This article is part of an ongoing series in which I examine the artists and music that defined specific eras of my life. You can read my introduction, covering the music that moved me in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively.
Like most people, my experience of middle school was awkward. As I moved into 8th grade, just a year away from high school, I remember a growing sense of a need for individuality. To that point in my life, I had no clear idea of who I was. Any interests I had were fairly general and mostly influenced by those around me. I liked basketball and drawing. Music was a safety blanket that I retreated to and was always in rotation, but none of it was solely “mine.”
But everything was about to change.
If you’ve read the previous installments of this series, you’re aware of the role MTV played in my life from a very early age. In the summer after my sixth grade year, I won a small television from a raffle held during June Fest in my hometown. It wasn’t really big or nice enough to replace the TV we had in our family living room, which led to a crucial opening that would have never presented itself otherwise. There was nowhere else for it to go – why not put it in my bedroom?
After weeks of sprinkling the idea on my less-than-enthused parents, it finally happened, and I still have no idea why they allowed it. The cable man came and ran a new line in my bedroom wall, and before I knew it, I could watch MTV at any time, from the privacy of my own room. So I did just that. I turned the channel to MTV from the moment I got home from school until well after I was supposed to be asleep.
These were the pre-”Total Request Live” days, and while I certainly had an interest in shows like “The Real World” and “Daria”, it was the blocks of music videos that held my attention the most. And it was here that I fell in love with hip hop.
I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact moment, but by my 8th grade year in 1997, I was obsessed. I would place a blank VHS tape in my VCR and hit record every time a rap video came on. Early favorites included Ma$e’s “Bad Boy”, Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life”, Juvenile’s “Ha”, A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Find a Way”, and “Hate Me Now” by Nas. Unbeknownst to me at the time, hip hop was in a state of transition as it mourned the deaths of Tupak Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. I was aware of their music and influence, but didn’t understand the genre’s full history and the changing landscape from the two coasts to a suddenly evolving movement that was about to change popular music around the world.
In 1997, hip hop hadn’t fully crossed over into the mainstream. Aside from the scattered Will Smith hit, rap music was still viewed as dangerous by the vast majority of white suburban America. To this day, I still feel fortunate that my mom allowed me to explore the genre in full, something that so many of my friends and classmates weren’t allowed. I don’t think she was crazy about her middle school son purchasing CDs with the notorious “Parental Advisory” sticker, but as long as I could explain why the music interested me, it was always allowed.
For all of the new artists I began exploring with obsession, pouring over every line and every note, feeling as though I was peering through a window into another world, none held me quite as captivated at the time as Outkast – the duo that put Atlanta on the hip hop map and proceeded to change the genre in ways that are still felt to this day.
While I discovered ATLiens near the end of its cycle, it was 1998’s Aquemini that changed everything for me. I would replay the video for “Rosa Parks” until I wore out my VHS tape, and I still remember the day that the CD, with its iconic cover art and spacey, atmospheric music, arrived in the mail. It must have been nearly a year straight when I listened to the album every day. For as much as I was falling in love with rap, Outkast were on another level. Their music was distinctly hip hop, but it was…weird. No one else sounded quite like them.
All these years later, the yin and yang of Andre 3000 and Big Boi has become legendary. Two completely individual artists seeming to reside on different planes of existence that still somehow combined effortlessly into something greater than their individual parts. My favorite of the two changed depending on the day or mood. My favorite tracks revolved as well, although all these years later, there’s still not a song from that time period that gets me going quite like “Skew It on the Bar-B”.
I can say with certainty that there was no one else within my limited network of acquaintances at the time that was listening to Outkast, which made them distinctly my own. Oddly, this didn’t make me any cooler. Jokes about C-rap were abundant at the time, and I became viewed as somewhat of an odd duck to be immersing myself in music that wasn’t “meant for me.” And maybe that’s a fair critique, but my love of hip hop served as the jumping off point that forever changed my view of the world and opened my eyes to experiences and culture well outside my purview – complete with all of their beauty, and sadly, the societal injustices that sought to suffocate them.
Those are big words to tie to the music I was discovering as I entered high school, but it’s a real thing that forever changed the trajectory of my life, the passions I held, and the causes I associated myself with. It was the genesis in a lifelong journey of learning and responding in kind with action and empathy.
Seeing as how I had no one with which to share the conversation, I made do in a completely new way. By the late 90s, my family had purchased a computer and connected it to a phone line via a modem. After spending two minutes listening to squeals and squalls, I could begin surfing the internet to discover more about the music I was listening to. It didn’t take long for me to find pockets of the internet dedicated to the discussion of hip hop in the form of message boards. Suddenly, I’d discovered an entirely new network of friends from around the world, including a daily pen pal in Australia who was just as obsessed with rap as me, and a group of hip hop heads with which I would go on to share a fantasy football league with for over 20 years.
Up to this time, I had made my new hip hop discoveries from MTV or the newest copy of The Source that arrived in my mailbox each month. Now I was finding new artists daily through conversations with my newfound friends who I knew almost solely by their usernames. It was through my aforementioned pen pal Rachel that I discovered influential albums like Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star and the solo Mos Def follow-up, Black on Both Sides. As archaic as this all sounds now, I can still feel the excitement in the newness of it all. I had found a community. I had found music I could call my own.
In the time since Aquemini entered my life, my relationship with Outkast has fluctuated greatly, for better or for worse. My junior year of high school began with the release of Stankonia, an album that immediately took full ownership over the discman I took with me to school and the stereo in my bedroom. But about mid-way through the semester, just as “Ms. Jackson” was becoming a staple on Top 40 radio and MTV, something strange happened. I vividly remember overhearing a conversation about Outkast in my art class. Wait…other people were listening to this?
It was a strange introduction to an experience that would happen throughout my life going forward. The intimate relationship I shared with an artist suddenly vanishes and the secret is out. It’s a strange feeling, similar to have something stolen from you. That moment may have been the primary reason for the next shift in my musical journey that was about to take place, as well as the reason that I largely missed out on the joy of 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Fortunately, the passing of time has given me better perspective on moments such as these. Why wouldn’t I want more people to experience the joy that I had discovered? Things would come full circle at Forecastle in 2014 when I was able to experience Outkast in person for the first – and likely last – time. That night, you could feel the energy of the crowd rise as the duo entered the Aquemini porton of their set, rattling off the singles in succession. It wasn’t just me after all back in the fall of 1998. The sound of Atlanta had spread to the plains of Kansas and very much beyond.
Second Tier: Ma$e, Nas, Juvenile, Jay-Z
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.