Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 43, which breaks down Outkast’s career and breakthrough single, “Rosa Parks.”
Aquemini was the first Southern rap album to get five mics in The Source magazine. It was a long road to Aquemini, for Outkast, for Atlanta, for Southern rap as a whole. A long dirt road, if you’re a fan of condescending northern stereotypes about the South. So here’s what MC Shy-D sounded like.
That song’s called “Shake It.” From an album called Comin’ Correct in ‘88. MC Shy-D was born in the Bronx, as a kid he moved to Ellenwood, Georgia, a little southeast of Atlanta, and eventually he fell in with the Miami bass scene, he signed to Luke Records, as in Uncle Luke, as in Luther Campbell from the 2 Live Crew. That Third Coast book—highly recommended, the full title is Third Coast: Outkast, Timbaland, and How Hip-hop Became a Southern Thing—the book says that starting in the late ’80s Atlanta became a sort of colonial outpost of Miami hip-hop. Take for example Shy-D’s friend and fellow Luke Records artist Tony M.F. Rock—this song, from 1990, is called “She Put Me in a Trance.”
We can’t get to everybody or everything, of course, but we should also briefly mention Kilo, soon to be known as Kilo Ali, he was from Bankhead, he was one of the first guys to use the term trap; here’s his 1990 regional hit “America Has a Problem, Cocaine.” Usually you see it styled as America Has a Problem, parentheses, Cocaine, though occasionally you see Cocaine, parentheses, America Has a Problem. Choose your own adventure—just, maybe, don’t try cocaine.
Starting in the early ’90s you get these huge, brash, pop-crossover bursts of energy from Atlanta. Future star and mogul Jermaine Dupri hits town and brings the world Kris Kross. Future super producer Dallas Austin starts working with Another Bad Creation, and Boyz II Men, and future superstars TLC. (One of the first big Atlanta rappers was Left Eye.) TLC are signed—to their great regret, eventually—to Atlanta’s own LaFace Records, co-owned by the super mogul L.A. Reid and singer-songwriter slash regular-mogul Babyface. All of which to say there’s a lot of action, a lot of hits, a lot of colorful characters, a lot of Motown of the South–type enthusiasm swirling around the place known, semi-officially, since the ’60s, as the City Too Busy to Hate. It’s an excellent slogan. But Atlanta in this moment does not yet have a definitive rap group on the order of, say, the Geto Boys in Houston. In Port Arthur, Texas, you got UGK starting up; in Memphis, you got 8Ball & MJG starting up. You know who took a legitimate shot at taking over first Atlanta, and then the world? Arrested Development. Had a huge hit in ’92 called “Tennessee,” won a couple Grammys, topped a critics’ poll or two. The full big Arrested Development album, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of..., is a lot to deal with, honestly. It’s a little corny, a little didactic. It’s so conscious you might fall asleep. But then again in terms of pure hardness, this line is worthy of the Geto Boys.
“Walk the roads my forefathers walked / Climb the trees my forefathers hung from.” Write a line like that, you can be as corny as you want. I would tell you that if you set foot on a college campus, in the early-to-mid-’90s, then you’ve definitely heard the song “Tennessee,” but it’s more accurate to say that if you heard the song “Tennessee” in the early-to-mid-’90s, a college campus would spontaneously erupt around you.
Their second album didn’t do so hot. Early Outkast absorbed all of this. And The Chronic, out in Compton. And Das EFX, out in Brooklyn. Das EFX, their first album Dead Serious in 1992 was a big deal. “We Want EFX” and so forth. Those guys can also be a lot to deal with, in my experience—it’s hard for me now to totally separate them from the Chappelle’s Show references to them, it’s a lot of DIGGITY WIGGITY ZIGGITY HIGGITY PIGGITY—but yeah shout-out Das-EFX. It’s fun to pretend that Outkast came out of nowhere—that they really were misfits, rejects, deviants, exiles, pariahs, whatever other names they considered. Aliens, sure. But what’s truly miraculous to me about Outkast is that they so obviously came from somewhere. Somewhere tangible and recognizable. They came from somewhere a lot of other people came from. They heard, and loved, music that a lot of other people heard and loved. But then, miraculously, Andre and Big Boi built, out of that familiarity, another universe. Something extraordinary, something extraterrestrial. Identifiable origins, supernatural destinations. Even other people’s bad ideas could generate spectacular results.
So Organized Noize, the production crew: Rico Wade, Ray Murray, and Sleepy Brown. Sleepy Brown’s the R&B guy, Ray Murray’s the rap guy, and Rico Wade’s the big-picture guy. At first Organized Noize worked out of a storage closet in a skating rink called Jellybeans. Then Rico’s family got a new house in Lakewood Heights, in south Atlanta, and they set up the studio in the basement. A crawl space under the kitchen. Dirt floor. Red clay walls. Pipes over your head. The moisture in the air fucked with the drum machines. It was rough. It was perfect. You go down there, you make music all night, you never come out. So they called it the Dungeon. So they called the larger crew soon assembling there, the Dungeon Family. In the morning Rico’s mom would kick everybody out, make sure everybody got off to school, whatever. Organized Noize takes on Outkast. Through Organized Noize, Outkast gets the attention of LaFace Records, by now the biggest label in town. LaFace Records, in 1993, was putting out a Christmas album. Outkast did not want to write a Christmas song. So they wrote, in essence, a song about not wanting to write a Christmas song. They called it “Player’s Ball.”
“I made it through another year,” Andre raps. “Can’t ask for nothing much more.” “Player’s Ball” hits the rap charts. LaFace finally lets Outkast record a full album. They’d moved to a “real” studio in Atlanta by then but you can hear, you can smell, you can taste the dirt floor and the drum-machine-scrambling moisture of the Dungeon in every second of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. In 2001, when Outkast are on the cover of SPIN and their fourth album Stankonia is one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century and “Bombs Over Baghdad” is one of the best songs ever made, Andre 3000, as he is now known, will still be talking about the Dungeon. He says, “When I went to that basement the first time, I heard some of the best music of my life. I’m writing; they’re digging the stuff that I’m writing. They’re showing me how to project, telling me that I don’t have to scream. Sometimes, you’d write a rap, say it, and don’t nobody say nothin’. And that’s when you know it’s wack.”
The SPIN writer asks Andre: Do you miss those days? And he says, “There was a certain feeling there—and I don’t have that feeling no more. I wanna have that nostalgic feeling of how the Dungeon smelled, the way certain beats made you feel. It smelled like dirt, like a mildewy basement when it rains. Crickets.”
I can hear the crickets on “Player’s Ball,” too.
The “Player’s Ball” video—directed by Puff Daddy!—is worth watching even for 10 seconds to remind yourself how disconcertingly young Andre and Big Boi are in 1994 when their debut album comes out. They’re 19. They look like kids. They basically are kids. And suddenly they’re stars. Suddenly they’re Atlanta’s definitive rap group. Suddenly they’re in New York City for the 1995 Source Awards. Where Suge Knight disses “Player’s Ball” video director Puff Daddy. Where the Death Row–Bad Boy feud escalates into an all-consuming homicidal catastrophe. (Questlove from the Roots was at the ’95 Source Awards and later called it “Hip-Hop’s Funeral.”) Also, Outkast wins the award for Best New Artist, Group. They win and get booed, loudly, boisterously. Andre and Big Boi take the stage. They’re flustered. They’re still kids. Big Boi speaks first and is gracious and polite. Andre speaks next and is less polite and says maybe the single most important thing any Southern rapper ever said.
Possibly you’ve heard this story 10,000 times already but still you gotta hear him say it, to get the full impact. You gotta hear the boos he says it over—you gotta reacquire a true 1995 mindset, back before Outkast are immortal, are canonized. You gotta hear the way he says “the South.” The whole point of what the South has to say is that I can’t say “the South” the way he says “the South.” So that’s Outkast in 1995. At the top of their game—and poised to stay at the top of their game for pretty much the rest of their career—but in this moment they’re still separate, still alienated from the rest of the game. They might as well be in outer space. Their next album comes out in 1996. They call it ATLliens. They are determined not to float facedown in the mainstream. So they leave the planet. They leave the planet in style.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.