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OutKast, 'ATLiens', and the 95 Source Awards

By Kiani Belgrave

It’s undeniable that, in the last 15 years, Atlanta has become the epicenter of rap music. The home of trap music, strip clubs, and face-melting 808s, the city’s energy has become an omnipresent force in contemporary Hip-Hop culture. Today, artists like Gucci Mane, Future, and Young Thug, have left their footprints in the culture, stamping their influence in artists from way out of their respective regions, making Atlanta the modern-day mecca of Hip-Hop culture. 

Twenty-five years ago, this was not the case. New York City was the mecca. Point blank, period. For the most part, if an emcee wasn’t a grimy street reporter from New York or West Coast gangsta rapper, nobody wanted to hear it. 

Atlanta’s early Hip-Hop scene was fertile but scattered. In the 1980s, the city was known for mostly club-driven bass music; with early successes for artists like Bronx native MC Shy D, who brought his New York bravado down South; and the more street-oriented raps of hometown hero Kilo Ali. Jermaine Dupri's commercial breakthrough with teenybopper act Kris Kross put an industry spotlight on the ATL in the early 1990s, as did the Grammy-winning eclecticism of boho rap group Arrested Development. But "The A" still needed a true Hip-Hop identity to rally around. 

In 1992, a group of young Atlanta producers and emcees had a plan to put their city on the map. Producers Rico Wade, Sleepy Brown, and Ray Murray recruited a collective of artists and emcees to create a cohesive sound for Atlanta, founding the Dungeon Family, which would include artists like Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze, Witchdoctor, and the collective's breakout stars, OutKast. 

OutKast dropped their debut album southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in 1994, breaking big with their lead single, “Player’s Ball.” With references to Magic City, Campbellton Road, Red Dog police raids and name-dropping Georgia cities like East Point, College Park and Decatur; southernplayalistic... made it clear that these dudes were unapologetically Atlanta; a reflection of their city's uniquely southern spirit. 

But that spirit wasn't exactly welcomed by Hip-Hop's establishment.

A year after making their debut, in the thick of the dark cloud that was Hip-Hop's so-called West Coast vs. East Coast beef, OutKast would win the award for New Artist of the Year at the 1995 Source Awards. As the duo and their Dungeon Family cohorts took the stage at Madison Square Garden to accept the award, they were greeted with a roar of boos from the New York City crowd. The regional tensions were palpable and, on the night Suge Knight famously declared "come to Death Row" to stoke East/West frictions, the Big Apple was hostile towards anything not East Coast. But OutKast's Andre wanted to make it clear that they weren’t going anywhere. "But it's like this though; I'm tired of them closed-minded folks. It's like we got a demo tape but don't nobody want to hear it,” he famously addressed the crowd.

After southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was certified platinum, LaFace would give the duo a much bigger budget and more creative freedom on their follow-up project. Dre and Big Boi would take to Jamaica to do some soul-searching before conceptualizing the project that would solidify them as the Godfathers of Atlanta rap. 

In August 1996, ATLiens arrived. The duo would create an immersive project, abducting listeners into their world of candy-painted Cadillacs, shrimp n grits, and southern bells; all over experimental psychedelic beats and spacy synths, dragging listeners into an Afrofuturistic take on life in the Dirty South. 

Andre and Big Boi would abandon the teenage “hard-partying playa characters”  heard on their debut album. The two chose to reflect on their southern roots, religion, maturity, poverty, and rise to fame on the album. In an interview with Billboard Magazine, Andre 3000 explained the group's intention behind their more introspective approach. "It's like everybody's talking about sipping champagne and being big time, so we just took it upon ourselves to do something new ... I want my children to say, 'Daddy really said something, he wasn't just trying to brag on himself.'” 

The album would launch OutKast from southern upstarts to rap superstars. ATLiens debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 chart and sold 350,000 copies in the first two weeks of release and later certified platinum only three months after its release.  The Dungeon Family's resident sage, Big Rube, noticed substantial growth in the then-20-year old emcees as they transitioned into stardom. “They started understanding the power they had in their music. They started showing a swagger that certain artists have—the ones that are stars."

On ATLiens, OutKast proved that the South had a lot to say; further highlighting that Hip-Hop is not a culture that lived in a vacuum. The duo amplified their city's swag, slang, and perspective; one that deserved as much spotlight as New York City or Los Angeles. But more than just further emphasizing the South as a viable Hip-Hop voice, OutKast's second album showed that that voice wasn't going to be boxed in. They weren't just announcing that Southern Hip-Hop had arrived; like so many legendary acts, OutKast was committed to pushing Hip-Hop forward. 

25 years later, the influence of OutKast and Organized Noise is imminent. Atlanta has become a Hip-Hop mecca.  The culture as a whole has adopted the elements that made OutKast the misfits of their era; from their flamboyant style, psychedelic sound, and southern sensibilities. The South dominates the mainstream. ATLiens will forever be an undeniable classic and a staple of Hip-Hop music.