Sorry to disappoint you, but that magical place that shares a name with OutKast's fourth album is not "7 Light Years Away," as the street sign in the video for "Bombs Over Baghdad" infers. No purple grass, no ultraviolet skyline, no glowing sidewalks. Nope, Stankonia is just a building nestled in a northwest Atlanta office park, next door to a printing company and walking distance from a Walmart.
"The place from which all funky things come" doesn't have limber dancers swinging from poles, nor does it have exotic monkeys striking poses. Try interns organizing file cabinets and secretaries answering phone calls. In fact, the only thing stank about the place may very well be the dank smell of smoke that sits on its couches, like a visiting relative who doesn't know when to leave.
Big Boi doesn't mind the company at all. He's called Stankonia Studios home for roughly 10 years now, so he's used to the aroma. However, he isn't quite used to having guests upstairs, where there's still no purple grass — though there's plenty of gutted cigar residue around that was probably replaced with another kind of purple grass.
The sparse décor includes a string of Christmas lights outlining the door, and the walls are littered with sketches of what Big plans to include in a comic book idea he's been kicking around for a few years. The drawings are reminiscent of the cover art for OutKast's ATLiens, an album that was celebrated with a legendary midnight release at the now defunct Tower Records, when virtually the whole city stayed up to see its beloved duo in the flesh. You know, back when OutKast was the thing in Atlanta. Boy have things changed.
Emerging at a time when rap, and to a degree black music at large, was either riding the wave of West Coast G-funk or head-bobbing to the East Coast's embattled boom-bap, the duo made up of Andre "Dre" (pre-3000) Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton made it cool to be from a Southern city that, until then, had no contemporary musical identity of its own. Sure, Cameo and the S.O.S. Band recorded here. Yeah, Bobby Brown built Bosstown Studios (which later became Stankonia) and two Jheri-curled guys from the Midwest started a locally based label called LaFace. But the members of OutKast, and their extended Dungeon Family, were the first native sons to give Atlanta a national voice.
Since his partner in rhyme left the stage for the silver screen, Big continues to serve as the unofficial ambassador for the city. Rarely, if ever, is he photographed without an "A" hat on his head, and he still finds a way to spit the letters "A-T-L" (first heard on OutKast's '94 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik) in every other song. But over the last few years, Atlanta's appreciation for Big has gone a little limp. It just doesn't seem like the love he's shown the city is being reciprocated.
That hasn't stopped Big from almost single-handedly keeping the OutKast legacy — and brand — alive through tours and public appearances that have ramped up since the duo's diamond-selling, Grammy-winning album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped seven years ago. But when you're one-half of perhaps the most legendary rap duo after Run-D.M.C., it's not an easy job trying to convince people that one is just as good as two.
"When you're a team for all these years, people want to see the team," says Big as he pulls out a fresh Black & Mild in the upstairs studio where he's been putting the finishing touches on his forthcoming release. "The same way people ask me about Dre, Dre says people ask him about me. We're not going to be hip-to-hip at all times, but when people are used to seeing you together, that's what they want."
That desire is part of the reason why the reception to his oft-delayed and almost mythical solo album, Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty (dropping July 6 on Def Jam), has been ambiguous. With the album under construction since 2006 — and having been completed for a year now — fans are excited to get at least a fraction of the funk associated with the OutKast logo. But the reality is that hip-hop has changed a lot since 2006, when 'Kast dropped its last release, Idlewild, the movie soundtrack disguised as an album.
In the past year, Lil Jon's crunk has returned in the form of Waka Flocka Flame while Kilo's party anthems have been resurrected by Travis Porter, with both having a kung-fu grip on Atlanta's airwaves. On a national scale, Lil Wayne and anyone associated with him (i.e., Drake) have taken up the rest of the real estate on radio and television — so much so that Big, who has seen every album he's ever released certified platinum or better, received a borderline insulting suggestion by his former label, Jive Records.
"They basically told me my music was a piece of art and they don't know how to do art over there," says Big, puffing on his Black. "They said I needed some bubblegum radio music and asked me to make my own version of [Lil Wayne's] 'Lollipop.'" He lets that marinate, ashes his cigar and exhales. "Yeah, that type of shit's been going on."
Calling that suggestion the final straw, Big Boi fought for a release from his Jive contract and finalized a long-rumored solo deal with Def Jam in March. The move reunites him with the man who gave him his big break 18 years ago: founder of LaFace Records and current chairman/CEO of Island Def Jam Music Group, L.A. Reid.
"I just left the Def Jam office the other day and a lot of the people there used to work at LaFace, so it's almost like a family reunion," says Big. "They're very excited. I showed them the videos, played the album. They were like, 'Welcome home.' It's a good feeling to be on a team that knows where you came from."
While the Def Jam staff up in New York sounds like they're ready to play ball, the music community Big helped cultivate — starting with OutKast's Southernplayalistic success in 1994 — seems to be sitting on the bench. Back when he was frustrated with his situation at Jive, Big purposely leaked several songs from Sir Lucious. Recent tracks "For Yo Sorrows," featuring George Clinton and Too $hort; "Shine Blockers," featuring Gucci Mane; and "Shutterbugg," produced by Scott Storch, were all warmly received. None of the songs, however, crossed over into Atlanta commercial radio, a domain that used to salivate at the mention of a new OutKast track. If that doesn't alarm you, consider this: When a Jay-Z song leaks over the Internet, New York radio is playing it within the hour. If an unreleased Snoop Dogg song finds its way to the Web, Los Angeles radio is all over it. So why isn't Big Boi greeted with the same fervor?
"Atlanta radio sucks balls," Big responded via Twitter when he was queried about it back in January.
When asked about local radio's failure to latch onto Big Boi's new music, Atlanta radio personality Greg Street says, "It's all about the setup. Big has to make people believe in the records." Back in 1996, Street leaked "Elevators" — the lead single from OutKast's sophomore release, ATLiens — on his V-103 (WVEE-FM) radio show and was immediately sent cease-and-desist orders from LaFace Records. Fourteen years later, Big's current label would welcome a radio leak with open arms.
"He has to put out records that are going to make people go crazy," Street continues. "Coming off the amazing albums he's put out as a member of OutKast, the bar has been set high. Just because you have a big name doesn't mean that you can just put out any record. You have to come with the right record."
Rap's fair-weather fan base can also be a hurdle, according to Street. "Our people are not like other communities," he says. "If the Rolling Stones come out tomorrow, people go crazy. In hip-hop, you have to go on a campaign. You have to go to the radio station and debut the songs yourself. The fans have to know, you have to be with the fans."
Even with the recent release of a big-budget video directed by Chris Robinson (who also directed Big in the film ATL), "Shutterbugg" still hasn't found its way onto regular rotation at V-103, Hot 107.9 (WHTA-FM) or 95.5 the Beat (WBTS-FM), Atlanta's mainstream urban music stations. You'd be hard-pressed to hear it playing in any nightclubs, either.
"The songs you hear on the radio [are all about] programming," says Big. "It's scarce to get something that isn't catered to babies. It could be a label thing, too, where they aren't servicing certain records. We're gonna see how it goes at Def Jam. The album's dope, that's all I care about." Big Boi insists that he has at least eight or nine radio-friendly tracks on the album. With cameos from T.I., B.o.B and Jamie Foxx — and production from Lil Jon, Erick Sermon, Organized Noize, and Andre himself — it definitely has the name power to garner some attention. But none of the contributors throw their star power around on the tracks at Big's expense; instead they complement him, making his vision the priority.
It's a vision that's taken some time for Big to build. Accustomed to writing one verse and maybe a hook for OutKast songs, Big has triple the workload now that he's working as a solo artist.
"I never wanted to do a solo record, but at the same time, me and Dre both write, produce, arrange all aspects of music," Big explains. "Since Aquemini, we've been working in two studios at the same time. Of course, I'd rather be doing a group album, but [Dre] was like, 'I think we should do a solo album and then comeback and do an OutKast album.' I'm glad I did that too now. I've grown a lot as an MC and producer. I'm proud of myself for the work I've put in."
A lot of that work has popped up on the Internet over the last several months. As other A-list artists of the past decade such as Eminem, Nelly, Jay-Z and Missy Elliot have opted to wait out the economic cloud in the music industry that's brought a halt to heavily financed videos, Big has welcomed the challenge, enlisting Internet-savvy director and photographer Zach Wolfe to shoot his music videos and build his presence online. (One of their videos includes Big busting a freestyle inside the Walmart that's walking distance from Stankonia.) What Big has lacked in radio promotion, he's attempted to make up for with numerous blog interviews and webisodes documenting his studio sessions and concerts.
"When me and him first started talking, I came at him from a fan's perspective," says Wolfe, who was the first to get Big Boi to make Web videos. "I told him people are starving to see him in any light possible. If you can just talk to me with the camera rolling, the people want that."
Whether Big's work will be appreciated and respected in the city he helped put on the map remains to be seen. But with so much music coming out — coupled with the fact that many of OutKast's biggest fans are now more concerned about what's playing on their child's iPod than their own — it's going to be interesting to see if he can still produce the fever-pitch interest that used to turn the city upside down.
"I actually think it's good to have a generational gap, but still be in touch with what you're doing," he says. "A lot of young cats grew up on our music because their parents listened to it. Some people may even think that I'm too big, which isn't true. I'm still in the strip clubs — shit, I shot a video at Walmart. I'm always out with the people. I'm not untouchable."
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