Eras of Influence: 1997-2000 – Outkast

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.

***

You can buy or stream Aquemini on Apple Music.

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_hauckKiel 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.

Run the Jewels Arrive Right on Time with “RTJ4”

It was November 11, 2016. Just days after one of the most disastrous and damaging presidential elections in American history, iconic hip hop crew A Tribe Called Quest released their final album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. It was an album 18 years in the making, set into motion in the years prior thanks to the mended relationship of key members Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, and largely recorded before Phife’s passing in March of that year.

That album was a moment. Less a celebratory victory lap for one of the genre’s most revered acts and more a statement of resistance in the aftermath of the election. Even now, tracks like “The Space Program” and “We the People…” feel as though they were penned on that dreadful Tuesday night. How was it possible for Tribe to have such foresight?

You can buy or stream RTJ4 on Apple Music.

Because foresight wasn’t required. Donald Trump’s election was just another sad, terrible moment in a country whose history is filled with the marginalization, oppression, and blatant hatred of people of color. The members of Tribe didn’t need a new reason to speak that truth.

I couldn’t help but think of that album this week upon the release of RTJ4, the fourth studio release from hip hop duo Run the Jewels. The album arrives with the country in disarray and protests taking place in every major city over the unjust deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, and quite literally countless black lives at the hands of a system that devalues them. RTJ4 sounds hand-crafted for this moment in time.

It was last Saturday that Killer Mike spoke during a press conference with Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in an unscripted and powerful moment that captured the attention of the country. It’s the kind of speech you would expect a leader to give – the sort of thing that is in short supply these days. By Wednesday, in the words of Run the Jewels themselves, “Fuck it. Why Wait?” RTJ4 was here.

I didn’t make it through the first track before I had to pause and compose myself. “Yankee and the brave (ep. 4)” begins with the sort of fictional, fantastical banter that sometimes backdrops Run the Jewels’ music, adding moments of levity between the weight. The track itself is punishing, highlighted by its rapid-fire drum beat and rattling bass line. Mid-way into the track, Mike drops the kind of verse that makes time stand still:

“I got one round left, a hunnid cops outside
I could shoot at them or put one between my eyes
Chose the latter, it don’t matter, it ain’t suicide”
And if the news say it was that’s a goddamn lie
I can’t let the pigs kill me, I got too much pride
And I meant it when I said it, never take me alive”

Before you can digest those lines, El-P enters the scene with humor, jerking us back into this getaway episode, spitting, “I got the Grand Nat runnin’ in the alley outside / Now, Michael, run like you hungry and get your ass in the ride”. It’s a textbook Run the Jewels moment, but this week, it hits harder than ever before.

The same applies to “walking in the snow” featuring another heartbeat-skipping moment as Mike alludes to the last words of Eric Garner, who was killed in 2014 by New York City police. His verse now lands hauntingly in the wake of George Floyd:

“And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’”

Jesus. And he’s not done:

“And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy”

I could go on, diving in on tracks like “JU$T” featuring Pharrell and Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha, which features the repeated cry of, “Look at all these slave masters”, but you get the point. While this past week has served as a wake-up call (hopefully) for so many white and privileged people across the country, the stories of George Floyd and Breona Taylor are nothing new for the black community. Albums like Thank You 4 Your Service and RTJ4 feel so in the moment when they arrive because they exist in a moment that never ends.

At a certain point in time as the genre evolved and expanded, hip hop as protest music became a sort of subgenre. But truthfully, protest has always been in rap’s DNA. It has to be. Because black voices are marginalized and maligned today just as they were in the 70s when the genre began to form, and just as they were for hundreds of years prior to that. And while we’d all be wise to listen, maybe it’s time to act, too. Fuck it. Why wait?

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel 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.

Podcast: Who Won the 2016 Hip Hop Title Belt?

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Another year is in the books, and 2016 was filled with a variety of great music. But who stole the show in the world of hip hop? Kiel Hauck and Brock Benefiel discuss the theory of the hip hop title belt and which rapper dominated 2016 the most, including Chance the Rapper, Q-Tip, Kanye West and more. Listen in!

Subscribe to our podcast here.

Who do you think won the hip hop title belt in 2016? Share your thoughts in the replies!

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Top 10 Songs of 2016

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Check out our Top 10 Albums of 2016 here.

Perhaps more than ever, our top 10 songs of the year ran a gamut of emotions: heartbreak, social outcry, bittersweet, hopeful. In a year as up and down as 2016, it only makes sense. These songs cover an array of subject matter, but each one showcases the brilliance of the artist involved.

It’s always hard to pull 10 songs out of the context of a greater narrative and subjectively place them on a list. Nevertheless, we found ourselves reaching for the repeat button on the regular when these tunes graced our speakers. Take a look (and a listen) below to some of our favorite tracks from 2016.

10. Emarosa – “Helpless”

Smack-dab in the middle of the most smoldering and delicate album of Emarosa’s career lies “Helpless” – a bounding track chock full of energy and pop sensibility. On 131, a broken Bradley Walden fights for a lover with gentle pleas and fragile reflections before boiling over in this moment of heat. “If your body’s broken, love, your heart is helpless” he belts on the track’s chorus, using every inch his heralded range. Emarosa has made a career out of defying expectations and battling against the grain of vanilla song structures, but on “Helpless”, they dive headfirst into the most accessible song of their career – and the payoff is delightful. – Kiel Hauck

9. Honeyblood – “Ready for the Magic”

Although I just discovered Honeyblood within the last month, “Ready for the Magic” is a song that utterly captured my attention and hasn’t let go. It’s a perfect punk rock single – aggressive, loud and hypnotically catchy. For a garage punk song from a two-member act, it has more heart and energy than most bands with a fuller roster. A practice in simplicity, “Ready for the Magic” proves that punk rock doesn’t need to constantly redefine itself to be relevant; it just has to be good. – Kyle Schultz

8. Architects – “Gone with the Wind”

Less than three months after the release of All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us, the scene received the terrible news of Tom Searle’s passing. As lead guitarist and songwriter for British metalcore giants Architects, Searle left us with one final masterpiece, which took on a completely new and powerful meaning in light of his three-year battle with cancer. “Gone with the Wind” is a powerhouse of a song, relenting ever so slightly for the brittle lines of, “A sickness with no remedy except the ones inside of me”. Not only is the track a lesson in mechanical metalcore perfection, it’s a heartbreaking gaze inside a terrible one-sided fight. “I remember when you said to me, ‘My friend, hope is a prison’”. – KH

7. Green Day – “Bang Bang”

“Bang Bang” is easily the best single Green Day has put out in over a decade, as well as the most aggressive. The entire song is a tip of the hat to the band’s style at the beginning of their careers. It’s also one of the most controversial in the genre, as it tackles the subject of being a mass shooter. A hybrid of classic punk and 20 years of writing the most aggressive rock known to man, “Bang Bang” managed to silence anyone who has complained about the band’s evolving sound over the last decade while still pushing the band to new extremes. – KS

6. The 1975 – “Somebody Else”

Once you dig past the shiny surface of self-deprecating satire and proverbial winks at the camera, I Like it When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It is truly an album filled with a deep sincerity. Perhaps no track on the album embodies Matt Healy’s candid struggle as well as “Somebody Else” – a syrupy, synth-driven slow jam straight out of the George Michael playbook. Not only does “Somebody Else” solidify The 1975 as the leaders of the pack in an age of throwback pop influence, it covers subject matter with which we’re all painfully familiar. Even so, Healy takes it one step further, digging deep into the bitterness of seeing your lover with another: “Get someone you love / Get someone you need / Fuck that, get money”. – KH

5. Blink-182 – “Los Angeles”

The most experimental song on California, “Los Angeles” is a bridge between Blink-182 and vocalist Matt Skiba’s other love, Alkaline Trio. Meshing the sounds of ska, R&B and alternative punk , “Los Angeles” is a distinct track that begins as an Alkaline song before exploding into one of the most Blink-182 sounding bridges ever written. It’s proof that Blink-182, though making a return to their original sound, are still pushing themselves sonically. The result is one of the most memorable songs of the band’s career. – KS

4. A Tribe Called Quest – “We the People”

Released on the very week of one of the most startling and terrifying presidential elections in memory, We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service not only served as the acclaimed return of one of hip hop’s legendary acts, it served as the perfect protest music for the moment. Highlighting the affair is “We the People”, which finds Q-Tip mocking the despicable notion that anyone classified as “other” doesn’t belong, beginning a chorus for the ages with, “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go”. It’s an anthem of dissent in a moment that left so many speechless, while simultaneously serving as a beautiful hello and goodbye to a dynamic duo. R.I.P Phife. – KH

3. Brian Fallon – “A Wonderful Life”

The lead single from his solo album, Painkillers, “A Wonderful Life” is the essential thesis for an album tracing the edges of the American Dream. The song is immediately memorable, linking the distance between Gaslight Anthem’s rock sensibilities and Fallon’s solo acoustic direction. The drum’s never ending march, the uplifting guitar, Fallon’s hopeful lyrics and the gang “Oh oh oh oh” vocals never become tiring. Though Fallon’s past work would never be described as dark or depressing, “A Wonderful Life” makes a distinct mark as a song about dreams and hope while cherishing its own bright sound. – KS

2. Kanye West – “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”

You could easily argue “Ultralight Beam” as the track from The Life of Pablo deserving of this spot on our list. A wave of gospel accompanied by the verse of the year, courtesy of Chance the Rapper, showcases Ye as the elevator of new voices. It’s the album’s following track, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” that displays his more complicated and troubling side. Future’s intro of “If Young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you” immediately crashes into Kid Cudi’s opening chorus of “Beautiful morning, you’re the sun in my morning, babe”. The track is the ultimate display of West’s duality, morphing from a tasteless story about meaningless sex with a model into a fast-paced confessional booth just moments later. Before we can react, Kanye has already predestined our response: “Everybody gonna say something / I’d be worried if they said nothing”. – KH

1. Yellowcard – “Rest in Peace”

The last great Yellowcard single, “Rest in Peace” is perfect in construction. A straightforward rock song, the track was released alongside a statement that Yellowcard would be disbanding after the release of their self-titled album. Featuring a music video highlighting their career and inviting fans to see them off with one final tour, “Rest in Peace” will always be a symbol of the band’s love of what they accomplished and their loyal fans. With Sean Mackin’s violin leading the charge, Ryan Key’s sprawling vocals, and a swelling guitar solo, “Rest in Peace” tackles everything that made Yellowcard one of the best bands in rock while marking one of the most memorable send offs in music. – KS

Honorable Mention:

Halsey – “Colours”
Frank Ocean – “Pink + White”
Chance the Rapper – “No Problem”
Letlive. – “Good Mourning, America”
Future featuring The Weeknd – “Low Life”
Blink-182 – “Built This Pool”

Posted by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

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For fans of A Tribe Called Quest, this is a day that none of us thought would ever come. Five years ago, the brilliantly produced Michael Rapaport documentary, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest”, keyed in on the deep divide between Phife Dawg and Q-Tip – a rift that had effectively kept one of hip hop’s most powerful and influential acts at a stalemate for well over a decade.

Rumors of reconciliation in the years that followed the documentary’s release helped many breathe a sigh of relief and make peace before the tragic news of Phife Dawg’s passing in March of this year. What none of us knew is that the alleged reconciliation had led the duo back into the studio with Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad to record an album 18 years in the making. The resulting product is damn near prophetic.

You can buy We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service on iTunes.

You can buy We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service on iTunes.

Released on the same week as the election of one of the most despicable presidential candidates in recent history, We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service sounds as if it were written during Wednesday morning’s aftermath. It’s an album that reflects the quintessential sounds that defined hip hop’s golden age, laced with a timeless message that feels explicitly powerful at this moment in time.

“Space Program” sets the tone for the two-part, politically driven affair, cleverly keying in on liberal white America’s threats to flee the country during the song’s chorus, reminding us that many are, quite frankly, stuck here. We Got it From Here immediately hits its stride on “We the People…”, a defiant track that finds Tip and Phife both coming correct on a throwback track with a buzzing bass line. “We don’t believe you, cuz we the people / Are still here in the rear, ayo, we don’t need you”, Q-Tip spits to open the track. Later, his words on the song’s chorus hang painfully poignant:

“All you Black folks, you must go
All you Mexicans, you must go
And all you poor folks, you must go
Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways
So all you bad folks, you must go”

Track after track, Tribe pounds a resounding gong against injustices faced by black America, enlisting help from a variety of fellow truth-speakers. Talib Kweli joins in on “Killing Season”, juxtaposing military slaughter with continued police brutality cases and the murder of black leaders: “It’s war and we fighting for inches and millimeters/ They try to stall the progress by killing off all the leaders/ If we don’t give them martyrs no more, they can’t defeat us”.

In addition to Kweli, We Got it From Here features some of hip hop’s finest, both past and present. Appearances include Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Consequence, Busta Rhymes, André 3000, Anderson Paak, and even contributions from Elton John and Jack White. For as much as the album is a collective rallying cry, it’s impossible to ignore the record’s dual purpose as a celebration of Phife Dawg.

On “Lost Somebody”, Q-Tip and Jarobi share heartfelt lyrics, reflecting on past trials but ultimately confessing their brotherly love to Phife. Q-Tip spits, “Malik, I would treat you like little brother that would give you fits / Sometimes overbearing though I thought it was for your benefit” with Jarobi later dropping the line, “Never thought that I would be ever writing this song / Hold friends tight, never know when those people are gone”.

In the months leading up to his passing, it’s clear that Phife Dawg had little time for sentimentality. Most of his verses are laser-focused on the task at hand, taking aim at everything from Donald Trump to the media outlets that made room for such a political figure. Yet, ever the showman, Phife still finds opportunities to flash his signature bravado, as on “Black Spasmodic”: “I take zero for granted, I honors my gift / Champion pen game, plus I’m freestyle equipped”.

We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service truly feels like a gift. The fingerprints of all four members are clearly felt and each moment of the album is handled with care. Samples are expertly placed by Tip, creating the relaxed vibe of past Tribe albums with the ability to blast through the speakers when necessary to compliment a particular bar or verse. The album is, in some ways, a farewell, yet feels nothing like it. We Got it From Here is purposeful and focused from front to back.

I’ll freely admit my struggle to stay objective with this release. A Tribe Called Quest was my first true musical love – a group I discovered in middle school that would go on to shape my tastes and serve as a touchstone for my youth and the dawning of my own personal worldviews and perspectives. Along with many others, I also find myself disgusted by the outcome of the recent presidential election, aghast at the amount of hate that plagues our country.

For these, and so many more reasons, We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service will land as one of my favorite releases of the year. For fans of hip hop, it’s an album that embodies the heart of the genre. These are protest songs. Yet even in the midst of frustration and righteous anger, hope still bleeds through.

R.I.P. Phife Dawg – you’ll be missed.

4.5/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.