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Earth to André 3000: The OutKast Icon Talks Life After “Hey Ya!”
“If they drop the bomb, you got 20 minutes to get here,” says André 3000. “We’re gonna need a whole lotta water to make it for two weeks.” We’re in the third-floor sub-basement of André Benjamin’s apartment building in downtown New York. André tells me that to survive a nuclear event, you have to be three stories underground and you have to stay put for two weeks while the winds clear the toxic air. His girlfriend has looked into it, and this basement is registered nuke-safe or something—it’s a legit shelter. So if things get hectic between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, or if Indian Point starts to melt down…party at 3000’s place.
We just finished a long interview session in a nearby park, and I asked if I could see this space: André pays a little extra rent for access to one of the long, narrow storage rooms down here. He doesn’t store much in it, though: There’s a huge orange John Coltrane poster on the back wall and various instruments lying around. He’s made it a life goal to master one of them, although he won’t say which. If you try to point out that André 3000 has already mastered a very specific musical discipline (namely: rapping), he will deflect and say he’s never felt like a strong rapper at all. Which means that André 3000 is on everyone’s top-five list—except his own.
André and I have met up a handful of times in recent weeks to work out the details of this GQ Style project, and it’s always an experience. He showed up for one conversation in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel moving slowly and holding a plastic CVS bag. I thought he’d hurt his knee, but it turned out he was moving cautiously because he was experiencing severe nausea. He had the bag on him in case he had to barf.
The plan that day was to talk about his wardrobe for our photo shoot. At age 42, André doesn’t feel like playing dress-up. Gone are the days of him wearing chaps and football shoulder pads—he just wants to be himself. He recently started wearing a daily uniform: a long-sleeve bootleg Anita Baker or Phyllis Hyman T-shirt, a beaded necklace, black Rick Owens pants or paint-splattered vintage jeans, mismatched Tretorns (one black, one denim) or Adidas Sambas, and an orange knit cap rolled over his ears and cocked a bit on his dome, like Marvin Gaye’s. With that in mind, André presented an idea he’d been toying with: What if he designed his own line of Anita Baker T-shirts? He would wear the shirts along with his new line of signature Tretorns (and the new set of gold teeth he recently had made at an Atlanta flea market). Then, after the shoot, he would actually pitch the T-shirt line to Anita Baker herself to see if she’d let his designs become her official merchandise. So I said: Let’s do it.
Ever since OutKast released ATLiens in 1996, thinking of André Benjamin as an extraterrestrial has been pretty standard, but being around him is more like hanging out with a precocious and imaginative kid. He cautiously lets you in on his oddball ideas, of which there is a steady flow. He’s relentlessly introspective and occasionally naive. I genuinely believe that he cannot tell a lie. “I would say I’m a gullible person,” 3000 tells me at one point. “You know, my head can be in the clouds.”
When the location I pick for a second day of interviews turns out to be a bust, André and I end up wandering the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Eventually we have to take cover from a nasty rainstorm in the lobby of a new apartment high-rise, and the doorman agrees to let us sit on the lobby lounge couches to talk while residents check their mailboxes or come down to meet the delivery guys. The only dude who clocks us has a girlfriend upstairs who apparently wants to get married to André’s brilliant verse on “International Players Anthem,” so the guy goes up and grabs her, and she comes down to get a photo with 3000. They never ask what he’s doing in their lounge.
And that’s the way it is with André 3000: It’s as likely that he’ll disappear again for a decade as it is that you’ll find him sitting in the lobby of your apartment building. He might never release another song, or he might drop a solo album next week. Who’s to say?
GQ Style: What led you to move to New York City?
André 3000: I guess why most people move to New York City: a change, a new start. My kid went off to college, and my parents died—both of ’em within the last six years. I was like, I’ve kinda outlived Atlanta. It’s not like I go to the studio—I’m just sitting around wasting time and doing stuff I’m not supposed to be doing.
What does that include?
Just the things that all musicians get into at some point. You can’t run from it. Especially when you stop being at your height, and you can’t match that energy. So you try to find other ways to match it, and you really can’t. And then you have all these ideas and then forget ’em. So: I need to get out of here. That’s the same thing that the Hendrix movie [2013’s Jimi: All Is by My Side] did for me. I was in a hole, and then I got the offer. I was like, You know what? I need to be around people.
When you say you were in a hole, was it a creative hole or a personal hole or a mix?
All of it. I was in all three holes. I was in a creative hole, a personal hole, and I was still not dealing with my mom’s and my father’s deaths. And really, I don’t know if I have still. You know: Just push that away. The problem with being successful is you can do whatever you do times ten. And no one to stop you. You can easily go down the wrong path and you get into that place. And the thing that brings you out is other people.
Do you find that people enable you more than they would if you were just a dude with a job?
Yeah. Right now, the only people that keep me in line is my homies, like Swiff, the DJ. He’s like a super-, hyper-realist. He’s the kinda person that I can talk to. My stepfather is next in line. He’s kinda like that anchoring person. He’s been there since I was 5. He gave me my first job, actually, screen-printing shirts in his shop in Atlanta.
What were you doing for him?
Screen printing with the squeegees, and silk printing. He’s that next person in line. And once you don’t have that around, you can easily go astray, because, I mean, since age 17 people have catered to me and Big Boi. It’s strange when, your whole life, everyone has treated you different from everybody else. They say that if you’re an entertainer, whatever time you took off, you stay that age. I was 17. I wonder how my son feels. He was born into it, ’cause his parents are Erykah [Badu] and me. Even when people heard that we was having a kid, they was like, Oh, this kid is gonna be—
Before he even got here. I really hate it for him. You gotta understand, I’ve only written one check in my life. When I was 17, they still had checkbooks, and my mom taught me how to write a check and do my balance. So I had one check on my balance, and then OutKast took off. I have not paid a bill since. People ask, What does it feel like? As humans, we want attention. We want to be validated. At the same time, it’s strange attention, and a lot of it. If you have an excess of anything, it becomes strange.
Yeah, that was part of my reason for coming here. I was diagnosed with this social thing. I didn’t notice it until I became an entertainer. I don’t know if it’s the shock of all kind of people coming up to you, or the expectations, but I got to this place where it was hard for me to be in public without feeling watched or really nervous.
Yeah, and it started to bleed over into my normal life. I’d just meet new people and I would freak out or have to leave.
When did that start?
Maybe 15 years ago.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was 2003, so...
Yeah, around there. Before that album, I moved to California. It started a little bit before then, and I just chucked it off as Aw, yeah, man, I just need to take a break. And I started to notice it getting worse and worse. Because the more you run from it, the worse it gets. You don’t want to explain it, because you don’t want to be a weak link around your friends. I never told my crew for a long time, so I just started getting to myself. Spending more time with myself and stopped touring. And it felt great for me to do that, because it’s like, Phew, I don’t like that life, I don’t like that confrontation.
For your famous “Hey Ya!” performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, were you having those feelings?
Yeah, I mean, a curse can also be a gift. So if you’re watching the “Hey Ya!” video or that performance, I was really nervous. So it made me just move really fast. In the “Hey Ya” video, I didn’t make that shit up like a routine or anything. They were just like, Go! And I’m like, All right. Fuck. [moves fast] And of course that’s what people responded to. And I hated it. So after those times, it was like, All right, I’m done.
So you stepped out of the spotlight, and here we are 14 years later and you’ve got a head full of ideas and projects. For starters, what’s the story with the Anita Baker tees?
Well, my mom used to work in a beauty salon. She did nails and had a little booth, and at a beauty salon, there’s always somebody coming in and selling something, be it cologne, or stolen clothes, or phones that last like a month. And a guy came in, back in the day, with a box of cassettes—my mom purchased these Anita Baker bootlegs. She played them all the time at home, and I started to realize, like,Whoa, I enjoy this
You were kids.
Yeah, running around the world. I can say, man, my partner, Big Boi, has always been on it. He’s sharp. He always knew the right decisions. He got into a real relationship really early. Right before our second album, he had a kid, and he and the girl stayed together, and they’re married now. I did the opposite. I’m all over the place. I never went on real dates. I don’t want to meet anybody’s parents. Like, I’m a fucking rapper.
The secret reality of OutKast is that while Big Boi was “street,” and you guys were marketed as “the player and the poet,” he’s always been super on it.
Big Boi is smart as fuck. We went to the same high school. I dropped out in 11th grade. Big Boi graduated with honors. When you watch early OutKast videos, Big Boi’s the leader. He always had the confidence, where I was kind of like the shy one. Big Boi can rap better than me—I always said that. If somebody said, “Pick who you want from OutKast to go to battle with you,” it wouldn’t be me. ’Cause like, what I’ma do? Say some mind shit? You can’t have thoughts in a battle—nobody gives a shit about that.
So are you going to the studio? Are you making music?
Actually, I hate going to the studio. So what’s got me going once again is me being excited about other artists. I’ve been working on producing a few artists. A couple projects. But here’s the crazy thing: I don’t have the pulse anymore. Rhythms change every generation. The intensity and the drums change. And I’m not on the pulse. I can’t pretend. It’s kinda like watching your uncle dance. So the only thing I can do is this kind of novelty, off thing for them.
In hip-hop, either you have the wave or you don’t.
That’s what hip-hop is all about. It’s a new-kids’ art.
But if you think about jazz, over time it became a big tent, with room for lots of different movements. So with hip-hop, even if you’re not the new wave, you can do something that has its own merit. Isn’t it okay to be off the pulse of the kids at this point?
For me, hip-hop is about freshness. You can always hop, but you won’t always be hip. At a certain point, you just won’t. And this is how I know: All the people I grew up with, none of them, not a one, is thriving. Not a one. So that tells me something. I gotta watch that, as someone that’s come in the game and has loved these guys. I mean, loved them. Loved them. But the potency just moves on.
I’m torn right now. You’ve said before that you’re like a boxer who’s starting to slow down. But you’ve always struck a balance between what’s going on with the culture and that left-field 3000 thing. You’ve always been a hybrid of inside and out, and I don’t think you’ll lose that.
It’s Mayweather. He knows. He’s like, Yeah, I can fight maybe three more of ’em. But I’m slowing down, and I see these young kids coming up and I was them. And at a certain point, no matter how Mayweather you are, I think it’s classy to be like, You know what? [brushes off hands]
You know people still think of you as sober and vegan, right? Yeah, my life has changed a lot. I was a vegan/vegetarian for like 14, 15 years. After our first album, we were going hard, out on the road, doing drugs, partaking in every woman, and I started to see myself deteriorate. I would look in the mirror and be like, “You look like shit.” So I got to a point where I said, I gotta stop. So I went that way and tried it. What’s funny is this idea that people have of me as being straight-edge. My homie Cee-Lo, from Goodie Mob, he has this joke. He’s like, “Man, I don’t know why these women think we’re sitting cross-legged with incense like some Buddhists, praying with our hands. I mean, we out here fucking these bitches.” [laughs].