Big Boi is in Aspen, freezing. Correction: “cold as a muthafucka.” He's just performed at the Winter X Games as part of the tour for his solo debut, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, and probably would rather be warming up with a Crown Royal Black, the liquor brand that recently made him its spokesman. Instead, he's on the phone with a prestigious Los Angeles alt-weekly, apologizing for the interview's multiple delays.
Antwan Patton, better known as Big Boi, better known as half of hip-hop's Southern-fried funkadelicians Outkast, is busy. Nothing too remarkable about an in-demand rapper, except for that little matter of longevity. But even as Big Boi's career is going on 20 years, he's still being asked to prove himself.
“The show was ridiculous. The biggest crowd they had at the X Games so far,” he says. He speaks like he raps, in tightly coiled, muscular sentences that jab and then abruptly jerk back like the kickback from a shotgun. His hometown of Savannah, Ga., still lingers in his accent and his vowels occasionally stretch their arms. His thoughts, though, they don't meander.
Patton met André “3000” Benjamin while both were attending a performing arts high school. They formed Outkast and put out their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 1994. The next year, they won Best New Rap Group at the Source Awards.
Until Outkast, Southern hip-hop was mostly relegated to strip clubs. And given that the East and West Coasts thought they were the only regions entitled to accolades, the duo's emergence from the silent depths of the South was particularly shocking. Outkast were booed when they accepted their Source Award. Prophetically, Benjamin said to the dismissive audience, “The South got something to say.”
Well, yeah. Six Grammy Awards later, Outkast is one of the most successful groups in hip-hop history. They haven't released an all-new, truly joint album since 2000's Stankonia, leaving fans resigned to the unlikelihood of another. (Big Boi won't divulge any details of a proper Outkast reunion, saying, “When it's time to let the world know, we will let them KNOOOOW what's happenin'.”) Even so, Big Boi still seems to find it necessary to defend the region's musical contributions on “General Patton,” a thunderously operatic track from Sir Lucious: “Get the South dick up out your mouth/You can't destroy what we done built/Pick on somebody your own size and fuck around, get killed.”
He doesn't really need to make that assertion. No one debates that Outkast — and their more underground partners, Goodie Mob — cleared the way for some of the most progressive, and all-Southern, hip-hop artists of the past 15 years: Missy Elliott and Timbaland, the Neptunes, Little Brother, Lil Wayne, even the controversial Soulja Boy, who almost single-handedly pioneered the age of artists successfully self-publishing on the Internet.
“It's all about evolution. One thing about the South is people never were really biased,” Big Boi says. “I listened to all types of music, from Kate Bush to Bob Marley to Johnny Cash, Neil Young. If it's jammin', it's jammin'. When you layer funk on top of funk, you come up with some dope tunes.”
Though Big Boi's personal musical DNA included left-field (for hip-hop) fare like Phantogram, Metallica and MGMT, his profile in the duo often was dwarfed by André 3000 — a loud, kaleidoscopic vision of outlandish fashions and little hand gestures related to outmoded self-developing film stock. Big Boi dressed dapper in the de rigueur hip-hop uniform of jerseys and baggy jeans — André 3000 wore pants constructed from the skins of stuffed animals paired with sporting-equipment tops. Big Boi kept it real raising pit bulls — André 3000 made a baby with Erykah Badu.
But Big Boi's and André 3000's respective weirdnesses were complementary, and for a brief moment — say, circa the release of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — the world synched up with them. Their idiosyncracies, however, didn't always work in Outkast's favor; in 2006, when they made the peculiar decision to release the concept album/video project Idlewild, about a juke joint in the Depression, the critical reception was lukewarm and sales were — to put it mildly — disappointing.
Maybe that's why their label, Jive, had cold feet about Sir Lucious, delaying the album for more than three years. Big Boi ultimately left Jive for Island Def Jam and its CEO, “L.A.” Reid, the man who had backed Outkast since the beginning.
When asked if Jive deemed Sir Lucious too artistic, wanting Big Boi to be more radio-friendly, he says, “Uh, yeah. Kinda. Yeah.” Kinda?
“I mean, I don't really understand what they wanted. But I guess they learnin' now. They see that it was praised by the critics and the fans. And I mean, sometimes you just have to prove yourself. Um, sometimes. I guess they see, you know, I guess I do know what I'm doin'.”
What he was doing was material like “Shutterbug,” the jittery, glass-shattering first single from Sir Lucious: “Boy, check the résumé — it's risky business in the 'A,' ” backed in the video by a band of life-size puppets. No doubt Jive executives were forcing congratulatory smiles as “Shutterbug” received a Grammy nod, and Sir Lucious made 2010 “best of” lists everywhere from NPR to XXL.
“I don't think they're sad,” Big Boi laughs. “They might be happy now, because they still got another album comin' from me.”
He's already deep into that follow-up, Daddy Fat Sax: Soul Funk Crusader. Does it pick up where Sir Lucious leaves off? Like a rebel who's accepted his lifelong cause, Big Boi's voice gets resolute. “It's all brand-new. A whole new mindset. Just tryin' to make the best music possible. It ain't no smoke and mirrors, just about makin' the coldest music on the planet. That's what we built to do, that's what we gon' continue to do, and can't nobody stop us.”
BIG BOI, CEE-LO GREEN AND RYAN LESLIE: Fri., Feb. 11 | Club Nokia, L.A. Live | 800 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A. | clubnokia.com | $42.50-$75 | All ages