Big Gipp, one of the four Atlantans behind hip-hop's Goodie Mob, knows all about bad choices. "I had a cousin who was out there in the gang life in Denver," he says. "And I had another cousin who got shot, and I've got a cousin who's doing fifteen to life. That's why a lot of stuff is serious to me, man. I've had a lot of folks that have got pinned up by the streets...That's why I've got to keep putting these good messages out and try to keep my people away from the pitfalls that are put out here to keep them fucked up."
In Gipp's mind, the decay of urban America isn't happening by chance. In his words, "It's hard for any other community to look on from the outside. They're like, 'Look at these people, look how they're acting.' But, man, dope wasn't systematically put in your community to bring it down." Nevertheless, Goodie Mob isn't interested in merely complaining about this state of affairs on its new disc, Still Standing. Rather than respond to such issues with the usual gangster pimpologies, Big Gipp and his partners, Cee-Lo, T-Mo and Khujo, use their music to constructive, not destructive, ends. The rappers are neither naive nor preachy: As Cee-Lo says in "G.O.D. (Gaining From One Definition)," a track on the Common album One Day It'll All Make Sense, "There ain't no positivity without negativity." But like Public Enemy in the days when Chuck D. first referred to rap as "the black CNN," the members of the Mob believe that information is power--and they try to disseminate as much of it as possible.
The group came together in southwest Atlanta during the early Nineties, a time when crack was tightening its grip on inner cities nationwide. Gipp was introduced to this harsh reality at a young age. "I was in middle school when I first saw someone sniff cocaine, and I'd see my friends get involved in the dope game and buying their cars," he recalls. "Buddy, I was right there. I've been sitting in traps, so I know at the end of the day you're either going to jail or you're going to get killed." He adds, "All the Goodie Mob's been on the other side of the law, but I think us four were able to shift away from that in '93 or '94, when OutKast got their deal."
Indeed, the recording contract secured by OutKast, an act made up of performers from Gipp's hometown, led to the Mob's first exposure in the musical mainstream. All four put in guest appearances on OutKast's debut, southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, with Gipp and Cee-Lo appearing on "Git Up, Git Out" and T-Mo and Khujo adding their voices to "Call of the Wild." Gipp describes the Mob's contributions as "helping them with different vibes--putting a little Southern playa thing on it."
Before long, LaFace Records, an Atlanta-based label founded by Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, added Goodie Mob to a roster already distinguished by OutKast and TLC. The group's first disc, 1996's Soul Food, received a raft of critical acclaim, and for good reason: This Southern-fried platter of songs reflected the quartet's ideas about identity and brotherhood in entertaining and inspirational ways. Throughout "Fighting," for instance, Cee-Lo attacks the forces conspiring to keep African-Americans in bondage with rhymes like "You'll find a lot of reasons we're behind/Is because the system is designed to keep our third eye blind/But not blind in the sense that our two eyes can't see." But he also places much of the blame for these circumstances on those who merely accept them, instead of struggling to overcome them: "Think about the slave trade, with thousands of us on board/And we still was praising the Lord/Now you're ready to die over a coat/A necklace around your throat."
On Still Standing, Gipp wanted to expand on these observations: "We've got to get this message out that the good are dying mostly over bullshit," he says. So the four retreated to a mountaintop in Helen, Georgia, and when they returned, they had the makings of the Mob's best album to date. Particularly memorable is "Distant Wilderness," which deals with the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. According to Gipp, the track's opening words--"It's an ill feel to see a man in the same hour that he's killed/Caught grinning in another code/Fell asleep in a party mode"--strike close to home for the Mob. After all, the late rapper was leaving the Soul Train Music Awards in order to attend a party thrown by OutKast at the time he was shot. "We had seen Biggie about five minutes before he got killed," he notes. "So for us, that shit is so serious. He got to tell nobody goodbye, and at the same time, he got killed in another state. Look at that situation and how bad that is."
Goodie Mob doesn't shy away from tragedy on Still Standing, nor does it avoid criticizing peers: During a segue into "Gutta Butta," a cut about the trappings of the drug trade, Gipp takes a swipe at homies who pour out beer to honor dead comrades but then dishonor their neighbors by littering the streets with their empty bottles. However, offerings like these are counterbalanced by songs in which the spiritual and the secular intermingle like long-lost relatives at a family reunion. The juxtaposition of such themes, which are dissimilar yet bound by a common bloodline, is typical of the Mob's comparatively complex approach to tunesmithing. "We always do songs that have two different meanings," Gipp confirms. "The positive and the negative."
The new album's first single, "They Don't Dance No Mo," is a case in point. On the surface, the track concerns the reasons men and women go out on the town. "You'll see more people sitting down against the wall than on the dance floor having fun," Gipp says. "But for some people, a club is where they drink--and if they can't handle alcohol, they start trouble for all those who are having fun. It's like a flipside: We destroy hip-hop by not being able to party together and have fun together and listen to the music." But the lyrics also include brickbats directed at rappers who are so desperate for money that they act like minstrels to get it. "That's a whole message to the record industry--that we weren't going to be bugging our eyes out and dancing for them just to be accepted," Gipp elaborates. "Just because everybody's on the Puffy thing, that doesn't mean we're going to change to do our things like him."
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Likewise, the Mob stays away from the misogyny that's so common in rap. On "Beautiful Skin," the chorus is a tribute to the female of the species: "You're my beginning, my end/You're my sister, lover and friend/God is your light from within/And it shines through your beautiful skin...I hope you understand/You've got to respect yourself before I can." For Gipp, the song encapsulates his feelings for Joi, an R&B singer who bore him a daughter, Kepsiia. Gipp says his relationship with Joi has helped him to realize that it "takes both of us to communicate and both of us to live to create something new."
Some of the other lessons recounted on Still Standing were more painful for Gipp than this one. But to him, they are no less vital. "As my man Cee-Lo says, 'If it's a mistake but someone can learn from it, then how can it be a mistake?' Because if someone learned from your downfalls at the same time you learned from your downfalls, then it wasn't a mistake. It was a learning experience."
The Roots, with Goodie Mob. 8 p.m. Monday, May 11, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $24.25, 443-3399 or 830-