The interlude immediately following Outkast’s “Rosa Parks” on their 1998 album, Aquemini, is perhaps the best starting point for understanding the group and the arts they bent to their whim. “You gotta come provocative, nigga. You know what I mean?” muses Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon to Outkast’s Big Boi. “Shit gotta be spine-tingling with mad styles and crazy-dangerous, I mean, bust-ya-shit-open beats, you know what I mean?”
Ostensibly, Raekwon’s words foreshadow the coming song, or reflect on the four minutes of bluesy, foot-stomping brilliance that just unfolded in “Rosa Parks.” But they also serve as a guiding ethos for hip-hop, which was enjoying a banner year in 1998. Danger. Style. Funky beats and aural violence. Spines tingled from provocation, not the least of which was mine, then a 10-year-old boy listening to a hip-hop album with intent for the first time.
But not all listeners were as thrilled as I, and it wasn’t just the pearl-clutching Fox News types who reacted negatively to the provocations of Big Boi and André 3000. As classic a song as it is, “Rosa Parks” is also known for sparking a 1999 lawsuit from the eponymous civil-rights legend, whose lawyers claimed that the song demeaned Parks, bore little connection to her actual legacy, and was full of needless vulgarity. The case sprawled across federal courts and spawned multiple controversies until it fizzled out, eventually ending in a quiet settlement. More than that, it outlined the key tension that has played out in black culture over the past five decades. Here were two revolutions: one the titanic timeline of the civil-rights movement, the other the rowdy, raunchy, rap rebellion of hip-hop. The case symbolized how many in both the media and black intellectual traditions pitted the two movements against each other for dominion over black culture. How could they be reconciled?