"The South got somethin’ to say."

 

Andre Benjamin’s words at the 1995 Source Awards, accepting Outkast’s Best New Artist award at the height of the East vs. West Coast rivalry, sparked a revolution that can still be felt today. In 2016 the influence of Southern hip-hop is inescapable, from the mainstream pop charts to underground dance music. Through rejecting both East and West Coast, and carving out their own sonic identity, they paved the way for Southern artists to truly express themselves, making music that held universal appeal and yet was unapologetically Southern.  When Outkast were at their best, as they were on Aquemini, they were unbeatable. Whatever your opinion on today’s rap landscape, none of it would have been possible without Outkast.

In terms of sheer musicality, Aquemini set a high benchmark that has yet to be surpassed in hip-hop. Produced in part by the duo’s regular production team Organized Noize, but also for the first time by Big Boi and Andre themselves, the album flits from genre to genre, drawing from influences as wide as country (‘Rosa Parks’) to P-Funk (‘Synthesizer’) to guitar rock (‘Chonkyfire’), whilst remaining unmistakeably a Southern rap record, held together by lazily open snares and crisp hi-hats. Songs like West Savannah sound so relaxed that it’s easy to overlook just how much craft goes in to constructing them; make no mistake, Outkast knew exactly what they were doing. The decision to use live instrumentation rather than sample-based beats provides each track with a warmth and body that is missing on other great rap albums. Consider the iconic horns on SpottieOttieDopaliscious, or the shimmering guitar line on the title track that brings an otherwise sparse sound to life. It’s obvious from the instrumentals alone that they were a group operating at the peak of their powers and with supreme confidence. They were content to let tracks run for 2 minutes after the vocals’ conclusion, relying simply on the strength of the music to hold the listener’s attention. Everything they try on this album seems to come off. Just listen to the entirety of SpottieOttieDopaliscious, a 7-minute spoken word trumpet jam that fades out with Andre echoing incoherent syllables in your ear. In any other hands this song would be bloated and pretentious; within the sonic landscape of Aquemini it made perfect sense.

 

If Aquemini’s beats sounded unlike anything else being done in 1998, then they were perfectly suited to the two rappers rhyming over them. Big’s grounded verses serve as a perfect foil to Andre’s roaming nature; he is the ideal straight man to complement Andre’s show-stealing turns. In doing so he still manages to fit in mind-boggling flows and rhyme schemes that no one else could attempt – just listen to his alternately stuttering then rapid-fire verse on Rosa Parks. Big Boi’s solo track, West Savannah, is only slightly below Nas’ iconic NY State of Mind in the list of rap songs expertly evoking a place and time; he describes every detail of his early days, from the cassette that was in his tape deck (Sade), to the direction that his cap was pointing (east). Storytelling flourishes like these elevate Big Boi from the ‘gangster rapper’ category that he is all too often put into, and onto another level.

With the disclaimer in mind that Big Boi is undoubtedly one of the most underrated rappers of all time, it still has to be stressed that Andre on this album is practically untouchable. The only possibility of him being outshined is on Skew it on the Bar-B, taking what is probably the best guest verse of all time by Raekwon.  From his first line he takes no prisoners, railing against those who were questioning his supposedly ‘softer’ approach: ‘the question is Big Boi what’s up with Andre/Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?/When y’all gon’ break up? When y’all gon’ wake up?/N---a I’m feelin’ better than ever what’s wrong with you’. Although Andre’s unable to bring the same level of personal experience as Big Boi, he sells his lines on poverty, drug abuse and the Atlanta nightlife on songs like SpottieOttieDopaliscious and Y’all Scared, with the same integrity as any street rapper would. This makes his moments of introspection and stargazing even more poignant. When, in a perfect distillation of his dual natures, he rhymes, ‘Sin all depends on what you believing in/faith is what you make it, that’s the hardest shit since MC Ren’, you believe him.

 

Aquemini is an album built around the duality of Big Boi and Andre. The title itself is a portmanteau of Aquarius and Gemini, the rappers’ Zodiac signs. Outkast, today, are famous for the image of ‘the Pimp and the Poet’, Big Boi and Andre 3000, one concerned with street level hustling whilst the other fixes his gaze on the stars.  Aquemini was where this idea was at its most effective, before it descended into parody. Big and Dre were aware of their differences, and used them expertly. And yet, on Aquemini at least, there was more that united than divided them. 

 

Words: Nick Bedingfield

Posted
AuthorDuncan Harrison

Nothing has ever been a better teacher, indoctrinator or prophet for the godly sounds of hip-hop, than NBA Street Vol. 2. Bold claims, but the wide eyed gleam of excitement from a ten year old when he learns about a genuinely amazing genre of music does not lie. Such a ten year old was me in the Christmas of 2003, when I unwrapped one of the most influential presents I have ever received. My hip-hop loving father had given me NBA Street Vol. 2, a game which should be included in the bible of hip-hop.

The whizz of the game disc whirled inside my chunky, yet suave, silver PS2 resting on the cream carpet of a top floor flat in Stoke Newington. As the iconic EA Sports Big appeared on the screen, the saxophone which followed drew my immediate attention. T.R.O.Y. had introduced himself to me. If you cannot remember the first time you heard Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth They Reminisce Over You, allow me to explain to you mine. The saxophone’s golden howl planted the seeds of music’s breadth within my soul, knocking down the boundaries of the music box within my mind which confined the limits of acceptable and cool instruments to the triumvirate of a drum, guitar and piano. I was learning about hip hop from what was only the title screen of the game. What wonders lay ahead as I delved further into the Street of NBA and uncovered an array of dirty beats which would accompany my characters’ journey from lowly street ball player, who couldn’t hit a 3-pointer, to a destroyer of hoops with a 720 spinning dunk taking on a team of Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan and um… Michael Jordan.

Some songs weren’t just chosen for their merit as classics only; there’s that witty fella who must have decided Black Sheep - The Choice Is Yours would accompany the character selection screen due to its aptly fitting name. So well it worked too, making the supposedly simple task of selecting a playable baller into a wondrous scrolling adventure. The first lyrics uttered “Here they come yo, here they come” as more and more players arose from the depths of the screen to be chosen. Yes, here they do come, here they do: but who to choose!? “This or that? This or that?”, Black Sheep verbalised the inner dialogue running wild in my mind but brought me no closer to settling on any of the choices I had in front on me. “This or that? This or that? This or that? This or that?” Before I could even select, the beat dropped and Andres "Dres" Titus completely threw me from my task at hand. My favourite rap bars ever? Just maybe. Nobody can look past the inventive nature of his lyrics, mixed with the raw delivery in his flow and tone. Who doesn’t know about "Engine, engine, number nine. You know, the train on the New York transit line. Now, what do you do If my train goes off the track? You pick it up! Pick it up! Pick it up!"?

When Black Sheep released me from my hype, and I finally chose my team of three, we could eventually step onto court. Even as the game loaded, EA Sports had enlisted Just Blaze to provide some instrumentals to allow slowly loading transitions to sound like a dope set. Weeks flew by as the game and its soundtrack dominated my life. At times I was unbeatable; I was a king in the game, a real underground NBA star. Yet, every now and then, there were times where I became a normal human again. 8 points down with no gamebreaker* in sight, I needed to change my fortunes, I needed inspiration and help. This I found in the lyrics of Nelly. Not only were Nelly and the St. Lunatics unlockable and playable characters, but his tune Not In My House roused and energised. One such moment was against the team of triple Jordan’s. 20-12 down, Chicago Bull’s Jordan lines up for that game winning 3 pointer as he looks for nothing but the net. It was at this moment that Nelly came to my rescue, with his timely, and again so aptly named song, Not in My House. His words of “Not in my House, You might catch me on the road, But not in my house, It won't happen oh no oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no.” brought me new life. Up soared my character with a mammoth block, repelling the ball with the force of Thor so that it sailed all the way to centre court. This court was my house and that three pointer was just not happening! I did go on to lose the match 21-20 but it was a close fought affair in which I unveiled a universal truth, Nelly inspires, even if I did fail to complete the comeback.

*   (note. A gamebreaker was a super shot you could make when your skill bar was charged enough)

With Lords of the Underground also donning an impressive array of classics, you can see NBA incorporated some real hip-hop heritage. Whilst to call every song on this soundtrack a classic would be overstated, to deny that each track is an absolute gem is a crime. The funky beat of Nate Dogg and Eve - Get Up fitted a game of b-ball impeccably while MC Lyte - Ride With Me sounds so beautifully menacing it kept the energy pumping, increasing the intensity of every match. Each song brought its own special style of hip-hop and added to a compelling compilation listen.

It is no understatement to say that this game truly inspired me. A mixed race child influenced by his black heritage, I rocked a big Afro for the next two years  to mimic the strong black characters in the game. NBA also brought about a knowledge of good music which grew as far as my curls did. I was released into the jungle of a new genre that extended significantly further than the generic pop which I loved at the time. It brought about an appreciation for delving into the catalogues of different music myself and following what I thought was ‘cool’. It brought me and my father even closer because I could talk about things he loved without taking direction from him. The pure joy mixed with bewilderment I saw across his face when his ten year old son shouted “Boom shaka laka yo here comes the Chief Rocka”, in celebration of expertly sinking a piece of rubbish in the bin will forever be ingrained in my mind. “Where’d you learn about Lords of the Underground?”, my dad asked unknowingly. “NBA Street Vol.2” I replied, “The game with the greatest sound track ever.”

 

Words; Tai Kolade

 

Posted
AuthorDuncan Harrison