On May 29, I walked into a windowless, red brick studio. A familiar silver Jeep was parked outside. Walking up the steps, the studio’s head engineer, Renegade El Rey, greeted me. A neon sign that read “Stankonia” hung above us as we passed the threshold. I followed Renegade into what felt like sacred ground. We passed photos and plaques of OutKast, Killer Mike, and Goodie Mob until we reached an open door.
There sat Raury, alone, inches from the monitor, putting the finishing touches on a new song from his upcoming album, Pray For ATL, which he claims as his first “hip-hop project.”
The last time we spoke, the then-22-year-old, born Raury Tullis, was strumming his guitar in the woods, defying norms within the music performance space. Now, at 24, he has grown as both an artist and a man, and it shows through his forthcoming work.
The album’s title comes from Atlanta artist R. Land’s art piece, “Pray for Atlanta.” Reminiscing on the time he spent in the city as a juvenile, Raury is hopeful Atlanta embraces his latest project.
“I call it Pray for ATL because I used to play guitar around here [Little Five Points] when I was 14,” Raury says. “One art piece I would see on the wall [are these] prayer hands that said ‘Pray for Atlanta.’ It’s always been something that inspired me. I want this project to belong to the city.”
Co-produced by Dungeon Family and OutKast producer Mr. DJ, Pray For ATL is an album, according to its author, that will “further define Atlanta and help Atlanta stand out for its creative and artistic side.”
Raury acknowledges the opportunity to work with such a legendary local figure is a direct reflection of his growth as an artist.
“[Mr. DJ] is a legend within the game, and he’s someone who has walked the way similar to a way I’m walking along with the whole Dungeon Family with Goodie Mob and OutKast,” Raury says. “It’s like I’m getting another chance to do what they have also done.”
Raury and Mr. DJ, born David Sheats, met long before they started working together but recently reconnected through a mutual friend.
“I met Mr. DJ when I was 17,” Raury says. “We just hung out. I rock with him. I got distracted by a lot of shit going on around me and also just listening to my manager, and ended up being on an album with a bunch of other producers. I decided to reach out and see what he’s up to. It turns out, we had the same lawyer.”
Mr. DJ shares a similar sentiment. He saw something special in Raury upon their first encounter.
“I wanted to collaborate with him from the first day he came to the studio,” Mr. DJ says. “However, I sent a few beats here and there, and I never got a response. It made me think maybe I wasn’t quite the frequency. I didn’t want to force anything.”
Mr. DJ began his lengthy career with OutKast as the legendary duo’s touring DJ, eventually becoming one of their definitive producers. He wrote and arranged the GRAMMY Award-winning “Ms. Jackson,” “Da Art of Storytellin’,” “So Fresh, So Clean,” “B.O.B.,” “The Whole World,” and produced the 2004 GRAMMY-winning album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
“I know to have respect when you are in the room with straight GOATs,” Raury says of working with the lionized producer. “There’s a certain manner of respect to give that person when you’re working, collaborating, talking about ideas, and suggesting things. Remembering I’m here to learn and grow, not here to be a director. I already did my part. I made my productions; I wrote all my stuff. [Mr. DJ] produced one of the best albums of the decade.”
Mr. DJ may be the teacher, but he also allows himself to be taught.
“It’s like iron sharpens iron,” he tells me. “I can learn from him just as well as he can learn from me. We’re two different generations, but we are on the same planet, so we can make it happen.”
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“He’s a mentor, big brother, sensei,” Raury says of Mr. DJ, grateful to be making music with someone who can also impart wisdom. “[He] helps me, gives me advice on how to navigate as a young Black, different nigga making music. He’s all of that man.”
From his time spent in the woods, enjoying the synergy with those he attracts, Raury seems to have a better handle on the mechanisms of not only the music industry moves but also society.
“Instead of becoming a product of my environment, I’m going to make the environment a product of me,” Raury says, crediting a sentiment Yung Lean expressed on wax.
The continuation of his “The Woods” shows is a manifestation of that mission.
“I’m going to be willing and open to do shows in venues, don’t get me wrong,” Raury assures me. “When it comes to [Pray For ATL] and future albums, that system could use some rehabilitation, and I’ll play a part in that as I create venues myself.”
Raury’s intimate performances, typically held in forested areas or large clearings, have graduated from a one-man show to a multi-faceted experience that includes Kemetic yoga and cacao ceremonies. His listeners come to “The Woods” searching for an experience, and these additions serve as ice breakers that melt guarded hearts seeking connection.
Maintaining “The Woods” shows, Raury has traveled up and down the East Coast from Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas to the DMV, Philadelphia, New York, and the New England region. But while his journey through the woods may have been steady, it wasn’t smooth.
“On Cinco de Mayo 2018, my Jeep broke down in New York,” Raury says. “I was stuck there with my husky.”
Since Raury’s tribe extends to New York, he had himself a place to stay until his car was fixed. During that time, the music never stopped. In October 2019, Raury independently released a folk album, Fervent, that he engineered and produced on his own. It is a short, but sweet ethereal trip filled with distant vocals and acoustic riffs that echo into the soul.
Despite all of his growth, Raury, like all of us, is a work in progress. He has grown to understand and discover there are many parts to him musically. Though he wants to explore them all, he realizes listeners can only take so much at a time.
“I have found this side of myself that is hip-hop and I’ve extracted it and I’m serving it up in the pure form,” he explains. “I’ve found a side of myself that’s rock, extracted, and [I’m] creating a whole album of that. I’ve found the side of myself that’s soulful and folk and extracted that. I was new to creating albums and being in the game and knowing the majority of the world can only take things one step at a time. I have to give them doses and pieces of things.”
Through this pilgrimage, Raury continues to focus on self, looking inward at how he projects himself through his music.
“I’m this kind-hearted person,” Raury explains. “The world has shown me its ass. I’m just like, turn up then. That’s what certain songs are about. You come into the game, and you are a person [who] genuinely wants to help, [but then] you realize, ‘Damn, if I’m too nice, these people [will] trip, so fuck it.’ It’s about balance.”
Raury’s acceptance of balance has bled into other aspects of his life, including his professional relationships. This newfound reckoning leaves him excited for the future.
Despite the toll the current pandemic and constant police brutality are taking on the Black community, Raury remains hopeful. If anything, current events have led him to be more creative. On June 1, the Atlantan released his new single, “Take Back The Power,” a charged cry to amplify the state of the country.
“I’m proud of those on the front lines risking their lives to spread the message,” Raury concludes. “Everyone’s approach in this insurrection will be different. Be it tactful or reckless, I say, ‘Fuck it.’ Follow your heart, live out your destiny. My best form of communication is through my ability to create a song. I hope it recharges the spirits of the warriors on the front lines, seeking to take back the power we have been drained [of] for so long. The future is bright.”