Songs That Shook America Episode Four: Outkast Proved the South Had "Something to Say" on "Elevators" [Recap]
AMC’s Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America is a docu-series that will focus on six individual rap songs that changed the genre. Episode four focuses on Outkast’s “Elevators (Me & You),” a song that changed how fans looked at the rap music from the south.
If you’re of a certain age you probably have few memories of a world where the epicenter of hip-hop didn’t run through the South — Atlanta, specifically. The fourth episode of Hip-Hop: Songs That Shook America — which is about Outkast’s 1996 classic “Elevators (Me & You)” — explores how a song not only shook America but also put an entire city on the map.
Outkast’s 1995 Yo! MTV Rap interview in Atlanta is described by the show’s iconic host Fab 5 Freddy as the first time that the show put local Atlanta hip-hop into homes across the country. A 4-minute and 25-second piece of audio about the MARTA transit rides of Atlanta culture and elevating the region’s visibility, created by young men more than 20 years ago, was the catalyst for an eye-opening look into the regional bias that suppressed a market that would grow to dominate the last 15 years of hip-hop.
The widespread stigmatization of southern hip-hop is the crux of the early parts of this episode. To Questlove, Atlanta was “fast booty club music,” before “Elevators.” To Black Thought, the slang and cadences of Atlanta hip-hop were hard to understand, before “Elevators.” Instead of simply addressing the regional biases that existed in hip-hop, the episode takes that opportunity to dispel the monolithic view of southern hip-hop in an almost scientific way.
Outkast’s tour DJ Mr. DJ describes the slurred but knocking sound of Texas’s screw music as the region’s interpretation of its affinity for pharmaceutical drug codeine. Questlove explains how the pace of the average Miami bass songs being 125 beats per minute is due to the notion that faster speed meant more dancing in a Miami nightlife culture predicated on strip clubs. For Atlanta, Mr. DJ describes the region’s sound as mid-tempo bounce with bass lines and grooves, placing it sonically in the middle of Miami and Houston. In less than three minutes, this episode eroded a stereotypical belief system of the “southern hip-hop sound” that persisted for decades before the 21st century.
Outkast and “Elevators” were examples of an untapped market breaking through in spite of the suppressive treatment the region received from the music industry. L.A. Reid appears in the episode and is refreshingly candid about reluctantly signing the two then-teenagers and placing them on the 1993 A LaFace Christmas album. So what did Outkast do? They made “Player’s Ball,” a “Christmas” song more about the culture of Atlanta than decking the halls. It became a Billboard hit. That same L.A. Reid wasn’t a fan of “Elevators” and wanted the group to fix it. So, what did they do? They took it to Hot 97.5 and had the station inundated with requests to hear the song.
This episode paints Outkast as what people wanted before people knew they wanted it and the creation of “Elevators” mirrors that same ethos. Mr. DJ remembers the song’s booming 808 bass could only be achieved, at the time, by the Roland TR-808 machine. He also notes in the episode that music from northern cities in America didn’t have the thick basslines like “Elevators.” He even claims the ghostly snare, which is the song’s most recognizable sound, is simply a sidestick rimshot with a delay throw effect that no one was using at the time. In essence, the song that put Atlanta on the map was made from sounds that mainstream hip-hop wasn’t using at the time that the world wanted to hear. Just like its creators, the song was made undeniable by drawing from the uncharted.
The episode assembled the most diverse arrangement of guests, in terms of different facets of commentary, of any episode in the series so far. T.I., an Atlanta hip-hop legend from the generation after Outkast, recollects on “Elevators” being “the first time that we heard our accent, our lingo, and our culture on a mainstream platform.” Debra Killings, a singer featured on “Elevators,” goes in-depth about the unorthodox singing pattern she had to do in order to capture that almost eerie ambiance of the song. The 1995 Source Awards, and André 3000 cutting his voice through the thick wall of boos from the crowd to say “the south has got something to say” was described as a source of pride for the region by former Atlanta radio host Lala Anthony. André 3000 and Big Boi both appear to give present-day reflections on their rise, with the latter attributing the negative response at the Source Awards as an inspiration for Outkast.
Once the episode ends, there will surely be generations of children who will be shocked to learn Ludacris was the DJ who played “Elevators” for the first time on the radio, as DJ Chris Lova Lova on Atlanta’s Hot 97.5. That’s the intended purpose of the series. “You can’t assume the joy that you had — discovering what this culture is all about — is just going to resonate for generations to come,” Questlove said during a panel at the Tribeca TV Festival world premiere of the series.
Thanks to Outkast’s “Elevators,” we all went on a ride through Atlanta and never came back. That goes for me and you, your momma, and the whole world too.