Big Rube: The Enduring Wisdom of Southern Rap's Sage
By Stereo Williams
"Take back your existence or die like a punk. This is Big Rube sayin' right on to the real, and death to the fakers..."
Ruben Bailey is more than a star. He's more than a legend. The oracle of Atlanta rap, the sage of southern Hip-Hop — the man affectionately known as Big Rube has been a mainstay in Black music for more than 25 years. Coming out of the Dungeon Family collective via a string of heralded spoken word appearances on classic albums by artists like OutKast and Goodie Mob, Rube represents a state of mind, a state of being. He's parlayed his distinct type of southern-fried wisdom into everything from a poem featured in the movie ATL to ghostwriting for Morgan Freeman.
His voice sounds lived-in. His words have always echoed in a way that defied the fact that he was only in his early 20s when he wrote them. If you were a youth when you first heard them, they haven't lost an ounce of their power decades later. He sounds like the South of Bankhead trapping and bootyshake clubs; but feels like the South of dusky porches and dirt roads. That's just Big Rube.
The world first heard Rube on OutKast's 1994 interlude "True Dat," his gravelly baritone and distinctly laid-back drawl advocating for the valor in being an outcast. "I know I am," he declares. "As a matter of fact, fuck being anything else."
Rube never really intended to become the spoken word guru of the Dungeon Family; instead, he aspired to be a rapper himself — and was intent on challenging the other members of the celebrated crew for MC supremacy. It was Rico Wade of Organized Noize who'd challenged Rube to write something around the word "outcast" to help define and describe the Dungeon Family's first breakout act on its debut album.
Rube would write "True Dat" while enrolled at Georgia State University. He finished the piece between classes.
The artists who would become the Dungeon Family were just creative youngsters who came together in Southwest Atlanta; and Rube eventually found his place within the eclectic crew. "Cats was kicking knowledge, but it was different facets of knowledge," Rube told B High in 2017. "It wasn't about preaching to somebody or being off in some book. That was just my thing. If I'm gonna spend my bread we ain't gonna associate with no sucka MCs."
"Jesus and his 12 disciples make 13, a righteous number of righteous men..."
Rube's unique brand of poetic, red clay wisdom became the connective tissue between Dungeon Family projects. After southernplayalisticadillacmuzik made OutKast stars and put the crew in the spotlight, Rube appeared on the Atlanta duo's even more acclaimed 1996 album ATLiens ("13th Floor") and 1998s Aquemini on the ghostly "Liberation."
By the late 1990s, southern Hip-Hop was centered in the rap mainstream, and the Dungeon Family had become revered as both Hip-Hop's most creative crew and hitmakers in their own right. The crews success meant more visibility for Rube, who appeared alongside Goodie Mob on "Blood" from the AIDS awareness compilation America Is Dying Slowly in 1996. Organized Noize, via a production deal with Interscope Records, would helm a string of albums for the Dungeon Family collective; including Cool Breeze's East Point's Greatest Hit and Witchdoctor's A S.W.A.T. Healin' Ritual, both of which featured Rube (on "Big Rube" and "Remedy," respectively.)
The idea of a rap game oracle wasn't entirely unheard of; fellow Atlanta-based act Arrested Development famously included elder Babe Oje, and Wu-Tang Clan albums often ended with a word from "Popa Wu," aka Freedum Allah. But Rube wasn't a gray-haired senior; he seemed more like a homeboy who'd lived enough to be able to look back with some perspective, still young enough to sit in the trap with his boys but old enough to know when they should do better.
In between the more high-profile Dungeon Family projects, Rube teamed with Ray Murray, Rico Wade and Sleepy Brown of Organized Noize to form Society Of Soul with vocalist Esporanza. The group dropped 1996s Brainchild before disbanding.
As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, Goodie Mob disbanded and reunited, OutKast became megastars before calling it quits and the Dungeon Family showed signs of strain, Big Rube remained a constant. That trademark voice would grace albums by David Banner and Future. And in recent years, the man who'd been the connective voice between the D.F. became a generational bridge across the southern Hip-Hop landscape, appearing on albums by Denzel Curry and Offset. Rube has attributed his enduring appeal, and the appeal of the Dungeon Family, to sincerity.
"When something is real and it's the truth, the truth ain't never gonna go outta style. You're coming from the heart and being yourself," he explained in 2017. "That's how we started: let's be real, let's not be on no ignorant stuff. Everybody [in the Dungeon Family] got different styles...but that one key element was the realism and the truth of it and the matter-of-factness of the music. Realizing that you do have a certain amount of responsibility, because the younger generation does look up to you."
"In this life we must face many a worthy challenge for the outcome to satisfy us. To win in spite of struggle implies much greater magnification..."
He turned up on Rapsody's debut studio album The Idea of Beautiful, once again offering a breakdown of the album's themes while connecting those themes to even higher truths. His voice was there on "It Gets Better With Time" by The Internet.
Big Rube is something more than a star, something deeper than a legend. For at least two generations, he's the spirit of southern street wisdom; the kind of persona we attribute to much older folks and the kind of presence every creative wants to tap into. He's said himself that it's not about the execution, but the spirit behind the art that resonates with people.
Metro Boomin and 21 Savage tapped Rube to ghostwrite words for none other than Morgan Freeman to recite on their hit collaborative album Savage Mode II. It was evidence of how his words still connect: they connect with people, and they connect people. It's because he delivers wisdom without pretentiousness. Big Rube never talks over you, he talks to you.
“Say you got a rapper from the ghetto who doesn’t have the biggest vocabulary, but he’s got so much heart," he explained to Pitchfork in 2019. "And then you got a rapper who is technically perfect with his shit, but he ain’t talk about shit. The motherfucker who is really street is going to win over the motherfucker who is not street.”
*HEADER CREDIT: Big Rube performs onstage at ONE Musicfest at Lakewood Amphitheatre on September 10, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)