Melody Makers of Hip-Hop

Isaac Guzman is a staff writer for the New York Daily News

At a downtown club packed with record industry insiders, OutKast is bringing some Southern flavor to Manhattan.

Before a crowd that includes Sean "Puffy" Combs and Busta Rhymes, the rap duo is previewing tracks from its upcoming album, "Stankonia," and giving New Yorkers a lesson in Atlanta slang.

"The more crunk y'all get, the more crunk we get," rapper Dre (not to be confused with producer-rapper Dr. Dre) tells them, shaking his long, straightened hair and pacing the stage shirtless in a pair of bright red sailor pants.

"And 'crunk' means to crank it up," his partner Big Boi adds, looking more like a standard-issue rapper in tight, shoulder-length braids, an oversized Seattle Mariners jersey and a thick gold necklace.

"If you all feel the heat, get crunk with it," Dre says. "That's real."

When OutKast launches into "Bombs Over Baghdad," the first single from the new record, the audience does indeed get crunk (the operative roots are "drunk" and "cranked up"), grooving on the song's wild rhythms, machine-gun rhymes and soaring, Parliament-style chorus.

Backed by two guitarists, a DJ and three singers, OutKast imbues the song with a rousing, anthem-like quality that is uncommon in the world of live hip-hop. The performance partly explains why "Stankonia," which arrives in stores Tuesday, is one of the year's most anticipated hip-hop albums.

On its fourth effort, OutKast (which plays the House of Blues on Thursday) has ventured into a stylistic experiment that takes hip-hop beyond its traditional territory, replacing samplers with live musicians and calling on a host of influences--including George Clinton, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Prince--that Dre and Big Boi consider innovators of "the stankest funk around."

"Stankonia" features OutKast's usual quotient of upbeat party songs posing as quasi-political rants. "Bombs Over Baghdad," for example, is hardly a protest of the Gulf War, instead serving as an amped-up reflection on a nation in the throes of victory. Elsewhere, "Ms. Jackson" turns the usual "I hate my baby's momma" genre upside down with a tender, gently propulsive ballad in which we finally hear a pair of rappers admit they may have been wrong.

But the record's most interesting moments come at the end, where "Toilet Tisha," "Slum Beautiful" and "Stank Love" transcend their titles and become gorgeous, Prince-style soul. Dre's falsetto riffing is reminiscent of "Purple Rain"-era balladry, demonstrating that OutKast has mastered more than just rapid-fire rhymes.

While the two have enjoyed combined sales of 4.5 million for their previous releases, they're setting their sights considerably higher for "Stankonia."

"I'm thinking at least 5 million," Big Boi says, bolstering his bluster with a vote of confidence he received from Combs at the MTV Video Music Awards. "He kind of gave it up, Puffy. We may not like all the music that he do, but he's a real businessman and he knows what's gonna fly. He knows what's gonna sing."

"We wanted to bring the fun back into the music-making instead of doing the same thing all the time," Big Boi says later, riding in the group's van after dropping Dre and the rest of their entourage off at the East Village nightspot Joe's Pub. "Being repetitious is not what we specialize in. Everybody knows that we're nonconformists in everything we do, whether it's music, dress, the videos or whatever. We put our hands on everything."

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As unlikely as it may sound, OutKast traces its roots back to a chance meeting at a mall: The Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta was where 16-year-olds Antwan Patton (Big Boi) and Andre Benjamin (Dre) first met in 1992. The two both lived in the rough-and-tumble East Point section of Atlanta and were students at Tri-Cities High School, alma mater of the R&B; groups TLC and Xscape.

During school, the two would try to out-rhyme one another during competitions in the cafeteria. After class, they'd head for Rico Wade's basement studio, where they'd hang with local hopefuls Big Gipp and Khujo, who would later form the Goodie Mob. Wade made his name as one-third of the Organized Noize producing team, whose credits include TLC, Eric Clapton and En Vogue and which later signed Patton and Benjamin to a deal.

Their first single, "Player's Ball," topped the rap charts for six weeks in 1993, and the following year their debut album, "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik," surpassed the 1 million sales mark.

With 1996's "ATLiens," OutKast nabbed the No. 2 spot on the rap chart and cemented its position as standard-bearer for the new, soulful hip-hop sound of what's come to be called the Dirty South.

Two years later, "Aquemini" catapulted the band to the 2 million sales level. But in addition to garnering perfect ratings from Rolling Stone and the Source, the record stirred controversy.

The single "Rosa Parks," which was nominated for a Grammy, angered the civil rights icon of the title, and she brought suit against the group, arguing that they had exploited her name for commercial purposes. She also criticized the song for its use of vulgar language and epithets.

Last November, a federal judge ruled that the group had not misused Parks' name, but her attorneys have pressed on with an appeal that is still unresolved. They've retained the services of attorney Johnnie L. Cochran, who has offered to argue her case if the appeals court decides to hear it.

Though Big Boi and Dre are confident that they are in the right, it's an issue that has clearly affected them. After all, who wants to be accused of slighting an octogenarian touchstone of the civil rights movement?

"Everybody knows our family ain't the type of group that would disrespect no Rosa Parks," Dre told the New York audience before performing the song. "This goes out to Johnnie Cochran. He might have got O.J. out, but we already won this case once."

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It's hard to tell when Dre, 25, has changed from stage wear into street clothes. He enters the club dressing room in his bright red pants and emerges in a band uniform jacket worn over a blue skirt with a silver floral pattern.

Dre's processed hair and outrageous fashion sense have occasionally drawn the ire of macho fans who don't know what to make of a hip-hop MC who dresses like Parliament's Bootsy Collins.

Known as the group's poet, Dre has a serene disposition that contrasts with Big Boi's boisterous, "cross country stomp down boss pimpin' " persona. The disparity has led to frequent rumors, which Dre tried to address in "Return of the 'G' " on "Aquemini": "Then the question is, Big Boi, what's up with Andre? Is he in a cult? Is he gay? When y'all gonna break up?"

His response to the imagined questions: "I'm feeling better than ever. What's wrong with you?"

"You gotta know Dre," Big Boi, also 25, explains. "Dre could put up some Levi's and some Jordans in a minute. You never know. It just depends on how he's feeling. When you're on stage, you want to look like the music feels."

Just as Dre is willing to take risks with his image, OutKast has decided to take a chance with "Bombs Over Baghdad." While the song may earn the group some respect for its combination of Hendrix-like guitar riffs, gospel choir and turntable scratches, it may be a tough sell for conservative radio programmers.

"The point with this album, and particularly with the first single, 'Bombs Over Baghdad,' is that OutKast really wanted to push the envelope and really wanted to make a contribution to music, breaking out of the box and doing something that was creatively groundbreaking," says Antonio "L.A." Reid, president of the group's label, Arista Records.

"If you're bold enough to make a record that's tough to format, you also have to be realistic about your expectations. We knew it would be an uphill battle to get the record played at radio. But if it gets to the consumer, people are going to like it."

"We wanted to be shocking," says Big Boi "We wanted to stir up a little controversy. You're either gonna love 'BOB' or you're gonna hate it."

" 'Bombs Over Baghdad' is a different OutKast song, but it's managed to capture the Atlanta club scene and the radio scene," says Tosha Love, music director at Atlanta's V-103 FM, where the single has become a listener favorite. "It's not just about sex and cars and weed smoke. They take you into a whole new realm of music."

Even if OutKast doesn't break through with "Bombs Over Baghdad," they have a backup plan. "Ms. Jackson" sounds like a hit from its first few seconds. It's the plea of a young man trying to persuade his child's grandmother that he plans to live up to his responsibilities as a father.

It comes from experience. Dre is the father of a son, named Seven, with singer Erykah Badu. The two were together for several years but they split up earlier this year.

Big Boi is also an unmarried father. "I got a daughter and a son. And I got this son right here, coming," he says, laying his hand on the belly of his fiancee, Sherlita Wise, who is sitting next to him in the van. Arista's publicity material declares that "Ms. Jackson" is "sure to be the ghetto anthem of the year."

Big Boi just hopes the song reflects some of the truth about what he felt when his first kid came into the world. "Things happen in life, you don't know why," he says. "Man, my head just got wilder and wilder. I was like 23. Everything's already been written and been told. You just got to live your life."

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OutKast plays Thursday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 7:30 p.m. $25. [323] 848-5100.

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