When he's not sitting at his kitchen table in suburban Atlanta writing rhymes or tooling around in his pristine 1979 Cadillac Seville, rapper Antwan "Big Boi" Patton breeds pit bulls.
Half of the platinum-selling rap duo OutKast, the lifelong Georgian, 21, loves working with this tenacious, often misunderstood breed. As a rapper and as a young black male, he identifies with its plight.
"There's a myth about pits attacking people," he explains in a deep drawl. "I find it ironic because that's how certain people view blacks, . . . as being vicious and wild. When I walk down the street, a white lady might see me and clutch her purse--just like when I'm walking my pit bull in the park and a woman with her kids will pull away.
"They discriminate before they even know," he says with a laugh. "Poodles bite more than pits do. It's been proven."
Speaking of deciding "before they even know," some fans may have mistaken OutKast for misogynistic hustlers--instead of one of rap's most introspective and cutting-edge acts.
Part of that could be the duo's own fault. On their first hit single, 1994's "Player's Ball," and the title track from their hit debut album, "Southernplayalisticaddillacmuzik," Patton and Andre "Dre" Benjamin painted themselves as wannabe pimps. The music was infectious and the rhyme patterns were intricate, but those tracks all came down to the herb smoking and womanizing that characterize the work of too many lesser rap talents.
Had folks listened to the whole albums, they would have discovered such songs as "Crumblin' Erb" and "Git Up, Git Out," tracks that reveal deeper artistry and individuality. Those traits are expanded on OutKast's new "ATLiens" album.
In their latest work, especially in such songs as the reggae-style "Elevators (Me & You)" and "Wheelz of Steel," OutKast compares favorably with some of the most creative forces in rap, blending the rhyming skills of the Wu-Tang Clan with musical sensibilities as original and as diverse as those of A Tribe Called Quest.
"A lot of people got the message of our first album mixed up," Patton asserts. "They just heard 'Player's Ball' and thought it was all about the pimps, the cars and all that mess." So, despite strong sales (the new album has sold more than 850,000 copies since its release in August), the two still feel like they're from another planet.
"We're still ATLiens," says Benjamin, 21. "The ATL for Atlanta, and the aliens for our status as foreigners in the hip-hop game."
"We just sample creatively," Patton says of the group's production style, which incorporates live instruments and few elements of previous hit songs.
"While everyone else is content to steal an old hit song and add a new rap verse over it, we always start from scratch," Patton continues. "Pure hip-hop is an art, one that we're trying to preserve. Picasso had plenty of influences, but you'd never catch him trying to remake another artist's work in the exact same way. We feel the same. That's what makes us different."
"Maybe it was because we were raised in the church, but being from Atlanta gives us a spiritual edge that crews from other cities just don't have," Benjamin adds. "Atlanta was one of the last places to get out of slavery, and so that striving and sense of struggle comes across immediately in our music."
OutKast was formed in Atlanta in 1991 when Tri-City High School sophomores Patton and Benjamin met at a mall. They quickly realized that they shared a profound love and knowledge of hip-hop, and both had rhyming abilities that set them apart from other crews in Atlanta.
But as they listened to the work of local producers, they felt that all of them mimicked the jazzy East Coast style or the funk-driven sound of the West. No one was capturing the unique mix of melodic, gutbucket, Southern rhythm & blues that had marked the Stax Records and Curtis Mayfield sounds in the '60s and '70s.
Enter Rico Wade. The leader of Organized Noize, the production team responsible for TLC's "Waterfalls" and En Vogue's "Don't Let Go (Love)," was schooled in the old ways, could play a number of instruments and had intimate knowledge of sampling keyboards and drum machines.
Wade was working in a beauty supply shop when he met the two teenagers. He brought them to a home basement studio and "from the first time Rico pressed 'play' on the tape," Benjamin recalls, "we knew we had our producer, because the beats were like nothing I had ever heard before."
The two rappers started hanging out at Rico's house at all hours, sleeping on the floor, smoking marijuana and writing rhymes. Much to the chagrin of their parents, they started skipping classes, but they never lost sight of their dreams.
"Right up until we got signed by LaFace Records, there were times when all we did was hang out," says Patton. "I had been going to school for 11 years, had a 3.68 GPA and college plans, yet was on the verge of dropping out. I finally realized that school was something I needed just as much as music, and I didn't want not having a certain piece of paper to hold me back."
He ended up graduating, but Benjamin fell a few units short and dropped out. The subjects of education and politics became the centerpiece of their song "Git Up, Git Out," which urges young men and women to grow up and make mature decisions.
Benjamin ended up following the song's advice: Between sessions for "ATLiens," he went to night school to earn his degree.
"When you're 17 and 18, you think you can smoke and drink all day and sleep around. You feel invincible," he says. "Then there comes a time where you have to raise up and do something else with yourself. On our first album, we were determined to smoke herb until the world ended. Now, I've stopped smoking and drinking, and I'm trying to live up to my abilities, and take life much more seriously."