OutKast - Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

They were kids. Watch the first few OutKast videos, and that reality keeps smacking you in the face, over and over. Both members of OutKast hadn’t quite left their teens when they released Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their first album, 20 years ago tomorrow. Big Boi still had a hint of pubescent chirp in his voice. André 3000 was still calling himself Dre, which was pretty confusing when rap neophytes were still confusing The Chronic Dr. Dre with Yo! MTV Raps Doctor Dré. “Player’s Ball,” their first single, was conceived as a Christmas rap song, a total novelty, before it started getting airplay and someone had the bright idea to release a mix of it with no sleigh bells. And yet someone took them seriously enough to sign them and to let them release a 65-minute slab of warm, slippery, verbose world-creation as their debut album. OutKast were obviously tremendously talented kids, but plenty of other tremendously talented kids were releasing rap music in the early ’90s, and not too many of them became immortal in the process. Souls Of Mischief, whose humid smart-kid stoner-strut influenced the hell out of OutKast, only got to release one classic album before fading into cult-favorite semi-obscurity. The Pharcyde, another precursor, made it to a second great album, but that album bricked commercially and left the group’s dynamic irreparably shattered. Arrested Development established the critical and commercial potential of Atlanta alt-rap and became weirdly famous for a short and forgotten period, and the entire world seemingly agreed to stop taking them seriously on the first day of 1993. But none of that happened with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Instead, that album marked the beginning of one of the greatest three-album runs in pop music history. It introduced the Dungeon Family, arguably the greatest rap crew that has ever lived. It expanded the definition of Southern rap when it was commonly understood as nothing more than Miami bass and blood-in-your-eye Geto Boys nihilism. It threw rap off its axis, to the point where Atlanta is now the center of the genre in every meaningful way, and it helped create a universe where the reunited OutKast can now headline virtually every festival in America this summer. 20 years after its release, it’s worth considering why Southernplayalistic stuck when so many other worthy albums didn’t.

Around the time Stankonia came out, OutKast were talking about their origin story in SPIN, and since I can’t remember the exact quote, I’m going to paraphrase. André claimed that he and Big Boi, in high school, were fascinated with the head-blown open-heartedness of De La Soul and a Tribe Called Quest, and friends would clown them, tell them to listen to bass music instead. André and Big Boi wouldn’t listen. But, said André, “then we’d listen to the bass music, too.” That last part is crucial. OutKast, out in the rap hinterlands, were able to synthesize influences, to pull in ideas that were floating through music and translate them through a singular point of view.

Southernplayalistic came out deep in the G-funk era, and the G-funk influence is huge — the live instrumentation, the cinematic scope, the skits that help situate the music within a very specific place that they knew would be alien to most of the people hearing the album. Dr. Dre’s P-Funk fixation came through, too, but where Dre was interested in the group’s bigger-than-life strut, OutKast were just as into George Clinton’s hippie-starchild cosmology and languidly expansive sense of place. That’s how we ended up with something like “Funky Ride,” a woozy waft of smoke with a blaring guitar solo and no rapping. (OutKast wouldn’t perfect that style until Aquemini, but they were bold enough to try it right away.) In their halting, awkward syllable-cramming, André and Big Boi’s Souls Of Mischief and Pharcyde influence came through most clearly, and there was probably a hint of Das EFX in there, too. Southern regional-hero types like UGK and 8Ball & MJG were already building ground-up audiences by talking about ground-level crime life, and OutKast did that, too, but they filtered it through an idealistic there-must-be-something-better alt-rap sensibility. All these strains and ideas were flying around on Southernplayalistic, and yet OutKast never really sounded like anything other than themselves.

Organized Noize, the production team who’d discovered OutKast and masterminded the album’s musical side, had produced R&B hits for TLC and En Vogue before making the record, but they were unproven as rap producers. And on Southernplayalistic, you can hear them figuring out what happens when you apply the friendly, relaxed cool of their R&B records to a rap record. Sleepy Brown’s hooks — sleepy, sticky melodies that dripped with Curtis Mayfield grown-man slickness — drew you in enough that it mattered what the quick-tongued kids on the verses were doing. On “Player’s Ball,” Brown more or less invented the Pharrell hook, and god knows that whole style stuck around. But the elegant full-bodied orchestrations of those Organized Noize beats have become an endangered species in rap. On “Hootie Hoo” or “Call Of Da Wild,” we hear bits of the 808 thunder that was already animating Southern rap. But Organized Noize had softer, sweeter sounds in mind, and listening to it now, it’s easy to get misty about how we’re missing that now.

Another thing we don’t get to hear enough anymore: The rap album that hints at an entire undiscovered universe out there. There were a lot of those in the early ’90s. The Chronic and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and E. 1999 Eternal and so many more albums of the era had entire supporting casts, voices that would show up for a verse and then disappear, hints that this music comes from a buzzing hive of activity and you’re about to hear so much more about it. Southernplayalistic gives off that impression, too, and there’s nothing illusory about it. It’s the product of an actual physical location, Organized Noize’s Dungeon studio, where André and Big Boi started out as kids lurking in the corner and waiting for their turn to rhyme. And those voices start to show up on Southernplayalistic, too. The album marks the first time the world heard the Goodie Mob, the complementary but vastly different Atlanta crew who’d put out their own astounding debut album not too much later. In the years that followed, OutKast and Goodie and tons of other Dungeon Family affiliates would crank out amazing music at an alarming rate. Even the records that came from relatively unknown DF B-teamers — Joi’s The Pendulum Vibe, Cool Breeze’s East Point’s Greatest Hits, Witchdoctor’s A S.W.A.T. Healing Ritual — stand as underappreciated masterworks. Future, who just released one of the year’s best rap albums a few days ago, is a younger cousin of Organized Noize producer Rico Wade, and he’s got “Dungeon Family” tattooed across his forearms. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik has a spoken-word interlude from Big Rube, whose grizzled contemplations became a Dungeon Family hallmark. Released 20 years later almost to the day, Honest has one, too. Future’s sound and viewpoint couldn’t be further removed from the OutKast of 1994, but he’s got a similarly adventurous spirit, a familiar tendency to translate the ideas floating through music into something entirely new. Those Dungeon Family echoes still linger.

OutKast themselves contained multitudes, too. Not long after Southernplayalistic, André started wearing pith helmets and football shoulderpads, rapping about discovering a universal consciousness, willing himself toward a very personal idea of transcendence. Big Boi, by contrast, remained the same guy, albeit slightly older and tougher than the motormouthed kid we heard on the first album. People started thinking of OutKast as a group with a central dichotomy — the poet and the player — and the group bought into it, to an extent, too. Big Boi was always capable of getting plenty weird, and André could always be tough, but by the time they made it to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, they’d fully bought into that conceptual split, too. That dichotomy isn’t there on Southernplayalistic. On that album, we hear two kids who come from the same world, who have each other’s backs, who display a teenager’s joy in twisting words into new shapes and trading off verses with natural ease. André wore the same Braves jersey in the first two OutKast videos; he wasn’t trying to look like anything other than a kid from Atlanta. OutKast would go on to make so much more great music, but we’d never hear them on each other’s level in quite the same way again. Maybe they lost something when they moved off in different directions. Or maybe they needed to establish a foundation as solid as Southerplayalistic before they nudged each other on to become their greatest selves. Either way Southernplayalistic stands as a truly great rap album on its own, and as a harbinger of even more great things to come. If you haven’t listened to it in a while — or if you’ve never listened to it — go back to it. It’s a nourishing experience.

Comments (15)
  1. Two great LP’s two weeks in a row. Illmatic and then Southernplayalistic… I miss the good old days.

    • Yep, this was a great article for another important debut album.

    • Seriously, in the past few weeks in 1994, Illmatic, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Live Through This, Throwing Copper, Smash, Parklife, and His N Hers all came out. That’s in just one month!

      As much as people around here might want to claim otherwise, music is just not this good anymore. Much as I love the new Cloud Nothings and Tycho albums, I don’t think anyone will be writing effusive pieces about their greatness in 20 years. Most people outside of a few indie rock nerds like us haven’t even had the chance to hear them or even know about them! As for current hip-hop, honestly nothing as good as Illmatic has been made in eons, and anything even close hasn’t been a hit.

      And we haven’t even gotten around to talking about Ready to Die yet! or Bee Thousand! or Bakesale! or Dummy!

      So follow This Week in Pop, which is only a feature because literally no other music has any traction with a mass audience anymore and rock critics with the taste to know better are envious. The quality of music has gone down, a lot, and nothing makes that more clear than these anniversary essays.

      • It does seem that way in hindsight, especially for people of a certain age, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with your thesis, I’d argue that this perception has a lot to do with how music is consumed these days (internet hype cycle, etc.). I have friends who always say “there is no good new music” and I actually feel sorry for them because the truth is there is TOO MUCH good new music, and I think that is the problem for a lot of people. Kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s became accustomed to interacting with music in a certain way, and there were very direct ways in which music was presented to the public via MTV and radio, etc. to the extent that there was no question which records were “important” because they were constantly being shoved down your throat by the aforementioned outlets. It was easier to decide “this is great and I love this” because all of your peers were exposed to the same thing and there was more consensus. Nowadays I think the people who claim that “music isn’t good anymore” just really don’t know where to look for it, or don’t know how to decide for themselves what they love because of their own insecurities or lack of social validation of their own tastes (I’ve actually seen this in a lot of people and like I said, it is sad).

        I do agree that truly great music does get lost in the shuffle to keep up and that we are not likely to see the same level of respect paid to a lot of current albums 20 years from now, but that doesn’t mean that certain works won’t stand the test of time. In fact, many of them will, and only in hindsight will the majority of people come to appreciate them. And don’t kid yourself — there have been plenty of great hip hop albums since Illmatic.

        • Totally agree. I think a lot of this comes down to listening habits (and options), too. Back in the olden days of tapes and CDs, there was more a focus on the full album. In the era of streaming services and the 69-cent single, even strong albums are overlooked. Plus it’s just a lot easier to skip around or shuffle; I know my attention span has changed and it often takes me a lot longer and a lot more effort to appreciate some releases.

        • Your point about people being too insecure and lacking the social validation they crave to actually like new music is spot-on. Well-said. Trusted filters like the ones that existed 20 years ago have been eviscerated, and people don’t know what to listen to anymore. I know plenty of people who would love the Men, or Cloud Nothings, or Japandroids, but aside from the indie rock blogosphere, it seems like nobody’s even paying attention. It’s sad. I guess the culture at large 20 years ago was more friendly to the types of music I like to listen to. Hopefully the pendulum swings back at some point.

          Also, didn’t mean to imply that there have been no good rap albums since Illmatic. But I would say that the past decade or so of rap has nothing on the 90s.

      • ‘As much as people around here might want to claim otherwise, music is just not this good anymore.’

        Sorry, but that’s rubbish. To say something as wide-ranging as music is not very good these days is just a ludicrous statement to make.

        • Didn’t say it wasn’t good. Said it wasn’t AS good.

          I’m talking specifically about the genres that Stereogum covers, alternative/indie rock and hip-hop.

          Part of the problem, compared to the 90s, is that back then lots of good music was also mainstream. This isn’t the case anymore.

          But also, I just don’t think the quality is as good in 2014 as it was in 1994. I would like to be proven wrong, as I am a huge music fan, and I constantly scour a wide variety of music blogs in search of something great to listen to. But in comparison to back then, I am underwhelmed.

          • Part of the problem with this argument is that the internet has completely changed the relationship between “mainstream” and “alternative/indie” music. Back in the 80s or even 90s, people had to work a lot harder to find “alternative” music, searching around in record/CD stores and relying on word of mouth. (This is obviously an overgeneralization and one not based on personal experience since I only came to musical consciousness in the late 90s.) But today it is so easy to find “alternative” music because of the internet. I know tons of people that would probably have been content listening to the top 40 back in the 90s that today know about tons of “alternative” or in today’s lingo “indie” bands. In other words, it’s a lot easier to get out of the “mainstream” than it used to be. I certainly agree that the top 40 today compared to that of 20 or 30 years ago generally suffers from a huge drop off in quality as well as variety, but this argument is based on the false premise that people limit themselves to the top 40 in the same way they did 20 or 30 years ago.

  2. my favorite so far of the anniversary posts – kick ass job tom. thanks for writing this.

  3. Posted at 10:17? Taking the Gucci fandom too far man

  4. All-time classic by the best hip-hop group ever.

  5. When I think of this album the first thing that comes to my mind is Ain’t no thang but a chicken wang

  6. One of the 3 best albums by the GOAT rap group. Andre 3000 is, IMO, the best MC ever. He may not have as big of a body of work to choose from as say, a Jay-Z, who puts out an album almost every summer and doesn’t have to split time on his albums with a partner ( like Dre does with Big Boi) But I swear, if you put Andre’s best verses against ANYONE else’s best verses and it’s not even close.

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