Cee Lo Green On Going To Heaven, Raising Hell & The Purgatory That Is The Music Business
The Goodie Mob frontman, Gnarls Barkley vocalist and hip-hop fixture finally gets his moment in the solo limelight. To hear him tell it, it was all part of the master plan.
by Bret Love
There was a time when getting a song on the American Top 40 was an artist’s ticket to stardom. Then, in the early ’80s, it became all about getting a music video into heavy rotation on MTV. In 2002, American Idol began providing a boost to a music industry crippled by the digital revolution, creating a new breed of pop stars. Now, Glee has emerged as America’s hit factory du jour, offering up an accessible and infectious mixture of glammed-up karaoke versions of classic songs, genre-bending mash-ups and choral versions of the latest chart-toppers.
Cynics may scoff at the somewhat silly pop culture phenomenon, but Cee Lo Green seems amused by the hullabaloo surrounding Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance of his breakthrough solo hit, “Forget You,” on Glee’s Nov. 16 episode. Green, previously best known as frontman for Dirty South hip-hop innovators Goodie Mob and “Crazy” duo Gnarls Barkley has good reason to chuckle: After 15 years of struggling to earn respect in an industry that never knew what to make of his unique blend of soulful spirituality and street-tough rap, how hilarious is it that a song originally intended to be a not-so-subtle “F@#! You” to the music business has become one of the biggest hits of Cee Lo’s career, with nearly 30 million YouTube views of its official uncensored video?
The stunning success of his expletive-laced single (which has been suitably cleaned up for mainstream consumption) is just the latest chapter in the crazy life of one of the urban music scene’s most distinctive and colorful personalities. Talking to Cee Lo in person, it seems as if he could just as easily be a sage prophet dispensing sound spiritual advice from some mountaintop high in the Himalayas or a raving-mad street preacher delivering apocalyptic sermons in exchange for spare change on an inner-city street corner. His sleepy drawl unfurls in wispy curlicues of thought as ephemeral as the smoke from a Lewis Carroll caterpillar’s pipe, so lilting and hypnotic it might take a few minutes before you realize he actually made a really good point. But when he stumbles onto a topic that enflames his passions, he’s also capable of delivering a fiery soliloquy that would be more powerful in the pulpit than it is in print.
Perhaps that’s because the artist formerly known as Thomas DeCarlo Callaway was born the son of two ordained ministers, singing sacred songs long before he went to Southwest Atlanta’s Benjamin E. Mays High School and met the friends that would eventually form Goodie Mob. He cites soul legend Jackie Wilson as the first artist to have a major influence on his musical inclinations, with an angelic voice that spoke to his very core, but the roots of Cee Lo’s soulful spirit can be traced all the way back to his early childhood.
“As far as the music is concerned, I accepted and I acknowledged early on that it was something beyond myself,” Green recalls. “It was something bigger than myself. The ability to act on that was very gratifying in a sense of, ‘I have been blessed.’ Spirituality has always been a part of my life. Both of my parents were ministers, and my mother used to tell me a story of my father taking me into a closet and praying over me, marking me, ordaining me. I heard very early on in my life that I would do or be something special.”
There are two paths you can go by…
He also learned early on that sometimes walking the path to heaven can be harder than hell. Green’s father died of a heart attack when Cee Lo was just two, and he rebelled against the strict religious upbringing he received from his mother and grandmother. As a teen he found himself on an increasingly dark, destructive path—stealing, starting fires for fun, beating up homeless people and mugging pedestrians—and he acknowledges today that his life could’ve gone in a very different direction.
“I was a bit of a deviant, I must admit,” he confesses matter-of-factly. “It felt a bit more supreme and more extreme than just good and bad; it was more like good and evil. There was a point in my younger years when I didn’t realize that [the creative connection with the divine] was involuntary, like an out-of-body experience. When I look back on the things that I was writing and feeling in those days, I realize that I wasn’t able to help myself.”
The rough road to enlightenment began in earnest in 1992, when his mother, Sheila J. Tyler-Callaway, was involved in an auto accident that left her a paraplegic. As a 16-year-old suddenly thrust into the role of caring for his mother, Green made a gradual transformation from thuggish street hood to robe-clad street preacher, with a style that made him seem like the mutant offspring of Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. A month or so before the release of Goodie Mob’s trailblazing debut album, Soul Food, Cee Lo’s beloved mother passed away.
“I do believe what has happened to me was the highest degree of divine intervention,” he insists. “I knew that, in her death, I could not deny her any further. It’s a very personal memory for me, the actual act which took place. At my mother’s deathbed, I touched her hand and her body was freezing cold, and I was just compelled to go into prayer. My entire family was there. I was a young man—I was 18 or 19—but I was being moved in a very mature way at that time. It was not pretentious. It was very, very genuine. I described it as being possessed on a Gnarls Barkley song called ‘She Knows,’ in which I tried to sum up these circumstances.”
Cee Lo credits that traumatic moment with defining his life’s mission ever since. “It’s been a miracle,” he says, “and that’s not an exaggeration or overstatement. I have become articulate. I have become eloquent. I have become enthusiastic. I have become able. It happened all of a sudden, miraculously, when prior to this moment I did not have that aspiration. I believe there was a tug-of-war for my soul and spirit, and I was acknowledged by both entities as a noble, worthy solider of a soul who could really do bidding on either side. When I was young, Satan gave me quite a bit of liberty and I enjoyed… Can you believe I’m saying this to you? It’s pretty awesome to talk about, and to relive this insane conversation. It sounds outrageous, but I think with what has happened to me that it’s becoming more and more believable through my testimony every day.”
Family found, then splintered
When this sudden switch in Cee Lo’s soul direction occurred, the more negative elements of the crowd he was running with were in shock and awe, but his renewed faith provided a power and passion to Goodie Mob’s sound that was unlike anything going on in urban music at the time. Along with their buddies in Outkast (who first introduced Goodie Mob to the world in several songs on their 1994 debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik), the Organized Noize production crew, and the extended Dungeon Family, Goodie Mob essentially put Atlanta on the nation’s hip-hop map, infusing it with a sense of gospel-influenced Southern soul.
According to Cee Lo, finding a sanctuary of safety within his musical family was precisely what he needed to put him on a progressive path towards fulfilling the destiny his mother had dreamed for him. “That’s when I was most vulnerable,” he recalls, “right around that first Goodie Mob album. There are evil, unclean spirits that are trying to eat into every individual, and change provides them with an opportunity. They just perch, waiting for an opening to come in and act out an alternative agenda for your life. Goodie Mob came along at the right time in my life because I needed that structure, that system, to preserve my sanity. It really, really helped me at that time. That’s why [the passion] was so strong in me at the time.”
Goodie Mob started out on firm footing, producing three Billboard Top 100 singles on the Gold-certified Soul Food (the title track, “Cell Therapy” and “Dirty South,” which is widely credited with popularizing the ATL nickname). Coming across like the bastard offspring of New York’s literate alt-rap scene and L.A.’s burgeoning G-funk movement, with a heaping helping of deep-fried Southern grit thrown in for good measure, the album’s mixture of infectious hooks and socio-political lyrics made Goodie Mob seem like the next big thing in hip-hop.
Unfortunately, while Cee Lo’s Outkast brethren became breakout successes when their 1998 album Aquemini reached #2 on the Billboard album charts (thanks in part to the Grammy-nominated hit “Rosa Parks”), Goodie Mob was struggling on both a creative and personal level. Feeling pressure to achieve more commercial success, the group signed with LaFace Records’ parent company, Arista, for their third album. But the result, World Party, was widely criticized as a shallow attempt at mainstream success, trading lyrics about racism and gentrification for party-centered rhymes and even blatant homophobia. Cee Lo left the band abruptly during the album’s production, and Goodie Mob was soon dropped from the label.
I’m a lover and a fighter.
Today, Green is hardly what one would call apologetic about the way things went down. “Envy was obvious,” he sniffs, “and any jealousy was justified because there was no doubt that I was a jewel. I’d always considered myself an individual in a collective effort. Fortunately, we had similar tastes and agenda, but the rest of the Mob was not as emotionally involved as I was. I was not officially appointed to speak on behalf of Goodie Mob, but I could not help it. Unofficially, everyone followed my lead because I had the concepts, the theories and the facts to back it up. I considered Goodie Mob to be more like activists than entertainers. We were all fighting for Civil Rights at that time, which was why Goodie Mob made sense. There was team spirit amongst us, and I was a spokesman of our spirit.”
But that team spirit turned ugly in the wake of Cee Lo’s departure from the group, though the various members insist today that their interpersonal beefs were greatly exaggerated by the media. There was open sniping back and forth in the press, and Big Gipp, Khujo and T-Mo’s 2004 release under the Goodie Mob name, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, was widely perceived as a thinly veiled jab at Cee Lo’s inflated sense of self-importance.
Parts of the process
To make matters worse, Cee Lo’s solo career at Arista was short-lived: He was dropped from the label after 2002’s Cee Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections and 2004’s Cee Lo Green… Is The Soul Machine failed to perform up to Arista’s expectations (despite the latter featuring high-profile collaborations with Ludacris, T.I., Pharell and Timbaland). But if you ask Cee Lo, these supposed missteps were just a necessary part of the process that has led him to where he is today.
“My first two solo albums have been described as schizophrenic because they go from A to Z,” he admits, “which I felt was a very nimble-minded quality as opposed to some type of clinical condition. I believe that too much of today’s music represents a retardation because it is single-minded. But the assembly line syndrome was set into motion, and you only have one opportunity to be yourself. If you aren’t who they want you to be, you may only have that one time. I was recognized as a jewel early on, so the reason why those albums exist is because someone was advocating my individualities. They were allowing me to be myself and I had total control. Maybe they feel like that was a mistake, but I was new then and I needed those opportunities to express all that I aspire to be.”
Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait very long for another golden opportunity to present itself. Cee Lo had been given a demo tape by a young Athens resident by the name of Brian Burton back in 1998, when the budding hip-hop DJ took second place in a talent concert and earned a slot opening for Goodie Mob and Outkast at the University of Georgia. By 2005 Burton had become better known by his stage name, Danger Mouse, the mastermind behind The Grey Album (a legendary mash-up of Jay-Z rhymes and instrumental Beatles tracks). When Cee Lo came in to record a song for Danger Doom, a collaboration between Burton and underground rapper MF Doom, he and the budding production wunderkind hit it off, and soon Gnarls Barkley was born.
Where Cee Lo’s work with Goodie Mob and as a solo artist seems in retrospect to be a bit ahead of the pop culture curve, Gnarls Barkley’s debut single “Crazy” seemed perfectly timed to tap into the zeitgeist of its moment. Leaked prior to the release of the duo’s genre-blending debut, St. Elsewhere, the single went straight to #1 on the UK pop charts (the first single ever to do so on download sales alone), where it remained for nine weeks before the band and their label decided to remove it from stores before people got sick of it. The song won a Grammy and ranked #1 on Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Songs of the Decade (2000-2009), and the triple-platinum album gave Cee Lo the biggest hit of his career. Ironically, it also convinced Arista Records to release Closet Freak: The Best of Cee Lo Green the Soul Machine.
‘All I care about is quality’
Which all brings us back to “F@#! You,” arguably among the biggest pop culture phenomena of 2010 and easily the biggest hit of Cee Lo’s solo career. Knowing Cee Lo’s life story—his struggle to live up to the legacy his mother foretold for him, his fight for respect in an industry that did not seem likely to recognize what he knew to be God-given talent, his stubborn will to take the creative road less traveled when there were far safer paths to success—it’s easy to imagine him watching Hollywood golden girl Gwyneth Paltrow shimmying her sexy self to his song on TV’s hottest water cooler show and laughing to himself like some sort of sage African-American Buddha. Redemption, after all, is almost as sweet as revenge.
“If you can separate yourself from the storyline [of the song] just a bit and focus on the F and the U,” Cee Lo says when asked about the resounding impact the single has had, “what has my entire career been besides a big ‘F U’ to the industry? I wasn’t really premeditating that, but that’s probably the ground wire for it. Even though the storyline itself is a fictitious account, I think the reason why it is taken as truth is because I sing from that pain. I sing from that island of exile. I’m still not in the in-crowd. I don’t necessarily fit—and I don’t necessarily want to, either. All I care about is quality. Now if the song is great, play it and so be it. That’s what my agenda is. It’s about greatness. It’s not about product placement: It’s about procreation!”
I don’t necessarily fit—and I don’t necessarily want to, either.
If greatness is Cee Lo’s ultimate career goal, his new solo album, The Lady Killer, accomplishes that mission in spades. Blending influences ranging from Motown/Stax ’60s pop and Gamble & Huff’s Philly soul to Curtis Mayfield’s blaxploitation funk and larger-than-life James Bond theme songs, the album is a sweet retro throwback that puts all of Green’s theatrical eccentricities into a cohesive, lavishly orchestrated context. In my opinion (not to mention Cee Lo’s), it’s the best thing he’s done since Soul Food.
“In the 17 years I’ve been doing this professionally,” he boasts proudly, “I’ve become just that—a professional. When I say ‘Lady Killer,’ I’m talking about business. Murders are committed out of impulse and emotion: You will not get away with that crap because it’s not thought-out. ‘Lady Killer,’ in simple terms, means I’m a lover and a fighter. I take personal the business at hand. The business at hand is a bold and brave individual organism such as myself, succeeding and being signified, and not just in my own mind or in the opinions of a few people. That is the business. I have the game in my crosshairs, and I’m ready to kill it!”
The album (which boasts production by Salaam Remi, Element, The Smeezingtons, Ben Allen, Fraser T. Smith and several others) had just been released as this issue went to press, debuting at #9 on the Billboard charts and earning universal acclaim from critics. With second single “It’s OK” slated for a mid-December release, The Lady Killer looks likely to be the biggest hit of Cee Lo’s solo career, setting the 36-year-old artist up for a great 2011. Green confirms that he and Danger Mouse will definitely reunite to do another Gnarls Barkley album in the near future. And, bad blood now water under the bridge, he insists that he remains one of the “Four Horsemen” where Goodie Mob is concerned, working on a new album and fielding offers from various labels.
“We just got through doing a show last weekend—a 30-minute set for a Heineken production with Big Boi, Bun B and ourselves. It’s like a day hasn’t gone by,” he says of reuniting with his childhood friends. “There is a kinetic energy that connects us. We are all bonded by the banner that we wave, and even my own individual successes could not sever my association with Goodie Mob. Any mention of me has to be a mention of my history, which is probably the greatest part. Goodie Mob was very overt and outspoken as far as social agenda and politics. Performing together again, it really felt like a day hadn’t gone by in that we’re all still hungry. Even in my success, I’m still an underdog.”