Grammy's Fun Couple

updated 02/16/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

It comes as no great shock that a shared fashion sense helped OutKast's Antwan "Big Boi" Patton and Andre "3000" Benjamin bond as 10th graders attending Tri-Cities High, a performing-arts school in suburban Atlanta. What is surprising, though, is what that style was. "We were preps," recalls Big Boi. "We wore loafers, argyle socks and V-neck sweaters with T-shirts. We were new to the school and we didn't know anybody."

Their look and popularity have amped up considerably since then, as the fur-loving Big Boi, 29, and the wig-wearing Dre, 28, have moved to the head of the hip-hop class with their sixth release, the double disc Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Since hitting stores last September, the outrageously funky collection (essentially solo CDs by Big Boi and Dre packaged together) has sold 3.5 million copies and spent seven weeks at No. 1, while "Hey Ya!" and "The Way You Move" simultaneously occupied the Top 2 positions on the Billboard singles chart, a feat last accomplished by the Bee Gees in 1978. With six nominations and a performance, they're primed to be the It boys of the Grammys on Feb. 8. That should inspire even more fans to "shake it like a Polaroid picture," to borrow the catchphrase from "Hey Ya!" that even presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark has quoted on campaign stops.

"They have something that's totally their own. I really respect that," says No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, who recruited Dre to help produce her side project, an album due this summer. Says rapper LL Cool J: "They've made their fans feel like it's okay to be yourself and given them a feeling of being free."

Until they met and began rapping together, neither Big Boi nor Dre (who also plays guitar and saxophone on The Love Below) had dreamed of a music career. "I wanted to be a child psychologist or play football," says Big Boi, the oldest of five children of Rowena Patton, 44, a retail supervisor, and Tony Kearse, a former Marine Corps sergeant who died last February. Says Dre, the only child of Lawrence Walker, a collections agent, and Sharon Ben-jamin-Hodo, 48, a real estate agent: "I thought I'd be an architect, but I didn't like math."

Dre dropped out after the 11th grade to pursue music full-time, while Big Boi stayed in school. During that period the pair remained partners in rhyme, writing raps and putting together makeshift tapes until they hooked up with some local producers who also worked with fellow Atlanta-based act TLC. Their big break was an audition for Antonio "LA" Reid, who signed OutKast to a contract in 1993 and oversaw the group's 1994 platinum debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. More hit albums followed, including 2000's Stankonia, which won Big Boi and Dre two Grammys and featured the smash "Ms. Jackson." Dre cowrote that song after the breakup of his two-year relationship with singer Erykah Badu, with whom he has a 6-year-old son, Seven. "It was about us not being together [anymore] and thinking, 'Well, what does Erykah's mom think?'" explains the still-single Dre, who splits his time between Atlanta and L.A. and shares custody of Seven with Badu. "We laugh and joke about it now. Her mom will still say, 'I should be getting paid for that song.'"

If future OutKast hits riff on play-dates and carpools, there's a good reason. Despite the flashy pop-star trimmings, "I'm a soccer dad," says Big Boi, who lives in Fayetteville, Ga., with his three children, daughter Jordan, 8, and sons Bamboo, 4, and Cross, 3. Still, "that was funny when this album came out, because I'd go to Bamboo's soccer games, and other parents would be like, 'What the hell?'"

Fans might have the same response to the persistent rumors of the band's demise, given the success of their "solo" albums. But both men insist their connection still runs deep. "He's just like my brother," says Big Boi. "I'm his kid's godfather; he's my kids' godfather. Our mamas [hang out] together."

"We're not breaking up," says Dre, who has also dabbled in acting, making his debut in last year's Hollywood Homicide and recently nabbing a role in the upcoming Get Shorty sequel Be Cool. "But we're most definitely growing up." Indeed they are. "Two of my kids have birthdays in February," Big Boi says, "and I'm trying to book birthday parties around the Grammys."

Chuck Arnold. Kristin Harmel in Atlanta, Marisa Laudadio in Los Angeles and Laura Downey in New York City

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