The four rail lines that make up the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) meet at Five Points Station. The station, which was opened in 1979 and later added North-South lines in 1981, is located in the middle of downtown and serves as a transportation hub for the metro area’s five million residents. Ascending from the below-ground platforms, the plaza opens onto Alabama Street SW and Marietta Street NW. From Five Points you can get just about anywhere in Atlanta.
East Point is a ten-minute ride on the Red Line from Five Points. Located in southwest Atlanta, East Point is a predominantly black suburb and, according to a 2013 Census estimate, some 35,000 locals call it home. From the outside looking in, East Point doesn’t look like much. Houses sit low to the ground and are greeted by wide, paved streets that lead to West End or College Park. It’s become one of Metro Atlanta’s slowly gentrifying neighborhoods (the median household income is around $40,000) but its cultural import remains indelible to the fabric of the city’s history.
Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, better known as Andre 3000 and Big Boi of OutKast, grew up there. And for the last 20 years, Dre and Twan, as they’re known within city limits, have positioned East Point firmly within hip-hop lore.
In 1992, while riding MARTA back from Lenox Square Mall, Andre and Big Boi, who knew each other from Tri-Cities High School, solidified their friendship. “Me and my little brother rode back with [Dre]. We just got to kickin’ it, and I found this cat was cool,” Big Boi told Creative Loafing in 2003. “So we went back to his crib in East Point. We talked about music and girls and shit.”
On “Elevators (Me & You)“—a cut from OutKast’s 1996 sophomore album, ATLiens— Andre raps: “A couple of years ago on Headland and Delowe/ Was the start of something good/ Where me and my nigga rode the MARTA through the hood/ Just tryna find that hook up/ Now everyday we looked up at the ceiling/ Watching ceiling fans go ‘round, tryna catch that feeling/ Off instrumentals, had my pencil and plus my paper/ We caught the 86 Lithonia headed to Decatur/ Writing rhymes, tryna find our spot off in that light.”
Headland and Delowe is an important point of departure. Lamonte’s Beauty Supply was located in the Delowe Shopping Center in East Point. That’s where Dre and Big—who then went by 2 Shades Deep—were discovered by Rico Wade, the manager of Lamonte’s. Wade was also one-third of the legendary production crew Organized Noize and de facto leader of Dungeon Family, the Atlanta-area, rap-soul collective comprised of Goodie Mob, Parental Advisory, Joi, Sleepy Brown, Big Rube, and other Georgia natives. OutKast eventually joined Dungeon Family and would later release their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 1994.
East Point is where the story of OutKast begins, where all histories, present and future will ultimately root back to. It is the genesis.
In June, it was announced that OutKast would do an Atlanta show to end their 40-date festival tour. Ten years since they had shared the same stage, Dre and Big were returning home. The concert, which originally included only a Saturday set, was expanded to Friday and Sunday, with opening acts Kid Cudi, Janelle Monae, Raury, Childish Gambino, B.o.B., Bun B, Dungeon Family, and Future spread throughout the weekend. It was the proper homecoming diehard Kast fans had been dreaming of. Hometown heroes performing at home after a decade apart.
My introduction to OutKast began in 1998 with Aquemini. It’s the duo’s third album, and maybe their best. I was 12 when a friend brought the album to school and played it for me on his Sony discman. We were from Los Angeles and had already pledged allegiance to Dr. Dre and DJ Quik, proprietors of those breezy funkscapes we’d come to love and heard constantly on 92.3 The Beat.
To us, Aquemini was from another world. I’d never heard anything like it. The only thing I knew about Atlanta, then, was that it was the capitol of Georgia and that the city had been an important battleground in the fight for civil rights during the 1960s. West Savannah and Decatur, familiar points for Dre and Big, were uncharted areas for a kid from LA. But listening to Aquemini, as I’m sure it did for many people, transported me. I was young and didn’t yet have the capacity to understand the music in the way I do now. The sound was more organic back then. It was simple for me: I was attracted to the glimmering horns on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” the elasticity of Dre’s rhymes as they wrapped around “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1),” the bounce of “Rosa Parks.” The music moved.
Aquemini and Stankonia, which was released in 2000, are central to my upbringing in the same way All Eyez on Me, The Chronic, Doggystyle, and G-Funk Classics Vol. 1 & 2 are. So when the #ATLast show was announced, it was a no brainer: I was going to Atlanta.
I arrived Friday during evening rush hour and rode MARTA downtown to where I was staying for the weekend (I was told it would be “cheaper and quicker” than taking a taxi or an Uber). I later texted a friend who was in town. He’d also made the journey from New York.
Me: You at the Outkast concert tonight?
B: Yessir. U here?
Me: Going tomorrow. How is it?
B: Jesus returning to Jerusalem. Only way to describe it.
“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.” —James Baldwin, excerpted from “Sonny’s Blues”
August 1995. A year before OutKast will release the critically-beloved ATLiens. Andre and Big Boi have just won “Best New Rap Group” at The Source Awards. Accepting the award amid a chorus of boos and a crowd of New York rap purists, Dre proclaimed: “The south got something to say.”
Depending on who you ask, those six words remain the most important affirmation ever uttered by a southern rap artist. The power of the statement can be found in its simplicity, its directness. Dre had declared the south just as important to the hip-hop ecosystem, which was primarily defined by New York grit and Los Angeles gangsta bravado. All he needed was six words; the music would speak for itself.
But to really understand this moment you’ve got to realize that OutKast’s existence in 90s hip-hop didn’t have a true antecedent. Back then, you were either down with east coast rap (Wu-Tang, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G.) or west coast rap (2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube). There wasn’t really an in-between. A group like OutKast had never prevailed on their own terms—just, for a second, consider their nonconformist sound and daring aesthetics. But Dre and Big showed that they could exist in the in-between: merging funk, jazz, and rap with deep-rooted southern flair, a style all their own. The slang was different. The stories specific and bare-boned. The production like nothing you’d heard before but now could not do without. Andre and Big Boi’s relationship was a symbiotic one; they amplified each other’s eccentricities. They were odd, but completely endearing.
“Their identity as outsiders gave them perspective, their empathy allowed them to connect, and their wisdom offered the ability to see through bullshit,” wrote Jeff Weiss for Pitchfork last year. “They could write a song about ‘floating face down in the mainstream’ on a certified platinum album. We routinely celebrate the contradictions of artists as a badge of complexity, but OutKast was the rarity able to reconcile commerce, human decency, and purity of vision. There are no cynical radio grabs. No guest appearances from that season’s hot rapper. Every musical decision is organic.”
By 2004—the year OutKast won “Album of the Year” and “Best Rap Album” at the Grammy Awards for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—the south had begun to forcefully assert its dominance nationally. Ludacris and T.I. were certified hitmakers. Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz, who had been navigating the underground for years, were set to unleash Kings of Crunk (which featured the wildly popular “Get Low”). UGK, southern rap stalwarts, were riding high off Dirty Money, which had been released the previous year and reached #2 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Chart. Crime Mob’s infectious “Knuck If You Buck” had yet to hit the airwaves, but would soon reverberate from every radio station across the country. Groups like the Ying Yang Twins, The Hot Boyz, and Three 6 Mafia gained traction among new audiences. Trick Daddy’s club hit, “Take It to Da House,” boomed from cars cruising down Ocean Drive in Miami and Fulton Street in Brooklyn with equal bombast. And all this before Young Jeezy, 2Chainz, Rick Ross, Gucci Mane, and Waka Flocka would propel the south even further.
But the south’s rise was also marked by OutKast’s remove from the spotlight. The two men who had given Atlanta a distinct voice, and emboldened its neighboring music scenes, were now giving it up.
In 2009—three years after OutKast released their final album, Idlewild—New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica noted, “[I]n the last decade Atlanta has moved from the margins to becoming hip-hop’s center of gravity, part of a larger shift in hip-hop innovation to the south.”
It was true. Atlanta had become the nexus. And OutKast was to thank.
“Talkin bout what we gonna be when we grow up/ I said what you wanna be, she said, Alive/It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes/ I coulda died, time went on, I got grown/ Rhyme got strong, mind got blown, I came back home to find lil Sasha was gone...” —Andre 3000, “Da Art of Storytelling (Pt. 1)”
Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton are not supposed to be here.
They’re standing on stage in Centennial Park, circled by a swamp of 25,000-plus fans. Girls romp with abandon, guys parley idly, waiting to make their move. The flat parkland, swelling with energy and pride, slants toward the stage, where Dre and Big tower before us.
ATLiens, home at last.
But they’re not supposed to be there—Dre donning a black jumpsuit with the words “teacher’s [sic] deserve more” written across his chest, Big rocking a giant gold chain, an Atlanta Falcons cap, and black shades.
I don’t say that as an acknowledgement of the rumors surrounding their strained relationship. Literally, they should not be standing before me. In recent months, there has been a willful disregard for the black body. Ferguson. Chicago. New York City. Los Angeles. All have been sites of tragic violence. Men, women, and kids are being killed (or if not, brutally beaten)—at the hands of police, private citizens, and each other.
I had been thinking a lot about Dre and Big’s growing up in East Point this past weekend—not the best neighborhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s—and how their making it out, how their becoming OutKast and sharing their music with a world set-up to see its most disadvantaged citizens fail seemed like some kind of wonder.
But this is partly the genius of OutKast. They represent something very powerful but very different to each of us. At some point in their career, or maybe this has always been the case, their existence came to symbolize a sort of convergence. They were no one thing; they had no one sound or identity.
When they took the stage Saturday night, the opening keys of “B.O.B.” filling the park, euphoria pulsing through a sea of fans—many who had journeyed from Houston and Philadelphia, others who had taken MARTA from College Park and Bankhead—it all converged. Dre and Big. Us and them. East Point and beyond.
[Photo via Getty]