In the summer of 2006, "Crazy," the infectious pop tune by duo Gnarls Barkley, seemed to be on everyone's lips—and on their iPods. The song, the first single from the album St. Elsewhere, was a breakthrough hit for Gnarls Barkley, a collaboration between rap musician Cee-Lo and producer Danger Mouse. Though "Crazy" put him on the charts in a big way, Cee-Lo was no novice to the music business—he had already been recording for some fifteen years, first as a member of the "Dirty South" rap group Goodie Mob and then as a solo artist. Over the course of his career, Cee-Lo has defied easy categorization, deftly mixing musical styles in unexpected ways to create a sound that is uniquely his own. What he will do next is anyone's guess.
Cee-Lo, who has also gone by the name of Cee-Lo Green, was born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway on May 30, 1974, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, a Baptist minister, died when Cee-Lo was just two years old, and he was raised in a large household that included his mother, sister, uncles, cousins, grandmother, and great grandmother. Though his mother was also an ordained minister, she never had her own congregation and instead sold Amway products to pay the bills. Cee-Lo displayed an early gift and passion for music, often playing the family's heirloom grand piano and singing gospel music in church. An aunt who sang at a local restaurant encouraged him to pursue his talent.
Nevertheless, Cee-Lo was certainly no choir boy. By junior high, he was working as a gang enforcer and committing petty theft. Although he attended Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta for a while, after several arrests he was sent to a military academy. Soon he dropped out of school altogether to pursue a career in music.
When Cee-Lo was sixteen years old, he and his family suffered a devastating loss when his mother was involved in a car accident that left her a quadriplegic; she would die two years later, sending Cee-Lo into a deep depression. The experience had a profound impact on his music: He told Rolling Stone magazine in 2001, "From that point on, I had no shame incorporating my feelings about God or the world into my music."
In 1991 Cee-Lo hooked up with three high school friends—Khujo (Willie Knight), Big Gipp (Cameron Gipp), and T-Mo (Robert Barrett)—to form the group Goodie Mob. The quartet first appeared on the 1994 album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik by fellow Atlanta rap musicians OutKast (André 3000, one-half of OutKast, was a childhood friend of Cee-Lo's). The following year, Goodie Mob released their own debut, Soul Food (1995), which went gold within weeks of its release. They followed up three years later with Still Standing (1998).
From the beginning, Goodie Mob wanted to transcend the thuggish style and message of gangsta rap, believing that they could be a positive force in hip-hop music. They pioneered the Dirty South sound, a style of rap music marked by buoyant, club-friendly beats and lyrical depth. Goodie Mob's first two albums were lauded for their "live instrumentation, their organic, bluesy vibe and their smart, unusually soulful lyrics," as noted by Rolling Stone in 2001.
Despite the critical acclaim, Still Standing did not sell as well as had been expected, and the group hastily released a third record, World Party, in 1999. Although the album went platinum, Cee-Lo described it as the "greatest disappointment in my career" in his 2001 interview with Rolling Stone. "I hated that album," he said, "It didn't fall in line with anything I wanted to be remembered for." He soon split with the group to pursue a solo deal with Arista Records. The record company had recently experienced success with OutKast's album Stankonia and with such "neo-soul" artists as Alicia Keyes, Jill Scott, and Macy Gray, and saw Cee-Lo as a natural fit for the label.
But Cee-Lo's first solo work, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (2002), was unlike anything that anyone else was doing at the time or anything that Cee-Lo himself had ever produced. His music defied categorization, blending elements of rap, funk, gospel, rock, and soul and even featuring metal guitar and banjo riffs. The song "Gettin' Grown" earned Cee-Lo his first Grammy nomination for best urban/alternative performance in 2003, and the record went to number two on Billboard magazine's charts. In 2004 he released a second solo album, Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine, which produced the radio hits "I'll Be Around" (produced by Timbaland), "The One" (produced by Jazze Pha), and "Let's Stay Together" (produced by the Neptunes).
Cee-Lo's third incarnation, in 2006, would bring his greatest commercial success yet. That year he teamed up with Los Angeles-based disc jockey and producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), whom he had first met in 1998 while playing a Goodie Mob show at the University of Georgia. The two clicked, and they soon formed the duo Gnarls Barkley, releasing St. Elsewhere in 2006. The album's first single, "Crazy," was a runaway hit in the United Kingdom, debuting at number one on the pop chart based on download sales alone. It stayed at the top for nine weeks, a run not seen since Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975. In the United States the song reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number seven on the modern rock chart, scoring airplay across formats and appealing to an incredibly wide audience.
Craig Kallman, chief executive officer of Atlantic Records Group, commented to Rolling Stone in 2006, "You don't see a lot of records that have such a broad spectrum of connection to people—young and old. There's something for everybody." Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse were equally surprised by the album's popularity. Danger Mouse told Rolling Stone in the 2006 interview that "this record wasn't deliberate on either one of our parts. We didn't worry about who would listen to it or what station would play it. We were just trying to impress each other."
In addition to "Crazy," St. Elsewhere featured other lyrics that testified to Cee-Lo's darker side: "The Boogie Monster," about paranoia; "Who Cares?" about schizophrenia; and "Just a Thought," a meditation on suicide.
At the 2007 Grammy Awards ceremony, Cee-Lo took home honors for best urban/alternative performance for "Crazy" and best alternative music album for St. Elsewhere. Gnarls Barkley also garnered the award for best group from BET in 2007. The duo released their sophomore album, The Odd Couple, in 2008.
At a Glance …
Born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway on May 30, 1974, in Atlanta, GA; married Christina Shanta Johnson, March 18, 2000 (divorced 2005); children: Kingston; Sierra and Kalah (stepdaughters).
Career: Recording artist, 1991—; has performed and recorded as a solo artist and as a member of the groups Goodie Mob, Dungeon Family, and Gnarls Barkley.
Awards: Grammy awards, best urban/alternative performance and best alternative music album, both 2007; BET Award for Best Group (Gnarls Barkley), 2007.
Addresses: Office—Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 28th Fl., New York, NY 10104.
Albums with Goodie Mob
Soul Food, La Face, 1995.
Still Standing, La Face, 1998.
World Party, La Face, 1999.
Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, Arista, 2002.
Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine, Arista, 2004.
Albums with Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere, Atlantic, 2006.
The Odd Couple, Atlantic, 2008.
(With Dungeon Family) Even in Darkness, Arista, 2001.
Closet Freak: The Best of Cee-Lo Green and the Soul Machine, 2006.
Palmer, Tamara, Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop, Backbeat Books, 2005.
New York Times, June 18, 2006; April 6, 2008.
Rolling Stone, March 14, 2001; August 24, 2006, p. 82.
"Cee-Lo," VH1, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/cee_lo/bio.jhtml (accessed July 15, 2008).
Official Cee-Lo MySpace Page, http://www.myspace.com/ceelogreen.
—Deborah A. Ring
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