Gnarls Barkley

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Gnarls Barkley

Alternative-R&B group

Gnarls Barkley, the duo of vocalist Cee-Lo and producer Danger Mouse, scored major hits in 2006 with their highly innovative single "Crazy" and album St. Elsewhere. The Gnarls Barkley collaboration between a vocalist/lyricist and a beatmaking producer emerged from the world of hip-hop, a genre in which both artists had previously worked independently of each other. Yet St. Elsewhere was not really a hip-hop release—or an electronic, rock, or R&B album, although it contained elements of all those genres. Gnarls Barkley extended their unorthodox eclectic vision with the 2008 release The Odd Couple, and were making plans for one more release after that.

Before their collaboration, the paths of both Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse led through the innovative hip-hop scene that flourished in the Atlanta, Georgia, area beginning in the 1990s. Cee-Lo (born Thomas Calloway on May 30, 1974) was an Atlanta native, the son of two Baptist ministers. In 1991 he joined with a group of high school friends to form Goodie Mob, a hip-hop quartet that incorporated the playing of live instruments into their sound. Closely associated with the experimental and highly successful group Outkast, on whose album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik they made their recorded debut, Goodie Mob offered positive lyrics to balance the violent images favored by Atlanta rappers working in the so-called Dirty South style.

When Goodie Mob appeared at the University of Georgia around 1998, they followed an opening act called Rhyme and Reason. That group was formed by Brian Burton (born in White Plains, New York, on July 29, 1977), who soon after that took the name of the British television cartoon Danger Mouse for his stage name. Burton had already done production work for various Georgia-based artists and had released a pair of independent electronic albums using the name Pelican City. The two found that they both enjoyed music from beyond the hip-hop genre, and specifically shared enthusiasm for the British electronic-pop band Portishead. Nothing came of that meeting of the minds at first, but the two kept in touch as their careers developed.

Cee-Lo departed Goodie Mob due to creative dfferences over the group's 1999 release World Party, was signed to the Arista label, and released the solo albums Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (2002) and Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine (2004). His composition "Don't Cha," originally written for Outkast backup vocalist Tori Alamaze, became a major hit for Britain's Pussycat Dolls. Danger Mouse lived and worked in England for several years, then returned to the United States and released the album Ghetto Pop Life in collaboration with rapper Jemini (credited to DM & Jemini) in 2003.

In that year, Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse met at the suggestion of a mutual friend and began to exchange musical ideas in an unstructured way. "Danger asked if he could play me a few things he had been working on," Cee-Lo told Margeaux Watson of Entertainment Weekly. "I was blown away, to say the least. It was the sound of my soul. I said, ‘I would love to use some of your stuff,’ but he was like, ‘I don't just do tracks, I do albums.’ So I said, ‘Let's do an album.’"

"We had no pressure when we started work on Gnarls Barkley," Cee-Lo told Ed Condran of the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record newspaper. "It was very organic. We had no idea how it would go over. We paid for everything out of pocket. We didn't have high hopes. ‘If it does good, that's great’ was our attitude." The duo worked on their music in between individual projects, such as Danger Mouse's The Mouse and the Mask release with rapper MF Doom and his mash-up The Grey Album, a sonic fusion of the Beatles' White Album and rapper Jay-Z's Black Album, which attracted unprecedented interest online even after its distribution was partially suppressed by the threat of copyright lawsuits. Both artists have claimed that the name Gnarls Barkley had nothing to do with that of National Basketball Association Charles Barkley, but was simply a fanciful name; Charles Barkley later became an admirer of the duo's music.

Gnarls Barkley became a powerful demonstration of the power of the Internet to promote unknown music, when copies of "Crazy" leaked out to download sites in 2005 and began to spread virally. The duo was signed to the Downtown label, and the single was quickly made available through legal download services. It rose to the top of the United Kingdom singles chart on the strength of downloads alone, with no physical CD single ever released—becoming the first single in history to do so. The release of the St. Elsewhere album in May of 2006 met with similar success, as the album peaked at number four on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart. The duo earned two Grammy Awards for 2006, Best Urban/Alternative Performance and Best Alternative Music Album.

"Crazy" was ubiquitous on radio in the summer of 2006, with Cee-Lo's lyrical musings on insanity floating over Danger Mouse beats that harked back to the classic Motown sound even though they used state-of-the-art electronics. The St. Elsewhere album was loosely centered on the fuzzy line between sanity and insanity. As the duo put the music together, Danger Mouse would first create the beat and then turn it over to Cee-Lo, who would write lyrics to go with it. Cee-Lo mostly sang rather than rapped, and his background in Southern soul and gospel revealed itself in a falsetto voice resembling that of classic soul vocalist Al Green.

In a music world driven by personality, Gnarls Barkley avoided conventional press-driven publicity almost completely. When they gave one of their rare performances, this time at California's Coachella music festival, they dressed in Wizard of Oz costumes (the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion). "I call it a war-drobe," Green told Laura Barton of the London Guardian, of the group's penchant for wearing costumes. "Because we're waging war against the industry, against the system." They wanted listeners to focus on the music rather than on an image.

For the Record …

Members include: Cee-Lo (Thomas Calloway), vocals, lyricist; Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), producer.

Formed 2003 in Atlanta, GA; single "Crazy" leaked as Internet download, 2005; released album St. Elsewhere, 2006; released The Odd Couple, 2008.

Awards: Grammy Awards, Best Urban/Alternative Performance (for "Crazy") and Best Alternative Music Album (for St. Elsewhere), 2006.

Addresses: Record company—Downtown Music, 485 Broadway, 3rd Fl., New York NY 10013.

One-time collaborations between a lyricist and a producer are common in the hip-hop genre, and at first Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse had no plans for a second release. Their creative relationship and the success of St. Elsewhere led them to change their minds, however, and The Odd Couple was released in 2008. This time, as an established act, Gnarls Barkley suffered from Internet downloading as the album was rushed into release after copies were illegally leaked. The album featured a similar stylistic mix to that of St. Elsewhere, but had a darker tone, and it lacked an obvious hit like "Crazy." Reviews were mixed, with Lynn Norment of Ebony declaring that "Gnarls Barkley and The Odd Couple do not disappoint, especially if you are taken (mesmerized or freaked out) by their racy beats and deranged vocals. For a psychedelic good time, this is the ticket." But John Bush of the All Music Guide heard "similar sounds and themes [to St. Elsewhere,] for sure, but also a clear lack of innovation, lyrical and production touches that have since become clichés, and more than just a few passages that will prompt a severe case of listener déjà vu." Despite the mixed reaction and a slow sales start, The Odd Couple performed solidly, topping Billboard's Top Electronic Albums chart and rising to number 12 on the Billboard 200. Cee-Lo told Paul W. Arnold of the Hip Hop Web site that the duo planned one more Gnarls Barkley album in the future.

Selected discography

St. Elsewhere, Downtown, 2006.

The Odd Couple, Downtown, 2008.



Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 20, 2006.

Ebony, May 2008, p. 39.

Entertainment Weekly, April 4, 2008, p. 32.

Guardian (London, England), June 30, 2006.

Interview, May 2006, p. 66; August 2006, p. 124.

Record (Bergen County, NJ), April 11, 2006, p. G14.


"Cee-Lo Green: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been," Hip Hop Dx, (June 26, 2008).

"Gnarls Barley," All Music Guide, (June 26, 2008).

—James M. Manheim