André Benjamin (André 3000)
May 27, 1975 • Georgia
Antwan "Big Boi" Patton
February 1, 1975 • Savannah, Georgia
OutKast's exuberant, infectious single "Hey Ya!" helped push sales of their 2003 release Speakerboxxx/The Love Below past the three-million mark. This Atlanta, Georgia-raised duo, who use the professional tags "André 3000" and "Big Boi," are rap music's most unusual set of collaborators. While André 3000 favors outrageous outfits and listens to jazz, Big Boi remains more of the old-school style of rap megastar. Their dual personalities were showcased on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which was actually a pair of solo records. It became one of the top-selling records of 2003, and also won them the Grammy Award for album of the year.
OutKast met as high school students in Atlanta. "André 3000" was born André Benjamin in 1975. His father, Lawrence Walker, was a collections agent, while his mom, Sharon Benjamin Hodo, sold real estate. Antwan "Big Boi" Patton was the same age, and the son of a Marine Corps officer dad and a mother who worked as a retail supervisor. Both enrolled at Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Georgia, a school geared toward students hoping for a career in the performing arts. They stood out from the other students, they recalled, initially because of their unusually preppy clothing choices. It was music, however, that cemented their early friendship: both were fans of the more daring vein of hip-hop artists, such as De La Soul, the Brand Nubians, and A Tribe Called Quest; they also loved 1970s funk from the likes of George Clinton and Sly and the Family Stone.
Benjamin and Patton began writing their own raps, which they turned into mix tapes. They initially named their outfit "2 Shades Deep," but learned it had already been taken by another group. They renamed themselves the Misfits, which they also discovered was being used. Looking up "misfit" in the dictionary, they found the synonym "outcast," and decided to use that but keep the dictionary's phonetic "k" spelling.
Benjamin and Patton admitted later to having a bit of a wild streak as teens, and Benjamin dropped out of Tri-Cities High after his junior year. Their ambitions were strong, however, and they looked for a way into the music business. They found it when they met an Atlanta-area production team, Organized Noize, which had worked in-studio with TLC to produce their hit 1994 single "Waterfalls."
"We're from the hood, but that's not where our music stayed."
André Benjamin, New York Times, September 7, 2003.
OutKast's first single, "Player's Ball," was released as a cassette single on LaFace Records in 1993, and on vinyl the next year. The record climbed to the top of the Billboard rap singles chart and stayed at No. 1 for six weeks. They became the first hip-hop act signed to LaFace, the Atlanta label run by Antonio "L.A." Reid (c. 1958–) that was part of the Arista Records empire. Though they were straightforward rap artists at this early stage in their career, Benjamin and Patton were determined to shake things up. "When I look at the rap videos, it's pretty much the same video over and over," Benjamin explained once to Newsweek writer Allison Samuels. "A bunch of women in swimsuits and the guys rapping about money or jewels. Me and Big Boi wanted to change that."
OutKast has the dubious distinction of being sued by American civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks (1913–). The first single from their 1998 release Aquemini bore her name, though its lyrics did not mention her. Its chorus referred to her historic 1955 refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, where African Americans were expected to sit, which sparked a year-long bus boycott and virtually launched the civil-rights era in the United States. OutKast's song is about the entertainment industry, but its lyrics urge, "A-ha, hush that fuss/Everybody move to the back of the bus."
Parks sued in federal court, naming André ("André 3000") Benjamin, Antwan ("Big Boi") Patton, and their label, Arista, in her suit. Her lawyers argued that by using her name without her permission, OutKast had defamed her and violated her publicity and trademark rights in their song. Lawyers for OutKast and Arista counter-argued that the song was not false advertising, and had not violated her publicity rights; they also claimed that the First Amendment guaranteed the song protection under the freedom of speech rule. Parks' federal suit was dismissed in 1999, but the U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, reinstated some of it, and OutKast's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to block the case from going any further. In December of 2003, Supreme Court justices declined to intervene in the matter, paving the way for the a trial set to begin in January of 2005.
OutKast's first full-length record, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, was released in 1994, and made it to No. 3 on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop albums chart. They emerged as one of a slew of Atlanta-based groups that were gaining national attention at the time. "Just as Ice Cube had narrated a Westside story and KRS-One told an Eastside version, OutKast ... slanged parables" about their hometown, noted L.A. Weekly writer Michael Datcher. The pair gained even more listeners in 1996 with ATLiens, their follow-up. It featured more of a live-studio sound, favoring real instruments over hi-tech production effects, and had a hit single with "Elevators (Me and You)." It also had a more spaceship-esque mood, which linked them back to Clinton's 1970s-era masterpieces with Parliament-Funkadelic. "When we started doing the more experimental rap, started talking about aliens, that's when more and more white people started coming to the shows," Benjamin told New York Times writer Lola Ogunnaike.
In keeping with the New-Age vibe, Benjamin and Patton formed their own boutique label, which they named "Aquemini." The word was made up from a combination of their respective astrological signs, Gemini and Aquarius. They also used it for the title of their third LP. Aquemini reached the double-platinum sales mark, thanks in part to the single, "Rosa Parks." Benjamin and Patton began heading in a new direction in the late 1990s, ditching some of the hallmarks of rap style for a more soulful sound. Though both had previously worn baggy jeans and athletic jerseys onstage, Benjamin began sporting far more flamboyant outfits, which included long blond wigs, trousers made of fur, turbans, boas, and checkered-print suits in dazzling colors. He also adopted "André 3000" instead of his longtime "Dre" tag. They remained in partnership with Reid, who took them along when he became president of Arista Records.
OutKast's major crossover achievement came finally in 2000 with their fourth release, Stankonia. The record had a certain psychedelic feel, and produced several hits, among them "Mrs. Jackson," a homage to the grandmother of Benjamin's son with singer Erykah Badu written in the aftermath of a breakup. "I probably would never come out and tell Erykah's mom, 'I'm sorry for what went down,'" he explained about the song's origin in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview with Craig Seymour. "But music gives you the chance to say what you want to say. And her mom loved it. She's like, 'Where's my publishing check?'"
Stankonia also put Atlanta on the musical map for good, with the numerous references to the neighborhoods of East Point and Decatur where they grew up. Critics everywhere wrote enthusiastically of it. It even earned a mention in Newsweek, with music writer Lorraine Ali asserting that it "continues OutKast's journey into the weird with a sound that lies somewhere between the jamming madness of Parliament-Funkadelic, the creme de menthe vocals of Al Green and the bumping beats of A Tribe Called Quest."
Stankonia was released in late October of 2000, just after the deadline for releases hoping to be considered for a Grammy Award nomination that year. In early January of 2002, however, it was nominated in five categories, including album of the year. Weeks later, they took home Grammy statues for best rap album of 2001, and best song by a rap duo or group for "Mrs. Jackson."
Nearly three years went by before OutKast released another studio effort. The long-awaited Speakerboxxx/The Love Below made it into stores in late September of 2003, just before the all-important Grammy deadline. It was richly rewarded the following February, winning Grammys for album of the year, best rap album of 2003, and best urban/alternative performance for "Hey Ya!" The dual CD, however, was essentially two separate releases from each OutKast member. Patton's Speakerboxxx was a more traditional rap record, and had a hit that made it onto several charts, "The Way You Move."
Andre's The Love Below was the funkier record of the two. It originally started out as a soundtrack project that Benjamin began for a film, a love story set in Paris. Though some critics faulted it for mixing too many musical styles, others commended both records for their big-picture vision. "With Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, [Benjamin's] lonely Day-Glo lothario and Big Boi's wise-thug MC have made an LP that offers an outsize artistic vision, not focus-group 'perfection,' as the route to a mass audience," declared Entertainment Weekly writer Will Hermes.
The concept-album effort was overshadowed, however, by the massive success of "Hey Ya!" It quickly emerged the biggest hit from The Love Below, and became the No. 1 downloaded song on the Internet. Its success boosted the double-album's sales to 3.5 million copies. Much of the rest of Benjamin's effort was reflective. As he explained to a writer for London's Guardian newspaper, Alexis Petridis: "In hip-hop, people don't talk about their vulnerable or sensitive side a lot because they're trying to keep it real or be tough—they think it makes them look weak. That's what the Love Below means, that bubbling-under feeling that people don't like to talk about, that dudes try to cover up with machismo."
Some OutKast fans worried that the dual-album release marked the beginning of the end for the pair, with each too apart musically now to come together again. Both Benjamin and Patton stressed, however, that they were still a team. As Patton explained to Marti Yarbrough in Jet, "Both records are OutKast records. They're just from two different perspectives." The former high-school pals worked well together, with Patton overseeing the business side of the partnership from his home in Fayetteville, Georgia. Benjamin, meanwhile, had Hollywood ambitions: he appeared in Hollywood Homicide in 2003, and was part of an all-star cast for an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel, Be Cool, released in 2005. Both Benjamin and Patton had also teamed with an Atlanta filmmaker, Bryan Barber, to work on a musical set in a jazz club during the 1920s.
Benjamin and Patton are both fathers. Benjamin's son with Badu, Seven Sirius, divides his time between his parents' homes. Patton has a daughter and two sons. Patton realizes that OutKast's music might reach listeners in unexpected ways, as he told Datcher in the L.A. Weekly interview. Once, after a concert, a fan approached him and recounted a story of not "going to class, he just wasn't feeling motivated. He told me he listened to [ Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik 's] 'Git Up, Git Out' every morning, and that would get him out of the crib so he could go to class," Patton recalled. "He said it helped him graduate from college. That makes me feel good, that we're touching people by just being ourselves and telling our own story."
Ali, Lorraine. "So Superfunkyfragelistic! On the Edge with the Weird and Wonderful OutKast." Newsweek (October 30, 2000): p. 88.
Arnold, Chuck. "Grammy's Fun Couple: With Six Nominations, Great Beats and Kaleidoscope Clothes, OutKast—The Hottest Act in America—Is Anything But." People (February 16, 2004): p. 87.
"Court Gives Rosa Parks the Go-Ahead to Sue Over Rappers' Lyrics.' Jet (January 5, 2004): p. 32.
Datcher, Michael. "OutKast's Southern-Fried Hip-Hop Breaks Through." L.A. Weekly (December 4, 1998).
Hermes, Will. "Fully Funktional: OutKast Propel Hip-Hop to New Heights with Their Madly Ambitious, Soul-Sparking Solo CDs." Entertainment Weekly (September 19, 2003): p. 83.
Lester, Paul. "Friday Review." Guardian (London, England) (May 18, 2001): p. 6.
Ogunnaike, Lola. "Outkast, Rap's Odd Couple: Gangsta Meets Granola." New York Times (September 7, 2003): p. AR87.
Petridis, Alexis. "The Friday Interview." Guardian (London, England) (November 7, 2003): p. 8.
Samuels, Allison. "Twins Beneath The Skin: The Two Guys Who Make up the Quirky Hip-Hop Unit Outkast Couldn't Be More Different—And on Their New Album, Each One Gets His Own Disc. Can This Marriage Be Saved?" Newsweek (September 22, 2003): p. 86.
Seymour, Craig. "Steps to Success." Atlanta Journal-Constitution (February 26, 2002): p. E1.
"Southern-Fried Hip-Hop: Down-Home Lyrics and Strong Dance Grooves Are Ingredients of a Tasty Menu." Ebony (January 2004): p. 74.
Tyrangiel, Josh. "Dysfunktion Junction: OutKast, the Planet's Best Rap Duo, Is One Odd Couple." Time (September 29, 2003): p. 71.
Yarbrough, Marti. "OutKast: Music's Favorite Odd Couple Breaks the Hip-Hop Mold." Jet (February 2, 2004): p. 58