Two days before Thanksgiving, Manhattan's Beacon Theatre is teeming with upscale teenage white girls sandwiched into their best Britney Spears getups—tight, pocketless jeans, gold nameplates, long feathered hair. At $125 for a prime seat, tickets ain't cheap. But proceeds go to Lifebeat, the HIV/AIDS resource and awareness organization, and the bill features the latest spinners on the teenybop carousel: Jessica Simpson, 98°, the Corrs, Baha Men, Mya, Pink, and... OutKast? Welcome to the top of the charts.
The young ladies go gaga at the sight of Atlanta's phreak-hop overlords. Dre is decked in an ass-length platinum wig, shades, and an oversize, navy-blue samurai-ish jumpsuit; Big Boi is cloaked in an obnoxiously yellow goose-down bubble jacket and thirsty hooded sweatshirt. "Before we go any further," Dre says, "we're OutKast. And we like to have a good time."
The girls scream for Kast's 1998 banger, "Rosa Parks," which gets embellished by three backup singers, two guitarists, and one DJ. Their current hit, "Ms. Jackson," has the crowd barking even louder. Supermodel Veronica Webb shimmies offstage, craning her fine neck to get a better view as a girlfriend sings the words directly into her mug. OutKast's sex appeal is obvious: Chicks dig dudes who aren't afraid to be who they be. Especially if they're capable of being not just stone-hard but metaphysically complicated.
Spend a few days city-jumping with the lead contenders for World's Greatest Living Hip-Hop Act, and you'll see the breadth of hip-hop America. In Chicago, legions of black teens will camp for hours in the brutal cold outside Coops records, a ma-and-pa store on the city's south side, waiting to swarm their idols. In Detroit, after a promotional appearance on R&B standard-bearer WJLB, a very old-school playa dressed in a red-orange sports coat and white plaid pants will pledge his allegiance ("I can tell he's a real pimp-type," Dre says admiringly after the gentleman leaves. "If you're a black man and you wear red, you're soul as hell.")
Things have been all gravy for the Atlantans since dropping the double-platinum Stankonia, a long-player that is experimental and experienced and erotic and shy and loutish and thoughtful to boot. And believe it or not, it's the O's fourth consecutive killer LP: 1994's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, 1996's ATLiens, and 1998's Aquemini each have redefined the meaning of hip-hop, serving up tasty, free-range grilled tracks that mix samples with live instruments, hevay-bottomed beats, Atlantan-meets-alien patois, polyrhythmic rhyme schemes, and 'hood tales worth re-reciting. They've earned the respect of men and women, thugs and thespians, rockers and rap fiends, raver-types and R. Kelly-loving smoothies. They've opened tours for Eminem and Lauryn Hill; at press time, both U2 and Limp Bizkit were seeking their services. "'B.O.B.' was maybe the most exciting thing I heard last year," says former Rage Against the Machine throat Zack de la Rocha, who did some remixes of Stankonia's first single. "It defies definition, and that's the dopest kind of music. They're an incredible group."
All of their previous records have gone platinum or better, but Stankonia debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart on November 18, going gold its first week and shocking industry wonks by outselling even U2's long-awaited comeback. Urban radio jumped to the guitar-charged, acid-booty rompings of "B.O.B.," while rock radio latched onto an unauthorized mic of the song credited to de la Rocha (although both he and the group have since renounced it; more on that later.) MTV pumped the videos, especially the Dr. Doolittle-inspired "Ms. Jackson" clip. Now more than ever, OutKast's songs represent a change that's looming over hip-hop—a welcome change at a time when yapping about karat sizes and busting that quick nut in them broads has become the banal mainstream and most so-called alt-rappers are rapping into brown paper bags about nothing. With cuts like "Ms. Jackson" (which apologizes to their baby-mamas' mamas for their failed relationships) and "I'll Call Before I Come" (in which they promise to address the climax needs of their ladies first), OutKast have officially kicked off the Southerngentlemanwitharuggedspiritualintellect-era nationwide. And it's something like a phenomenon.
Plenty of fuss has been made about the duo's "weirdness." But OutKast are straight-up classic B-boys. Seen with the wide-open perspective of golden-framed Cazal specs—the kind that hip heads used to don sans lenses back in the early 1980s—Big Boi's not so weird at all. He rocks braids just like Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five did. While in Chicago, with posse in tow, he dropped a cool seven thou at the mall directly after the Coops appearance, just like any authentic big baller might. "I don't always spend that much," he says, citing a slew of upcoming photo shoots after scooping everything from Coogo and Iceberg and Krome Klass at a hip-hop superstore called Krew. "It just feels good to be able to shop. Before, when we was going to the mall, a nigga didn't have any money to do nothin'."
If Big Boi is classic B-boy, then Dre, a.k.a. Andre 3000, is classic Space Cow-B-boy. Dre's an MC with a fashion sensibility more Hendrix than anything: he'll rock a platinum wig or a turban quicker than you can say Alizé. Dre's the lyricist who sports a leather band on his wrist when he could easily cop a Rolex. Dre's the loner who, instead of trooping off to the mall, goes back to his private coach (Big Boi's ride has been dubbed the "Smoker's Bus"; Dre has given up the herb), not to be seen again until the following day.
"Dre is one of the purest examples of what hip-hop is—and that's forever looking for a new way to do it," says Goodie Mob's Big Gipp, a close friend and Dungeon Family member (DF being the extended Atlanta musical clan that includes Goobie Mob, OutKast, and producers Organized Noize) who's along for the ride on the Smoker's Bus. "Big Boi is like the millennium street-hustler—he's the one who's gonna come up with that new talk kids are gonna seek."
Together, the pair creates music that personifies the timbre of urban black America: a sound that documents the connection between crack vials and corn bread, street politics and family values, God and infinity.
Those are the thoughts, anyway, at five in the morning, while the two OutKast buses sprint toward Michigan. Big Boi, Gipp, and crew members C Bone and Slimm Cutta Calhoun (who is signed to the group's Elektra-distributed Aquemini Records) drag on healthy joints and go head-to-head on PlayStation2 (Madden NFL 2001) in the crème-leather back cab of the Smoker's Bus. Having gone days without much sleep, Big Boi can toke cheeb, play videogames, trash-talk his opponents ("You fittin' to feel the pain," he warns Big Gipp), and wax eloquent on a reporter without dropping the ball.
Where do you think hip-hop is, creatively, right about now?
Big Boi: They’re real comfortable out there right now. Nobody’s hungry anymore. The materialism thing is gonna be around forever, but too many people have been focusing on that and only that. If [I’ve] got a microphone to speak to the world, I wanna express my views on what’s going on around me. We feel that—just like KRS-One said—when you get on this microphone, you have to educate as well as entertain. We feel that responsibility, but not in a preachy way. We’re gonna party with y’all and slip something in there every now and then - maybe a word or a phrase or a question. And you might be like, “Damn, I wonder why they said that?”
Which speaks directly to your legal problem with Rosa Parks, who filed a defamation suit over the single “Rosa Parks” in 1998. Is it still going on? And is Johnnie Cochran really involved with the case on Ms. Parks’ behalf?
He is involved. We won the first decision, so they’re appealing it. But everybody knows there was never any disrespect at all. If you know anything about OutKast—if you listen to the song, it is not about Rosa Parks. When we sing “everybody move to the back of the bus,” we’re just using that as symbolism.
One of her nephews came to our concert and was like, “Yeah man, I just want y’all to know that it’s not my auntie, it’s the lawyers and the people she’s got behind her. My auntie’s old as hell…” Rosa Parks is like eightysomething years old—she’s not listening to OutKast. And even if she’s listening to the song—if you hear a cuss word or whatever, we still ain’t tellin’ people what she did was wrong. We’re promoting what she did, if anything. Most young cats don’t even know who Rosa Parks is or what she’s done. So it’s enlightenment. We love Ms. Parks, and every time we perform the song, we dedicate it to her.
It seems like a lot more white brothers and sisters are checking for OutKast.
Our audience started out a little mixed from the beginning. Now I’m starting to see younger faces and a lot more white people. Our whole thing is, as long as we’re making music that is true to ourselves, we want as many people to hear it as possible.
Do you remember the first time you noticed that OutKast’s white following had really exploded?
It was at Earwax Records in Atlanta; they had a midnight madness sale for the release of Stankonia. The line was up the street, around the corner, and it was mostly white people. It was crunk, though. We didn’t now we had that many white fans. We were like, “Guess they’re tired of that bullshit, too.” (Laughs)
Zack de la Rocha did a remix of “B.O.B.” that’s getting nice play on rock radio. How did that come together?
We like Rage; we listen to Rage. We were on the Higher Learning soundtrack with ‘em. So we sat down with Zack, and he was like, “Yeah, we’re feelin’ you.” So we go to Paris, come back, and the remix is already done, and before we even knew about it, [Arista] started to send it out, and it got added to different rock radio stations.
We heard it but felt that it wasn’t us. I’m not saying it’s wack, but it’s just not our sound. That’s why we don’t do a whole lot of remixes—because if the remix isn’t better than or as good as the original, then why even fuck with it in the first place?
But it’s opened you up to a whole new audience…
Zack knows that side of the fence. He knows how to get to ‘em. He helped us out—and we appreciate it. But it’s not our sound, that’s why it’s getting played where it’s getting played.
People want to go to something that’s hip and new. We’re just doing what we do. There ain’t been no set OutKast formula. There’s a closed-mindedness in hip-hop; once people get a set formula, and it works for ‘em…. It’s like being in school: If you’re passing with a B, then why try to get an A? Everybody samples, but there’s a lot of not-so-creative sampling out there. When we sample, we sample for the sounds, not for the structure of the whole damn song. It’s about being creative. With us, we listen to everything: Gil Scott-Heron, Minnie Riperton, James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Kate Bush—I go deep into her music. A lot of old soul…
Speaking of influences, what’s with this Billy Ocean thing you’ve been talking about? Is that your new alias? Are you seriously gonna croon those jams like Mr. “Caribbean Queen”?
I heard [Billy Ocean] didn’t have the copyright to his name… But I really want to do a song with him. He’s on some real playa-disco-pimp-slumadelic funky shit. He had a Jheri curl and a tight-ass goddamn tuxedo with a little bitty bow tie. How hard is that? Man, I got a Billy Ocean eight-track at the house. For real. He’s on some cool-out, relax, low-blood-pressure shit.
I think our next album is gonna be a double CD. Dre will do five songs, then we’ll do five OutKast songs, then I’ll do five songs—split it up like that. We’ve been doing songs by ourselves on the albums, but a nigga might want to get the chance to go waaaaay out.
Dre and Big Boi are sitting in the studios of the Motor City’s WJLB. “We’re just havin’ a real good time up here in Freak-troit,” Dre says. “We’ve got a public-service announcement this evening: We’re gonna let y’all know that crack is back in the ‘hood.” He is referring to the surge of Ecstasy use in the black community. “And it ain’t all good.” Big Boi doubles over with a chuckle. Dre backs up shyly. “But really—y’all kids out there should stay off that dope.” And he has been for weeks. Dre’s doing the hustle - promoting Stankonia, being very nice and courteous to all comers. But as you watch him in between autographing press shots for station employees, you get the feeling that he’s somewhere else. Some strange and quiet place. Afterward, alone again in his smoke-free van, a sullen, soft-spoken Dre draws spaceships on the frosted-up windows and talks openly about the history and the mystery.
How old were you when you first got into music?
Dre: Truly, I never paid attention to music at all; it was something that was there. I never knew I was gonna be doing music or no shit like that. But I guess I started really paying attention when I hooked up with Organized Noize. And once I got to find out how music was made—how players played certain things—it was kinda intriguing. I guess I was 17 years old.
At that point, hip-hop was really strong. I really felt it. The people I thought were the best at that time were Das EFX and Dr. Dre. Das EFX were totally original. Their music was funky, and Dr. Dre - his shit sounded real clean, but funky at the same time. And he used live instruments. There was more of a real feel, a human feel.
Do you think hip-hop is stagnant right now because of that?
There’s been a lot of good music made without live instruments. But I’m shut out, man, as far as hip-hop. I used to be a real big fan, but not anymore, really. It’s not that it’s not good. It’s just not inspiring.
When I was younger, living with my dad, I’d be in my room listening to songs like “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You),” by Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. I had to cry off of songs like that because they’d be jamming so hard. Some songs would come on in the club and the hair on my arms would stand up. EPMD. Eric B. & Rakim. Rakim made me wanna rap.
But I don’t feel hip-hop no more. A lot of people ask “why the change? Why y’all doing different music?” But it really came from boredom. Because I wasn’t feeling the same feeling at all. It was kinda like dying. I had to do something, crank myself back up. Get into my shit.
Rapping is about my youth. It’s about the time, what’s going on. Shit, KRS-One’s dope, but a lot of people don’t wanna hear what he’s got to say now. The times are changing. My mom’s hero is not my hero. Stevie Wonder is probably the hero of her generation; I think Prince is the greatest. You can’t be on top forever. So my goal is to learn how to be a good songwriter.
What’s the next step for hip-hop, then?
I think the music is about to go through a change, because it’s just too commercial. It’s so easy to do. I ain’t gonna say it’s easy to make a good hip-hop song—niggas is just takin’ keyboards and making songs, you know? I don’t want to be a nigga who just listens to old music and that’s it—some ol’ retro nigga. But I like old music because I can feel it.
The whole ice-age shit comes from niggas in the ‘hood finally gettin’ it. Niggas who never had shit. That’s what it is: lettin’ niggas know I got some shit. So that’s gonna always be there. But I don’t think it’s gonna rule supreme for much longer.
You were saying that Ecstasy is really popular in the ‘hood these days. What kind of effect do you think X is having on music?
I think the music is getting a lot faster because of it. I guess it’s more trippy; a more shaky sound. I wouldn’t say it’s having a good or bad influence; it’s just change.
And you no longer drink or smoke or partake in anything of that nature, right? Why the change?
Health reasons. In ’94 and ’95, I was really out there. I was being young - drinking, smoking. But I just started to see myself go down. I’d look at myself in the mirror and be like, “You look bad, man.”
The whole first album, the whole first tour, the first couple of years we was out - it’s hard for me to remember any of that because I was real high most of the time. So with the second album, I went straight, just to see if I could do it: to find out if it was me making the music or if I was just relying on the weed. And it worked, you know. We made a good album without being high.
You cats have talked about going to raves. What do you think of the energy there?
I like the tempo more than anything. Some of the music be wack; most of the music be wack - they be in there trippin’. (Laughs) It’s just too repetitious for me. When you’re on that dope, it just feels good, I guess.
Before we came out with this album, we would hit the raves, and we would hear our songs remixed. You might be in there and hear something from the first album redone in a jungle way or a house way or something like that, so they’ve been familiar with us for a while now.
So who is your typical OutKast fan?
You may have a college/backpack OutKast fan; your mom might be an OutKast fan; your little brother might be an OutKast fan; that hustler on the street might be an OutKast fan; that incense-selling head-wrap sister might be an Outcast fan; that white guy who likes Led Zeppelin might be an Outcast fan. I think aliens dig us, too.
Appearance-wise, you’re definitely taking things to a new level—especially in the thugged-out climate of hip-hop these days. What has been the inspiration for OutKast’s visual output? You’ve talked about Prince and Sky Stone.
The people I grew up on, I love the whole experience that they gave me from their music, from the ideas that they had in their songs to the way they looked. There are so many other MCs out there. And I feel like I’m already an underdog because I don’t even know music, I don’t know notes or nothin’ - when we produce, we just humming stuff, like that. So you’ve got to do all we can let you know that this is OutKast. This is our life. It’s all I got. I can’t play around.
Do you worry that OutKast are too radical a departure from the hip-hop norm - and that some people aren’t interested in taking the trip because Dre is so “different”?
I don’t think black people like change too tough. I think black people like comfort more than anything. You get them people who be like, “You’re trying to do this for the white people,” or, “The niggas must be gay,” or some shit—all that. Black people aren’t into change, period.
How do you and Big Boi find balance in the studio? I understand you two butted heads a few times during the making of Stankonia.
We did clash on occasion, but I understood his point a lot of times. I’d change my voice or something like that, and when he came into the studio he was like, “Uh, really man, niggas don’t like when you change your voice.” And I was like, “Cool, whatever.” His comments actually made me sing much better. And after the album was said and done, it worked.
We both want the best for the group. I’m always looking for what’s next for us. Big Boi makes sure that we take the people who were with us the last time where we’re going next. And I think that works really good, man. ‘Cause I could do new types of music all day, but if niggas in my neighborhood don’t like it, I’d be really upset.
You came up making music with the Dungeon Family. What was the Dungeon like when you first started going down there?
When I went to that basement the first time, I heard some of the best music of my life. I’m writing; they’re digging the stuff that I’m writing. They’re showing me how to project, telling me that I don’t have to scream. Sometimes, you’d write a rap, say it, and don’t nobody say nothin’. And that’s when you know it’s wack.
Do you miss those days?
There was a certain feeling there—and I don’t have that feeling no more. I wanna have that nostalgic feeling of how the Dungeon smelled, the way certain beats made you feel. It smelled like dirt, like a mildewy basement when it rains. Crickets.
There was this feeling like we were part of something big. And me being an only child—like in school, I didn’t really talk to people too much. I wasn’t with the in crowd; I wasn’t cool or shit like that. I was like, “Damn, I’m writing these new raps. I finally have a voice. I’m down with some niggas. This is my crew.” That shit felt real good. Now we look at each other like, “Damn, man, we grown as hell. Look what we done did.”