I. “Are You An OutKast?”
“I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies.” —Genesis 22:17
Abraham had no children when God spoke to him in Genesis 22. Yet, this promise of a hopeful and fruitful future changed the history of a nation.
This is the story of Atlanta, a city rejected by hip-hop until 1994, the year a young duo named OutKast took hip-hop by storm with a southern swagger and funky freshness. Certainly, other Atlantans had spit rhymes before André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton. But early frontrunners like Kris Kross and Arrested Development were largely disregarded by hip-hop fans. The Source went so far as to deem the latter “afro-pretentious” and said of Southern hip-hop, “It’s all them country pork-chop eatin’ n****s havin’ fun with their big-legged women.”
In 1994, OutKast would serve as the perfect moniker, not only for the South at large but specifically for the two young MCs who would soon put Atlanta on the map. André’s taste for preppy fashion and self-dyed clothes combined with Big Boi’s entrepreneurial spirit and broad appreciation of music from A Tribe Called Quest to Kate Bush pointed to their individuality and initiative, noteworthy distinctions among their families and peers.
Though much of their life experiences, tastes, and personalities fueled their misfit status in East Point, Georgia, André and Big Boi found a community that would embrace and help hone their craft in the Dungeon Family—a collective of MCs, producers, and artists who made magic in the dank clay-walled basement of Organized Noize producer Rico Wade’s mom’s basement.
This family of misfits, which included Goodie Mobb and fellow Organized Noize members Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray, combined its efforts to inform and enrich OutKast’s 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, a record that would change not only their lives but how hip-hop music was made in the South.
II. “Let Me Take You On A Funky Ride”
There’s certain freedom offered to the underdogs—those outside the mainstream—which allows them to think outside the box with absolutely nothing to lose. By 1994, the scenes in New York (hardcore) and Los Angeles (gangster) already had a culture, politics, and a way of doing things. That’s not to say that every rapper in either city had to “follow the rules,” but when a culture has already been created, there’s a certain expectation and standard that must be upheld. For OutKast and Organized Noize, the playbook was wide open, and they took full advantage of it.
East and West Coast producers relied heavily on sampled soul and funk drum beats, heavy disc scratching, and sampled hooks, an approach OutKast believed was dying out.
“Some people get out there, and they abuse [sampling] and use no creativity whatsoever,” Big Boi chided in a ‘98 interview. “They might take a whole song from the beginning to the end, just busting all on somebody else’s beat.”
As for their own work, Big Boi knew in order to make a mark on hip-hop, OutKast would have to be different. To that end, the duo, alongside Organized Noize, employed live musicians to create original instrumentation, capturing a renewed funk/soul spirit not experienced since George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic and Curtis Mayfield.
Sure, Dr. Dre and producer Colin Wolfe previously used live bass on The Chronic and on several N.W.A records, but Southern features guitars, bass, keyboards, drum programming, and even saxophone to create an immersive musical experience.
The verses, meanwhile, are backed by gritty, booming RT-808 and SP-1200 drum sequences and wandering bass grooves not dissimilar to what hip-hop fans had grown accustomed to with Dr. Dre. Creative flourishes like the woozy wah-wah guitars on the album’s title track or the organ walk-downs on “Claimin’ True” were also sprinkled throughout the record, which helped to characterize OutKast’s unmistakably southern sound.
The peak musical moment on the album comes on “Funky Ride,” a psychedelic slow jam sensually sung by Society of Soul—and the only track not to feature both artists. Preston Crump slaps the bass while whirling keyboards, organs, and guitars pan back and forth creating a funky haze so thick nobody would blame you for forgetting you were listening to a rap record.
As the track comes to its climax, guitarist Edward Stroud launches into a blistering Prince/George Clinton-inspired guitar solo, which ferociously soars over the remaining three and a half minutes of the song. In terms of immersive production, the performance rivaled any song of its era, which is likely why LaFace would eventually tap Organized Noize and their studio musicians to create TLC’s “Waterfalls,” a bonafide R&B classic, later that year.
Even with their devotion to live instrumentation, OutKast and Organized Noize recognized the importance of sampling, finding unique ways to interpolate their influences throughout the Southern tracklist. The most memorable and recognizable samples are found on “Ain’t No Thang,” where a single otherworldly blast from Miles Davis’ electric trumpet fed through a wah pedal on his 1971 track “Sivad” creates the basis for the record’s entire beat. Other OutKast influences are more subtle, from the Bob Marley reference on “Git Up, Git Out” to the Kid Dynamite melody used on the hook on “Myintrotoletuknow.”
Whether sampled or an original performance or a combination thereof, the tracks Organized Noize laid down were always “tight like hallways / smoked out always,” a trademark sound which required trademark flows. Immediately, Big Boi and André let us know they were up to the challenge. Big Boi appears first, flipping 1/16th note phrases from the first bar. His delivery is both smooth and street, packing a punch, but still able to slyly weave the end of one bar straight into the beginning of the next. André’s voice is perhaps the more iconic of the pairing, matching Big Boi in rhythmic acuity and truly embodying the sound of an outcast with his quirky and bombastic performances. Though the two MCs perfected their flows further on later releases, Southern offers an impressive picture of two hungry rappers ready to let fly what was on their minds.
III. “The South Got Somethin’ To Say”
As I mentioned in the opening section, much of the South’s lyrical content in the early '90s consisted of either Afrocentrism or “jump, jump.” No one had yet painted a vivid word picture of the South until OutKast named their album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. This was to be a celebration of Southern culture, the players, the ‘70s Cadillacs, and of course, funky music.
Big Boi and Dre popularized southern-fried phrases like “Ain’t no thang but a chicken wing” and paid homage to Southern cuisine: “Catfish and grits is how my flow flows.” They were dead-set on spreading the story of the South, and daring America on the title track to “copy my slang and bite my shit, but don’t try gaffling me / ‘Cause sleeping, you’ll get served with some southern hospitality.”
For those readers only familiar with OutKast’s later, more radio-friendly output, you might be surprised to learn their debut featured a good amount of bravado and violence.
“The first record was basically a lot of pistol play and thug shit: curse words galore,” Big Boi said in a 2014 interview with British music and culture magazine The Quietus.
For OutKast, the pimp-gangsta-gunplay content served as a Trojan horse. While it may be a stretch to credit the teenaged MCs with such intentional forethought and tact, Big Boi and Dre made clear they wanted to be more than just the next N.W.A.
"The first album was street. It was all about bein' a young guy, protectin' your own, all about bein' a pimp and a playa, and just bein' a fly guy. A lot of gunplay, a lot of smokin', it was Southern lifestyle at the time.” —André 3000
Though moments of maturity are sprinkled throughout the album, “Git Up, Git Out” encapsulates the positive message OutKast and the Dungeon Family wanted to spread with their early work. “You need to get up, get out, and get something / Don’t let the days of your life pass by,” sings CeeLo Green, who won The Source's Hip-Hop Quotable of the Month for his commanding hook. It was the kind of message that could very easily have come off as pretentious, if not for the verses that follow, each a vulnerable and introspective look into their lives.
André and Big Boi’s politics and social commentary even show up on the record; referring to the popular “Rock the Vote” political campaign which sought to promote higher voter turnout among young adults, André retorts:
“Y'all telling me that I need to get out and vote, huh, why? Ain't nobody black running but crac-kers, so, why. I got to register?”
In the same verse, he comments on the difficulty of African-Americans to find their place in the workforce:
“They laying my mama off of work, General Motors tripping / But I come home banked like Hank, from licking and dipping”
Earlier on the album, on “Claimin’ True,” Dre empathizes with strippers in the same situation:
“I ain't forgot about y'all women who be working Nikki's butt naked / At Magic City, shaking titties just to pay the rent”
Though a pimp-strut bravado is pervasive across Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, it’s clear in these moments OutKast saw a need to not only lift up their family but also their community and the city around them. In the weeks, months, and years that followed, the message would be heard loud and clear: “The South got something to say.”
IV. “There’s A Better Day”
The 1995 Source Awards were hectic and tumultuous. In the midst of a brewing feud between Suge Knight’s Death Row Records and Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records, OutKast was awarded Best New Group, leading to a chorus of boos inside New York City’s Madison Square Garden. But despite the touchy crowd, André and Big Boi braved the stage and announced that now-famous phrase.
It was a prophecy for a more prosperous Atlanta. In fact, the week after the album was released, the Atlanta Constitution wrote, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik will do as much credibility-building for metro Atlanta as Dr. Dre and Domino have done for Long Beach, Calif.”
In the years following Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the Dungeon Family would rise to prominence alongside Organized Noize, who also infiltrated the R&B scene to work with heavyweights like TLC and En Vogue. OutKast continued to evolve through the ‘90s and early ‘00s—furthering their individuality and misfit status by breaking down hip-hop stereotypes in sound, fashion, and messaging. André and Big Boi became to hip-hop what David Bowie is to rock and roll: an icon who can never be imitated but yet inspires the masses.
Though stylistic preferences have certainly evolved since OutKast’s debut, the entirety of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene is indebted to André and Big Boi, to Organized Noize, and to the Dungeon Family for putting their city on the map. From Ludacris to Lil Jon, T.I. to Gucci Mane, Future to Migos and Young Thug and beyond, the ripple effect that OutKast caused in Atlanta with Southern is absolutely staggering. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine the entirety of the music industry being uninfluenced by Atlanta in 2019.
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is the perfect example of what happens when building community within and alongside the music takes precedence. At its core, it’s what the hip-hop community has always been about: lifting each other up and breaking down barriers.