Friday, May 2, 2014

Red Clay Scholar takes OutKast nerdom to new heights

Posted By on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 3:16 PM

WHERE THE TRILLOSOPHERS PLAY: Red Clay Scholar, Dr. Regina Bradley
  • Courtesy Dr. Regina Bradley
  • WHERE THE TRILLOSOPHERS PLAY: Red Clay Scholar, Dr. Regina Bradley
Let's keep it real. The stuff that passes for pop culture criticism nowadays can be light on the culture and heavy on the pop. But when it comes to OutKast nerdom, Dr. Regina Bradley is a bona fide scholar. While Big and Dre continue their twentieth anniversary celebration with a much-hyped 40-festival tour, the Kennesaw State University professor and self-dubbed Red Clay Scholar has upped the ante with a series of intellectual dialogues she calls OutKasted Conversations. By year's end, she will have amassed more than 40 weekly one-on-one conversations, conducted via Google Hangout, with a range of academics, critics, and artists featuring deep dissections of the duo's cultural impact.

But these aren't dry, didactic dialogues. Topics range from sexuality and OutKast's "user-friendly patriarchy," as termed by Dr. Treva Lindsey of Ohio State University, to a recontextualization of ATLiens using W.E.B. DuBois' racial theory of double-consciousness by Dr. James Peterson of Lehigh University.

While hip-hop scholarship might seem like an oxymoron to the unschooled, her series is part of a wave which has seen the recent naming of a Harvard University fellowship in honor of acclaimed rapper Nas, Texas MC Bun B lecturing on Religious Studies at Rice University, and producer 9th Wonder becoming a professor at Duke University. Following OutKast's triumphant homecoming performance at CounterPoint last week, Dr. Bradley shared how the duo helped shape her sense of identity as southern black girl growing up in Albany, Ga., and how she uses their body of work today to expand on her own.

I have to start this interview off by asking the same question that you ask of all your guests. So when did you become OutKasted?
1998. I was 14, awkward and lanky, and I'd just moved to Albany, Ga., so I was trying to figure out a way to embrace this new southern space I was in. I came from northern Virginia, which is a totally different environment, if you will. So I started making my little homemade mixtapes on the radio and most of the songs that were on my playlist came from Aquemini and [Goodie Mob's] Still Standing. That's when I became OutKasted; they just gave me another way to think about being young, southern and black.

Did you already consider yourself a hip-hop head??
Yes and no. Yes, because I was already listening to the radio and I could tell you what was kind of mainstream important. But I really don't think I got into hip-hop hip-hop until college. Because I had more freedom to buy the CDs that I wanted. I grew up in a good "church" home, so they kinda watched everything that I purchased.

That's interesting that you mention college because hip-hop studies has become this really huge area of study in academia. It almost feels like the new frontier for the culture in terms of the level of innovative thinking and creative application being produced by academics like yourself. How did you come to the point of intersecting your love for the two?
I went to Albany State - shout out to Albany State - and got my introduction there. It wasn't until graduate school that I really started actually understanding that there was such a thing as Hip-Hop Studies. I was taking a black music class - shout out to Dr. Portia Maultsby [of Indiana University], who's like the godmother of Black Music Studies - and we were reading about hip-hop, and I started to realize the hip-hop that I like to consume wasn't necessarily on the radar. I was like, wait a minute, I'm Southern, so this kind of stuff that y'all are talking about doesn't necessarily apply to my lived experiences.

That's when I really started to think, well, what would Southern Hip-Hop Studies look like? I started to think about what it meant to be southern and black after the civil rights movement. A lot of folks like to stay in the 1950s and 1960s, or prior to that, in order to say, "this is the South." But that's not strictly the South anymore. And I wanted my work to [reflect] what southerness looks like in a more contemporary moment in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

You've covered such a wide range of topics - black masculinity, the urban South, sexuality and gender issues, afrofuturism, fashion, movement. There probably aren't many acts that could elicit such rich intellectual engagement, but why in your opinion does Outkast?
Well, one, I'm an OutKast fan. And, of course, this is their twentieth anniversary, so what better way to pay homage from a nerd than to give them a scholarly discussion series. 1994 was just a big ass year for hip-hop. There's so many classic albums celebrating 20 years this year: Illmatic, Funkdafied, Ready to Die. But OutKast was important for me because they were the reason that I began to critically engage what it means to be Southern and black. And they have such a rich body of work that really maps out that trajectory of what southerness looks like - not necessarily just within the South but also what the South was starting to mean to folks who aren't from here - that I really felt like they needed a critical dialogue series out of respect for their work and also out of a nod for the way they changed the game completely for southern hip-hop.

What have been some of the more insightful or critical observations made by guests during the series that you found engaging?
That's not fair because I love all my conversations [laughs]. One I thoroughly enjoyed was with Kiese Laymon, the first one, because he's a good friend of mine and when started talking about southerness, we just lost track of time. That was really dope - the idea of finding a way to craft language to talk about what contemporary southerness meant. Dr. Tanisha Ford's episode, where she talked about clothing; the way that the dressed impacted how we understand what it means to be Southern and black and hip-hop was really dope. And then of course, Dr. Treva Lindsey, that was a lot of fun. That was my NSFW episode of OutKasted Conversations [laughs]. The way she was talking about how OutKast used the sound of women's moans [on "SpottieOttieDopaliscious"] to document sexuality in their work was just dope. Every conversation has been so useful in helping me think about my own work, which at the moment, is OutKasted. I'm working on a journal article at the moment thinking about the way that they use time and space. So it's been really helpful in helping me with my own ideas, too.

Going back to this explosion in Hip-Hop Studies over the last decade or so, is there a danger, in your opinion, of anything being sacrificed when the culture starts to give itself over to academia and begins using the academy's language to translate its way of life?
There's always a danger when you put something in the academy because oftentimes it's so easy to lose sight of what brought it to the academy in the first place. With Hip-Hop Studies, one of the things that's important is many of the people doing Hip-Hop Studies now are still invested in the culture and are finding ways to connect the academy to the community - which is what I wanted to do with my own work with OutKasted Conversations.

On the flipside of that, I think it has to be embraced on both sides of the fence. It can't just be academic. And of course you have the danger of people saying, 'Oh, I teach hip-hop,' who have no investment whatsoever in the culture or have very little exposure to the significance to put it in context. But I still think there's a need because, on the one hand, hip-hop studies is luring more people into the academy and also luring people into a more critical conversation. Hip-hop has always been critical, but in the academy it introduces an additional layer of criticism that I think will help to further complicate and further appreciate the richness that hip-hop still has to offer.

It's kind of funny that so much of public intellectual conversation has been limited to either the lecture hall or guest appearances on some kind of 24-hour news network. Is that what inspired you to pick YouTube as your classroom for this dialogue?
Yeah man, I need that access. I can't just have this conversation with myself. It's kind of like you're in a cipher; you don't battle yourself. Even on Twitter, I always have these kinds of conversations because I need to be able to remain grounded. Just because I'm a "hip-hop scholar" doesn't mean I can't learn from folks that are still out there who might not have the same degree as me. I think that's what makes it interesting and keeps me on my toes. So even though OutKasted Conversations has featured a lot of folks who are scholars, there are also episodes coming up that feature folks who aren't in the academy. And that just offers a really great dynamic in terms of different ways to think about criticism.

That's why I really enjoy this project, because it just allows me to stay focused on this aspect of hip-hop as a critical space - not only as something I study but also as something that I consume. This idea of being a critical consumer of what you ingest; 'cause you actually have space to talk it out and engage folks in debate. Back in the day in the cafeteria when you heard something new and you'd have this really grandiose debate, that had nothing to do with the academy. That's just really working through some critical thoughts about the piece. So I think that's really important.

Speaking of critical consumption, what are your thoughts on the landscape today in terms of Southern hip-hop? It's so hard to move past the OutKast/Goodie Mob era and engage with this era as a fan if you're from our generation.
There's a couple of things that I don't like, you know what I'm saying. I think it's really interesting that the South isn't really considered to be the South in the same way that it was 20 years ago when Southernplayalistic, Geto Boys, or UGK dropped. Atlanta, for example, is not considered to be this marginalized space; it's as mainstream as hip-hop itself. The BET Hip Hop Awards are here. You've got folks coming to Atlanta. It doesn't have that same cultural memory associated with it as it did when Atlanta was being talked about as ground zero for OutKast or whatever. But I still dig it. That's one thing that is a challenge sometimes: I can't call myself a Southern hip-hop scholar. I'm like, no, I'm a Southern hip-hop scholar up until 1998 [laughs]. Even if I don't like [what's out now], I'm still aware of it. As far as me being a fan, that [new song] "Mt. Olympus" by Big K.R.I.T. has turned Southern hip-hop on its ear. Folks weren't ready for that. I wasn't ready for that. He really goes back to what [Andre] 3000 was talking about: "The South got something to say." And K.R.I.T.'s like, I'ma talk about the South from a perspective that you not familiar with, which is rural Mississippi. Even when he was talking about it and he said, "you want that trap [or] you want that molly" - I don't know if he was saying molly or Miley, I'm still trying to figure that out - but you have all these markers of Southern hip-hop as we understand it in a mainstream aspect; he's like: I don't associate with none of that, so I'ma still give you a country nigga, but this is a country nigga from Mississippi. I'm hoping it keeps going in that direction.

Dr. Regina Bradley teaches in Kennesaw State University's Interdisciplinary Studies Dept. She's currently finishing on a book about critical hip-hop sensibilities and racial identity in the twenty-first century.

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