Since 1994 OutKast have been reinventing the rules of hip-hop, blending different styles of music into a Southern style that is wholly their own, soulful, outrageous, and addictive. They've captured the hearts of fans and music critics alike, and have achieved records and scaled heights in the music world that most artists can only dream of.
The full story of OutKast has never before been told. Now in Hey Ya! you'll go behind the scenes into the world of Big Boi and Andre 3000, from their start as teenage hopefuls in Atlanta to their international rise to fame. Along the way you'll learn about the creative forces that have kept them on the cutting edge of hip-hop for a decade, and keep them pushing forward into tomorrow. From their first breakthrough with "Player's Ball" to their six Grammy wins, their upcoming movie and more, Hey Ya! Is the ultimate look at two of the most creative forces in music today and is the definitive guide to everything OutKast!
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About the Author
Chris Nickson was born and raised in Leeds, England. A well-known music journalist and author, he's written many celebrity biographies as well as being a frequent contributor to numerous music magazines.
Chris Nickson has written biographies on David Boreanaz, Melissa Etheridge and Matt Damon.
Read an Excerpt
The Unauthorized Biography of Outkast
By Chris Nickson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Chris Nickson
All rights reserved.
TO UNDERSTAND OutKast, you have to understand Atlanta and the South. Because that's what shaped the band.
More African-Americans live in the South than anywhere else in the United States. Beginning a century ago, there was an exodus of blacks to the North, especially to cities like Chicago and Detroit, which offered greater opportunities and wages — and an escape from the blinding prejudice that existed widely in the South at the time.
The North, with its cities and industries, was seen as the future, a place of hope, while the South was viewed as backward and even degrading to African-Americans. That lasted into the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s. Many blacks lived in the country, farming as sharecroppers, where they could barely make a living, or just scuffling by at other jobs. There were shining exceptions, of course, but for most life was hard — and sometimes dangerous. It's no surprise that the South, specifically the cotton-heavy Mississippi Delta, gave birth to the blues, which, along with jazz and gospel, was the African-American musical form for so many years.
Times do change, and progress happens. By the 1970s, after a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter became president in 1976, the image of the South was changing. The South became the Sunbelt. Retirees from the North were attracted by its climate and cheaper cost of living. Industry and commerce began moving in, too, to take advantage of the abundance of labor available — and also the cheaper cost of doing business.
Atlanta was the hub of the South. It was smack in the center of the Southeast, the biggest city around. Yet it was also quite accessible to the East Coast, especially the Northeast, where there is an intense concentration of finance and commercial institutions. Atlanta began to grow like crazy. Major companies opened offices there. The airport expanded, becoming one of the busiest in the world. The city was refurbished in grand style as a cosmopolitan city: a business and shopping Mecca.
It was a new Atlanta, a new Georgia, a new South. And that changing world was the one into which both members of OutKast were born in 1975.
Antwan Patton, known to everyone as Big Boi, is the elder, but only by four months. He was born on February 1, while his partner, Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 or just Dre), first opened his eyes on May 27. Although they'd eventually meet in Atlanta, neither of them began life within the city limits.
For Big Boi, Savannah was home. Situated on the Atlantic Coast, Savannah is a historic city, the home of the nation's oldest African-American congregation: the First African Baptist Church on Montgomery Street at Franklin Square. Some of the city's buildings date back as far as the 1700s.
Antwan was the oldest child in the family, followed by four younger brothers and sisters. His mother, Rowena Patton, was still young when he was born, while his father, Tony Kearse, was in the Marines; he'd eventually rise to the rank of sergeant, although he died in 2003.
It wasn't an easy existence, raising four children on not a lot of money, and for all its charms, Savannah didn't offer a lot of opportunities. When he was young, Antwan had other responsibilities besides his studies and taking care of himself; as the eldest, he had to look after his siblings, too, a heavy cloak to throw on a child. In an interview in Blender, he stated there were widespread substance abuse problems among the adults in his family, and that he, his siblings, and his mother lived in a Motel 6 for a year.
"We used to live off bologna sandwiches from a cooler," he said. "I've been to the lowest low." And in the family there were "drugs and alcohol, domestic abuse — crazy shit."
Antwan had the usual dreams and desires of every boy. Sports offered a way out of a poor lifestyle, and despite his size, he thought about becoming a professional football player. After all, they were the stars, they made the money, they were the heroes. But Antwan was also a good student, a young man who looked forward to attending college in the future. The way the mind worked fascinated him. Possibly because of the size of his family and the amount of time he spent around his brothers and sisters, he considered training to become a child psychologist.
Whatever he thought about, Antwan's ideas were a little outside the box. No matter what, he was determined to make something of himself. Interestingly, though, music wasn't in his plans, at least when he was young. That would come a little later.
While Antwan was finding his way around Savannah, Andre was growing up in Decatur, which was, to all intents and purposes, a suburb of Atlanta, located between downtown and Stone Mountain. Named for Stephen Decatur, an American naval hero in the War of 1812, the city still has the comfortable feel of a small town. Andre was an only child, the son of Sharon Benjamin (now Sharon Benjamin-Hodo), and Lawrence Walker. The couple split up while Dre was still a child, and he lived with his mother, who worked on the assembly line at General Motors. It was good, well-paid work, and she bought a house for the pair of them in one of Atlanta's burgeoning suburban subdivisions. Her rules for Andre were strict, and she expected him to obey them, which the self-confessed "mama's boy" did for a long time.
Dre's aspirations to become an architect fell through because "I didn't like math." But one thing Andre did love was music, and from an early age he exposed himself to a lot of it. Not just blues, gospel, soul music, and early hip-hop, although these were a big part of his education. Dre listened to everything.
Georgia was a state that enjoyed a remarkably fertile music scene. James Brown, the godfather of soul, was from Macon and still lived there. Macon had also been the home of one of soul's greatest vocalists, the late Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash in 1967 at the height of his fame. And in a completely different direction, the college town of Athens was the bedrock of an alternative rock scene in the first half of the 1980s, as R.E.M. catapulted from local to national stardom. Dre surely was exposed to these styles and more as he skipped around the radio dial.
But rap was the new style, with pioneers like the Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Flash among the artists who popularized the new music. It was a revolution, one that would literally change the course of music history. Rap grew from a combination of things: reggae, blues, funk, and the bragging of "the dozens," the kind of top-that insults that had been around for generations in the African-American community. The music behind the voices was new, too. Using a pair of turntables and a mixer, skilled DJs culled beats, bass lines, and melodies from older records, working the vinyl into a seamless flow that was a backdrop every bit as important as the rhymed raps themselves. Originating in the Bronx section of New York, rap exploded on record.
It all went into Dre's melting pot. But rap music was his first love. It was inevitable because he essentially grew up with it. Very verbal and articulate, with a quick mind, Dre made a natural rapper. But his ideas extended far beyond words. To him, music was a whole, not segmented the way the industry tried to make it with divisions between pop, rap, soul, and so on.
By the time he was in junior high, Andre was writing say-no-to-drugs raps with a friend, T-Bone. Together they listened to Eric B. and Rakim, whom Andre called "an inspiration." But that ended when T-Bone moved away from music and into sports.
Both Dre and Big Boi were raised in the church, which meant getting dressed up every Sunday and attending services. It was one of the foundations and certainties of life for them. And it was also exposure to another kind of music, the gospel music heard in Baptist churches: jubilant, soulful, and often ecstatic. More than anything, though, church offered a spiritual underpinning that's remained a part of their lives, one that Dre has speculated separates Atlanta music from other areas, as so many kids grew up in the church, singing in choirs. And there was also the weight of history around them.
Dre noted that "Atlanta was one of the last places to get out of slavery, and so that striving and sense of struggle comes across immediately in our music."
By the time he was a teenager, Big Boi was getting into music, too. For Antwan, it was the P-Funk of Parliament and George Clinton that blew the roof off, along with Run-D.M.C., one of the major rap acts of the time, the first rap group to cross over to a rock audience with their remake of "Walk This Way" along with the song's originators, hard rock band Aerosmith (the song that helped revitalize Aerosmith's career). If Big Boi hadn't cast his net as wide as Dre, that was just because he'd discovered music later. But Big Boi became hungry for music. After his family moved from Savannah to the East Point area of Atlanta, he went to the free concerts in Grant Park, lapping it all up. He was especially turned on by the deep '70s funk of the Ohio Players. "You just wanted to get up there and jam," Big Boi remembered.
When he was fifteen, Andre began to resent his mother's strict rules and moved out of his mother's house to live with his father in Atlanta. This put Dre in the East Point area of the city, Big Boi's neighborhood, a far cry from the laidback atmosphere of Decatur. The idea was that his father would instill some discipline in him; instead, he found himself in a bachelor house with few or no rules and began running a little wild for a while.
For his sophomore year of high school, he was about to enroll at Tri-Cities High School. Just coincidentally, that was where Antwan — whose nickname of Big Boi came, ironically, because he was small — happened to be a student.
It was a relatively new school, opened in 1988 — 89, with a catchment area from the Tri-Cities areas of College Park, Hapeville, and East Point. There were two main areas of study at the school: college preparatory and career technology.
The Tri-Cities area is predominantly African-American, with wages well below the national average. Many of the people in the area are employed in lower-paying service jobs. Many of the students live with a single parent. A fairly large school (in 2003 it boasted over two thousand students), it is a school that takes pride in boosting its pupils academically; in fact, the home of the Tri-Cities Bulldogs received an Inspiration Award in 2003 as America's Most Improved High School.
Even when he started at Tri-Cities, Dre refused to fit easily into any pigeonhole. He was smart, into music, but he was also into things no one would have expected: skateboarding and BMX bikes. The one thing he wasn't into was school. After his father dropped him off at school in the morning, Dre took off around the corner every chance he got.
Although they were in the same class at school, that wasn't where Big Boi and Dre met. They probably knew each other's faces, but the first time they actually spoke was in Atlanta's Lenox Square Mall, where they both happened to be shopping — window-shopping, because neither of them had the money to buy clothes. It was outside the Ralph Lauren store, where they were looking wistfully at the fashions.
From the very first, there was a bond between them. The young men were a little outside the norm, not so much refusing to conform as not even thinking about it.
"When everyone was wearing Starter pants, we were wearing flower print shorts," explained Andre. "We were just a tad bit different."
According to Big Boi, though, "We were preps. We wore loafers, argyle socks, and V-neck sweaters with T-shirts. We were new to the school and we didn't know anybody."
In hip-hop, they were all about bands like Poor Righteous Teachers, KMD, Leaders of the New School, De La Soul, Brand Nubian, and A Tribe Called Quest, who colored outside the lines — and managed it quite successfully. That was a far cry from the booty-shaking music most of the kids in school were listening to. And Antwan went even further. His uncle had introduced him to the music of English singer-songwriter Kate Bush, which moved him in a way he couldn't explain, so "I'd sit and think and play her records for hours."
Both Andre and Antwan wanted to hear the newest beats, so they'd go down to Five Points Flea Market on the weekends to buy mix tapes with the freshest stuff on them from Ron G, a New York DJ .
In so many ways, they were complete opposites.
"They've always been very different people," commented Dre's mother. "You could start by saying Andre is the introvert and Big is the extrovert."
But they came together on music and clothes — clothes that didn't fall into the lines of fashion that everyone else was wearing. Instead, they tried to be individual and stand out.
"We thought we were pretty fly as far as clothes in high school," said Dre. But even more important than image was music. They often sat and watched videos together, eventually deciding that they could do a lot better rapping than most of the rappers they were seeing on television. The first time they actually rapped together was at Big Boi's aunt's house. One of them started and the other picked it up "every four or six bars." Since their talents meshed so well together, the natural thing to do was form a band. That was what they did, naming it 2 Shades Deep — a name that didn't last too long, as there was already an R&B group called Four Shades Deep. They then briefly became the Misfits, until they heard of a punk/metal band with that name. So they searched for something different, a word that perfectly described being outsiders. With a little help from the dictionary, they found exactly what they needed.
"We came across the word 'outcast' and just kept the pronunciation key spelling of it," explained Andre. And OutKast was born.
Soon they'd walk around each other's kitchens, rhyming and practicing. And it wasn't too long before they were ready to go public with their skills, at an open mic night at Club Fritz, a place in Atlanta's West End. However, the club "had only one Korg mic, with a short-ass cord," said Big Boi, "so we'd pass it back and forth, trying to catch each other's word and pass the mic."
It went well, which set up more open mic nights. But although music was a huge focus for them, it wasn't all-consuming at first. Antwan was doing well at school, with a 3.68 GPA and plans for college. Academics were his way out. His dream of being a child psychologist was still very much alive.
The rapping and writing was strictly part-time. But that doesn't mean it wasn't serious. They were also listening to everything coming out of the local hip-hop scene; they wanted to know their competition and their peers. They weren't impressed by what they heard — there was simply no originality about any of it. The producers were all following the trend of putting together tracks in the East Coast style, which was the fashion. The beats were a little jazzy, the bass lines a little lighter. It worked if you were A Tribe Called Quest, who'd helped break that ground, but it didn't speak to Georgia.
Where was the Georgia red clay soil? Where was the soul that crept down from Memphis or the funk of James Brown (except in some of the sampled beats)? There was a whole history of African-American music waiting to be explored, and everyone was ignoring it. Almost everyone just wanted to be big, to be tougher than the rest, rather than to be creative. Dre and Big Boi listened and realized that it didn't compute to them.
By 1992 they had their rhymes together, and their ideas were taking shape. What they didn't know was that elsewhere in East Point were a few other guys who also had a vision for hip-hop.
Rico Wade, Pat "Sleepy" Brown, and Ray Murray loved the music. Unlike most people, though, they didn't want to be on the mic. They didn't have the skills or the flow to be rappers. Instead, they used their ears and imagination. Hip-hop had moved from a pair of turntables and a record collection to writing beats and using samples — snippets of other tracks taken and brought into a new creation. Sometimes they were played with digitally, to the point where they were unrecognizable, sometimes they were used straight. But the people who created the tracks were every bit as important to the new music as the rappers themselves — they just stayed more in the background and didn't get all the glory or celebrity. But they were responsible for the sound, people like the Bomb Squad, who worked with Public Enemy, or Dr. Dre out on the West Coast. They shaped the whole feel of hip-hop.
Excerpted from Hey Ya! by Chris Nickson. Copyright © 2004 Chris Nickson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. - OH, ATLANTA,
2. - "PLAYER'S BALL",
3. - ALIENS,
4. - AQUEMINI,
5. - STANKONIA,
6. - INTO THE UNKNOWN,
7. - SPEAKERBOXXX/THE LOVE BELOW,
8. - THE GRAMMY AWARDS,
9. - THE FUTURE,
ALSO BY CHRIS NICKSON,