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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Outkast's André 3000

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. We're commemorating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this week. Next, we feature our interview with Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000, half of the duo Outkast, along with Antoine Patton, aka Big Boi. Their debut album, "Southernplayalisticadillacmusic," released 29 years ago, helped put Southern hip-hop on the map. "Player's Ball" from the album hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAYER'S BALL")

SLEEPY BROWN: (Singing) All the players came from far and wide, wearing afros and braids, kicking them gangster rides. Now, I'm here to tell you there's a better way when the player ball is happening all day, every day.

OUTKAST: (Rapping) Hallelujah. Hallelujah. You know, I do some things much different than I used to 'cause I'm a player doing what the players do. The package store was closed.

MOSLEY: Outkast's 2003 album "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," which included the hit "Hey Ya!," sold 11 million copies and won three Grammys. In all, they've released seven albums, most of them platinum. Andre 3000 is known for his depth and, in the early 2000s, his exuberance in style. Esquire once named him the world's best-dressed man. He's collaborated with Beyonce, Lil Wayne, Drake and Frank Ocean, and he's also been an actor, appearing in films like "Be Cool" and "Four Brothers" and on the TV shows "The Shield" and "American Crime." In 2006, he co-created, wrote the music for and voiced the main character of the Cartoon Network animated series "Class Of 3000." When Terry spoke with him, they had just made the movie "Idlewild" and wrote the soundtrack, which was a hybrid of hip-hop and jazz. Andre also starred in it. Here's a song from the soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IDLEWILD BLUE (DON'TCHU WORRY 'BOUT ME")

OUTKAST: (Vocalizing). (Singing) People, people, don't you worry about me. Evil don't get buried by me. Well, I'm going to choo-choo out of this little town. And soon as I do, I'ma (ph) get down. Come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Now, you said you wanted to, like, branch out from rapping because rapping's a young man's game. And one of the things you've been doing lately is acting. And you starred - along with Big Boi, Andre Patton (ph) from Outkast, you starred in the film "Idlewild," which is set in a Georgia speakeasy, you know, during Prohibition. And you're the piano player at the speakeasy. And even though it's the kind of speakeasy at which fights are constantly breaking out, the production numbers in it are as lavish as if it were the Cotton Club of Harlem.

ANDRE 3000: Ah. Thank you.

GROSS: And I thought we could hear - before we talk more about the movie, I thought we could hear the song that, in the movie, is the production number that plays at the very end of the film behind the closed credit music.

ANDRE 3000: "PJ And Rooster."

GROSS: And you're at the piano in this at the start in a beautiful, like, tuxedo. And then you leave the piano to, like, sing and dance. And there are scantily clad chorus line of dancers behind you and there's stairways with dancers going up and down the stairs, like in the old production numbers.

ANDRE 3000: Yeah.

GROSS: So this is a fantastic song. Let's hear it, and then we'll talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PJ AND ROOSTER")

OUTKAST: (Singing) Ain't nobody like my style. Yeah. I light my fire. Yeah. I light - ba, ba (ph). I light - ba, ba. They blow it out. Yeah. They blew it out. They blow it out. And don't nobody want to feel like that. No. Monkeys on my back crawl. Now watch them all fall. Go on. Fall. Look out. Nobody wanted to dance when I had a lot of time on my hands. Now I got a lot of hands on my time, and everybody want to be a friend of mine. Whoa. Whoa. I wouldn't mind a friend. The fellows back home all trying to win. Moon keeps shining on bootleg bottles. Cops in the street - keep your feet on the throttle. Selling what you got - can't afford they model, yelling, go, PJ, go. Ain't no idle.

GROSS: That's Andre Benjamin from the film "Idlewild." Is this the kind of song that you would have written yourself if it wasn't for this movie?

ANDRE 3000: Yes and no. Believe it or not, that song is about six years old.

GROSS: Really?

ANDRE 3000: And yeah. Originally, it was a guitar-based song, and it was kind of just me and the beat playing a guitar. And I had some of the lyrics even five years ago. And when we were doing this movie, I thought it worked perfectly. And so I had to change the production a little bit and make it more piano-based because electric guitars - I mean, they were invented back then, but they weren't really where they are now. And I added a second and third verse. And Big Boy, you know, came on and put his thing on it, make it what it is now.

So, yes, I mean, even the lyric, you know, ain't nobody like my style, you know, I light my fire; they blow it out - you know, that was something that Andre 3000 was actually feeling, you know, five years ago before the movie came about. So it just so happened that when the movie came around, Percival was going through the same thing that Andre 3000 was going through. So it made total sense. And just the singing style was different because the way I sang it before - it wouldn't work for 1930. So, you know, by listening to a lot of Cab Calloway things, you know, it was like, big voice, big throat, like, huge production, horns, you know? And so I just made it into what it is now.

GROSS: I love the way you talk about Andre 3000 as if he were a person that you knew, you know?

ANDRE 3000: Well, I know him sometimes, you know? He change, though.

GROSS: He's your persona for the band Outkast. So how do you see Andre 3000 as compared to yourself, Andre Benjamin?

ANDRE 3000: I guess if you can imagine, like, if you're a kid and you're in the mirror and you're playing dress-up and you're this other character and as soon as your mom walks in, you change back into that person - and so Andre Benjamin was the kid that sat there and say, hey. What can I play? And he's in the mirror, and he's putting on his cowboy and Indian suit. Once he puts on his outfits or once - you know, once he starts to play and get into his kind of fun head, he's Andre 3000, you know? So Andre 3000 is that character within Outkast that kind of just goes there and has a ball, you know, does his thing. Andre Benjamin is, you know, the person that goes to Whole Foods, you know, that goes to the mall, you know, goes to the dry cleaners, you know, pumps gas. You know, that's my mama name. My mama gave me that name - Andre Lauren Benjamin.

GROSS: And where does the 3000 come from?

ANDRE 3000: Around 1999, right before it was, you know, about to turn into 2000, you know, the whole world was going crazy. Oh, man, my computers are going to change over. And they're going, we're all going to die. And, you know, everything's going to go kaput. And so 3000 actually means the year 3000, you know, 3000 A.D. kind of to look ahead and to to keep myself excited. So the 3000 was tacked on to Andre because I have a kind of like a personality where I get bored really fast, so I have to find stuff to keep myself interested. And that's where the cowboys and Indians come in.

GROSS: Now, you know, the music that you were that you wrote for "Idlewild" or that you changed for for "Idlewild" draws on music - a lot of different kinds of music, you know, like funk and hip-hop but also early jazz. Did working on that movie expose you to music that you otherwise might not have listened to?

ANDRE 3000: Of course. You know, growing up, I mean, I've always, you know, heard '30s and '40s music, but it was always, you know, in some other picture. It was always kind of, like, background music. Like, I can't say that I just ride around listening to 1930s, '40s music. I think the quality and the production, you know, is kind of different from what I'm used to right now. So when preparing for the role for Percival in "Idlewild," I had to go meet morticians. You know, I had to go to funeral homes to actually see how these people live, talk to them.

GROSS: He plays a mortician. That's why. Yeah.

ANDRE 3000: Yeah. Yes, yes. I play a mortician in "Idlewild." So in preparing for the role, I had to go talk to morticians and had to sit down and ask them about their life. And I also had to get into the time frame of what was going on. So I watched a couple of movies from, you know, the '30s, '40s era, you know, things like "Casablanca," a lot of Busby Berkeley movies, "Stormy Weather," you know, things of that nature. And I listened to a lot of music and mainly Cab Calloway. And it's funny because if you listen to Cab Calloway's music, he was actually rapping back in those times. But the sounds, you know, the big band sound, is - I was introduced to it by the by the movie because I was never into it. So just to hear that kind of instrumentation, even though in Outkast's music, I've been producing songs that had, you know, horns before and, you know, those sounds, I mean, it's the arrangements, you know? So it's the horn blast, and it's the way that the parts are written that are different. So every song wasn't, like, this huge big band song. I mean, some of them had beats to them. You know, some of them had - I guess the stylings were kind of a funky version of 1930s.

GROSS: Now, you're a character who is this kind of shy piano player at the speakeasy, says about having to play there when he's forced into the spotlight during one scene - he says, I hate the spotlight. And I can't imagine you ever saying you hate the spotlight. You seem to just love performing so much and seem to have these kind of, like, old-style show business values of loving to, like, sing and dance with costumes.

ANDRE 3000: That's where the cowboys and Indians come in.

GROSS: Right (laughter).

ANDRE 3000: Once again.

GROSS: Yeah.

ANDRE 3000: It's funny because when Bryan - Bryan Barber, who's the director and writer of "Idlewild" - I've known him...

GROSS: Who also directed your your "Hey Ya!" video.

ANDRE 3000: Right. And "Roses" and a couple of others. But, you know, I've known Bryan since he was in film school in Atlanta at Clark. And, you know, he'd come to parties. And, you know, he'd say, hey, man, I want you to be in my movie. And this is when we first came out. And he said, hey, I want you in this movie. Check out this script. Or, you know, let's get down - let's get together and, you know, just come up with some ideas or whatever. So Bryan has known me for a long time. He's known me. He's known Big Boi for a long time. So when we were putting this movie together, he knows our personalities that a lot of people don't know.

You know, and it's funny you say that I seem like, OK, I love to jump on stage, and I love to, you know, do the whole Hollywood - I love to sing and love to dance and love the spotlight and love to pose. And that's kind of not true. You know, It's kind of - I started doing music because I liked to do it, and I didn't know what I was getting into. So when he says, you know, I'm forced into a situation, I'm not really forced into it, but I kind of painted myself into a corner where I have to do it. But I do like to do music. But a lot of things that come along with it, you know, I'm not really a fan of. I just like to do great work. I like to create stuff. So be it music, film, whatever, you know, if the end product is good, you know, I'm loving it.

MOSLEY: Andre 3000 of the hip-hop group Outkast speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTKAST SONG, "DYIN' TO LIVE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And we're commemorating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with Terry's 2006 interview with Andre 3000 of Outkast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the things that you have to learn as an actor is how to project vulnerability 'cause there are roles you're going to play in which you're vulnerable. And that's certainly the case in some scenes in "Idlewild," for example. And vulnerability is, in some ways, exactly the kind of thing that a lot of rappers try to not express, rappers on the whole. I mean, I think a lot of wrappers try to look - try to maintain a very tough and hardened persona.

ANDRE 3000: Right.

GROSS: So I'm wondering, was there a transition for you of exposing more vulnerability both in your music and in your acting?

ANDRE 3000: Yeah, yeah. I think, I mean, not just in rap, I mean, in life, period. I mean, when I started off, I mean, we were just, you know, straight street rappers, you know? And I do understand where it comes from. I mean, a lot of actors have a heart. A lot of music guys or rappers have a hard time, you know, getting rid of this character that they've built up, you know, their whole career. And I don't think it's a thing of, you know, them pretending or trying to be hard to put on. But it's like the street life - it won't allow you to show, you know, that soft side because, I mean, you'll get trampled, you know, just in the street. And so you have to - you have to kind of toughen up or man up in a certain kind of way. And if you built your whole career on letting people know, you know, that I don't play and you have to get into a character that does play or that does let other emotions come out, I mean, that may be a hard step, but even before I started doing film, I mean, in life, I mean, I knew I had to take my music other places because, once again, I got bored of doing the same thing, so I got deeper and deeper into my music. And when I got deeper and deeper into my music, I mean, I had to expose certain sides of myself. And even when you look at "Speakerboxxx" and "The Love Below," the love below was just that. That was the meaning of "The Love Below." I mean, like, on the top of a man, I mean, you have this kind of hard shell or this kind of - you know, I'm tough, and nothing can hurt me. But the love below is those feelings that every man feels when he goes home, you know, and he thinks about these things, you know, and he thinks about his life. He thinks about his woman. He thinks about his kid. And - I mean, and there's no room to be tough there, you know? So that's what "The Love Below" is about.

So when it came time to act, it wasn't that much of a step because I knew that you have to - to be an actor, I mean, you can't act. I mean, that's the key. Once you act, people can see you acting, and that's not good, you know? I talked to Mark Wahlberg, who kind of - you know, I think he's done the transition the best, you know, where people actually consider him more an actor than a music guy, you know? And he said, man, I had to - and he's from the hardest parts of Boston. And he said, man, I had to make a point where I was like, man, I'm going - am I going to put on for my homeboys in the neighborhood, or am I going to go out here and just do what I have to do?

GROSS: Well, OK, so you were saying that, you know, in your CD, "The Love Below" - that that means the person - like, the person beneath the tough veneer and the emotions beyond that tough exterior.

ANDRE 3000: Right.

GROSS: So let me play, like, the really big hit from this, which is "Hey Ya!," your song. And, I mean, this song is, like, so much fun. And I guess fun is one of the things that would not be good if you're trying to have that really tough exterior, yes?

ANDRE 3000: Yeah. And it's funny you say that because in the "Hey Ya!" video, I mean, I had a lot of fun doing it. And you can see a lot of smiles, you know? And I got a lot of feedback from just that alone. You know, a lot of DJs and a lot of people on the street - they were like, man, that's cool. But, like, I ain't seen a rapper smile in a long time, you know? And I think smiling is powerful, you know? I mean, I think - I mean, come on. God gave you teeth. He gave you lips. He gave you emotions. Come on. Smile now. I mean, you ain't tough 24/7. You know, that's just not true if you want to keep it real. Now, that's keeping it real.

GROSS: Well, before we hear "Hey Ya!," would you just talk a little bit about putting this together, like, writing the song? You play all of the instruments except bass on it, I think.

ANDRE 3000: Right.

GROSS: So can you talk about, like, conceiving the record and, you know, conceiving the song and then the music happening behind the song?

ANDRE 3000: With "Hey Ya!," that song was three years old before the public heard it. So a lot of times, like, I'll start a song, just a rough idea, and I'll move on to something else. And the song was just not ready for the people at the time. Sometimes it takes, you know, just that time to incubate or whatever. And so when I was working on "The Love Below," I had a theme in my head, you know? It was about love. It was about emotions. So even when people are listening to "Hey Ya!" and dancing around and, you know, they think it's crazy and they think it's fun, if you really pay attention to the lyrics, it's really a pretty dark song, you know? So it has that kind of, I guess - what do you call it? - that dichotomy, that kind of - it's dark on one end, and it's light on the other end. But when putting it together, it was pretty much just me at home with my guitar, and I was playing these chords over and over and over again. I'm not a great guitar player, so these were some of the first chords that I ever learned. And, you know, during that time, you know, I was into a lot of garage, a lot of punk music. And I was just going for it. And so this was my interpretation of what I thought those sounds were. And the lyrics - usually they start from me messing around on my guitar playing, and I'll just start to kind of baby talk lyrics, you know? And I usually record myself on a micro cassette recorder. And so, you know, I'll be, (singing inaudibly), you know? And then I'll listen to it back and damn near translate what I'm saying, you know? Like, I almost have to decode my yippity-yap (ph), and that's what comes out, you know? My baby don't mess around because she loves me so. You know, and that's what came out, and it just starts to make sense after a while. And then I came back three years later working on the "Speakerboxxx/Love Below" album and came back with the second verse. And then the, you know, Polaroid part - you know, that was kind of just a freestyle actually, in the studio. And Beyonce's video was on the screen when I was doing the song. I forget which video it was, but I thought it was an amazing video. And she was showing plenty of attitude. And so that's how she crept her way into the song. You know, when it says, now all the Beyonces and Lucy Lius, those were actually commercials or scenes that were on the TV when I was in the vocal booth. And they crept their way into into the song.

GROSS: So you're describing how you speak in almost, you know, like, baby talk when you were first...

ANDRE 3000: Right.

GROSS: ...Writing the melody for the song. Is the hey ya part of the original baby talk?

ANDRE 3000: Yeah. I'm trying to remember. Hey ya - yes. Yes. And that's probably why it's hey ya - because I really didn't have any words. So you just - hey ya, you know?

GROSS: Well, it works; doesn't it (laughter)?

ANDRE 3000: And then you fine-tune it, and you know it's saying, hey ya. You kind of - it's kind of like really listening to another language. And then you listen back to it and say, OK, now what is he saying? What is he saying? And then you make it out. You know, you're being a translator. And that's what happens. A lot of people get the song mistake, and they say, oh, man, I love that "Hey Now" song. Like, well, it's Hey Ya!"

GROSS: Well, here it is. And this is Andre Benjamin from the Outkast album "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY YA!")

OUTKAST: (Singing) One, two, three. Oh. My baby don't mess around because she loves me so. And this I know for sure. But does she really want to but can't stand to see me walk out the door? Don't try to fight the feeling 'cause the thought alone is killing me right now. Thank God for Mom and Dad for sticking two together 'cause we don't know how. Hey ya. Hey ya. Hey ya. Hey ya. Hey ya. Hey ya. Hey ya. Hey ya. You think you've got it. Oh, you think you've got it. But got it just don't get it till there's nothing at all. We get together. Oh, we get together. But separate's always better when there's feelings involved. If what they say is, nothing is forever, then what makes, then what makes, then what makes, then what makes, what makes, what makes love the exception? So why, oh, why, oh, why, oh, why, oh, why, oh are we so in denial when we know we're not happy here?

MOSLEY: That's Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000, of Outkast on one of their big hits. We'll hear more of his interview with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "MOOD INDIGO")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Andre 3000 of the duo Outkast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: We were talking before about how as a rapper, a lot of people have a very kind of tough image and that you kind of have to if you live in tough neighborhoods. Otherwise, people are going to take advantage of you. One of the things that you do is you design clothes, and you wear a lot of very kind of extravagant theatrical clothes, you know, on stage and in videos, in movies. And I'm wondering how that fits in with, like, the tough exterior that you needed to have when you were growing up. Did you wear theatrical clothes when you were young, or is that an indulgence you couldn't afford 'cause it would have been too weird?

ANDRE 3000: Well, no, actually, in high school - I mean, it was still all about style. Like, in Atlanta, it was called, you know, being a prep. And when you're a prep, it's kind of like - it was like a closed culture. And we were considered what you would call, like, lowheads. And this was - even though, you know, Ralph Lauren, I think he started in '67, he was kind of like the general of this whole stylesman, you know, thing. And as a kid, you know, that's all we wanted to be.

We wanted to look like - you know, we wanted to look like we we had it, look like we went to college. And so everybody - we were into clothes, and we did certain things with them, like, in our own funky kind of way. Like, you would take pants, and we would dye them different colors. Or we'd wear, you know, two or three different-colored polo shirts on top of each other just so we can have color combinations and all this type of stuff. So it was real - it was a real style thing. So that's always been in me. But I think people get the stage antics and the stage wear, I think, mixed up with streetwear.

You know, when you're on stage, you know, you - I mean, you wear the white wigs, or you wear, you know, these Indian, you know, no shirt and, you know, huge furry pants or whatever. I mean, but those are not things that happen on the street, though, you know? So to answer your question, they don't fit in. You know, that doesn't fit in with it, but at the same time, the attitude that you do it with - you know, some of the hardest people on the street, you know, they come up to me and be like, man, you know, I love what you do. And I think it comes from the attitude of what you're wearing, not actually what you're wearing.

GROSS: Well, Andre Benjamin, thank you so much for talking with us.

ANDRE 3000: Thank you for having me on the show.

MOSLEY: Andre 3000 of Outkast spoke to Terry Gross in 2006. On Monday's show, we'll conclude our series of hip-hop interviews with Jay-Z, regarded as one of the most successful rappers of all time. I hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineers Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. We'll close out with music by Cab Calloway, who Andre 3000 said he was listening to in preparation for the movie soundtrack "Idlewild." For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYBODY EATS WHEN THEY COME TO MY HOUSE")

CAB CALLOWAY: (Singing) Have a banana, Hannah. Try the salami, Tommy. Get with the gravy, Davy. Everybody eats when they come to my house. Try a tomato, Plato. Here's cacciatore, Dory. Taste the bologna, Tony. Everybody eats when they come to my house. I fix your favorite dishes. Hopin' this good food fills ya. Work my hands to the bone in the kitchen alone. You better eat if it kills ya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.