One of hip hop’s most acclaimed, highest selling, yet somehow underrated MCs is waxing lyrically without a beat, recording studio, or even a microphone.
“It’s real simple, non-synthetic, non-genetically modified, organically created—you feel me?” Big Boi says, ruefully aping his on-the-mic flow. He’s describing how naturally Big Grams, his collaboration with New York electro-rock duo Phantogram, came together, resulting in a self-titled EP that they released last month. He goes on to say Phantogram was “very creative in the whole process—from creating the beats, to writing lyrics, to making those vicious melodies that I love so much.”
Phantogram, who are also on the line, pipe up at that moment with even greater praise for Big Boi. Guitarist Josh Carter starts by saying, “The way I see it, Big and [vocalist and singer] Sarah [Barthel] and I are very much alike, in that we don’t really give a shit and we just make music because it’s fun. There’s no box, no limits to what we do creatively.”
That joyously carefree attitude clearly appeals to Big Boi, a rapper well-versed in the serious pressures that come with success. He is, after all, the co-founder of OutKast, one of only six hip-hop acts to have an LP reach diamond level sales of over 10 million. In total, he sold 25 million albums and won six Grammys as one half of that duo, which he co-founded with partner in rhyme André 3000. And since striking out on his own, he’s been dogged by queries about a reunion and unprecedented expectations for each of his follow-up projects.
Big Boi defied those odds in 2010 with Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, his long-awaited solo debut after OutKast went on hiatus nearly half a decade earlier. Critics declared Sir Lucious to be the best rap album of the year, and Big Boi (born Antwan André Patton) finally got his due, after years of seeing much of the public’s OutKast adoration fall on the more flamboyant 3000.
While Sir Lucious was an undeniable breakthrough, critics and fans unfortunately deemed Big’s 2012 follow-up, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, to be messy and excessive. But that flawed, albeit boldly ambitious, sophomore album proved to have much more of an impact than anyone expected. Much of that longevity can be credited to Phantogram, who were featured on three Vicious Lies tracks that many fans hailed as standouts on an otherwise muddled album.
The MC met Barthel and Carter at Outside Lands Festival while he was touring behind Sir Lucious, not long after they had released their acclaimed dance-rock debut, Eyelid Movies, and a beloved follow-up EP called Nightlife. Big was astounded by the pair’s highly kinetic live show and the dazzling visuals that accompanied it. After introducing himself and hitting it off with them, he decided to invite Phantogram to the sessions for Vicious Lies.
“Once we got back to Stankonia we were just kicking it and whatever, kind of joking around and having fun, and once we started making the music, everything sounded so great,” Big Boi says of the sessions with Phantogram at his Atlanta studio that he named after OutKast’s hit 2000 LP. He adds that stint proved to be far more productive than they anticipated, saying: “In the span of a week and some change, we were just knocking shit out the park. So we thought: ‘Hey man, we might have to keep this going.’”
The result: Big Grams, a surprisingly seamless collaboration, given Big Boi’s wildly different musical background from that of the dance-rock duo. Yet, the newly minted trio’s cohesion shouldn’t come as a total shock. While the rapper’s early OutKast hits were infused with funk, jazz and soul, his more recent output—like Speakerboxxx and Sir Lucious—already incorporated intergalactic electronica akin to Phantogram’s, before he met the duo (although they brought the MC further into that dance-rock realm). That point is furthered by Carter, who says: “Big is someone I’ve looked up to for a long time. He kind of paved the way for what bands like Phantogram can do. Working on his record was encouraging, because together we could further pursue not giving a shit about the small stuff, and just be creative with one of our heroes.”
That fun-loving spirit is palpable on both the new EP songs like “Goldmine Junkie,” where Big and Barthel engage in a sly, sexy call and response, and throughout the trio’s interview. Big’s deep, dirty South-inflected chuckle is audible as Barthel describes the visual component that Big Grams plans to incorporate onstage for its upcoming tour, saying: “It’s going to be fucking trippy. Even if you don’t plan on taking acid when you come to see us, you’ll feel just as satisfied.” And when Carter says he plans to complement that light show with his very own breakdance moves, Barthel quickly counters: “Yeah, and you’ve been working on your titty shake too, right, Josh?”
The three also leave each other giggling as they describe bringing on guest features for the Big Grams EP. Big Boi begins cackling as Barthel recalls how she invited star electronica producer Skrillex—who is also famed for his zany hairstyles—to partake, saying: “Josh and I became friends with him after playing so many of the same festivals. At one point I said I wanted to play him ‘Born to Shine,’ and some of the other stuff we’d been working on with Big Boi, and he said: ‘No shit! I fuckin’ love Big Boi, he’s the man. I’d drop everything to be on that, you guys are the shit for working with him.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re the shit. I’m going to shave one side of my head to show you how much I love you.’”
Big then follows with an equally amusing anecdote about two other Big Grams collaborators, Killer Mike and El-P, a.k.a. Run The Jewels, who are featured on the EP’s most popular track, “Born to Shine.”
“I’m in Stankonia everyday,” he says. “Mike happened to come by, I played him what Sarah and Josh and I were working on, and he got his pen out and just started writing.” He adds that Mike immediately “wrote three different verses to that beat, and we picked the hottest of the hot, then sent it to Josh and Sarah and they loved it. El-P laid his verse down later, and sent it to the Boi, and the Boi went ahead and ended up knocking that bitch over the wall.”
As Big begins referring to himself in the third person toward the end of that comment, he once again adopts the rapid-fire cadence that he usually saves for the mic, leaving Barthel and Carter in stitches once more. But does that shared sense of humor mean they can laugh about the recent Key & Peele comedy sketch that depicts Big rolling his eyes at a zany, Robin Hood-esque Andre 3000?
Big Boi’s a good sport about it, adopting a faux PA system announcer’s voice to quickly, and wryly, shift the focus back to his current project: “We would like to inform you that Big Grams is in stores right now. We would like to tell you it’s a full EP, 39 minutes of charged, original, fresh music. That’s my answer to that question.”
Maybe more musicians should adopt such a mischievous, rueful disposition when faced with constant questions about their past feats. It seems to be working well for Big Boi, and, what’s more, he’s now found the perfect cohorts with whom to share that outlook. The MC says Big Grams will further that relationship with a full-length album in a few years, once he puts out another solo LP and they release another Phantogram project. In the meantime, the trio will embark on a major tour, which will kickoff later this month at San Francisco’s Treasure Island festival.
And while Big finds it refreshing to work so extensively with like-minded up-and-comers like Phantogram, Barthel says the New York duo is all the more inspired by the opportunity, adding: “It’s fun—it’s a really exciting experience to become best friends with one of my favorite artists of all time.”