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The Six Degrees of Houston and Atlanta Rap

The cover of OutKast's 2000 LP Stankonia
The cover of OutKast's 2000 LP Stankonia Interscope Records
click to enlarge The cover of OutKast's 2000 LP Stankonia - INTERSCOPE RECORDS
The cover of OutKast's 2000 LP Stankonia
Interscope Records
Georgia, and in particular Atlanta, is a weird place. Not weird because it’s on Eastern Standard Time and claims the South (thanks, Uncle Chad). Not weird because it’s managed to hold onto the beauty and distinctiveness of Waffle House, Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles (not to ever be confused with Waffle House), strip-club nightlife, WASPs and the distinction behind having your own billboard. Atlanta & Georgia is a weird place in particular because it houses all of these things and they all work within the same ecosystem and will not hesitate to throw in a rather mimic-able, easy-to-digest vocal twang and even more seductive slang. The term “issa,” from 21 Savage, has become such a du jour item to lead conversation that you can’t ignore it. Atlanta as a whole has refused to be ignored on a national and global scale since at least 1996. In other words, we’re in year 21 of people actively giving a good goddamn about the city of Atlanta — and we probably should have started sooner.

Atlanta as a rap scene is easily the strongest hub in the country, followed by Los Angeles. Every year, there is one new Atlanta rapper to endure nationally. Every year, there is more than one Atlanta-based rap attraction that buries itself in your frontal lobe and refuses to escape. A brief example of this: 2013: Migos; 2014-15: Future; 2016: Migos. The city may be entering its most vital year in regards to pop culture, which is saying something. Atlanta popularized white T-shirts as dope-boy couture in 2006, along with snap dancing and the endless supply of club anthems in the mid-to-late 2000s. Whether it be the ubiquity of “Bad & Boujee”; Atlanta, Donald Glover’s television series based around the ATL rap scene; and the bluntness of how hard people ride for the city, Atlanta is thriving. And the biggest irony of it all? The Atlanta Falcons, a football franchise strapped to the doldrums of bad karma, NFL Man of the Year recipients getting caught for prostitution the night before the Super Bowl and even the electricity and downfall of Michael Vick...are back in the Super Bowl. In Houston.

Beyond the fact that Houston and Atlanta are rather identical, Super Bowl 51 officially marks the perfect union of two of the South’s more beloved, “only thing x can happen here” cities. The beauty of it? They’ve been tied at the hip far longer than you may think.

Degree 1: A Primer on Early Atlanta Rap (pre-OutKast):
Before Atlanta endured wave after wave of new artists filtered through the various zones of its metroplex, there was MC Shy D, Kilo Ali and Hitman Sammy Sam. Shy D was one of the first Atlanta rappers to gain solo notoriety in the city after signing to Luther Campbell a.k.a. Uncle Luke’s Skyywalker Records back in 1987. The next year’s “Atlanta: That’s Where I Stay” may be the first Atlanta rap record that distinctively made it dope to be from Atlanta. Kilo Ali’s dabble in raunchy rap predates Freaknik, arguably the greatest street party the South ever conceived. He and Hitman Sammy Sam are two of the earliest examples of street rap in Atlanta. Sammy Sam, who may have been as street as street can be in Atlanta, found a regional hit in the early 2000s with “The Step Daddy.”

“Before there was a T.I., before there was a Jeezy, before there was a Future, before there was trap music, Kilo Ali was inspiring all these kids to make gangsta music coming from Atlanta,” DJ Drama told WABE in 2016.

The equivalent of acts like Hitman Sammy Sam breaking through in the most awkward of ways would be Big Mike of The Convicts doing something similar. Or the late Mr. 3-2. Houston, much like early Atlanta, has understated rap acts who are beloved as pioneers. K-Rino, for example, is arguably the greatest lyricist to come from Houston, point blank. E.S.G. didn’t gain monumental acclaim as a rapper, though he’s a pioneer for being the first rapper from Houston to mention DJ Screw and screw culture on an album (1994’s Ocean Of Funk). And Jermaine Dupri is partially responsible for the most memorable DJ Screw record of all. Yeah, Houston and Atlanta run deep together.

Most will align to OutKast being the first group from Atlanta that broke through nationwide, which is true. However, there are acts that even predate them and are influencers of what André 3000 and Big Boi came to be. Houston’s rise in hip-hop began nationally around 1989-90. Atlanta’s awkward footing begins with Jermaine Dupri and Kris Kross in 1992 (and to a lesser extent, Arrested Development). Then it dabbles into the drum and bass era with "Shorty Swing My Way" and Ghost Town DJs' "My Boo," essentially skating-rink music. But for a weird time period, Atlanta was doing everything it could to separate itself from New York and other regions. Which is completely ironic given how much New York in 2017 wants to do Atlanta, and how much Atlanta dominates New York-centric hip-hop radio.

Now, time to start drawing more lines from Houston to Atlanta.

Degree No. 2: André 3000 Is Texas’s Favorite Cousin
In 2000, three weeks before DJ Screw’s untimely passing, OutKast released their fourth album, Stankonia. It need be said that Stankonia is the most important OutKast album, which is very different from saying it’s their best. Stankonia crossed over thanks to the intergalactic explosion that was “B.o.B” and the strife and appeal that was “Miss Jackson." On the final song from the album, “Stank Love,” the two Georgia boys turned down the BPM to a ridiculous point. “Stank Love” went from an intoxicated waltz through downtown on a Saturday night to a “moan right before climax” number. How did OutKast point this out? They merely uttered the phrase, “This for all the Texas boys and girls.” ‘Kast knew Screw. ‘Kast is eternal for that.

Second, OutKast is partly responsible for the greatest wedding entrance theme of all time. “International Players Anthem,” the tri-state union of Tennessee (Memphis), Texas (Port Arthur) and Georgia (Atlanta), starts off with André 3000 telling a story about giving up the game before he officially ties the knot. “Keep your heart/ These girls’ is smart/ Play your part” is now in the lexicon as warning labels for life. While Pimp C and Bun B look at it in a pimp sort of way, Big Boi immediately says fuck all that and gives up the game of somebody paranoid about a divorce, child support and then some. Real-life shit, people.

Thirdly, André 3000 happened to do this thing in 2007, when he would randomly show up on tracks from other artists and tell stories. He did the same thing last year on Travis Scott’s “the ends” from Birds In the Trap Sing McKnight, where he brought up the Atlanta Child Murders from 1979 to 1981. Guess who probably knows nothing about the Atlanta Child Murders? Your average Travis Scott fan. But in 2007? André 3000 would talk about no short of the following topics: the alphabet boys busting down doors and shooting his friends (Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” remix), being an overall badass that people awkwardly interpreted as a T.I. diss (DJ Unk’s “Walk It Out” remix), a conversation with a flame inside of a Whole Foods (Lloyd’s “You” remix) and finally, a conversation with a fan about growing old in hip-hop while also being aware of being a rapper in 2007 (Devin the Dude’s “What a Job”).

It’s that final conversation, in which André 3000 is on a guitar love song about life with Devin the Dude & Snoop Dogg, where André 3000 is both grounded in being arguably the greatest lyricist Georgia ever produced and also somebody who you could lean on for advice. André’s best solo guest feature is on a Devin the Dude album. That’s not an alternative fact, that’s not a lie, that’s an absolute. He’s the state’s favorite go-to with a bomb verse. Second? T.I.

Also, why have we not had a day, month, half-year dedicated to the greatness that is Devin Copeland? Let’s get on that in 2017.

Degree No. 3: The Unified Idea That Rappers Are Synonymous With the Culture
No two cities may use their rappers as clear denominators of city culture more than Houston and Atlanta. If you make it as a star in Atlanta, you are a star. Doesn’t matter where you go, from the mall to church to even a regular restaurant, Atlanta appreciates its rap stars. They laud them in public, welcome them to sporting events and when it came time for the Atlanta Falcons to have halftime performers for the final Falcons game in the Georgia Dome two Sundays ago, they called up Ludacris, Jermaine Dupri and Jeezy to close the building out. Who else were they going to call?

Gucci Mane, the guy who originally gave us the idea of Sauce before The Sauce Factory morphed it into something even bigger, got a chance to have his wedding proposal at Phillips Arena while wearing a Hawks jersey and white jeans. Gucci didn’t bend down. Why? Because Gucci. And his transformation is something all of us can get behind.

The sentiment is shared with Houston. Our rappers get actual days and proclamations given to them by the city government. The last three mayors have given out official days to no more than ten rappers, from Trae Tha Truth to Lil Keke. Regardless of whether they blow up anywhere else, Houston will incubate its rap stars until they are dead or too obscure to recognize. There’s a reason Slim Thug will probably find his way near Arthur Blank and Bob Kraft this weekend. Why? Because Slim Thug likes making money in the most opportune ways. Though let it be known, I don’t know if Slim Thug has boys from the north side that would stroll over to Russia to get Bob Kraft’s other Super Bowl ring from Vladimir Putin for Kraft’s honor.

Degree No. 4: Tortured Sports Teams
Minor deviation from the rap discussion into something that is rather universal between the two cities. There have been 176 major professional sports seasons in Houston, composed of football (Oilers, Texans); basketball (Comets, Rockets); soccer (Dynamo) and baseball (Astros). Of those seasons, only ten have ended in titles, two for the Oilers in the old American Football League, two for the Rockets, four for the Comets and two for the Dynamo. A .057 percentage of championship happiness. Oh, and the Texans are the only team currently in the NFL that has never appeared in its conference’s championship game.

By comparison, there have been 169 major professional sports seasons in Atlanta, composed of football (Falcons); basketball (Hawks); hockey (Flames, Thrashers); and baseball (Braves). Of those seasons, only one has ended in a title, which was in 1995. That is a .006 percentage of championship happiness. Should the Falcons win on Sunday, it bumps up to a .011 percentage. If you’re Houston, you thank God the Comets existed, same for the Rockets. If you’re Atlanta, you thank God that the Braves finally got through in 1995. Because if not for the Braves, we might have to put Atlanta in the upper echelon on the list of Cursed Sports Cities. Which is why we celebrate everything but the sports with these two particular cities.

Degree No. 5: A Brief Ranking of Atlanta/Houston Rap Collaborations

Jeezy feat. Bun B, “Trap or Die”
One of the best moments from Jeezy’s 2005 guest verse assault was this gem. It operates as club music and gym music. It also leads with one of the greatest, “they got me fucked up” hype moments in the world and Jeezy’s reading off his résumé as if we forgot how great he is.

Quick aside: Do you know how much damage Bun B did some 12 years ago with the "UGK 4 Life" campaign that made you think the “Murder” verse could creep out of his larynx at any given moment and steal someone’s track? We haven’t had a more terrifying rip of guest features from one rapper since. Okay, maybe André 3000 two years later, but it wasn’t leading to a Three Stacks solo album.

Aside No. 2: Grab BeatKing and Nephew TexasBoy’s Texlanta 2 mixtape. Also, pack on plenty of the Sauce Factory’s many collaborations with Atlanta artists, including Migos and more.

02. Devin the Dude feat. Snoop Dogg & André 3000, “What a Job”
Refer to the André 3000 section of this article.

01. UGK feat. OutKast, “Int’l Players Anthem”
The great “duh” of all “duhs” of any list ever created in human history. UGK has two crossover songs. One, “Big Pimpin,” was the height of their first act and was built off of a rapid-fire Bun B verse and a full-on freestyle from Pimp C. Two, this — which is the greatest piece of wedding music and a sort of tragic conclusion to UGK’s second act in 2007.

Degree 5a: The Greatest Atlanta/Houston Rap Beef
Atlanta does rap beef the same way Houston does rap beef, which is internally. Well, except for that one time that Lil’ Flip, at his commercial peak, struck the ire of one Clifford Harris, a.k.a. T.I. a.k.a. Tip Harris, when he feels like doing Marvel movies.

To note, Lil Flip's solo success predates Houston’s absolute boom period of success. In a way, he was the outlier: charismatic and witty, with a knack for these king-making freestyles. Nursery-rhyme beats for “This Is The Way We Ball” and “I Can Do That” lead to Flip’s boasting about potentially buying the Rockets, the Comets and his old high school. Oh, and wearing Iceberg with Bart Simpson on it. Early ’00s fashion was a fun time. T.I. had just dusted off an underrated yet commercially disappointing debut album, I’m Serious, and sprung back to life with the P$C mixtapes and his guest appearance on Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared." By the time he released arguably his greatest disc in 2003’s Trap Muzik, T.I. was on a rapid ascent. Flip, by that time, had made an even more rapid ascent thanks to the Sony deal and releasing a DOUBLE DISC as his debut (well, a chopped and screwed version of the regular disc, but still). Then Flip decided to go to Atlanta’s Birthday Bash, their event concert of the year, and proclaim himself to be “King of the South." While T.I. was locked up. Yeah.

Well, whenever T.I. feels like it, he’ll have to recall the time he went all the way to Cloverland to get in a legit fistfight with Lil’ Flip. On his own home turf. One of the more publicized beefs of the early 2000s (when beef was at a premium) involved two rappers arguing over the title of “King of the South." It got so weird that it took Scarface himself to speak when the legendary Geto Boy was inching close to emeritus status. Needless to say, the beef, including T.I.’s “99 Problems” freestyle from 2004’s Down With The King mixtape, propelled T.I. to superstar status in rap. Also, the moment Lil' Flip threatened to shoot T.I.’s son is probably the moment T.I. turned into rap-game General William Tecumseh Sherman and unleashed a scorched-earth campaign on Flip. I mean, we love Flip. We appreciate Flip. Flip threatened a viable crazy man via his kids and if we know anything about T.I., he will do rather incredulous things about his family. Like, fight Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas.

Point is, T.I. is crazy enough to get into a beef and go so hard that James Prince himself had to squash it. That is as close as the harmony between Houston and Atlanta has come to becoming eradicated.

Degree No. 6: Are We Close to a Migos Super Bowl Halftime?
If you recall, a big stink was made over who was going to perform at the Super Bowl on Sunday. We had high betting odds on Taylor Swift, until she subsequently sank all the good PR she ever had in five months. We even thought Adele at one point; or hell, even Drake, but neither is performing at NRG on Sunday. The name tapped to do the free bit of publicity? Lady Gaga. A Lady Gaga who is a far more tame and less of a stunt queen than at SXSW a few years back, or at her absolute pop apex at the turn of the decade. However, there has been a strong petition for Lady Gaga to be swapped out at the last minute for Migos.

Migos? Yes. Remember how at the beginning of this very article, we brought to your attention that Migos are Atlanta’s current ubiquitous kings? Yes. A little more than 100-plus hours ago, the trio released their sophomore album in C U L T U R E. “Bad & Boujee,” their song with Lil Uzi Vert, is currently the No. 1 song in the country. Other singles, like “T-Shirt” “Call Casting,” “Kelly Price” and “Deadz,” are complete standouts. They’re also slated to have their first No. 1 album when the final tally for C U L T U R E is revealed. Yes, Migos are the undisputed hottest thing in rap right now. And as of this moment, more than 59,000 people have signed for this to happen, with the goal being 75,000 signatures.

I mean, the last time the NFL gave us a near medley of hip-hop at the Super Bowl, it was...2004 in Houston. Everything was fine and dandy for FCC censors with Nelly, Diddy & Kid Rock (before he found far more money and fame being a more alcoholic Jimmy Buffett). Then Justin Timberlake decided to tug too damn hard at Janet Jackson’s bustier and changed the lives of millions. So yeah, the last time we got some serious hip-hop elements at the Super Bowl was here in Houston. Then the next year we got Paul McCartney. Which is to say, nothing is wrong with a Macca Super Bowl. It just took Justin Timberlake forcing America to understand that women have breasts and you shouldn’t be ashamed of them to get there. (Also, eff Justin Timberlake for escaping all the heat for that.)

So yeah, a Migos Super Bowl with arguably the most Atlanta opening pre-show (Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, Goodie Mob, Ludacris and Jeezy); halftime (Future doing “March Madness” is an infinite thing that needs to occur); Bun B and Jay Z doing “Big Pimpin” same and an OutKast reunion!? Who says no? Who? Who?

Oh wait, the NFL. That’s who.

And that’s our primer of Atlanta and Houston rap. Expect the strip clubs to be populated with outside stripper talent battling with the locals for supremacy and dollar bills. Expect plenty of folks riding down in slightly off-color Chrysler 300s and rented luxury cars in town to stunt and ball. Why? Because it’s the Super Bowl. And if there is anything we’ve learned from major events in the city of Houston that tend to marry both spectacle and culture? To quote Chad L. Butler, “Everybody wanna ball.”

Just a quick note if you’re any member of the Atlanta Falcons: Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to “pay for it” during this Super Bowl. I don’t think the franchise will live that down. Well, live it down that it happened twice.
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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell