Don't Call It Nothing

Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 12 - 1998 (OutKast)

October 01, 2021 Lance Davis Season 1 Episode 12
Don't Call It Nothing
Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 12 - 1998 (OutKast)
Show Notes Transcript

Don't Call It Nothing Podcast #12 now live! We're diving into 1998 hip hop with OutKast, Del The Funky Homosapien, and Ras Kass.

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Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]

Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and if you want to support the only music podcast that matters you can do so at the $5 and $20/month levels. Heads up, I haven’t done any bonus episodes to this point because I felt like I needed to get the feel for actual episodes before jumping in with the extras. Well, I kinda feel like I’m there now and to that end I’ve been sketching out some biographical stuff, so I can talk a little bit about my family background and where that intersects with music – or not. Anyway, I’m aiming for the first bonus episode to publish sometime in the next week. 

Speaking of which, next week will be the 1999 episode and that will conclude my initial run of episodes where I’ve been focusing on a little slice from each year of the decade. After ’99 I’m toying with a few different ideas, but honestly, I’m open to whatever. If you’re not a family member, I’m fine if you just hang out and chill, but if you wanna join the cool kids’ club like I said I have the $5/month level and $20/month level. Hit that “Buy Me a Coffee” button at the top of the page and work it out.

OK, so 1998 was a massive year for rap and I could go in a hundred different directions, but I wanna begin in the south. I actually started 1998 living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which, coincidentally, was home to one of the genre’s biggest names. But I’ll confess, I don’t think I’ve heard a single Master P track that I’ve liked and outside of a few Snoop songs, the entire No Limit catalog does nothing for me. However, in August of 1998 I moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a three-hour drive straight down I-20 from the soul of hip hop: Atlanta, GA.

That’s OutKast with “Chonkyfire” from the album that finally kicked the door open for southern rap. Aquemini (rhymes with Gemini) is a joyous celebration of southern blackness, a reconsideration of drug life and thug life in a "three strikes" world, and the impact of technology on black America. It's a showcase for André 3000 and Big Boi's upper level verbal flow and rhyme scheming, in tandem with the Organized Noize production squad  — at the time essentially inventing trap music. Best of all, Aquemini incorporates live instrumentation throughout: acoustic guitars and Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix-inspired electric guitars, piano, Moog synths, drums, of course there’s that harmonica drop in the middle of "Rosa Parks," and a full-on horn section in "SpottieOttieDopaliscious." There's vocal contributions from Cee-Lo and Erykah Badu, who at the time in a relationship with André. "Synthesizer" was written by and featured vocals from hip hop godfather, George Clinton. And in arguably the album's most important collaboration, Raekwon from Wu-Tang takes a verse in "Skew It On The Bar-B." If OutKast was standing on the verge of getting it on going into the Aquemini sessions, they were in it to win it after.

I love these words from David Dennis, Jr, a southern black man, who speaks of the album from a much deeper, more profound place than I ever could. He wrote the following passage for The Undefeated in September 2018 on the 20th anniversary of Aquemini’s release. He says:

The idea of having pride in the South has for a long time generally been associated with whiteness. ‘Southern pride’ conjures images of Confederate flags and a longing for a time when the states below the Mason-Dixon could own black people. But what about black Southerners? What do we have pride in? Growing up in Mississippi, I didn’t find any pride in my elementary school named after Jefferson Davis. I didn’t find pride in the Dixie flag fluttering above my head every time I drove through downtown Jackson.

But when Andre 3000 grabbed the mic at the Source Awards, he gave black kids a South to be proud of. They made us feel pride in a place that wasn’t made for us to feel happy in. That night in New York shifted the culture. Black kids had been wearing Timbs in hot Mississippi streets because they wanted to be like the Wu-Tang Clan. We thought that being like a New Yorker was the pinnacle of black culture, and that if we could make it out of the South, then we’d make futures for ourselves. But what Andre 3000 proclaimed that night, and what OutKast together declared on Aquemini, was that surviving and thriving in the South was its own victory.

OutKast showed us our reflections as seen in the shiny spokes of Volkswagens and Bonnevilles, Chevrolets and Coupe de Villes bouncing off Old National Highway potholes. They reminded us of the life we could find pride in. The Bayou Classics. The Essence Festivals. Music crafted with the same love and care that the Gullah use to weave a perfectly made handbasket. That perfect slap of a domino smacking the table to drown out the sound of stomachs growling waiting for the ribs to get off the grill.

While we were fighting for monuments of oppressive Southern pride to get torn down, OutKast was constructing a monument to the beauty in the ugliness around us. Aquemini was a love letter to home – a reminder that we were imperfect kings and queens in flip-flops and socks. Aquemini‘s promise was that, if we turned our love inward toward the place that raised us, then we’d see the beauty around us. Because excellence is only magnified by the obstacles overcome to get there. That’s why OutKast including that Source clip at the end of the album is so powerful. They stuck the landing.
—David Dennis, Jr, The Undefeated, September 27, 2018

The reference to that Source clip” is to the 1995 Source Awards when OutKast was booed by the New York crowd for winning Best New Artist.

Andre told em, “The south got something to say,” and they did. I talk a lot about the toxic effect of gatekeeping and I’m usually referencing white male boomers. In this case, hip hop itself was at a crossroads because it was assumed that “real” hip hop came from New York or California. Booing OutKast, then, represented both real and symbolic gatekeeping. Real in that Dre and Big Boi walked onto that stage hearing real boos, but symbolic in that it wasn’t necessarily about OutKast. It was the idea that ANY southern rap act had “something to say” was outside the box. With Aquemini, Dre and Big Boi were basically saying to hip hop’s gatekeepers, “Why the fuck you need boxes? What are you trying to do? Build a clubhouse?”

OutKast was pushing the envelope in ways other than awards shows. Beginning in around 1997, Dre started wearing turbans, scarves, and blonde wigs and the hip hop community started asking questions like the ones heard on “Return Of The G.” “Big Boi what's up with Andre? Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?” In fact, at the end of that track is a skit where someone says:

“First they was some pimps, man. Then they was some aliens, or some genies, or some shit. Then they be talkin' about that black righteous space. Whatever, man. Fuck them. I ain’t fuckin' with them no more, man.”

This dumb controversy shows the ingrained heteronormativity and homophobia within hip hop, which is to say fragile masculinity isn’t the sole province of white dudes. On another level, though, questions about the group’s creative direction speak to the destructive power of conformity. When they played the stereotypical pimp role, OutKast was beloved. It was when they started tapping into their higher consciousness that the questions started coming. They could’ve coasted on Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique and by the time Aquemini came out they would’ve been over. Instead, they worked on their craft, experimented, kept some things, ditched others, and evolved, so that by the time Aquemini came out they were ready to write “Return Of The G.” Big Boi initially fought for “Y’all Scared” as the leadoff track, but having “G” up front was a masterstroke. Right out the box they addressed everything while being straight up gangsta, satirizing gangsta, and elevating gangsta with live drums, live keyboards, either a real harp or a harp sound on a synth, gospel vocals, and cinematic sound effects. It was the thing and a comment on the thing with Dre and Big Boi performing a magic trick where you’re so busy looking at the cards that you don’t notice them picking the pockets of their idiot gatekeepers. Respect. 

That’s OutKast with “Return Of The G” from 1998’s landmark album, Aquemini. In repping Atlanta, Dre and Big Boi were the rising tide that lifted a lot of local boats, one of which were their close friends in Goodie Mob. To be honest, I want to love these guys, but I find them kinda generic. Not terrible, just unremarkable, and mainly worth mentioning in 2021 because the Mob’s most talented member, Cee-Lo Green, would become bigtime by the end of the following decade. However, there is one moment in the Goodie Mob discography where motive meets opportunity and it happened in 1998.

Whatever misgivings I have about Goodie Mob, “Black Ice (Sky High)” is an elite fucking jam. The first three verses and hook are from Big Gipp and man, that hook!

Touch what I never touched before
 Seen what I never seen before
 Woke up and seen the sun
 Sky high, sky high

The fourth verse is Big Boi and the fifth and final verse is Andre – who, by the way, also plays bass. And the final lines of that final verse = so good. Dre says:

"We've all indulged in the bulge of those no-nos
 No, you ain't solo/so low, there's even lower levels you can go
 Take sun people, put 'em in a land of/Atlanta snow"

On the lyrics website Genius, “Black Ice” has a pair of annotations that interpret these lyrics pretty much the way I did. The first says, “Nobody is innocent. We have all done gritty things (no-no’s) but some of those actions might be done out of necessity in order to make ends meet and put food on the table. However, the sin of the average man pales in comparison to the crime of selling Africans (sun people) into slavery and bringing them to the relatively cold climate of North America or, more recently, housing them in bad neighborhoods where cocaine is being pushed (a land of snow). The next note follows up with, “I’ve always thought that solo here was used for multiple meanings based on the lyric before and after it. ‘We’ve all indulged,’ so you’re not solo, but ‘there’s even lower levels you can go’ so you’re not so low.”

That’s quality. Now let’s leave the south and head west.

In the way The Gourds or Uncle Tupelo can be a gateway into country, bluegrass, and folk music, Del The Funky Homosapien can be a gateway into hip hop for people a little slow to the form. If you're a Tribe Called Quest fan I think you’ll enjoy any of Del’s records, but his 1998 album, Future Development, is my favorite. Del is an underrated lyricist and vocally reminds me of Slick Rick in the way he extends rhymes, lands on odd (but correct) beats, and uses overlapping vocal tracks, so it's like he's harmonizing with himself and/or finishing his own sentences. It’s a really cool effect.

Some of you old heads may remember his 1991 hit, "Mistadobalina" ("Mista Bob Dobalina"). That was his breakout single after signing with Elektra, who very much exploited the fact that Del’s cousin was Ice Cube, who was listed as producer. In fact, Sir Jinx did most of the work and they came up with a few gems. "Sleepin' On My Couch," for instance. I love that tune, you should check it out. But, Del didn’t wanna be seen as riding his cousin’s coattails, especially since he was the opposite of gangsta rap. So, he moved up to the Bay Area and hooked up with the Hieroglyphics Crew, who handled his second record, 1993’s No Need For Alarm. That album would've been better with 10-11 tracks instead of 14, but "Catch A Bad One," "Worldwide," "In And Out," and "Don't Forget" are must listens. 

That brings us to late 1996/early 1997, when Del originally started work on Future Development, splitting production duties with A-Plus and Opio from Souls Of Mischief, another Hieroglyphics crew. Elektra realized by that point they were never gonna get Ice Cube sales, so they dropped the Funky Homosapien from the label. In a move that presaged the music business of the 21st century, Del finished Future Development – a remarkably prescient title – and instead of waiting around for a major label to pick him up and distribute it, he said, “Fuck it,” and released a no frills cassette version exclusively through the Hiero Imperium website. Hiero Imperium being the label created by the Hieroglyphics crew. So, they originally issued it in 1998, reissued it on cassette in 2000, and then finally in 2002 it was released on double vinyl and CD.

I love Del because he delivers minimalist funk that swings. We get lean basslines and keyboards that sound like actual instruments, integrated with drums that are usually programmed. However, "Del's Nightmare" features an actual kit. 

From 1998’s Future Development, that’s Del The Funky Homosapien with "Del's Nightmare," a brutally honest depiction of life under white supremacy, which is why you get the John Carpenter-esque piano. Whether it's a cotton field, church pew, or record rack, white America has been psychotically obsessed with control from day one. The genius of “Nightmare” is how it juxtaposes the control mechanisms of slavery (the first verse) with the control mechanisms of the major label (the second verse). But, right in the middle of the song, hiding in plain sight at the end of the first verse, Del notes white America’s complicity all along. He says: 

"Now it's '96 and white people say,
 'Forget it. It's all in the past.'
 And some even regret it
 Cause they think we'll set it

In other words, white people want the luxury of American history beginning right now. The rest of us have to live with generational trauma, but white America is gonna die on the hill where everything that happened before right now is ancient history and in no way connected to our current reality. Anyone noting, for example, structural incompetence and inequity built into the American sociopolitical landscape by very deliberate white people … forget it. It’s all in the past. Get over it. The music industry is merely another manifestation of the American plantation, a gangster economy leveraging the depredations of contract law, itself codifying white supremacy for centuries.

Future Development features plenty of pot smoking and dissing of wack MCs. Standard fare rap subjects. But, we also get deceptively radical feminism  — especially within male hip hop — where Del openly discusses how men bully, abuse, and objectify women within relationships. He also paints a vivid portrait of a dude having no clue and blaming the woman for it. Check it.

Excerpt starts at 2:18

Love Is Worth
Now put yourself in the shoes of this guy
You fall in love with this girl and you don't know why (why dude?)
Cause you don't feel the same but you give it a try
Eyes wide, like you a child in a candy store
Even though you the one she couldn't stand before
Cause you was houndin' her, surroundin' her (damn) with confusion
You used to be friends, but now the friendship is losin'
Cause you visualize the romance, she like "no hands off"
She don't wanna fuck with no man, "not even a slow dance?"
You tried to kiss her and she even agrees
But that don't mean you about to be Adam and Eve
In the Garden of Eden, but maybe for the evening
You say she leading you on, but you just added pressure
Of course she like you, you're friends don't try to test her
She says she likes you as a friend, not a lover or wife
So get a life, let her live hers and find another
Don't let her smash your ego, cause we know you're great
Let it be her mistake, yeah
Don't waste your time bro cause you know
If she don't appreciate what he do for her
Then tell me why he should wait around

You got to know what your love is worth
Baby boy you got to know what your love is worth
Baby girl you got to know what your love is worth
Everybody got to know what their love is worth

That’s Del The Funky Homosapien with a little excerpt from “Love Is Worth” from 1998’s Future Development. Now another track on the record, "Corner Story," displays the rich specificity of a master storyteller, but I also appreciate that it weaves its social commentary inside of a party jam. In fact, that this is primarily a story about a group of friends going to the corner store to buy beer and Swisher Sweets might be the best thing about it. So much black art understandably focuses on past trauma, but pure joy exists, too, and it’s ok to celebrate that. Del acknowledges domestic violence, his lifestyle conflict with the Nation of Islam, and that the inner city has limited access to healthy and affordable food, what we now call a “food desert.” However, the song is ultimately about hanging with your friends.

Excerpt starts at 2:30

Corner Story
"But anyway, we pass the local grocery store
And you can be sure the meats and the produce ain't good no more
Some of it is from days before
I want it fresh and the clerk ain't my race so he stress
They doin me in my community, fuck it, we there
Ain't enough for a six-pack so we had to share
A nice little stroll through the April spring air
We hide our shit so the Nation (of Islam) don't see it there"

We 'bout to roll to the corner me and my crew
We 'bout to roll to the corner and get us some brew
We 'bout to roll to the corner and some swishers too
So we can roll a fat blunt and get perved

Let’s stay in Los Angeles for my final spotlight artist from 1998. I’m gonna guess that most of you are unfamiliar with Ras Kass – R A S K A S S – but he’s an unbelievably talented lyricist and rapper who got his start in the ‘90s. If you haven’t heard 1995’s “Nature Of The Threat,” your mind will be blown. I promise you I’m not hyperbolizing when I say it’s basically “It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)” multiplied by Gil Scott-Heron. I’ll do a podcast on that one later. In ’98, Ras released his second full-length, Rassassination and most of the album is hood music about drinking, getting laid, cars, guns, etc. I’m not a huge fan, but it has its moments. However, right in the middle of Rassassination is "Interview With A Vampire,” a three-way conversation between Ras, God, and Satan, in an effort to understand Christian teachings and the role of black people in it. What I wanna do is play the song, but then I’m gonna play a clip of Ras himself talking about the song.

That’s the great Ras Kass with 1998’s “Interview With A Vampire.” Now, here’s Ras discussing the song in 2018 as part of a series on his YouTube channel called “Line 4 Line.” Basically, he selects a passage from certain songs in his catalog and then discusses the lyrics.

That’s Ras Kass breaking down the opening lines of his 1998 masterpiece, “Interview With A Vampire.” There’s a tendency to see rap music and rap artists as cartoonish monoliths because, well, let’s just call it social training. But, there’s always context. There’s always layers. Hip hop is gangsta and poetry. It’s stark reality and exaggerated simulation of reality. It can be homophobic, misogynistic, and a brilliant dissection of white male supremacy. It’s the thing and the comment on the thing, ugly and beautiful and fucked up and angry and thoughtful. Like America, it contains multitudes.

And now that your brain is all tingly, let’s go to an August 2019 conversation between Ras Kass, Talib Kweli, and Jasmin Leigh. You might know Kweli from his work with Mos Def in Black Star whose lone album came out in ’98, so look at us staying on point. Kass, Kweli, and Leigh talk for almost an hour and a half and it’s a great listen. In this particular clip, the first voice you’re gonna hear is Kass saying, “There’s a problem in America.” Leigh responds a couple of times — she’s the only woman on set — but Kweli doesn’t really chime in until talking about Stone Mountain, Georgia. Just so you have all of the voices in your head straight. OK, here we go.

Excerpt is from 33:47-40:00

That’s Ras Kass, Talib Kweli, and Jasmin Leigh discussing how race and class are weaponized in America through hierarchy. It’s a spirited discussion and Kass and Leigh disagree over the placement of black men and black women in the heirarchy. But, who’s on bottom isn’t the point so much as who’s on top, you know? I like how Kweli swoops in – like a good host – and assures both Ras and Jasmin that they’re both right. You didn’t think I’d end a hip hop podcast with a dap to empathy, but here we are. I’m full of surprises.


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Talk to ya next time when we explore 1999! Y2K!