Rap musician Cee-Lo Green was born Thomas De-Carlo Callaway, the son of two Southern Baptist ministers. Cee-Lo showed an early interest in music, often playing the family piano. Cee-Lo's aunt, who sang at a local restaurant, encouraged him to pursue a career in music, and he began to feel that it was his true calling. "It was such an act of vulnerability," Cee-Lo told Rolling Stone magazine. "Singing means you care, that you have feelings and emotions. I didn't know if it was boyish to sing. But I could."
Tragedy befell Cee-Lo at a very young age. "I always wanted my father to be a singer: cool, bluesy, moody," he told Rolling Stone. But Cee-Lo's father died when the boy was just two years old, and it was up to him to be the musician his father could not be. Anxious to begin a career in music, Cee-Lo dropped out of Benjamin E. Mays High School in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. He was then enrolled in a military academy, where he earned a GED. Cee-Lo later reunited with his former schoolmates, Khujo (Willie Knight), Big Gipp (Cameron Gipp), and T-Mo (Robert Barrett), who had also dropped out of school. The foursome merged their musical ambitions and viewpoints to form the group Goodie Mob in 1991.
According to an article in the St. Louis Dispatch, the name Goodie Mob originated from the group's feeling that they were "not exempt from bleak statistics facing young black males" in America. Goodie Mob soon gained a reputation for being a positive force in hiphop. They considered themselves activists and writers, not rappers. The rap quartet often spoke at inner city high schools. As Goodie Mob, they prided themselves on being able to use their fame and influence to reach out to young people about the issues that teens face in their lives, and about trying to get along with each other.
Goodie Mob made their debut on an album released in 1994 by fellow Atlanta-based rap musicians Outkast. This debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, was produced by Organized Noize, an Atlanta-based production team who ran a popular basement recording studio in the area. At one point, Cee-Lo was slated to become the third member of Outkast, but instead he became a founding member of the Dungeon Family, a name earned by the musicians who rehearsed in Organized Noize's studio. Organized Noize produced and appeared on Goodie Mob's 1995 debut album, Soul Food, which went gold soon after its release. The title of the album signified one of the progressive group's many ambitions—that, as musicians, they would provide soul food for the brain. In the midst of recording the album, Cee-Lo's mother was in a car accident and became a quadriplegic. "From that point on, I had no shame incorporating my feelings about God or the world into my music," Cee-Lo told Rolling Stone.
Goodie Mob gained recognition for their live instrumental abilities. Rolling Stone praised the group's "organic, bluesy vibe and their smart, unusually soulful lyrics." The group's sophomore album, Still Standing, was released three years later, but did not quite meet sales expectations. In a last-ditch effort to boost sales, Goodie Mob released a third album, World Party, in 1999, and the album went platinum. However, Cee-Lo felt the album contradicted the values Goodie Mob had pledged to uphold. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, these included "using music for betterment." Cee-Lo left the group amid tensions over the release of World Party. He told Rolling Stone that the album "was the greatest disappointment of my career." But the artist saw his split from the group as a sign. "That album was a catalyst that thrust me into my own destiny," Cee-Lo told the Dallas Morning News.
Like Outkast, Goodie Mob had sought to bring rap to the next level and take it out of the realms of "gangsta" mentality. "The industry has a niche, and they will perpetuate the niche until they destroy everyone's integrity," Cee-Lo told the Chicago Tribune. "People are getting into rap because it doesn't appear to be much work. You don't have to do much: write a song about selling dope and going to jail, or smoke a blunt…. All the videos look the same. No one wants to be human or vulnerable. I would like to educate my peers: You don't have to posture like that."
Now free to explore his own personal musical ambitions, Cee-Lo was given the opportunity to perform with Lauryn Hill and Carlos Santana on the track "Do You Like the Way" on Santana's Grammy-winning album Supernatural in 1999. He also joined his old friends Dungeon Family for the release of Even in Darkness in 2001. Cee-Lo then signed a solo deal with Arista records, releasing his debut album, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, in 2002. He penned all of the album's songs and served as its producer. It incorporated the music that he grew up with, including gospel, classic soul, and rap, and featured the banjo and electric guitar. The album quickly reached number two on the Billboard top R&B album charts, and was nominated for the second annual Shortlist Prize for Artistic Achievement in Music that same year. Cee-Lo told Sarah Rodman of the Boston Herald that he branched out on his own "because with rapping I felt like, not that I'd mastered it but that I had more or less had my way with it and … I wanted to attain titles such as producer, arranger, writer and orchestrator to showcase my other attributes."
The album's track "Gettin' Grown" was nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance in 2003, but the record failed to meet sales expectations. "It was a very expressive, progressive album," Cee-Lo told the Baltimore Sun. "It was trying to give an overview of what my range is: gospel, soul. I like rock; I like funk, everything, man." He added that the album was an experiment for him. "I'm like a gypsy that way. I'll know what I want to do when I get there."
On the heels of the album, Cee-Lo was added to the bill for the Smokin' Grooves Tour in 2002. Other artists included Outkast, Lauryn Hill, The Roots, Jurassic 5, and Truth Hurts. Cee-Lo released Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine in 2004. The album had several radio hits, including the Timbaland-produced "I'll Be Around," the Jazze Pha-produced "The One," and the Neptunes-produced "Let's Stay Together." The album's lyrics dealt with spirituality and politics, but the work made Cee-Lo even harder to categorize musically. The album was "the first of its kind," he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "The industry didn't know what to do with it. Was it hip-hop? Alternative? Rap? Rock?"
For the Record …
Born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway on May 30, 1975, in Atlanta, GA; son of two Southern Baptist ministers; married Christina Shanta Johnson, 2000; children: daughters, Sierra and Kalah; son, Kingston.
Dropped out of high school to pursue full-time music career, c. 1991; became founding member of Goodie Mob, 1991; signed with La Face Records; releases with Goodie Mob included Soul Food, 1995, and World Party, 1999; became founding member of Dungeon Family in 2001; signed with Arista Records, 2001; released Even in Darkness, 2001; signed solo deal with Arista Records, 2002; released Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, 2002; released Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine, 2004.
Awards: Vibe magazine, Hypest Live Show Award (with Goodie Mob), 1997.
Addresses: Record company—Arista Records, 888 7th Ave., New York, NY 10106, website: http://www.aristarecords.com. Website—Cee-Lo Official Website: http://www.ceelo.net/.
The newly married musician and father has remained connected to his roots and goals as a musician. "Rock music deals with a bigger picture. Rappers are concerned with making ends meet," Cee-Lo told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I understand that young cats who don't know where their next meal is coming from have the attitude of 'I want to get a hit while I can.' But I don't feel like I have to hustle music. I can take my time. I'm concerned with making history."
Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, Arista, 2002.
Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine, Arista, 2004.
With Goodie Mob
Soul Food, La Face, 1995.
Still Standing, La Face, 1998.
They Don't Dance No Mo', La Face, 1998.
You Can Dance, Sire, 1998.
World Party, La Face, 1999.
With Dungeon Family
Even in Darkness, Arista, 2001.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 8, 1998; April 23, 2002; June 27, 2002; October 7, 2002.
Baltimore Sun, February 26, 2004.
Billboard, December 11, 1999.
Boston Herald, July 31, 2002.
Charlotte Observer, July 31, 1998.
Chicago Tribune, July 12, 2002.
Dallas Morning News, June 19, 2002.
Newsday, August 2, 2002.
Rolling Stone, March 14, 2002.
St. Louis Dispatch, February 1, 1996.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 27, 2004.
Washington Post, June 3, 1998; March 10, 2004.
"Cee-Lo," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 24, 2004).
"Goodie Mob," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 23, 2004).
"Goodie Mob," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1429627/03142000/goodie_mob.jhtml (March 14, 2004).
—Kerry L. Smith
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