Hip-Hop’s Most Beloved Underdogs: OutKast
This article originally appeared on JaJuan's Medium and was republished with permission.
After establishing themselves as a premier force in the lineage of American musical innovation for over 25 years, the legendary Atlanta hip-hop duo - comprised of André “André 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton - better known as OutKast have recently been paid reverence in the form of a new mural, which is an emblem designed to honor their legacy and unprecedented impact on the culture. Located in the parking lot of The Gallery | Wish, a modernized art gallery well known for emanating the works of a range of local and international artists. The mural is about 30 feet long and painted in a hyper-accurate likeness of the legendary duo.
Based off of a photo captured by venerable hip-hop photographer Johnathan Mannion and painted by Greensboro, North Carolina native muralist known as JEKS, the two collaborated with the intent on extolling the legacy of the group as well as immortalizing them in their hometown of “ATL, Georgia.” Also, it is worthy to note that the 20th year anniversary of their fourth studio album, "Stankonia," is coming up in October. This record propelled their career to meteoric heights and catapulted them into superstardom. As a byproduct of their hometown homage, it marks as a stark reminder of how legendary this group is, how undeniably crucial they’ve been towards influencing the next generation of top-tier artists, how classic their music is and how earth-shattering their presence has been on the landscape of hip-hop - both culturally and sonically.
At their apex, OutKast is easily one of the most inventive groups of all-time, not only in hip-hop, but across the American musical canon over the last 50 years. Their emergence arrived during a time where being different wasn’t the exception much like today but the golden standard. Back in the day, it was frowned on and downright blasphemous to imitate someone else’s soundscape. You would be denounced, classified as a “bitter,” kicked to the curb and would find yourself in a box of infamy for the remainder of whatever career you were able to salvage. The legendary duo not only adhered to this tenet but forged their own never before seen path - making their style and sound “out of the box” from what other artists were creating at the time. In fact, they were so distinct that even after a full 25+ years in the game, songs like "Rosa Parks," "B.O.B.," "Aquemini" and "The Whole World" are still tastefully distinct and have yet to be emulated by other artists.
Each track’s DNA is just as fresh, electric and distinguished as they were when they first dropped. The tracks are still unscathed by the tampering of culture vultures and wack imitators alike. Moreover, it is important to note that their path to success was more difficult than most rappers of their time. Like most legends, they were faced with clear-cut barriers during their rise to greatness. In order for one to truly cherish their artistry and subsequent legacy, it is pivotal to understand their journey and why exactly they can be aptly perceived as “underdogs” who overcame adversity to fulfill success. Through a recap of some of their career-defining moments, coupled with a brief exploration of the characteristics that make OutKast so unique, their tremendous imprint on the culture becomes more clearly defined.
They almost weren’t signed to a major record label
At the very beginning of their stint as artists, many record executives weren’t too sure about how they would blossom or appeal to the greater mainstream audience of hip-hop. It was a risky endeavor and many were circumspect about the prospect of wasted investment. This notion didn’t stem from the thought they couldn’t rap or were devoid of talent. It mainly came from the reality of how novel their sound was to the landscape of hip-hop at the time. The incorporation of southern twang.
OutKast consisted of two lyrically fierce rappers who could spit well while also being able to employ vivid imagery and storytelling of their experience in the South. At the time, this was unheard of and there wasn’t much of an active audience for it just yet. Upon meeting with acclaimed record executive and founder of LaFace Records, L.A. Reid was not too crazy about their music or brand. This harsh blow temporarily lowered the morale of both members. According to André 3000, Reid held some underwhelming thoughts about the group in the beginning: “Yeah, I think like them, but I don’t think that they’re stars. I don’t know but I’ll give them a song.”
Fortunately, this song was "Player’s Ball" - which would sell over 500,000 copies, spend 20 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 and become their first single from their classic debut album "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik." Following this release, they were signed as the first hip-hop artists signed to LaFace Records - a label known for signing more R&B oriented acts such as Usher, Donnell Jones, Toni Braxton and TLC. Whew, how things could have been different! What a close one!
The industry was dominated by East and West coast rappers
During their rise to prominence, the industry was dominated by rappers who reigned the East or West Coast with very few outliers. Some of the artists that dominated the industry at this time include: Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Onyx, Brand Nubian, Mobb Deep, and Notorious B.I.G - all of which were either from the East or West Coast. At the time, there wasn’t a conduit or formula for artists from the South to rise to mainstream acclaim in hip-hop. Southern rappers weren’t even taken into earnest consideration. For avid supporters of the culture, the concept of quality rappers being from the South was foreign and something that had yet to crystallize.
There had yet to be an established identity for what a hip-hop artist would look like coming out of the South. Because of this, OutKast was tasked with the daunting objective of cultivating what southern hip-hop music would look, sound, and feel like, thus setting the blueprint for those who would come after. Along with said responsibility, which comes with the territory of being the first of your kind, they faced ridicule and apathy from the hip-hop community in the beginning.
Fresh off the release and subsequent success of "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik," they were invited to the 1995 Source Award which was one of the earlier awards shows dedicated to honoring the best and brightest in the hip-hop industry. Although there was a raging war between East and West Coast rappers at the time, the group still came to NYC to represent the South. To the astound of everyone in the crowd, including themselves, they won an award for Best New Rap Group. Instead of being clapped and congratulated for their accolade like most acts were afforded that night, they received the exact opposite: an indignant, audience-wide “boo” from the crowd. Despite the embarrassment, they remained composed, kept their heads held high and expressed their disappointment. They officially declared the South was going to be heard after André expressed his famous prophecy:
"The South got something to say."
This moment was pivotal for hip-hop culture because it solidified “Da South” as its own separate branch within the genre, totally differentiating itself from the traditional subcultures of the East and the West coast at the time. The industry was on the verge of entering a new frontier and the young duo (both members were only 18-years-old at the time) was on the front lines. Unbeknownst to them, they were the chosen ones who would shake up the industry and become synonymous with the creation of a brand new coterie of hip-hop never seen beforehand. For many, this alone was enough to propel them to legendary status. However, they managed to break more ground.
Their style and sound was unlike anything hip-hop had ever seen before
Ever since the critical acclaim of their first record and their initial rise to fame, what has made OutKast so unmistakable has been their consistent dedication to standing out from the pack and pushing the culture of hip-hop further than it had been pushed prior to their arrival. Amid the entire progression of their careers, the group never qualified as being imitators nor have they attempted to duplicate anyone else. This is a feat that speaks exorbitant volumes for careers that have spanned for 28 years as of this year. This is pure originality for damn near 30 years. Even for a genre as diverse and creative as hip-hop, this type of longevity will always be considered remarkable.
In terms of style, their attire was unorthodox and very much unpredictable. Instead of rockin’ Timberland boots and camo fatigues - just as many East Coast rappers did - or sportin’ New Era fitted caps, Khakis, bandanas and a classic pair of Chucks emblematic of West coast rappers, they were resolute straight out the gate about showcasing their authenticity, untainted by the trends and fads of other artists from varying regions. They did not confine themselves to the parameters of a one-dimensional image but remained supple, making their looks another part of their brand for fans to look forward to. Their style and music captured their life experiences as two young Black men from the East Point region of Atlanta. A subsection of American reality had yet to be magnified on a mainstream scale within the industry.
As they grew and evolved in age, so did their image and subject matter. Albeit the earlier aesthetic of OutKast was a convivial crossbreed between 90s Atlanta street culture and the raw grittiness that accompanies living and coming from the “dirty south,” they would eventually make a stark transition from being “relatable” to becoming more “eccentric.” Their eccentricity would be the cornerstone of what made them so “out of the box” and understandably, a major part of what made them so appealing. In an industry dominated by rappers from the East and West Coast, their aura and what they brought to the game was refreshing.
As they rose in age, their style and sound became more refined. Stylistically, they sought to break all the expectations of what it meant to be rappers, as well as, aimed to properly delineate what it meant to represent the south in the most graceful manner possible. As a unit, OutKast made the concept of being rappers from the South credible and what’s so amazing is that they did it on their own terms. Instead of being hostile, they were vulnerable. Instead of being myopic, they were abstract in expression and thought. They conveyed a rich blend of simplicity and sophistication, which illustrated to many that being from the South didn’t necessarily mean that you had to be one-dimensional or subject to denigrating stereotypes. OutKast embodied a caliber of nuance formerly untapped within the realm of hip-hop, aiding to push the culture forward in the process.
From a sonic standpoint, their brand of production was bombastic, colorful, experimental, and very much in your face but a far cry from other artists of the time. During their prime, their sound was nothing short of explosive, drawing from a sprawling range of influences such as Jazz, Disco, Country, Funk, and Soul but also widely becoming known for their Afrocentric futuristic feel at the same time, intertwining elements of electronic and house into many of their tracks. Their sonic composition combined sounds of the past and the future, always adding a sprinkle of southern flava’ on their work. On top of delivering high-tempo, supersonic sounds, they also specialized in providing poignant, introspective, and emotionally charged tracks undergirded by tame, low-fi production. Songs like "Ms. Jackson," "Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)," and "13th Floor/Growing Old" are some dope tracks that encompass this version of their sound.
In addition to their own production, their production team, Organized Noize, can be attributed to their sound, as they are credited by Billboard with being the pioneers of the “dirty South” sound. Live instrumentation was a major component of their production. Lyrically, they incorporated distinctive “ATL” slang and vernacular into their work, which was groundbreaking for the culture because they provided a unique scope that hip-hop heads didn’t necessarily have beforehand. Often times, their rhetoric was poetic as well.
On top of each member holding their own from a lyrical perspective, Andre 3000 would provide vocals every now and then. In addition, there was a contrasting duality between the two that was innovative: André 3000 exhibiting a softer, bohemian, more emotionally apt side versus Big Boi, who exudes more of a confrontational, edgy, more rugged side of the team. These characteristics subverted typical gender stereotypes, proving that male rappers held more depth and were more multifaceted than previously thought to be at the time.
Being trailblazers and show-stopping innovators weren’t a fad or gimmick for them, that’s who they were. They weren’t in the business of competing with others but hell-bent on outdoing themselves from record to record. Technically, they can be considered the progenitors of “alternative southern hip Hp,” which would pave the way for many more artists that would come after them. In all earnest, Outkast made it cool to be unapologetically different in the hip-hop industry and set the standard for off the wall, chart-topping hip-hop music in the South, as they are lauded with being the first Southern artists to amass major album sales comparable to that of their counterparts on the East and West coast. The dynamic duo legitimized hip-hop music from the South.
They made being “weird” a thing in hip-hop
Back in their prime, most hip-hop artists didn’t deviate too much from the beaten, over-saturated path of hardcore, street images, and gangsta’ lyrics. There was a meager lane for “alternate” hip-hop artists such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, who were inadvertently responsible for cultivating what is now known as “conscious rap.” These groups paved their own lanes, distancing from the archetypal vibe, image, and sonic quality of most rappers during the 1990s. Following in their footsteps, OutKast took being idiosyncratic to the max. Before Young Thug brainstormed wearing a dress to dismantle gender stereotypes on the cover of his mixtape JEFFREY or Jidenna found it clever to wear plaid suits and fedoras all day, it was André 3000 who started the trend of “DGAF” fashion-forward fits. Before extolling Black women, endorsing marriage, and abstaining from misogyny and violence became somewhat of a thing in hip-hop (still under major construction), OutKast implemented these tropes in their work. On top of their raw talent, their fearlessness to be different and take calculated risks is what has enabled them to be immortal throughout the canon of Hip-Hop, as well as, American music as a whole.
By taking their strides, they influenced an entire generation of hip-hop artists, from the South and beyond. Stark vestiges of their identity can be heard in some of hip-hop’s biggest names today including Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Smino, EARTHGANG, Chance The Rapper, Animé and Tyler The Creator to name a few. In other words, Outkast are your favorite rappers' favorite rappers. Through the group’s jog, it unlocked the door for many other artists to run in all their quirks and oftentimes, perplexing splendor.
Furthermore, OutKast has left an indelible stamp on not only the world of hip-hop but on the landscape of pop music as a whole. Despite their career starting off a bit rocky, they were able to overcome their adversity by never folding and remaining true to themselves. They began as underdogs who were barely respected in the industry to unmistakable legends who have played a crucial role in the way hip-hop is perceived today. For an industry that was once relatively rigid, in terms of artistic expression, Outkast widened the scope on the levels of creativity that could be expressed on a track. Their representation of the South was a vital moment in hip-hop history because it illuminated the reality that dope (in this case, revolutionary) rappers could come from the South and contribute to the game in an astronomical way. Through their unwavering pledge to go against the traditional “mold and grain” of rappers at the time, their legacy reigns as one of the most distinctive and will forever live on as, arguably, the greatest “one-two punch” duo ever to permeate the culture of hip-hop. On behalf of quality music connoisseurs everywhere, thank y’all for the timeless hits and pure inspiration. Thank y’all for the unbridled ambition! OutKast is truly everlasting!
My all-time fav tracks:
"Rosa Parks" (Aquemini, '98)
"Aquemini" (Aquemini, '98)
"Funkin’ Around" (Big Boi and Dre Present … OutKast, '01)
"A Life in the Day of Benjamin André" (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, '03)
"The Way You Move" (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, '03)
"Hollywood Divorce" (Idlewild, '06)