‘Kast and Mr. DJ’s absorption of that style of production again speaks to the brilliance of Organized Noize not just as practitioners, but mentors or teachers, Aquemini may well have been the point where the brilliance of the pupils on the production tip began to rival the brilliance of the teachers.

When ONP made Southernplayalistic and Soul Food they bucked the trends of southern producers putting out albums that either mimicked the sound of East Coast or West Coast acts or fell into the regional limitations of bass music, creating a mainstream rap music that was indentifiably southern in every way.  Importantly, those albums also rejected the notions of normalcy in rap music with songs like the rap-free “Funky Ride,” a penchant that Organized continued throughout their career, at times to their own commercial detriment.  OutKast showcased the same creativity behind the boards, partly a product of the ONP’s mentorship, and partially due to the eclectic backgrounds and worldly interests of Dre and Big Boi.  On Aquemini, OutKast and Mr. DJ took this desire to push musical freedom to new heights in rap with the epic “SpottieOttieDopalicious,” and “Liberation,” but also with their dynamic musical fushion on “Aquemini,” “Synthesizer,” and “Chonkyfire.”

“Da Art of Storytelling (Video Version)” OutKast featuring Slick Rick (produced by Mr. DJ)

“Rosa Parks” – OutKast (prod by OutKast)

By the time Stankonia came out, OutKast had decided to bring Sheats into their own production crew full-time, now known as Earthtone III (ET3).  Like Wade, Murray, and Brown all brought something unique to the table in the context of Organized Noize, this was undoubtedly the case with Earthtone III, but interestingly ET3 rarely worked as a together as a collective.  For those wishing to chronicle production acumen of these three individual artists, the creation of this collective only further muddies the waters, especially given that their different working styles means that at least some of the songs they created were not truly collaborative from a production standpoint.  While it is perhaps honorable that in true Dungeon Family fashion, Earthtone III made a conscious decision to share credit and split revenues on their production work during this period, there are points when a song does sound distinctly Mr. DJ/Big Boi influenced, others that sound distinctly Andre 3000, and others still sound much more like a true concoction of their respective styles.  Producing albums as a collective almost always obscures ownership and roles, and has often created disagreements between different artists about who deserves most of the credit for successes or blame for failures (EPMD and Eric B & Rakim) and also results in a lack of knowledge for listeners on the source of that responsibility (The Ummah).  When a production group stays together for the long haul, and only does occasional production work separately (Organized Noize, Da Beatminerz, The Beatnuts, Trackmasters, The Neptunes) even the biggest production critics tend not to delve too deeply into trying to define an individual source of responsibility for successes and failures. In the case of Earthtone III, the name change (from OutKast and Earthtone on previous releases), and the subsequent fracturing of their work into solo production after the four year period from ’99 to ’03 predominantly serves to cloud the greatness of their legacy as producers, causing most to continue to think of them predominantly as rappers/singers, while still primarily linking ONP to their production.  Nevertheless, some of their best and most powerful music came during this era.

Stankonia still stands, even as thousands have picked up its mantle and attempted to push the limits, as one of the most boundary defying rap records ever and proved to be the furthest OutKast would push the format, before Andre 3000 ultimately abandoned it in own albums.  Although Speakerboxxx, Idlewild, and Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty all continued to push the boundaries of rap music in their own ways, Andre’s contributions with The Love Below and his work on Idlewild are predominantly oriented in directions decidedly outside of scope of rap music.  Through the drum and bass influence and instrumental discordia of “B.O.B.,” the backspun drums of “Ms. Jackson,” the fiery electric guitar riffs of “Gasoline Dreams, ” the combustible keys, licks, and vocal effects of “Xplosion,” and “Red Velvet,” the almost thowed and slowed synthiness and walking bass of “Toilet Tisha,” to the sprite-like eclecticism of “Humble Mumble,” Earthtone III took the notion that hip hop could be backed by whatever type of music they chose to rap or sing over well beyond any predefined hip hop comfort zone.  Many of ‘Kast’s die-hard fans found this album disappointing for this very reason, while others loved its creativity, but there’s no denying the audacity of the album’s musical direction.  While Organized Noize contributed some of the album’s memorable moments, notably the single “So Fresh, So Clean,” in addition to “Spaghetti Junction,” and “We Luv Deez Hoez,” ONP could not have quarterbacked Stankonia and brought it to the same place that Earthtone III had.  As evidenced by those three beats, Organized was comfortable in their own lane of musical creation – funky, soulful, and bathed in Murray’s boom-bap sensibilities – certainly more instrumental and eclectic than their predecessors, but not as fearless and otherworldly as Andre and Earthtone’s work.

“Bombs Over Baghdad (B.O.B.)” OutKast (prod by Earthtone III)

“Ms. Jackson” – OutKast (prod by Earthtone III)

As earthshattering as their production on Stankonia had been, Earthtone also showed a remarkable ability to produce southern rap beats in a more traditional vein as well.  It is quite possible that this was the work David Sheats and Big Boi compiled in front of the stripper pole in Big Boi’s mansion, but without further annotation or explanation from the members that’s impossible to know.  Nevertheless, tracks like Dungeon Family’s “On & On & On” and “They Comin‘,” OutKast’s classic collaboration with Mystikal “Neck Uv Da Woods,” Mystikal’s “The Braids,” Backbone’s “Believe That,” featuring Gipp & Slimm Cutta Calhoun, and Slimm Cutta Calhoun’s “It’s OK,” “It Ain’t Easy,” “Dirt Work,” “All Da Hustlers,” “Timelock,” as well as the vast majority of the work on The Skinny all showcase a bit more traditional and toned down approach to rap production – a desire to make creative rap production, but within the same boundaries Stankonia was so comfortable obliterating.  This more traditonalist approach didn’t prove to suit Andre 3000 for the long term, as OutKast’s own new music during this time frame, “Speedballin‘,” “The Whole World,” “Land of a Million Drums,” and “Funkin’ Around” continued to show the desire to further the limits.


“It’s OK” Slimm Cutta Calhoun featuring Andre 3000 (prod by Earthtone III)

“Land of a Million Drums,” Outkast featuring Killer Mike (Prod by Earthtone III)

“The Whole World” OutKast featuring Killer Mike (prod by Earthtone III)

Around the point in time when OutKast announced they would release Speakerboxxx/The Love Below as a double album with one disc quarterbacked by Big Boi and the other by Andre 3000, Earthtone III also dissolved and Mr. DJ regained his solo production identity, while Dre and Big Boi finally, after about 7 or 8 years collaboratively producing records in the music industry gained their own identities as solo producers.  Andre 3000′s work continued to be unbounded, occasionally taking a more traditionalist approach, but normally only when producing for another artist. Big Boi and Mr. DJ continued to do some work together, but of the two Mr. DJ took on the much more prominent role as producer.  Mr. DJ’s work, naturally evolving from his solo production work in the mid-to-late nineties embraced musicality, occasional sampling, and more conventional southern rap drum work.

The evaluation of their solo production work from 2003 onward is a worthy pursuit in its own right, but ultimately this about the rap production of OutKast and Earthtone III, which effectively ended in 2003 when the creative (or perhaps business) visions of Big Boi, Andre 3000, and David Sheats reached a point where the need to (re)create solo identities became necessity for one reason or another.  OutKast’s legacy as rappers and artists is unquestioned and well chronicled, and they will no doubt enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one day for their undeniable impact on music, but their legacy as producers is rarely discussed with the same fervor.  Ask a group of diehard rap fans to name their top 15 or 20 producers or production crews and there is little doubt that names like Dr. Dre, Marley Marl, Rick Rubin, RZA, DJ Premier, Organized Noize, Neptunes, Timbaland, Pimp C, etc will roll of their tongue, but few would list Outkast/Earthtone III in that same elite group.  Perhaps naming conventions are to blame, perhaps the shadow of Organized Noize’s own legend, and perhaps Andre’s unchained boom-bap rejecting musicality cost them a place on this list.  The reality is though, that if asked to spout of their top 20 OutKast and Dungeon Family tracks, they would undoubtedly drop names like “SpottieOttie,” “Liberation,” “Rosa Parks,” “Elevators,” “Wheels of Steel,” “The Art of Storytelling (Pt 1),” “B.O.B.,” and “Ms. Jackson,” among the tracks on their list.  The same rap fans may list those songs among their favorite songs in all of hip hop history.  Whether popularly acknowledged or not, that is the legacy of Earthtone III.

Comments
  1. mike says:

    Great article, thanks for clarifying the difference btwn ONP and ET3 for those that don’t know. Saw Sheats out one time here in ATL and I acknowledged his brilliance, he was genuinely humbled by my praise.

  2. [...] Earthtone III – A Hip Hop Production Retrospective [...]

  3. [...] -I’m not sure who wrote this, but I really dig this retrospective of Earthtone III and their pl… They’re incredible, first, and they’re Big Boi, Dre, and Mr. DJ, second. OutKast. I feel like a lot of people don’t realize that Dre and Big produce, too, because it so rarely ever seems to come up. With good reason, I think — Organized Noize deserves more acclaim than they get, which is a lot — but it’s still sorta weird. This piece does a great job of placing them in context. [...]

  4. john says:

    solid article all around

  5. Just thought i’d let u know this article is exactly what I was looking for. I started listening to Outkast in 2000, and remember the first time I heard “B.O.B.” and remember feeling like I’d heard nothing like it in my life, since then I’ve been obsessed with ET3, but there’s so little written about them. This was the perfect article, thank you.

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