Letting the Stank Out: OutKast and the Rise of the Hip-Hop South

The following excerpt is taken from the introduction to Regina Bradley’s Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South

While I do not suggest that hip-hop’s presence in the South is the sole marker of its contemporary existence, I do suggest that hip-hop is integral to updating the framework for reading the South’s modernity. Although southern hip-hop existed before OutKast, they are the founding theoreticians of the hip-hop South. Their lyrical whimsicality and sonic and cultural experimentation with their southernness situates them as the epicenter of recognizing a collective—though not monolithic—contemporary southern black cultural landscape. Further, OutKast’s moniker embraces their (initial) displacement in hip-hop and is an acronym for “Operating under the Krooked American System Too Long.” Their embodiment as outcasts can be read on multiple levels, including outcasts of hip-hop’s dominant northeastern aesthetics and outcasts as less-than-respectable young black men in the post–civil rights South. Yet OutKast still uses rapping as a tool signifying their existence as young black men, gauging hip-hop as a lens for contemporary scripts of blackness in the present while referring both to the past and the future to annotate their southernness. OutKast’s intentional disjuncture of their southernness from the space and time vacuums that often dictate how the South is understood shifts paradigms of modernity and urbanity to reflect the on-the-fringe narratives of southern blacks. OutKast pivots on the use of the South as a renewable source of cultural currency and agency for blacks.

Still, it was not lost on them or their Atlanta-reared and -based producers Organized Noize, consisting of Rico Wade, Patrick “Sleepy” Brown, and Ray Murray, that they needed to demonstrate their awareness of hip-hop’s identity as an urban cultural expression that could be used to reflect their experiences in Atlanta. It is important to note that before Organized Noize’s efforts to solidify Atlanta’s place in hip-hop, the city was already holding its own as a funk music capital: with the help of Bunnie Jackson Ransom, the former wife of Atlanta’s first black mayor Maynard Jackson, Atlanta was home to funk music stars like S.O.S. Band, Cameo, and Brick, many of whom migrated to Atlanta to become part of its exploding musical scene. Atlanta’s brand of funk intentionally teetered on the line between the sacred and secular, unafraid to blend the aesthetics of faith, trauma, and perseverance in vocal and instrumental performances. This is central to understanding Organized Noize’s brand of hip-hop production: Jimmy Brown, the father of group member Sleepy Brown, was an instrumentalist and lead singer for Brick and frequently took a young Sleepy Brown to gigs where he watched from backstage as his father and Brick performed.

As Atlanta grew more visible, so did its arts and culture scenes. While Atlanta was well aware of the hip-hop coming out New York in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the arrival of artists like the New York transplant MC Shy D or homegrown talent like Kilo Ali and Raheem the Dream that Atlanta started getting serious about hip-hop.

Even the crossover success of hip-hop acts of groups like Arrested Development and Kris Kross in the early 1990s did not use Atlanta as central to their identity. Arrested Development offered a Bohemian even utopian black southern narrative, pulling from the folk tradition that buoyed southern black cultural expression inside and outside of the South. For example, their hit song “Tennessee” offered a view of country or rural blackness as an escape—for example, playing horseshoes and sitting on the porch—from many of the struggles black folks continued to face in light of the efforts of the movement. Kris Kross relied heavily on their youthful swagger, rooted in their time cruising southwest Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall, where they were discovered by the Atlanta producer and artist Jermaine Dupri. Although rooted in a southern experience, Kris Kross’s handlers like Dupri were careful not to make them an act that would have only regional appeal. Intriguingly, however, Kris Kross’s signature aesthetic, wearing their clothes backward and thus suggesting an alternative performance of black boyhood and masculinity, subverts the long-held belief of black southerners as backward and makes it cool. Still, Atlanta remained in pursuit of a solidified hip-hop identity that featured their city’s aesthetics and experiences more directly.

Therefore, Atlanta hip-hop artists had a multilayered challenge: Where did hip-hop fit in a largely established narrative of Atlanta as a city of promise and progress for black people? How could hip-hop culture be used to move the South away from the largely held and commercialized legacy of Dr. King? More specifically, producers like Organized Noize and performers like OutKast were inadvertently tasked with the validation of what Imani Perry argues is a contemporary urban South, the creation of a “unique meeting ground of the traditional, the old and new, plus the ‘same old, same old.’”

Regina N. Bradley is an alumna Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow at Harvard University and an assistant professor of English and African diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University.