Photo by John Halpern
In 2014, VH1 aired a documentary titled ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game, a 90-minute dissection of how Georgia’s capital city gradually — and inconspicuously — rose to hip-hop prominence. The special gave space for a number of artists to speak on their journeys and the hurdles they faced coming from the South, but there was one moment that each of those figures agreed gave them the inspiration to persist in their pursuit of becoming rap stars: the 1995 Source Awards.
That night’s ceremony, almost exactly a year before ATLiens came along in August 1996, is largely remembered in pop culture by the crazed tension between the East and West Coasts. The New York-centric crowd at Madison Square Garden amplified its hometown allegiance, prompting now-iconic reactions from Snoop Dogg (“The East Coast ain’t got love for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg?”) and shots aimed at Diddy from Suge Knight (“Don’t have to worry about the executive producer tryna be all in the videos, all on the record, dancing. Come to Death Row”). Though, from where hip-hop stands in 2021, the most impactful bit that night came outside of that feud. OutKast, the Atlanta duo consisting of André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, won the award for New Artist of the Year, Group for their 1994 debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and were greeted by boos when they came on stage. A 21-year-old André 3000, with a voice much lighter than it is now, a baby face and a short fade, was noticeably bothered by the reception, and walked up to the mic, snapping back at “close-minded” naysayers, with, “The South got somethin’ to say.”
It would go on to become a revelation.
“It finally gave a clear-cut incision from New York wannabe-ism … We don’t have to impress you; we don’t have to be influenced by you in the same creative way. We’re gonna show you,” is how Atlanta-native Killer Mike remembered the moment. And it was true.
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was such a pivotal album because it gave Atlanta its first vivid and nuanced musical depiction from its Black youth on a mainstream level. In the way that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” placed you in the middle of the Bronx’s urban decay, or how Dr. Dre and Snoop’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” made you feel like you were cruising under the Southern California sunshine, André and Big Boi’s poetry was a portal to Atlanta and East Point, Georgia. The title track for their debut album made mention of riding around in decked-out Cadillacs, looking up to old-school players and Southern delicacies like fish and grits, while tracks like “Ain’t No Thang” made locally specific nods to East Point and driving on Atlanta’s Interstate 85. New Yorkers’ insensitive reaction to OutKast at the Source Awards that night could be seen as a catalyst in inspiring the group to double down on keeping themselves insulated from anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. And it made for a Bat-Signal to their peers, soon-to-be contemporaries and future rap generations in Atlanta (and the rest of the South) to do the same. Everything that came from the duo following that night on would further solidify their divine place in hip-hop.
Their sophomore album, ATLiens, better foreshadowed the course that Dré and Big would go on to take. It felt more true-to-character for both artists — more intimate than their Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik approach of planting their Atlanta flags into the hip-hop soil. On ATLiens’ first real song, “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac),” André describes someone trying to challenge him to a rap battle, spitting cliché bars and trying their hardest to throw insults his way to no avail. Maybe it was his musical retort to what happened at The Garden a year earlier. But to that provocation, his answer not only establishes that freestyle battling wasn’t his approach to the form, but also underscores his solitary nature, which has become his most admirable quality in recent years. He raps, “Let me explain ‘only child’ style so you don’t dis’ / I grew up to myself not ’round no park bench / Just a nigga bustin’ flows in apartments.”
Big Boi, on the other hand, became sharper in his rhymes, getting closer and closer to the shit-talkin’ Caddy-whippin’ OGs that he often idolized in his verses. Those skills were most apparent when he had a funky bassline to rhyme over like in “Wailin’,” where he seamlessly switches pace with lines like, “I be that wrong nigga to fuck with, wouldn’t I? / Wouldn’t I be the wrong one to try, never eating chicken thighs / Only the 20-piece mojo, flows on like Flo Jo / I wanted to figure out, just how low could your hoe go.”
It was what was going on behind the scenes that, in part, helped OutKast foster this transitional phase in their music, from passion-filled teenagers getting their first taste of the spotlight to young men figuring out the lives they wanted to lead. André was in the embryonic stages of becoming the laser-focused, eccentric trailblazer that he’s viewed as today. Between album sessions, he went to night school to earn his GED after dropping out of the 12th grade. And at just 21, in an attempt to maximize his potential, he went vegan, became fully sober, got more into spiritual practices and practiced celibacy. “I’m trying to live up to my abilities, and take life much more seriously,” he told the L.A. Times in 1996. Big Boi was dealing with the cycle of life in his own family. While working on ATLiens, he became a young father to a baby girl, but also lost his aunt Renee to pneumonia, which had a grave effect on him. On the album’s somber “Babylon,” he paid tribute to her: “People don’t know the stress I’m dealing with, day to day / Speaking about the feeling I’m possessing for Renee / Moping around and wondering where she stay, saw her last that she lay.” From the outset, the stakes were higher for the duo’s sophomore effort, and as a result, they excelled.
One of the more rewarding aspects of ATLiens is its continued chronicle of the ills of Atlanta life through the eyes of two young Black men who were products of it. OutKast is rarely spoken about for how they surveyed the world around them, but their reporting was both painfully vivid and tragic at times. Big Boi took time to mourn his aunt who’d passed away on “Babylon,” but the song covered so much more ground than that. On the Organized Noize-produced track, André confesses that he was born to a mother addicted to cocaine, and then goes on to lament his contemporaries for bragging about having pistols, when the manufacturers of those weapons had artillery that could wipe out his community with ease. Big Boi also sneers at rap lyrics being the scapegoat for crime in Black communities. “Mainstream” is a bit more of a direct assessment of their surroundings. Goodie Mob’s T-Mo starts the track by placing the onus of Black death on people in the community who are responsible, in addition to the instances in which police are the perpetrators (a theme that has yet to leave hip-hop or American society at-large). Even on “E.T. (Extraterrestrial),” a drumless mind-bender filled with chimes and majestic synths, André reminds listeners that, even though he may appear to be a regular guy, he has his own inner battles that he has to deal with in life.
To best appreciate OutKast’s worldview here, it’s important to survey what was happening in the rest of the hip-hop universe during this time. 1996 is regarded as one of the genre’s best years, so much so that an album like ATLiens, which ended up going Platinum, wasn’t even widely recognized as essential listening at that time. But they weren’t the only would-be legends in this predicament. Up in Brooklyn, a 27-year-old Jay-Z released his debut album in Reasonable Doubt, a jazzy playbook on how to use savvy and intelligence to graduate from the unforgiving streets and turn that dirty money into legitimate business. Revisionist history has remembered this album well, but at the time, when stacked up against his aggressive, in-your-face New York rap peers, Jay-Z’s introduction to the world wasn’t heralded as anything near a classic. Earlier in the year, 2Pac released All Eyez On Me, the last album he’d share while alive. A double album, it was an exhilarating invitation into the mind of a man who had palpable anger from doing jail time for sexual assault he swore he was innocent of, paranoia from being shot in a New York studio two years prior and an acute venom for anyone who wanted to stand in his way. In Port Arthur, Texas, UGK — another Southern duo early in their careers — released Ridin’ Dirty. The album gave a panoramic view of PAT and Houston culture: riding slabs, sippin’ on codeine and street life. But their depiction of drug dealing did its best to touch on the struggles of trying to make it in that field, not just the glossy top boss stories that flooded New York’s rendition of that lifestyle in the mid-’90s.
In this context, it’s easier to see why OutKast’s early success was so symbolic, so impactful to the artists that followed. Looking at what hip-hop had to offer at that time, a group narrating the realities of life in Georgia was simply not a story that was readily available for the curious outside of that region. Even though UGK was fairly similar in creating a framework for young Black Southerners to tell their stories through rap, they didn’t see the world the same as Dré and Big. OutKast’s existence offered an alternate reality in which the hood could be nonconformist in their approach. By the mid-’90s, veganism, spirituality and “consciousness” were not foreign concepts to hip-hop, but they were mostly relegated to the underground — the types of artists who’d likely frequent poetry nights at cafés on the East Coast. Artists with those ideologies often turned their noses up at the streets, presenting themselves as the foil to the violence and drug slinging that was becoming co-opted by white businessmen in suits who were unmoved by the negative influence it would have on young, impressionable minds.
OutKast found a way for these things to coexist. It’s no wonder that André’s legacy can be undoubtedly tied to artists from his city like Ludacris, Young Thug and Gunna, who blended camp visual aesthetics while still being able to speak to the hood. And an artist like Big Boi — smooth-talking, sharp as a tack, with a tinge of reformed knucklehead — can be seen in Atlantans who came after him like T.I., Young Dro and Pastor Troy. ATLiens offered a launching pad for how all of these things from Black Southern culture could collide and still stay on the track, and the nerve it took André and Big Boi to create it has paid dividends tenfold.