Hailing from a hip-hop powerhouse central that is Atlanta, OutKast achieved success commercially and lyrically that paved the path for the rise of southern hip-hop. The duo’s popularity was no stranger to the private and public backlash with the release of their hit single “Rosa Parks”. Contrary to what the misleading title may imply, it was not primarily promoting any form of civil rights, but their fore-coming accomplishments. OutKast, the duo, is comprised of Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin, sometimes referred to as just Dre. Living in the East point section of Atlanta, the two met and started their music endeavors in high school with rap battles before being recognized by local producers. Dre and Big Boi, straight out of high school, signed to LaFace Records, a label that initially didn’t fully support the duo as they had no prior hip-hop gig.
However, their labels lack of respect for OutKast’s potential would go on to be their biggest break. Forced to participate in the label’s Christmas album 2 before debuting their own, they released an unconventional holiday track named “Player’s Ball” that topped the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks for weeks. Their newfound fame laid groundwork for their first hit album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, which proved to the world that Southern rap was more than nothing amidst the east and west coast feud. In the process of garnering more respect, the label recognized their talents gave them more funding in addition to more flexibility in their next albums, ATLiens and Aquemini, which featured the introduction of the “new” and recreated OutKast.
From an outsider’s point of view looking in, one might assume that the song would be a tribute to Park’s legacy, or in the least a reference to the civil rights movement that Rosa Park partook in. According to Pogue, OutKast’s sound engineer at the time, they were “just trying to show people [to not] forget about where we've come from and where we are now”1. However, some public dissent and Rosa Parks herself saw it as a means of slander against her symbolic value and a capitalistic exploit to include her in this manner. To which it prompted a lawsuit that was resolved six months before she died. Although there was no lyrical dictation of her name, the only reference other than the title of the song would be in the hook in which Big Boi ushers “everybody [to] move to the back of the bus”. That line, which sparked the lawsuit that entailed, was an allusion to the boycott of busses in Montgomery, “regarded as the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation”3, in a time that blacks and white were separated in different aspects of society.
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Likewise, OutKast’s intention with the integration of such a racially demeaning line was not only to remind listeners of how far the black community has come as a collective but was a metaphor for the movement for music and the hip-hop genre that they will (in retrospect, did) lead. Nonetheless, the message can understandably be distorted and seen as “cultural blasphemy”4 when “her name [was] associated with lyrics that contain vulgarity and profanity”6. The lack of disclosure in the intent of use (to educate? to profit?) and idea presented thus gave way to misunderstanding and complications as such.
A point that must be noted would be OutKast’s departure and entrance back into the scene that came with a physical overhaul of appearance that mirrored their stylistic and musical overhaul. Going for an “outer space composition”7, they experimented with live instrumentals to produce an unearthly funk that resonated with the entire album of Aquemini. Their single “Rosa Parks” likewise, was produced originally and in house and would later be sampled by a multitude of future artist and tracks5. In its making, for example, they decided to add a harmonica solo, by Pastor Robert Hodo, in addition to the scratching that created and upbeat funky reverb that was unconventional to hip hop and its traditional reliance on instrumental lineups of drums, synth, and guitars.
In culmination, the beats and rhythm of the music creates a groove that smoothly blends into a harmonious vibe. According to Dre, the sound they got in adding it sounded more “like a [porchy] hoe down”1 rather than the standard hip hop sounds. Original in a sense, this aligned with the divergence in their quest to be” revolutionary”. By redefining their image, OutKast viewed mainstream hip-hop industry as a slave to the entertainment industry, primarily for not venturing out to anything new. Seeing this as an objective not for OutKast’s song, but their album, this was the structure for the song. The general basis would be a meaningful verse followed by a repeating hook, in which it is best summarized as to bump with them, “move to the back of the bus” as they pave the way. The “hook” holds both a literal and metaphorical point.
Their continual boxing references is meant to “hit” the listeners to get their message until they either ride or die. In the first verse by Big Boi, he addresses their absence as “many a day has passed, the night gone by, total chaos for these playas, thought we was absent”. The reason for their long disappearance was because “me and my ni**a decide to take the back way”. In other words, they chose to be true to their roots and keep their integrity as an entertainer and as an artist. Their long break wasn’t a conflict of character between the duo, but the time they took to explore and create a masterwork true to the testament of their purpose. As for the second verse, Andre “throws it (the previous advice) at you, [to] determine your own adventure”. The lines which precedes it are to not focus on the past less you want to an ass. The basis of this assertion is that “when all is said and done … we got a new joe in town”.
By that logic, you (also they) might as well explore as they’ve already earned their respective title, if not, then do so because they will be eventually replaced. The next verse isn’t really a verse as it is the harmonica solo. By this point listeners should get the gist of their overarching message. (Verse 1: We’re back with something new, hook: fuck with it or don’t, Verse 2: Might as well, hook, Verse 3: here’s something fresh, hook). Even without listening to the song in its entirety, the last verse, which can also be viewed as a skit if watching the music video, encompasses the message and more. Although not the first, this verse sets epitomizes critic’s assertion of this song (and album), transcending the popularity and validity of southern hip hop.
A rap verse between OutKast and Raekwon of Wu Tang (East) is their attempt at breaking the rap boundary in respect to one’s regional differences. They explicit state that the collaboration is them “doing this thing straight up for hip-hop” because “if it wasn’t for us tryna enlighten y’all”, “everybody North, East, South, West”, “the game wouldn’t be the same and you gotta keep it innovative and new”. Besides the regional collaboration of South and East, they’re calling out all artist in trying to push something new on the table. Everyone is too afraid to try something new whether it be public backlash or the chains in which labels tie them to. Not uncommon for artist of one area to produce under the influence of another in contemporary periods, it was unheard of at the time. Subsequently, later OutKast and Wu Tang albums broke and set new precedents as the groundworks for the later generation as hip-hop continues to evolve.
Ultimately, OutKast’s message was invoked through “Rosa Parks”, a song that draws a parallel between the advancement of hip hop and that of the civil rights movement. As a society that indulges in this genre of music, we can choose to be progressive in that we are accepting and taking initiatives (as opposed to east vs west) or just recede into daunting segregation, be it musically and socially. With the use of historical allusion, lyrical metaphors, and pioneering aspects of hip-hop, OutKast voices their philosophy while transcending the state of Southern hip-hop in mainstream media.
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