Photo: Chris Stanford
The first time visiting Stankonia Recording Studio holds almost mystical promise. Like an invitation to Abbey Road or Paisley Park — legendary studios where the bizarre and the business must go hand in hand — a summons to Stankonia comes along with visions of psychedelic shag-covered tracking suites, wood-paneled rumpus rooms and retro-futuristic furnishings. Sharing a name with the genre-altering, millennial-year album of its proprietors — Atlanta, Georgia's hip-hop duo Outkast — Stankonia has gotta be equal parts incense and peppermints, side-tipped Kangols and ridin' on chrome, so fresh and so clean, clean.
In reality, Stankonia is nondescript, a brick complex on a short dead-end street, drawing attention only from its entourage of SUVs and promo vans. The vending machine has powdered donuts but no space cakes. There's Outkast memorabilia, but no excessive decor to get the synapses fired up.
That feeling is reserved for Control Room B, not because of anything on the walls but because of what's on the hard drives. For the last 21 months, this part of Stankonia has been on lockdown at all hours while recording the original B-I-G, Big Boi of Outkast, who is “debuting” as a solo artist (you could almost say artists, considering the mad styles he exhibits) with Sir Luscious Leftfoot…The Son of Chico Dusty (LaFace/Zomba, 2008).
ON THE RIGHT…NO, LEFTFOOT
“My daddy told me it was mine for the takin', a true gift of god, the stars aligned when they made me,” Big Boi rhymes a line from the track “Daddy Fat Sax” as he struts into the control room, pausing only briefly by the light switches. “I like to keep it dim as a muthahfuckah, 'bout like you're comin' out of a cave,” he explains, describing the room — basked in the red glow of a Digidesign ICON D-Control board — that has been his creative sanctuary.
Once settled at a rackmount processor-stuffed “credenza,” Big Boi establishes eye contact and holds it for the next hour and a half. It's one of many small marks of professionalism he exhibits, appropriate considering Sir Luscious Leftfoot is intended to showcase how Big Boi, aka Antwan André Patton, has grown from boy to man. “Not that any confidence was lacking,” Big reinforces. “There's just a sense of urgency for me because people want more music in their music. And Luscious Leftfoot is a lead man, takin' charge, bringin' the different styles of the way I make that music.”
More than a decade-and-a-half deep in the game, Big has had plenty of time to harvest sounds from the streets and with his eyes on the skies. With André 3000 in Outkast — as recently as on 2003's separate-but-equal double release Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and 2006's soundtrack Idlewild — Big Boi has approached production like it's some universal solvent. Liquid, solid or sublimated, Outkast brought together electro, gospel, bass, blues, rock, poppin', lockin' and hip-hoppin'. And starting almost immediately after Speakerboxxx was released, Big collected beat sketches and melodic swatches in his MPC2000XL and onto his phone's voice recorder for Luscious Leftfoot.
Concurrently, Big called in producers such as Organized Noize — the production group whose live instrumentation emphasis has been associated with Outkast since the southernplayalistic duo's 1993 debut — plus a large cast of longtime local session musicians and DJ Cutmaster Swiff. Even with an in-house writing lab (the “Meatloaf Loft,” complete with full bed and bath), Big spent most of his time in longtime favorite Studio B, its intimacy preferred over Studio A's larger, more party-prone space.
Writing with two pads — one scratch pad to bleed ink all over during revisions and one for keeping the final finished verses — Big mapped out the lyrics while at the same time collaborating on the music with engineer Chris Carmouche. They exchange in a language probably even too abstract for Outkast.
“I can say, ‘I need…I need…this to sound like a kitty cat…a kitty cat that just got kicked in the ass by the bus stop. I need…I need…let's go to Jupiter on this one, passing stars on it,'' and [Chris] will know what module to go to that I want,” Big says. “And we'll just start fuckin' with it…rounding it off.”
“Everything was pretty much done in Pro Tools right here,” says Carmouche, who worked on the latter half of Speakerboxxx and eased into full engineer duties on Sir Luscious Leftfoot after mixing first session “Backup Plan.” “We did use [Studio A's] SSL 4000 G+ console at times to track into Pro Tools. We did use some outboard preamps, but once in the box, it didn't go out. We're at [Pro Tools] 7.4, and the right-click options did make it more flexible. You could throw more on while the track was still running. Working with Big, Pro Tools helps keep up with the pace of ideas he throws out. He can ask for a purr sound, and I can see he wants bite on the high end with me brightening up the sound, using a flanger, EQ, amp simulator, etc.”
A solely Big Boi-helmed album may seem like new territory to most people, like Big taking a big step out from under a nearly inescapable Technicolor umbrella, but it actually came about in very familiar circumstances.
“A lot of people don't know me and Dre hadn't recorded together productionwise since Aquemini,” Big reveals. “We both write, rap, produce, arrange…. So how we'd do it was, we'd be in our own respective creative spaces. I'd be here a lot…and we'd just record songs.
“Later, we'd trade off songs, see what we like, then we'd go back into the huddle and finish them off, add different ideas,” he continues. “This record we recorded…. Well, I keep saying ‘we''; I'm so used to saying ‘we''…. I co-produced about 12 of the tracks. I was privileged to work with Organized Noize, and they'd give me different elements of beats, and I'd come and put the music on it, orchestrate things.”
BIG BIG SOUNDS
Just down the hall from Studio B is the Stankonia common room. It's sponsored by Courvoisier XO Imperial and draped in the cognac brand's palette of onyx and crimson. An array of teardrop-shaped bottles bejewel the bar, gleaming a honeyed glow from dangling blond lighting.
This ultrasuede party suite may be known as the Courvoisier Lounge but could just as easily be called the Boom Boom Lounge. It would be partially as an homage to Big Boi's Boom Boom Room, the afterparty area in his home infamous for its stripper pole, but also because while being used for album preview purposes, Stankonia's lounge is providing almost more of a feeling than a listening session.
Pumped out of a Monster THX SL200 monitors-and-subwoofer system, Sir Luscious Leftfoot spits forth as an album of purpose and poise, full of dexterity, versatility (“I just want to bring the musicality back to the game,” Big Boi states emphatically). Even though nobody's in it, the purple-padded swing on the room's far side almost appears to be swayin' from the album's sheer force of will.
The sequence being played isn't the final. Big Boi describes the current sequence as “more adventurous,” while the preview sequence is “overkill,” allowing for no breathers.
“I've been playing with the sequence for two or three months, and I used to start with ‘Night Night,''” reflects Big Boi, describing a real spy caper of a track — dope guitar, horns and big synths that cut sharp like a junkie's razor blade hits mirror. “But this just seems like it's a battle, battlin' this music industry, and you need a general to lead things into a new era, so I put “General Patton“ [the symphonic, imperial march titled after one of Big's alter egos] first.”
With 17 full tracks and nine interludes, Sir Luscious Leftfoot offers a lot to absorb — both mentally and physically.
“This record is definitely bass heavy,” Big admits. “We always fuck with the [Roland] 808, the [E-mu] SP-1200 drum machines just to get that bottom in it.”
“We did use some filters to pitch things up, pitch them down, freq little sections on each song to make it seem like different artists could be in the same song, while it's all Big,” Carmouche reveals. “We also did some delay throws, whereas some might do it more dry we'd put it up in the front louder.”
A robo-funk intro features a vocoder and a West Coast whistle, plus a taste of bass — its lean almost an early '90s summation sayin' where Big Boi's been.
“It wasn't even conscious at all, to make references like that,” Big refutes. “My whole thing is if it's jammin'. I got my boy Bosko on there with the Talk Box, and it's the original funk style comin' from Roger Troutman and Zapp. The track was so fonky I wanted to fill it up because all my music is based in funk.”
“Daddy Fat Sax” gives the Dungeon Family, the Royal Fam of Atlanta, its due. Leaked single “Dubbz,” originally known as “Transformer” from its scratchlike synth, cruises with a bounce like Atlanta's Peachtree Street once did on a weekend — top down, pumped up. “Fo Yo Sorrows” brings out George Clinton and Too $hort to big up the Dirty South with synths creepin' and Big Boi sportin' a flow detonating like “B.O.B.” The track went from raw jammin' with a pretty hook to adding synths that remind Big of “some King Kong shit,” plus a Western-style guitar that “makes the track more than rap or hip-hop; it's strong if not stronger than the verse.”
“Shutterbugg,” a Scott Storch production, flickers like faulty neon, dotted with shout outs to the Geto Boys, UGK, the Wu-Tang, Soul II Soul and other pioneers that informed Outkast's origins. “Turns Me On” is like an elevator controlled by turntable — its shuffle pushed forward and pulled back. Meanwhile, “Tangerine,” featuring T.I. and Khujo Goodie, updates shakin' it like a Polaroid picture to shakin' a stack of cream like a tambourine. No doubt the album will rattle Cadillacs with “six woofers and fo' amps,” but it will also satisfy the at-home set. “When muthahfuckahs listen on headphones,” Big says, “their ears gonna be drippin' from the eargasms.”
“Sir Luscious Leftfoot (Saves the Day)” is reverb-laden and pixelated, offering a heavenly eddy. “I had my piano man come in, add something real melodic, reminding me of Kool & the Gang a little,” Big says. “It's not sampling, but it's bringin' back the memory of that authentic sound. Sir Luscious is the maturity level; he's traveled and watched things going on. He comes in peace, but he will destroy you.”
“Sumthin's Gotta Give,” featuring Mary J Blige, already a single, uses the most straightforward slap-bass beat to speak truth on the economy with resourcefulness. “Royal Flush,” featuring André 3000, Raekwon and one of the only two samples on the album, is the album's most raw beat, with a DJ Muggs-circa-Black Sunday upfrontness to it.
MAKING WAY FOR MUSICIANS
“I have one of the flyest bass players in the world, Debra Killings, and she's dope, I like her to feel real heavy, drive that spirit,” Big says. “Then I had Whild [aka David Brown], my lead guitar player, come in and play a couple licks. They put it down live as the music's playing, and when they hit the right lick, they play it right down, stay in the format 'til they hit certain points where they can go outside of it. These are the same players that have been playing on all our records.
“I don't like using samples, but I love the Isley Brothers and that sample [‘Voyage to Atlantis''] that comes in is almost like a boomerang,” Big says. “I always come back to you” [goes the sample], and it's saying no matter how far the music goes, no matter how far we take it, it will always go back to those core beliefs that it's got to be hardcore rhyming, thought provoking and crispy as a muthahfuckah.”
The styles on Sir Luscious Leftfoot are indeed diverse, though certain inflections pop up more than once in the references and recording. There are several nods to the '80s, both in mentions of culture (Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Sergeant Slaughter, 2 Live Crew) and tonally (several tracks have intentionally low-bit, clipped chiptune sounds).
“It's just talkin' truth about the things you remember,” Big says. “The references to 'em are to let people know we was around, even if we weren't makin' music. It was a time about melodies — even the electro-funk was real songs. Nowadays there's not as much instrumentation in music.”
Additionally, horns are often prevalent. “There's more of a reason that I cling to horns than just because they're fonky,” Big says. “When you're in school, especially, there's two instruments you hear a lot: pianos at assemblies, then horns at pep rallies. You'll of course hear drums, but those are the main two. And a little accent of those can bring a certain section to something else.”
NO REST FOR LEFTFOOT
As soon as the album preview and interview ends, Big and Carmouche were already back in Studio B to work on the unfinished material. And with any track subject to change at Big's request, the only aspect of recording Carmouche said he constantly maintained was a good 2 dB of headroom for mastering — attaining the darker, bass-heavy low end, while allowing the mastering engineer to bring up highs.
There was one key element eventually revealed, however, that brings all of the Sir Luscious Leftfoot sessions into focus, so to speak. Whereas on previous albums Big would record with a Neumann U 87 or M 149 mic through an Avalon Vt-737sp preamp, for much of Sir Luscious Leftfoot the team turned to a Sony C800G mic, which brought out more detail and thickness.
“For a long time me and Dre, when we listened to our music, we wondered why the vocals was so low, but it just comes from the way it was produced,” Big recalls. “Organized Noize treated our voices as instruments. Now so much is on top of the music, you want to ride with it. With this new mic you get a lot of clarity, and with rapid-ass flows, that mic will pick it up. I had always wanted to know what mic Dr. Dre was using on The Chronic album because them vocals was crazy! Then I found out it was this one right here and I was like, why the fuck did we wait 10 years to get another mic?!
“It's like your shit is in Blu-ray,” he continues. “I still gotta push it out through here, the diaphragm, but this mic helped me sound even more like me. Now there's just more of me. And Sir Luscious is where I have it all interchange. Each song is exciting, a ride through so many pieces.”
Fonky Fixtures of Stankonia Studios
Computer, DAW, recording hardware, console
Apple Power Mac G5
(3) Digidesign 192 I/O 24-bit interfaces, ICON D-Control, Pro Tools|HD 7.4, Sync HD
(2) Panasonic SV-3800 DATs
SSL 4000 G+ console w/total recall
Studer A820 2-track analog recorder, (2) A827 24-track analog tape machines
(2) Tascam 122 cassette decks, CD player
(3) TimeLine Lynx 1 synchronizers
(2) AKG C 414 B, D 112, (2) C 414 B-TL II
(2) Neumann KM 184, (2) M 147, (2) M 149, TLM 193, (2) U 87
(6) Sennheiser MD 421
(10) Shure SM57
Preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Amek System 9098 compressor/limiter, System 9098 EQ
AMS DMX 15-80 digital delay, RMX16 digital reverb
(2) API 512C mic/line preamp/Dis, (2) 550A discrete three-band EQs, (2) 550B discrete 4-band EQs, (2) 560 10-band graphic EQs
Avalon AD2044 compressor, AD2055 EQ, U5 mono instrument/DI preamp, (2) Vt-737sp preamps
BBE 822A Sonic Maximizer
dbx 120XP Subharmonic Synthesizer, (2) 160A compressor/limiters, (2) 165A compressor/limiters, 902 de-esser
(4) Drawmer DS201 dual noise gates
(4) Empirical Labs EL8 distressors
Eventide SP2016 reverb, DSP4500 Ultra-Harmonizer, H3500 Ultra-Harmonizer
Focusrite Blue 315 mastering EQ
GML 8200 parametric EQ
Lexicon PCM 70 effects processor, 480L processor with Classic Cart, (2) PCM 42 digital delays, PCM 91 digital reverb
(8) Neve 1073 mic preamps, 33609 stereo compressor/limiter
NTI EQ3 EQ
(2) Purple Audio MC76 limiting amps
Sony DPSV77 digital multi-effects processor
Summit Audio DCL-200 dual compressor limiter, (2) Element 78 signal processors, EQP-200B dual program EQ, TLA-100 tube leveling amp
TC Electronic Finalizer 96K, M3000 reverb, TC 1210 spatial expander, TC 2290 digital delay
Teletronix LA-2A leveling amp
(2) Tube-Tech CL 1B tube compressors
(2) Urei 1176LN compressor/limiters
Yamaha REV5 reverb, REV500 digital reverb, (2) SPX990 digital multi-effects processors, SPX1000 multi-effects processor
Samplers, drum machines
George Augspurger mains