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Publication: The Face, 2000

Outkast: Now We’re Living in Ekstasy

Welcome to Stankonia: a parallel universe where the mood is cosmic, the mushrooms are magic and the melodies are Prince in his prime. Your guiodes? Loon-panted hip hop magicians Outkast.

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Orangina, garçon, and make it a 'stanky' one.

On the balcony of Cannes' swish Carlton hotel, three worlds are colliding in the off-season afternoon sun. Representing for France, monsieur Le Barman is serving lurid cocktails to the weird Americans. Representing for Atlanta, Gee-ohja, meanwhile, is hip hop duo Outkast. As for the third sphere, 25-year-old Antwan 'Big Boi' Patton and André 'Dré 3000' Benjamin bid you all welcome to 'Stankonia'.

'See, Stankonia is a place we can get down in,' elucidates Dré 3000, 'where you can get all the funky energy out and get buck-nekkid in the head. When you go to Stankonia, the music you would make make would be freeform,' he winks, 'and not conventional.'

'Not conventional' describes the Outkast mindset like 'not chilly' describes the surface of the sun. While their contemporaries in US hip hop are content to rock the earthbound mic, Outkast are cartoon imagineers of a funky cosmos whose topography (save for occasional visit from Prince and Kool Keith) hasn't been fully charted since George Clinton freed minds and summoned asses in its direction way back when.

With their fourth album, ‘Stakonia’, you can practically hear the Ecstasy tab plink into the glass. Not since The Pharcyde's "Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde" touched down in 1992 has hip hop concocted such effervescent rapadelia, a stir-fry of instinctive pop nous, breaker's-yard sci-fi and unrefined funk that prompts two principal responses in terrestrials: get down, and take drugs.

Only these days, Outkast don’t call the currency of their world ‘funk’ anymore: they call it 'stank', everything that exists in Stankonia is 'stanky' and its residents are the cosmically-harmonious 'stanktified'. Cannes you dig it? Er...

'It's place where all the good shit comes from,' Big Boi formulates, a vanilla cigarillo permanently hanging off his lip, 'where you put a blindfold on and run through a jungle at a hundred miles per hour. Basically, it’s that place where we’re trying to get the listener to go to.'

Along with the complicated lysergic fantasies, with Outkast you conveniently get the ghetto and the fabulous separated into each of the duo's personalities. The Ghetto is Big Boi, a man who's probably isn't called that for being 5'5” tall, and who dresses in an Eazy E-style denim suit not so much set of by as encrusted with several kilos of twinkly jewellery.

As for the Fabulous, that's Dré 3000, a vegetarian who embodies the sublime and the ridiculous of the Afronaut lineage, recalling both Prince and Cat from 'Red Dwarf' at exactly the same time. Scrupulously attentive to his personal appearance, he's onto the fifth outfit-change within an hour of his arrival. Outkast are here to showcase their skills at this aftrenoon’s record company conference, so out go the Ali-Baba loon pants in a restrained royal blue, and here come their stage-tuned cerise counterparts. It'll take a nation of gap khakis to hold Outkast back.

Dré's favourite rappers are Eminem, Redman and Big Boi, and his prefered Funkadelic album is all of them. Big Boi’s heroes are Sly, Prince and Jimi, and he has an enormous Phil Collins CD collection he describes as “so bad”. But like none of their heroes, Outkast’s tale is rooted in the 'Dirty South' of hip hop, the US zone whose other notable amabassadors - Nelly, Master P and Mannie Fresh - Outkast are following to worldwide recognition. From the get-go their career has been officiated by R&B kingpin Antonio 'LA' Reid (honoured at the MOBOs this year with the Outstanding Achievement gong) who picked them up as 16-year-old high-schoolers, Dré an only-child dreamer and Boi a dishwasher in a Steak & Ales franchise, and pointed their raw rap skills in the direction of a recording studio. Their early albums - 1993's Organized Noize-produced debut 'Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik' and its follow-up 'ATLiens' - were at pains to establish Atlanta and the south's credentials as a seperatist epicentre rather than a backwater of hip hop just as rap was consolidating its east-west axis of antagonism.

'We had time to sit back and listen to everyting, East Coast and West Coast hip hop,' Dre muses, adjusting his sun-lounger to a suitable horizontal. 'And by the time the south came around, we had the whole meltdown - that was our own sound.

'Southern rap ain't prominent, but they were feeling it on the West Coast, because it was more musical; basslines and stuff like that. Undergound people in New York felt it too. But we never got our just due. It's like we’re outcast for some reason, like we’re just not good enough.'

Nonetheless adequately on point to shift units totalling millions, by the time they arrived at their third album 'Aquemini' (meaning 'the thirteenth sign)', they'd all but abandoned hip hop's materialist preoccupation with the here and now and achieved lift-off from the South into an afrodelic realm of the elsewhere and the outta-time. For then till now, Outkast's hip hop has, Dré resolves, been 'some revolt-type shit'. Think ‘Maggot Brain’, think Dr Octagon... but don't think about it for too long.

'We ain't boring the listener with 'I represent for my city' no more,' he says. 'Okay, people already know were we from. Now let's take ’em somewhere else: Stankonia.'

'What we do has to do with imagination,' adds Big Boi. 'Hip hop's at it's most commercial point ever and it's so easy to make a hip hop record, everybody knows the formula. There's no creativity going on. Know what? I don't even listen to hip hop records today.'

An hour in the company of the dazzlingly pluralist ‘Stankkonia’ would convince you that they're in the process of encouraging hip hop to dream dreams again, and while Outkast don't need drugs to get creative, they'll take them all the same, stanks very much. As a Marley-sized spliff circles the balcony, Boi explains how Ecstasy is Outkast's favoured, though rarely indulged-in, narcotic thrill, with magic mushrooms coming a close second. ‘They’re the shit to me,’ he grin. ‘But in Atlanta you can’t get the that often.’ Dré, meanwhile, in blatant wind-up mode, is asking the honky journalist, 'know where we can get some crack?'

No, and quit playing at being 'real' please - it's so much less fun than the surreal


A 4.30pm down in the Carlton lobby, power-lunching executives adjust ties and shoot sleeves, the crumbling dames poke at the olives dishes and, hold on, could that... yes, that definitely appears to be a Funkadelic trooping into the corner of the lobby and making the premises look decidedly 'stanky'.

Or rather it's the Outkast backing group, a jumble of characters in shades, flares and afros that are conspicuously more Brand New Heavies than NWA in aspect. They’re readying for the showcase with an impromptu singsong, embellishing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Mrs Jones” with such penetrating, quarduple-layer harmony that you'd swear the Berry Gordy had annexed the hotel's airspace for auditions this afternoon.

Dré, however, is apart and quietly burbling through Moby's 'Natural Blues' all on his lonesome.

'Man, that's some southern shit; it's downhome,' he smiles broadly. The fuzzy logic of the cultural loop which produced Moby's current run of success - a white man's sampling of a negro spiritual - isn't lost on Dré

'Damn near eveything's from the South,' he twangs. 'You trace it all back, it started in Africa went to New Orleans, spread up north... and now it's coming back. Hell, I'm proud of being from the country. I love it.'

'We’re always gonna be south,' Bad Boi decides. 'Every song is Dirty south. We live there, shoot our movies there, we run our Stank Wear clothes range there. We even had yeek dancing in the video, which is old sckool Atlanta b-boy dancing.'

Move over LA, New York and Detroit: 'Stankonia' is a wanton dismissal of the hip hop album rules that touches all bases and sounds like nothing else simultaneouly. What's more, it's got girls on it (Dré's ex-partner Erykah Badu sings on contemplative 'Humble Mumble'), anti-gangsta shit ('Gangasta Shit'), incisive social commentary ('Toilet Tisha'), backwards guitar ('Slum Beautiful'), toasting Jamaicans and Parliament-style all-nutters-together choruses all stitched bewteen PhD-level raps delivered at machine gun tempo. The album's recasting of the cosmic funk mythology may seem a curiously anachronistic conceit, but the songs they deliver hardly even need the conceptual wrapping to stand out. On the the falsetto 'Ms Jackson', it's Prince at his sex-peacock best they competently pastiche, while 'BOB' ['Bombs Over Baghdad'] erupts with the kind of hip hop-meets-drum & bass pummelling rarely heard since ‘New Forms’. Outkast be bangin' hella next-level rhyme science, it would appear, but that's just the beginning of it.

'There's just no innovativeness in hip hop drum progmaing,' says Dré. 'Someone turned me onto Roni Size and DJ Krush; when I heard the drum programming, the triggering, man, it was killing. I heard some of the Photek album [makes inaudibly low bass noises]… yeah, that shit is hard. So we want to take drum & bass and make it more street, because that tempo is fierce.'

While drum & bass has yet to find it’s feet in the US market, the brand Outkast deliver is sufficiently dynamic to have the executive staff of Bertelsmann Music Group on their feet. Wander into the hotel conference hall at any other point, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking today’s proceedings for an undertakers convention. Now, however, with one eye on the stage and the other on their immediate corporate superiors, the music bizzers are whoopingly “getting down”, not to mention “giving it up” as Outkast earthquake their way through 'BOB', detonate 'So Fresh, So Clean' and hammer out the fiendishly hooky 'Ms Jackson'. All around, fortysomething men are mouthing the words to its chorus.

Onstage, in front of their DJ Cutmaster Swift and the band, Bad Boi and Dré freewheel, joust and chatter, respectively wearing butter-coloured Stank Wear leather jeans and headscarf that's equal parts Jimi Hendrix and Hilda Ogden. Getting buck-nekkid in more than just his head, Dré tosses his shirt aside, and a hundred execs nervously resolve to get to the gym more often. As Outkast manage to catalyse such a frenzy amongst a bunch of suits, you wonder what they could achieve in front of a crowd who really cared about hip hop.

But with that, the 'gig' energetically concludes, someone hands the duo bottles of champagne and Dré signs off.

'Thanky'all and goodnight: we'll be selling tickets to Stankonia in the lobby.'

There’s a big cheer, and then the executives glide away, the cleaners move in and the technicolour Outkast carousel dematerialises to somwehere else, taking the freakiest-working men in showbiz with it. Now which way did you say the lobby was again?

© Kevin Braddock 2000

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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