Cee Lo Green went from Atlanta’s bubbling rap scene to R&B superstardom

Now the outspoken Cee Lo finds himself balancing being an entertainer who is expected to succeed and a true artist who cannot afford to lose his own voice.

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Cee Lo Green. Photograph by Michael Molloy, courtesy Atlantic Records.

Cee Lo Green. Photograph by Michael Molloy, courtesy Atlantic Records.

 

One of the last things Cee Lo Green says during the course of his Wax Poetics interview is also one of the most telling. “I’m going to drop the science…so these motherfuckers don’t ever get me confused with the character I play on television with a cat in my lap.” This reference to his nearly three-year stint on variety singing show The Voice is a glimpse into how Cee Lo views his place in the mainstream. He admits to playing a character not unlike other famous characters with cats in their laps, but those were usually villainous creations hell-bent on world domination, such as James Bond nemesis “Ernst Stavro Blofeld” and Blofeld’s “Dr. Evil” parody from the Austin Powers franchise. Cee Lo is no villain, but he does want to conquer all.

 

Originally published as “Vocal Soul” in Wax Poetics Issue 58.

 

As a child, he performed in front of a floor-model television in his grandmother’s den for anyone who would pay attention, and later, on the road with his mother at Amway conventions. Born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway, the name “Cee Lo Green” came from abbreviating his middle name and a comparison to Al Green by Organized Noize producer Sleepy Brown. Goodie Mob, the group that would deliver him stardom, were friends of his sister’s and upperclassmen at Atlanta’s Benjamin E. Mays High School with whom he had to play musical catch-up. In the eyes of the music industry, he caught and passed them, with two solo albums and extensive guest verses throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, including an appearance on Santana’s double-digit platinum-selling Supernatural in 1999, thanks to Lauryn Hill.

The next plateau came upon meeting producer Danger Mouse through a mutual friend. After recording a verse for the remix of “What U Sittin’ On” from Danger Mouse and Jemini’s Ghetto Pop Life album, Danger Mouse played him about six to eight beats and “they really spoke to me,” Cee Lo says. He asked the producer if he could record with a couple of tracks, and according to him, the response was, “Well, I don’t just do ‘tracks’—I do albums.”

“Okay then, let’s do an album,” Cee Lo says his reaction was at the time. “I took it as a dare.”

That dare became the formation of Gnarls Barkley, and their 2006 song “Crazy” was a hit record selling worldwide. But for as huge as “Crazy” was—earning the pair a Grammy Award in 2007 for Best Urban/Alternative Performance, along with a Best Alternative Music Album Grammy for the Gnarls debut, St. Elsewhere—the song was just part of the duo’s success during this period. The year before, within the span of a few months, Cee Lo says, his “Don’t Cha,” written and produced for the Pussycat Dolls, and Danger Mouse’s “Feel Good Inc.,” produced for Gorillaz, were both charting at number one somewhere.

“It was just an awesome time, man—one of the most fascinating times in my life,” he says.

Cee Lo returned to the solo realm, releasing The Lady Killer in 2010, which featured two more Grammy-winning gems in “Fuck You,” cowritten by Bruno Mars, and “Fool for You,” which featured Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey on the album version and Canadian singer Melanie Fiona on the hit radio version, which won two Grammys. Since then, he’s been fostering his brand with The Voice (which he just announced that he’s leaving), National Football League promos, a Las Vegas residency, his Everybody’s Brother autobiography, Gwyneth Paltrow duets, a sake endorsement and much, much more. The talking points provided by his publicist read like Samuel L. Jackson’s filmography.

In 2013, he reunited with Goodie Mob for Age Against the Machine, the first album in fourteen years from all four original members. The group now has a reality show in the works. Cee Lo himself is working on a new album (Girl Power). Ellen DeGeneres loves him.

So when he plays the characters, he does so for good reason. Cee Lo’s workload is on par with that of an evil supervillain, but his plan for conquering consists of less destruction and more sincerity and tough love. He is a restless soul who has come so far from his origin that he doesn’t know how to turn back, or turn off. He still carries the social and political weight he shouldered on the first two Goodie Mob albums, but the vantage point has changed. The view has shifted from the bottom to somewhere two-thirds up the ladder—not the top, because after all, his primary role remains a Black man in the music industry. But he’s flying closer to the sun than most. And he knows it.

 

Cee Lo Green. Photograph by Michael Molloy, courtesy Atlantic Records.

Cee Lo Green. Photograph by Michael Molloy, courtesy Atlantic Records.

 

What was your experience recording those early Goodie Mob albums in the Dungeon?

As naive as I was about the technical aspect of what we were doing, we were recording to tape, and so many things were done in one take and left raw. But raw is real. It’s almost impossible for something to be raw and well done at the same time, so we did raw really well. Music would be going on twenty-four hours a day. Organized Noize was a three-man production team—Sleepy Brown, Ray Murray, and Rico Wade—and somebody would start a beat, and the same beat would be playing on the MPC60 for hours and hours and hours at a time, then somebody would come in and lay a chord to it, or a sample or something. It was an atmosphere, an energy, and it was alive in the room and also inside of us.

I had always felt like we were more activists than entertainers, and that mission statement was much more of a moral obligation for me at the time. I was a rebel without a cause at one time, and Goodie Mob gave that energy a focus and it became power. We may not have always made music to make people dance, but we always made music to make people move.

Why did you leave the group? 

I have multiple personalities… [laughs] I have multiple personalities, and they all happen to be lead singers, with different songs that they want to sing. I hope that analogy goes over well.

And last year’s reunion album? You’ve all come a long way.

The time apart and then also us reuniting recently is truly a testament to our elasticity. I never thought that our bond was severed. I actually thought that it was more productive in the way it was prolonged and preserved for the sake of the here and now. We are even wiser, even stronger, even more connected and bonded.

You know what was good about Goodie Mob? We were very different people, but it was very communal. We shared, and allowed each other the liberty to live. It was very communal and neighborly, being that we literally did grow up in the same neighborhood, and it was just extended family, so it was very easy to be myself. I was always encouraged to do just that. We also took that agenda and acted upon it in terms of others outside of ourselves, encouraging our audience to do the same thing. Very early, we likened ourselves, and were christened by some, as the young Parliament-Funkadelic—a Black, eccentric, colorful cast of poets and writers and singers and MCs and philosophers and gangsters.

It’s interesting you bring up P-Funk, which was another group of very different people, allowing each other the liberty to live, with a communal approach to making music. P-Funk was a bit crazier than Goodie Mob, though.

There’s a very thin line between being crazy and being totally convincing. It’s like you’re just trying to impress upon someone that, “Hey, I’ve seen something!” So you find solace in seeing something by becoming exceptional. Whatever it was, if no one else saw it but you, then that signifies you; that singles you out for some strange reason unbeknownst to anyone else. It’s a vision, a beauty, and it gave you a message and a calling. It gave you a clue and it gave you a path. It’s always lonely at the top and to the left and to the right if you don’t take people with you.

So how can you say to someone, “Hey, I’m an exceptional person”? You can’t just say, “I’m exceptional”—you have to do something exceptional, and the first thing that you can do is to dress exceptionally. So here go the costumes and the theatrics and the broad fashion statements that encourage the optimism of Black entertainment. You think about Parliament-Funkadelic, you think about the Undisputed Truth and groups like that, where it was so outrageous, but it was absolutely free.

This seems to be a thing of the past, especially for Black entertainers. 

How do we go from being that free to being as captive as we are in present day? It bothers me, so I revolt. I rise up and I revolt to continue the fight for the others who have gotten corporate jobs. And this is not an insult—it’s just an observation.

What’s the origin of your personal style—both musically and visually?

Usually, typically, more commonly, art stems from sense, sensibility, and sensitivity. But I myself wasn’t so vulnerable, so it wasn’t by way of vulnerability. It was vendetta for me, so anything I had done to be different or to be distinguished was a dare [to others]. It’s like, “I dare you to vocalize an opinion of what I come to be,” because I come to be what I am for all, not simply for myself.

Matter of fact, it’s an act of selflessness. I would look foolish for the sake of convincing you that there are other ways, other alternatives, other avenues, and multiple means of getting to a certain place. But first, we have to ask, “Where are we going?”

And to know where you’re going, you have to know who you are—“to thine own self be true.” 

Be true to thine self. I do, therefore I am. Not “I think, therefore I am”—I do, therefore I am. I do different, therefore I am different. There’s danger in different. There’s safety and there’s security in swagger and standing still.

In comparison to your career prior to forming Gnarls Barkley, what did you find “different” about recording with Danger Mouse?  

It was definitely a learning experience for me, because I had never been produced in that kind of way. Danger is very neurotic and very anal about the ways that he executes, which were quality traits that I could depend on. But as far as sentimentality, we’re both equally miserable, so this gave our misery some company, and that ended up being the weight of that first album.

And visually, you found a kindred spirit.

Oh, definitely. I had seen pictures of him in a mouse suit walking across some random street, and I thought that was cool. It takes a great and grand degree of bravery to be oneself in any public capacity—to speak confidently and be eloquent and articulate. Our intention, our invention, has to be a sound decision. It tickles me when the consumer or the onlooker views it as something random or senseless. It’s literally laughable to me when people don’t realize that we are in complete and total control and know exactly what it is that we are attempting to do. Your intention, however, and the outcome are two different things.

With that being said, we definitely were on the same page as far as costumes and character. Danger Mouse once said to me that if he had on his normal clothes and someone wanted to take a picture of him eating a piece of pizza, he’s not quite sure what they’re trying to capture. If he’s wearing a mouse suit, at least he knows what they’re taking a picture of—a six-foot mouse eating a slice of pizza.

That’s part of the Danger Mouse philosophy, it seems. What’s the Cee Lo Green philosophy? 

“I don’t give a fuck.” But I care the most, so it’s very ironic.

How do you feel about an artist like Miley Cyrus, who gets attention for shock and costuming, but with contrivance that probably overshadows her music?

I’ve only heard a queen like Cher have a good opinion on Miley. Cher has seen it, she gets it, and it’s all been done before—it’s just been done better. But we’re in an age of all access and ADD, and you need to do something quick, effective, and almost borderline ridiculous to compel the conversation that you want to be had about your art. I’m a free thinker, I’m a liberal, I respect expression, I expect artistry in expression, so on that, I’m an advocate of it, and I get it. I’m also a man, so sexual tension and energy and expression, it’s glorious to me.

I love it.

But of course, the bottom line is balance, and can these things be done in good taste. This is the difference between a pair of lace thongs and a pair of crotchless panties.

And spectacle has been around for decades. Alice Cooper had fake beheadings and executions onstage. 

I can go a step back further than Alice Cooper. People should check out [the band] the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

Coming out of Gnarls, you had a massive hit with “Crazy,” then another with “Fuck You,” and another with “Fool for You.” All Grammy Award winners—all radically different songs. Do you feel any pressure, internally or externally, to repeat that success? Do you chase, or are you comfortable doing whatever you want to do?

I despise the notion of “whatever.” I hate it. It’s not about reckless abandon. It’s about redemption. I want to do different things with a redemptive quality to broaden the horizon of Black entertainment, specifically, but entertainment at large, ultimately. We’re born into the Black and into that particular set of circumstances, and for a big guy, I’ve been able to squeeze through the cracks.

But I want to do what needs to be done, not whatever I want to do, to extend the attention span again of not only myself, but people I care about, the general population. Just people. I’m ready for music to be considered composition again, with crescendo and color and live instrumentation and long, ten-minute, extended mixes. Sometimes, I’m listening to Pandora, and I’ll be listening to the Time and I’ll be listening to, like, “Glamorous Life” by Sheila E. or “Love Bizarre” by Sheila E., and it’s these ten-minute mixes that I never heard before of these songs.

On the first Time album, “Cool” is ten minutes long. 

And there’s only six songs on the album! That was a great time. I miss that. My thing is trying to revitalize those natural resources and make them viable again, like really breathe life into them using the velocity I have behind me, the visibility I have around me, and the platform I have underneath me. I feel dutified. I don’t feel like I’ve been catapulted to a height to have it all to myself, because my whole thing is, “He’s not heavy, he’s my brother.”

Goodie Mob stands for “Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit,” and your cause on those early albums was clearly political. What is happening to the good today, and how are you addressing those issues?

They’re dying so young, they aren’t even getting an opportunity to be good. They haven’t been alive long enough to be good, let alone be great. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” Frederick Douglass said, “To educate a man is to unfit him to be a slave.” I’m quoting the elders on that, and I’m taking that word into action. In terms of spirit and monument, they’re alive and well. I got things I want to do, so I’m doing what I can. I’m able. I literally am the skill and the trade. I can build it with these hands. I just know how. But there’s a curse in that. You’re cursed in knowing. Once you know better, you must do better, or there will be repercussions. And that’s why so many people choose ignorance, because it is believed to be bliss. But there are repercussions in choosing ignorance, because it’s a dumb decision. So dumb is actually more ignorant than ignorance itself. Ignorance itself is innocence.

You can hear the tone of my voice and how quickly an interview can become political [because] I still feel, and I still get angry, and it all has to do with music. It all comes back to music. I believe that we can recalibrate the equilibrium if someone like-minded enough on the inside allows the other side in. And it’s just for the sake of balance. It’s not a mutiny. It’s not to overthrow. We’re too outnumbered for it to be overthrown. It’s just balance. Balance is righteous, balance is godly, but the industry is run by atheists, apparently.

And that lack of balance is not just from the top down, but also from bottom up, isn’t it?

You know, everybody is employed by a larger agenda, and they don’t necessarily know why they’re working or what they’re working toward. But work does imply being busy. It feels like motivation, it feels like mobility, but there’s a difference in jogging and running on a treadmill. [laughs]

At this point, your career is more like a sprint. Twenty years ago, did you envision this for yourself?

Nothing is ever guaranteed. Positive results are never guaranteed. You have to persist and be insistent, which is the ideal I use in everyday practice. It’s my wiring. I’m a committed person and deeply in love with the lyric—the light—that has compelled me and enriched my life. I’m one of the biggest fans and admirers and appreciators of the arts. With all of those intentions in the mix, I could very easily become preoccupied with it for the past twenty years, which is what I have done.

Not everyone has an opportunity or an ability to immortalize themselves in ideal or accomplishment. A person may have the chance to accomplish a promotion while on a job, but very few people have the opportunity to write their lives, to write themselves into stone.

You spoke earlier of broadening the horizons of Black entertainment, but Black folk have struggled in the art of entertainment for so long. Some are elite, but most are not. As an elder, where do you see the Black artist today?

No Black man or Black artist can be an elitist—you can only be a well-paid pawn. It’s apocalyptic out there. We’re afraid of our own reflection, but we are better [than in the past], because as we acknowledge the status quo as it stands, we are prepared to kill it. As much as I want to protect, preserve, and empower [as an artist], I’m also prepared to kill you in self-defense. So, with that being said, choose your battles. I don’t know who’s more dangerous—somebody with nothing to lose, or somebody with everything to lose.

But, hey, I’m no authority. I’m an elder, but I’m just highly opinionated, and I don’t belong to anyone’s demographic. I just notice how seldom these days they put the microphone in my face, because I’ll make motherfuckers remember. And what you remember is your own personal demon to deal with. You might remember that you’ve done something that you can’t undo. So I’m going to drop the science—that’s what I do so these motherfuckers don’t ever get me confused with the character I play on television with a cat in my lap. I’m so much more than that.

 

Purchase Wax Poetics Issue 58.

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