On the outside looking in 

Analogies of the phrase, "Going down South," for your consideration. Going down South is as returning to your roots.

Going down South is as visiting the country-ass relatives you never discuss in your bourgie Northern circles, but whose company you enjoy more than anyone's.

Going down South is as -- reluctantly -- kissing that area of your woman's body, but loving the reaction enough to consider it an acquired taste.

Going down South is as dissing Southern hip hop while hanging with your Timberland boots-baggy jeans-wearing friends, then hypocritically rushing the local mom-and-pop to cop the latest Outkast album four days before the street date.

Going down South is as embracing the epicenter of African-American soul. The soul of black folk, some would say, where people still live life according to the meditations of their hearts. Where everybody still has a "Big Ma," an "Uncle Joe" and a "Cousin Peanut."

Down South is where folk can place urban realities in perspective, with relative ease and understanding, because their collective collard green-cornbread ways have survived longer than crack and AIDS epidemics, "3/5-a-man" legislation, indentured servitude or unfulfilled promises of reparations. The lifeblood of Southern soul flowed through the African slave trade, longer and louder than the voices of hip-hop purists who swear the most creative rap shit of the moment couldn't possibly be coming from the "dirty South."

Backtrack to the 1995 Source Awards. A nervous Andre Benjamin, one half of the multiplatinum rookie duo Outkast -- with partner Big Boi at his side -- accepted an award for Best New Rap Group. Their groundbreaking debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmusik, had been deemed one of the hottest hip-hop albums of the year, and the Curtis Mayfield-inspired single, "Players Ball," a certified classic. But Andre was frustrated and shaken, because Outkast, after winning the prize over a herd of East Coast acts, was met with boos as the duo entered the stage of the Apollo Theatre.

Big Boi, carrying the group's confidence that moment, offered customary shout-outs with his then-unknown Organized Noise production crew. Andre, on the other hand, gripped his award and declared to the hostile crowd, in an angrily quivering voice, "The South got sumna say."

Their music was young, pimped-out, funky and consistent. Throughout the project, Southern drawls and new slang sopped up neck-breaking kicks and live instrumentation like saltwater cornbread in gravy. Many people foreign to Southern lifestyles heard references to terms like "hootie-hoo," and the cities of Decatur and Eastpointe, for the first time. It was a new take on urban America and, for hip hop, an introduction to a different side of the African-American personality. Record sales suggested that 'kast had love from the masses. But whenever the group appeared anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon, there was always a fraction of folks in the crowd who may as well have heaved tomatoes at them.

Three years, two albums and three platinum plaques later, Outkast has a unique profile. Headlining a tour with Black Eyed Peas that hits Harpo's on December 4, they are the first rap group since A Tribe Called Quest to drop three consecutive masterpieces, improving their record sales with each new release. Their core audience -- if 1 million is considered a core -- has remained uncharacteristically loyal, despite changes in their image, experiments in musical arrangements and highly scrutinized lifestyles. When Andre's ever-evolving dress code spawned rumors of homosexuality, despite his public relationship with Erykah Badu, he refrained from commenting until the release of their junior album Aquemini.

"It's the return of the gangsta," Andre defends. "Thanks ta them niggas that get the wrong impression of expression. Then the question is 'Big Boi, what's wrong 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? Nigga, I'm' better than ever. What's wrong with you? You! Get down!"

With respect to their struggle for respect, and their Georgia background, Outkast "done come up." Big Boi and Andre are talkin' slang, eatin' chicken wangs -- maybe collard greens for Andre, a staunch vegetarian -- and thriving in a cutthroat rap game. ATLiens, their second album, was moving 1,000 units weekly at the time of Aquemini's release. The latter shipped and sold platinum-plus in three weeks.

Where the East Coast historically holds the most critical hip-hop fans in America, Detroit has embraced Outkast since its debut. "As soon as I get it (Aquemini), it sells out," says Eric Perry, owner of Kaboodlz record store in Detroit. "Maybe it's because they're from Georgia that they don't have that 'status.' But people still love them." Around Motown, sold-out Outkast concerts have been promoted as far south as Windsor, Ontario, and as far north as Pine Knob, where they toured with Smokin' Grooves last summer. Their spectacularly simple live shows bypass gimmicks and props for one deejay, two microphones and nonstop beats.

The average life span for a rap group is two, maybe three albums. Some end up remembered more for sophomore slumps than the first hit. Others make it past the second recording, but end up sliding into the third, or tagging out at home. The emcee who makes it to four albums without losing respect or sales officially "arrives." Such is the life for premillennium mic controllers. To reach three on an incline is almost unheard of, leaving the question of where Outkast's career will go from here.

"You gotta keep it ... innovative ... new," Big Boi claims, generically hinting at their formula. Andre, in a recent interview, said, "All we want to do is make good music and live in Atlanta."

When they debuted, the Outkast duo prophetically defined themselves as "cast out of society," and clung hard to their roots for support. If remaining corn-fed and rootsy grows tired, Big Boi's dog kennel has reportedly netted him as much revenue as his royalty checks. He has made a business of breeding pit bulls. Andre has a flair for acting and drawing. Their story of loyalty and fierce individuality has carried them past third and toward home, with no sliding necessary. Khary Kimani Turner writes about hip hop and related sounds for the Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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