The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VMP: One of the first things I hear when I look at Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, just all over the record, you’re stamping East Point, left and right. What does East Point mean to you now, considering how far you’ve come?
Big Boi: East Point is like a mecca for us. It’s where me and [André 3000] first met, at Tri-Cities High School right in the middle of East Point and that’s where we stayed at. I stayed with my aunt and he stayed with his dad. That’s where all the magic happened, in East Point on the corner of Headland [Drive] and Delowe [Drive]. It’s the birthplace of where we sat down in my aunt’s living room and it was like, “Hey, man, I think our calling is to do music,” and we were like, “Let’s do it.”
It’s so easy to forget that when y’all first came on the scene, when y’all first started poppin’ off, y’all were really only teenagers just livin’, tryna figure shit out. So, when you was runnin’ around, tryna make it out… where was your head before you ended up steppin’ into it, like, “Alright, let’s do this?” Were you in survival mode, were you more cooled out, like, what was your day-to-day headspace like?
Actually, I was heavy into school. I lived with my auntie in East Point, and my mom was in Savannah, Georgia, and one of the agreements my mom had with my aunt was, like, I had to make good grades in order to be able to live in Atlanta. So, I maintained a super-high GPA and then graduated with honors; my mom wouldn’t even sign my record deal until I graduated. We had a Gold single and No. 1 record and everything, she didn't sign my recording contract — she wouldn’t let me sign it, because I wasn’t old enough — until I graduated.
She said, “Them books and them grades ain’t right, you can’t sign nothin’, it don’t matter what you did.”
Yeah, exactly. And, I mean, she instilled that in me and I’ve instilled that same thing to my own children, you know what I mean? Me and my wife successfully raised three great kids, with the last one going to college in June: He’s goin’ to play football at Oregon on an academic and a football scholarship, so, it’s really good.
Fantastic. Anyone try to do the music thing like you?
All my kids are musically inclined. Like, my son, Cross, does beats, he raps and everything. Bamboo plays a couple instruments, he does beats. My daughter Jordan sings, you know, but I never tried to push them into music, you know what I mean? I really didn’t want them to go into this nasty business, so, I kind of let them do their own independent thing, but I keep on tryin’ to steer them away from… you know, having young kids in the music, man, because the shit’ll be treacherous.
Back around the first couple meetings, when Rico Wade took y’all in, y’all was runnin’ around L.A., freestylin’ for whole offices, freestylin’ in the whip… What was it like back when you were just tappin’ into the industry stuff? Was it all so foreign and overwhelming to you?
We just knew that God put us together for a reason, and we love music, we were hungry. It was all about lyricism, and with us comin’ from the training of Organized Noize, they trained us to be deadly MCs first: makin’ us jog around the block just tryin’ out verses, every day, practicin’ breath control. To this day, when we get on stage, we don’t rap over the words, we wanna sound like the record. And that comes from that intense training, the things they instilled in us when we were early MCs to now. A lot of people didn’t know that after Southernplayalistic, we started producing a lot of the songs: “Elevators” on ATLiens, “Ms. Jackson,” “Bombs Over Baghdad.” After we mastered the craft of being lyricists, we wanted to be producers. But at the same time, we do a little bit of everything.
I don’t really know where young folks who really try to break into the rapping thing [go]; the lyricism shit’s not prioritized. Where do people go to get that pen sharpened first? I don’t think it’s gone completely, but whatchu think?
I think it’s just been a shift: It’s not about who the best MC is anymore — who can be the most lyrically dominating — it’s about who can make the best jams, the best songs. We found a balance between the two, where you can rhyme as well as make good music. People wanna hear songs, people wanna dance, and people want that escape from real life. There is a crowd out there that really still loves lyricism and we cater to all of that, because we do all of that: We make jams, and we will bust your ass on that microphone, period. We take that microphone very seriously, every bar, still the pen and the pad. I never wrote a line on the phone in my life! (laughs) I still got my raps from Southernplayalistic, almost like my rap Bibles, just tucked away in a vault.
Wow, even that feels like real old-school type of shit: you need to have that pen, havin’ books stacked. Everybody writes off the phone now.
Yeah, I know, it’s… I don’t know, man: somebody pull the plug, all yo shit gone.
Yeah, you could be like Drake, lose the Blackberry with the side scroll on the beach somewhere.
(laughs) Nah, man, you just gotta hold on to your art.
And, you bring up Organized Noize: y’all decision to go with the live instrumentation over the sampling, especially when the mid-’90s were so sample-heavy, it was something that really set y’all apart. And I know some of the critics — and your peers — didn’t necessarily get it, but when you first dropped Southerplayalistic in particular, and when you went back to the hood y’all were from, how did the community take that in?
They loved it, man. It was like a sense of pride, like, if your city get a football team or something like that, we got somebody that’s on the forefront of hip-hop music that’s representing us well. At the time, southern rap wasn’t really accepted. Like, we grew up on 2 Live Crew, Geto Boys, UGK, Too Short, NWA, A Tribe Called Quest, Souls of Mischief, De La Soul, like, we listened to everything. Curtis Mayfield, Isley Brothers, Anita Baker, Sade, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, The Beatles, Kate Bush, Bob Marley. So, our musical palette was all over the place; you take all that and put it in the pot, and you come up with something unique.
And that’s the point that really drives me, because when you look back at the Source Awards… for y’all to have studied the craft from all over the place, across genres, and then to get booed when y’all get the Best Rap Album, that must’ve been like a “What the fuck?” moment, right?
Yeah, it was a “What the fuck?” moment, and it was a gotdamn… a moment of, “OK, we’re just gonna have to go that much harder.” So, we was glad that it happened because it made us go that much harder than what we were already doin’. At that point, we had somethin’ to prove, and that shit just made us go in straight Jedi mode, man.
And it must be crazy now, considering how Atlanta and the South in general has such an undeniable, unmovable point right now, where everyone turns to Atlanta to see what the hell’s goin’ on no matter where you’re from. Could you have foreseen that day coming, back when y’all got that type of hate?
No, no, we were just in the moment, man; we’re just two teenagers, tryna figure life out. We did some good music and we wanted the world to hear it and we was gonna kick that motherfuckin’ door down.
Now, fill me in, I was tryna look really hard for this but I couldn’t really find out much about it except for like a clip or two... what picnic did y’all throw in ’94? I saw a video with Puff Daddy and B.I.G. rockin’ a picnic y’all threw, so I’m assumin’ it’s around the time Southernplayalistic came out. What picnic was that?
That was our Southernplayalistic “Player’s Ball” Gold party. That’s when our single went Gold, and LaFace [Records’s] L.A. Reid threw us a big, lavish-ass party. Bad Boy was under Arista, Puff directed “Player’s Ball,” so they were our family, the first ones to kinda accept us. There was a certain brotherhood between us, it was family.
Also, was it wild for “Player’s Ball” to be y’all first real breakout record when it was on a Christmas compilation? Did that trip y’all out?
Yeah, it was crazy because when they first brought it to us, we was like, “Man, they tryna fuck our career up with a fuckin’ Christmas album.” But we was like, “We gon talk about what we do on Christmas,” cuz we really didn’t celebrate Christmas like that. And we just talked about what we did: be at the Dungeon, go get some bud, make some music, get a bottle, and just kick it with the Dungeon Family.
And speakin’ of that: Like any good ’90s album in particular, no matter what region you rap in, y’all got certain things and certain characteristics you have in the party pack. So, I know it’s a lotta weed in the Dungeon, but y’all keep talkin’ about White Owls and Martell — and I’ve never heard of Martell in my life — so what was it about White Owls and Martells that got y’all right in the studio?
Shit, [White Owls] was just the kind of blunts that was at the store that was by the Dungeon. And the Martell: we was drinkin’ brown liquor back then, man, it was somethin’ that we could easily get to and access. And then we graduated from that cognac to Hennessy, and then we went into our tequila phase, then… Niggas start havin’ babies, and, yeah… you have to slow down on that liquor, boy.
It is a graduation thing, it is a level-by-level.
Yeah, yeah, you have to start drinkin’ more water.
And I must ask also, for you, somebody who grew up on so much OG East Coast shit, what does boom-bap slap like when you ridin’ around in a ’Lac or an El Dog, what does that sound like?
It’s great; to this day, we still do the same thing. You got old school cars, you go to Cartunes and you put the 15-inch woofers in them witta Alpine, and about three or four amps. The music always had a lotta low-end to it, so we used to do a lotta car tests in the cars like that.
So, even when y’all have done a lot of like retrospective interviews around y’all older work, and in Southernplayalistic, the consciousness shit was definitely there, but there was definitely a gangsta hard-edge type of thing… You or Dré will talk about it, and it’s like, “Well, we weren’t necessarily doin’ everything we was talkin’ about, we was kinda talkin’ about the shit that we were listening to at the time.” If you could take me back to that time, what made you feel comfortable enough to start takin’ that leap, and speakin’ for folks who weren’t necessarily being spoken for? Players, pimps, women in the strip club, people like grandma and nem… what made you feel comfortable to center yourself and channel that energy?
I mean, it’s all social commentary, you know what I mean? We might be some of the greatest storytellers ever when it comes to music, and you want to paint a picture and evoke certain emotions. You talk about situations you’re goin’ through, things that you see that affect you, and it’s a testament to how you live. I like to say that every album is a diary, and it gives the listener insight into what you were doin’ in-between records, you know what I mean? You just write it down and you put it down on wax.
The entire album, to me, feels like the hustle and the struggle and working-class shit percolates through the whole thing, and just persevering through it. So, even as you’re making this record, and things are changing for you in life, you still gotta go back to the crib, the people that you came up with are still there. So, how do you persevere through that in real time, while you’re tryna make sure you get everything together to make sure this type of shit lives forever? How did you keep yourself whole, in that experience?
You keep it real with yourself. There’s a certain honesty in the music that people can relate to, you know what I mean? We were teenagers, rambunctious on Southernplayalistic so, the subject matter changed from Southernplayalistic to ATLiens when we started kind of maturing, and then my wife was pregnant with my daughter, so I was lookin’ at life from another perspective of bein’ a father. Like Dré said — “’Twan was forced to mature before the first tour” — that was real-life facts. Bein’ a teenage father and tryin’ to balance music and me tryna mature into a man, you can get a lot out through music, you know what I mean?
And just in general, what does a word like authenticity mean when so much of rap, especially now, is rooted in a lot of fantasy and escapism to where folks are speakin’ to a lot of shit that they don’t do, or standing in place for people who actually live that life, when they’re not about that shit?
… I don’t know ’bout that fake shit. (laughs)
(laughs) That’s that on that!
I like to kinda talk about what I know, so… fantasy’s cool, just let it be known that it’s fantasy. Don’t be up here talkin’ about you gotdamn… slappin’ niggas everywhere you go, and pullin’ pistols on people, and then somebody see you at the mall… and you ain’t got it, ya feel me? Somebody gon’ wanna come see if you really ’bout that action.
Right. And even when OutKast first got it, it’s really a slow climb; even though y’all sell millions of records, it’s not like you’re gettin’ millions of dollars in your pocket instantly. When you were walkin’ around with the new shit, did anybody try you? You have to have hella stories of people tryna try you in public…
Not really, man, I never really cared for stuff like that. We had a reputation in the city: We come from the DF, and the DF ain’t to be fucked with. Cuz we don’t fuck with nobody… we mind our own business, take care of our family, make our music, have fun, spread good vibrations. If you all about positive energy, you don’t really attract that negative shit like that.
And when y’all weren’t in the Dungeon, what did y’all do as teenagers, just, nothin’ to do with music, when you’re not tapped in?
Um, I was bein’ a dad (laughs). I was bein’ a dad, we were learnin’ how to produce records. When we got our first publishing check, of course we went to the car lot, bought some cars. And then right after that, we went to — before Guitar Center, there was Mars Music — and we bought a beat machine and we bought keyboards and we started experimentin’ with that, so it was still always about the music.
Always. And speaking to that, like, the monologue that Big Rube has, it still rings really true to me. This entire album’s designed for somebody who knows and nobody else. But, it begs the question: success aside, acclaim aside, and the permanence you’ve had aside… do you ever feel misunderstood still to this day?
No, not really misunderstood. I think people pretty much know. With the age of social media, you give people a peek into your life, and this is honest: you can see me goin’ to my kids’ football games, you can see me cookin’, I’m really all about bein’ with my family and friends. When I’m not at the studio or on the road, it’s still music-oriented. I think the age of social media has given the audience that rare glimpse that people never got before. You used to have to wait for news to hit, 30 days, to find out what happened in the Source or the Vibe or Rolling Stone magazine; but now, somethin’ happen at 5 o’clock, by 6 o’clock, the whole world gonna know.
And what’s that like? What’s it like to really have to immerse into social media to stay relevant when you come from the publishing age, the Vibe, Rolling Stone, XXL days? What’s that like, seein’ both sides of the coin?
It’s good to the fact that we can cook up somethin’ in the studio, or even on the bus, and put it out within 24-to-48 hours and get it registered so you can get your music to your fanbase quick. You don’t have to wait a whole album cycle — six months or a year — and wait your turn to put out a record. At this point right now, I own my masters, and it’s all about ownership. When you get to that point, it’s a certain freedom and liberation that you have; you can live and write your own story, and that’s what we’re doin’ right now.
You speakin’ to ownin’ everything, that’s the key, and it makes me think about Nip man, makes me think about Nipsey Hussle. How you been holdin’ up with him passing?
Like Goodie Mob said, “The good die mostly over bullshit,” man, you know. Definitely my heart goes out to [Nipsey’s] family, and everybody that loved him, but the impact that he had… I just wish people would start recognizing the good that people do before they’re gone, you know what I mean? Give people their applause while they’re here. A lot of people didn’t know all the stuff he was doin’ in his community until he was gone, but just imagine if everybody had known what was goin’ on with him before he passed. They woulda been protectin’ him at all costs, it woulda been more consciousness around more people to know that he was an asset to our people.
When you touch back down in Atlanta and tap in, it’s like any given moment — like a gas station, you could just be out in public — you could pass somebody that was you in ’94, that was Dré in ’94. How much does that trip you out?
It’s crazy, like, I don’t really have tinted windows on my car, so if I drive somewhere motherfuckers know it’s me. They just throw the deuces up and keep it movin’, or be like, “Man, you changed my life,” you know, and that’s a good feelin’. We all about positive energy, man, and that’s what this world needs, cuz it’s a wicked world, boy.
(Future voice) It’s an evil world we live in.
Like a motherfucker.
How do you take care of yourself and keep your peace knowin’ the world’s so wicked?
Shit, I keep busy, man. Like, I’m not on the road? I’m bein’ daddy, I’m being a husband, I’m bein’ a philanthropist or runnin’ my Big Kids foundation. I got Stankonia Studios: we stay in a steady recording process, so if we’re not on the road, we’re in the studio at least five days a week. We got a vault full of music, man: me and Sleepy Brown workin’ on a record right now. We formed a group called The Big Sleepover, we’re like six songs in, man. It’s produced by Organized Noize, and it’s me and Sleepy Brown all the way down, man, and we’re gonna drop that shit in a couple months and keep it movin’.
You still a gentleman who likes to take his time, or do you feel the need to wanna keep up with the young boys, because of how streaming’s makin’ everybody go crazy?
Man, I’m light-years ahead of all that shit, man. I done done it all, done won it all; right now, music is recreational, just the marijuana sold in Boston and California. I’m doin’ it for the love of the music and for the love of the people, so it’s nothin’ to be proved. You don’t have to keep up with nobody when you got reserved seats, ya feel me? Right now, it’s 25 years… shit, we eligible for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame right now, man. And we still hot, so we just havin’ fun, man.
Oh, it might be about that time to get that bid in, huh?
Y’awwready know! (laughs)