"When we first started, it wasn't cool to be from Atlanta," says Big Boi, one half of pioneering rap duo Outkast. "Now Atlanta is the place to be with music, film and television. To have people excited about the city and the culture and the lifestyle, I'm very proud of that. We're the pioneers of it, and we're still at the forefront of what's happening. There's plenty of people over the years, hundreds if not thousands like, '[1994 LP] Southernplayalistic … made me move to Atlanta.' There's no greater place in the world to be but A-Town."
As the ATL continues its reign as the most important city in hip-hop, one of the rappers who put it on the map returns with Boomiverse, his fourth and slickest LP yet, one he describes as "my graduation record." Big Boi has consistently balanced Southern hip-hop tradition with pop savvy, and Boomiverse confirms a dedication to both, even though the world of pop and hardcore rap have long since meshed. The guest list includes Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Eric Bellinger, as well as Killer Mike, Gucci Mane and a posthumous verse from Pimp C. Dr. Luke produced "All Night," a vintage pop turn as cheerful as Cee-Lo Green's "Fuck You."
Rolling Stone caught up with Big Boi to talk his latest solo outing, the 10-year anniversary of UGK's "International Player's Anthem (I Choose You)," and how his son is his "secret A&R."
You just revisited the Dungeon, the red clay basement where your Dungeon Family crew was formed.
I was doing a piece with Beats, and they were trying to get the essence of me and where I came from. What better place to do it than take them back to the Dungeon? That was my first time back there in, like, 20 years. It was a beautiful experience. I got super emotional when I walked down the steps. Nothing like that happens to me before. It's holy ground. And to go back there a week or so before my graduation record, Boomiverse, was very sentimental. It's symbolic of how far I've come and how much more I have to offer.
A standout Boomiverse track is "Get Wit It." You've had Snoop Dogg in mind for that Organized Noize instrumental. Why?
When I did "Get Wit It," I thought the music had a West Coast vibe, and I could hear Snoop all over it. That's why I like to say: Collaborations are always organically created, never genetically modified. The week before I was supposed to turn my album in, Snoop had a listening party at Stankonia, my studio where I record. Then Organized Noize had an album release party that night. My engineer called me: "Snoop said, 'You want to do a song?'" I was like, "Man. Tell him get wit' it." I played the instrumental back. Snoop said he ain't leaving this motherfucker till he do it. "Man, give me 20 motherfuckin' minutes."
The camaraderie makes that rap civil war on display at the 1995 Source Awards seem like a distant memory. Have you and Snoop talked about that?
We ain't talked about that at all, man. Throughout the years, Snoop has been a good friend of mine. Whatever you put into the Boomiverse comes back to you. I like to put positive energy out and it comes back 10, 100 times.
What's the key to making new collaborators comfortable?
For one, I come from a group. I come from a big family. I got two brothers, two sisters, a slew of nieces and nephews and my mom. I work well with others. I play well with others. Like if I was in kindergarten, I'd get an A+. Take the Curren$y collaboration. Killer Mike had been telling me for years, "Curren$y wants to work with you." Then my son Bamboo started turning me on to his music. "Dad, you need to do a song with Curren$y."
Bamboo should get an album credit.
Him, my son Cross, and my daughter have been my secret A&R since "B.O.B." I remember bringing that song home. My baby boy starts dancing all crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy. I was like, "Bam, I think this is the one." And it turns out to be one of the biggest songs we've ever done. I take my sons to football practice. Every time they got in the car, they'll be like, "Daddy, play 'Kill Bill.' Play 'Kill Bill.' Play 'Kill Bill,' Dad." I'm like, "It's 'Kill Jill.'" "Well, play that." They wanna hear "Chocolate." They wanna hear "All Night." My sons listen to everything. They turned me on to all the 21 Savages, Young Thugs and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. We share music with each other. That's been a blessing.
On "Kill Jill," you say, "They say Cosby gave 'em roofies/Now who know what the truth is." Can you explain what you mean?
I mean what I say. Only God can judge people. You're not the jury or the judge. Let the system do what it does. If he's found guilty or not guilty, whatever. But I pose that question for people to think. I'm glad people are talking about it because the whole thing is, "Now who know what the truth is." I didn't say he didn't do it. I didn't say he did it. This shit's been going on, they say, 40 years, and most of these motherfuckers judging ain't even been born. I know some people might have took it a certain way, but I don't give a fuck. It's music. It's art. It's expression. I can pose a question, you know what I'm saying?
You haven't done a vintage pop song like "All Night" before. You worked with Dr. Luke, right?
Yeah. Actually L.A. Reid sent me that record, at one in the morning. He was like, "How you like that?" I was like, "Shit, I'm gonna show you I like it." I've really been singing hooks since Southernplayalistic. But it's just another octave, me flexing my melodious voice, 'cause I do all aspects of the music. I produce. I rap. I sing. I do a bit of everything.
It's a positive record, too. It's about upholding your girl, your wife, your woman – talking about women in a positive light. You don't get that all the time. We can have fun and talk about fucking, whatever you want to talk about. But sometimes there's that one person who will do anything for you. You got to hold her up, or she gonna hold you down. That's real steel.
UGK's "Int'l Players Anthem (I Choose You)" has turned 10. When you look back at its making and the video shoot, what do you remember?
So much positive vibrations. I used to listen to UGK when we were in the 10th grade; 8Ball and MJG and UGK were two of our favorites. So for us to get on a record with them and that shit turned out like that ... and it was like a family reunion at the video. We had a lot of comedians out there; DeRay Davis was out there. We were cracking jokes and cracking on each other and shootin' the shit in between. So it wasn't even like work. Ten years later, it don't even seem like it came out 10 years ago. People always telling me they walk down the aisle to that song. When people get married to music, that's some powerful shit. If it's not the walk-down-the-aisle song, it's definitely the first dance.
Who had the best verse on "Int'l Players Anthem"?
I can't pick. Everybody attacked it different. I know people debate it. But for me, it's a four-way tie, 'cause we all explained our experiences differently. I loved everybody's verse on that piece.
You clearly have fun toying with punchlines, rhyme patterns and flows. What got you to that point?
The Dungeon. It was the alliance of the lead MCs: Goodie Mob. Outkast. We had Cool Breeze and Witchdoctor. It was like Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Everybody had different superpowers. And we learned a lot from each other and evolved.
Is there anyone you listen to now who seems to have as much fun with lyricism?
Killer Mike all day long. His evolution has been incredible to watch. Two of my most proudest accomplishments have been signing Killer Mike and Janelle Monáe. And to see what they've done with their careers, from being Purple Ribbon All-Stars, is amazing. My thing with the young guys is, I want to see their evolution. So I embrace them wholeheartedly. I love each and every one of them.
As well regarded as the Dungeon Family is, the clan has long had an contentious relationship with the music industry, whether dealing with radio or label expectations. Describe your current relationship with the industry.
I'm here, man. Me and my partner, you gotta understand, are not platinum recording artists. We're diamond recording artists. We sold so many records with one of the highest honors in music, which was Album of the Year with the Grammys. I have trophy cases full of Grammys, American Music Awards. It's not about that no more. My favorite part about making music is touring. When I make an album, I tour for two years. So it's all about going and seeing the people and watching them sing songs that you recorded years ago. The people love it. They can feel that shit. And as long as people keep digging it, I'm gonna be all I can be. It's a gift, and I don't take it lightly.
Anything else on the way?
I have a new cartoon coming out. It's called Hotlanta Waxxx. I did a million dollar deal with Vimeo, and it's in production right now. I play a retired CIA agent who buys a car wash on ancient burial grounds. So you got dinosaurs, zombie strippers, aliens. Anything can happen, and the shit is fuckin' hilarious. We're gonna announce it probably next week, but we signed the deal two weeks ago. It's not triple X as in sex, but it's triple X because it's raw. So it's crazy, man. Organized Noize is the music producers for the series, too, so you already know what that's gonna be.