By Donna-Claire Chesman for DJBooth
Try as we might as critics, we all reach a point where we realize there are no objective measures in music. There is bias everywhere, and as eloquent as we can get with our criticisms, at the end of the day, music is about emotion and resonance. No string of language could ever change that. What I mean to say is, when a record hits, it hits. Twenty years ago, coming out of the dungeons of the South, OutKast released yet another contender for their best album ever, Aquemini, and it hit.
Aquemini struck and took root in a way few albums have since. The record earned a coveted five-mic score from The Source and featured the ultimate hip-hop culture co-sign in the form of a verse from Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon. Yes, Aquemini was a moment of arrival for a group who already had multiple Platinum plaques to their name at the time of its release. Aquemini was also the moment where both André 3000 and Big Boi took the reigns from their creative big brothers, Organized Noize—the production team, made up of Rico Wade, Ray Murray, and Sleepy Brown, responsible for all of the production for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and two-thirds of ATLiens—and crafted a record that not only belonged to all of Atlanta but one that finally belonged to the two of them.
On the 20th anniversary of Aquemini, speaking with Organized Noize is akin to receiving prophecy from an oracle. The trio can easily be regarded as the bones of Southern hip-hop, working not only with OutKast, but also with Goodie Mob, UGK, TLC, and more. They are the genesis of the Dungeon Family, and some of rap’s most important stars have taken flight from under their wings. As OutKast approached their third studio album, it was clear they were also ready to take flight—not simply in a commercial sense.
“It’s a growth album,” Ray Murray of Organized Noize says. “We didn’t necessarily have to use more budget money, as much as OutKast delved into their exploration of their own creative abilities on that album. [Organized Noize] did a lot of oversight, you dig?” Murray attests that after the success of OutKast’s previous two albums, and Organized Noize’s own success with Goodie Mob and TLC, there was nothing left to prove, but everything left to gain.
“It’s a growth album for OutKast as producers,” he continues, elaborating on the duo taking on the bulk of the album’s production for the first time in their career. “They sat in the Dungeon with us while looking over my shoulder while I’m on the beat, while Rico’s on the beat, while Sleepy’s on the beat. So it’s only natural with study that one would advance. This was that time, but also unrepresented in all of this is Mr. DJ, who was also there and a productive component.”
“It was a transition,” adds Sleepy Brown. “Once we saw that they were growing into their own, of course, we knew that we were gonna have to let them do their own thing. That’s the whole thing of being big brothers in the game, or being like parents. You gotta let the kid live. We knew that’s where it was going, and knew that it would come one day.”
With OutKast coming into their own, there was also the looming pressure of recreating success. “When you come to [finding success] a third time, the competitiveness that goes on for the creation of the first two, it’s gonna carry over for the third one,” Murray explains in a measured tone. As he mentioned earlier, the team had little left to prove, but prove themselves they did.
“The Source gave us five mics,” Rico Wade reminds. “That meant a lot as an accomplishment. We really trying to please our fans. At this point, we were very confident that we had a fan base that was riding with us. We wanted to keep them happy and make them proud for standing by us and standing with us.” There was no stress to strike Platinum, he promises. The world had loved ATLiens, and he was confident the world would love Aquemini—the promise was already sealed in the name.
“When they came to me and said they wanted to name the album Aquemini…,” Wade recalls. “[With] the first two albums, it was so important to represent the South and represent Atlanta, but when they came up with the name Aquemini, it was like, ‘Aw, man, you Aquarius, you a Gemini, this is about y’all now.’ This album is so precious because we doing what we wanna do. We already know the world feeling it. This time, we a little more confident. Now it’s important that we don’t let you down, and we keep pushing it forward.”
Making each other the focus of the album allowed André 3000 and Big Boi to truly come into their own.
“Dre definitely came into his own as a lyricist and what he wanted the look to be for the crew,” Brown attests. “Big Boi, to me, was already there because on the first record, he was already writing hooks with me. Big had already been there; I think Dre kind of grew more by the time Aquemini came.”
Ray Murray takes some time to boast about the maturity of the record in comparison to the previous two. According to him, Organized Noize had always been mature in their approach but as OutKast went from hustling on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to space and back on ATLiens, the duo was evidently ready to explore themselves and, as Sleepy Brown noted, explore every last genre of music in the process.
“You know, one day I was talking to Big Boi and I said, ‘Big, do you realize that as OutKast, you guys have touched every genre of music?'” Brown remembers. “‘Rosa Parks’ was a country song! You understand me? That was one of the most incredible things.” In fact, it was “Rosa Parks” that gave Sleepy Brown the vision for the rest of the record, but it was not until “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” that Sleepy felt the magic of Aquemini in full.
“When we did ‘SpottieOttieDopaliscious,’ Dre called me in and said, ‘Yo, I got this record I want you to get on,'” Brown says. “Once I heard it, [I was like], ‘Whoa, this is some different shit! It was just groovy and laid-back, and had a little reggae feel to it. It was so fly. I asked him what he wanted me to write about, and he was like, ‘Man, that thing that makes you feel good, that makes you happy. That experience.’ That was a magical studio moment.”
For Ray Murray, that magic moment came during the “Skew It On the Bar-B” sessions with Raekwon. “That’s one of my most memorable moments, to think of what kind of track that could satisfy the hip-hop n—as in the North and our brothers in the South,” Murray explains. “It was a fine line to walk because there wasn’t so much South music still. When we shot the video, that was a magic moment and every time it comes on, it’s a magic moment.”
“We had been doing our Southern thing, and then we were able to to fuck with Raekwon,” Murray continues. “You want the best competition because you want to be the best, so you need something to sharpen your metal. To be able to do that with Raekwon…”
“That’s Wu-Tang!” Wade seconds, gleefully. “It was very important that we were respected as hip-hop artists, not just Southern hip-hop artists, but hip-hop artists… That’s some of [Raekwon’s] best work! If you a Wu-Tang fan, you gon’ have to listen to the album, man. You gon’ wanna do it because it sounds great.”
For Wade, working with Raekwon not only cemented Aquemini as a classic in his eyes, but also played a major role in OutKast earning five mics from The Source. “Skew It On the Bar-B” was a classic moment, but it was also an emblematic moment for all of Southern rap. With Aquemini, OutKast had arrived—and they took the South with them.
“Power, who was managing Wu-Tang, they called us like, ‘Raekwon is in town,'” Wade explains. “So it wasn’t just about us doing a record. Him extending that olive branch—they said we arrived by wanting to work with us. Just him asking, it kinda meant that New York liked us. At that point, it didn’t matter if they did because we were already successful, but it was important to us that he wanted to do it. I think that’s why they gave us five mics, because it showed that New York was rocking with us.”
“I threw [Aquemini] on today and man, that really is an incredible album,” Wade continues wistfully. “From head to toe. If you just take the blueprint of it, we had Raekwon, we brought in George Clinton on a song. This record, we didn’t try to make sure we did nothing, this is what came about.” With Aquemini, OutKast bridged the gap between arrival and the pursuit of artistic freedom. As Wade recounts the bones of the album, we have to wonder if there was an alternate version of Aquemini that may have stood the test of time in much the same way the version rap knows and loves has. The answer, according to Murray, is a resounding, “No.”
“I couldn’t say that,” he attests. “There’s always alternate versions of things and maybe with hindsight, one may appear to be better than the other but at the time we put our best foot forward with everything we did. I can’t think of anything that didn’t make the record that could have or should have. That was just classic shit, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”
That’s the heart of it: Aquemini is the definition of classic material. In tandem, OutKast’s influence can be heard everywhere and in everything hip-hop today. “With the way, the brothers flow these days, especially the one cat [Aminé] had that one song ‘Caroline,'” Sleepy Brown points out. “You can definitely hear 3000 in his voice. You can hear it in Kendrick [Lamar]. OutKast has extended into hip-hop. You can hear it with the hood shit. It sounds like Big to me. Every time I hear the radio, I definitely hear the influence of OutKast in everybody. Whether it’s the music—all these beats with the trap snares and the hi-hats—or all the melodies they use, that’s some OutKast shit, man!”
“It came natural; it cultivated,” Wade concludes. “Aquemini felt like we really arrived. Twenty years from now, you can say they earned it, and OutKast earned it.”