Reality lesson


March 16, 2001



There was a powerful moment during the first of Erykah Badu's performances at the Auditorium Theatre last month when the natural R & B diva slowly and dramatically mounted a staircase. She threw a quick look over her shoulder as she paused on each step, pretending to walk away from a jilted lover.

When Badu reached the top, the crowd fell silent--until a joker in the balcony shouted, "We're sorry, Miss Jackson!" Then the house erupted, and Badu herself even broke character to crack a smile.

The reference is to one of the most striking tracks on "Stankonia," the fourth album by the Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast. Badu was once the significant other of Outkast's Andre "Dre" Benjamin, and the two had a child together. "Ms. Jackson" is a song Dre wrote to Badu's mother, promising that he will be a good father to her grandchild, even though the romantic relationship with her daughter has ended.

"Aw, that's funny," Dre says when I tell him about the Chicago heckler. "Oh, man that is funny! I didn't hear about that one."

Outkast has a broad musical vision that stretches from the interstellar funk of Parliament-Funkadelic and the trippy soul of the Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack" to the street-wise humor of pre-cookie-cutter gangsta rap. But another factor that marks Outkast as one of the most important groups in hip-hop today is Dre's willingness to deal with serious lyrical issues--whether it's familial responsibility in "Ms. Jackson" or global political aggression in "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)."

"I think `Ms. Jackson' works because it's real, you know?" the rapper says. That "realness" is why Outkast is accepted by hard-core gangsta fans in a way that no other "alternative rap" group has been.

"On the first album [1994's `Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik'], we were kind of embraced by the street and the whole gangsta mentality," Dre says. "When those people listen to our album now, when they hear `Ms. Jackson,' they say, `That's the realest tune on the album.' I guess they can feel the realness, and you can't deny that."

The complex musical tapestry of "Stankonia" veers wildly at times between sophisticated musical jams and sophomoric gangsta skits. But Dre says that both extremes are part of the group's identity.

"It's not even a plan. If you listen to a verse from either one of us, me or Big Boi, we never stay on one complete subject. It's really hard for me to do that. It is a schizophrenic approach, but that kind of says, `OK, there's something on the album for everybody.' A lot of people didn't understand `Bombs Over Baghdad' at all, but then other people were like, `This is the newest [stuff] ever!' "

Dre and his fellow rapper Antwan "Big Boi" Patton first met while attending high school in the Atlanta suburb of East Point. They formed Outkast in the mid-'90s and soon signed to LaFace, scoring big right out of the box with the single "Player's Ball." The duo continued to grow musically and lyrically through 1996's "ATLiens" and '98's "Aquemini," but "Stankonia" represents its most ambitious effort to date.

The comparison to George Clinton's efforts with Parliament and Funkadelic in the '70s makes Dre beam with pride. "I love them guys--I love everything they put down!" he says, adding that he finds particular inspiration in the underexplored genre of psychedelic soul.

"I think it's the same ideology more than anything. When we tried to make this record, we didn't say, `We're going to do a psychedelic album.' It was more like we wanted a rebellious sound from traditional hip-hop. When we went in, the mind frame of doing the album was trippy--we tried all kinds of things that sounded new and fresh to us. It was just kind of like a free and uninhibited approach to the studio.

"That's what's been pigeonholing hip-hop, because you felt like you had to do a certain thing or be a certain way. You had to wear your hat to the back of your head or hold your [crotch]. And the best music doesn't pay attention to those kinds of rules."

It's the desire to forge their own path that keeps Outkast separate from the pack, even though personal relationships and similar lyrical philosophies link the duo with the movement of natural R&B and hip-hop artists that includes the Roots, Common and the Black-Eyed Peas.

"We really don't want to be pigeonholed by that or anything else," Dre maintains. "Live instrumentation is cool, but it's not like a new thing; it's been going on since our first album. We use all aspects of the music." On the current tour, the two MCs will be joined by three backing vocalists, two guitarists and a DJ.

"I would say it's kind of like inviting people to Stankonia and throwing a party, and we're the hosts," Dre says. "It's like a jam session, and we get the crowd into it."

As for the future of hip-hop, Dre seems room for everything.

"It is a new wave--it's a change, a breath of fresh air--but the gangsta music is always gonna be there, and it's always gonna be a part of our music. As long as that type of stuff is going on in the neighborhood and in the street, people are gonna wanna hear that. As far as fresh sounds and production and stuff like that, I think as artists we get tired of doing the same things over and over again. That's why we try new and different things."