IF OUTKAST WERE NOT A MULTIPLATINUM-SELLING HIP-HOP group, they would make a great cop-buddy movie. Even before Big Boi and André 3000 released Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — a double album that was, for all intents and purposes, two solo albums — the pair were such a notorious odd couple, their partnership could’ve been scripted. As anyone who has followed the duo’s career knows by this point, OutKast’s core dynamic puts a teetotaling vegan dandy (André 3000) in the same blunt-smoke-filled squad car as a playa for life with a fondness for pit bulls, oversize bracelets and extremely comfortable leisurewear (Big Boi).
When Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was released last fall, with Big Boi and André 3000 each more or less sticking to their halves of the jewel box, it felt like a trial separation that everyone knows is headed for divorce court. They did (and still do) solo interviews to promote the album. André 3000 had left Atlanta for L.A. to pursue an acting career and insisted he had no plans on touring. Big Boi said that Dré always says he won’t tour, and that he’d eventually come around.
He hasn’t. To complicate things further, the album has become the biggest of their career — eight times platinum and counting, with simultaneously released hit singles and, now, three Grammys, including Album of the Year. André 3000’s “Hey Ya!,” which features no rapping at all (like much of The Love Below), has become one of the rare crossover singles that can be regularly heard on hip-hop, rock and Top Forty radio. Most recently, they received the ultimate nod of mass-cultural acceptance: They’ve been invited to appear on Oprah.
BOTH DRÉ AND BIG BOI DENY THAT they’re breaking up. Still, there’s a certain finality to the way Dré discusses the group’s future. “There’ll be two more OutKast albums,” he says, referring to their contractual obligation. “I’m willing to accept that no matter what I do next, it may not be as big as ‘Hey Ya!’ or OutKast. But it’s a growth thing. Paul McCartney and John Lennon never did anything as big as the Beatles. But they still did some cool shit on their own.”
Three days after the Grammys, Dré, 28, began shooting Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty, in which he and Cedric the Entertainer play members of a thuggish rap group called the WMDs, managed by John Travolta. “I get to dress stupid over-the-top,” Dré says with obvious delight. “Platinum jewelry, pants half-down my waist.” There was no name in the original script Dré’s lines were labeled “André” — so during rehearsals he offered a hundred bucks to whoever made up the “stupidest slumghetto name.” Cedric won with “Dabu.”
Dré is driving down Sunset Boulevard in his Toyota Land Cruiser. A saxophone workout by the Jazz Crusaders plays on the SUV’s stereo. We pull into a parking garage, and a guard smiles at Dré and waves us through. “You see that guy?” Dré asks. “Remember that song ‘Pass the Dutchie’? He did that song. He was in that group when he was a little kid.” Dré shakes his head. “He said they paid him $500.”
Though Dré is often portrayed as a shy eccentric, upstairs at Katana — a trendy Asian restaurant designed to look like a set from Blade Runner, only with more models he accepts a steady stream of well-wishers with ease and a near-constant grin. Jermaine Dupri stops by for an elbow bump, as do members of Tha Dogg Pound, a guy who says he directed Friday After Next and a young lady who says her girlfriend — “the white girl back there” — wants Dré’s number. Dré seems briefly nonplused by the request but gives her the number.
With the ubiquity of “Hey Ya!,” André 3000 has emerged as the more recognized half of OutKast. The song deserves the airplay, channeling a giddy, birth-of-rock-&-roll energy that comes as close to perfection as pop songs ever do. And any man willing to step out in a muumuu becomes especially conspicuous in the fairly conformist world of hip-hop. Tonight, Dré is wearing a Ralph Lauren Mackinaw over a checked blue oxford shirt and loose blue pants with yellow stars garnishing the leg seam. A tweed cap covers his hair (in cornrows for Be Cool), and his flashiest piece of jewelry is a vintage silver flower ring.
“Most of the clothes in the ‘Hey Ya!’ video I designed,” notes Dré as he reaches for some edamame. He’s starting his own clothing line, Benjamin André, which will concentrate, at first, on the all-important accessory. “You can have on some total bullshit,” he says, “but if you have cool socks, or a hat, or a pocket square, it’s like, ‘Oh, that shit’s fly.'”
How about when you guys started out?
Hip-hop is such a macho world. In the very beginning, I tried to make sure I fit in. We looked like regular cats. I had an Atlanta Braves jersey on in the first video. You had to look macho. It wasn’t until our second album, when I started producing, that I decided to make things more personal. I studied the way different artists looked. Prince, Sly Stone — they were dope for their time. And the jazz guys, too. They were on heroin, but they looked good. Then I went to Jamaica and decided to grow out my dreads. I wanted to keep them covered while I was growing them out, so I found this white Indian turban. It looked cool. Then I started wearing silk scarves, and it went from there. In hip-hop — well, in music, period — people don’t have that style anymore.
Did you expect to do as well as you guys did at the Grammys?
Honestly? I thought we’d win that many awards, but not in those categories. I thought “Hey Ya!” would get Record of the Year. When Coldplay won, I was like, “Oh, really?” I’m a White Stripes fan, and right now they’re considered the saviors of rock & roll, so I thought they would give Album of the Year to them.
Was it a fun night?
Norah Jones called me the night before and said, “Are you ready?” I said, “I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” It was stressful, because a lot of attention was on us. I don’t like that. The best moment was when we won Album of the Year and Big Boi gave me a hug. The embrace lasted five — eight, nine no, maybe fifteen seconds. The Love Below was originally supposed to be a solo album. At the last minute, management and the record company said it wasn’t a good time to do that, so Big Boi did Speakerboxxx. But I was taking so long to finish The Love Below that he wanted to release that as a solo album. A lot of people don’t know the album almost wasn’t made. So there were a lot of emotions in those seconds.
Are you feeling burned out on music?
I wouldn’t say burned out. But definitely uninspired. But anything could come along any day. I’m starting a band. You know the guitar player from the ‘Hey Ya!’ video, Johnny Vulture?
Um, yeah. [In the video, Dré plays every member of the band, including Johnny Vulture.]
Johnny started a band called the Vultures. He and André 3000 hate each other, because André 3000 thinks Johnny took his sound.
What else do you have planned?
I want to go to Juilliard to study classical music.
I’ve been thinking about it for about a year. But things got kinda busy. This record took off. I can’t be in school right now. But I’m taking saxophone and clarinet lessons. I’d study classical composition and music theory. Like, now, I was working on songs for Gwen Stefani’s album, and I could tell her how to sing them but not the range.
BIG BOI AND DRÉ MET AT TRI-CITIES High, an arts magnet school in Atlanta, when they were still Antwon Patton and André Benjamin. The pair quickly bonded over music. Both had far-flung tastes — though, surprisingly, it was Dré who was most into Prince and Funkadelic, while Big Boi was obsessed with Kate Bush, whose early hit, “Wuthering Heights,” has a chorus that goes (really) “Heathcliiiiiff, it’s meeeee, it’s Cathy, I’ve come hooome….”
“My uncle turned me on to that,” Big Boi says. “Nobody else could understand it. But that shit’s moving to me. I’d sit and think and play her records for hours.”
One afternoon, after taking note of the extremely high wack-to-non-wack ratio of videos on Yo! MTV Raps, Dré and Big Boi decided to form their own group. One of Big Boi’s ex-girlfriends hooked them up with Rico Wade, part of the production trio Organized Noize, whose hits would eventually include TLC’s “Waterfalls.” Their “studio,” the Dungeon, was in the basement of an old house. “The basement wasn’t finished,” Big Boi says. “We have red clay in Georgia, so the beat machines had dust on ’em. There were old broke-up patio chairs. You had seven people sitting on steps with their notebooks out. Guys sleeping upstairs on a hardwood floor. It was some gritty shit. We’d walk up to this deli inside a gas station and order the spaghetti special, because it came with five meatballs, so we could split it.”
Competition at the Dungeon was fierce, with dozens of aspiring rappers bidding for time on the mike. “You know in X-Men, the School for Gifted Children?” Big Boi asks. “It was the same way, but with three Professor X’s. There’d be nine, ten guys, and everyone would take turns rhyming over a beat. It would be your turn to rhyme, and you’d start, and then Rico’d be like, ‘Oh, did the pizza come yet?’ Break your fucking heart, man. There was a shed out back. That’s where I got into some Luke Skywalker shit. I’d sit out there for hours at a time, no music, just writing.”
The pair were so low on the Dungeon Family to-do list, their first shot came on a Christmas album. “If you ever watched Annie, we were the motherfuckers in the orphan house with dirt on our faces, with flip-flops on, wearing the same Adidas sweat shirt five days a week,” Big Boi says. “We said, ‘A Christmas album? Man, they’re trying to fuck our careers.’ But we decided to do it Dungeon-style, a song where there’s no tree, no gifts, barely a jug of eggnog.”
The song, “Player’s Ball,” was fairly conventional day-in-the-hood fare, but the hook was warbled in a great Curtis Mayfield falsetto — nearly a decade before Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes hit upon this same formula — and the record went gold. Big Boi and Dré got to make their first video, directed by a young Sean “Puffy” Combs. The success of “Player’s Ball” led to a publishing deal. Their first stop, after the check cleared, was the car lot, where Big Boi bought a new Lexus and Dré picked up a 1990 Cadillac. “That thing got so dented up,” Big Boi recalls. “It was so long, and Dré would always back into shit. He don’t smoke or drink now for a reason. Back then, he was smoking like a motherfucker. He taught me how to roll a blunt.”
Antonio “L.A.” Reid, then president of LaFace Records, offered the duo a contract. “Our parents wouldn’t let us sign,” Dré says. “We were seventeen. We had to wait a year. They didn’t believe in that rap shit.”
THE SUNDAY AFTER THE GRAMMYS, Los Angeles hosted the NBA All Star Game, with OutKast kicking things off. The night before, Big Boi was scheduled to “host” a party — essentially, a promoter had agreed to pay him $20,000 (in cash) to show up at a club, say a few words on the microphone (but not perform) and drink for free for an hour.
Big Boi, 29, and I meet at his hotel in West Hollywood several hours before his scheduled appearance. We chat in the room of his bodyguard and personal assistant, an enormous white Southerner named Chase who spent five years as a professional wrestler. A holstered handgun sits next to an open Bible on Chase’s desk. Big Boi — a little guy, that’s the joke of his name — shows up wearing an open black Mao-style shirt with epaulets, black pants and white sneakers. His bottom teeth are capped gold, a diamond stud adorns each of his earlobes, and he ashes Black and Mild cigarillos into an empty water glass.
Big Boi is in a good mood. He speaks as animatedly as he raps, and he’s quite funny, a trait that’s often overshadowed by Dré’s Bootsy-ish eccentricities. For instance, in “Roses” — a great, mean-spirited kiss-off song in the key of “Under My Thumb” — Dré shriek-sings the flashiest lines, like “I hope she speeding on the way to the club trying to hurry up and get to a baller or singer or somebody like that and try to put on her makeup in the mirror and crash crash crash into a ditch… “Which makes it easy to miss Big Boi’s understated wit on lines such as the quasi-Confucian, “I wanna see your support bra, not support you.”
Big Boi has a similar take on the Grammys as Dré: “When Coldplay won, I was like, ‘What the fuck happened?'” He also has a few side projects of his own in the works: a solo album as Hot Tub Tony and a group with Sleepy Brown, who sings the hook on “The Way You Move.”
The next proper OutKast project will be a movie for HBO, which begins filming in May. The only thing Big Boi will say about the film is that it’s not a biopic. “It’s set in the Thirties, during Prohibition,” he says. The next OutKast album will be the soundtrack to the film.
More immediately, there’s some drama involving this evening’s party promoter. He has paid Big Boi $10,000 upfront and had promised the other half upon arrival at the club — now he’s on the phone with Chase, telling him he’s got only $5,000 . . . well, maybe three… but he’s charging a hundred bucks for cover, and the night is still young, so if Big Boi would just come down…
Chase is leery of the whole deal, but Big Boi wants his money, so about ten of us — mostly dancers and rappers from Atlanta who perform live with Big Boi — pile into a stretch Explorer and head downtown. Big Boi, so talkative hours earlier, sits in the very back of the limo next to his wife and stares pensively out the window, not speaking more than a half-dozen sentences the whole trip. His crew fires up joint after joint and blares a mix CD.
We finally park in front of the club, and Chase disappears inside for a half-hour or so, eventually returning with bad news: They don’t have the cash. The promoter himself comes outside to plead with Big Boi, but we pull away without ever leaving the vehicle. The entire round-trip ride takes more than two hours. On the way back, most of the crewfalls asleep. One of the rappers, Konkrete, surveys the scene and mutters, “Y’all wanna order room service?”
“I don’t like hip-hop these days,” Dré had told me earlier. “There are cool club songs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But when I loved it, it was great albums. It was you and your homeboy from the neighborhood with a beat machine. They had their own sound. Not one superproducer on one track, another on the next track. I love the Neptunes, but I don’t want that. Our records may not have the best sound, but it’s personal. I wouldn’t trade that for a beat from Dr. Dre.”
Speaking later, Big Boi almost perfectly echoes his partner. “I could be getting one beat from Pharrell, another from someone else,” he says. “It’s like picking out a wardrobe. ‘I want a Versace hat, Gucci pants, some Louis Vuitton shoes.’ But I don’t want that. I want my own style.
“You can ask Dré: From day one, I thought the shit on this record was jamming,” he continues. “Management was getting panicky. They thought the singles were too left. I said, ‘Let’s hold our dicks on this one.’ Like, ‘Don’t budge.'” He laughs. “We ain’t budging.”