Ramon met Rico in the late ’80s when they were in a dance group called Guess. “We were doing A-town dancing,” says Ramon. “Back then, it was all about bass music.” When Rico wasn’t dancing, he was looking after his two younger sisters and his mother, Beatrice. Ramon and Rico wound up in a song-and-dance group called the Uboyz, which also included Sleepy Brown. His father, Jimmy Brown, was a vocalist /trombonist in the ’70s ATL funk band Brick. To make ends meet, Rico managed a gangster-owned store called LaMonte’s Beauty Supply. He purchased a gold-and-black Honda Accord with black rims by ninth grade. Also working at the shop was Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, who would go on to form the R&B supergroup TLC with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. “Rico was the reason I met Left Eye,” says T-Boz, now 39. “Rico gave me my first pair of baggy pants––Girbauds.”
Around this time, Murray was working in Carne’s home studio. “I was the one who had the equipment,” says Joe. “Everyone in the Dungeon Family connected through me.” But things turned sour with Joe in ’91 when Ray heard one of his tracks playing in a club. “Joe took one of that man’s beats,” Rico says. He confronted Joe at Jelly Beans Skate Rink, site of the ’06 movie ATL (Warner Bros.). “Rico was like, ‘Let me holla at you for a sec,’” recalls Gipp. “When they got to the parking lot, Rico pulled out a shotgun and stuck it in Joe’s mouth.”
When Joe returned, “his eyes were big as pool balls,” Gipp recalls. Reminded of the incident, Joe falls silent. “You don’t forget something like that,” he finally says, softly. “That backed me out of the whole thing for a while. It’s just music. It ain’t worth somebody getting hurt over.” The crew needed its own equipment, so Big Rube, another neighborhood buddy, used insurance money he received after his father’s death to buy an MPC60 for Ray and Sleepy, who used to carry a keyboard around wherever he went. They moved their gear to Rico’s mother’s house, and began recording in a tiny, dirt-floor basement. Since nobody ever seemed to leave, they called it the Dungeon.
It’s easy to forget what the hip hop landscape looked like in ’94. Nas was Illmatic (Ill Will/Columbia), Biggie was Ready to Die (Bad Boy), 2Pac was on Thug Life Vol. 1 (Jive), and the Fugees were Blunted on Reality (Ruffhouse). Rap was mostly bicoastal, with Death Row bubbling out West. In the South, nothing was popping but Luke in Miami and Suave House and Rap-A-Lot in Houston.
Before Master P and Cash Money rose out of New Orleans, the Dungeon Family had dudes in the streets rocking leather hats and platinum fronts. Rico linked with Antonio “L.A.” Reid at LaFace Records, and they dropped OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, introducing a new sound––eerie harmonies layered with clustered funk. It was smart but gangsta, pop but pure, and universal enough to bump out of jeeps as far away as Detroit and Chicago.