The scene is New York, the 1995 Source Awards; the crowd is booing, local artists are upset and the coastal beef between East (New York) and West (Los Angeles) is at its apex. Yet it's Atlanta group OutKast who take home the Best New Artist trophy and André 3000 declares, "The South got something to say!"
Big picture, it's a moment that, over time, will reconfigure the axis of North American hip-hop. On a smaller scale, it's a launching pad for OutKast's near-25-year career, the culmination of which finds the other half, Big Boi, releasing his new solo album, Boomiverse.
OutKast haven't released music together since 2006's Idlewild; they embarked on a reunion tour in 2014, but André 3000's interests are primarily in acting these days. For now, it's Big Boi who's taken it upon himself to keep adding tiles to the funk, psychedelic rock, soulful jazz and gospel mosaic the group once laid out.
Boomiverse is an album revolving around the concept of the Big Bang Theory, about the beginning of the universe; in some ways, it echoes the words spoken at the outset of OutKast's 2000 album Stankonia: "The centre of the Earth, seven light years below sea level." It's a new beginning, a new universe. Big Boi has continued to progress and advance his craft, but some things remain unchanged: bold lyricism, carefully chosen features, uninhibited production and, of course, the involvement of production crew Organized Noize.
"He's like the Yoda — when we're in the dungeon, Ray [Murray] is the one who taught me how to rap in the pocket," Big Boi says about the Organized Noize founder. "I'm a Jedi in training. I consider myself still a student, and a master, and I'm always learning. Ray moved into Stankonia Studios with me about five years ago — a little before that, he worked on the Big Grams album with me — and he's been there ever since. To have that person from Organized Noize, who was there from the essence and the core of what we've done, and has the same drive as me, and the same creative juices flowing, we just bounce energy off each other and it turns out great."
While OutKast's 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik transformed Atlanta's regional sound, it also carefully interjected political themes, including socio-economic struggles and issues within the black community and the larger world. Similarly, Boomivere is built using the formula that first allowed the group to do exactly what they intended — be the outcasts of the rap world.
At 42, Big Boi has spent more than half his life working in the music industry; at this point, he recognizes that he's swimming upstream. It's no secret that hip-hop, despite being deeply rooted in the respect and wisdom of its forebears, is an ageist subculture. That's exactly what makes the concept of reinvention for an artist like Big Boi so important. "[Boomiverse tracks] 'Kill Jill' and 'Chocolate' — that's that new dope, know what I mean?" Big Boi offers. "That's totally different from any OutKast record, any solo album that I've done. I recorded 'Kill Jill' four years ago, and I started building on top of that. This set the bar — everything had to be this quality, this new, this refreshing, this shocking. It had to make the fucking hairs stand up on your forearms and your thighs when you got on biker shorts. That's it."
Too often, the hip-hop community nit-picks at age: who's "too old" to rhyme over certain production, who's "too young" to understand the dynamics of lyricism, whose careers have an expiration date. It's not a thought that crosses Big Boi's mind. "You gotta go into a cocoon sometimes and find that new-new shit," he proclaims. "It's all about evolution. That's what I do. I don't put out records every year or every six months, because this shit is slow-roasted in the oven, this shit is not out the microwave.
"I say I got a musical addiction," he continues. "So when I find new sounds or new flows, new rhyme patterns or bars or raps, it excites me. Having done so much music, it's just difficult not to replay what you've done before, you know what I'm saying? So I kinda have to forget everything I've done, and start fresh on a blank piece of paper. I kinda isolate myself from the outside world in my studio, in Stankonia, and we just start creating like we never made music before. That's how you make stuff that comes out fresh."
As Boomiverse makes abundantly clear, Atlanta remains central to Big Boi's music, from the sonic influences to fellow A-town collaborators like Gucci Mane, Jeezy, Sleepy Brown and Killer Mike, with whom he has an upcoming project. "Every time [Killer Mike] comes off the airplane and I be in the studio, he comes straight from the airport to the studio like, 'Bro, what you doing? Let me hear what you got.' I'll play some shit, and he'll be like, 'Mind if I hop on that?'
"The thing about collaborations," Big Boi continues, "is that coming from a group, I'm used to hearing another voice. I don't wanna hear my voice. I couldn't listen to all the songs with just my voice — I'd be irritated. It's to break it up some and showcase the organic creativity of two artists, and what they're doing. That's why a jam with a Curren$y or a Kurupt, artists and lyricists that I love — everything is organically created, never genetically modified."
For an album centred on new beginnings, time isn't a concept lost on Big Boi. The average age for Boomiverse's 13 collaborators is closer to 40 than 25, resonating with the album's overall concept of reinvention. "This is what we've been doing for about 23 years and are still here, not missing a step," he proclaims. "Snoop came out before OutKast came out. It's rare to have artists still here from that era — it was Snoop, OutKast, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Jay Z, Nas, Mobb Deep. To withstand the test and still be here, we must be doing something right. We put stuff into the music, lyrically and musically, to where it's a discovery period and it can stand the test of time."
Big Boi has also outlived several of his peers; Pumpkinhead, Koopsta Knicca, Sean Price, Phife Dawg, Shawty Lo and most recently, Prodigy, all of whom were in their early 40s, have passed away in the last two years. Closer to home, Big Boi has now survived Texas rapper and producer Pimp C, of pioneering group UGK, by ten years, but continues to share his legacy — one that changed the sound of Southern rap forever.
"It's a combination of the dialect of how we talk, funk, the live instrumentations, the 808s — we embraced that thoroughly because we came up on bass, and 808s, that vibration," Big Boi says, when asked about Boomiverse single "In the South," which features Gucci Mane and the late UGK trailblazer. "Pimp C was like the big homie; he was a great friend and a true pioneer of the South. We used to listen to Pimp C in high school, and Bun B [of UGK] is a good friend of mine as well, so there's always gonna be that connection with us."
At its best, Southern rap, regardless of style, is rooted in an ethereal existence, something that's for the moment that hits your soul, rather than suggesting there's a better tomorrow. After all, as the hip-hop community has learned time and again, from Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. to Chinx and Bankroll Fresh, everything can change in a minute.
Connections to the South and to his past are all over Boomiverse; Big Boi describes how he received the "In the South" instrumental from UGK producer Cory Mo's unreleased Pimp C collection. "I got a couple of songs with Pimp C in the vault that he did, that are fucking crazy," he hints. But when it comes to the music itself, it's about the feeling, not the people. "If you're in the club, and the song got a lot of 808s, it hits a certain chakra in your body and makes you feel a certain type of way. You can manipulate 808s and different sounds and bring out the positive energy in someone's soul. We do that."
In Atlanta, 35 years after its first credited rapper Mojo broke into the scene with "Let Mojo Handle It," its legacy continues to build. "Atlanta's been doing it," Big Boi exclaims. "A lot of artists out of Atlanta right now that's really making noise —from Future and Migos to 2 Chainz — are serious about making music, making some jams and touching the world. Not just Atlanta or the United States, but it keeps going global. You gotta applaud that."
Beyond the eclectic instrumentals and catchy hooks, Big Boi has always balanced his lyrics with poignant and captivating content — even if fans didn't realize it the first time. It's this coded language that carries hip-hop culture from the trenches to the mainstream, without an outsider knowing what, exactly, is being said.
"Politically, we touched on things in all of our music, but you have to do it in a way that's not preachy. So there might be a certain bar or something in the record that you listen to, and you go, 'Whoa, why did you say that?'" he says. "We touch on everything from police brutality to the disappearance of the middle class and things like that, but you gotta listen. It's done in a way that's slick enough to where the listener doesn't think we preaching at them, but when they hear the bar, they think, 'Damn!' know what I mean? We've been doing it since our first record, 'Git Up, Git Out.' Now you just have to slide it in or sneak it in. You have to listen and pay attention, because it's not gonna be right in your face. You're not gonna get everything in the first listen. That's the beauty of timeless music."
Considered an OG at this point, Big Boi stresses the faults in his journey, but also the rewards. "I put a lot of hard work, effort, time, years and time away from my family to do this shit, so it has to last," he affirms. "I got 40 more songs right now in the vault. This album is 12 cuts, all killer no filler — that's how I like to do it. I don't make throwaway songs; I don't throw shit away. Everything I put out is A-1 [and] catered to a certain person or group of people, so when they get this one and show that they're appreciative of what I'm doing, then I'll show them more music.
"I could be doing movies and so many other things that I am doing a little bit, but music is my first love," he says. "To do [Boomiverse] in Stankonia, and take four, five years [to record it], and then for the people to embrace it and for me to go out to these festivals and rock to 80,000, 100,000 people singing every word to every song? I can take them all the way back to Southerplayalisticadillacmuzik up to Boomiverse, and just give them a ride, man. It's bringing people together."
With plans to go on tour and bring Killer Mike along, Big Boi is stepping into a new universe, one crafted entirely by his thoughts and ideas, riding the wave of evolution. Unbothered by time or rap's revolving door, Big Boi remains as fearless as he did on that night in New York in 1995.
"I don't care if I have 1000 songs in the vault, it is always quality over quantity. It's all about spreading positive energy and music is the way to do that." For an artist who's spent more than half his life in the music industry, that mantra is timeless.