OutKast’s Big Boi - the Renaissance man of rap

Big Boi, in Atlanta's Stankonia Studios, is taking a group of hospice patients to see 'Black Panther.' Photo: William Thweatt/AJC

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Big Boi, in Atlanta's Stankonia Studios, is taking a group of hospice patients to see 'Black Panther.' Photo: William Thweatt/AJC

The walls of Stankonia Studios reek of Atlanta music history.

The newspaper and magazine covers. The now-vintage photos of Andre “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, rap royals who made “ATLiens” a proud moniker around the world. The awards that recognized OutKast for their pioneering meshing of funk, techno and hip-hop, shellacked with a Southern veneer.

The studio in metro Atlanta is all Big Boi’s now — he bought out Andre 3000 after their anticipated reunion tour in 2014 — and he’s added some touches, such as the staging area where he rehearses with his band or that he rents out to production companies (scenes from the TVOne movie about Bobbi Kristina Brown and the Lee Daniels Fox series “Star” have filmed there).

Walking through the space, Big Boi grins as he points out the studios, including the “B Room,” where he and Andre recorded “Hootie Hoo” and “Player’s Ball” back in another lifetime, when Bobby Brown owned the studio and OutKast could only afford the smallest of the recording rooms.

The building is iconic in music circles, and it breathes with a comfortably shabby feel. “Sanford and Son” plays on a large flat screen in a lounge area, but next to the pricey current technology sit a tube TV and VCR.

It’s all a little bit of history.

“It’s the vibe,” Big Boi says of his self-described home away from home. “When you walk in the door, you can feel it. Everybody who’s anybody has been in here, from TLC to Toni Braxton. T.I., Usher, Snoop Dogg, Yo Gotti. Everybody records here. You can make some good music. It’s got that vibe.”

Big Boi, 42, is sitting in front of an expansive mixing board, a few minutes removed from receiving a quick haircut from a visiting barber and waving goodbye to longtime friend Ray Murray of famed Atlanta hip-hop production team Organized Noize, who is almost as much of a fixture in Stankonia as Big Boi.

“We call him the Yoda,” Big Boi said of his mentor. “He’s that fountain of wisdom that I always turn to. To have him here, it’s like having a guardian. It’s just a blessing. Over 20 years of brotherhood and friendship.”

Big Boi is saying this while seated a few feet away from a Stormtrooper listing toward the board, so yes, his affinity for “Star Wars” is genuine.

He worked with Organized Noize on his current solo album, "Boomiverse." It's his third, if you don't count a 2015 collaboration with electronica duo Phantogram, released under the name Big Grams, or, as he gently reminds, "Speakerboxxx," his half of OutKast's 2003 double album.

"Boomiverse" is stocked with diverse guests, from onetime protégé Killer Mike ("Kill Jill") to Snoop Dogg ("Get Wit It") to Adam Levine, Scar and Sleepy Brown ("Mic Jack").

 The video for "In the South" features animated forms of Big Boi, Gucci Mane and late rapper Pimp C.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

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Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Current single “In the South” features the distinctive flow of Gucci Mane, as well as rhymes from the late rapper Pimp C.

"Me and Gucci go back to my first album, 'Sir Lucious (Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty)'. We just have a cool Aquarius rapport. I love him. He's one of my favorite artists out of Atlanta," Big Boi said, relaxed in his chair, gold chains resting on his chest.

The video for the song is an animated romp that allowed Big Boi to include his deceased friend. Another producer on "Boomiverse," Cory Mo, has an animation team, and after Big Boi saw a couple of screen shots of what could be, "a light bulb went off … this would be a cool way … to express what the South is about."

Big Boi supported the album with a U.S. tour this summer; in early 2018, he’ll head to Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, before “definitely” playing a hometown show.

To hear Big Boi’s schedule is to make even the most industrious person seem indolent.

Following our early evening interview, he was playing in his bowling league, which he’s been in for 14 years. The next day would bring a 6 a.m. call time for a TV show taping, then a flight to Toledo, Ohio, where he would visit a university with his football star son, Cross.

The following week’s schedule was a blur of cities, flights and airports, which led to a spirited conversation about favorite Delta SkyClubs.

But as much as Big Boi revels in music — his phone holds 20,000 songs, “from Billy Idol to Billy Ocean, N.W.A. to Anita Baker” — and widespread business interests, his pride in his family overshadows everything.

He is visibly delighted when talking about his sons’ affinity for architecture (oldest son, Bamboo, 17, is also interested in music while 16-year-old Cross is dedicated to sports) and his daughter Jordan’s academic life at Auburn University (she’s a psychology major and Big Boi jokes, “we’ll have somebody to maintain and corral all the craziness”).

 Big Boi is an avowed "Star Wars" fan - but mostly, he's a proud family man. Photo: William Thweatt/AJC

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

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Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

He credits his foundation at home, including wife of 15 years, Sherlita, as the force behind his personal equilibrium.

“It keeps me balanced,” Big Boi said. “I think that’s another reason I’ve been able to thrive this long. Being an artist is one thing, but being a father is what I’m most proud of. They keep me young.”

Big Boi is also rewarded by his work with his Big Kidz Foundation, which helps expose young people to the arts.

“One reason I wanted to do (an arts foundation) is when we first started traveling, I went to Europe and even in D.C., you get a chance to realize that the world is bigger than your block or where you live and you get to see how other people live,” he said. “It’s all about broadening horizons. So we have classes (in several locations, including Stankonia) where (the kids) dance, paint. They’re taking all of the art programs out of the schools, so we’re giving them that.”

It doesn’t take but a few hours in Big Boi’s presence to realize that he’s a true Renaissance cat.

He’s the guy who discovered Killer Mike and Janelle Monae who also grew up in Savannah going to the record store every week for his grandmother and bringing home the latest release, be it Bob Marley or Led Zeppelin.

He’s responsible for some of the nimblest rhymes in rap, yet his favorite artist is Kate Bush. He traveled to London to see one of her rare concerts and tried to recruit her for “Boomiverse.” The timing didn’t work out, but the pair spent an afternoon at a neighborhood Bush spot “and drank tea and 80-year-old cognac and talked,” he said, adding that the British songstress is, “like, the best person ever.”

 OutKast reunited at the ONE MusicFest in Atlanta in 2016. Photo: Akili-Casundria Ramsess/Special to the AJC

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

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Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

But no significant time can be spent with a member of OutKast without the inevitable question about the future of OutKast.

“I’ve always said, whenever ‘Dre is ready, I’m always ready. Right now he’s focusing on different things, and we respect that as a brotherhood. We text each other every other day. That’s my brother. We’ve done everything there is to do in music. We won the highest prize, we sold the most records. We started when we were 17 years old — let the man breathe a little bit,” Big Boi said.

When reminded that Andre 3000 noted in a recent GQ Style magazine story that, “Big Boi can rap better than me — I always said that,” Big Boi smiles but isn’t having any of it.

“I say we’re two sides of the same coin. We’re equally matched. Nobody can stop us, together or separate, and that’s not being cocky, that’s being real. I tip my hat to what he said, but we’re equal.”

A pause. A bigger smile. And OutKast’s legacy, cultivated in the hallways of Stankonia, is proclaimed.

“He will kill you and I will destroy you.”

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