360°Sound recently spoke with Regina N. Bradley, author of the new book Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South (out Feb. 22 on UNC Press). Bradley is Assistant Professor of English and African Diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. In addition to her academic work, Bradley writes fiction. Her short story collection, Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip-Hop South, was published in 2017.
“Chronicling Stankonia is one of the first of its kind in situating Southern rap and Outkast and thinking about the American South after the Civil Rights Movement,” Bradley told 360°. Formed in East Point, Georgia in 1992, Outkast released six critically acclaimed studio albums over 12 years, selling more than 25 million records.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Outkast’s André 3000 famously said, “The South got somethin’ to say” upon accepting the Best New Rap Group award at The Source Awards in 1995. Please talk about that moment and what it meant for Southern hip-hop.
Regina N. Bradley: I’m really kind of surprised that there’s not more out there about this particular Source Awards. Sierra Porter recently wrote a piece about it for USA Today entitled ‘The South Got Something to Say: Inside the Rise of Atlanta Hip-Hop.’ Once upon a time, The Source magazine was the hip-hop bible. You would look to see what was on the cover, and you would flip it over to the back to see how the albums that were coming out were reviewed before you went and bought them. Then you had record stores and all that other good stuff, those communal spaces if you will.
That particular Source Awards was important because you’re getting the climax of the East Coast-West Coast beef between Bad Boy and Death Row Records. You had this young group coming out of Atlanta with an album title that sounds like you can say it all at once, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and they beat out Smif-N-Wessun for Best New Rap Group. You had these two cats coming out of Atlanta who were borrowing from funk, gospel, blues, a little bit of everything, and saying, ‘This is how we do hip-hop’ and creating a signature sound that is not centered in a New York experience. That got folks in their feelings.
When Outkast wins, folks were shocked. André and Big Boi come out. Big Boi tries to be diplomatic, but there’s also a little bit of instigating in there when he’s like, ‘so Dré what’s up? Tell them how we’re really feeling about this.’ You can tell André is frustrated. He didn’t say, ‘Atlanta got somethin’ to say.’ He said, ‘The South got somethin’ to say.’ It’s a rallying cry, but it’s also a proclamation of resistance. Southern rap artists and Southern rap fans are like, ‘OK, so we can do this on our own. We don’t need validation from anywhere else but among ourselves.’ It was dope. It was a lot going on that night.
You suggest that “hip-hop is integral to updating the framework for reading the South’s modernity…Outkast are the founding theoreticians of the hip-hop South.” Please expound on that.
Usually, when you think about the American South, you think about three major historical touchstones: the Antebellum era and slavery, Jim Crow and segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement, which is the push-back against that and the dismantling of that. After that, it’s kind of radio silent. For me, it’s not until hip-hop that you get introduced to a more contemporary identity of Southern-ness, in particular Southern blackness, that Outkast introduces to a mainstream hip-hop culture.
It’s not suggesting that Outkast is the first Southern rap group, but it is suggesting that they are first to be recognized as a Southern rap group with a distinctive Southern rap sound and identity. The way that they use their music and culture to articulate what that Southern blackness is, starting with that first album and establishing Atlanta as a hip-hop city, all the way up to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which is like, ‘We’re world-building now.’ It’s important to show the range they had as artists but also thinking about Southern-ness as fluid, as cyclical, and not as this rigid traumatic backwards thing that is so recognized in popular culture and American culture in general.
When I call them the founding theoreticians, I mean they take this idea of Southern blackness and theorize and experiment with it to create these multiple narratives that have multiple meanings and multiple experiences. But also show the complexity of the South. The South isn’t a monolith. Black folks and the way that they express that isn’t a monolith. Hip-hop is a really great example of how those differing threads of experience all come together.
Compare and contrast André 3000 and Big Boi. What did each of them bring to the duo? And what was it was about their chemistry that made Outkast so special?
I want to make sure I have this on the record: There would be no Outkast without Big Boi. We need to stop discounting his contributions to the group. I find it fascinating when folks give their top rappers of all time, they have Dré in the top 3 or something and Big Boi is way further down the line. I’m like, ‘How you gonna separate them like that?’ [laughs].
I feel like Big Boi is the off-the-dome storyteller. He gives you these essential hip-hop vibes. He can give you a story about opening the door, whereas with André I feel like there’s a lot more vulnerability. There’s a particular type of emotional, visceral response that people have to his rhymes. For some of us, that’s how we’re feeling; we just don’t know how to articulate it.
To emotionally draw in the listener is so significant with André, but you wouldn’t be able to hear the experimental vulnerability, the emotion that André brings, if you didn’t have Big Boi to maintain that foundation of how we were introduced to Outkast in the first place. Putting them together, I feel further strengthens what their name means. If you’re outcasted, you don’t follow anybody’s rules and André definitely doesn’t follow anybody’s rules because we’re still waitin’ on the [solo] album [laughs]. And Big Boi is becoming increasingly experimental in his music also.
The way that we have something like The Love Below, where we get an emotionally raw, honest André, how he talks about sex and women and God and all these things, we don’t necessarily get that with Big Boi until years later with Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. I feel like that is his Love Below album. It’s important to put them together. It really bothers me when folks try to pull them apart because that collapses why they were a duo in the first place. I always try to make sure I give Big Boi his credit.
Do you have a favorite Outkast song?
I do. It’s “In Due Time” from the Soul Food soundtrack. That is my go-to when I feel like the world is crumbling around me. That’s followed very closely by “Liberation” on the Aquemini album.
If you had a chance to interview André 3000 and Big Boi, what would you most want to ask them?
As you grew in fame, what did the South mean to you as you reached these different plateaus of celebrity that forced you to evolve? I know that was one thing that they kept saying was, ‘We don’t wanna sound the same on every record.’ And they definitely pulled that off. I’m curious about how they felt they were representing Southern-ness. All I’m doing is theorizing from what I heard, but it would be something totally different to actually hear what they were thinking about the South. The idea of ‘The South got somethin’ to say,’ what do they think that means now moving forward?
Have you tried reaching out to Outkast?
Yeah, but I’m just a lowly academic [laughs]. I just hope they see the book and recognize how important they are to, not just me, but to young Southerners. You gave us the rallying cry, you gave us the blueprint, and I’m just so very appreciative of that.
You can follow Regina N. Bradley on Twitter @redclayscholar.