Outkast, one member of which is a self-described player and the other a poet, is an anomaly in popular music. Innovative, street-savvy rappers, the duo's appeal cuts across all borders, even within the feudalistic, highly competitive world of hip-hop. Dre and Big Boi's spectacular success as artists not only lies in their ability to pioneer new sounds with each recording, but in accepting their different personalities and building on their common interests a shared love of Parliament/Funkadelic, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix.
The team's friendship goes back to Atlanta in the early '90s, where they both attended Tri-Cities High School in the East Point area. A single child, Andre Benjamin lived with his mother for most of his early life, eventually moving in with his father at 15. In contrast, Antwan Patton lived with several brothers and sisters in Savannah before moving to Atlanta as a teenager. At Tri-Cities High School, the two quickly connected. "When everyone was wearing Starter pants, we were wearing flower print shorts. We were just a tad bit different," Benjamin told Details magazine.
Though their paths momentarily diverged Benjamin dropped out of high school during the 10th grade, while Patton received his diploma they continued to rap together, eventually starting a group called 2 Shades Deep. While pursuing their musical ventures, the two did what most teenagers do working odd jobs, partying, and running the streets. "I do remember Dre in a Cadillac with a Glock, getting high, waiting for niggas to run up," Benjamin's cousin Angelo reminisced to Vibe magazine in 1998. "He had a lot of women back then." Patton, meanwhile, pondered selling drugs to get enough money for studio time, as the Wu-Tang Clan, Eazy-E, and countless other groups had done before.
Before that happened, however, the duo was signed by L.A. Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds to their LaFace label, shortly before Patton graduated. In 1993, the two released their first single, "Player's Ball." It was an immediate hit. Though other Atlanta rappers had garnered success before them (notably Kriss Kross), Outkast was the first to have a hit with specific references to its city, calling out neighborhoods like East Point and College Park. "A player is somebody who take care of they business in the game, the game of life," Dre explained to Source magazine in 1994. "You can be a regular, average everyday Joe and be a player as long as you handle your business," Big Boi added. "If you're true to yourself and true to what you're doing, then can't nobody call you out."
The "Player's Ball" single eventually went gold and was soon followed by a full-length album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. A critical and commercial success, Southern was largely produced by Organized Noize. It spawned two more hit singles: the title track and "Get Up and Get Out." It went platinum later that year. The contrast between "Player's Ball" and the motivational anthem "Get Up and Get Out" would become a hallmark for Outkast. Ever since, the group has tried to strike a careful balance between positive messages and street-oriented stories. As Big Boi explained to Vibe in 1998, "Once you start getting preachy, that's when you start being like an overbearing parent we just giving you everyday life how we see it."
Southern also served as a platform for fellow Atlanta rappers Goodie Mob (an acronym for the "Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit") and Organized Noize's fledging production skills. Over the next two years, the latter would work on several rap and R&B hits, including Curtis Mayfield's comeback LP, New World Order; TLC's Crazysexycool; and Goodie Mob's debut, Soul Food, as well as its own side project, Society of Soul's Brainchild. The close relationship led many to believe that Outkast's success was due to Organized Noize's production genius, a misconception the former would soon dispel. Outkast's second album, ATLiens, did even better than the first, selling 1.5 million copies and spawning another gold single, "Elevators (Me and You)." During this time, Dre began to develop the outrageous image for which he would become famous, wearing large wraps and dressing in white linen. "I done changed totally," Dre said in an interview with Source in 1998 while discussing his switch from designer gear to vintage clothing.
Despite the acclaim for ATLiens, many of Outkast's fans couldn't handle its current fascination with space travel and consciousness-raising. Others felt that Dre, based on his unique sartorial decisions, had lost his mind, spurring a series of bizarre rumors, from alleged drug use to homosexual behavior, that have continued to haunt him. "Everybody want to be a thug man," Dre charged in a 1998 Source interview. "[But] people just scared to [be original]. But everybody waiting on that nigga to do it. So you have to be a strong nigga to take that ridicule." During this time, Dre developed a romance with Erykah Badu; the two eventually had a son. Dre also began painting professionally, while Big Boi started his own pit bull breeding farm, Pitfall Kennels, in Fayetteville, Ga.
Along with Organized Noize and the Goodie Mob, Outkast spearheaded a new collective, the Dungeon Family. It grew to include like-minded artists like Witchdocktor (A S.W.A.T. Healing Ritual), and Cool Breeze (East Point's Greatest Hit). The duo also contributed to several soundtracks, notably "In Due Time" for Soul Food and "Benz or Beamer" for New Jersey Drive.
In 1998, Outkast released its third opus, the double-platinum Aquemini, which went on to be its most successful album yet. Debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, it received universal acclaim from music critics and fans, satiating the alternative audience who bought ATLiens as well as the hardcore fans who first discovered them on Southern.
"This album is a mixture between the music on the first album and the lyrical styles of the second," Big Boi told Source, which gave Aquemini its highest rating five mics for only the ninth time in its 12-year history. In its wrap up of the 90 greatest albums of the '90s, Spin magazine ranked Aquemini at No. 35.
On Aquemini, Dre and Big Boi took control of their own sound as well. As Earthtone II, they produced the lion's share of the record using sounds generated from live instruments and finally stepped out from the shadow of longtime collaborators Organized Noize.
Their tight bond was indicated in the album's title an amalgam of Dre (Gemini) and Big Boi's (Aquarius) astrological signs. "I smoke. He don't smoke. I go to strip clubs. He don't go to strip clubs. He used to, you know what I'm saying?" Big Boi said to Source when describing their differences, adding that Dre abstains from alcohol and is a vegetarian as well. "I mean, that's individualism. And that's what Outkast is all about."
The next year, Outkast received a Grammy nomination for the album's first single, "Rosa Parks." The real Rosa Parks, however, took offense to the language used in the song and brought a lawsuit against them for unlawful use of her name. In a statement, the group said, "It was never, nor has ever been, our intention to defame a woman who we consider a role model and a civil rights pioneer. We hope to be able to work out this situation amicably." The suit, however, went to court, where the judge ruled in Outkast's favor. Parks decided to appeal the decision and enlisted the help of famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran in her efforts. The appeal is still pending.
Outside of the courtroom, Outkast contributed to the Dungeon Family all-star track and Cool Breeze's hit single "Watch for the Hook." Big Boi guest-starred on Missy Elliott's "All N My Grill" and the Youngbloodz' "85." This year, Outkast contributed to soundtracks for The Wood ("Neck Uv Da Woods" with Mystikal) and the updated Shaft ("Tough Guy" with UGK). On Halloween 2000, Outkast released the highly anticipated CD Stankonia. Thanks to the response accorded its first three platinum releases, Stankonia is something of an event on the scale of Madonna and Radiohead's new albums. As Big Boi told Details, "Our influences are so vast that if we drop something, you better believe it's going to be groundbreaking."