From the ATLien rapper of OutKast to the funk-soul revisionist of his solo work, from acting in films like Semi-Pro and the forthcoming Battle in Seattle to unveiling his own Benjamin Bixby fashion line this fall, André Benjamin is the rare hip-hop artist who simply refuses to be pigeonholed. In a series of interviews in Los Angeles and his native Atlanta, we spoke with the multi-talented Benjamin on a broad variety of topics ranging from his early artistic influences and the changes in the music scene over the past decade to sociopolitical consciousness in hip-hop and his secret creative talent.
You’ve always been one of the most eclectic artists in hip-hop. Who were some of the artists who inspired you when you first started making music?
Well, I came into music as a rhymer, and the group that really made me wanna rap was Eric B & Rakim. There was something about the way Rakim put words together that made me wanna try it. But before that, I listened to everything growing up, from Led Zeppelin and INXS to Depeche Mode and Grand Funk Railroad, from Ice Cube and Too $hort to Brand Nubian and A Tribe Called Quest. Whether it was Prince, Sly Stone, Funkadelic or Joni Mitchell, I just liked anything that sounded good. I knew that I wanted to be able to make any kind of music I felt like making, but of course, you have certain things that people respond to. There’s a “brand” people expect you to do over and over again, which I’m not really a big fan of.
Do you find yourself rebelling against that sort of limiting categorization?
Not intentionally, but I have to keep myself excited. I get bored really easily, so if I feel like I’m doing the same thing repeatedly, it feels like I’m cheating, in a way.
In the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of hip-hop, you’re a storied veteran with 15 years of experience under your belt. For better or worse, how has the game changed most over that time?
It’s just a new generation, and it’s easier to put songs out now. Back when we were signed, to have a record deal was the big thing. Record deals really don’t mean as much now, because you can use the Internet to get your music out and let people hear it. Record companies aren’t playing the same role that they used to because physical sales are going down and digital sales are going up. So now record companies are becoming Internet companies.
How did you feel about Radiohead putting their In Rainbows album online and letting people pay whatever they wanted to download it?
Man, that made me feel so good! I bowed to them when I heard about that. It’s so cool and I really wish I could do it, but you can only do that when you’re not under contract with your record company.
OutKast, along with Goodie Mob and Organized Noize, were instrumental in the ATL’s early hip-hop explosion. Was there a particular moment when you realized the scene was about to bubble up on a national level?
It really didn’t happen until we started recording Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. We were all just kinda hanging around the Dungeon and making songs, but until we went into the studio … And even then, we didn’t know. We didn’t really know until we hit the road and started to perform the songs, and people started to respond to this Southern kind of sound.
Why do you think today’s hip-hop scene is so lacking in sociopolitical content compared to when you were first starting out?
Times change. I don’t think it’s a good or bad thing. I think people complain about music all the time, but at the end of the day, hip-hop is about kids talking about what’s going on around them, and what other kids respond to. It lets you know where the community is at the time: If the music isn’t so good, maybe they’re more focused on looking great, cars, clothes and all that stuff. You can’t be mad at ‘em, cuz that’s just where the neighborhood is. If you want to fix it, you gotta fix the neighborhood.
What kinds of music are you listening to these days?
I hate to say it, but I don’t listen to much new music. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. I love ’70s music like Parliament, Earth Wind & Fire, the Ohio Players, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield. I honestly think the ’70s had the best sound in music. The ’50s and ’60s had a crude sound, which gave it a great character, but the ’80s were kind of too perfect and overproduced. The ’70s had that sound that was in your face, but had real space to it and real reverb. It was the most organic music.
How has it been for you, making the transition from music into acting?
It was natural for me to get into films, but the acting process was unnatural. I’m good on the screen, but I’m terrible in auditions because I hate having to prove myself. I can’t juggle the two, so when I’m doing film I’m doing film and when I’m doing music I’m doing music. But I’m about to go back into the studio recording, and I’m always thinking of song ideas when I come home from the set. I will always do music.
What’s your next film, Battle In Seattle, about?
It’s me, Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson and Michelle Rodriguez, and it’s about the protests and riots that took place at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. I play a protestor by the name of Django who kinda keeps protesting fun and lighthearted, even when we’re getting arrested.
Do you consider yourself a politically conscious person?
Not really. I mean, I have my personal views on things, but my mind changes too much. It’s probably not a good thing to use my celebrity [for political purposes], because a lot of people vote a certain way just because one of their favorite celebrities said this candidate or that candidate was cool. They don’t take the time to figure out who’s the best candidate for them. I say do your research, because there are plenty of Web sites that break down where each candidate stands on the issues. See what you like, and don’t just vote a certain way because your favorite movie star or talk show host says they’re doing it.
Other than music, is there anything in particular you’re obsessed with?
I’m not really much of a collector, but I definitely love clothes. I’m always searching for cool items —jackets, trousers, boots — and I’m an avid eBay shopper. I have certain shops I love in Atlanta, New York and L.A. that I’ll visit when I’m in town.
What do you look for to define your fashion choices?
Things that are special to me, and that I can’t really find in stores. Of course, certain things will always be made, like button-downs and polos and stuff like that. But the first collection of my clothing line, called Benjamin Bixby, is inspired by 1935 football [fashions]. I searched eBay to these old jerseys I’d never seen, and thought they’d look cool with a pair of jeans. So I went to Hong Kong and Italy and had things made based on how these old jerseys were made. I’ll look for boots or plaid pants, basically things that make me feel like an individual and not like I’m wearing the same thing everyone else is wearing from off the shelf. The line is coming out this fall, and will be carried in Barney’s stores.
There are always rumors of beefs between you and Big Boi. What’s the current status of OutKast?
We’re both working on solo records, then after we finish those, we’re doing another OutKast album.
What’s your solo album gonna sound like?
I really don’t know yet. I’ve only written two songs in my head and haven’t really started recording. I’m just tinkering around now, so I’m really excited to see what it’s gonna sound like myself. I’m hoping it’ll be ready this fall.
Were you disappointed by the reaction to Idlewild?
Of course, but I actually knew before we released the album the response it was gonna get. I had a feeling about it, because it had a purpose, but it didn’t feel like all our other albums. The opportunities that we could’ve had to make it a better album, the record company didn’t step up.
Is there any creative art form you’ve longed to explore, but haven’t had a chance yet?
Yes! It’s funny, because before music, acting, clothing lines or anything, I used to draw and paint. That’s actually what my mom thought I would be doing when I grew up. When I was about to graduate from high school, I got letters from colleges like Savannah College of Art & Design wanting me to attend their schools. I want to be able to do enough pieces where I could travel around to show them at art galleries, but I just don’t have as much time as I used to.
Speaking of which, you’re doing OutKast, a solo career, acting and running your own fashion line. How do you find time to balance it all?
You don’t. You just kinda live crazily, then you get old and look back and say, “Wow, I’ve done a lot of [stuff]!” You only get one chance, so you gotta do as much as you can.