by: Ned Phillips
This story begins 1998, which was a big year for me. I was entering public high school as a freshman, Zinedine Zidane beat my hero Ronaldo in the World Cup final, and I heard the OutKast album, “Aquemini” for the first time. Like all freshman, I had to scramble to find an upper classman willing to pick me up and give a ride to school in the morning. Riding with an upperclassman absolved me from the inconvenience of the bus, while allowing nearly half an hour of extra sleep. The first few months of the school year we spent those morning rides learning the pop culture laden verses of the Beastie Boys’ “Hello Nasty,” which had dropped during the summer. We passed verses around the car like a hot potato in true Beastie fashion, but by the time October arrived there was a new disc in the dashboard.
Aquemini opens with a hypnotic invocation before the hardest bass you’ve ever heard drops in and we are off. That first listen, I sat in the car long after we’d arrived and reveled in the experience. The game had changed. I counted my quarters and bought myself a copy that afternoon.
From the get go, OutKast represented everything I love about hip-hop and music in general. It was innovative, unpredictable, and oh so smooth. While the East Coast scene was gritty and the West Coast was funky, both worlds were far away from me. OutKast had a southern twang and mentality that felt familiar. In a world of violence and misogyny there was strength of character and a disregard for convention reflected in both their lyrics and production. Since no one had come from Atlanta before, there was no one to compare to, leaving a blank canvas for them to tell the story. The sweetness and sweat of The South saturates their records while they spin tales that speak to the personal and universal experience simultaneously.
Perhaps most intriguing is the duality and relationship of the two emcees, Big Boi and Andre 3000, dubbed The Player and The Poet, respectively. Over the years these childhood friends have expanded on and deconstructed these archetypes, while at the same time inventing and reinventing themselves with every record. In a culture where music is often formulaic, OutKast shifted directions with each release, knowing the value of variety and surprise.
The house that hip hop built relies strongly on the foundation of music and mastery of that which has come before— DJs and producers flipping samples of already catchy, well-known rhythms that rappers then reinterpret. OutKast always felt more comfortable creating from scratch, collaborating with Atlanta based production outfit Organized Noize to create lush arrangements with real studio musicians. Big Boi and ‘Dre have such confidence in the musicians behind them that they put full tracks on albums in which neither of them appear, to showcase the ability of their crew. Few hip-hop outfits have the chops to craft, much less publish a powerful, jazzy eight minute track that explores artistic freedom through singing and spoken word, without rapping a single bar.
OutKast also hit the airwaves before the digital music revolution created a culture of singles as opposed to cohesive albums. Whereas now artists focus on releasing a single song that will chart well, there was a time when artists tried to make an entire album of interconnected music. OutKast successfully released six full concept albums with individual flow and personality. Any real hip hop head will lament the loss of skits between cuts on albums, but OutKast never failed to hit the listener with hilarious interludes that put you right on a street corner in East Point, giving you a deeper sense of place and culture. Whether Big Rube is dropping knowledge through his meditative, spoken word tomes or Kim and Cookie are squawking about a one-night stand gone awry, you can’t help but let it ride.
Confidence is critical to any rapper’s package, but few embraced their roots to a point where audience was an afterthought, instead making the music the artists themselves would want to hear. From harmonica breaks to anticipating the rise of EDM, ‘Kast was always ahead of the curve while never catering to a single critic or executive. Radio was chasing them. They were setting trends instead of following them.
The boys never failed to put pride of place on display. Boi and ‘Dre talked of trials and tribulations on the streets they grew up on, and so I further explored and took pride in my own narrative, on my own streets. My high school years were spent immersed in their discography, taking smoky car rides around town with kids that would become my best friends in the world, talking about the lyrics or sometimes just listening.
Then, as a freshman in college, I took public speaking. One of our first assignments was to interpret and perform song lyrics in front of the class, so I picked one of the verses closest to my heart and one I thought no one would expect. With eyes closed and wild hand gestures I delivered Big Boi’s bars from SpottieOttieDopalicious, a sultry take on finding love and growing into manhood. I didn’t censor the colorful language or my own passion for the words and I opened my eyes to a standing ovation, hugs and invitations to come “hang out” after class. Once again, I found friendship forged in the fires of “Stankonia.” To this day, on the rare occasion that the old gang is back together again, Aquemini is on the turntable.
I took OutKast with me all around the world in the subsequent years, but when it was announced that they would headline Coachella in 2014 on the 20th anniversary of their first album, I was locked in. I immediately put a call in to my cousin in L.A. and booked a ticket out West. Being the smooth talker he his, Cousin John said he had contacts in the music industry and that tickets would not be a problem.
In the months leading up to Coachella and my trip, I followed up with John relentlessly. The vibe slowly went from “We’re good brah” to “I think we might be cool”. Flash forward to Los Angeles in April of 2014, John and I are sipping a French red in his Echo Park home when he leans into me and says “Dude, it might be the kinda thing where we just have to show up, you know. H says it will be much easier when we are there.” With no tickets we jump in John’s black Honda hatchback, the Ninja, and hit the I-10 East towards the Coachella Valley.
Unsure of what the future held, we stopped at a sporting goods store and bought a tent. And a yoga mat. Several hours later we pulled into Palm Springs and I became immediately aware I am not a desert person. The heat was unbearable and I was already two different shades of tan, as the sun had fried my window side arm during the drive. Unable to survive in the natural environment, we drug our sorry asses into a nearby fast food joint to escape the elements. The phone call we had been waiting for came, directing us to the villa where we would meet our industry contacts. As we cruised around looking for the safe house, streams of happy festivalgoers boarded busses heading to the grounds. I glared enviously at their colorful wristbands, guaranteeing entry. We found the villa and I was introduced to all the Hollywood types, led by Agent H, who seemed fairly certain they could get us passes- once he was inside. This did not settle my anxiety so I slammed beers until it was time to leave.
We loaded up in the car. Girls were staring into their phones putting on make-up and complaining about how their Adderall was wearing off and that it was time for some real lines. Agent H had a parking pass for the Artists’ lot so we decided John and I would hide under blankets in the back of the Escalade, then lay in wait. When the time came, we squished as close together as family could and covered ourselves through three security checkpoints. Agent H told us he would be back with passes before OutKast took the stage in two and a half hours. During that time, John and I explored potential weaknesses in the perimeter in case we never saw our friends again but the place was locked down. HARD.
It became clearer that time was our enemy and the longer that passed, the less likely access was. We finally accepted that Agent H would not be returning and it was up to us. We found a large tractor-trailer and climbed up onto the back of it so we could see the stage way off into the distance. With a bottle of whiskey and jar of California medical, we settled in as the twinkling intro to “B.O.B” drifted towards us on the desert air. Throughout the set I chatted with John, we shared OutKast anecdotes, and rapped along when we felt compelled. I couldn’t help but imagine what it was like in the crowd yet relished this magical experience my cousin and I were having together from a distance.
We hauled ass back to L.A. in the middle of the night, only to receive a text message in the wee hours of the morning with a picture of two wristband passes with our names on them…
I hung around California for the next week or so, and flew home to the announcement that OutKast would be touring the festival circuit over the summer. But when the news came they would be playing a show in their hometown of Atlanta, on my side of the world, a plan came into focus.
While I enjoyed my Coachella glimpse, I didn’t have the experience I wanted: surrounded by the music, by the fans, by The South. A group of friends and I bought Gold Section tickets the moment they went on sale and rented a house in Decatur for the OutKast ATLast weekend.
We played the entire discography, Ridin’ Dirty, on I-85 southbound, knowing we were headed for something special. I met up with my homies from college public speaking class. I was introduced to friends of friends who had also grown up with the Dungeon Family.
The show was outdoors and in the downtown heart of Atlanta at Centennial Park. As we wandered through the crowd, pushing as close as we could to the stage, you couldn’t help but notice the buzz in the crowd. These were true ATLiens. These people had gone to school with Big Boi and Andre. These people had been spinning their records for two decades. These people left their kids at home so mommy and daddy could go see OutKast. As the lights went down and the familiar twinkling began, I smiled at the strangers next to me. But they didn’t seem like strangers— they were old friends. We were home. And they were playin’ our song.
OutKast will probably never play together again. But that culminating moment in Atlanta, like their music, will live forever.