In 1996, Atlanta appeared to be consumed by one thing: the Summer Olympics.
The idea of hosting the world’s games and along with it wealthy attendees and mega star athletes like Donovan Bailey and Andre Agassi in Atlanta was always going to be insulting to Metro Atlanta’s majority black community.
In the six years leading up unto that point, 80 Black churches were burnt down by radicals. To make way for the massive influx of tourists, The Metro Atlanta Task Force was formed to police the city’s rampant homeless population resulting in 9000 arrests in 1995 which made the pipe bomb attack on Centennial Olympic Park seem like a major security oversight. The city of Atlanta invested in urban development projects that saw numerous housing projects torn down, setting the stage for gentrification (by 2011, all housing projects in Atlanta have been demolished) and displacing many people across the city and suburbs. 3.5 million people occupied Metro Atlanta in 1996, with 2/3 of them identifying as African American, yet the state still flew a confederate flag.
It’s difficult now to think of Atlanta anything other than the cultural juggernaut that it represents today. The Atlanta climate which bred ATLiens, both physical and cultural, looked very little like the one we’re familiar with now: there was no progressive sex work culture to get behind, no Quality Control records, and no Michael Vick…just Coca Cola and hyper-locality. Concerning hip hop, The South in general was not recognized for much else than the novel Miami Bass that was flooding the radio with its triangle and drum loops with songs like “Baby Got Back” and “Woops (That is).” Though New York and Los Angeles would hold their own very complicated racial histories in the 80s and 90s each with their own Urban renaissance, Atlanta seemed to be a very different kind of beast. There was no sound to get behind like the Coasts and no major stars.
Most literature concerning ATLiens deals with the idea of “No Coast” and how Outkast found themselves in the middle of a very public night in a very public feud, but a lot of this tends to overlook the odds that Outkast were up against when ATLiens dropped. They didn’t play off of the million dollar samples like Puff Daddy and preferred to recreate via natural instrumentation than directly rip. They Dréssed weird for most rock acts even and the East and West Coasts who were on the cusp of being embroiled in their own war (which involved far less people and crews than most retell) were not ready to get behind two irregular shaped Tribe heads who took on the personas of gangsters, genies, and extra terrestrials often at the same time. It was André’s brave and lump throated statement after Outkast upset the Best New Artist category that would ring true for the stampede of talent coming out of Atlanta today: “The South got something to say.” It was within these circumstances that ATLiens was released.
Outkast repped Atlanta hard. The importance of locale is the spirit of this album – Atlanta institutions are mentioned faster than any non-resident can likely keep up with, moreover Outkast’s Southern origin created the basis for alienation from an industry that was too focused on gangsters and scratching. It’s where the heat comes from, the struggle, the sense of terrestrial escape that forms the album in not only theme, but sound. It’s a major part of the melting pot that made Outkast “a whole new thang.”
Bill Clampett (Clinton)
Checkers / Rally’s
Headland and Delowe
Herndon Homes, Martel Homes, Carver Homes, Techwood, Martin Luther King and Bankhead Courts.
Lil B, Reek, Mone, Shug and James Patton
M.L.K. Drive and Cascade Heights
Marithé + Francois Girbaud jeans
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority ( “Moving Africans Rapidly Thru Atlanta”)
SWATS: Southwest Atlanta Too Strong
The 86 Lithonia/ 86 L bus into Decatur
The Point (East Point Georgia)
The Pope (cops)
The Tony Rich Project
The “Red Dog” unit (“Running Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia”)
Tri-Cities High School
Uncle Darnell in prison
ATLiens is a transition record; think of it like the Rubber Soul of the Outkast canon. It is the middle piece between creative periods; it’s tight, the creators are in peak form yet somehow haven’t created their peak album, and its timelessness comes from an impeccable balance between new artist volatility and revitalized ambition. They were doing everything differently. André stopped smoking weed, stopped eating meat, broke up with girlfriend & went celibate, and got his GED; Big Boi had his first child, changing his life’s perspective, all of which greatly impacted the record’s lyrics.
After a creative awakening, Boi and Dré knew that an enhanced, more natural sound would be the differentiating factor that would drive the Outkast mentality home. The success of Southerplayalistic incentivized LaFace to give Boi and Dré an enhanced budget and more creative control. They went through a complete image reinvention, with their peers noticing an increase in confidence, but almost all efforts seemed to be focused on musical direction. Newly invigorated and mentally acute, André 3000 purchased an SP1200 drum machine, an MPC3000 sampler, a TASCAM mixing board, and turntables with stacks of classic records. With André focusing on beat building, Big Boi sang a hook and they created “Elevators (Me & You)” marking an entirely new creative era for one of the greatest groups in music who were becoming more and more involved in every aspect of their music. They were 20.
ATLiens sounds nothing like anything that came out in 1996. While most producers utilized dusty samples that sounded rustic on purpose, Outkast delved in the hi-phonics with an unmistakable amount of soul. While most rappers were bragging and boasting about their sexual escapades and body counts, Outkast focused on spirituality, self-realization, sexual identity, and inclusion. ATLiens featured a sharpened interplay between Big Boi’s precise meter and André’s dynamic flows that would remain the hallmark for the rest of their career. Perhaps most importantly, ATLiens brought a new forward-looking mentality to rap music. The great old school hip hop combines debts to the past and present in its story telling and classic record sampling, but also the contemporary slice of life soundtrack that Chuck D once dubbed “The Black CNN.” Outkast were the first artist whose entire philosophy was to look ahead. Whatever the future held, they wanted to know about it and they had questions.. little did we know that they would get there before any of us.
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Beat Street, Krush Groove, and Breakin’
“Blue Suede Shoes”
Cadillac Coupe De Villes, Fleetwoods, & Northstars
Cod Liver Oil
“Diamonds and Pearls” by Prince
Dumb and Dumber
Gymnastic swan dives
Keeping up with the Joneses
“On and Off” by Trends of Culture
Reeboks with football socks
Smokey from Friday
Sounds of Blackness
Tears For Fears
The Dukes of Hazzard
The OJ Simpson verdict
The Playboy Channel
The Postman Rings Twice
The Pump Walk
The Second Coming of Christ
The Usual Suspects
Tony! Toni! Tone!
Waiting to Exhale
“Welcome to the Terrordome”
White Golds rolling papers
Is ATLiens, the 1996 album by Outkast, a “southern hip hop” album? Geographically, yes. Sonically, not really. The album has a quality about it, much like A Tribe Called Quest's albums, that transcends where they are from. Tribe is much more fun and jazzy compared to the East Coast hip hop of the time, which was sinister and rooted in depicting life on the street. ATLiens has a similar quality, it's not quite like UGK Ridin Dirty, which came out the same year, it’s not quite like the Geto Boys, or fellow label mates Goodie Mob, or Three 6 Mafia, it’s something else entirely.
It’s in the album titles even: those guys were aliens from Atlanta, they didn’t sound like anyone else. Andre didn’t dress like anyone else and didnt rap like anyone else. An average listener unaware of the geographical references may think the album was from Baltimore or California since it may have been from outer space. Outkast’s contemporaries carried a more down home South convivial vibe. While Pimp, Goodie Mob and Three 6 are aggressive and hostile, Andre and Big Boi are more explanatory of themselves and their situation. The sound around that time in the south, UGK’s prolific Ridin Dirty (1996), Geto Boys The Resurrection (1996), Three 6 Mafia Mystic Styles (1995), and fellow dungeon family greats Goodie Mobb’s Soul Food (1995) feature albums of a darker feel and more sinister tone. If you love ATLiens here are a few other classic albums that built the Southern Rap foundation in the 90’s.