OutKast at 25: The South Still Has Something To Say

OutKast at 25: The South Still Has Something To Say

Growing up, T.I. often found himself shuttled between New York and Atlanta — and every time he landed in the Big Apple, he preached the power of southern hip-hop culture to his East Coast friends. Still, it wasn’t until OutKast dropped their 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik that his friends took him seriously. “Before OutKast, everything that I played for them, they’d be like, ‘Man, that’s country. That’s slow, man,’” he tells TIDAL.

The South’s impact finally crystallized for the rapper when he saw OutKast on stage at the 1995 Source Awards collecting the prize for Best New Artist. In the face of the boos from the audience, Andre 3000 defiantly declared, “The South got something to say.” It was a prophesy that would prove to be true over the ensuring decades.

“That pretty much changed the entire focus of everybody down here,” T.I. recalls. And he’s not the only one to credit OutKast with the proliferation of southern hip-hop in the mainstream. From execs to rappers, the music business marks Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik as a turning point in the war between East and West — one that brought a whole new compass point into the conversation. Twenty-five years later and the South — specifically Atlanta — has been churning out ace artists and producers for years, and often dominating the charts. And it all, arguably, started with OutKast.

Prior to Andre 3000 taking the stage in 1995, hip-hop seemed primarily split between two cultures: Dr. Dre and Tupac leading the charge on the West Coast, Biggie Smalls in New York. In 1994, no one was really looking in any other direction when it came to rap. Atlanta radio in the ‘90s played a lot of soul and R&B, which made sense as the city was primarily known for LaFace Records (led by LA Reid and Babyface) and groups like Xscape and TLC who’d already earned international acclaim. On the hip-hop front, there was a ton of Atlanta bass or “booty shake” music over the airwaves, regional smash hits driven by fast-paced beats, but that was the extent of rap in the A until OutKast.

Andre “Dre” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton had known each other in passing in high school and eventually they bonded over both their knowledge of street life and their aspirations to go beyond the hood. They both had an affinity for writing rhymes separately, but once they forged a relationship, the two started to make music as a collective. The city may have been heavily influenced by bass music before, but OutKast’s debut album carved a lane for native Atlantans who weren’t interested in hitting the dance floor.

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik introduced the world to day-to-day life in Atlanta from the viewpoint of two teenage boys who already felt like oddballs within their own circles; they dressed differently from their classmates, and as far as music, the two had a preference for early ‘90s rap from East Coast groups like Tribe Called Quest. Years later, at a memorial for Tribe’s Phife Dawg, Andre revealed that the two groups were even planning on releasing a collaborative album.

A few years before their official debut, the duo met up with Rico Wade of Organized Noize in an Atlanta parking lot; they handed him A Tribe Called Quest tape and started freestyling over “Scenario.” That was the push Wade needed to take them on as a group. And it proved to be helpful for both sides.

Organized Noize, comprised of Rico Wade, Ray Murray and Patrick “Sleepy” Brown, had signed a publishing deal with LaFace Records just before making their mark in hip-hop with the offering of OutKast’s very first single “Players Ball.” The track was added to the imprint’s Christmas album, and although it was cited to be a fluke by both emcees, the song was a huge hit — to this day, T.I. claims it as one of his favorites on the album. “Players” was just something Dre and Big Boi had just thrown together, but it ignited a spark throughout Atlanta leading up to their debut.

Organized then took on the responsibility of producing OutKast’s first album — in its entirety — from Wade’s basement, which they referred to as the Dungeon. By the time the duo released Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in April of 1994, rap fans had to pay attention. Production-wise, the album was far different from what people had been used to hearing; rap music at that time, especially from the East Coast, was mainly founded on top of hard-hitting beats, heavy-laden with samples. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was all original instrumentation, rooted in flowy funk and soul.

Lyrically, Dre and Big Boi turned to street talk, as well as ruminations on success and what it was like to live as young black men below the Mason Dixon line. On “Call of the Wild,” Andre offers some insight on his coming of age woes — from graduation concerns to outright discouragement from others:

Ain’t no sequel, no saga, no way out, I’m nervous
I’ve had it up to fo’head of suckas tryin to serve us
To graduate is really becomin a very stressful journey
I feel like a steering wheel, for them is trying to turn me
Into a hate monger, and I’m wishing and I wonder
Damn, will I graduate before I hit the summer
I think not, Officer Friendly tryin to dig up in me
He said I’m half assed and got no future
And so he sent me up the creek and shit
Stroking like hell without no paddle
But niggas is gettin smart, we back on the saddle
No longer, y’all know y’all had us down for some years…

Orlando McGhee, current Senior VP of A&R at Roc Nation, was a homegrown fan of the duo, mainly because they were describing his life as an adolescent growing up around the corner from the Dungeon. “When the album came out, everybody in the city was so proud of it,” he tells TIDAL. “Every record, every song I could speak to, because the culture of Atlanta was on display.”

McGhee later went on to manage Organized Noize, who, before OutKast’s classic album, weren’t all that well-known outside of Atlanta. “We knew Organized Noize existed, we just hadn’t fully heard anything yet,” he says.

After the success of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Organized Noize began work on Goodie Mob’s (also members of the Dungeon Family) debut album Soul Food, which ascended to classic status in hip-hop circles and beyond. In the following years, Organized Noize continued their legacy of hits with R&B groups TLC (“Waterfalls”), Xscape (“Keep it on the Real”) and Mista (“Blackberry Molasses”).

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was just a culmination, from what I can understand, of so many ideas from so many people who were around in that time period,” McGhee says. “There was OutKast, Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze, like, a whole crew! And there were remnants of everyone on that album. It was clear that it was Boi and Dre’s album, though. because they shined on it — this is a raw street album that talked about drug dealing and women and everything that goes on in the hood where we all grew up.”

“And they were kids!” he adds. “So all of us kids could identify with every moment of everything was going on in every song. Being an educated individual, it spoke to me: social consciousness, what’s going on in your streets, why we’re being held back, just so many aspects that we could all identify with.”

“The whole album from top to bottom is memorable and enjoyable,” T.I says, before reenacting the “Flim Flam” skit in which a pushy street hustler runs up on a group of friends, hawking a “gold” chain. “That’s real Atlanta shit: coming off [Interstate] 20 by the West End, you gon’ see somebody outside your car talking just like that,” he says.

Rapper Pastor Troy also found a lot of identify with in OutKast’s lyrics. Troy grew up on the south side of the city and, by the early 2000s, he was dropping his own high-octane odes to Atlanta — one of which (“We Ready”) Beyonce recently paid homage to during her 2018 Coachella performance.

Troy says that OutKast represented him in a way that hip-hop had rarely done before. “My favorite track was ‘Git Up, Git Out,’” he tells TIDAL. “I just remember putting that CD in my Walkman, putting on my headphones and heading to work on MARTA [Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority]. ‘I don’t recall ever graduating at all…’” Troy proceeds to spit another eight bars of the song’s first verse, then says, “These are people on an album feeling like me? They’re not talking like they’re too far from where I’m at.”

Years later, long after that train ride to work, Pastor Troy would forge a solid relationship with OutKast and the entire Dungeon Family, even while representing Atlanta with an entirely different sound and vibe.

“Atlanta’s always been a variety of things,” T.I. tells TIDAL. “Booty shake music with Kilo Ali, Sammy Sam and even hardcore groups like the Hard Boys  —  who really represented for the hood early on — but as far as major recognition is concerned and the ability to be identified to a certain sound or production value or equality, [Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik] solidified the music culture here in Atlanta.”

McGhee agrees. “There was a time where everyone wanted to make music that sounded like the foundation where hip-hop came from, New York,” he says. “But OutKast made it comfortable for other artists to come out and have national recognition for just being who they are. They were the first to do that, representing where they were from and be accepted worldwide. Everything else hip-hop-wise was a derivative of New York.”

More than just solidifying Atlanta’s place on the hip-hop map, T.I. says that Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik set the standard for years to come. “In history, we have some events that set the bar, other events raise the bar,” he says. “Then you have some events that create the bar. OutKast created the bar.”

OutKast’s debut gave the world a birds-eye view of what was happening in inner cities nationwide. It provided a connection for hip-hop fans universally and kicked off a lasting career for both Andre 3000 and Big Boi. The South always had something to say, but if it wasn’t for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, who knows when we would’ve started listening.

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