People care more about what they do than where it takes place. Whether you’re adding goodness to the world or committing a heinous evil, your location is secondary to the substance of the action. While this might be an appropriate lens where moral issues are concerned, once you enter the realm of creativity, ‘place’ has a direct effect on the product.
Based on what we know about creativity, this might sound absurd. If you’ve ever tried anything creative, you know you can’t articulate your inspiration, nor can you dictate when it happens. It appears like a noble “thief in the night,” leaving behind new connections and ideas instead of ransacking your possessions. Since ancient times, artists have used the image of the Muse to personify this impersonal force of creative genesis. But if creativity is immaterial, why should ‘place’ matter?
Wind the clock back to 1991, two years before I was born and the same year that two Atlanta teens would link up at Tri-Cities High School to form the group OutKast. In just a few years time, the pair created an explosive single in “Player’s Ball,” a classic debut album and the beginnings of a cult following that would eventually transform into the warmest of mainstream love. While it’s easy and fun to focus on the glamorous parts of their genesis, the story of Big Boi and Andre cannot be told without The Dungeon, a crawl space under Rico Wade’s mother’s house where the pair first dedicated themselves to the craft. From there, OutKast, Organized Noize and the rest of what would become the Dungeon Family started a new wave of hip-hop that gave a voice to the unique struggle of black Americans in the South.
By all accounts, The Dungeon was a dark, damp, musky, unfinished basement that housed dusty equipment and wasn’t large enough to hold everyone scrambling for a seat. Not exactly the Royal Academy. The beginning stages of the creative process and recording for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik took place in The Dungeon, along with years of preparation that would eventually help to mold them for the spotlight. That physical environment is reflected in the sonic landscape of OutKast’s early music. Songs like “Ain’t No Thang” carry the dust from their drum machines through your speakers, while “Claimin’ True” makes my monitors ooze smoke—and not because they’re strained. Every sound—from the 808s in “Funky Ride” to the crackle that sits behind the instrumental on “Call of Da Wild”—sounds like it was made in the dank conditions only Georgia humidity could produce. I imagine OutKast’s debut would sound very different if it was recorded among the snowy caps of the Rockies or a rainy nook in the Pacific Northwest.
When you hear the artists themselves discuss their music from that period of time, it's clear they had a sense The Dungeon was affecting their music. In The Art of Organized Noize, a phenomenal 2016 documentary chronicling the story of the production trio, the interview subjects are asked about The Dungeon. Peaches, Mr. DJ, Big Gipp and the rest of Dungeon Family begin to recount their experience in the hallowed space. The footage cuts to the subjects having a unanimous look of nostalgia on their faces. Though half of them are wearing sunglasses for their interview—indoors, in a particularly heightened state of baller—it’s undeniable they have a visceral reaction at the very mention of The Dungeon. Some sit back in their chair, others take a deep breath and let the memories roll through their mind, but each and every interviewee has the same connection between the birth of their creative path and the clay walls that lined The Dungeon.
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Of course, Big and Dre would all go on to make timeless music in world-class studios, but there’s a very specific flavor to that first album that slowly vanished after they changed the geography of their creative space. In turn, this forces us to imagine a world in which Antwan Patton and Andre Benjamin didn’t start their career in a basement. Perhaps OutKast would still be an active duo, still writing beloved chapters in music history, but would they look and sound like the OutKast we know today? At the risk of sounding mystical, I’m not sure how a place affects the energy behind creation, but I’m certain of its impact.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to Outkast, Southern music or hip-hop. Indie pop duo Tennis wrote their latest project Yours Conditionally while sailing the ocean. They wanted to recreate the conditions of their first album and get back to the original spirit of their writing. You can hear Alaina Moore’s emotions sway like the waves beneath her on “In The Morning I’ll Be Better.” Moving away from music, in his book On Writing Stephen King says to “write with the door closed” so that your ideas stay with you until they’re ready to be shared. While this is more of a helpful tip than a direct account of how place affects art, it shows that he recognizes the effect of space on what you create and he tries to use that to his advantage.
Art will still have an impact if you don’t know where it was created. A paper clip stung the back of my head in fifth grade, even though I never found out who sent it flying. But seeing how the space around your favorite artist influences their creative product clarifies the details of that product. Realizing the importance of ‘place’ in creating informs your path as well and can lead you to make positive changes in your process. It has for me.
I went hiking for the first time in months last week. It’s my way of recharging, so I don't like to go that long between excursions. Hiking lets me put the thoughts that normally swarm around like a crazed hive into neat compartments. From what I've read, the repetitive act of placing your feet in front of one another gets your brain to a level at which creative thoughts are more common. That, combined with the humbling effect of nature, has helped me overcome cases of writer’s block.
That's not the only role ‘place’ assumes in my writing. Organizing my thoughts in a logically coherent manner requires as close to complete isolation as possible. I feel the weight of that reality as I type this on my phone at my day job. I might be able to scribble a few words here and there, but any “breakthroughs” will happen when I return home. What I’m producing is nowhere close to art and my impact on the world pales in comparison to OutKast’s, but I’m just as affected by ‘place’ as they are.
Artists must keep evolving to avoid stagnation. OutKast and co. had to eventually leave The Dungeon behind and mimic their original surroundings in places with a higher monthly lease. As I wrote earlier, they still made great music elsewhere, but it’s thrilling to imagine what could have been if they’d locked themselves in that basement one more time.
Take note of your space. Be aware of the ways in which it informs your art. OutKast taught me many lessons, including how to hustle, remain true to your roots, and let your voice be heard. Showing me how my creative space affects my writing and how manipulating that space can benefit me might be the most important of all.