The album cover for OutKast’s 1996 ‘ATLiens’
Atlanta, the ’90s, and the comic book dreams of future hip-hop hall of famers
So here’s the scene: Andre and Big Boi exit the elevators at the top floor of Atlanta-based LaFace Records. This is 1995. They enter LaFace co-founder Antonio “L.A.” Reid’s office.
“We finally got the album title.” One of them announced it. Maybe both of them announced it. This isn’t yet 2000 Stankonia OutKast. This isn’t Big Boi of 2003’s “The Way You Move” or Andre 3 Stacks of “Hey Ya.” These are just two kids who made one nice album — 1994’s woozy and sprawling Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. OutKast had cut themselves in as the Southern alternative to what was then a very bicoastal rap scene. At the 1995 Source Awards, they’d won Best New Rap Group and Andre galvanized an entire movement when he famously announced, “The South got somethin’ to say.” Now OutKast needed to say what that was.
And they did know how to command attention of a room. One of those present in the LaFace offices was D.L. Warfield, who, at the time, was creative director at LaFace. He’s now founder and president of the boutique agency Goldfinger C.S. Warfield’s office was next to Reid’s. They’re all standing there. “ATLiens,” Big Boi and Andre both say, separately, of course, but somehow together. Everyone lights up.
“[ATLiens] didn’t sound like a record,” Warfield said. “It sounded like a movie. And comic books are basically like paper movies.” So Warfield suggested a cover that resembled a comic book.
Most musical acts in the ’90s had their faces on their album covers. But two kids from the Art Institute of Atlanta had planted a different idea in OutKast’s heads. “Darrick [D.L. Warfield] was basically playing along with Dre and Big Boi saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, we need to do a comic book,’ but the idea came from me and Vince [Robinson],” said Nigel Sawyer, then the co-art director at LaFace. “Darrick didn’t read comic books. That was me and Vince. We read the comic books.” In the end, it was a massive collaborative effort that pushed the concept through. Both Sawyer and Robinson were reading a ton of Image Comics then, with a particular fondness for Spawn, and loving the bold artwork of Todd McFarlane. And before that meeting in Reid’s office, Andre had brought a stack of old Parliament records to Sawyer’s office, saying they should dip into the aesthetic of 1977’s Funkentelechy or 1976’s Clones of Dr. Funkenstein.
The team sent out some OutKast photos and sketches to McFarlane — he turned them down, and passed them along to Frank Gomez. Gomez works now as a character designer at Marvel Animation but back then, he was illustrating DC Comics titles such as the apocalyptic Superman: At Earth’s End (1995). Gomez vivified their concept on the cover. As hands of unseen monsters close in on them, Andre and Big Boi are superheroes as powerful and unwavering as Superman or Captain America, but — and this was and remains key — they looked dope. Forget latex and unrealistic body frames. Big Boi was in his B-boy stance and Dre rocked a turban. They were superheroes, but they were still very much themselves.
There was a small problem, though. One problem that pretty much everyone who saw the original inks agreed upon: That face didn’t look like Big Boi’s. So Robinson suggested adding a hat, and sketched an Atlanta Braves cap to place on his head. To him, it was mainly a solution to a problem, but that Braves hat further grounded the ATL in the ATLiens, a signaling to the world that OutKast hadn’t completely left this world. “That was a whim,” Robinson said. “It was like, ‘Hey, let me add something, let’s cover his face a little bit … He always wears his hat like that anyways.’ ”
Big Boi and Andre didn’t have to show their “real” faces. Their “something to say” was them showing their real selves. Their cover of ATLiens showed you they respected art, and that they respected creativity. If you felt like an OutKast — an outsider in your own city, like an ATLien — that cover (and comic book inside) showed fans that you can create what you want, and that really, you can be anyone. Even a superhero. Just look at Andre, and Antwan.