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Hopefully some of y’all are familiar with the musical duo Outkast. You may remember back to one of my early columns about the Dungeon Family rap and production collective out of Atlanta in the 90s. This is something that we take for granted in our culture – our culture’s entry into hip hop and rap essentially frayed the east coast/west coast rivalry by becoming the center of attention, seemingly by surprise.
The hip hop and rap landscape in 1994 is filled with classics, but also falls into two almost completely discrete categories. First, we have the artful lyricists, represented by Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and Nas’s “New York State of Mind.”
Second, we have our east/west heavy hitters – in this year we got Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” Method Man’s “Bring the Pain,” Warren G’s “Regulate,” Redman’s “Rockafella,” and Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.”
The West Coast submissions had slower delivery and relaxed flow; the East Coast submissions are all in your face and intense. I can’t argue with the quality of these songs, but can you imagine if things had just kept going in this predictable direction?
However, 1994 also saw a low budget, basement recorded album from Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, also known as Outkast. The duo originally formed when they were in high school, struggling to raise money for recording equipment and striving to be heard in the burgeoning Atlanta music scene. Fatefully, they sought production from the Organized Noize production group located in the ramshackle childhood basement of one of its members, and much of their equipment was secondhand.
But what makes “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” so unique from the contributions listed above? I think it’s in the recording, the writing and the delivery. Every step of the creation of this album created something that is still prominent today.
First, the recording of this album was unique. Rap was still heavily impacted by old 808s, synth and drums. However, Outkast’s music involved much more musical complexity. Drawing from funk and R&B, their music has a more complex instrumental backing than songs like “Bring the Pain.” The organic development of this music allowed for the southern accent to be part of the music, not stand at odds with it.
The writing in this album stands out, as well. Again, looking within the context of major releases that year, songs like “Ain’t No Thang” or “Player’s Ball” stick out like sore thumbs. The East/West divisions had created walls in which popular music had to exist – it’s like imagining a country song about driving a double decker bus in London. It just wouldn’t happen, although it could be done.
After years of this rivalry, people connected with the fresh perspective of Outkast. After the birth of rap had lined so many pockets, it meant something real to get to hear something from people who had nothing left to lose.
So now we dive into the actual bare bones of writing music. Most of rap at this time relied on an even numbered delivery. This means that there were typically going to be two or four notes per beat – as in saying, “Rollin down CLAP the street CLAP smoking in-do CLAP, sippin on gin and juice CLAP.”
See, Outkast was one of the early groups to use a more complex triplet rhyme scheme, meaning that there was an odd number of notes per beat. For example, in “Ain’t No Thang,” there’s a triplet rhyme scheme: “But Lord forgive me CLAP, I gots to keep my Milli right be-near me CLAP, My nine be doing fine until these (folks) want to clear me CLAP.” I’m not the best at explaining it, but it’s easily heard.
These factors mix to a unique sound. The fast musicality of the southern accent combines well with the choppy sound that comes from a triplet delivery. That choppiness is smoothed out, though, with the live instrumentation. This differentiates southern rap from midwestern, which lacks musicality.
The album is rough, and it doesn’t sound quite as clean as something with a six figure production budget. However, the thoughtful composition from these five young men created a sound that is continuing to impact popular music today.
Give it a listen with some of this information in mind, and try appreciating it. Now try being a poor young person in the middle of Atlanta trying to make this album on $15,000.