OutKast mainstreaming Southern Blackness

How OutKast Mainstreamed<br> Southern Blackness

Onstage in a room split between the feuding East and West Coasts, Andre Benjamin of OutKast accepted the award for Best New Artist at the 1995 Source Awards with the famous declaration,“The South got something to say.”

The moment is frequently referenced in Hip-Hop history, but it’s avoided cliché because it encapsulates several cultural events at once —  like N.W.A. outright stating “Fuck tha Police” amidst Los Angeles oppression a few years prior.

Academic Dr. Regina N. Bradley takes Benjamin’s famous declaration a step further. She calls the duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, "The founding theoreticians of the Hip-Hop South” in her new book Chronicling Stankonia.

“Their lyrical whimsicality and sonic and cultural experimentation with their southernness situates them as the epicenter of recognizing a collective - thought not monolithic - contemporary southern black cultural landscape.”

Chronicling Stankonia analyzes how OutKast and other Southern cultural luminaries created and nurtured a distinctly Southern, distinctly Hip-Hop culture for the post-civil rights movement generations that first came of age in the 1980s and '90s. The book then branches out from OutKast to discuss the Southern Hip-Hop culture they helped establish — including chapters on the ways Hip-Hop music provides Southern Black context to depictions of American slavery in films like Django Unchained, and on T.I.’s writing about the trap as a place soaked in personal grief.

Chronicling Stankonia is a slim but comprehensive book equally equipped for Hip-Hop fans looking to deepen their appreciation of the music or for academics looking to better understand the Black American South. I spoke to Dr. Bradley over the phone in early February to learn more about the writing process, the state of Hip-Hop academia, and her personal favorite OutKast songs.

You are an alumna Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow at Harvard University. How did your previous Hip-Hop scholarship lead you to the focus for this new book?

I was a Nas Fellow at the Harvard Hip-Hop archives in spring 2016. I was only there for one semester, and I was working on the book then, actually. So the book originated from a series of conversations that I did on YouTube, called OutKasted Conversations. At first it was me being kind of petty, because everybody was talking about the 20th anniversary of Nas' Illmatic and I'm, “Southernplayalistic turns 20 this year, too.”

I hit up some of my academic friends and journalist friends and was like, "Yo, let's get on Google hangout and just have a conversation about the significance of OutKast." And what I thought would end up being maybe an episode here or there ended up being a 40-episode-long series. And as I was talking to people, I really started thinking about the fact that there's a lot of Hip-Hop scholarship available, but very little of it focuses on Southern Hip-Hop.

So Chronicling Stankonia is an attempt to fill in that gap in thinking about Southern rap from a critical perspective, but also it's an homage or a love letter to OutKast, to show like, you know, it wasn't just y'all making great music. You can actually see the impact of how younger Southern Black folks are thinking about the music. So all of that to say, technically, I've been writing it since 2015, but I've been thinking about it my whole life. I've been an OutKast fan my whole life. It's super exciting to finally see it out in print, and hopefully folks can really see the critical acclaim that I try to give to the group from an academic perspective as well.

Was there ever a light bulb moment for you where you thought “I need to look at OutKast from an academic lens?"

I felt like an outcast in the academy. And what I mean by that, is that my interests didn't necessarily align with my area of study, which is African-American literature. Usually, when you think about African-American lit, you go to the greats, right? To the Baldwins, the Toni Morrisons. You think about Southern literature, you're definitely thinking about the Margaret Walkers and Alice Walkers and those folks.

But I was like, I want to see critical engagement of those folks who were speaking about the world around me from a familiar angle, right? Hip-Hop studies has been a thing for almost 30 years now. But very little of that was focused on Southern rap. And I remember being in graduate school at Indiana University back in 2006, 2007. And we were having these conversations about Hip-Hop, and I'm like, "That's dope and everything, but what about the people that I'm literally listening to in my car right now?" And I remember Portia Maultsby, who is an O.G. in Black music studies, was like, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" I'm like, "At the moment, nothing. I'm trying to get out this class." But thinking back on it, I was like, "Where is the Southern rap scholarship?"

Yeah, I gotta change that. It's disrespectful to have this amazing, pioneering group, and there's little to no scholarship in place that centers what their contribution means to Hip-Hop. And in this case of the book, more importantly, how we understand the construction of a more contemporary Southern black identity.

Did you get that sense of, "This is great literature, or a really rich text" even as a younger listener?

I really got put on to OutKast for real for real with Aquemini. "Oh, this is something super, super special." I was starting high school, it was a new opportunity to start over so to speak, you know. You go to high school, you try to be different than what people thought about you in middle school. [laughs]

When I really sit and think on it, I'm like, "Man, OutKast has been the soundtrack to my entire life." Like, every major milestone. From starting high school with Aquemini, to the centennial homecoming celebration at my alma mater Albany State when I remember everybody was listening to Speakerboxxx. My husband and I were married to "International Players Anthem."

Just thinking about it from a cultural perspective, there are major moments. Like you have the Five Mics rating for Aquemini, obviously. You have Southernplayalistic, which is phenomenal in its own right because it is Hip-Hop's first introduction to a rap city beneath the Mason-Dixon line,

When you think about Hip-Hop, it's such an urban aesthetic, but you don't automatically think the urban South. And what Southernplayalistic did was introduce the possibility of the Hip-Hop city existing somewhere outside of the Northeast or from the West Coast, and a signature sound along with it, you know what I'm saying? So it wasn't like Hip-Hop wasn't in the south before Southernplayalistic, but what Southernplayalistic does is introduce to Hip-Hop at large, a very distinct, very signature sound that Organized Noize builds upon this legacy that was already in place with music in Atlanta, like the funk scene, for example.

By the time you get to something like, like Stankonia in 2000, you have them literally creating this world that is unique to their ideas, experiences, their memories, what they're trying to do with their life, what they're trying to do with their sound, and trying move away from Organized Noize and really embrace their own production and Earthtone III with David Sheats [Mr. DJ].

It was interesting to see how their evolution as artists coincided with the evolution of how people were approaching this idea of the South as a space. So it only felt right to be able to put them in conversation with each other. As they were becoming more mainstream, how is their success being reflected in how folks think about the South? And them paying dues, so to speak, kicked the door open for other southern artists and groups who are like, "Since OutKast is embracing being an outcast, and not having to succumb or, or or submit to this kind of standardized hip hop practice. Well shit, we're going to do that too." It's amazing how that comes out. Because what's going on in the A is different than what is happening in Memphis, is different than what's happening in Houston, New Orleans, but we're all in conversation with each other. Our unifying thread is, we're all Southern, we do this hip hop thing, but let me show you what that Hip-Hop looks like when it takes root in these different parts of the south.

Do you see tension between OutKast’s objective commercial and critical success, and their larger perspective of otherness?

I think that's where the brilliance also lies, is the fact that you have them facing this increasing commercial and critical acclaim, while still trying to make sure that they hold on tight to that original idea of being outcasted. And I think one of the interesting ways to think about that tension that you're pointing out, is immediately after Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which wins the Grammy for Best Album of the Year, not just Best Rap Album, but just Best Album, period.

What's interesting is that you have Big Boi who is continuing this particular trajectory in rap and André who's moving away from it. Like, we've been waiting on a new Andre album since 2003. And Big Boi continuously gives us really great albums like Son of Chico Dusty, a classic. We were excited before the pandemic to hear about Andre just randomly being at somebody's airport or on the street in Philly giving us a flute performance. You're like, "Oh, he's coming out with a flute album!" [laughs]

Did you like the bass clarinet songs he released a few years ago?

I wasn't a fan. But I do appreciate the fact that he has still created his own lane. Like you really don't hear too many folks out here be like, "Yeah, you know, I got this wood pan flute. "I'm tryin out, and I'm practicing it."

I think that that needs to do different things has been pushed to the side in favor of like, "Oh, well OutKast broke up or whatever.” Big Boi has said this how many times, and we just kind of ignored him, like he said, Andre wants to go do a little acting, or he wants to go do something a little different. And now that both of them are in their 40s. I don't think it's fair for for those of us who are fans of the music, to expect them to rap the same way, to adhere to the same type of creative schedule that they did back when they were in their '20s.

And I feel like we've been more lenient with Andre than Big Boi. And I don't think that's right. Everybody wants to say Andre is usually top three, top five, and then Big Boi gets bumped all the way down to the bottom of the top 10 list. That’s not fair. If you're talking about rhyming and bars, I mean, Big Boi can go bar for bar with Dre. The difference is that we're more emotionally invested in Andre, because he doesn't give us that access to him, like Big Boi gives us with social media. It’s complicated.

Do you see a parallel between Andre and someone like Lauryn Hill, or D'Angelo, who have also had some prolonged time away from the spotlight?

We didn't give Lauryn Hill a chance to be an Andre 3000. And what I mean by that is - me putting on a Hip-Hop feminist hat real quick - because Lauryn Hill is a woman, and she gave us this magnum opus so early on, it's almost like the success consumed her in a way that she, she also tried to push herself away. She faced the scrutiny that was much louder than it is for somebody like Andre, right, who does similar things, the free artistic spirit. I don't think we necessarily extended the grace to Lauryn Hill the same way that we've extended it to Andre and even to D’Angelo.

There’s that social anxiety that artists talk about, like you have that public-facing persona that you have to perform, and you get crushed underneath that expectation. There's no room to mess up. But there's also no room to create something new. All the OutKast albums don't sound the same, right? Like, the formula for Southernplayalistic is different than the formula for ATLiens is different than Aquemini and so on and so forth. But it seems like with with somebody like a Lauryn Hill, with Miseducation, it’s phenomenal and it bends genres, and experiences in a way that there wasn't anywhere else for her to maneuver under the weight of the achievement of that album. Even with somebody like D’Angelo, Black Messiah was brilliant, but how long did we have to wait for that because he was still recovering from the success of Voodoo?

Are there songs in the Outkast catalogue that you look at as not necessarily Southern, or not quite authentic to the Black Southern experience in a way other songs are? Or by the nature of them being Black southerners, is all of their music therefore inherently telling the story of the Black south?

I feel like all of their music is inherently telling the story of the Black South. It might not be the Black South that folks are familiar with, but it's definitely grounded in their experiences growing up Southern. And one of the things I find frustrating but fascinating at the same time, is when we try to take Southern artists and remove the southerness from them. So it might not be like all Southern everything, like it might not be like a country song or whatever. But in pretty much their whole catalog, there is some kind of element of them growing up Southern and Black in the post-Civil Rights era that dominates and dictates how they tell the stories, why they tell the stories, where they tell the story. And all that is definitely front-loaded in how I approached and thought about their music as a blueprint for a contemporary Southern Black identity.

Are there artists that are operating now that you think are worthy of the same critical lens that Outkast is?

Big K.R.I.T. King Remembered In time. Yes. I love him!

I just also love how his catalogue has developed and how he is so unapologetically Mississippi. This is the challenge, which is how I end the book. I feel like my area of expertise stops at a certain time point. But I hope the book lays out its own blueprint so that the younger scholars coming up behind me, the folks who are interested in the Futures and the Migos and the EarthGangs can contribute and continue this conversation about Southern rap as its own unique thing within the parameters of the southern experience. Because it's important for those of us who grew up in the south to be able to contribute to how Southern rap should be documented, archived and critically engaged, and hopefully Chronicling Stankonia is just the beginning.

What challenges did you face while putting this book together?

I had to get out of my own way. Like, I'm a perfectionist, I would write something, and then as soon as I wrote it, I was just like,, no, this isn't good enough. I was trying to edit before I was even writing. I had to maintain a sense of confidence in what I was trying to do with my work, because, it's kind of unique. It is among the first to focus on OutKast. And I didn't want to fall into the trap of academic writing, which is usually stuffy and inaccessible, and boring. So being able to find that balance was the biggest challenge, but once I found my groove, so to speak, I tried to focus on that. And here we are, I guess I did okay, it's out!

Have you sent a copy to either Big or Andre? What is your ideal reaction from them?

Part of me is like, "No I don't wanna hear from them." But I reached out to their management, hoping to get a copy of the book in their hands. I just wanted them to know that the body of work that they created is so significant to understanding not only how they view the world for them, but also how they set up routes for other young Southerners like me. So as much as this is a critical engagement of the work, this is also a love letter, you know what I'm saying? A love letter to letting them know how much I appreciate them and being able to use their work as a theory for understanding the Black style is an honor that I wouldn't change for the world.

Are you able to pick a favorite OutKast song or album from their catalogue? Or is it too difficult to choose?

My favorite OutKast song is "In Due Time" from the Soul Food soundtrack. That's my favorite OutKast song ever. I've loved that song since I was 13-years- old, you know what I'm saying. Even before I really knew OutLast like that, that was my, my go-to song. A close second favorite song is "Liberation" on the Aquemini album. That got me through a lot, including the death of my grandfather and my father-in-law. But in terms of favorite albums, today it’s Aquemini. If you woulda had the same conversation with me tomorrow or next week, it would probably be back towards ATLiens. Their catalogue is so wonderful, it's hard to pick a favorite, but yeah, those three things are definitely favorites.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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