SOUTHERN SWELTER

We are rolling in a ridiculously immaculate Land Rover beneath a calm Atlanta skyline just after sunset. All day long, the first real hints of the coming
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We are rolling in a ridiculously immaculate Land Rover beneath a calm Atlanta skyline just after sunset. All day long, the first real hints of the coming Georgia summer, amped by heavy traffic, have seized the city. But the serene evening cool outside is in direct contrast to the massive sounds pumping through the car's stereo. The music is loud. The music, in fact, is so painfully loud that all of the enamel in my teeth has literally started to throb as we go from track to track. Our pilot for the evening, Andre Benjamin, is 50 percent of hip-hop's most daring duo and co-author of the new Outkast album: a double CD that, by all indications, sounds like another massive triumph. But below Benjamin's chilled exterior is an undercurrent of mild anxiety.

“Right now, I'm terrified,” he says. “Right before Stankonia came out, I was terrified. I didn't know what people would think, because it's always so different from what's going on at the time that it could go either way. Like with ATLiens … that was like stepping out. Ever since then, every time the album is coming out, you have doubts.”

NO MC IS AN ISLAND

Benjamin's massive afro heads skyward, and with the sedate clothing he sports, he seems very much apart from the platinum-blond-wigged persona tagged Andre 3000 that helped Outkast score two Grammy Awards and multiple-Platinum sales. As we pull into his favorite local vegetarian restaurant, he is the picture of understatement and reserve. The new album has been pushed back twice now, and several things are still not quite ready. Several verses (not mixes, verses) aren't done, but they are still moving toward a fall release. Working separately, he and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton were set to release solo albums, but timing eventually worked against that idea.

“I started to see a theme coming, so I thought, ‘Hey, I want to put out a solo album.’ And my manager and Big Boi said, ‘Nah, you can't do that.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ And they said that after the Grammys, people will be expecting the next Outkast album and that you can't just come with a solo album. I was pissed off and said, ‘Well, I'm just going to give all this music away,’” he says laughing. “I was for real!”

But once he saw his partner steadily at work, Patton also got busy. “Big Boi got on his horse because he saw I was already finished with my album, and he hurried up and did his,” Benjamin says. “So Big Boi said, ‘I'm gonna come out with my solo album.’ And nobody said anything; they were just going to let him do it. He was scheduled to come out in February, and mine was scheduled to come out this summer. But I said that it's so close of a release, why don't we just put them together? And to him, that was really the best thing that I could have said because no one really wants to go out there and do it by themselves. So it was cool — a double album, two CDs — both of us appearing on each other's album. Hip-hop people just don't do that. Kiss did that! So it's exciting to me. Every album has to be exciting to me … like something's going on. To me, a double album is something going on.”

The excitement, however, that Benjamin has always required to get on with the business of being Outkast was flagging due to the constant touring the group did in support of Stankonia (La Face/Arista, 2000). “It got to a point where I would be onstage going through the motions while performing every night,” he explains. “I was totally distant from what I was doing. It was like I was watching myself. There was no passion in it at all. The last show at the University of Georgia was when I knew that I couldn't really keep doing this until I found something that I was passionate about again. I'll just put out the albums until I can feel like, ‘Hey, I want to perform!’ Because I don't really want to go out there and bullshit the people.”

The rest of the Outkast organization didn't respond too well to Benjamin's decision. “You know a manager gets paid from the [income of the] shows,” he says. “And he was like, ‘What the fuck you talking about?’ So I talked to L.A. Reid [at Arista] about it, and his first response was, ‘Oh, well, you're just gonna have to get over that shit.’ [Laughs.]

“He was trying to tell me the truth. But after I explained it to him, he understood because he used to play drums in The Deele. You just get to a point where you're not feeding from it, and it's taking away from you. His recommendation was to just tell the people and be up front about it.”

ACOUSTIC MANEUVERS

Benjamin took to focusing on playing guitar and inhaling deep quantities of jazz. He hoped not to have to perform again until he was accomplished enough to play an instrument in public. And the origins of the new album began to reflect his change in direction. “A lot of the songs are songs I've had for years,” he says. “I just felt that they weren't Outkast songs and that people weren't ready to hear that sort of thing [from us]. Really, I'm only rhyming on this album for two verses. These are songs that I've been writing at home on the guitar. ‘Ms. Jackson’ was an acoustic song that started on guitar and then became what it is now. A lot of the songs were done years ago, and I just brought them back up, upgraded them and made them now.”

“Now” means the Prince-like sensuality of “Spread,” a wickedly high-bpm reworking of the classic “My Favorite Things” and an acoustic duet called “Take Off Your Cool” performed with Norah Jones. Benjamin's side of the album is steeped in the melody that he gravitates to so instinctively. “I'm a melody freak,” he says. “I don't consider myself a singer or nothing like that, but I think I'm a melody maker. I find great melodies.”

Having initially worked in the Digidesign Pro Tools arena, Benjamin shrugged off that rig once he was introduced to Steinberg's Nuendo package. “When I look at Pro Tools, it looks scientific to me,” he says. “Nuendo is set up where you can do things really quick, and I like the graphics, too. I have [Native Instruments] Battery. I have [Propellerhead] Reason and five or six VST keyboards. I love Reason. I love the sounds they have in there. But I haven't really freaked it yet. I have a setup for the road, and I actually did two songs on this album [with that setup] in a hotel room when the heater went out in my house. It's a small MIDI controller, an IBM laptop, some little box that [engineer] John Frye hooked me up with and Nuendo. That was all I needed. And it's only getting better. That's what's scary: So much stuff comes out every month, it's hard to keep up with it. I just got to find out what really works for me. I jump for new stuff because one sound could create a whole song. So most of the time, I just do them at home by myself, bring them to the studio and let Big Boi check them out.”

RETURN OF THE PLAYA

In the heart of the Stankonia complex, the group's recording studio, Patton is standing on the polished lid of a Baldwin piano, being photographed and kidding with the steady flow of family, employees and friends that filters through the ongoing photo session. Between poses, he works on the motions of his bowling technique and occasionally takes a call from a cell phone hidden behind the sheet music. After more than two hours under the hot lamps, he and Benjamin are still as congenial as ever. The large empty space we are standing in is the live room of their studio and is currently populated with props from the last tour; dormant Macintosh peripherals; and a bits of classic gear, such as the milk-white Mellotron that sits quietly in a corner.

Much top-shelf music has been etched onto tape in this space. Owned at one time by Bobby Brown, the building has been in the hands of Outkast for several years now. The strings for R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People (Warner, 1992) were laid down here, shepherded at the time by none other than Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. The Black Crowes have used it as a creative roost, and the ghost of that group's presence is evoked slightly by the herbal cloud that seeps into the studio.

Refreshed by a small measure of green, Patton and the rest of the photo-shoot crew move locations. Wearing a jersey from Outkast's own line of clothing that's modeled on the Wendy's burger chain logo, he looks very much the playa. But despite the visually deep contrast to his partner, he and Benjamin share an obvious synchronicity with each other. In the control room, studio engineer Frye is running a new track through a pair of Yamaha NS10s that sit atop a massive SSL 4000 console.

“I'm over it,” Frye says about the 80-channel monstrosity. “I've recorded 300 records, and I don't need anything now other than this Mac and Pro Tools. We can work on eight or 10 projects a night with this [setup], and with that thing, we can do maybe two. It takes me two hours just to get it ready to go.”

Frye has mixed Patton's side of the album in Pro Tools, and he has been with the Atlanta rappers since before they got their deal with Arista. He was key in acquiring the Stankonia space for the organization, and the studio side of the complex houses separate rooms for mixing and recording vocals, as well as the large open space for full-ensemble work.

“Even though this room is kind of small,” Patton says of the control room, “we can have horn players in here, guitars or whatever and just jam, y'know?” It's a considerable understatement considering that most people's living rooms are less than half the size. But sitting back in one of the web-backed chairs that sit in front of the main board, Patton muses on the nature of how Outkast tracks come to be: “I don't even like to think about it. Sometimes, it's just a beat or something I'm humming. As long as we get it down, I don't even want to know where [the inspiration] comes from.”

In the case of “The Whole World,” the hit single released from Outkast's 2001 greatest hits LP, Big Boi and Dre Present … Outkast (La Face/Arista), it came from Benjamin's fruitful method of working alone at home and then bringing solid fragments of the track to Stankonia. “That started at home with me singing and the beat,” he says. “I brought it to the studio and laid down the melody of the singing first. Then, the music came around. I think we did it in about two or three days because we had a deadline.”

Outkast is notorious for its continual stream of writing and recording. For the new double album, the word is that they had some 40 tracks a piece to pick from. But despite the muddle of whether Patton and Benjamin would be releasing solo LPs or not, Benjamin is less than concerned that it's still not all there yet. “It's just not ready,” he says smiling and seemingly unconcerned. “It's not finished until it's finished.”

ROOTS OF INNOVATION

When it is finished, the record will no doubt be a further illustration of how mature and provocative Outkast's music has grown to be. They are admittedly far from their roots, but Benjamin sees no possibility of it being any other way. “We're way past the original audience,” he says. “There's no way we can get back to the original audience because [back then] we were 17 years old. You just can't go back to doing that. That's like trying to relive a childhood. It's just going to continue to grow if people keep movin' on with it. When I was young, I thought jazz was like something you heard in an elevator. I was never into it. I was never into Hendrix until six or seven years ago. I thought rock music was just noise. But once you get to know it, you think, ‘How did he come up with these melodies?’”

The new Outkast equation being what it is at this point, Benjamin plans to possibly investigate taking up formal composition in his spare time. How that will affect his production work is hard to say, but he realizes that most of the magic that Outkast has produced thus far has come from experimentation and deeper investigation.

“During the first album, we just wrote all of our lyrics, and then Organized Noize produced the entire first album,” Benjamin says. “When we were on the road for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, that's when I started to buy equipment like keyboards and beat machines. I started listening to records and finding out, ‘Okay, Bootsy played with James Brown and then with Funkadelic, and the Horny Horns were really Fred Wesley.’ Seeing the lineage and who played with whom and just getting deeper into it, I started to appreciate it a lot more. And that's going on now. I was never into jazz, but I appreciate it so hard now because I know what it takes to make it. Like even growing up listening to rap music — it was just tunes. It was just something you heard on the radio. But when you make music, you know that somebody had to come up with that. I don't even consider myself a producer. I produce records because that's the title they put on it. I just mess around with sounds and make something that I'm enjoying or filling a void. People always ask, ‘What is the Outkast sound?’ And I say, ‘I just make music that I'm not hearing at the time because someone has to do it.’ So anybody really could crank it up.”

As it approaches midnight, we part company in the Stankonia lot. Benjamin, cranking up a jazzy new Joe Jackson — like vibe that he's been working on, looks thoroughly permeated by the music as he rolls off to his suburban home.

STANKONIA RECORDING STUDIOS

STUDIO A

Panasonic 3800 DATs (2)
SSL 4000 G+ console w/total recall Studer A820 2-track analog recorder Studer A827 24-track analog tape machines (2)
Tascam 122 cassette decks (2)
Tascam CD player
Timeline Lynx 1 synchronizers (3)

Outboard Equipment

Amek 9098 CL compressor/limiter
Amek 9098 EQ
AMS DMX-1580 digital delay
AMS RMX-16 digital reverb
API 512C mic/line preamp/DIs (2)
API 550A EQs (2)
API 550B EQs (2)
API 560A EQs (2)
Avalon AD2044 compressor
Avalon AD2055 EQ
Avalon U5 mono instrument/DI preamp
Avalon VT-737sp preamps (2)
BBE 822A Sonic Maximizer dbx 120XP Subharmonic Synthesizer
dbx 160A compressor/limiters (2)
dbx 165A compressor/limiters (2)
dbx 902 de-esser
Drawmer DS201 noise gates (4)
Empirical Labs EL-8 distressors (4)
Eventide 2016 effects processor
Eventide DSP4500 Ultra-Harmonizer
Eventide H3500 Ultra-Harmonizer
Focusrite Blue 315 preamp
GML 8200 parametric EQ
Lexicon 70 effects processor
Lexicon 480L processor w/Classic Cart
Lexicon PCM 42 digital delays (2)
Lexicon PCM 91 digital reverb
Neve 1073 mic preamps (8)
Neve 33609 compressor/limiter
NTI EQ3 EQ
Purple Audio MC76 limiting amps (2)
Sony DPS-V77 multi-effects processor
Summit DCL-200 dual compressor limiter
Summit Element 78 signal processors (2)
Summit EQP 200 dual program EQ
Summit TLA-100 tube leveling amp
TC Electronic Finalizer 96K
TC Electronic M3000 reverb
TC Electronic TC 1210 spatial expander
TC Electronic TC 2290 digital delay
Teletronix LA-2A leveling amp
Tube-Tech Clib tube compressors (2)
UREI 1176LN compressors (2)
Yamaha REV5 reverb
Yamaha REV500 reverb
Yamaha SPX990 multi-effects processors (2)
Yamaha SPX1000 multi-effects processor

Microphones

AKG C 414B (2), D 112, TL 11 (2)
Electro-Voice RE20
Neumann KM 184 (2), M 147 (2), M 149 (2), TLM 193, U 87 (2)
Sennheiser MD 421 (6)
Shure SM57 (10)

STUDIO C

Apple Mac G3
Digidesign 888 24-bit interfaces (4)
Digidesign ProControl
Digidesign Pro Tools 5.01
Mackie HR824 monitors
Yamaha NS10 monitors

Outboard Equipment

Apogee PSX-100 digital converter
Avalon AD2044 compressor
Avalon AD2055 EQ
Avalon VT-737sp preamp
Lexicon PCM 91 digital reverb
Panasonic 3800 DATs (2)
Tascam 122 cassette deck
Tascam CD player
TC Electronic 96K Finalizer