Little-known fact: In the late ’80s, Prince was reportedly lined up to play blues legend Robert Johnson in a biopic called The Robert Johnson Story. Instead there was Graffiti Bridge, the Purple Rain sequel that went bust and neutered his Hollywood flirtations forevermore. Eight years back, André Benjamin starred in his own cinematic bellyflop, the OutKast musical, Idlewild. But two weeks ago, the 39-year-old MC rebounded in the pitch-perfect role of young guitar god Jimi Hendrix in director John Ridley’s indie biopic, Jimi: All Is by My Side.
Sidestepping Hendrix estate restrictions on the use of any original music from classics like Are You Experienced, Electric Ladyland or anything else, the film zeroes in on the rocker’s pre-fame days in Swinging London circa 1966-67. On a break from the OutKast Festival Tour—Big Boi and André 3000’s first live shows since 2007—Dre made a promotional pit stop in Manhattan last Friday, talking to EBONY.com about Hendrix’s impact, interracial dating, OutKast and the ATL.
EBONY: In the film, Jimi Hendrix is physically abusive to girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. Were you aware of that aspect of Hendrix before you took the role?
André 3000: I did not know about that. John Ridley, his research in the film was like phenomenal. So he definitely researched all the material, and I mean, it’s documented. You can look it up yourself to see. I mean, Hendrix got arrested multiple times. So it’s not a thing we’re trying to sensationalize, but it is a thing. So I can’t sit up here and say our scene is completely true. But just research it yourself and you’ll see.
Artists, man, we human and I know in a biopic, I wanna see the human side of people. People, sometimes they don’t wanna hear the whole side, because it tears down on your kinda perfect image of a person. I remember at one point in time I heard things about Martin Luther King, his personal life. You may not wanna hear it. But at the same time, I do wanna hear it. I wanna hear his true struggle. I wanna hear everything.
And in this biopic, we made sure we pulled out things that were true to life, things that made him more human, his insecurities. He wasn’t as confident to start off. He came from a troubled background. His dad would hit him. His dad was a certain kinda way with his mom. So I definitely don’t condone those actions. Things happen in people’s life that makes them do or act out a certain kinda way. And I think in biopics, I think there needs to be more truth in ’em.
EBONY: You’ve been playing guitar for a few years. Is there a Hendrix song you can play from beginning to end?
André 3000: I can’t play not one Hendrix song. It’s funny, because I play guitar, but I never even attempt to… Nah, I tried to play maybe the simple ones like “If 6 Was 9” and that kinda thing. “Manic Depression.” But I don’t even try to mess ’em up [laughter].
EBONY: How do you think Hendrix impacted the image of the Black man stylistically? He predates both Prince and Lenny Kravitz, and all three seem to have had an impact on you as Black male fashion icons.
Andre 3000: I think you gotta realize what time it was when Hendrix left New York. I mean, Hendrix wasn’t always the most stylish guy in the world when he first left New York. People used to jones Hendrix about his clothes because he always had like old dated stuff because he didn’t have money. It wasn’t until he got to London and got around the women who took him around to these shops where the Rolling Stones were shopping. And there was Swinging London, so he had all these new designers making all these flamboyant clothes during the time. And it’s just that time, so it was like, if Jimi was born right now and he was a hipster. You just kinda get into what’s going on.
Everybody around the time kinda dressed in a certain kinda way, so Hendrix was just kinda falling in line. But yeah, it’s been a long line of it. But I think it just represented a certain freedom, and I think people love to see it. Especially as a Black man, you’re already kinda like in a cage in a lot of ways. So when you completely go against the grain and your look, it makes you feel good to kinda see it.
It’s funny, a friend of mine recently turned me onto this Love documentary, Arthur Lee, and Love was before Hendrix. So you see it there too. He was even before; he was wearing cool stuff, bobs and all this kinda stuff. Yeah man. And I think the freedom is what people kinda get into. It’s kinda like an extreme version. Like a lash-out. Almost saying like “fu*k y’all.” And I think that’s attractive to ’em when we say “fu*k y’all.”
EBONY: Growing up in the 1980-90s, your blackness was called into question fooling around with White girls. Was it the same for you?
André 3000: When I was younger, of course you have the pressure from the 'hood, and we came up—I’m 39—so we came up in an age where your blackness meant just “stay Black, stay Black, stay Black.” Which I understand understanding your background and understanding your blackness. But I think it’s so wrong to kinda say, “just cut yourself off from everybody else.” And I remember actually saying the lyrics on my very first album that were like anti-White girl lyrics. And I feel so shi**y about it now, which is crazy. Because one day I was coming out a club and this White girl, she comes up to me and comes right in my face, like in a seductive way, and starts singing those lyrics to me. And then she’s like, “What do you think now?”
And this was way after I kinda ventured into… the loveness of White women. [laughter] But yeah, it’s actually stupid. I mean, we all people. I’m kinda glad most of us are past that point. But my kid, his generation, interracial is not a thing at all. Sexuality is not a thing at all. They just don’t… It’s almost like, are we still talking about that? And I love it that I can see the progression in this generation. So, yeah, I’m glad that most of us have gotten past that point.
EBONY: What’s your favorite Hendrix song at the moment?
André 3000: Right now, I would have to say “Drifting.” You just have to check it out, man. It sounds like water. Then there’s another track, it’s like a rarity, it’s “Can You See Me?” And it’s a recording from him in some club in London, like in 1965, ’66. It’s like a bootleg recording, but it’s loud. It’s wild, all over the place, but it’s the best recording of that song. But it’s the London recording. The live version.
EBONY: How was last month’s homecoming OutKast show in ATL?
André 3000: Well, show-wise, it didn’t feel that different as a performer. But it just felt great to look out in the crowd and see Atlanta faces, to see your city skyline, to see the Omni hotel with my mom, she used to work at that hotel in the kitchen. So I’m sitting up here looking at this and I’m like, “Wow, this is amazing.” And just to feel the city come out for three days.
But I’d been riding that high since we announced that we were doing a show and it sold out in 30 minutes and we had to end up making it three shows. So I’ve been riding that wave since then, but performing wise, it was like clockwork. ’Cause we’ve had some great shows on this festival run, so it was just kinda in line with what we were doing.
EBONY: How would you say Atlanta has changed?
André 3000: I don’t know if it’s changed in a negative way. I think it’s just moved on. I think you got younger faces, you got the kids growing up in the city now. I think it’s a great city still. Traffic is bad. They’re building a lot of corporate businesses around Little Five Points so it’s a little bit different in that way. But Little Five Points is still a great part of town. East Atlanta is still a great part of town.
I think I love it because Atlanta is becoming more accepting of its diversity in music. You can have trap on one side and artists like Rory on the other side, then you can have these cool indie bands on another side. So it’s like Atlanta is like a hodgepodge kinda city. It’s not like a one-track city in that way. So if it’s changed, it’s changed in growth. I can’t say it’s changed in a, “Aww, Atlanta ain’t the same.”
I guess the one thing I kinda hate about Atlanta that’s changed is, after that Ray Lewis shooting in Buckhead, they shut the city down. The city used to go until 8 o’clock in the morning before that. And now, they shut everything down at 3. So it’s like, it’s not the same city. So the curfew is sorta messed up.
EBONY: Tell me about the outfits you’ve done for the tour, with the different sayings on the front.
André 3000: Yeah, I come up with the sayings every show. It was a gradual thing. It started off as symbols at first. I think the first symbol was an X. And then I think I wanted to do more symbols, and I was thinking, “Well, nah, the symbols may take people too long to understand what I’m trying to say.” So I was like, you know, let me just get straight to the point, and just start putting complete billboards, just plain and simple, to the point.
And it’s been fun, I think that’s probably the most fun parts of the tour to me, to figure out what’s gon’ go on the suits.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.