OutKast: Out of the ordinary

They're the high rollers of hip hop, the platinum-selling duo who've never hit a dud note. But can OutKast make it big in Hollywood? With a musical? Craig McLean catches up with the pair as they put the finishing touches to their latest project.
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The Independent Culture

Andre 3000 is hungry. The tall, lean hip-hop dandy has bowled into a long and empty conference room in the Metropolitan Hotel in London's Park Lane. He's a gentlemanly vision: Countryside Alliance-friendly checked shirt, smart trousers, super-sleek Nikes, trimmed hair with tiny Hasidic Jew-style side-curls, and - the best bit, this - a straw pith helmet.

He glides about, almost pirouettes into a chair. He's graceful and even girlish; the charisma that has made this musician such a Hollywood catch floods off him. He's that rare thing: a rap star in touch with his feminine side. (If that feminine side likes - to paraphrase his most famous lyric - shaking it like a Polaroid picture, for the refined aesthete Andre 3000 is a horny pony too.)

"They have Nobu downstairs, right?" Mr 3000 asks an apparatchik from his record label. They do, but the kitchen in the fabulous Japanese restaurant is closed until seven o'clock. OK. Andre might wait to eat.

No such holding back for Big Boi, the other half of OutKast, who rolls into the suite a few minutes after his old school friend. He's brought himself a McDonald's. He's also brought a giant pendant encrusted with giant diamonds. It hangs over his broad chest, nestling in his voluminous and crisply white T-shirt. Camouflaged baggy shorts are matched by camouflaged baseball cap. His canary yellow Adidas hi-tops are an event in themselves.

They look every inch the platinum high-rollers. As well they should. OutKast sold 10m copies of their last album, 2003's sprawling double feature Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The latter half was Andre's funk/R&B concept album about love and shagging; the former, Big Boi's more hip hop/beats-oriented set. It was effectively two solo projects, although each helped out on the other's songs.

The singles "Hey Ya!" and "The Way You Move" were worldwide smashes. They occupied the number one and two slots in the American charts for two months. Only The Beatles had previously exerted such a stranglehold on the top of the Billboard Hot 100. The album won two Grammy Awards and two MTV Europe Awards. As a double-act and as stand-alone artists, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a mega-success for Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Two stars for the price of one.

How to top that? With a film. Today the 31-year-olds known to their parents as Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton are in the UK to talk about Idlewild, the name of both their new album and a lavish, big-screen musical in which they act, sing and dance. Our hotel rendezvous is their first appointment of the day (at 3pm) and, contrary to hip-hop interview cliché, they're animated and enthused. Instantly, they start rabbiting - to each other - about sex, old Atlanta friends of theirs, and the party taking place in their honour on a boat on the Thames tonight. With little prompting Andre's mellifluous voice will explode into a delighted falsetto whinny.

The fictional Southern town of Idlewild is the setting for the tale of two lifelong pals in the depressed Prohibition era. Percival Jenkins Jr (Andre 3000) is a mortician's son and budding pianist and songwriter. Rooster (Big Boi) is a jack-the-lad. Their lives revolve around a local speakeasy called Church. Rooster ends up nominally running the place, ducking and diving as gangsters try to squeeze him out. Percival just wants to make his own music, and falls in love with a beautiful singer who's come down from big-city Chicago.

It's a familiar story. Plot-wise, it trundles along like an old Model T. But the musical set-pieces, featuring lavish dance numbers and floor-shaking OutKast tunes such as "Church" and "Bowtie", are tremendous. Even if, confusingly, those are songs from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. And the acting from the pair is largely excellent - we're not in 50 Cent/Get Rich Or Die Tryin' territory here. Equally good is Macy Gray, the helium-voiced singer, playing a bitchy performer at the club.

Mind you, the choreography and performances should be great: Andre and Big Boi admit their characters are exaggerations of themselves. Plus, the film has been written (based on an original idea from OutKast) and directed by Bryan Barber, responsible for the stunning, award-winning videos for "Hey Ya!" and "The Way You Move".

For the soundtrack OutKast set themselves the challenge of writing songs that echoed the milieu in which Idlewild is set. At the same time they wanted to give those retro songs the sonically inventive future-twist for which OutKast, like Prince before them, are renowned.

Andre insists that "that wasn't hard at all. I didn't know how to make true straight music from that period. So our interpretation comes out another way. I kinda know how they used certain instruments or certain rhythm patterns, but that's about it.

"When we were preparing [to play] the characters, we watched old films and listened to old music. But it's not like we sat down in the studio and said, 'OK, how'd they do this, how'd they do that?' We knew we had to make it an OutKast album as well."

Unfortunately, the music wasn't ready when filming of the musical began. Or when it was finished. Andre says that during the shoot he'd be writing lyrics as the relevant scenes were being filmed, or rejigging production to cope with songs that were still only "skeletons". "But it's not right until it's right," shrugs Big Boi. "You can feel when it's there. You can't try to force it just for the sake of a deadline."

It's been a long and bumpy road. OutKast began filming exactly two years ago. And they completed mastering the album in their Atlanta studio on Sunday night. On Monday they flew to Europe. Today, Wednesday, they can't quite believe they've finished it. No wonder. Including interludes, the Idlewild album features 25 tracks, many of which don't feature in the film. OutKast like to do things their way.

The release of both movie and album is almost a year behind schedule. Now, in a typical OutKast splurge, perhaps making up for lost time, three singles are already lined up. The film is teed up by the download-only "Mighty O", a jolly update of Cab Calloway's "hi de hi de hi de ho" line from jazz-era standard "Minnie the Moocher". "Morris Brown", a marching band-propelled strut, part written by Andre but vocalised by Big Boi, will be the second release. "Idlewild Blue (Don'tchu Worry 'Bout Me)", a bluesy soul groove sung by Andre 3000, will most likely follow that. All three were recorded after shooting was completed.

What have they learnt from the three years it's taken them to get Idlewild made?

"Preparation is the key," Andre chuckles ruefully. "And scheduling is the key. You can't do too many things at one time. It has to be done in an orderly fashion."

"Organisation!" barks Big Boi.

The OutKast pair have known each other since they were 16, introduced by a mutual friend from school. To their obvious distress, they've heard this morning that said friend is dying. "He got prostate cancer, in jail," says Andre. He's been imprisoned for around 10 years. "He got about two more months to live." The room goes quiet as they mull over the news. Andre says he broke down crying when his dad phoned from Atlanta to tell him.

They formed an instant bond, hanging out together at an Atlanta mall. "There were always girls at the mall," chuckles Andre. They got jobs in Foot Locker and Footaction: "We wanted something a little more prestigious to get f up on some ho," says Andre, meaning that selling shoes was better than burger-flipping for chatting up the ladies.

They began writing rhymes together. They'd rehearse at Big Boi's auntie's house. They put on impromptu gigs outside an under-18 club, and entered open-mic contests on Fridays. Another kid from their school, Cee-Lo, now half of Gnarls Barkley, was an occasional rap partner.

Big Boi considered studying child psychology before OutKast were offered a record deal in their late teens. "But everything took off that was supposed to take off. I guess that's why I got so many kids of my own - I love kids," he beams. "I got three and hopefully I'm gonna have three more, too."

Has he told his wife? "Yeah, she said she good, but maybe [only] one or two. We might have to adopt one like Brad, get us a little Chinese baby or something!" he guffaws.

Andre, a talented artist who used to sell his drawings and paintings via the OutKast website, was offered a place at Savannah College of Art. "That was always an option. But that music thing is what I really wanted to do."

The visually minded pair had long had their eyes on Hollywood. They had an idea for a film based on their 1998 album Aquemini. MTV were keen too, but suggested the (at the time) more commercially viable Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot could star. OutKast walked. It was their baby, no one else's. Even The Love Below was initially conceptualised as a filmed love story set in Paris.

Last year, following roles in John Singleton's Four Brothers and the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool, Andre 3000 starred in Guy Ritchie's universally panned Revolver. "Oh yeah!" smiles Andre, "they booed on it!" They shot on location on the Isle of Man. "It's a strange place. You gotta imagine: honestly, I think I was maybe one of two black people on the island! I'm walking down the street and people are looking at me - not in a racist way but, oh man, like a fucking unicorn or something!"

But he had a great time. "Guy Ritchie, he's a real cool person. He's got strong ideas, he knows exactly what he wants to do. I like his style of movies, straight up in your face, hardcore. And I think we may be doing something in the future," he says with something like a wink. With unfailing politeness Andre also declines to say whether his portrayal of Jimi Hendrix in a long-discussed biopic directed by the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) is going to happen.

Then there's his planned clothing line. No, he won't tell us the name. Will it echo his strangely English style sensibilities? "It's not like one style," he fudges. "It's more like a style brand. It's all about something that's gonna make everybody feel good. That's what I get out of clothes."

Big Boi is equally busy with extra-curricular activity. He recently appeared in Atlanta-based coming-of-age movie ATL, at the request of co-producer Will Smith. "If Will Smith calls, do a favour," says Big Boi. "Having Will Smith owe you a favour in Hollywood is a big thing."

His ambition doesn't stop there. He runs the Purple Ribbon label, producing and mentoring artists including Sleepy Brown, who supplied vocals on "The Way You Move", and Scar, who co-wrote "Morris Brown". And with his brothers, he runs Pitfall Kennels - successful breeders of pedigree pitbulls, favoured dog of many a tough-guy rapper. "Canine bling bling" as one observer put it.

Andre's swing and Big Boi's bling. They're the two sides of OutKast, the differing - and contradictory - facets that help make them the greatest hip-hop outfit in the world. One is fairly teetotal; the other is more conventionally enthusiastic for blunts and booze. Andre, veteran of many a fashion shoot, looked good in jodhpurs and jockey hat in the "Hey Ya!" video, and had the wit - on "Roses" - to fashion a hit chorus from lyrics like, "I know you like to thank [sic] your shit don't stank [sic]/ But lean a little bit closer/ See that roses really smell like boo-boo". Big Boi has a pole-dancing room in his house and sharks in a tank in his garage.

OutKast, then, are gloriously, colourfully pop. And OutKast are imaginatively, authentically urban. How could they fail? They haven't, not once: since they formed at school in 1992 and cut their first rap while still in class (on a remix of a TLC song), each of their first five albums has comfortably sold a million-plus copies. Even the property company they own together in Atlanta does good business.

With Speakerboxxx/The Love Below they blew the roof off. But for the albums' promotional campaign they did their interviews separately. Big Boi wanted to tour. Andre didn't. Off-duty, Big Boi would return to Atlanta and his wife, kids and dogs. Andre - separated from his son and his former partner, the soul singer Erykah Badu - would go back to LA, whence he had relocated to further his budding film career.

With the Idlewild project suffering repeated delays and going wildly over-budget, little wonder their fans feared the worst... OutKast weren't getting along. The duo who had met as teenagers had grown apart. Success had pushed them in different directions. OutKast were splitting up.

Hell no, OutKast insist as one. If they had the balls and talent to make two separate records - and they have their own little studios, as well as OutKast's Stankonia Studio - then why not? The OutKast identity was strong enough to survive the split albums. None the less, their manager has said the Idlewild film and album is "an ending of sorts, but it's also a leading-off point for both of them". What did he mean? Laughing, they say they don't know.

"It is a milestone," concedes Andre, who has now moved back to Atlanta. "After the last album sold 10-plus, where do you go? Obviously you keep recording albums. We'll always make music. But the movie was the next step. One of the biggest steps you can do. Unless you... I don't know what you can do."

"Yeah," drawls Big Boi, "after putting out a double-CD and selling so many records."

"Kill ye'self," smiles Andre.

Does each need the other to give input on songs? "That collaboration is still strong," Andre says slowly. "But I don't think it's a mandatory thing or a needed thing 'cause we can't stand on our own. But I think when we do come together we do get something special."

For an outfit who have supposedly been on the verge of splitting up for three years, OutKast do a convincing impersonation of a pair with a remarkable and easy intimacy between them. From what I could make out from one listen to the just-completed album, it's another rich stew of soul, R&B, pop, dance and hip hop, bristling with potential hits. And the film, while slight, is gorgeous to look at and good fun.

OutKast are barely into their thirties. What else would they like to achieve?

Andre 3000: "Nobel Peace Prize."

Big Boi: "Mmm, yeah, Nobel Peace Prize. That's gangsta."

Then Big Boi thinks. "I might wanna be mayor of Atlanta one day. Really." He reckons the incumbent, Shirley Franklin, with whom he has done benefit events, "is pretty good. I'm cool with her."

"She got some pretty daughters," muses Andre 3000.

"Yeah," says Big Boi approvingly, "her daughters are fine."

'Idlewild' the album is released on Monday. The movie will be released in the autumn

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