Zach Witness on How OutKast’s Music Can Spark Change Today

Zach Witness

Photo by Christian Vasquez.

The debut album by Zach Witness, Electric Revival: Rise of an OutKast Nation, started as an homage. In 2015, while producing Erykah Badu’s But You Caint Use My Phone, he got to meet and work with enigmatic personal hero André 3000, who was featured on the album’s final track “Hello,” a Todd Rundgren/Isley Brothers cover. To say thanks, Witness presented Dré with Electric Revival, an instrumental album with both electronic and orchestral tributes to OutKast’s great catalogue. Now, Witness hopes Electric Revival inspires a new generation to think and act for themselves, just like the hip-hop duo did for him.

We talked with Witness about how the album came together, and why exclusive music makes for a pretty cool birthday present.

Zach Witness

Why did OutKast’s music feel like the right source material for Electric Revival?

The name of the group is OutKast; most of the people experiencing oppression and marginalization, in general, are outcasts. Early on, OutKast was a huge catalyst for me finding my inner strength and giving myself permission to be who I am. Both musically and aesthetically, I saw a lot of myself in André. And for OutKast to actually change music is the holy grail—it’s what most artists dream of doing, being able to influence culture. OutKast’s music was a perfect mouthpiece to articulate what I was trying to say with this project. Often in art and music, you need something to bring people in to help them understand what you’re trying to say.

How did you see and hear yourself in André?

André was a rapper, but in the late ’90s, early 2000s, he took on this aesthetic that wasn’t traditionally hip-hop. He was embracing all kinds of cultures, like fashion from England. Especially on Stankonia, you had influences—drum and bass, punk music, funk—that wouldn’t typically be on a hip-hop record. I was the only white kid in a predominantly black and Mexican school. I was expected to listen to a certain type of music, or be a certain way. It was rare to find a white boy listening to UGK and Paul Wall and other hip-hop artists, especially at my age. I was also listening to Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. One of the first things I identified with was [André’s] otherness. It’s like how certain people see singers and you don’t know why, but you feel something from them that feels familiar.

Did you feel that sense of familiarity when you guys worked together?

Working with Erykah was one thing. When you’ve lived your life seeing a person on TV or album covers, they’re mythical to you. So when you see that person in real life, your mind has to process, like, ‘Wow, this is an actual human being!’ Working with André was like that. All the music we created was done in my bedroom studio at my mom’s house. This is the house I’ve grown up in, from the time I was listening to Erykah and OutKast as a kid. Working with him was really surreal.

Did your approach to music end up being similar, too?

I didn’t work with him long enough to really become familiar with the ins and out of his process. But one thing I will say is, he’s a perfectionist, and will do a line over and over until it’s absolutely right. I’m the same way. The song that led to me working with Erykah was a ‘Bag Lady’ remix I literally worked on for three years. I felt like it took that long to really get that remix to where I wanted it to be, to make the impact I would hope it would have made.

‘Keep Faith’ samples the overlooked ‘In Due Time.’ What does that record mean to you?

‘In Due Time’ is an unsung hero of the OutKast discography. I wanted to do something for true OutKast fans. The other aspect is that, unfortunately, a lot of positive music can sound corny: ‘It’s OK, guys! Let’s just put the bullshit aside and enjoy life!’ It’s not that simple. So a record or an artist that can articulate a positive message in a way that has real integrity and emotion, that’s a rarity. That song has rawness and grit, while conveying a positive message. ‘Just keep all faith in me. Don’t act impatiently. You’ll get where you need to be in due time.’ It’s not saying you’ll find happiness right around the corner. In due time, right? That is something I wanted to pass along to people who aren’t familiar with that song.

Music as a birthday gift seems like such an intimate gesture.

When André steps into my house to work on music, the first thing I say can’t be, ‘Oh my gosh, I love you! You’re such an integral part of my life!’ Now he can’t breathe as an artist, because he feels like this person is my fan, not my collaborator. André has been such a huge influence on so many people. I know he hears that all the time—how much he’s changed people’s lives or influenced their rapping style. So instead of just saying thanks, or even writing a card, I wanted to do something that meant something. The best way I know how to truly express myself is through music. On his birthday, he was in Dallas. I had been talking to Erykah. ‘So I made this gift for André. How do I get it to him?’ And she was like, ‘Just hit him up! Text him and tell him you got something for him.’ That’s literally what I did. I gave him a CD with a little note in a brown paper bag. Afterwards, he sent me a text: ‘Aw, man. I love it! I can’t believe you did this!’ So when I decided to bring the ideas into fruition more, it became a testimony to my own experiences and the lives of those in the margins of society. Also at this time, there was all this police brutality and other terrible things happening, particularly in the United States of America, which found their way into the music.

How did you first become aware of these issues?

From a young age, I was exposed to race and class segregation in America. I went to a private school that was predominantly white, middle- to upper-class kids. By fourth grade, I began to take music seriously, though my parents were having a hard time paying for me to attend private school. So I switched to a public school that was also an arts magnet. What I didn’t realize until I got there was that it was located in a really rough area of Oak Cliff, and there were no white kids. Everyone was either African-American or Mexican, and mostly working class.

Of course, I had my share of bullying, because I stuck out like a sore thumb. But I learned so much. Some of my best friends lived in one-room houses with up to eight people and would tell me about their unbelievable experiences—how they haven’t eaten a real meal in days, how their older brothers had been murdered, how their family had to resort to selling drugs because their parents couldn’t get a job lucrative enough to feed everyone. This taught me that we’re all in need of the same things: to be respected, appreciated, and loved. Color and class are mere facades. Those lessons have influenced my day-to-day life ever since. Electric Revival is very much a result of those experiences.

The last song is…

‘Ino Emarginato.’ ‘OutKast Anthem’ in Italian. I’m a big fan of classical Italian composers like Vivaldi; also, I have Italian in my bloodline. You don’t often find somebody who isn’t a classically-trained composer making classical music, especially of the hip-hop world. On top of that, I wanted to create a piece of music only using melodies from OutKast songs: ‘So Fresh, So Clean,’ ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,’ ‘Player’s Ball.’ I wanted to take OutKast to a place they’ve never been before. OutKast was always pushing hip-hop to a place it’s never been; I feel like OutKast was one of the first to sample composers like Vangelis. I also felt like [‘Ino Emarginato’] was a good conclusion to the story I’m telling. Even though there’s only five songs, [Electric Revival] tells an entire story. A classical composer would have different movements within a piece, right? Each song, to me, is a movement. ‘Ino Emarginato’ is the final movement. It’s the anthem.

Christina Lee

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