Catching up with the erstwhile OutKast star
Dressed almost entirely in blue denim — vest, jeans, jean jacket — André Benjamin walked into the fourth floor conference room of a midtown Manhattan office building on November 14, ready to talk about mustaches.
Trim and smiling, with just a hint of gray speckling his sideburns (and an impeccably neat mustache), the erstwhile OutKast co-leader, 37, was in town to talk about Gillette's Movember campaign. You know Movember, maybe. That's the annual campaign that encourages dudes to grow facial hair for charity. During November, Gillette will donate one dollar to fighting prostate cancer for every photo documenting an individual's facial hair progress uploaded to the company's Facebook page.
The campaign may sound a bit arch, but Benjamin, whose old OutKast partner in crime Big Boi, would be performing songs from his upcoming album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors in Brooklyn later that night, spoke movingly about his involvement. "A lot of people know about prostate cancer," he said, "but Movember is a way that a lot of people can have fun and pay attention to the issue. I'd like to make it more acceptable to talk about. Like, when you think about breast cancer, at one point in time, it may not be cool to talk about how your aunt had to get a breast cut off. Now you got NFL teams wearing pink socks. We can bring attention to the right things if we keep at it."
Bringing attention to the right things has, at times, been a challenge for Benjamin. He's an actor — who recently wrapped filming a starring role in the Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side — and he frequently drops virtuosic guest verses on tracks for everyone from Frank Ocean ("Pink Matter") to Rick Ross ("God Forgives"). But all anyone wants to know is when he'll make another album, either solo or with OutKast, whose last effort was 2006's Idlewild. "I hear it every day," he says wearily. "I go to the grocery store and people are like 'Hey, where's that new album?' It's great that people care, but I don't know what I'll do. Maybe I'll do an album and maybe not. Some days I feel like it and some days I don't."
He's still got an ear out for Big Boi, though. Benjamin gave his friend some guidance after hearing an early, more classic soul-influenced version of some of the Vicious Lies material. He told him: "We're in a new time. Try different things; don't necessarily make it sound any certain way." Given Big's previously proven knack for hip-hop that draws from the '70s funk wellspring, Benjamin thought he "needed to give people a reason to come back to the store. I told him to try anything, man," he says. "That's what music is about."
That lesson, that emphasis on freedom, has deepened for 'Dre — and Jimi's to thank for that. "In researching him," said Benjamin, who will reportedly contribute covers of '60s rock classics to the film's soundtrack, "I saw that a lot of the paths that he went down where the same ones that I went down when I was a young kid. He did what he thought was right for his music. I always gravitated towards him." Benjamin taps the top of the conference room table with his index finger. "This movie is the real shit right here," he says. "I think people will learn things they didn't know."
About you? I ask. Benjamin grins. "Wait and see."