ATLiens Turns 20: OutKast’s Past-Future Visions of the Hip Hop South
At the 1995 Source awards, the Atlanta hip hop duo OutKast was met with a crowd of booing New Yorkers as they accepted the Source Award for best new Hip Hop Group. The duo’s first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, stood as a breakout album for the hip hop world. The debut record solidified that Southern rappers existed and could lyrically hold their own. OutKast member Antwan “Big Boi” Patton attempted to be diplomatic. He thanked the crowd – and hip hop in general – for recognizing the group’s efforts while giving a shout out to New York for a warm welcome.
However, Patton’s rhyming partner, Andre “3000” Benjamin, ventured off script and showed visual and vocal frustration with being ostracized from hip hop because of his Southern roots. His emphatic proclamation, “The South Got Something to Say,” galvanized a new generation of southern rappers and artists–a generation tasked with proving that the South indeed had a fresh perspective on black identity and agency.
OutKast’s second studio album ATLiens (1996) is a direct response to the hostility the group encountered at the 1995 Source Awards. ATLiens fully demonstrated the duo’s embrace of their moniker, intentionally separating themselves from any recognizable scripts of hip hop as a bicoastal cultural expression. In a 1996 interview with Spin magazine, Benjamin stated, “we stay closer to our roots here in the South… spirituals, the church, the struggle.” His assertion reveals the continued presence of struggle in the South and the collective efforts of Southern blacks to overcome adversity.
Benjamin’s remark centers the South, and emphasizes its crucial place in black struggles for recognition, rights, and subjecthood. From this perspective, ATLiens marked the introduction to what I refer to as the Hip Hop South–the next generation of Southern blacks still grappling with unresolved issues left over from the Civil Rights Movement. OutKast is at the helm of this shift, introducing a Southern black experience that moves past the region’s physical embodiment of otherness into the realm of Southernness as a concept in and of itself.
The album’s release also presents a timely re-imagining of Atlanta when the city hosted the 1996 Olympic games, shifting from an American southern hub to an international metropolis.1 OutKast, like Atlanta, was moving from the margins to the center, and utilizing their simultaneous moment of exodus and instant stardom to reframe and revise conversations about what is – and what ain’t – Southern blackness.
ATLiens’ simultaneous focus on the past and present visually demonstrates and sonically witnesses what Alondra Nelson refers to as “past-future visions.” OutKast transformed their sound by tying together historically recognizable tropes of Southern black oral tradition with the (afro)futuristic sounds of ticking clocks, outer space, and echoing synthesizers. With ATLiens, OutKast placed one foot in the Southern past and the other foot in the future.
A particularly striking example of OutKast’s past-future vision of the South is the album’s liner notes. Fashioned with the aesthetics of a comic book, including panels and splash pages, ATLiens’ liner notes included a 24-page comic pullout designed by OutKast and D.L. Warfield, and illustrated by Vince Robinson. The comic book complemented the album’s sonic rendering of contemporary Southern blackness. Set in Atlantis, a city in outer space, the comic presents a scripted battle starring OutKast as charismatic, yet flawed, superheroes using their musical talents to protect “positive music” from the evil musical force Nosamulli.
Instead of remaining attached to the South as a physical landscape, the ATLiens comic book/liner book visualized the messiness – ‘dirtiness’ – of Southern hip hop as a culture-scape. For example, in the comic book, rapper Big Boi’s superpower is the ability to summon a black panther. From a historical perspective, the black panther symbolized the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Hayneville, Alabama before its more recognizable attachment to the Black Panther Party coming out of Oakland, California.
Additionally, in Marvel comics, the Black Panther is the hero identity of T’Challa, the prince of a fictitious African country named Wakanda.2 Adilifu Nama’s study Super Black contextualizes T’Challa as a disaporic hero, “an idealized composite of third-world black revolutionaries and the anticolonialist movement of the 1950s they represented” (43). Nama also describes T’Challa as “a recuperative figure and majestic signifier of the best of the black anticolonialist movement” (43). Big Boi’s superpower as a black panther, then, situated him in a larger social-cultural context of black freedom and struggle in the United States and across the African Diaspora.
What the ATLiens album and comic book achieved is a destabilization of who could speak to the hip hop experience. Moreover, they both allowed OutKast to expand the boundaries of Southern blackness to tap into a larger global black experience. In this way, it expanded the possibilities of hip hop as an imaginary, borderless, and experimental space. Firmly rooted in the South, ATLiens not only captured the diversity and complexities of the black experience but it also made room for a new generation of southern hip hop artists who continue to shape conversations about what it means to be black and southern in the post-Civil Rights era.
Regina N. Bradley is an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University in Savannah, GA. Her expertise and research interests include post-Civil Rights African American literature, hip hop culture, race and the contemporary U.S. South, and sound studies. Her current book-length project, Chronicling Stankonia: OutKast and the Rise of the Hip Hop South (under contract, UNC Press), explores how OutKast influences conversations about the Black American South after the Civil Rights Movement. Follow her on Twitter @redclayscholar.
- For further historical analysis of Atlanta’s transition into an international hub of commerce and transit, please see Maurice Hobson’s upcoming book The Legend of the Black Mecca: Myth, Maxim, and the Making of an Olympic City from UNC Press (forthcoming; Spring 2017). ↩
- The storyline of the Black Panther has been re-introduced to a contemporary audience via a storyline written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and a film forthcoming from Marvel in 2018. ↩