In 1996, Atlanta Hip Hop was a hodgepodge of sound. After establishing a steady presence in bass music, by the time the late nineties rolled around, it found itself heavily rooted in the red clay dirt – inherently soulful but textured and grimy.
The sounds coming from various pockets of the city — the southwest, westside, and eastside in particular— were varied. Although OutKast, Goodie Mob and the rest of the Dungeon Family had established Atlanta’s rap sound nationally, there was another hometown act that helped define Atlanta’s rap sound during that era, rap duo Ghetto Mafia.
Hailing from the eastside, in Decatur, Ghetto Mafia (Nino and Wicked) dropped their debut album, Draw the Line on Ichiban Records in 1993. The album found the duo slinging warning tales of street life while expounding on the elements that made Atlanta distinctive from other southern rap powerhouse cities like Houston and Memphis. And early on, they were instrumental in determining what rap music in Atlanta sounded like. By the time Ghetto Mafia dropped their third album, Straight From the Dec in 1997, they’d fine tuned their style and message, setting the tone for the direction they’d continue following on their subsequent album (and most successful to date) 1998’s On Da Grind, and establishing an influential presence in Atlanta’s bubbling rap scene.
"Straight From The Dec" dropped shortly after the ‘96 Olympics, when Atlanta was in the midst of its first big transformation, garnering international attention and further establishing itself beyond its heavy civil rights legacy.
The city had firmly centered itself as a culture hub and incubator for Black creatives of all types, and drawing Black people from around the country eager to tap into the city’s energy. As the city was shifting, Ghetto Mafia was hitting their stride sonically, and with their third effort created an album that’d later be seen as an integral piece of Atlanta’s rap puzzle. While most folks point to Dungeon Family as the beginning of the sound that’d come to define Atlanta Hip Hop, it’d be a mistake to erase Ghetto Mafia from the conversation.
Nino and Wicked were wholly original, with a sound that was lyrically exuberant, creative, and raw, which they delivered over mellow, asphalt-laced production that felt soulful and familiar. By the time they dropped Straight From the Dec, it was no longer only about Nino and Wicked’s above-average musical skills, they were making a declaration.
While they both say there’s never been any beef with the Dungeon Family collective, and have even collaborated, Nino and Wicked have never held their tongues about feeling overlooked by the record labels like LaFace, who’d settled in Atlanta. Straight From the Dec dropped in 1997, right in the middle of DF’s swing into the national spotlight following the success of OutKast’s southernplayalisticadillacmuzic and ATLiens and Goodie’s Soul Food debut. Straight From the Dec felt very specific to the raw pockets of Atlanta culture. The album was a statement about their city through the lens of their personal exploits and warnings.
Nino and Wicked produced the entire project, which dropped on Fully Loaded Records, and it was rightfully their most successful up until that point. Led by their first charting single, “I Can Feel It” an interpolation of Phil Collin’s rap-favorite “In the Air Tonight,” the album was concise at just 11-tracks. Mellow and soulful, the production was still rough around the edges, and set the tone for a grittier side of Atlanta street rap. On the track, they explain their paranoia dodging the law, haters from the block, and the racist KKK as they attempt to come up with their signature, seamless back-and-forth flow which highlighted their creative synergy.
The album opener, “In Da Paint” is another standout with heavy wah-wah’s as Nino and Wicked showcase exactly why they were standout talents on Atlanta’s rap scene with their raw, energetic flow. It’s just a little off-kilter, and in-your-face addictive, as is the case on another album standout, “Don’t Turn Back.”
But it’s the title track, “Straight From the Dec” that became a Decatur, and by extension, Atlanta, underground rap jewel. A sing-songy track that sounds like rocking chairs on the porch and Impala’s coasting down dimly lit, tree-dense interstates, the song captures the old soul of Decatur, before gentrification and Hollywood parked its production studios in Atlanta neighborhoods.
On the hook they clarify: “Naw, this ain't Compton, this Decatur...”
Straight From the Dec set Ghetto Mafia up for their most successful album, On da Grind, and what should’ve been a more widely recognized career. The album acts as both a blueprint and bridge for Atlanta rap, connecting the dots between bass-street acts like Kilo Ali and Sammy Sam and the gutter soul rap that defined artists like Goodie Mob and Witchdoctor.
Soulful, honest, and influential, Straight From the Dec is an integral album in Atlanta’s rap history.