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Interview: Andre Benjamin at last

The Jimi Hendrix of hip-hop talks Atlanta rap, Adult Swim, and his own creative whims

André Benjamin has been hiding in his skin again.

Yet there are moments in Jimi: All Is by My Side when it's damn near impossible to separate the modern-day icon from the guitar legend he portrays in the John Ridley-directed biopic. And not just because 3 Stacks is a dead ringer for Jimi Hendrix. Beyond physical appearance, they share other traits: the quiet charisma, the uncompromising idealism, and an unmistakable sense of creative daring.

The film, which was made against all odds without dipping into any of Hendrix's unlicensed catalog, is a reminder that Benjamin remains an artist most intrigued by missions impossible. Ditto for Hendrix. But you really don't miss the music when you have the man himself to contend with.

The same can almost be said for Benjamin, whose unexpected return to the stage alongside his off-and-on partner-in-rhyme Big Boi became the biggest music story of 2014. They bring their 20th-anniversary tour home to Atlanta this week for three sold-out dates billed as OutKast #ATLast. It kicks off on Fri., Sept. 26, the same day that All Is by My Side debuts in theaters. In an exclusive 15-minute phoner with the hometown hero, Benjamin expounded on the global impact of Atlanta trap music, OutKast's Atlanta homecoming, Hendrix's humanity, and the ways in which his own celebrity can be a trap.

If it wasn't apparent before, it's obvious after watching the film that you and Hendrix are cut from a similar cloth, creatively speaking. How much of a Hendrix fan were you before this?

I was definitely a Hendrix fan, but I honestly didn't discover Hendrix until my late teens, early 20s. I think any artist after Hendrix is pretty much influenced by Hendrix. He was like a full package when it came to all of the goals that most artists want to reach: They kinda want to be fully engaged in their music, they want to make sure their style represents what the music is, and just kind of want to live the free life of a musician. And Hendrix had all of that. But yeah, I've been into him and I think people could hear and see some of his influence in early OutKast music as well.
Were you already proficient enough on guitar to play the role or did you have to bone up on your fingering?

I'm not a great guitar player, anyway, just kind of like a closet guitarist. But I'm a right-hand guitarist so everything that I've learned didn't matter 'cause I had to do it left-handed. So I had to completely start over almost.

Only thing that probably helped is knowing how I look on my right hand and trying to mimic that look on my left hand. It was basically finger choreographing, just to make it look like I was playing the right notes or playing the right chords. Cause I actually was not playing in the movie for real. We actually hired a guitarist to play. And I mimicked the audio.

We got a peek at some of his fatal flaws in the film. What about portraying him resonated with you?

It was just surprising to know that he was, you know, he was human. There's a part in the movie where he has to basically burn Eric Clapton. He goes up and kinda kills him on stage. And I read an article where he said that he regrets that he had to do it, but he said he knew that was his only way out so he had to go for it. He looked up to Clapton, but he had to make it. So he was like, "I had to go up there and burn him." But he felt bad about it.

In a way it reminds me of OutKast early on and you all having to challenge New York dominance.

Yeah, I mean in symbolism I think it says that. But I think even more particular it's probably more like when Lil Wayne went up against Jay-Z. 'Cause he was the top man at the time. If you're trying to make it, that's the fastest way to get the attention — to challenge the guy at the top, the greatest, or the perceived greatest at the time.

Even though he passed away from a drug overdose and choking, there's an interview where Hendrix was talking about his drug use and he said, "I used to think that I was made for these drugs but now I know I've taken entirely too many drugs."

So you kind of get a human side of him. I think those are things that are important. Just to know the normal stuff: He liked Bill Cosby comedy albums and he would sit and listen to them and that kind of stuff. That's just cool to know.

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In your New York Times interview, Jon Caramanica characterized you as a recluse. In a way it seems like you might get that tag because you aren't always doing what people wish you were doing. But do you see yourself as reclusive?

Uh yeah, somewhat. I don't get out much. Even before being an entertainer, I'm an only child. I've always kinda been off to myself, so I've always found a way to entertain myself. So as an adult I still go back to those things.

And then I think becoming an entertainer supports that because it's just a lot of energy when I go out. Even to do normal things. If I go to the grocery store, it's not just me going and picking up groceries and leaving. I have to engage, and I have no problem with that but sometimes it's just overwhelming. Depending on where you are sometimes people freak out, sometimes people scream, sometimes you may have to be in a grocery store 30-45 minutes more to take pictures. It's just different. I have to kind of be careful about when I go out and plan it. So I just don't get out as much and so it may be perceived as reclusive in that way.
Has living in Atlanta made that easier or harder?

Well, it's two-fold because I'm from Atlanta so it's normal. You may run into Jeezy one day, you may run into T.I. one day, you may run into Future one day, it's just that kind of city. But because it's my city, it's not as celebrity-driven or paparazzi-driven as L.A. or New York where there's an industry of people that just like to film and follow and harass certain artists. So it would make it kind of difficult living in L.A., which is something I'm not sure if I'm ready for. And I used to live in L.A., but it wasn't on the same level as OutKast after Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

I don't know if you got to see the recent VH1 special on Atlanta hip-hop.

No, I haven't, but I heard it was real, real good.

How do you feel about the state of Atlanta hip-hop and what it's become in the years since OutKast stepped onto the scene?

I think it's amazing that we're at this place where Atlanta is now totally influencing the rest of the world. Just simply look at trap music — it's everywhere. Like I can be in Japan or be in Norway. It's producers now that are not even from Atlanta, not even from that life, and they are trap music producers. It's almost like a whole new sound of music, like if it was like jazz or something. You don't have to necessarily be from Harlem or New Orleans to make jazz. So that's what's happening. And it's just come full circle, so I'm kind of smiling inside.

Because when we started it just wasn't like that. There wasn't global acceptance like that, so I'm happy that we're at a time when Atlanta can be accepted and even influence people that started the rap genre. When you're listening to New York music, you hear Atlanta's influence all over the place.

You recently talked about how nostalgia can be a "cage," but I think for a lot of people the upcoming OutKast #ATLast shows are all about reliving those early OutKast years.

I think it means something different that it's in Atlanta and I think the city is excited. We've never done three dates in the city before, so you know it should be pretty cool. I'm happy that people get the chance to see it. I think it's serving its purpose.

It's been cool to see the kinds of opening acts that you all have been curating for the Atlanta dates. Atlanta has, like you say, become the home of trap music but in a way it seems like there's not as much room for the weirdos.

See that's the cool thing about Atlanta — it is for weirdos. Because you got all different kinds of stuff coming out of Atlanta. You can have a Janelle Monáe, a Raury, you can have a Watch the Duck. That's one thing about the city — it's always been accepting of all kinds of styles. I think trap is kind of the prominent sound right now because it's just heavy, man. And people love it; we do love it. But I think Atlanta is one of those places where you can do anything, you know. And that's the cool thing about it.

What are you doing when you're not working?

I sketch. I design different products. I write still; I work on music. I don't watch a lot of TV. When I do it's pretty much Cartoon Network. I don't watch a lot of news, and I'm not really up on things, which I probably should be.

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Why Cartoon Network?

To me it's some of the best television on right now. I like the randomness that they have in between the shows. Adult Swim is really great. I think it's real forward television. It's honest. And I think sometimes with cartoons you get away with saying some honest things that people would probably trip out about if you were a human saying them. So when you watch "Family Guy," they don't hold back. Those are some of my favorite things.

But I'm just at this age right now trying to figure out what's the next thing, what's the next kind of dreamship to get on.

What are you leaning toward?

I can't really say. I haven't figured that out. I would like to do more music. I don't know which direction that will go. I've been thinking of going to school. I don't know.




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