Big Boi photographed with his pet owl, Simon, on April 12, 2018 at Stankonia Studios in Atlanta.
Big Boi photographed with his pet owl, Simon, on April 12, 2018 at Stankonia Studios in Atlanta.
Donte’ Maurice

Big Boi on Hip-Hop's Evolution, Acting In 'Superfly' & Working With L.A. Reid

Big Boi blows into Studio A at his Stankonia recording facility on the west side of Atlanta wearing a black hoodie, black-and-white striped pants and shiny red high-tops, carrying two Amazon boxes and a Chik-fil-A bag. “Oh, hell yeah,” he says, tearing into the boxes and pulling out an assortment of decorative patches: snakes, stars, Chinese dragons. “These work. This shit’s going to be dope.”

The patches will adorn Big Boi’s stage gear for the upcoming third leg of his tour supporting his most recent album, Boomiverse, kicking off May 17. Released last June, Boomiverse is Big Boi’s third solo outing since OutKast, the pioneering rap duo he started in 1991 with André 3000, was essentially put on ice in the mid-2000s.

Over the course of a decade and a half, OutKast’s determined eclecticism, pop smarts, vivid wordplay and trunk-rattling Southern beats helped turn Atlanta into rap’s “third coast,” the genre’s white-hot creative center. But Dré gradually lost interest in hip-hop, leaving Big Boi to carry the torch for the group (and answer perpetual queries about potential reunions).

Within OutKast, Big (born Antwan Patton), 43, was seen as the sharp-tongued street ballast to Dre’s exotic bohemian. His solo career has often felt aimed at correcting that reductive perception. He has made dirty G-funk (“Fo Yo Sorrows” with George Clinton), set tongue-twisting rhymes atop psychedelic pop (“Shoes for Running” with Wavves), sung earnest lamentations over acoustic soul (“Descending” with Little Dragon) and concocted an entire EP with indie-pop group Phantogram. With its straight-ahead rhymes about women, cars and cash, Boomiverse has a more back-to-basics vibe, but stealth pockets of weirdness remain, including “All Night,” a jangly confection co-written/produced by Dr. Luke, which appeared in a recent series of Apple ads. Originally put out on Epic, the album, which hit No. 8 on Billboard’s Top Rap Albums chart, will be rereleased later this year by Hitco, the new label founded by Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who originally signed OutKast.

At Stankonia today, Big Boi’s compact frame buzzes with enthusiasm. As he giddily unpacks a chicken-nugget meal, his assistant, Shea, needles him: He’s supposed to be on a diet. “Chicken is allowed on the weekend!” he protests. It’s Thursday. “I missed a day,” he says with a grin. Shea asks whether his newest pet, an imposing eagle owl named Simon, is at the studio today. (He is.) “It’s fresh as hell,” says Big. “I wanted a bird, but I wanted a big bird. An owl is cool as fuck.”

Big’s got the sharp wit and cool, confident bearing of the guy at a party who knows he has the best stories to tell, along with a work ethic that -- after selling close to 20 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen Music (between his own solo work and OutKast’s) -- it’s safe to say he hardly needs, but which fits with the earthiness that has always attended his celebrity. Here in Atlanta, it’s not uncommon to see Big tucking into a plate of hash browns at a local Waffle House, or checking on the pups at the bulldog kennel he founded over 20 years ago. He still goes to the studio every day, even as he has become an investor in startups like Ring, a video doorbell and security service acquired by Amazon earlier this year for $1 billion. And he’s taking on meatier acting roles, including a supporting part in the remake of the blaxploitation classic Superfly, out June 15.

Big Boi could be forgiven for treating his career as an extended exercise in legacy grooming; instead, as was evident in our lengthy conversation, he’s still driven to explore new territory without losing touch with hip-hop’s mainstream -- a superstar with something to prove.
 



You’ve now made almost as many solo albums as you ever made with OutKast. Did it take a minute for you to figure out who you were apart from OutKast?
Absolutely. When you’re a part of something that big, it’s hard for people to distinguish you apart from that. No matter what I do, I’m OutKast until the day we die. To get people reacquainted with me has been challenging but also gratifying.

Do you feel you’re underappreciated as a solo artist?
They know. And if they don’t, then they’re still learning. With every record, it’s “Holy shit, you sound like you’re still hungry.” The affiliation with the group is like the throne I sit on. The role I played [in OutKast], that shit was a yin and yang. And right now, you getting all yang! You getting some yang in tha thang!

Back in 2010 I talked to L.A. Reid, and he said, “As long as I have a job, Big Boi will always have a record label.” It seems now that as long as he’s got a label, you’re ready to be his artist.
We have a lot of history. He’s the guy that gets it. I don’t have to explain the music. I was only at Epic because he was there. At this point I don’t even need a label, but me and L.A., what he do and what I do goes hand in hand. For a minute I’ve been kind of doing things on my own. I’ve been kind of following Reid from Jive to Def Jam to Epic to now Hitco. I think we’re going to rerelease Boomiverse under this new outfit, with three or four new records, because we didn't get a fair shake. We put too much time into that shit, and we’ve got so many songs we want to put visuals to.

When he left Epic, it was following a sexual harassment claim.
I don’t know nothing about that.

But did it give you any pause in terms of aligning yourself with him again?
Our bond is family. Anything that is sensationalized, I don’t know shit about none of that shit.

You’ve been politically vocal in recent years. When you look at what’s happening in the country, do you think you have a role to play as an artist?
Yes. If Donald Trump can be the president, anybody can be. So, shit, Oprah Winfrey, King T’Challa from Black Panther, Rosie Perez, Steve Harvey -- it’s a popularity contest. People just got to be mindful: Put somebody in there that’s going to help you, not just tell you what you want to hear. That’s a pimp: “Bitch, we’re going to take over the world. You’re going to go down here and sell some pussy, and we’re going to take over.” He talks a good game, but you’ve got to be careful who you follow.

At some point you even mentioned running for mayor of Atlanta one day.
Whenever they legalize marijuana and make it clean, I’d be the governor, Killer Mike would be the mayor or vice versa. [Laughs.] That’s years down the line, but it’s not a stretch. I’m all about community, family and helping people. That’s why I would do it: to bring the poverty rate down, help the homeless, build community centers and give kids a chance to focus on what they’re doing in the future.
 

For now, you’re playing a mayor onscreen in Superfly. Were you a fan of the original film?
I come from a family of hustlers, so we grew up on that shit: Superfly, The Mack, Dolemite. They called and were like, “We’ve got a role for you: You’re going to be the freaky, corrupt mayor of Atlanta.” I was like, “Hell fucking yeah!” Right now they’ve just got to match the music to the film. Because the original was really driven by the soundtrack.

Future is curating the soundtrack. You’ve known him for a while, right?
Yeah. He came up in the Dungeon [the early-2000s Atlanta hip-hop collective named for producer Ric Wade’s basement studio]. I remember him from when he went by “Meathead.” He was just all about the music. The Dungeon was like the Xavier School [for Gifted Youngsters, from X-Men]. Everybody was special in their own way.

A lot of the people you came up with in Atlanta have moved away, but you’ve stayed. Why?
I’ve traveled around the world, but there’s no other place I could live. Except for Jamaica. I love Jamaica. But the vibe here -- there’s no reason for me to go nowhere else. We’ve got a mayor named Keisha! Can you beat that shit? I live by the Chattahoochee River. It’s peaceful. Not to mention the cost of living: For a house in L.A. that might cost you $10 million, you can get it here for two or three.

Are you a fan of Atlanta, the show?
I love it. Donald Glover is killing it. I like that you never know what each episode is going to be about -- when you do that, it keeps motherfuckers on the hook for what you’re going to do next. The episode with Katt Williams and the alligator? That shit was fucking crazy! Actually, I [produce] a cartoon called Hotlanta Waxx that they put in the barbershop episode.

I gather you don’t need the money at this point, so what motivates you to still work at the pace you do?
The music. I always want to hear what I’m going to do next. I thrive off music. If I don’t listen to music, I’m like a plant without sunlight: I get down. So I’m always trying to search for what’s next.

Are you competitive?
Yeah, but my only competition is myself. Where I’m at now, I’ve done so much and covered so much ground, I just want to outdo myself and not rely on past records. I want to sound like something else other than what I’ve already done.

I read that maybe a year ago you had dinner with Kate Bush. Is [working with her] the great white whale for you?

It's the only thing I haven't done that I'm trying to get done. She is like my top two artists of all time. Bob Marley; Kate Bush. I had dinner with her. We talked about our kids and hopefully making music one day. To be listening to her from middle school and then to be a grown man, sitting, drinking almond cognac with Kate Bush in London was like, oh my God, amazing.

What about her spoke to you as a teenager in Georgia?

The sound; what she was saying in the music. The production was fucking out of here, man. Her whole albums were stories. I'd ride my bike to school, push play, and by the time I got to school I was at the end of an album. I rode a long-ass way. Her voice was like the voice of an angel. It was like going to see The Wizard of Oz, almost.

Is it important to you that young people are feeling your music too?
Yeah, you want them to. My kids have been instrumental in helping turn me on to new shit. My daughter turned me on to The Weeknd. My sons turned me on to Young Thug. They’ve been my secret A&Rs for a long time.

Do they listen to anything that you just can’t get with?
They’ve got pretty good taste. A lot of that shit, though, I can’t get all the way into. I’m like, “What’s he saying?”

If you look at what popular hip-hop was in 1992, 1993, and what it is now, it’s almost like two different genres of music.
It’s not about who can rap the best anymore; it’s about who’s making the best jam. The shit might be the simplest shit in the world, but motherfuckers will sing it word for word. You don’t have to be rappity-rap-rap rapping all the goddamn time.

I listen to, say, XXXTentacion and think, “Is this really hip-hop?” That’s not a dig. But to call that and what Nas does the same genre feels simplistic.
Hip-hop is the culture, rap is the genre. Hip-hop is beats, rhymes, graffiti, style. Rap is just rapping. Kurtis Blow was rapping. James Brown was doing some rapping, too. I’m not one of them hip-hop purists. I fuck with everybody and everybody fuck with me, as long as it’s got feeling. The XXX guy, I’ve seen one video where he was really talking about something. It’s like, “Oh, you’re not tricking me. You’re a smart guy.” So some of that shit is just flash.

You’ve always loved touring. How have you changed as a live performer?
With [OutKast producers] Organized Noize, the way they trained us, we had to run around the block hundreds of times, reciting our rhymes -- so at a Big Boi show, you’re not going to hear Big Boi rapping over recorded lyrics. I do motherfucking miles and miles on the bike, rapping, to keep that breath control. Whatever the crowd gives us, we give it back: 90 minutes of cardio, dancing, gyrating, giving them that yang! I fucking tore my patellar [knee] tendon onstage, slinging yang.

Popular hip-hop is, by nature, young people’s music. Is it hard to find your place within that as a 43-year-old dad?
Hell no! My kids keep me young. My face look young. I got a strong back. It’s about how you feel. We started when I was a teenager. Now I look at it like getting different degrees in music. I’m still a student because I’m always trying to learn new ways of making music and breaking boundaries. When you stop is when you get old.

In blues and soul, artists seem to get better with age. Why shouldn't we have rappers in their 60s?
Well, I don’t know about that... If you in your 60s and you ain’t got to where you want to with some rap music, you better try something else! [Laughs.] I mean, 60s? [Pauses.] You know what? Never motherfucking say never.

A version of this article originally appeared in the May 5 issue of Billboard.


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