The Secret History of Outkast’s ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below:’ the Last Truly Great Double Album
We break down the creation of Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below double album, through stories from many of its coveted collaborators
“All thanks due to the most high for this one, all day long,” declared Big Boi at the Staples Center in 2004. Outkast had just stepped on the Grammys stage to accept the Album of the Year award. “Music is rockin’ like never before.”
This is the same rapper who stood alongside his partner, André 3000, at The Source Awards in 1995, when the famous words “The south got something to say” were uttered to a hostile New York City crowd. With OutKast’s 2003 double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the south was finally heard by the world.
Nearly a decade deep into their professional careers, Big Boi and André 3000 had a firm reputation for delivering the unexpected. When fans grew to love the duo for playa anthems on 1994’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, 1996’s ATLiens followed up with themes of extraterrestrials and philosophy. The group dipped their toe into pop music on 1998’s Aquemini. And by 2000, the pop music doors were completely ripped off their hinges with the release of Stankonia.
Just when everyone seemed to have OutKast figured out, the two artists threw fans for a loop once again. The plan: For their fifth LP, both members would deliver solo albums, each highlighting the best of their individuality.
To this day, Big Boi’s career has always felt cast under the shadow of his outlandish partner-in-rhyme. Speakerboxxx saw the rapper coming into his own in a way that the world had never seen before. Big kept the OutKast spirit the two had built alive through both sonic and lyrical content. Cuts like “Ghetto Musick” and “The Rooster” were extensions of many sounds presented on the unapologetically funky Stankonia.
The album was a true Atlanta affair. Though an elder statesman in the southern scene, Big Boi looked into the future with open-mindedness and optimism, inviting then-newcomers like Ludacris, Lil Jon, and his own protégé Killer Mike to the party. That move signified an important “passing of the torch” moment.
The Love Below, on the other hand, completely ignored the notion of genres, instead prioritizing its narrative at the forefront. Three Stacks doubles down on his “Gangster of Love” persona, which is emphasized by the pink gun-toting cover. The album tells the story of a notorious lady-killer who finds a woman so perfect that he stops to question his ways.
Influences were vast, with everyone from early ’60s Beatles to a late ’80s Prince providing a creative spark. Genre classifications may be abandoned, yet The Love Below’s tight plot makes for a consistent listen. André’s introversion can be seen as an asset. The strive for independence is evident; he can be found playing a handful of instruments over the course of the 20 tracks.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was released on September 23, 2003 to massive acclaim. With the success of 50 Cent’s debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’ earlier that year, hip-hop was in a gangsta rap phase. In a true testament to their name, OutKast ignored the resurgence of street sounds and continued to move against the grain. Such strives paid off; Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is ones of the highest selling hip-hop albums of all-time (11x platinum and counting). The double LP would go on to join The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as the only two rap albums to win the coveted Album of the Year Grammy award.
On its 15th anniversary, we break down the creation of the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below through stories from many of its coveted collaborators.
Meet the Players & Poets
Rosario Dawson: The KIDS and 25th Hour actress dipped her feet into musical waters, providing spoken-word vocals on the ever-sultry “She Lives In My Lap” off of The Love Below.
Khujo Goodie: A Dungeon Family and Goodie Mob member who has also appeared on most of OutKast’s albums. Being a few years older than the pack, Khujo refers to himself as a “big bro” to Big and Dre.
Cee-Lo Green: A first-generation member of the Dungeon Family and Goodie Mob, who worked closely alongside the ‘Kast during the formative years of their respective careers. Many may also recognize Cee-Lo as the unforgettable voice behind Gnarls Barkley, who Cee-Lo reveals are close to wrapping up their third album. “[Me and Danger Mouse] are working on a Gnarls Barkley album…I’m talking about ten or twelve songs into it.”
Jonathan Mannion: One of hip-hop’s most iconic photographers. Mannion has shot the duo on a multitude of occasions and served as the photographer for the Speakerboxxx.
Norah Jones: Norah Jones can be found supplying soothing harmonies with 3 Stacks on The Love Below’s “Take Off Your Cool”
Jazze Pha: Though he got his career start not too long after OutKast, Jazze Pha began picking up significant traction as a producer shortly before Speakerboxxx/The Love Below came together. Pha can be heard singing background vocals on Speakerboxxx’s “Bowtie”
Neal Pogue: An audio engineer who worked on every single OutKast album. This time around, his duties consisted of mixing seven tracks for The Love Below side, including the smash single, “Hey Ya!”
Together and Apart
Every superhero needs an origin story. Fresh off the heels of Stankonia’s success, the duo took such an unprecedented approach for their fifth trek into the funkiverse.
Neal Pogue: Their manager at the time was trying to figure out how they could make an OutKast record because they were both going to do solo albums. But their manager had told them that it was bad timing to come out with solo albums at that moment. So he came up with the idea to do one album with two solo albums on it, which no one had ever done.
André 3000 [via Rolling Stone, 2004]: The Love Below was originally supposed to be a solo album. At the last minute, management and the record company said it wasn’t a good time to do that, so Big Boi did Speakerboxxx. But I was taking so long to finish The Love Below that he wanted to release that as a solo album. A lot of people don’t know the album almost wasn’t made.
The True Story Behind “Hey Ya!”
“Hey Ya!” is one of the most iconic songs of the 2000s. From its mod-style-inspired music video — which took home the 2004 BET Award for Video of the Year — to Polaroid issuing a statement to warn about the dangers of shaking “it like a Polaroid picture,” the song is a real staple of the period.
The genre-bending lead single was released on September 9th, 2003 alongside Big Boi and Sleepy Brown’s “The Way You Move.” Due to the fact that it didn’t fit any molds, “Hey Ya!” was able to qualify under a number of charts, appearing everywhere from Billboard’s Adult Top 40 to the US Alternative Songs chart. “Hey Ya!” would eventually top the Hot 100, where it sat at number one for a whopping nine weeks.
Cee-Lo Green: When I first heard “Hey Ya!” we were at Stankonia [studios] and I was like, “Damn, this is so dope.” But it wasn’t finished. It was called “The Ingredients of a Pimp.” That’s where that whole “Love Hater” concept derived from. So “Hey Ya!” was just a place marker because he had not yet found the words for a hook.
I knew the references inside of “Hey Ya!:” “But doooooes she really wanna but can’t stand to see me”…That’s The Beatles’ [“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”]!
You connect that to the video. It was kind of like a throwback to all of that Beatlemania, you feel me? So when that song was so successful, the way he was able to pull that in, that’s almost like a paperweight. It was so much weight of the efforts and the homage; it gave [the song] such a great chance at being the success that it was.
André 3000 [via NPR, 2014]: I had to tell Aretha Franklin that “Say A Little Prayer” had a lot to do with the song “Hey Ya!” They’re similar [time signatures]. It’s hard to explain, but listening to that song, the way the loop comes back around, is kinda how I devised “Hey Ya.” And I had to tell her that she is a big part of that song.
I remember finishing “Hey Ya!” and letting Big Boi and Killer Mike hear it. They were riding in the car and they were digging it…really hard. And I think Killer Mike wanted to rap on it at the time. I knew Killer Mike would kill it, but I knew it would make it a different kind of song. At that point, it would make it a rap song. And I didn’t want it to be a rap song cause I think…it would’ve been put in a different category. I would’ve liked to hear what a rhyme would sound like on that time signature.
Rap just wasn’t feeding me at that time. And I knew that I wanted to go beyond it, like the songs that influenced me. I wanted to try just other things. I know Killer would’ve killed it! But at that point, it would’ve been just another rap song.
It’s funny, when we put out “Hey Ya!” we didn’t even label it. We didn’t even tell the radio who it was. Because if we would’ve put OutKast on it at first it would’ve been judged differently. And I feel that way about if a rap was on it.
Khujo Goodie: “Hey Ya!” was crazy, man. I could remember Dre calling me. He was like “Whatchu think, man? I wanna sing, I wanna do something different, whatchu think?” I was like “Dre, man, do it! Don’t stop. Don’t hesitate. Do it, man!”
Neal Pogue: The only version I ever heard from the demo stage was when André had the first verse and the hook. That’s all he had on the song.
I just remember we were driving. It might have been on cassette because I remember us driving over Laurel Canyon in a little rented Mini Cooper and listening to all the demos for that album. I just remember him playing a lot of great stuff. Some were finished, some were just halfway mumbled type lyrics and stuff. But he had a lot of great ideas.
Speakerboxxx’s cover turns Big Boi’s iconic “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails” line into reality. Dressed in a fur coat and baggy jeans, Sir Lucious Left Foot epitomizes the word “Pimpin’.” After all, many of the album’s songs are told through the eyes of a procurer named Rooster.
The consciousness of Speakerboxxx and The Love Below serving as unique bodies of work came all the way down to their design. Rather than share the same photographer, Big Boi chose to recruit longtime collaborator Jonathan Mannion, while André ventured down a new path by way of fashion photographer Torkil Gudnason.
Jonathan Mannion: Big and I have a way of working together. He calls me up and he’s like “Where you at? Time to do it again. Come listen to the album.”
We go to the studio, I get a legal pad and he plays me the entire record from start to finish. I scribbled frantically: notes, things that came to my mind, words that I pick out in order to populate the visuals based on what he’s saying, which I find is the richest way to work with an artist. It’s not like, “Mannion, what are your ideas?”And I’m just pulling stuff out of the sky. It’s like: “Sit down, here’s what I’m talking about.” And then I almost illustrate the works, which is phenomenal.
It’s funny, I didn’t go as deep [in the] André 3000 side of things. Torkil Gudnason did. He wanted to go way more fashion-driven. I didn’t have the benefit of knowing what was happening, what was being created. I only had the benefit of Big Boi’s side and what he wanted to do. A lot of it was sort of individual components. We had a rooster on set because one of his songs was called “The Rooster.” We did a fake strip club, we had Ki Toy [Johnson] and her phenomenal body. It almost became like we were doing theatre. When you’re on stage, you can put a bench and a light pole that indicates that they’re in the park. That’s it, small elements that reveal the bigger picture.
[With] the Speakerboxxx cover, a lot of what was happening at the time was done in post-[production]. It was like, we’ll do the picture and you lean on a box and we drop in a bunch of speakers. I was like “Fuck that!” [Laughs] Let’s go get all of the speaker boxes. Literally, we scoured Atlanta and found like 15 different speakers. He was literally probably 8-feet high in the air, from head to floor. We had all of that and then we had all the crates of records that were from OutKast’s DJ [Cutmaster Swift]. He was like, “Yo, you could borrow crates, no problem!” We just sort of presented this story of him floating up high. He’s so little [Laughs] We wanted the scale to feel legit.
The thing around the Huey Newton sort of chair that’s on the cover: those are feather dusters! It’s like, how could we make this look more lavish and important? Feather dusters are all around the top because they had this sort of crazy plumage of feathers or whatever the hell it was. There were peacock feathers that were like, legit, and then the other ones that added a sort of texture were some sort of orangey brown bird.
Great Things Take Time
Believe it or not, “The Way You Move” actually started off as a bigger hit than “Hey Ya!” The Sleepy Brown-assisted song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 a full three weeks before the aforementioned companion release.
Although “Hey Ya!” would eventually become the more successful of the two, “The Way You Move” was still earth-shattering in its own right. At the time of its release, it broke the Hot 100 record for most weeks at number two (eight weeks), before finally hitting the top spot on February 14th 2004, just in time for Valentine’s Day. The club-ready single peaked at number 22 on the Hot 100’s 2000s Decade-End Chart.
Big Boi [via Red Bull Radio, 2018]: Carl Mo is a producer from Atlanta, so we had mutual friends. I had a pool party at my house one day and he had a skeleton beat. I still have it, I have all the skeleton versions to the original songs. We were playing it at the pool party and Sleepy Brown started humming a melody to the song. We were like, “Aw shit, we gotta record this!” Mind you, I had that beat for like four, five years and just at a pool party, his head came up and we were like, “We’re gonna record it.”
So, we got to the studio and we just started going crazy. Debra Killings played the bass on that record. She’s actually the female voice on all of our records. The female on “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” she’s in my band to this day. She came in and I start putting ink to pad. Then I had this guitar player by the name of Zaza. He passed away like a couple of years ago. He was a very special guy.
We just had this hodgepodge of characters that would come in and sprinkle their flavor on whatever we were working on. Like, I’m called The King of Putting Motherfuckas On! I would give anybody a shot, you know what I’m sayin’? Even if you’re uninvited. If you just so happen to be in a room and be like, “Hey, you know I got a violin in the car…let’s try that out.” You know what I’m sayin’? That’s how the music comes out. I like to say the music is always organically created, never genetically modified or contrived, know what I mean?
I sat on the beat for years and it came together in one night. Put it all together. It’s very much a staple in the OutKast catalog.
“Reset” was a Dungeon Family Classic
Throughout their respective careers, OutKast and Goodie Mob were some of the closest collaborators. The two groups spent the better half of their teen years recording in “The Dungeon,” a creative hub located in the basement of producer Rico Wade’s mother’s house. It was there that the southern spitters would develop their signature sounds and an undeniable camaraderie amongst one another, with the watchful eyes of mentors Organized Noize — Wade, Brown, and Ray Murray— creating a one-of-a-kind work environment.
Flash forward a decade, family was still a priority. Following Cee-Lo Green’s sudden departure from Goodie Mob in 2000 and Khujo Goodie’s subsequent car accident, the group seemed to be in a sour state. Nonetheless, when the call to collaborate came, both adamantly answered, with Big Boi hand picking his longtime companions for one of Speakerboxxx’s most introspective tracks: “Reset.”
Cee-Lo Green: I got the invite to come and be a part of it. Typically, I would go in and I would pick something, but this time Big just had me in mind. I think he just felt really strongly that this was a record that would just suit me, and he was right. When you’re presented with an ultimatum like that, you just want to deliver, you know what I mean?
Of course, any OutKast opportunity is a brand opportunity to give your best and represent our collective. I just definitely wanted to step up and deliver. That’s really what the simple motivation is, and then I just began to reflect on things that were immediate in my everyday life.
Sometimes, you’re motivated by the things you get changed because the past is permanent. If you had an opportunity to go back and rectify some of those things, I’m sure that we all would do some things differently. That’s the moment you gotta be imaginative or if I could settle everything, how would I go about it? Every day is an opportunity to improve. I look objectively and optimistically into each new day and it’s just something that I practice subconsciously, or at least I try to.
I was in a situation where I was married. We had a son together. I had two adopted daughters from her previous relationship. I always try and represent that pseudo maturity that essence of what you were kinda able to identify with as that Dungeon Family sound. We were just young men trying to do right by our opportunities, our voices, and our talents.
Khujo Goodie: I think I had just got back on my feet after I had my leg amputated. I was able to write that rhyme. Big Boi, like he always do, he gave me the opportunity to get in there and be a part of history. I was so happy that my little brother still felt that way about his big brother. Still being able to have that confidence in his big brother to know that he would pull out a good 16.
That particular song definitely fit the way my life was going at the time because I had to reset, man. I had to go back in and rethink some things. I had to reevaluate myself, and I had to get back in there, get back on my job.
Cee-Lo wasn’t on the song yet and I think that Big Boi was already on the song and the hook was too. Once I heard the hook, I started vibin’ with it. I was like, “Man, this shit would go perfect with what I’m going through right now.”
Cee-Lo Green: I think in some type of roundabout way, it was kind of an opportunity for us to all showcase together. Me and Goodie, we were at industrial odds, not internal odds. We were never uncool, we were always family. With family, you have that sibling rivalry, that internal riffing and that’s to be expected. We’re all men, all individuals. they have different opinions, priorities, different focuses, different flaws.
Khujo Goodie: You know how the media does it. The same way they perpetuated that East Coast/West Coast thing, and that got outta hand! We lost two of the greatest MCs in the world.
I just think it was totally different with us cause Dungeon Family is family. Family don’t always get along all the time. The good thing about family is that we know that we family. We know that this is something bigger than that. If it was some type of beef like that, Cee-Lo wouldn’t have even got on the song! All the time, you gotta put aside the bullshit, man, so that you could get greater things accomplished.
The Coolest Collaborator
It’s hard to imagine a time in which André 3000 wasn’t a mythical figure. Before his current reclusive state, 3 Stacks was known to get down in the studio with a select few, including work with the likes of Gwen Stefani and Q-Tip during this particular period.
However, Mr. Benjamin has never treated duets a dime a dozen. It has always been very important for him to connect with people who can only strengthen a song even further. For The Love Below, the power of collaborations came from those who were able to help accentuate the album’s theatrical aura.
Neal Pogue: I was always closer to Dre. Me and Big never worked on a personal level, not unless it was an OutKast album. I never worked with him on his solo albums or anything. Dre to this day still hasn’t put out a solo record. But he is putting out a single soon. I didn’t work on it, but he’s putting out a single. It should be coming out soon. But I never really worked with Big on a personal level, it was always Dre. That’s the reason why I had worked on The Love Below side.
I think that we try different things. I think that we always try to push the envelope, and that’s what we have in common. We always try to bring something new to the business rather than the same old thing. As far as mixing, I’m always trying to bring something different than other mixes. I never want it to just be a straight mix. I wanna add certain delays and pan tricks, you know. If you listen to all of my mixes with OutKast, I’m always trying different tricks and breaks. You know, breaking down different phrases and stuff just to make a point and emphasize certain things that they’re saying. To put it in a nutshell, trying to create more dynamics.
Norah Jones [via Billboard, 2010]: I knew who OutKast were and I really liked their music, but I would never have guessed that they knew who I was. André 3000 sent me [“Take Off Your Cool”] but there wasn’t any singing on it yet so I didn’t know the vocal melody or the words. When we got to the studio he said, “Give me a minute.” and he did all his vocals, a lot of layers, a lot of harmonies. He did it very quickly. I don’t know how much he had prepared or if it was mostly improvised, but he definitely had a clear picture of what he wanted.
Rosario Dawson [via MTV News, 2004]: [André 3000] called me to come in and do the [“She Lives in My Lap”] music video, and then I ended up in the studio singing on it a little bit. And then it was like, “Well, now it’s not gonna be like a music video anymore, it’s gonna be like a Michael Jackson “Thriller” mini-movie.” Now it’s turning into [Idlewild]…I think André 3000 is absolutely remarkable and really, really incredible, just beautiful”
(Editor’s Note: In the film’s final product 3 years later, Paula Patton ended up in Dawson’s Idlewild role.)
The Legend Lives on
OutKast created one of the most defining albums of the 2000s by staying true to themselves. The idea for two solo albums allowed Big Boi and André 3000 to explore their inner depths like never before.
On Speakerboxxx, Big Boi does a remarkable job at staying grounded in his southern roots while opening the doors for the next generation. The album set the pace for his solo career, which although has never quite gotten the shine it deserves, has allowed the rapper to serve as one of few of his era who displays significant artistic development with each new album.
The Love Below shows the payoffs experimentality may have to offer. Its venture into 3 Stacks’ sensitive side continues to inspire artists left and right, with emotional crossover albums like Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak and Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love serving as some of the clearest examples.
In many ways, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below felt like the beginning of the end of this beloved duo. Having the two detached allows fans to further elaborate on what they appreciate about their individuality, along with further identifying what makes OutKast so special as a duo.
André 3000 [via Rolling Stone, 2004]: Norah Jones called me the night before [the Grammy Awards] and said, “Are you ready?” I said, “I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” It was stressful, because a lot of attention was on us. I don’t like that. The best moment was when we won “Album of the Year” and Big Boi gave me a hug. The embrace lasted five — eight, nine no, maybe fifteen seconds.
Neal Pogue: It was a pivotal time in music. It was after 2001, after the Twin Towers and all that. A lot of people were in a certain mindframe, so I think OutKast was trying to bring something new.
I think it was a genius move to bring a double album to two solo albums. That was something that no one’s ever done and I think that right there was a pivotal time in music. And to hear both of their personalities, I think it really showed the world who they were, being that Big Boi was thinking one way and Dre another way. I think that was really good to show themselves.
Jonathan Mannion: I think every single time out, OutKast always sets the bar in kind of a different way than you could say Jay[-Z] set the bar. I think the bar that was set with OutKast everytime was based on creativity. It was constantly being more creative, constantly pushing the borders of the box that’s called hip-hop.
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was uniquely in their own lane. They delivered magic, man. I mean, “Hey Ya!” was on that album and the video where he’s playing all of the different roles, it just feels good, man! [Laughs] Every time around, it feels good. I’m honored to be part of the creation of this [album]. Even though I didn’t touch the Dre side of it, this is still them as a collective and I’m making contributions that are meaningful ones because the visuals do put a stamp on. You can’t take away the visuals from the music.
Jazze Pha: The records they released, from “Hey Ya!” to “The Way You Move” were such great records. Everyone was so interested in André doing that singing and all that stuff, too. It was just something different. It was so pop, so crossover and so worldly.
I just remember riding around, hearing people playing “Hey Ya!” or “The Way You Move” Well, mostly “The Way You Move” because it was such a radio record. “I like the wayyyyy you move” We talk about and people that really ride around and play their records, music loud.
Cee-Lo Green: They don’t make physical copies of physical CDs anymore. So basically, streaming is just like, “We like this a lot” It’s like analytics. I don’t know what else actually did Diamond or better. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will probably be one of the last albums in history that will have moved physically over 10 million copies. That ain’t never gonna happen again.
Khujo Goodie: That was the biggest thing it Atlanta, man, because along with Goodie Mob, those guys are the pioneers of Atlanta, Georgia music! They’re the pillars. Just to have some guys representing where you stay, it wasn’t nothing but love when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped, man. And you got a double album, that was just icing on the cake right there!
Big Boi [via MTV News, 2017]: When you’re inside of [the creative process], you don’t know [the impact], you know what I mean? You just go in and try to create something new. One thing that we do is never revisit what we’ve done, although we stand on it and we know it’s there.
I would never go back and try to create a song like “The Rooster”, or “Unhappy”, or “The Way You Move” — That’s too easy, you know what I’m saying? That’s what I could dig about the younger generation. I like to see who’s gonna play it safe and who’s gonna evolve into that other thing.
Mr. Wavvy is a music journalist born and raised in Montreal, Canada. During winter, his city can quite literally get “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails” You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.