On its twenty-fourth anniversary, look back on one of hip-hop's truly legendary nights.
There was a time where Big Boi and Andre 3000 were newcomers to the game, difficult though it may be to fathom. When the 1995 Source Awards rolled around, Dre and Big were riding the high of Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik, which dropped on April 26th, 1994. At the time of its release, both men were only eighteen, two years removed from meeting at the Lenox Square shopping mall. Their undeniable skillset landed them their first record deal, Kast hit Rico Love’s studio, better known as The Dungeon, to lay the foundation of their debut. Driven by the strength of the classic single “Playas Ball,” OutKast found themselves rising fast, catching the eye of P Diddy, who would go on to direct its music video.
Fast forward to 1995, when the duo found themselves seated at the second Source Awards. Though a young ceremony, The Source Awards were already gaining both notoriety and acclaim from the hip-hop community. Consider the inaugural event, which found ONYX rapper Sticky Fingaz licking shots in the air mid-performance, riddling the ceiling with bullet holes. Yet in spite of its unpredictability, Dave Mays and Benzino’s brainchild carried immeasurable weight, as it was wholly dedicated to a culture oft-neglected by The Grammys. For that reason, young artists like OutKast held the Source Awards in high esteem, much in the way Unsigned Hype and Mic Ratings became benchmark milestones for years to come.
Shanti Das, a young woman working as an executive at LAFACE Records, happened to be sitting with both Big Boi and Andre. She recounted her experience at the Source Awards during VH1’s 2014 documentary TL: The Untold Story of Atlanta's Rise in the Rap Game. Describing the vibe as particularly “weird,” Das cited Suge, Snoop, Biggie, and Bad Boy as contributors of simmering tension. “It was me, Big Boi, and Dre,” she reflects. “They get ready to announce the award for best new artist.” Lo and behold, OutKast seized the victory - only to be met with a chorus of confused boos. “How you gon’ get booed, when you just won best new artist?” pondered Das, years removed from the incident. Once OutKast took the stage to accept their prize, Andre 3000 decided the disrespectful ambivalence was not to stand. It’s like this though,” he states, frustration ebbing in his voice. “I’m tired of folks, you know what I’m saying? Close-minded folks. It’s like we got a demo tape and nobody want to hear it. But it’s like this - the South got something to say. That’s all I got to say.”
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The Source Awards were both monumental and heartbreaking in equal measure. Given the scope of legendary artists in attendance, and the sheer number of budding rivalries on hand, it’s no wonder several legendary figures were overlooked. In a retrospective interview with Pitchfork, Questlove described the 95’ Source Awards as “hip-hop’s funeral.” Or, in simpler terms, the day his understanding of traditionalism perished. He cites an anecdote about Nas, at the time nineteen and coming off the release of Illmatic, an album many still hold as the benchmark debut to this day. But first, he sets the tone: “Nas' body language that day told the whole story of where we were about to go,” explains Quest. “The more he got ignored for Illmatic, I literally saw his body melt in his seat. Almost like he was ashamed. He just looked so defeated. I was like, "Yo, he's not gonna be the same after this shit." None of us were the same after that day. I feel like the true underground lost its oxygen that night.”
Illmatic was bested by Biggie’s Ready To Die. Big also proved his kryptonite for Lyricist Of The Year, as well as Best New Artist, Solo - two categories that Nas likely stood a fighting chance. “You don’t know about my Biggie wars,” rapped Nas, on “Last Real N***a Alive.” “Who you thought ‘Kick In The Door’ was for?” Is it fair to infer that Nas’ so-called Biggie wars were going on during this very moment? If so, did The Source Awards play a role in stoking a possible fire? Such questions may very well go unanswered, but that’s okay. It’s simply a testament to the rich and complex interactions entrenched within hip-hop’s DNA. Yet not all animosities brewed quietly. Others exploded in loud and raucous fashion.
Tensions between Death Row and Bad Boy Entertainment were bubbling at a rapid rate. The parallel nature of their respective rises likely contributed to each label’s growing disdain. Suge and Diddy, then going by Puff Daddy, two moguls at the head of twin hip-hop empires. Tupac and Notorious B.I.G, two monolithic emcees, friends turned rivals, embroiled in a blood feud both on wax and beyond. Consider that if Notorious Big swept the 95’ Source Awards, he was nearly matched in accolades by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. It’s almost funny to look back on Dre’s “Producer Of The Year” award. Standing nominated alongside New York favorite DJ Premier (as measured by the cheers during his introduction), Dre ultimately found himself overcoming local bias to secure a victory. Upon announcing Dre’s name as the victor, the presenter can’t help but acknowledge the elephant in the room: “uh-oh, we’re going to have some trouble here.”
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All smiles as he took to the stage, a young Dr. Dre took the stage with exuberance, swiftly joined by his partner in crime/protege Snoop Dogg. Yet where Dre’s body language appeared at ease, Snoop was left pacing in a restless manner, spurred on by the lingering boo-birds. As Dre acknowledged the crowd, Snoop would seize the mic. “The East coast don’t love Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg?” he cried, before doubling down, this time adding Death Row for emphasis. “Ya’ll don’t love us? Well let it be known then - we don’t give a fuck! We know ya’ll East Coast! We know where the fuck we at! East Coast in the Muthafuckin house?” His face twists into a mask of disgust as he stares daggers at the displeased audience. It’s no wonder the climate for West Coast hip-hop was hardly welcoming, given what transpired five minutes prior during Dre’s "Producer Of The Year" acceptance speech.
As he took to the stage to accept the award for "Soundtrack Of The Year" on behalf of Above The Rim, Suge Knight cast a dark cloud upon the stage. To describe his gait as a “walk” would be an understatement; the man damn near sauntered. “First of all, I’d like to thank God,” he began. “Second of all I’d like to thank my whole entire Death Row family on both sides. I’d like to tell Tupac keep his guard up, we riding with him.” Upon mentioning the incarcerated Pac’s name, the crowd burst out in unintelligible murmurs. Perhaps that’s what triggered his parting message, delivered squarely for Puff Daddy’s ears. “One thing I’d like to say,” said Suge. “Any artist out there who want to be an artist, and want to stay a star, and don’t have to worry about executive producers trying to be all in the video, all on the record, dancing...come to Death Row!”
What followed was a standing ovation, but with boos. Undeterred, Suge departed with his arm held high, a gesture one finger short of a fuck you. Naturally, Diddy was not about to take the slight lying down, as he issued an on-stage retort of his own. “I’m the executive producer the comment was made about a little earlier,” he said, after Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear” took home "Single Of The Year." “Contrary to what other people may feel, I would like to say that I’m very proud of Dr. Dre, of Death Row, and Suge Knight for their accomplishments. I’m a positive black man, and I make good music to bring us together, not to separate us.” Diddy made sure to squeeze in a parting message during Bad Boy’s climactic performance, albeit more statement than shot: “I live in the East, and I’m gon’ die in the East.”
Wild though it was, the 1995 Source Awards should be celebrated as an iconic moment in hip-hop history, in which tension and talent coalesced to a magnificent degree. With performances from the entire Death Row Roster, DJ Quik, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G and Bad Boy Records, few can deny the pedigree involved, a cavalcade of golden-era legends sharing the same stage. Though tempers may have flared, stoking budding rivalries in the process, the Ceremony ultimately captured many iconic moments and should be enjoyed by anyone curious in building a deeper understanding of the culture's roots.