Every few months, there’s another viral tweet about a musician doing something: Big Boi bringing his pet owls to the studio, Twista mastering the art of ventriloquism, Redman flying through the air as a certified skydiver, and—perhaps the most recent development in artists expanding their horizons—T-Pain purposefully drifting across a parking lot in a car he built himself.
These side quests usually catch fans off guard, as they wonder how one-half of OutKast manages to look after four massive birds with his busy schedule, or why T-Pain buys old Nissans in his spare time.
After topping the Billboard Hot 100, securing their names as musical innovators, and collecting enough plaques to fill up any of the homes that Lil Jon renovates in his new HGTV show, it may be that interior design, releasing cookbooks, dreaming of opening a pet shop, or hopping behind the wheel is just as rewarding as the adrenaline of a packed concert. That’s what Lil Jon, Kelis, Big Boi, and T-Pain spend their time doing—and all for different reasons. With their help, we’re exploring the art of the side quest.
“We’re always growing and learning every day,” Lil Jon says. “And we are maturing as artists. We start young and then we get older and we find that we have a passion for other things.”
“It’s great that we can explore and do some different things, because some people just get stuck in the rut and do the same job every day,” he continues. “Never go on vacation, just the same routine for their entire life. We can turn to a second career.”
As some musicians find time for second careers, perhaps the most talked-about hobby of any rapper belongs to Big Boi’s title of pet dad. The Dungeon Family mainstay has loved animals for as long as he can remember, or at least since his grandfather would let him and his brothers look after his German Shepherd puppies, he tells us.
These days, however, Big Boi is the owner of four owls (Hootie, Simon, Whodini, and Tula; “That’s enough for right now,” he says), 40 to 50 French Bulldogs, a pet tiger Bodhi who stays at a zoo, and some fish friends as well. His massive collection of pets uses his just-as-massive 40 acres of land in Atlanta. So while his love for creatures has been ever-present, Big Boi knows it might catch others off guard, and he’s seen it first hand. “People get a chance to get a glimpse into your personal side, and of course they’re gonna be confused,” he explains over Zoom.
“You can go back as far as the early OutKast albums. We had the pitbulls, then we had the frenchies and stuff like that,” he says. “It’s just a cool thing to have quality animals, and you can create something so beautiful that can be an extension of somebody’s family and their home and bring joy to their kids. This ain’t just some backyard boogie, this that real deal”
It’s been four years—maybe longer—since Sir Lucious welcomed his first owl Simon. At the time, the owlet’s trainer Roy Lau figured the rapper could use an “introductory friend.” He eventually added three more to his crew.
“I’ve had them since they were owlets. They were small, fuzzy,” Big Boi says. “They just had their down feathers, so they were little bitty ones. At first it was kind of intimidating. But once you pet them and they get to know you, they’ll just take a liking to you.”
The Atlanta legend sees his birds at least twice a month, and even has a home for them in his backyard behind a dog kennel. They spend most of their time with their handler, but when Big Boi introduces the owls to new friends in the studio, the reaction tends to be the same. “‘Holy shit,’ they back up. They get scared a little bit until they see that the bird’s not even thinking about them.”
Some of his favorite memories with the birds date back to their firsts, almost the way a father would recall his kid’s first steps. Big Boi’s voice lights up when he talks about the first time Hootie landed on his glove.
And now three-plus decades into his storied career, he’s hoping to use what he’s learned in pet ownership to spread some joy to his community. In three to five years, Big Boi tells us, he wants to own a pet shop.
“That’s my dream thing to do. If I were to take some time off and go ahead and live life, I want a pet shop, man, so I can just spread that joy with these animals. I want it to be like the dopest spot, where you can get everything you want,” he says. “Eventually, I’ll want my own zoo. My own rescue center, where I can do exotics as well. I can have a farm. I want a pet store where we sell finger monkeys and all kinds of silly exotic fish and the whole nine yards. Kinda like Pee Wee Herman.”
While Big Boi’s Big Adventure into pet store ownership is still very much a work in progress, Kelis and Lil Jon have turned their interests outside of music into career shifts of varying proportions.
In 2006, after the release of her fourth album Kelis Was Here and as she separated from Jive Records, Kelis made the decision to head to culinary school. “It was one of the first times when I was really free and out of a label deal that I was wanting out of for a long time,” she explains. “I really had time to do me, and for first time since I was 17, I had no music to work on. So I decided to enroll in Le Cordon Bleu.”
At the school, the hit-maker took a hobby that she was introduced to when she oversaw her mom running a catering business as a kid (“basically as her sous chef”) and turned it into a centerpiece in her life. Now she runs a business in Bounty and Full, owns a farm she bases the business out of, has released a cookbook called My Life on a Plate, and continues to share music as a nod to her love for food—from 2014’s Food to her recent single “Midnight Snacks.”
“I always cooked because of my mom, I learned through her. Probably once I started touring, I knew I wanted to eat what I wanted and found that I loved cooking for people, so I would always cook for crew and friends when on the road. Over time, of course, you get better,” Kelis says. “Everything takes time, regardless of the industry.”
“Creating and putting out my first cookbook, reminded me a lot of putting out my first album, the energy, excitement and everything that it took to put that together.” In terms of lessons she’s learned through her journey into her alternate career path, Kelis keeps it simple: “If it scares you just a little bit, then you’re probably doing what you really want deep down.”
While Lil Jon didn’t go to school to tap into his newfound love for interior design, his years in the music industry have proven to be a school in itself. “I do design like I'm in a recording studio, you don't know what you're gonna do [in advance],” he tells us. “And especially if you meet somebody for the first time, you talk to them, you chill, you vibe. That's exactly what we do in every home.”
Jon’s HGTV show, appropriately titled Lil Jon Wants to Do What, is currently on its second season, meaning Jon and his design partner Anitra Mecadon have tackled 12 homes together. And it all started with his own pad in Atlanta.
A couple years ago, the crunk legend’s home was flooded when a pipe burst, prompting him to binge-watch home renovation shows until he found the perfect designer to call, Anitra. After they took care of his place, the TV star’s husband recommended she and Jon make a show of their own. The rest is history. “What feels good is when you see people's faces when you reveal to them the house. And like, you got to think about it in the sense of no one had seen my design work in this first season, the homeowners, I’d never done it,” he says.
“They’re trusting that I'm not going to make janky shit. They trust in us in their homes, but I don't know if I could trust a Lil Jon in my house, [just to] end up seeing what he's done, working with $50,000 to $100,000.”
Just as Jon is trusted in the driver’s seat of home renovations, T-Pain is trusted in the literal driver’s seat.
“You have to have the confidence to give it a go without training,” T-Pain explains of drifting cars. “Drifting is controlling out-of-control driving, so the only way to try it is to let shit go. You have to have the most confidence. People do it by accident with no training, so you get to do it on purpose with training.”
After being taught to drift in 2018 by Chelsea DeNofa, a professional driver with expertise in drifting, road racing, and stunt driving, T-Pain was sold. The Rappa Ternt Sanga (Ternt Drifter) has since garnered the confidence to not only step behind the wheel, but also to put aside the notion that rappers are “only known for buying luxury cars” as he goes out “ looking for old Nissans,” he jokes. He’s even built his own drift cars, which quarantine gave him the added time to get going on after he was introduced to the hobby.
And T-Pain has already reached some major highs in the sport, after going on a tandem drift with Vaughn Gittin Jr. (who he called one of the best drifters in the world). He’s also looking to bring his hobby to a new audience, as he launched the Nappy Boy Drift Team as part of Nappy Boy Automotive in recent years, an extension of the umbrella of things all sharing the same name, which also includes his Nappy Boy Radio program and Nappy Boy Gaming.
“You know, it really was because I wanted to see more people that looked like me in the sport,” he says of launching the team. “If you think of automotive racing of any kind it's really white dominated. I wanted to create a team and a way for people who are more like me to come on it and try it out. It’s fun as hell.”
“The process is slower than I’d like, but to do great things takes time.”
As for the rest of T-Pain’s empire of quests outside of music, like his Nappy Boy Gaming Team and his radio show, he’s in no hurry to be the best at anything—and that’s what he thinks makes it all so popular. “I’m just being myself and I’m not some professional gamer that is amazing at everything. I’m doing it to have fun and learn as I go,” he says. “My Twitch community sees that in real time. I always say to join Nappy Boy Gaming, you don’t have to be the best gamer out there, you just need to be a good fucking person.”
Sending advice to those who want to try something new, T-Pain, who is arguably the best person to give such advice, makes his message loud and clear. “You never know until you try. I think all artists have skills and interests outside of music, but maybe they don’t publicize it like that. That would be boring as hell if they didn’t,” T-Pain says. “For me, it helps give inspiration for the music and also to not burn out.”
“When I'm not feeling creative musically, I play games, I work on my cars, I go out drifting, and that in return helps my mind not focus on just creating something and it comes more naturally.”