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'The South got something to say' — Outkast fulfills its prophecy on 'Aquemini'

Big Boi (L) and Andre 3000 of Outkast perform onstage during day 3 of the Firefly Music Festival on June 21, 2014 in Dover, Delaware.
Theo Wargo
Getty Images for Firefly Music Festival
Big Boi (L) and Andre 3000 of Outkast perform onstage during day 3 of the Firefly Music Festival on June 21, 2014 in Dover, Delaware.

Updated September 1, 2023 at 11:56 AM ET

At the contentious Source Awards in 1995, hip-hop's east coast/west coast rivalry played out on stage, with speeches filled with antagonism and humiliation directed toward each other.

But another speech that night - by an up-and-coming duo - heralded a new direction in rap. And that direction was south.

On Morning Edition, cultural critic Kiana Fitzgerald looks back at some of the game-changing moments in hip-hop. One of her choices: Outkast's 1998 album Aquemini.

Outkast won New Artist of the Year (Group) at that Source Awards ceremony. Some in the crowd of east-coast and west-coast rap fans greeted this Atlanta-based duo with jeers and boos. As Kiana Fitzgerald remembers, that night Outkast "really laid down the gauntlet with a statement that was made by Andre 3000" - one-half of the group. He dropped a line that now seems like prophesy: "The South got something to say."

"That statement alone reverberated throughout hip-hop," Fitzgerald says. "It was something that many other Southerners had felt in their guts and in their spirits. They knew that they were not being included in the national conversation about hip-hop. Outkast may not have known it, but they really placed the heart of hip-hop right over Atlanta, and that's when things changed."

The album they released after that iconic moment was Aquemini, which would go on to hit #2 on the Billboard albums chart and define what Southern hip-hop could sound like.

Fitzgerald says the music was inspired by live instrumentation and lengthy jam sessions that were "reminiscent of explorations [by] artists like Parliament-Funkadelic, Isaac Hayes and Earth, Wind & Fire." Also, they made no attempt to parrot the vocal styles of their eastern or western contemporaries. "Outkast had their twangs and their local colloquialisms on full display," says Fitzgerald. She points to the title track: "It's slow. It's deliberate. It sounds like a late summer evening, you know, sitting on the porch with a glass of tea or something like that."

Just a few albums later, Outkast pulled a major coup at the Grammys - which had long been slow to appreciate hip-hop - with an Album of the Year win in 2004 for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. And Atlanta would go on to become a major hub for hip-hop's next wave. Artists like Future, Migos and 21 Savage expanded on what Outkast started - and kept hip-hop's focus firmly planted on the South.

Kiana Fitzgerald says, "This album really blew the door open for so many artists ... who are just from a different way of life. We have lived experiences that other people can relate to." Outkast gave Southern artists permission to "dig into the lives of people who are not traditionally represented."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.