Hip-hop’s late 80s and early 90s “golden age” was dominated by East Coast boom-bap and West Coast G-funk. At the time, people looked down on Southern hip-hop for its booty-shaking music that struggled to be taken seriously. Out of this landscape rose two Atlanta teenagers, known as OutKast. Andre “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton were making music on their own terms, even with the odds stacked against them.
Things changed after the 1995 Source Awards. OutKast was named Best New Artist in front of an audience of haters. The crowd booed Andre as he accepted the award and said, now famously: “The South got something to say.”The statement was prophetic. Andre’s words spoke directly to Southern hip-hop fans that finally had hometown heroes to root for. Each subsequent album reached an even bigger audience. There were bigger hip-hop acts at the time, but few had a loyal following like OutKast.
Then in 2003, they went mainstream. OutKast’s #1 hit “Hey Ya!” landed on wedding playlists everywhere. Speakerboxx/The Love Below (2004) was the last rap album to win Album of the Year at the Grammys. It took ten years, but the Atlanta duo reached the industry’s peak. OutKast’s triumph was a catalyst for Atlanta’s lasting dominance in hip-hop.
The group’s journey is the namesake for a theory I’m calling The OutKast Edge. It’s when an outsider takes longer to succeed but slowly rises to the top by growing a loyal and like-minded audience. OutKast was forced to use grassroots and unique growth tactics, which only added to their longevity. These solid stables of fans give those with the OutKast Edge leverage to call their own shots and stay true to their core mission.
This theory is valuable for artists, entertainers, content creators, startup founders, and more. Today’s available technology has opened the doors for outcasts in all walks of life to reach their audience. It’s still hard as hell, but it’s possible. The OutKast Edge is a framework to understand how slept-on trends become popular and sustain their unique edge after they succeed.
The OutKast Edge 101
The OutKast Edge is the intersection of all three
Who else has the OutKast Edge?
Tyler, The Creator: Built loyalty with other outsiders through Odd Future’s Tumblr page.
When the Odd Future frontman started rapping in the late 2000s, even the indie hip-hop blogs ignored him. But the gatekeepers couldn’t stop the group’s Tumblr account, which gave fans a glimpse of the vast creativity that was on its way.
Tyler and Odd Future started on Tumblr in 2009. It was their channel to release new music, post random photos, and behind-the-scenes content. Their Tumblr feed was one of the first artist feeds with cryptic-type messages that were unknown to outsiders. It forced fans to be all-in to understand the vibes, which built more loyalty. These tactics are common in the Instagram era, but Tyler was doing this as a teenager before Instagram existed.
When Tyler’s “Yonkers” music video dropped in 2011, more people caught on. Other rappers from major groups tried to sign him, but Tyler turned them down. He stayed in his lane, grew as an artist, refined his craft, and served his base.
Tyler put that “creator” name to work. He launched the Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival in 2012, years before artist-curated festivals went mainstream. In 2016 he also hosted his own fashion shows, featuring skateboards and basketball shorts. It was 100% on brand. He was in his bag well before he broke out.
For Tyler, 2019 was the watershed year. His self-produced IGOR album outsold DJ Khaled’s Father of Asahd—an album full of features from hip-hop superstars, made by an executive producer who implied that Tyler’s music was “mysterious.” A few months later, Tyler sold out Madison Square Garden, which he’s reminded fans of on several occasions. By the end of 2019, his OutKast Edge was so strong that his fans booed Drake, the most mainstream rapper alive.
Issa Rae: The awkward Black girl found her people through YouTube and Facebook.
Issa’s life as a Black student at Stanford was the setting for Dorm Diaries, her first YouTube series. Dorm Diaries led to her award-winning Awkward Black Girl YouTube series. In 2012, she told The Washington Post that she launched the series because “Black people are always portrayed to be cool or overly dramatic, anything but awkward.”
Fans felt seen by her vulnerability and willingness to challenge TV’s norms. Issa leaned into that through grassroots community-building tactics via YouTube comments and her Facebook page, which now has 250,000+ fans. The big networks called to try and rework her show, start a “franchise” of different ethnicities, and even replace her with lighter-skinned actresses, but she held out for the right opportunity.
She teamed up with HBO to launch Insecure in 2016. Its success has been a launchpad for a career that includes movie roles, her Raedio record label, and more. In 2021, Rae signed an eight-figure overall deal for five years with WarnerMedia.
OutKast, Tyler The Creator, Issa Rae, and Tyler Perry each represent different phases of a creator’s relationship with technology and platforms. In each phase, they democratized access from the gatekeepers. This lowered the barriers to create content, build a following, and give a voice to a community.
Today, it’s easy to look at young creators with hundreds of thousands of followers and assume they all have the OutKast Edge, but that’s not how it works. This isn’t about randomly catching fire and stumbling into a thriving audience.
This is about the person you don’t know today but has a small and loyal following. But when they do pop, get ready. The groundwork will already be set. We’ll look back and see that they had the OutKast Edge all along.