NEW YORK – OutKast has long been considered a groundbreaking force, their funkadelic sound, rapid-fire rhyming and decidedly Southern flair breathing excitement into a repetitious music world and making them one of the most popular acts in the world.
So Andre "3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton should have had little difficulty segueing into the world of film, especially considering the success of rappers in Hollywood.
That's what Big Boi and Andre thought. But Hollywood's initial response was lukewarm, and it would be almost a decade before they finally got an OutKast film — this week's "Idlewild" — on movie screens.
"Being young and naive, we didn't know what it took to make a movie," admits Big Boi
Maybe it's because they weren't gangsta rappers looking to play a version of themselves in a gritty shoot-em-up. Or because the kind of film they were looking to make — a musical — went out of style decades ago.
Or maybe producers worried the eclectic vibe that made OutKast so popular in the music world — Andre's wig-wearing, out-there persona and Big Boi's cool, laid-back style — wouldn't translate on film.
One humbling moment came after the pair, aided by video director Bryan Barber, wrote a full musical script based on their 1998 disc, "Aquemini." A major studio apparently had interest in it — but with a catch.
"At the last minute, they was like, 'Yeah, we wanna buy it, but we don't want y'all to be acting in it,"' recalls Andre. "I think they pulled up Missy (Elliott) and Busta Rhymes' names, because I guess they were the hottest thing going at that time."
Fast forward almost a decade, and few acts are as hot as OutKast. Their last album, 2003's double-disc "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," sold more than 10 million copies in the United States, won them an album of the year Grammy and mountains of critical praise.
And, perhaps more importantly, it finally launched their joint movie career with "Idlewild," a 1930s Prohibition-era musical.
"I don't know who except OutKast could have pulled this off," says Barber, who co-wrote and directed the film.
The ambitious, high-stepping musical/romance/drama not only features the scatting of old-time jazz but today's rap. It started off simply as video treatments for two intended singles off the "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" album.
Though slightly fuzzy, Andre knew his vision was to play a mortician in love with a doomed girl, while Big Boi envisioned a place called church — where you went worship the lords of dance, women and wild times instead of a higher power.
Though both have recently acted in films individually (Andre in films like "Four Brothers" and "Be Cool," Big Boi in "ATL"), they had never done a project together.
The idea grew from video treatments to a short independent film to an HBO-straight-to-TV picture. But Andre and Big Boi still dreamed of more.
"When the movie started out, at first it was a million dollar picture," Big Boi says. "And after we started shooting, they started believing in us more."
"We knew if the movie was good enough, they'd release it to theater, so our whole goal was to make the movie good enough," says Andre with a smile. "We were going to try and push it further."
It eventually ballooned into an estimated $35 million flick co-starring veteran actors like Ben Vereen, Ciecly Tyson, Ving Rhames and Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard, along with musicians Macy Gray and Patti LaBelle.
But Big Boi and Andre are the stars studio execs hope will bring in the fans. Choosing such a fantastical project — a musical from a bygone era — is a definite risk. Barber noted that a more conventional route would have been some kind of buddy flick, "(but) I wanted to do something outside the box. ... that is everything that OutKast is. I think the audience is really looking for refreshing material."
Big Boi and Andre are taking the same approach with the soundtrack, which mixing big-band stompers with booming rap. Though OutKast has always challenged its listeners — "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" was essentially two solo discs, and Andre's was mainly singing — there is more risk this time around. The first single, "Mighty O," hasn't set charts on fire, and the album is being released as the industry overall continues a downward spiral.
Andre said the success of the last album has freed him from worrying about what's anticipated for "Idlewild."
"We've been doing it for 11 years, and we've won Grammys and we've had fans from on the street level to pop level ... we've kind of done it," Andre says.
Yet at the same time, he admits occasional worries that the OutKast's trademark adventurous sound may not appeal to the masses as much as it used to.
"I just had an idea for a song called 'Mid-Rap Crisis,' because I do feel like that," he chuckles. "Our music don't sound like what's going on."
"We have our own style and that is OutKastStonia," laughs Big Boi.
That unique style is hatched by increasingly separate partners. The pair typically record separately and even for this interview, spoke separately (travel commitments forced Big Boi to cancel a joint interview).
They share few scenes together in "Idlewild." People are so used to them working in parallel tandem that there was shock and surprise when the pair was featured rapping — together — on the same track, "Mighty O."
But both dismiss persistent rumors of a breakup, and seem bewildered that the talk refuses to die despite their denials.
"All them haters would love for us to break up ... sorry haters!" shouts Big Boi with a laugh. "We're not breaking up. We're still here, we've got a relationship that goes beyond music and film."
Like adult brothers, they have formed individual lives outside of their family unit. Both are fathers, and each has separate creative interests — Andre is developing a clothing line and has a Cartoon Network series set to debut this fall, along with his acting work. Big Boi is also focusing on acting, an upcoming solo record and his label, Purple Ribbon.
But OutKast is still their focus.
"We've had our battles, I mean, we've had times where I wanna just completely stop doing it, and he's still going, and he might not understand a certain decisions I've made," says Andre. "But at the end of the day, you have to remember that me and Big Boi, we were like homeboys, like brothers before we even wrote our first rap."
As for the next OutKast project, neither can say for sure when that will occur. But whatever shape it takes, they insist the musical and the personal duo of Big Boi and Andre will remain intact.
"We will always make music in some form. Even if, say, if Big Boi goes and does a solo album, I'm still producing on that album," insists Andre. "I think we will always do OutKast in some kind of way."