If all went according to plan last year, Outkast fans would be hearing another Big Boi solo album right now to follow 2012's Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. While touring with Andre 3000 on the Outkast reunion tour, the rapper had begun piecing together bits of "up to 100 songs," writing on airplanes and recording between shows.
But something happened in Los Angeles that changed the rapper's musical direction. "I linked up with Phantogram and it was just the chemistry while I was in L.A.," Big Boi tells Rolling Stone. "I switched gears after we came off the Outkast tour, like, 'Why don't we put the [collaborative] record together?' We started working on it and it was like, 'Holy shit.' Why don't we do this first?"
The result is Big Grams, a seven-track, genre-bending EP featuring Skrillex and Run the Jewels set for release on September 25th that builds on Phantogram's past contributions to Vicious.
"It's a new project. It's not Phantogram; it's not Big Boi. It's a whole new idea," Phantogram's Sarah Barthel tells Rolling Stone. "We wanted to have a time where we could not stress about the 'Phantogram sound' or collaborating on a hip-hop record. We wanted to experiment and have fun with it. The main focus of wanting to do this project was to do things that we wouldn't normally do anywhere else. This was a good platform for that because it's less judgmental to think about it in that way."
Barthel points to her rap verse on new song "Goldmine Junkie" as an example of her reluctance — and eventual acceptance — to go out of her comfort zone. "When we were in the studio, we were trying to figure what person to put on a track and Big was like, 'Why don't you just rap?' 'Uhhh. No. that's a bad idea,'" she says. "But he talked me into it and coached me in the studio, which is strange to be rapping in front of your all-time favorite rapper."
"It's different," Big Boi adds, when asked how the Big Grams album compares to the group's past collaborations with the rapper on Vicious tracks "Lines" and "Objectum Sexuality." "Everybody's playing different roles all the way around the board. It's the unsnortable. These are the grams you can't snort."
Among the seven songs, Barthel says "Drum Machine," produced by Carter and Skrillex, became the EP's initial inspiration. "It's very dark-adelic," she says. "The idea behind it was as simple and plain as drum machines, but they can get pretty aggressive. Some of the kicks and snares sound like machine guns." Elsewhere, Run the Jewels appear on new song "Born to Shine."
For Big Grams, the group shuffled between Los Angeles and Stankonia Studios in Atlanta, spending two weeks on-and-off in each city before Barthel and Phantogram's Josh Carter encamped to Big Boi's Atlanta home to finish the album.
"They stayed with my family, sitting at the dinner table with me and my kids just kicking it," Big Boi says. "Me and [Killer] Mike were in the studio and Josh and Sarah came down and we were all just vibing out. The chemistry in the room, we just call it 'best friend shit' because it feels like we've been knowing each other forever."
If the idea of an indie electronic-pop duo crashing at Big Boi's house seems strange, you're not alone. "It's crazy to say now, but he's one of our best friends," Barthel admits. "When Josh and I were growing up, we idolized Outkast and based our whole goal of innovative and fresh-sounding music [on them]. Big Boi and us will call each other whenever we need support or if we're going some through some stuff. I can always count on him to talk. We've been good friends for five years now. He's just a real person and a true friend."
As the group gears up for the EP's release, Big Boi continues to work on his as-yet-untitled solo album "on a daily basis," but all involved hope this is the beginning of a longer working relationship. "Big always says, 'I'm in two bands: Outkast and Big Grams,'" says Barthel. "I think there's going to be a lot more Big Grams in the future. It's another outlet to experiment in different ways."