Steps to Stankonia: OutKast’s hard work and careful cultivation of an audience have led to unprecedented​ Grammy nominations

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OutKast, the ambitious and irresistible Atlanta-based rap duo, may become the first hip-hop group to win the prestigious album of the year and record of the year awards at the 44th annual Grammys Wednesday night. (The show airs at 8 p.m. on CBS.)

“Stankonia,” the pair’s 3.8 million-selling album, spawned five nominations in total.  It succeeds as a sumptuous blend of spirited and often spiritual lyrics with ’70s funk and soul, street-tough hip-hop, guitar-squalling rock, and edgy electronica.

A win by OutKast in the top awards is a long shot. (U2 and Bob Dylan are considered the favorites.) But even the nominations are a sign that the staid National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and its 13,000 voting members have recognized OutKast’s innovative, chance-taking music.

Like black music trailblazers Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince, OutKast — flamboyant Andre “Dre” Benjamin, 26, of Stone Mountain and grounded, street-savvy Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, 27, of Fayetteville — hasn’t so much targeted an audience as created one.

Benjamin, who has been known to sport skyscraper-like platform boots, faux-fur balloon pants, and back-of-the-thigh-length platinum wigs, has been likened to Hendrix by photographer Michael Lavine, who lensed the “Stankonia” album cover and also has done photos of Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, and Cher.

“Dre has the best style of anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Lavine says.

The low-key Patton is as eclectic with his musical tastes, which range from late soul savant Curtis Mayfield to British pixie Kate Bush.

The story of “Stankonia,” the pair’s fourth album, is the tale of two partners ready to stake their future on challenging how rap is done.

It is also about how their label, Arista Records, headed by a hungry new president, was able to market the album so that it drew fans from across the pop music spectrum: droopy-trouser-wearing hip-hop heads, silk shirt-clad R&B lovers; pierced and tattooed rock fiends, and dewy-eyed teen-pop disciples.

It’s a story of how life became art; how art — even in these musically conservative times — became commerce; and commerce circularly laid the groundwork for a potentially historic display of artistic acclaim.

The album’s life began in March 1998, when Benjamin and Patton purchased the studio, located off Northside Drive, where most of the album was recorded. (It had been owned by faded R&B star Bobby Brown.)

They christened the studio “Stankonia,” which Benjamin created by combining a slang synonym for funky — “stank”— with “Plutonia,” the title of a poster depicting a futuristic city that hangs in the rapper’s bedroom.

It was to be one of the first albums released by Arista with L.A. Reid as president. The former Atlantan took over the top spot at the label after its founder, industry mogul Clive Davis, was unceremoniously ousted by the head of Arista’s parent company, BMG. He desperately needed a hit.

“It was a great way to say, ‘Look, I’ve arrived and here are the goods,’ ” says Reid, who initially signed the group as head of a former Atlanta-based Arista subsidiary, LaFace Records.

Recording started in spring 1999 and lasted for about a year. Patton kept his base at the studio; Benjamin largely worked at home, crafting beats and noodling around with an acoustic guitar. One of the songs the novice player crafted on his newfound toy turned into OutKast’s biggest hit to date, “Ms. Jackson.”

The tune is a musical apology to the maternal grandmothers of their children or, as Benjamin puts it, “baby’s momma’s mommas.” It reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and is responsible for three of the pair’s five Grammy nominations.

It was inspired by problems that Benjamin was having with his ex-girlfriend, acclaimed R&B singer Erykah Badu, the mother of his son.

The warm mid-tempo tune let him express unspoken feelings: “I probably would never come out and tell Erykah’s mom, ‘I’m sorry for what went down.’ But music gives you the chance to say what you want to say. And her mom loved it. She’s like, ‘Where’s my publishing check?’ ”

But not every song came as easily. The troubles started when Benjamin refused to rap on a number of cuts. “The problem with this project became that Dre got bored with rap,” says OutKast’s manager, Michael “Big Blue” Williams. “That’s when we all got nervous.”

“It sounds funny, but I was almost trying to make an un-hip-hop album,” says Benjamin. He eventually solved his artistic dilemma by rapping with singing and eventually created the album’s distinctive melange of rapid-fire rhyming and soulful croons.

The album was completed midsummer. Reid started employing every new tool at his disposal in order to have press, video and radio outlets on his side. In August 2000, he began personally playing “Stankonia” for key magazine editors in his New York office. Soon the group was featured in Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Vibe, and GQ, among others.

The two most important video outlets — the urban-oriented BET and the all-encompassing youth culture behemoth MTV — came on board from the start, largely due to a splashy, expensive video for “Stankonia’s” first single, “B.O.B.”

“Our audience really gravitated toward them,” says Tom Calderone, MTV’s senior vice president for music and talent programming. “They said, ‘Whoa, this is something different.’ ”

Radio proved a trickier sell, primarily because of the group’s insistence on the edgy “B.O.B.” as the first single.

But when Arista issued the more format-friendly “Ms. Jackson” to radio one week before the album’s release, the response was concussive. “Everyone knew from that moment that this was going to be a huge project,” says Shanti Das, the group’s former label product manager.

Meanwhile, songs from the still-unreleased album made their way onto Napster, the online song-swapping service.

Das cannily targeted those who were downloading the music.

“We advertised all across the country on traditionally European American college campuses,” she said. “We also targeted alternative press [and] skateboarding magazines because we knew the record would be attractive to that audience.”

On Oct. 31, 2000, “Stankonia” arrived in stores and sold 525,844 copies in its first week, more than OutKast had ever sold in a week before.

“Stankonia” racked up a newsstand’s worth of critical kudos. In February 2001, “Stankonia” and “Ms. Jackson” were voted best album and single in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop poll of the nation’s music critics, beating releases by press darlings Radiohead and P.J. Harvey.

The Grammys were a different matter. “Stankonia” was released just outside the qualifying time for the 2000 awards. The band, its management and the label had to devise a plan to remain visible so that academy members didn’t forget about them.

One way was through extensive touring, first on their own “Stank Love” tour, then on the summer alternative-music festival Area: One. “I looked for opportunities to get them in front of a different audience,” says Williams. “The reality is that your urban musicians don’t vote in the Grammys.”

The group also put together a greatest hits collection, “Big Boi and Dre Present . . . OutKast,” including “B.O.B.” and “Ms. Jackson,” to sustain interest in the year-old “Stankonia” and keep the group on the charts during the Grammy voting period, which began Nov. 11.

The 2001 Grammy nominations were announced Jan. 4, 2002. “Stankonia” was nominated for album of the year and best rap album. “Ms. Jackson” was nominated for record of the year, best rap performance by a duo or group, and best short form video.

The sales, the critical praise, and the Grammy nominations combined to put OutKast, at least for a while, at the peak of the world of pop.

On Feb. 2, 2002, when final Grammy ballots were due, OutKast attended a celebrity-packed Super Bowl bash in New Orleans. “Bono and the Edge [from U2] and [country diva] Wynonna Judd came through and rushed over to say, ‘What’s up’ to Dre,” says Williams. “Other rock stars get it and are fans of theirs.”

He thinks OutKast represents this year’s “the cool vote.” The band members are philosophical about the possibility of coming home empty-handed. “A Grammy never made or broke us,” says Patton. “We’re all about the music.”

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