He’s been off hip-hop’s radar screen for a few years, but as one-fourth of Goodie Mob, Khujo (born Willie Knighton, Jr.) was one of the architects of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. With the 1995 debut Soul Food, Goodie Mob introduced international audiences to the sound of the Dirty South, infusing rap music with heaping doses of gospel and soul. But when Cee-Lo left the quartet after the release of its third album, the group unraveled, never achieving the commercial success of Dungeon Family peers OutKast. After an overlooked solo album, an outing with Goodie Mob’s T-Mo as the Lumberjacks and an accident that left him with an amputated leg, Khujo has returned with a new project called Willie Isz, a collaboration with producer Jneiro Jarel that finds him charting more tripped-out sonic territory on the debut Georgiavania. In our recent conversation, he discussed the new album, his new outlook on life and that eagerly awaited Goodie Mob reunion.
Atlanta’s hip-hop scene was primarily local before OutKast and Goodie Mob broke out. What was it about the Dungeon Family sound that made it resonate on such a universal level?
We come from Georgia, and there’s a lot of great style here, from James Brown and Ray Charles to Curtis Mayfield. The first seven songs we did for Soul Food were recorded in Curtis Mayfield’s studio, so it was like we was getting that vibe and the guys were playing over [classic soul] samples and making a new sound. Once cats from up north and the West Coast heard that we were original and weren’t trying to be like nobody, they gave us a chance. I remember at the Source Awards in New York when OutKast got their five mics, everybody booed them. But if we hadn’t gotten that boo, I don’t think we would’ve been as great as we were. It’s original music and original lyrics, and everybody in the Dungeon Family has their own personality, kinda like the southern Wu-Tang [Clan].
A lot of people don’t give you guys credit for coining the term “Dirty South.” What does that phrase represent for you?
The Dirty South slogan really meant to me that it was hard in the South to break that ceiling and get a major situation in the music industry. Now people are just playing dirty, ya know what I’m saying? It’s a dirty game, and people think they can just come to the South [to make it]. These country boys just don’t know that we play dirty down here, and that goes for the Confederate flag and the black flag.
How do you feel about the way the Southern hip-hop scene has evolved over the years?
Well, it has changed, because once we opened that door everybody came through. We don’t have control over who comes out of the Dirty South. I like what’s goin’ on now because it keeps it fresh, even though I might not agree with everything that’s on the radio. My thing is balance: Some of these cats, their album is wack but they playin’ their one good song. But you can put on a Goodie Mob or OutKast CD and listen to the whole record.
You’ve always been one of hip-hop’s more spiritual MCs. What are the challenges of being a spiritual man in a soul-sucking industry?
You just gotta have that foundation, you know? Down here in the South, we went to church with our mamas and grandmamas, so we had a strong spiritual foundation. But once you get into the industry and find out it’s more about the business side than the creative side, you gotta have somebody on your team that can handle that junk so you can stay creative.
Goodie Mob always seemed like such a tight-knit group. Can you talk about the circumstances that led to CeeLo going solo?
It was kinda hard, because we was still young back in those days and we just couldn’t understand what was going on. CeeLo and our manager [were] going off doing other adventures, and CeeLo was like, “Man, I don’t wanna deal with him right now.” We thought it was just a little spat or something, but then we had to do a whole album and a tour of Japan by ourselves. We got off tour and wanted to record another album, but LaFace was like, “Y’all can’t record no album without CeeLo.” So we couldn’t tour, we couldn’t make money, we couldn’t put a record out… it looked real grim. We was upset about that and told LaFace we wanted out [of our contract]. They let us out, but they kept CeeLo. I just didn’t understand that. Then we got a situation with Koch [and released] One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, but everything that happened was real frustrating. Me and Gipp just had to keep pushing.
Then you lost part of your leg in an auto accident in 2002.
As a spiritual person, it was like God showed mercy on me. That day I’d just gotten my wax, because I was releasing my first solo album, The Man Not The Dawg. We were having a good time all day, then that night we went to one more club. I didn’t realize I had so much to drink until the airbag opened up on me. It blew me away, ’cuz when they rolled me into the hospital the doctor was like, “We’re gonna have to amputate that leg.” I never did get the chance to see my leg, but they said it looked like it had been in a meat grinder.
How has that changed you as a person?
You can just call me Humble Goodie, man. [Laughs] It’s been awhile now, and sometimes I forget about it. But I was moving kinda fast back then, coming home late all the time, so that [stuff] had to slow me down. It was a wake-up call. My wife was pregnant with my fourth son and we had to take the baby early, so I was in a wheelchair making breakfast while she was in there with the kids. We been through a lot of stuff….
What were the circumstances that brought you and Jneiro together to form Willie Isz?
Jneiro found me and told me he had this remix he wanted me on. I didn’t know who he was, but music to me is always about creating something new. I got on the song and it was jammin’, so we decided to do a record together. We worked through the cyber-world—he kept sending me music and I kept smashing—until we came up with a whole album.
What was it about his sound that appealed to you?
That guy reminds me of Organized Noize’s production. The way he produces sounds a lot like OutKast, so I was like, “This feels like home; this is what I been missing.” It was kinda like a buffer for me, or like a crutch. But this guy is for real, and he’s released three other albums prior to this one. His system of doing things has been exercised real good.
Can you talk about what the concept behind Georgiavania means to you?
There have been a lot of collabos lately, and Georgiavania was a better way of saying that this was a collaboration between Pennsylvania and Georgia. It’s kinda like psychedelic medieval chamber music, but with rap lyrics. The guy doesn’t just use samples—he plays on the stuff too—and it’s so outer space to me that we can go anywhere with it. It was cool, because Jneiro was like we can’t cuss on this record, which made it even tougher. I think people who like a variety of different songs on their record are gonna like this album.
How would you compare the Khujo of Willie Isz with the MC you were back in Goodie Mob’s day?
I’ve gotten better! My homeboy Shorty B, who produced Too $hort, was like, “You be jamming, but I wanna see you rhyme more.” I took that to heart and I’ve been working on my style, trying not to keep people in left field. Now that I’ve gotten older, I can play around with words more than I could back in the Soul Food days. I think there’s always room for improvement, and I keep that in the back of my mind.
There have been rumors of a Goodie Mob reunion swirling for years, with an official announcement on V-103 back in 2007. Where does that stand now?
We’ve been in the Dungeon working, but we still have a ways to go. Organized Noize is on the job with the production. We’ve already got seven songs together, and I think two of them are gonna be the meat of the album. The other ones remind me of World Party ’cuz we don’t have people crying, ya know? Music is still supposed to be entertaining, so have a couple of uptempo songs that can bang at the club. The vibe now is all love. We done got old and understand that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Even though things were different when we was young, we never got mad at each other and ran up in each other’s houses, because it wasn’t anything serious. I went to the studio yesterday and saw Gipp and T-Mo, so now we’re just waiting on CeeLo. He’s finishing up a couple of projects that he’s got going on. Once he’s done with that, we’re gonna submit the songs to him and see which ones he thinks is the hypest. There’s no release date yet, but maybe in the winter.