”Oh, damn!” Something’s not right, and Antwan ”Big Boi” Patton has just spotted it. ”Turn around,” he insists, lounging in the back of a big white van with his partner, Andre ”Dre” Benjamin. The driver slowly circles the block, easing up to the curb. Big Boi, Dre, their road manager, and a massive bodyguard tumble out onto the sidewalk to take care of business.
It’s exactly a week before the release of Stankonia, OutKast’s Funkadelic-flavored masterpiece of a fourth album, and the Atlanta-based duo are cruising around downtown San Francisco, making promotional stops at radio stations and, for some reason, a Rainforest Cafe on Fisherman’s Wharf. Until now, everything’s been supersmooth. Early reaction to the album is spectacular, with radio already jumping on both the warp-speed funk epic ”B.O.B.” (Bombs Over Baghdad) and the more conventional second single, ”Ms. Jackson.” A ”B.O.B.” remix by former Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha is getting spins on alternative radio. The ”B.O.B.” video is more fly than Jeff Goldblum. The reviews more enthusiastic than Regis Philbin. The buzz more insistent than Sinead O’Connor’s barber. Driving around Frisco, where there seems to be a Stankonia poster stapled to every third light pole, you get the feeling everyone is tuned in to Dre and Big Boi.
Well, not everyone. Crossing the street, the ‘Kast posse comes face-to-face with the problem: a massive Stankonia advertisement painted on the side of a Tower Records. There’s Dre peering down from the wall, but next to him is… nothing. This is not good. As any of the 2 million folks who bought their last album, Aquemeni, will tell you, OutKast are a perfect partnership, a true yin-yang balance. Dre without Big Boi is like Barnes without Noble. Big Boi’s the normal one (well, normal by rock-star standards), the Hennessy-sipping homeboy who wouldn’t look out of place in a Jay-Z video and recently showed off the stripper pole he’s installed in his house on an episode of MTV’s Cribs. And Dre, well, he’s Star Child: The Next Generation — a far-out visionary who’s adopted the clothing style and speech cadences of a hip-hop Jimi Hendrix. ”I dug that,” he’ll occasionally purr. ”That blew my mind, man.” Together, the pair make music that mixes old and new, street and Sesame Street, phat beats and fat bass lines and smokin’ electric guitars. They claim influences as varied as Prince, Curtis Mayfield, Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush, and schlock ’80s soul man Billy Ocean. (”He’s some cool-out ghetto s—,” says Big Boi. ”His whole image — the tuxedo and bow tie and Jheri-Curl — to me that’s the hardest thing ever.”)
Dre and Big Boi — both now 25 — grew up in Atlanta’s rough East Point neighborhood and attended Tri-Cities High School. After running into each other at the local mall, the then 17-year-olds became fast friends and started hanging out after school. ”We were in my living room one day watching videos, and we was like, ‘Man, we can do that s—,”’ Big Boi remembers. ”From that day forward we formed a group. We were gonna do this.” In 1993 they scored an audition with LaFace Records president Antonio ”L.A.” Reid (who’s since been named president and CEO of LaFace’s parent company, Arista Records). ”They were a little shy, a little nervous,” recalls Reid. ”They were good, but they weren’t ready yet. So they auditioned again. I told them, ‘You’re much closer, but still not yet.’ Then I got home and thought, Am I out of my mind? These guys are incredible.” Their first single, the Curtis Mayfield-tinged ”Players’ Ball,” appeared on the 1993 A LaFace Family Christmas album and quickly became a smash rap hit. (A then-unknown Sean ”Puffy” Combs directed the video.) A full-length album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, arrived five months later and sold a million copies. The follow-up, ATLiens (1996), did even better. Aquemeni (1998) spawned the hit single ”Rosa Parks” and garnered fawning reviews. ”They’ve never tried to be hip or current or now,” says Reid. ”They’ve always been very individual. That’s what keeps me excited.”