“The scene was so thick…all the players, all the hustlers…came from far and wide.” – Players Ball, 1993.
Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “3 Stacks” Benjamin took the stage at Madison Square Garden, as boos filled the arena. On a night when the growing feud between Suge Knight’s West Coast Death Row label and Sean “P. Diddy Combs’ New York City-based Bad Boy Records was on full display, Down South was in the house.
Patton and Benjamin, the duo better known as OutKast, had just won the Best New Group category at the 1995 Source Awards, and the crowd was in disbelief.
“So what’s up, Dre?” Patton asked his compadre.
Benjamin, also known as André3000, stared into the crowd before giving an acceptance speech that clocked in at just 10 seconds.
“The South got something to say,” he concluded. “That’s all I got to say.”
A quarter-century later, Benjamin reflects on that night, which became a pivotal moment in hip-hop history.
“It just felt like the time to say it, it wasn’t planned or anything,” he told the USA TODAY Network.
As rappers on the East and West coasts battled for superiority in the 1990s, a new wave of hip-hop came out of Atlanta. The Dungeon Family, a collective of groups including OutKast and Goodie Mob, made music infused with soul and funk that put Southern culture front and center.
OutKast was unapologetically Atlanta, according to Dr. Regina Bradley, an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University who wrote “Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip Hop South,” set to publish in 2021.
And in Atlanta that perceived disrespect remained, as referenced on Goodie Mob’s 1998 track “Fly Away,” from their second studio album, “Still Standing.”
CeeLo Green, one of the group’s four members, raps on the last verse: “When we on your side of town, we don’t ask why/ We abide by the rules that y’all live by/And see, you’re welcome to come, you’re welcome to stay/ But any disrespect, we will make yo’ a– fly away”
Bradley, who migrated to Georgia from Washington, D.C. in the late 90s said that moment at the Source Awards made clear hip-hop and rap artists from Atlanta — and Memphis, Dallas and Houston, for that matter — would not be silenced.
“When OutKast won, they were going up against Smif-N-Wessun, who is the New York group. So part of it felt like, how did the South snub New York?” she recalled.
For Southern hip-hop artists, Benjamin’s words became a mantra.
Kris Kross to crunk: Atlanta emerges
By 1995, Jermaine Dupri was a multi-platinum producer, making hits on his Atlanta-based So So Def Recordings label. The man who helped launch Kris Kross and Xscape was no stranger to the disrespect shown to OutKast that night.
“I felt that the whole time I was coming together putting out records and making records from the gate, I was treated as if I wasn’t equal to the rest of hip-hop,” Dupri said.
The sound in Atlanta before OutKast was mainly “booty-shaking” music inspired by the strip club scene, Benjamin said.
“Most kids that were 16 or 17-years-old, you had been to the strip club by that time,” he recalled.
Benjamin said even “booty-shaking” music was made fun of, “which is even the more ironic” because “booty shake music came from New York.”
With the sounds of Miami’s Uncle Luke of 2 Live Crew and Atlanta’s Kilo Ali, Southern artists were creating songs needing heavy editing because of explicit language before radio play, another obstacle to national prominence.
Dupri, on the other hand, discovered a pair of backward clothes-wearing teenagers at Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall, then pushed them to the top of the Hot 100 in 1992. The hit single “Jump” by the duo Kris Kross became a national sensation and their debut album, “Totally Krossed Out,” sold 4 million copies.
Dupri said the idea of So So Def was rooted in him before the group’s success, but said Kris Kross gave him the “keys to the doors that open the record company.”
“Kris Kross is undoubtedly the first most successful rap group from Atlanta, and that still goes unnoticed,” he continued. “The interesting part about it is, that in today’s rap world, everything is kiddy. Every kid that comes out is young, and that’s what they’re promoting,” Dupri added.
Atlanta-born rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris rode to prominence in the early 2000s, earning the moniker “King of the South.” On an episode of his “ExpediTIously” podcast, he said Kris Kross inspired him to start rapping.
Dupri hired Atlanta club DJ Lil Jon to scout talent as head of A&R for So So Def in the early 1990s. Lil Jon helped bring crunk music — a subgenre of hip-hop — to the masses.
No mo play in G.A.
In the 2000s, Atlanta tore the roof off of the hip-hop/rap ceiling.
Lil Jon, Ying Yang Twins, Da Eastside Boyz, D4L, Crime Mob, YoungBloodz dominated the airwaves with their brand of crunk.
But, while cuts like Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared” beat through stereos, Dupri said he still felt the hatred from outsiders.
“When I put out Bone Crusher and YoungBloodz in New York, I had multiple D.J.s in the city that were like, ‘If your promotion team comes here one more time bringing one of them mother f– Atlanta records, I’m gone go crazy,'” Dupri recalled.
Atlanta was going against the grain, but it was working.
Atlanta set the tone with another track that is still a staple at clubs, parties, homecoming events and Black sorority and fraternity parties: “Knuck if You Buck” by Crime Mob.
“Black Hollywood,” as Atlanta is often called, found a new recipe that was different from anything the East or West was doing.
“The South is different from any other part of the United States. We have one foot in the past, one in the future,” said Bradley. “Atlanta is like at the crux of so many of these different Southern experiences that they utilize.”
Atlanta was a funk music town before it was a hip-hop city.
The city was home to S.O.S. Band, Gap Band, Cameo, and Brick which included Jimmy Brown, the father of producer Patrick “Sleepy” Brown, one-third of Organized Noize- an integral component of the Dungeon Family.
Influences from funk music helped create Organized Noize, then crunk, and then trap music, a sound that became wildly influential across hip-hop and well beyond.
Trap, ‘Mumble Rap’
Trap music’s roots reach back to the Dungeon Family in the 90s, but gained more popularity into the 2000s. T.I (“Trap Muzik”, 2003), Jeezy (“Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101”, 2005), and Gucci (“Trap House”, 2005) illustrate the sound, which often combines complex staccato-style beat patterns with explicit lyrics about violence, drugs and urban culture.
As Benjamin put it, “We grew up in Atlanta. Everybody knew the trap was where you sold drugs, so trap music came out of people hustling.”
Now, a new generation of artists is elevating the trap sound, including Migos, Future, Young Thug, Lil Baby and 21 Savage.
“When you think of Young Thug and Future, yes, we have a huge influence on people’s flows, but more the actual sound of trap has influenced everything,” Benjamin said.
He praised producers like Lex Luger and Southside, who he credits with creating the sound.
“We created trap music, so of course I got love for it,” said CeeLo Green. “Music is free. It’s an excursion, it is an adventure, it is discovery.”
As far as the city has come from the time that, as Benjamin says: “Atlanta wasn’t even in the conversation in no kind of way,” the same obstacles to national recognition persist.
Even with their success, Future, 21 Savage, and Lil Baby have come under fire for the delivery of their lyrics. It’s “‘that mumble sh–, y’all don’t do nothing but mumble,’ “Dupri recalled hearing people say.
Cultural theorist Adam de Paor-Evans wrote for the nonprofit news outlet The Conversation: “Rather than rapping clearly, eloquently, articulately and with prowess and esteem, mumble rappers string occasional words together, like ‘cat,’ ‘sat’ and if you’re lucky, ‘mat.’ And mumble rappers tend to do just that, they mumble.”
Such takes have divided the music world, with critics deriding so-called mumble rap as lazy or unsophisticated. Others counter that the style is a genuine reflection of place and culture.
“When people don’t make the music, they make up a label,” former Vibe Magazine Editor-in-Chief Danyel Smith said. “I choose not to go by those kinds of labels. I don’t hear people in the South referring to their rhyme style as ‘mumble rap,’ so I don’t think that anyone else should refer to it as that,” Smith added.
Benjamin points to the sound’s connection to trap music.
“Mumble rap came during a time when certain drugs were being used,… and people were kind of nodded out, so a lot of their verses didn’t have a lot of effort and pronunciation in some of the words,” said Benjamin.
However, he finds the subgenre beautiful, because music shouldn’t have any rules.
“Who said you have to be eloquent, or you have to say your words purely and clearly? You know the last generation was focused on that, but I think to move anything forward, sometimes you have to say ‘f- what was before,’” Benjamin continued, adding: “Everybody can’t be Nas, you know?”
Yet for all the pitfalls of Atlanta’s success, Benjamin marvels at how the city’s music scene overcame its image as somehow beneath those on the East and West coasts to take its place as a national force.
“One thing I have learned: Whatever the opposite, will usually come up to the top at some point. So be careful because, at some point, that person on the bottom is going to be on top,” said Benjamin. “I think that’s just what happened with the South.”