He was obsessing over something new, like he did every summer, swinging an outstretched arm from side to side in front of him and swaying like a like a brother entranced. “Meee and yoooou,” he crooned, “Yo’ mama and yo’ cousins, tooooo…” He wouldn’t stop and I had no idea what he was talking about. “Rollin’ down the strip on voooogues…”
“Wait. What are ‘vogues?’ What is this?”
“You never heard-a Outkast?!”
It was the same routine whenever I saw him. My cousin Joe would roll in from Chicago, a year younger than I, impossibly charming and popular — football star that he was, and jone on me for not knowing about some artist or group he’d just made his new obsession.
I’d been raised with a mild, sporadically enforced “secular music restriction.” I couldn’t listen to uncensored hip-hop or suggestive R&B at home and it never bothered me enough to try to sneak it that often. I gleaned most of my knowledge of ’90s R&B and hip-hop from classmates singing hooks and from lingering a bit too long on Video Soul or Rap City during the hours I spent alone after school.
I also relied pretty heavily on my cousins who, during the summers I spent with them in Michigan, kept a constant loop of BET, MTV, cassette dubs of radio broadcasts, live radio, and VHS-taped videos going in their homes whenever we weren’t outside playing.
Had I known that ’90s hip-hop would mark the pinnacle of the genre, its highest creative, inventive, and political height, I may’ve resided more in the moment. If I had known that the cream of our crop would skim itself off into Hollywood or clothing lines, flavored vodka or death, early retirement, Vegas acts or obscurity, I might’ve snuck my own constant loop of their best works in through headphones at home.
And if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have seemed so hopelessly out of the loop with Joe. We would’ve been swinging our outstretched arms from side-to-side together. But fortunately, I paid attention to the hook he sang that day, and “Elevators” became my earliest introduction to Outkast. I wish I could say I stuck closely to their discography from that day on, but I didn’t. I have my songs, my preciouses: “Rosa Parks,” “Liberation,” “In Due Time,” and yeah, “Ms. Jackson,” and yeah, “Hey Ya!“. Still. But I don’t claim to be a die-hard Outkast fan. What I can claim is that they would become one of the most vibrant, critical tiles in the mosaic of hip-hop comprehension I managed to cobble together before it became unrecognizable to me again.
I loved that they met and formed their group in high school, loved that they’d managed to hold onto each other as long as they did, even as it was obvious the root from which they sprang was splitting, clearly sprouting different fruit.
It isn’t easy.
My high school had its own inseparable duos. Plenty of them. But the ones I knew best were Ryan and Curtis, stars of our magnet program, who’d met a year earlier at our middle school. Ryan had come to us from California, which made him exotic. He didn’t talk or act like a Baltimorean and he didn’t dress like one. Back then, none of us knew much about different performances of blackness, but if we had, we would’ve recognized that the way he stood straight with his shoulders squared, the way when he liked a girl he just told her, the plainspeak of him without accent or accessible slang, was his own expression of culture. I don’t know if he was raised in a black community. But the rest of us were — and it had led us to very regional, perhaps limited, ideas about what being black meant. It was a testament to Ryan that the coastal exchange rate of his cool transferred so evenly at a new school in Baltimore.
Curtis more closely resembled us; he was raised in Baltimore (as far as I know) and he talked like it, an exaggerated “-ew” in his “-oo” words, a pronunciation of the word “dog” as “dug,” of “marry” as “murry” and “Murray” as “marry.” He dressed like it: loose, low-slung pants, polo shirts (which were in then), and Timbs.
By high school, Ryan and Curtis were a bonafide inseparable pair. They were comic powerhouses in the grand tradition of ’90s duos: Kenan and Kel, Marlon and Shawn Wayans, Theo and Cockroach, Dwayne Wayne and Ron. During high school, Curtis adopted the name Kaine, an homage to the lead in Menace II Society. I think Ryan just kept calling himself Ryan.
If you pay close enough attention to boys who are close like this, when you really observe them together, you understand that the ease of their fraternity belies something deeper. You won’t know much of what forged that bond or what welds it. But best believe: it is not as simple (or as perpetually fun) as it looks.
Outkast’s early oeuvre underscores that point.
One for the money yes uhh two for the show
A couple of years ago on Headland and Delowe
Was the start of somethin good
Where me and my nigga rodes the MARTA, through the hood
Just tryin ta find that hookup
Now everyday we look up at the ceiling
Watchin ceiling fans go around tryin ta catch that feelin — Dre, “Elevators”
Got stopped at the mall the other day
Heard a call from the other way
that I just came from, some nigga was sayin somethin
talkin bout “Hey man, you remember me from school?”
Naw not really but he kept smilin like a clown
facial expression lookin silly
And he kept askin me, what kind of car you drive, I know you paid
I know y’all got buku of hoes from all them songs that y’all done made
And I replied that I had been goin through tha same thing that he had
True I got more fans than the average man but not enough loot to last me
to the end of the week, I live by the beat like you live check to check
If you don’t move yo’ foot then I don’t eat, so we like neck to neck — Dre, “Elevators”
It’s a song about growing, about trying to carrying each other’s weight as you climb and the pressure of it and the nostalgia of lower stakes.
At some point during high school Curtis moved in with Ryan after his father took a job in another school district. It seemed to have made them even closer, more like actual brothers — with all the subtext attendant to sibling relationships — than friends. But I could be wrong.
I don’t know much about the inner lives of boys. It’s what makes consuming what they create and consume so significant. When they are thoughtful or wise, it comes across in the music. When they’ve been taught misogyny, there’s no hiding it. Their ethics waft up along with their vices, all flotsam fully visible on the surface of their songs and sayings.
Me and my nigga we roll together like Batman and Robin
We prayed together through hard times and swung hard when it was fitting
But now we tappin’ the brakes from all them corners that we be bending
In Volkswagens and Bonnevilles, Chevrolets and Coupe de Villes — Big Boi, “Aquemini”
And sometimes you can tell by what they listen to, by which verses move them, which ones they can recite as easily as their family’s names, what is important to them, what will eventually sink them or carry them ashore.
Twice upon a time there was a boy who died
And lived happily ever after, but that’s another chapter
Live from home of the brave with dirty dollars
And beauty parlors and baby bottles and bowling ball Impalas
And street scholars that’s majoring in culinary arts
You know how to work bread, cheese and dough
From scratch but see the catch is you can get caught
Know what ya sellin’ what you bought — Dre, “Aquemini”
After high school, you lose people or lose track of them. I did, anyway. I have no idea what happened to Ryan. But I know Curtis died. I didn’t find out until the weekend after his funeral. This was before social media. I found out from an old friend with whom I didn’t keep in regular touch, once we were in college. We happened to email each other that weekend. She said she thought I knew. But how could I have?
Back then, I thought high school — its dramas, high notes, all its sordid bonds and break-ups — was ballast you cast off on the way to adulthood. I didn’t keep close to anyone. I had yet to recognize its value.
Last night, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000” Benjamin took to Coachella’s opening night stage and performed a collection of their hits for over an hour. When Big Boi chuckles as he calls out, “Outkast… twenty years,” it’s poignant for those of us who understand what it’s like to keep a friend that long or to lose one you wished you still had. And watching them at 39 perform songs they wrote in their early 20s, songs about a future they’re now living, a friendship — a brotherhood — they’ve managed to maintain, reminds us of something essential about ourselves.
We are here to record, recall, and recount each other’s stories. We are here to bond with one another, to laugh at crass jokes together, to say things we don’t actually mean and double down on problematic things that we do. We are here to change — ourselves and one another — and to remind each other of who we were before, to reel one another back in when we’ve gone too far. We’re here to leave each other, to grow our hair out and get strange and make our own music without one another. Then, we’re here to listen back when we’re alone and realize we’re good; we have our own chops; we can run a full race and win without our legs tied. But the three-legged race is better. We are not quite as good apart as we were when we first got together.
I met a gypsy and she hipped me to some life game
To stimulate then activate the left and right brain
Said baby boy you only funky as your last cut
You focus on the past your ass’ll be a has what
That’s one to live by or either that’s one to die to
I try to just throw it at you determine your own adventure
Andre, got to her station here’s my destination
She got off the bus, the conversation lingered in my head for hours
Took a shower kinda sour cause my favorite group ain’t comin with it
But I’m witchya cause you probably goin’ through it anyway
But anyhow when in doubt went on out and bought it
Cause I thought it would be jammin’ but examine all the flawsky-wawsky
Awfully sad and it’s costly, but that’s all she wrote
And I hope I never have to float in that boat
Up shit’s creek “it’s weak” is the last quote
That I want to hear when I’m goin’ down when all’s said and done
And we got a new joe in town
When the record player get to skippin and slowin down
All y’all can say is them niggas earned that crown but until then — Dre, “Rosa Parks”
2 responses to “Elevators: On Outkast and Adolescence.”
Hello! I am a journalism student hoping to interview you. This would not be published, just curious about your thoughts on gun/weapon violence. I read your article on Salon.com and I really loved it. Please email me if you are available to be interviewed via email! -Rachael Myers
Have you ever glimpsed someone in the corner of a mirror and caught your breath when you realized that was you? For a second, you didn’t recognize yourself. Reading this was like that. “Problematic” truths and a celebration of long-time friendships all up and through. Thanks for this.