One of rap’s most influential duos, OutKast are back in action this summer. Since reuniting for Coachella in April, the pair of André 3000 and Big Boi played at Wireless in the UK, and will soon enough call at Flow, Way Out West and Oya in Scandinavia, before heading to Pukkelpop, Rock ‘N’ Heim and Bestival, among other festival bookings. Busy boys.
We’re massive fans, so it was sort of inevitable that our Complete Guides series would reach the Atlanta mavericks. Which it has, right now.
- - -
Following an appearance on TLC’s ‘What About Your Friends’, OutKast were introduced in their own right with the 1993 single ‘Player’s Ball’. Named after an annual pimps gathering in Chicago, the track was a stark contrast to both the sounds that were emerging from the East and West coasts. From the jump, Dre and Big Boi lived up to their group’s name, and the pair followed up the year after with their debut album, ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’.
Produced entirely by Organized Noise, an Atlanta production team comprising Rico Wade, Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown, the sound of ‘Southernplayalsitic…’ emphasised its use of live instruments over the sampling techniques that hip-hop was usually known for.
“We wanted Atlanta brothers to be proud of where they were from,” Sleepy Brown told journalist Ben Westhoff in his book Dirty South, referencing the use of the Southern-styled guitar licks and 1970s funk grooves that gave the record such an organic and celebratory take on the rappers’ (relatively) rural lifestyle.
Lyrically, Dre and Big Boi presented themselves as politically conscious pimps and gangsters, sharing coming of age tales that usually had a positive message.
- - -
Alienated from the East Coast sound after being famously booed at The Source awards when winning in the best new group category of 1995, as well as being presented with more creative control following the success of their debut, OutKast fled Earth for the sci-fi-themed ‘ATLiens’. Transformed after a trip to Jamaica, the duo recreated their image, taking on futuristic personas and vowing to stop combing their hair, going for a more natural look than the cornrows they were known for previously.
Dre’s image was particularly eccentric, and around the time they recorded ‘ATLiens’ he became vegan and stopped smoking weed. The production became more spacious, infusing dub and reggae influences alongside boom-bap drums.
- - -
Coming back for the third time around, Big Boi and Dre went through yet another recreation. “First they were some pimps. Then they were some aliens, or some genies – some shit. Then they be talkin’ bout that black righteous space,” begins the song ‘Return Of The ‘G’.
Arguably the strongest record in their catalogue, ‘Aquemini’ feels like the pair has found the balance between their conflicting personalities, something that would produce a more prominent divide on later records. Combining their star signs for the title ‘Aquemini’, they’d gone from being down-to-earth sorts to extra-terrestrials with their first two albums, and their third saw them simultaneously ethereal and earthy.
Finally winning around the East Coast-heavy industry, thanks in part to their alignment with Raekwon on ‘Skew It On The Bar-B’, ‘Aquemini’ achieved the coveted Five Mics rating in hip-hop bible The Source, the first record from the South to do so.
- - -
Before A$AP Rocky appeared on his debut mixtape in front of a black and white US flag, Big Boi and 3 Stacks subverted the Stars and Stripes for the cover of ‘Stankonia’. Outkast’s fourth album took them from hip-hop heavyweights to iconic pop stars without dropping an ounce of credibility on the way.
Pounding space funk with subversive radio friendly singles ‘Ms Jackson’ and ‘So Fresh So Clean’ made ‘Stankonia’ a damn near-perfect album. The pair’s most accessible album, this was also their most rebellious and subversive. Julianne Shepherd of Pitchfork called ‘Stankonia’ “The final great document of the Clinton years.”
From the cover art to tracks like the high-tempo ‘B.O.B’ and ‘Gasoline Dreams’ – the first song on the album, with the lyrics “Burn mother*cker, burn American Dream” – follow in the outspoken footsteps of the ‘Aquemini’-featured ‘Rosa Parks’.
‘Stankonia’ deservedly bagged OutKast a number one single on the Billboard chart with ‘Ms Jackson’ (André’s apology to Erykah Badu’s mother) and Grammys for the Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group and Best Rap Album.
- - -
‘Speakerboxxx / The Love Below’ (2003)
After years of working out how to gel their two sides together, it felt like by ‘Stankonia’ the player and the poet finally had it figured out. But with their follow-up, ‘Speakerboxxx / The Love Below’, the duo highlight their differences with two solo discs.
On ‘Speakerboxxx’, Big Boi builds upon ‘Stankonia’’s success in the absence of his partner – although Dre does show up with a couple of features and a handful of amazing beats. On the other disc, André reveals what he had been keeping from the group’s output on ‘The Love Below’: an eccentric, unhinged and ambitious album that sees 3 Stacks largely singing falsetto and getting his Prince on.
The boundary pushing concept spawned a pair of great albums, and even though it felt like OutKast were breaking up, it was good to see them do so on good terms. ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ won a Grammy for Album Of The Year and spawned a hit single for each artist with Andre’s ‘Hey Ya!’ and Big Boi’s ‘The Way You Move’.
- - -
Although six of the 12 numbers on their 1930s-themed Bryan Barber-directed musical film, Idlewild, came from ‘Speakerboxxx / The Love Below’, OutKast’s sixth LP was a pseudo-soundtrack that shares its title with the movie.
On its lead single, the Organized Noize-produced reunion track ‘Mighty “O”’, the pair were spitting together for the first time in five years and on top form, and fans expected to hear Big and Dre reunited after their solo disc outings.
Unfortunately ‘Idlewild’ turned out to be, at least for the most part, a compilation of solo songs recorded in separate studios: in fact, of its 25 tracks, only three feature the pair performing side by side. The soundtrack format allows Dre and Big to take on their on-screen characters, mortician Percival and club owner Rooster respectively – childhood friends who grow apart as they begin to lead separate lives (sound familiar?)
By the final track ‘A Bad Note’, it feels like we are witnessing the end of one of the greatest musical duos of all time. André, under the pseudonym Johnny Vulture, exchanges his rapid-fire flow for an electric guitar, oozing almost nine minutes of pain over ominous keys, before coming in with some pitched-down vocals to add to the psychedelia. “A bad note ain’t a bad note, if it’s a good note,” he sings.
- - -
Words: Grant Brydon
Select OutKast (website) dates…
7th – Oslo, Norway – Oya Festival
8th – Gothenburg, Sweden – Way Out West Festival
10th – Helsinki, Finland – Flow Festival
14th – Hasselt, Belgium – Pukkelpop Festival
15th – Hockenheimring, Germany – Rock ‘N’ Heim
17th – Budapest, Hungary – Sziget Festival
29th – Stradbally, Ireland – Electric Picnic Festival
5th – Isle Of Wight, UK - Bestival