The Boogie Monster Meets His Match

An Interview with Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley

by Steven J. Horowitz


What happens when one of hip-hop’s most proficiently daring producers swaps musical spit with a soul-hop man that consistently exudes fragrant psychedelia? In the case of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green, Gnarls Barkley was formed, building a simmering buzz that could make a vibrator jealous. The buzz has become so immense, in fact, that Gnarls Barkley has recently become the first group to have a number one single in the UK without a physical copy of the record available for purchase. The single, “Crazy”, had only been offered for online purchase, and was downloaded over 31,000 times, launching the record into hip-hop history.

“Crazy”, from the forthcoming album St. Elsewhere, has been on an Internet rampage over the past six months, worming its way onto blogs across the nation. And despite its rich polish, featuring shrill wails and a bump-thumping musical soundscape, the record was recorded in a single brusque take, leaving the track with a wild grittiness. “A lot of people are fascinated by the fact that ‘Crazy’ was done in one take, but hey, that’s not the first time I’ve done it. I usually leave one take. It’s not so amazing,” says Cee-Lo.

In the same approach that “Crazy” was penned in a one-take craze, St. Elsewhere was entirely recorded in the same way over a two-year span, leaving the album with the rough edge of a live performance painted over with a sheen studio gloss. The musical bond between Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo acts as a base for the body of the album, and despite the distinctive sound that each artist has, they coalesce in a way that captures elements from a slew of genres while remaining fresh and unsullied.

“We go against the grain, we’re underdogs, so it does have that spirit, that indie rock spirit to it. It’s soul because it’s pain and it’s conviction,” says Cee-Lo. “It’s alt-rock too, because it’s really mindful, really articulate, really captivating and thought out. And to me, it’s instrumental, because if you take away the words, my voice is just another instrument layered into the track.”

Cee-Lo, who started as a groundling in ATL-based Goodie Mob, has enriched his style over the span of two solo albums,Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections and Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine. With funk-spastic rhythm and heaven-reaching vocal trills, Cee-Lo has been designated as a hip-hop eccentric, a title he increasingly accents on St. Elsewhere.

On the album’s opener, “Go-Go Gadget Gospel”, Cee-Lo rips into a heart-popping beat, based on the aerobic pace of a brass section, by vocally climbing the track with the fervor of a Baptist preacher. “Smiley Faces”, a track that captures the same brutish intensity, relies on more of a finger-snapping and skipping grain that Cee-Lo croons against with playful lyrics like “Here’s something that you could smile about: / My girlfriend, she fucks me all the time / But the irony of it all is that she loves me all the time.”

Gnarls Barkley refrains from keeping the album completely insular, with the inclusion of “Gone Daddy Gone”, a cover of the classic track by the Violent Femmes. The track features Cee-Lo on a more reserved vocal tip and Danger Mouse cutting loose with the ratatat of his drum machine. “It’s something kind of random. Initially, it was paying homage to a great time in music, and its vibrations,” says Cee-Lo. “It’s good clean fun, nothing more complicated than that.” While Cee-Lo may be known for his hip-hop persona, he holds his roots in the punk scene of the ‘70s. “I think I wanted to be a punk-rocker before I wanted to be anything else. I remember wanting a Mohawk and I wanted to cut the sleeves off of my jean jacket because I used to want to be Dirty Dan from Sha-Na-Na. This is before hip-hop was even around. I had the skinny piano tie. I had it, man.”

Although certain tracks on the album jump with the pulse of lighthearted rock, several of the tracks on St. Elsewhere give the album more of a dark shade. “Just A Taught”, with its chunky aerosoled drum and cymbal hits, features Cee-Lo on a depressive binge. With lyrics that relay a scrutinizing introspection, Cee-Lo sings “When I was lost I even found myself looking in the gun’s direction / And so I tried everything but suicide / But it’s crossed my mind.” Although Cee-Lo sags the album with such gloomy declarations, he lifts it back up by adding, “But I’m fine”, topping the track off with a half-smile.

With the imminent release of St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley are set to perform their first American set at this year’s Coachella Festival in Indio, California. Coachella, known for its mouthwatering roster of indie-throbs, may seem a bit out of place for a hip-hop duo like Gnarls Barkley to play, but with rock and punk dancing in the album’s ether, Gnarls Barkley is likely to fit right in. “When Coachella called, it was exciting, actually,” says Cee-Lo. “I’m going to meet a lot of my idols. I’m humble about it, man, shit.”

Though Gnarls Barkley are in the bustling midst of promoting their project, Cee-Lo has not been hesitant in persevering with a slew of alternate projects. Having recently composed the monster hit “Don’t Cha” for the Pussycat Dolls, Cee-Lo is currently in the process of recording a new album with Goodie Mob, with five songs already in the can. But while he continues with other projects, Cee-Lo is in record-label limbo with a project he had done with Jazze Pha, the super-producer extraordinaire who has churned out hits for everyone from Ciara to Ludacris.

The project, which Cee-Lo hoped to title Sonic Fever, featured the lead single, “Happy Hour,” and the follow-up “Disco Bitch,” featuring the Pussycat Dolls. Cee-Lo had recorded his projects with Danger Mouse and Jazze Pha at the same time, but the latter inevitably fell flat. “It’s a very fine project. Maybe Capitol [Records] didn’t see it the same way; I don’t know what they want. They don’t necessarily even have an urban department in place that can facilitate such a thing. It never seemed to be one of their strong points. It’s not necessarily an insult to Capitol Records, it’s just an observation,” he says. “Hopefully somebody’s got a computer up there in Capitol Records, go online see all the [fuss that] Gnarls Barkley is causing over there, and maybe they’ll get excited, and realize that the person who’s responsible for that is on this record.”

The overseas success of Gnarls Barkley may reinvigorate the project for a future release, but for now, Cee-Lo is mainly concerned with how St. Elsewhere will be received in the United States. “Crazy”‘s recent national debut on Grey’s Anatomy shows signs that Gnarls Barkley is beginning to outgrow their foreign shadow of success. “I thought people would be like, ‘Gnarls Barkley?’ It’s all about the people acting like this album’s always been around,” Cee-Lo says. And though established musicians may be nervous about the release of an alternative album, Cee-Lo isn’t experiencing the typical bout with emotions. “I’m going through labor pains and stuff like that, morning sickness,” he says. “Other than that, it’s cool.”

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