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How a pop-up ad brought Big Boi and Phantogram together

October 21, 2015

Big Grams talk the boundary-pushing bonding that makes up their debut album.

How do a hip-hop icon and a prominent electronica outfit kick off a studio session? If you’re Big Grams — the new collaboration between Outkast’s Big Boi and New York-based duo Phantogram — you begin by getting things animated.

“We started off by watching a bunch of old psychedelic cartoons together,” says Phantogram’s Josh Carter. “We’d work on music and talk about ideas with the sound off on the cartoons, just coming up with these crazy visual ideas and try and make something that flows nicely.”

Big Grams’ self-titled debut, released last month on Epic Records, brings together two genre worlds that only seem far apart if you haven’t paid much attention to either artist’s previous work. On their first two albums, Phantogram’s Carter and Sarah Barthel crafted synthesizer soundscapes punctured by beats that wouldn’t feel at all out of place on a hip-hop record. Big Boi’s solo material has also consistently rebutted the unfair (but common) belief that he’s Outkast’s less-adventurous half.

In fact, it was Big’s curiosity that led to connecting with Phantogram in the first place.

“I Shazzamed one of their songs,” he says. “It was a pop-up ad on my computer: [the song] ‘Mouthful of Diamonds.’ I put it on bigboi.com as my jam of the week and then Sarah got in contact with me and sent me some vinyl. I checked out their record, Eyelid Movies, and thought it was dope.”

The three finally connected in person at the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco and, hitting it off, agreed to work together on material for what would become Big Boi’s second solo album, 2012’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. The sessions went so well that Big ended up including three tracks from the sessions on his album, and the artists decided to make a full-fledged collaborative project.

“Sometimes we’d work in the same room — Big would come out to LA, or we’d go out to Stankonia [Studios] — or we’d do it via files,” says Barthel.

The material on the seven-song Big Grams record spans a wide range of sounds, from the slinky earworm “Lights On” to the harder-edged “Born to Shine,” which features Run the Jewels. (The record’s other guest collaborator of note is Skrillex, who contributes to its final track “Drum Machine.”)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57W1c19huNM

When asked about the common ground between Big Grams’ three members, Big Boi says it’s about passion and vision.

“We’re all into making music that has no boundaries,” he explains. “When we get in there and experiment, we try and tap into new territory. It’s been turning out great, you know? It’s good to be in a room with two other people who push boundaries and really think of music as a life form, and you just gotta put life into it.”

“It’s not a Big Boi record, it’s not a Phantogram record,” says Carter. “It’s three best friends, three creative minds just coming together and making music for fun.”

The trio just made their proper live debut at last weekend’s Treasure Island Music Festival, and while more live plans are in the works, they also say that we can expect more music from the collaboration in the future.

“We’ve got a bunch of songs and ideas that we’ll definitely continue to work on and release as soon as we can,” says Bartel.

“And the three of us as artists have a well of untapped ideas we haven’t even gotten to yet,” adds Carter. “There’s going to be plenty.”

Big Boi concurs: “Definitely.”

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