“A-T-L-iens. It means that we are from ATL and we are from another world. The music is from out of this world. Not the ordinary,” David “Mr. DJ” Sheats (@MRDJTHEPRODUCER) offers as the proper pronunciation for Outkast’s celebrated sophomore album, which turns 20 on August 27th. As both producer and DJ, Sheats was a key contributor to the creation of the album and will be detailing his work with Outkast during an upcoming special lecture at the A3c Festival & Conference in Atlanta.
“It’s amazing that we’ve made it 20 years and are still relevant,” he continues. “That album was [created]at a time when we were going from boys to men, and having real grown people responsibilities. And that was what drove the content of that album. The reason those songs are so serious and emotional because we were going through so much. Big’s aunt had just died. He had a new kid. I think Dre had just met Erykah Badu, so everybody was changing and becoming a grown person at that time.”
ATLiens was brilliant in part because it addressed the otherness that Atlanta was viewed with by the wider hip-hop industry while positioning the group and their city as being ahead of their time. However, their extraterrestrial infused compositions were also inspired by hominid harmonies that migrated from the South Bronx to South Beach and all of the southern States in between. The celestial thump of singles like “Elevators” and “Jazze Belle” amplified the declaration that “the south had something to say” and it resonated beyond hip-hop’s imaginary borders by chronicling very human conditions.
“We would be at strip clubs all night and then come back to the studio and jump on a beat so some things are a blur,” he adds with a chuckle. “The songs were strictly made from real life experiences and the mood you were in at the time. The music definitely captured that.”
For the unfamiliar, here are 10 things you should know about Mr. DJ and his work on Outkast’s ATLiens.
1.HIS INTRO TO DJING
I started DJing when I was about 9 years old. I started at home around 7 tearing up my mom’s component set and using the volume knob as a mixer control. At about 10 I went to a skating rink and this DJ got ready to throw this one record on, he turned his back and the way the crowd reacted, the way he was able to control that crowd without saying a word was the most powerful thing to me. And that’s what made me decide to be a DJ. His name was Dr. Rock, he was part of the Fila Fresh crew, an old school DJ crew out of Texas. I was in Dallas, TX when this happened.
2. HIS DJ MENTOR
I had been home DJing on my mom’s turntables for the longest. So when I moved to Texas for a year and saw Dr. Rock I was hanging out with this guy DJ Swiff in Texas and he DJ’d all the house parties around Texas. And because I liked music so much I actually started out as a rapper. I would pick the mic up during the party and bust a rap while he played the instrumentals. So I learned about the turntables and that stuff from him. Just being around him.
3. GETTING HIS FIRST TURNTABLES
I was in seventh grade working at a Chinese restaurant saving my money. One day I got on the MARTA train and rode down to Little Five Points. There was this little store that I’d pass with all the the electronics in the window; turntables, TVs, mixers. So once I saved up my money I caught the train, walked over to the store and I was able to buy two cheap, mismatched turntables and a mixer. You should have seen me carrying all that stuff back to the train. I could barely even walk with all that stuff but I was so excited to get ‘em back to my apartment on Headland and Delowe. They might have been some Panasonics with the straight arm. And the needles didn’t even disconnect from the arms. So these were very far from professional. But I thought I was the shit.
4. BECOMING OUTKAST’s DJ
Organized Noize is the production crew that discovered Outkast and they produced the majority of the first album. Rico Wade is my cousin. My turntables were set up at his house and he and Sleepy Brown were in a dance group called the U Boys. I was the DJ and they were the performers. And once my cuz discovered Outkast I asked him to DJ for them because at the time I was stealing cars. I was like “Hey cuz you should let me DJ for that group.” So once he introduced me to the guys we clicked. We went on to become production partners for Earthtone III.
After ATLIENS I relinquished the turntables to DJ Swiff. Once we did “Elevators” we realized we were pretty good at producing and I realized I liked that. So Dre and B said lets start producing. So I switched to full-time production right around the end of the second album.
5. MAKING “Elevators”
We were on tour at the time and Dre and I had drum machines and beat machines on the bus. We were just imitating Organized Noize and mimicking their moves, learning how to make beats. So we had the makeshift studio in the back of the bus and Dre came up with the little beat part, I added some keys and Big Boi came up with the hook “me and you…” and that was kind of how ‘Elevators’ was born. We played it for Organized Noize and they said that it was dope. We realized it was a hit. That’s what catapulted us into producing. That bass line was played by Preston Crump. He’s instrumental in a lot of our music.
6. Why there is a little laugh in the track…
When we make music we sample a lot of different records, and not for the rhythm and the melody of it, but just for the texture of some of the sounds. But that laugh came from a record of a guy laughing. It was a vibe. When we make music it’s not just about a note or a melody. It created a vibe so we left it there. It could have been a dog bark and if it created some kind of ambiance or feeling, that contributed to what the entire song sounds like, so then you leave it.
7. The “ONP86Mix”
Organized did it but I did the scratching and DJ stuff. That was a memorable remix because once we realized we were onto something we took a trip to Jamaica. We had just finished that remix so it was what we played the entire time we were at the beach house. I remember jumping off the top balcony into the pool and that song was on repeat all day long. 86 might be the beats per minute.
Big Boi did that hook. He was the master at making all the hooks. And that was his niche in ET3. Dre was more of the beat person and I was more of the melody person. That was kind of the order for all of the songs. 3000 was really into trying out old drum machines so he’d always come with these Casio sounding drum tracks and I would take ‘em and bring em to life. It was a 3-part thing.
9. “Wheelz of Steel”
My concept for WOS was to make the turntables talk. When I say talk, each of the things that I’m cutting, if you put each thing in a row, it’s saying something. “feel,” so,” good…there were actual sentences within those cuts. I was going from record to record to find…I might have gotten a phrase from the lady on the news and another from a nursery rhyme. And I grew up as a DJ listening to a lot of Miami Bass and shake dance music is very scratch oriented. I was inspired a lot by DJ Magic Mike. So that was my rendition of Magic Mike to show people how we DJ, which is different than up north DJing, which is a little slower.
10. A Tribe Called Kast
I have heard of that, but at one point we were on the low talking about A Tribe Called Kast album, but it never came to be. It was interesting to hear that there was a mixtape. I was really excited about that because we listened to a lot of Tribe before we came out and we did a lot of shows with those guys. It seemed like a perfect fit and I’m kind of sad that it didn’t take place. [To still make a song] We’d have to find a Phife verse that hasn’t been released and put everybody’s new verses around it. But it would be sweet and sour. It’d be dope to hear all of them together but we wouldn’t be able to give you more of it.