Outkast: Have You Been to Stankonia?

Photographer Jonathan Mannion
March 05, 2012

Outkast's new album is more than a record. It's a trip, a journey, a transformation, an experience. Are you ready?

Finally the sun came up.

Outside the morning has a dewy cling that only the South knows. Soon everything is quiet, the photographer has packed up his equipment, clothes have been put back on, doors have been slammed and the SUVs and the Benz SLKs driven away, leaving only you to rub your eyes and wonder what the fuck just happened in the span of 18 hours.

Big Boi and Andre are Outkast, and they travel in a realm of magic realism they call Stankonia. S-T-A-N-K-O-N-I-A. It’s a place where the weed is purple and the greens and blues of a stripper’s dress suddenly match the colors of the early morning sky and the pine tops of the Georgia woods. In Stankonia searing electric guitar solos meet the godsong of the Morris Brown College choir, and when studio tapes are flipped and run backwards, a different music emerges.

Stankonia is where they got they funk from.

But first, are you experienced? Uh, have you ever been… experienced? You, with your conscious rappers and Black Augusts? You, with your headwrap, and you, with your backpack? You, with your getting-it, and you with your 360 degrees of hip-hop? Have you ever been knock-kneed, mind-blown, zooted and looted, all funked up and no place to go?

The thing about Big Boi’s house is that inside it he has a Boom Boom Room, and the thing about the Boom Boom Room is that there’s a stage in the corner. The stage isn’t big, maybe three feet by three feet, but the surface is mirrored and there’s a pole in the middle that reaches to the ceiling.

In fact, the stage is so small that you really don’t notice it’s there until one of the women gets off the couch and starts to dance around the pole. Except that it’s not really dancing, just a repetitive slow-mo gyration suggesting ennui. No one’s really watching her and she’s not dancing for anybody else, a caged bird needing no listener to sing its song.

On the other side of the Boom Boom Room, several more women languish on low-slung couches. They all have names in which Ys replace Is—Chyna and Kym. At the bar, more of Outkast’s Earthtone crew—Slimm, C-Bone, DJ and Nathaniel—are making headway on a gallon of Hennessy and more than a couple of blunts. Unmastered tracks from Outkast’s upcoming album blast from the stereo system.

A lot of shit is talked in the Boom Boom Room, but most of the conversation remains unspoken. It’s like any foreign land in that way, men and women acting out roles that are difficult to understand when observed from the straight world. The only thing to do is keep up, keep your eyes open, and try not to pass out in that chair in the kitchen.

Downstairs in the garage the photographer is still shooting in a race against sunrise.

“I do this all the time,” says Big Boi, leaning up against his mint Cadillac. Shutter clicks. The car is a pale cheddar with purple iridescence, and there is pride in his voice when he calls it his Paddymelt. “Really, this what we doing tonight? I love this type of shit. Little get-togethers at the crib, with the fellas and some hoes. It’s just fun, you know?”

At 4:37am a few of the women come down from the Boom Boom Room. In various stages of undress, they pose in and on the Paddymelt. “This is how we made the album,” continues Big Boi. “While we were working on this album we would do this three or four nights a week. Every time we finished at the studio, we’d head to the house. From four in the morning ’til two the next afternoon, just kickin’ it.”

Twelve hours earlier everything was understandable: Outkast, a new album, a photo shoot, an interview. In and out; no one gets hurt. But now the moment has taken on a timelessness, a surrealism that threatens to steal it all away to a land of no return.

Andre has fallen silent, leaving only Big Boi holding the lifeline. “Stankonia is whatever’s the funkiest shit ever,” he explains, lucid. “It could be that purple, or that funky-ass music.”

And the photographer clicks away.

It’s been storming for hours.

Andre is driving. But even as he watches the road and directs his Land Rover or whatever towards Big Boi’s house in the woods, his eyes have turned inward and his mind has moved in another direction, past the other side of the game. This is when he conjures most the man from Electric Ladyland. More than the headband or the mixed metaphors of his clothing, it’s the occasional sad, faraway look in his eyes that reminds you of Hendrix, a sense of being young and world-weary at the same time.

“The funk is basically freedom,” he says, not real heavy on it, just kind of thinking aloud. “The funk is not a certain sound or a certain way you dress or a certain look. Something can sound fun-ky or look fun-ky, but my opinion of the funk is a certain freedom that started way back in Africa. But we don’t want to make it no big racial issue or no shit like that.”

That’s because the Promised Land of Funk is an uncharted expanse of electromagnetic technicolor modulations, and being Afrocentric alone might not qualify you for the trip. This probably explains why the roadside of such a pilgrimage is littered with DAT cassettes, gold records and backup bands with shallow pockets. Rhyming—or writing—about the funk without ever having gone there is pointless, like feeling the heat without complaining about the humidity.

“I guess we’re talking about an individual freedom,” he says, following the thread a little deeper. “Finding that gateway that opens you up, that frees you up mentally so you won’t be stuck in a… a… I don’t want to say a corporate mindstate, but more like a trained mindstate. Like, you grew up a certain way. You’re used to doing something a certain way: you’re used to hearing the music a certain way, you’re used to moving, dressing, walking, talking a certain way. But when you’re trying to tap into something new, I know doing the same thing ain’t gonna get it.”

The same goes for both musical onanism and journalistic syllogism. A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, but the funk even resists such user-friendly Zen-for-hire didactics. Ultimately, you just have to go along for the ride.

The rain didn’t let up for awhile, and the darkness drew even closer.

At the Gentleman’s Club, the women keep their shoes on, but that’s about it. “Go back and write about this,” laughs Big Boi. He’s clearly enjoying the fact that he just bought a $10 lap dance for an out-of-town writer, even if the dancer has the face of a future high school librarian. This woman, the dancer, does the sorts of things that, even at that moment, clearly will not make it into the narrative of the evening’s events.

As far as shake joints go, Gentleman’s is pretty middle of the road. The clientele is typical, ranging from old pimps to young hustlers. There’s a soul food menu to order from, but the drinks at the bar taste like gasoline. The music isn’t funky here—it’s mainly standard ATL booty club fare—but the air is. And it’s the air that goes straight to the head.

A modern-day flesh bazaar with 20 or so naked women walking around is an unlikely place for an emancipation proclamation. But even inside Gentleman’s the theme of freedom comes up again, and although the lines between liberty and liberator are blurry, someone’s always ready to testify.

“See, we free,” says C-Bone, summing up the scene. “This is how we do.” Outkast’s hype man is waxing on liberty from where he stands, at the bar. He does so the way the other brothers do, leaving out the exclamation points in favor of stressing entire words, and hitting vowels the way chrome rims sound in a pothole. And with the first person plural, he means not only the men, but the women.

“These hoes respect us, because we respect them,” he says, gesturing to a group of dancers. “You gotta respect yo sistas.” The dancers can’t hear what he’s running down because Gentleman’s is loud with laughter of varying pitch, but a few of them smile and nod their heads, either in agreement or to the beat of the booty music.

“See, it ain’t necessary to have hoes around just to fuck them hoes,” explains Big Boi, before heading for the door. “I like to have hoes as friends. I like to have hoes around me, ’cause I like their company.”

The women at Gentleman’s like his company, too. During the couple of hours spent at their all-purpose hangout, a steady stream of dancers visit with both Dre and Big Boi, making small talk and giving why-ain’t-you-called-me looks at the same time.

Around 2AM eight of the sistas from Gentleman’s hop into their luxury cars to join the caravan leaving for Big Boi’s house.

The first dream was maybe a year ago. I was going to a candylady’s house in the projects. A candylady is a woman who sells candy, gum, chips and stuff like that out of her apartment in the projects. I knocked on the door and she opened it up, and I walked around the corner and Prince was sitting at her kitchen table or something like that.

He said, Hey man, what’s goin’ on?

And I said, Nothin’.

And he said, Hey, you don’t remember me?

And I said, Naw.

And he said, You don’t remember me? I useta hang with your cousin Travis.

And my cousin Travis was the one that introduced me to Prince when I was really, really young. He played the first sex songs and shit, you know what I’m saying? He was like a real playboy type nigga in school—you know, this nigga useta wear eyeliner to school and shit. It wasn’t on no gay shit; it was some real ’80s fresh prep shit. And I’m like damn, this shit here is real fly, the emotion Prince had with it. It was tough to me.

So he said that and I was about to walk out, but the sad thing about it was that he was there to buy drugs from the candylady. He was a junkie. But I read that Prince, he don’t do no drugs at all. So that’s kinda funny to me.

The second dream was about Jimi Hendrix.

We were sitting at this table. I was sitting across from him, and he was asking me, Who were your guitar influences? And I said, Well, the song that really made me want to play was Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”. I didn’t know how to play or nothin’, but I useta do it with my mouth—do the notes with my mouth—and I just wanted to do that shit, you know?

Anyway, Jimi was like, That’s real cool, but what you need to do is check out James Brown’s rhythm guitar player, Jimmy “Chank” Nolen. He said, Check that out.

The thing is, I had never heard of Jimmy Nolen before. I had never even heard his name. So the whole dream came down to the part where I was going to ask him why? Why did he want me to check this out? I never got to that, so I was sort of pissed off about that.

But yeah, I met him. I talked to him.

Somebody told me Santana talks to him every night. And Erykah said she talked to Tupac.

It’s one of those things where a record label buys some sandwiches and some Snapple for some hip-hop journalists or whatever it is they hate to be called these days, in order to introduce those journalists to a new album from an artist or group on said label. They never have ice for the Snapple.

The album is Outkast’s upcoming Stankonia, and the group’s manager, Blue, starts to explain some shit about “taking the listener on a musical journey…” He stops, and then starts over because some journalists arrive on hip-hop time. So Blue starts in about taking the listener on a musical journey or whatever, but this apologia is quickly forgotten once the tracks begin, mainly because from jump Stankonia is far more than that—a musical journey or whatever, which sounds about as exciting as taking the last train to Clarksville—no, it is abundantly clear this album is nothing less than an experience, a jones coming down, a getting high for the first time all over again, a real heavy digging on or getting dug out, equal parts psychedelic and street, real and surreal, thugged out and tripped out, in all the connotations of that loaded word, a bona fucking fide experience.

The need to hear it again is like the need to be John Malkovich, but that’s all you’re afforded, that one listen, the album isn’t even mastered yet, plus they still need to finish the skits. Oh. So there you are out on 57th St, irrevocably turned out and stuttering, stricken with glossalalia and stumbling from the record company your bottom two vertebrae twisted out, not giving a fuck about all the shit you have to do before tomorrow, when you hop a plane to ATL for the interview.

And thinking, you have to be stone crazy insane or incredibly brave to go to some strange new land, to say nothing of sticking a flag in it when you get there. Go some place different and they won’t believe you when you get back. People still say the moon landing was a hoax.

Outkast: Have You Been to Stankonia?