OutKast, “Not The Average” (Originally Published December 2000)
After a rap career that most artists would kill for, Antwan Patton and Andre Benjamin are one album away from being sewn into hip-hop history as one of the greatest groups of all time. So what do they go and do? Concoct the most boundary-pushing Outkast LP ever. Bless their stankin' asses.
Words Bonsu Thompson
P R E F A C E
Twice upon a time, a teenaged boy met his twin for the first time. These brothers weren’t separated from birth, they were joined by bass. Though they both had different zodiac signs, their bond was too strong to deny their kinship. Both were outcasts of society who were harbored by the same guardian: hip-hop. But that’s another chapter. The legendary tale of the equinox-like duo OutKast has no epilogue, but while they’re certainly in the process of inking their most intriguing and dangerous story, they might just also be scribing their most triumphant one.
A C T I
Y A A A A A W N !
It’s noon in July and Atlanta is hotter than Ms. Jackme. It’s the second day of the video shoot for OutKast’s first single from their latest album, Stankonia, and the only place of solace is inside the trailers of set stars, Big Boi and Andre. Chillin’ in his trailer, getting his hair hot-curled by his stylist Precious, Big Boi’s sights aren’t currently set on his placement in hip-hop history. They’re on something else—a videotape of a 1998 episode of Rap City, that he and Dre headlined.
“It’s boring,” Andre says to host Joe Clair, about rap music at that time.
“Ain’t nobody doin’ it for you?” asks Clair.
“It’s a handful of folks who ain’t care if they stuff on the radio.”
“Radio’s good, though,” Big Boi interrupts, making sure that OutKast’s stance on airplay isn’t misconstrued.
“Radio’s definitely good,” Dre agrees, “but you start with what you feel first and if it get there, thank the listeners.”
That TV appearance was two years ago. Now, on the dawn of their latest effort and in the midst of rap’s ice age, one has to wonder, are these young rap veterans still so unenthused about today’s hip-hop scene?
“I don’t want to say it’s boring ‘cause I don’t want people to say, ‘What the fuck this nigga talkin’ about?,’ but...” a chestnaked Dre, sporting a newly pressed James Brown do, pauses and scours his empty trailer as if the words for the perfect response are scattered on its walls. “I could put on an older record and really feel that shit. I could put on a hip-hop record from now that’s cool, it’s good in the club, but I just can’t feel it as much. It’s not boring—it’s not inspiring.”
Back in his trailer, scolding the present rap game as “repetitious” and “stagnant,” Big Boi chooses to answer a little more directly. “It’s a formula, it go M=MC squared,” he lashes. “Like, ‘OK, I’ma have a dope beat, I’ma get the hottest rapper to rap on the hook and I’ma have a hip-hop song.’ But if that’s the way to do it, then that’s the way you do it. How we do it might be on some different shit.”
Saying OutKast might come different is like saying there might be a lie told in the Presidential speeches. As eighteen-year-olds they introduced the fly youth of the South to hip-hop with their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (‘94), then took their million-and-a-half consumers to outer space on ATLiens (‘96), only to return home as masters of their art on Aquemini (‘98). Each album had its own identity, and Stankonia is another taste of fresh innovation.
A C T I I
B R O T H E R S F R O M A N O T H E R
There’s a knock at the trailer door and Big Boi is slightly annoyed, for his stroll down video lane is being disrupted. But when he sees his partner Dre enter the trailer, Big Boi’s frown immediately dissolves. And Dre’s ever-present smile enlarges as he steps through the ‘wassups?’ of his crew to greet the brother he never had. In his right hand he has a vegetarian dish for his own consumption and in his left, a gift for Boi, the rock ‘n roll pictorial book, Not Fade Away.
Dre has the appearance of a true artist. Observing his sleek, inch-or-two-over-six-foot figure glide through the video set reveals a freedom that goes beyond his carefree smile, Parliament-style pants and bare back, which serves as a landscape for a tattoo of a man embracing a woman breastfeeding her child. For Dre, it’s about how he sees the world, not how the world sees him. How he wants to be heard, not how the world wants to hear him.
Dre is quick to credit his partner for being a true MC, but labels himself a writer. “Big Boi freestyles, I don’t,” Dre admits. “Because I think too much. But I’ll write one verse that’ll crush your whole album.” While breaking between albums, Dre spends his time writing song lyrics and melodies, raps and poems, even short stories. Dre can be a recluse at times. It’s natural to him because he grew up an only child to separated parents. While he’s always viewed by his Dungeon Family (Goodie MOb, Organized Noize, Witch Doctor) as one of the boys, he can’t help but periodically remove himself to spend time alone. It’s as though he’s catering to all his Gemini faces. He’ll visit Big Boi’s trailer, mob deep with everybody from D.F. members to video hoes, engage in a few jokes (mainly toward his eccentric character), discuss the recent goings-on and then vanish. You’ll only know he was gone by his return.
While Dre constantly makes it known that his inspiration for free expression is his eccentric musical favorites, (he lunches with George Clinton whenever their schedules permit) it’s never been heard so clearly and frequently as on Stankonia. “If I had to go to a school of music, it would be like George Clinton first period, Prince second period, Jimi Hendrix third period, Sly, James Brown—them like all my tops,” Dre says with a dish of rice and vegetables seated on his yellow-and-purple pants that look like they were borrowed from Hendrix’s wardrobe.
“Them niggas blew people’s mind. At the time Funkadelic came out, it was Aretha Franklin and regular James Brown. These niggas are doing noise with guitars and shit—it wasn’t about what people wanted to hear, it was about the music they wanted to make. It ain’t just like they regular R&B artists, and that’s the type of shit I be attracted to. So I want to be that type of artist.”
Big Boi, on the other hand, is that Southern fly guy. The one with the meanest threads, the hottest jewelry, the newest whip. The one with the gang of exotic weed and buckets of cognac. Ladies surround him and guys want to hang around him. A street kid turned ghetto superstar. He’s gracious to whomever is in his presence, a perfect gentleman, even when enjoying the sights inside his usual place of leisure—the strip club. But don’t test him. His Smith & Wesson stays loaded.
Big Boi was reared in a very large family and has grown accustomed to being surrounded by folk. He’s an Aquarius, the water bearer, sign of generosity. He keeps his weed-head friends high, his alcohol-loving boys leaning and his entire clique in the constant company of the sweetest Atlanta peaches. He likes to see everybody around him happy—male and female. He often invites everybody over to his house to chill in the “Boom Boom Room,” a large room that resembles a Seventies acid chamber full of mirrors and a stripper pole. He and his boys sit back and bask in the bliss of intoxicating smoke, liquid, music and women.
Question: Was it the influence of Andre that overpowered Big Boi into taking the greatest gamble of his career? Back in the trailer, before Dre could fully extend the surprise book to his A-town affiliate, Big Boi beat him to the punch. “Already got it,” he blurted, before matching Dre’s smile size.
“That’s what we both listen to,” offers Big Boi. “Dre play the guitar so Hendrix is his icon, but Parliament is all I listen to—old soul. I don’t even listen to rap like that.”
So Big Boi and Andre, though not identical, are certainly no clashing twosome. They may travel at different speeds and take dissimilar routes, but they arrive at the same destination at the same time.
While many link OutKast’s “weirdness” to the outlandishly dressed Dre, Dre’s quick to credit Boi for the group’s success. “He’s most definitely OutKast’s anchor,” he says between bites. “He keep his ear to the street. If it was left up to me, I probably be in space somewhere doing music. Big Boi kinda keep it grounded.”
Indeed, Big Boi is the one with the group’s ghetto pass. But just as Dre couldn’t be accepted so easily by the streets without his other 50 percent, ’Kast wouldn’t be scoped in such a special light without Andre. “Yeah, we just connect together, we got a lot of the same influences,” says Boi. “A lot of people don’t know that. Gospel, rock, hip-hop—we’re everything rolled up into one.”
A C T I I I
S T A N K A T T I T U D E S
Their latest single is titled “B.O.B.” (Bombs Over Baghdad). Where most acts pick the most digestible song for their single, OutKast chose to release one of their album’s most precarious cuts. A complete contrast from the song formula of today’s rap singles, “B.O.B.” has no fluff catchy hook or boy-girl scenarios. Instead it spills racy vocals warning of revolution over an apocalypse-wailing choir, set over production armed with Florida bass-paced drums, rock guitars and lingering organs.
The duo feels that though “B.O.B.” may not speak to conventional ears, it speaks for their owners. “We just try to make the music for the times, man,” Dre drops. “Right now there’s been a lot of comfortable hip-hop, a lot of slow grooves. We trying to show the subculture. People in the street, they losing they mind, that’s the tempo. You got these little boys on cocaine and all this type of shit. When people pick up the album ten years from now, they can feel what’s going on at this time—a soundtrack of the culture.”
The song’s eclectic title conjures intrigue before it even hits your lobes. As everything associated with OutKast, it not only has a true purpose, but a hidden meaning. “When the United States was going to war with Baghdad, they were dropping bombs, but they weren’t really hitting nothing important—they was trying to warn,” Dre tells. “They were shooting around the outskirts, farm land and bushes and deserts... so that whole thing came from people taking music and really not doin’ nothing. They just be out there really beating around the bush.”
His hair now almost completely styled, Big Boi gives the lighter side of “B.O.B.” “It started out as slang, something we were saying in Europe. Every time there was a problem in the house, girl was trippin’ or whatever, we’d be like, ‘Bombs over Baghdad’—like trouble. The concept was if we gonna do it, we gonna do it all the way.”
But as lofty as their intentions are, it’s only logical to wonder about their timing. During a period when guys want to dance in clubs swaying Moet and looking butter smooth, and ladies prance around sexy and cool like TLC, a single with a tempo faster than “Doo Doo Brown” might not be embraced by the average listener. In fact, Stankonia itself is a race on the wild side—even for OutKast.
Stankonia (the name of their studio: as in the funk on ya’) entails the many personalities of Big Boi and Dre. The youthfulness around which they packaged their debut has increased alongside their maturity. Big Boi and Dre’s music is still reckless, yet precisely structured; their lyrics, knowledgeable, yet intensely inquisitive; OutKast is that wise old kung-fu master whose body is that of a 21-year-old.
The experimentation and instrumentation throughout OutKast’s latest is cooked up with Parliament funk keys, guitar cries reminiscent of Eddie Hazel, and heavy metal arrangements, all hovering over drum tracks harder than MC Ren. The wilder soundscapes are due to the greater reign Dre and Big Boi have over their music. Their production team, Earthtone III (them plus Mr. DJ), has supplied beats for 13 of Stankonia’s 16 songs (their previous high was seven out of 15 on Aquemini).
The bravado isn’t limited to just the music. When the cadences aren’t singsongy, they put you face-to-ear with ragefilled emergency rap, induced by daily frustration. In a calmer tone, they also release the stress of their baby momma’s momma drama on their second single, “Ms. Jackson.” Big Boi, father to a five-year-old girl Jordan and a newborn boy Bamboo, has two baby ma’s and has suffered through trials with both of them, and their mothers also.
Now Dre, who only has one child, a two-year-old son named Seven, plays the roles of entertainer, father and baby daddy to a multi-platinum R&B superstar. While the relationship between Dre and Seven’s mother, who sings on “Humble Mumble,” is now over on mutual terms, Dre blames his disinterest in committing to a woman for whom most men would die on his “free spirit” and “selfishness.”
“I figured out that I got a lot to do and women, they take so much energy. They like to keep relationships going and I didn’t want to be in that relationship,” Dre spills. “And two entertainers—that’s a lot of stress ‘cause it ain’t even like your relationship anymore. It’s more like everybody on the outside’s relationship, so you really can’t go nowhere. And I kinda like being by myself [more] than anything.”
A C T I V
H I P - H O P , N O T ?
No hip-hop group has ever made four great albums consecutively that were celebrated by both ghetto U.S.A. and SoundScan. So on the brink of being inducted into greatness, doing what many hip-hop icons before them failed at, why would OutKast bungee with an experimental cord? Think about it: Rakim made two classic albums, then A Tribe Called Quest, three, then De La Soul, two-and-a half, then EPMD, three, then split. The strongest arguments here are for Run-D.M.C. and KRS-One, but even those debates could carry on forever. If Stankonia was a sure shot, nobody would’ve been able to front on them ’Kast boys.
The project is definitely left field, but will it land in foul territory? OutKast lovers are no doubt gonna feel cuts like the ghetto-suave “Red Velvet” and the self-infatuated “So Fresh So Clean,” which both would’ve fit on Southern..., but will the streets feel the Arrested Development approach of “Slum Beautiful,” or the Metallica-meets-Jimi-Hendrix band play of “Gasoline Dreams”?
OutKast’s camp aren’t worried in the least.”It’s their best album ever,” claims Carl Mo, a D.F. producer who supplied the beat for “Gangsta Shit.” “It’s so diverse, every song has its own personality, nothing sounds the same on the whole album.” The duo’s manager and close friend, Michael “Blue” Williams has the utmost confidence in his boys. “I’ve managed many acts and I’ve never had a group who’s gone out on a limb so much—and won,” he says.
on a limb so much—and won,” he says. With the album’s heavy rock feel, it most certainly is OutKast’s most Caucasian-appealing product. Will Black America take offense and retreat? Will OutKast care knowing MTV is going to feast off of their dip into the alternative pool? Big Boi, now laced with a fully crimped do, says neither of the previous questions should be asked, because whatever music OutKast does is Black. “Rock ‘n roll is not just White music, that was our music first,” he professes. “It’s like we taking it back, we doing our music.”
And those who think hip-hop only lives between the walls of criminal rhymes and machine-made beats? “I feel sorry for ‘em,” admits Big Boi. “Hip-hop’s music, it’s culture, it’s your way of expressing yourself. You gonna have Digable Planets to N.W.A to Too $hort to Black Eyed Peas, just different people trying to expand.”
“Some listeners have in their mind what hip-hop sound like. But you can’t predict what it’s gonna sound like,” Dre speaks, leaning forward in his chair to get his point across. “Who’s to say what hip-hop is? Even if I get on a song and sing my verse, not even rap my verse, who’s to say it’s not hip-hop?”
So Dre and Big Boi have a plan to stretch those limited views. They figure that surrounding their experimental expressions with “real hardcore raps” and, as Raekwon on “Skew It On The Bar-B” phrased ‘em, “bust your shit open beats,” the diehard fans will be carried to new heights. “It’s almost like taking ghetto people and saying like, ‘OK, we all about to go to the shake club, we need to get everybody on this bus.’ But you stop by a Rave concert,” Dre analogizes. “You take them somewhere new and they like, ‘OK, this shit pretty cool.’ You don’t trick ‘em, but you introduce them to something new without ‘em even knowing.”
A C T V
R O L L I N G O N D U B S
Riding from the video set in Big Boi’s cream Cadillac Seville, the confusion about OutKast’s mindset and goals for their newest product seems to be soothed. It’s bigger than their place in hip-hop history. It’s about their addition to the history, expanding the minds of the listeners, stretching the music’s limitations and—with the duo’s new Elektra-housed label Aquemini Records supporting innovative acts; usually the goals of veteran artists much older than they are.
Engulfed in tiger print interior softer than your next-door neighbor, Dre states that being crowned the G.R.G.O.A.T (Greatest Rap Group Of All Time) wasn’t the mindset during the creation of Stankonia, but when asked if that’s their ultimate goal, he gives a quick and certain “No doubt.” “I don’t know what’s gonna be our claim to fame in the years to come,” Dre emphasizes, “but I want to be something. I don’t want to be just another one of them groups.”