From Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" to his solo hit "F--- You" to his work as a judge on the NBC talent show The Voice, you can't escape Cee-Lo Green these days. But that Hollywood persona seems far away from the Atlanta scene where Green got his real start with the group that put Southern hip-hop on the map in the mid-1990s: Goodie Mob. Now, after 14 years, all four members are back together, which Green says is an opportunity to bring something new and deep to hip-hop.
"For hip-hop, we felt like we could bring some maturity, bring some consciousness, bring some wisdom, you know?" he says.
Goodie Mob's new album, Age Against the Machine, aims to challenge mainstream hip-hop. Members Cee-Lo Green and Big Gipp recently spoke with NPR's David Greene about songs like "Special Education" and a need to build new leaders. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For a while, it was tough to avoid this on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY")
GNARLS BARKLEY: (Singing) Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Does that make me...
GREENE: The hit single "Crazy" launched Cee-Lo Green into the mainstream as half the duo Gnarls Barkley. He went on to release a solo album, and he was soon in living rooms as a judge on the NBC show "The Voice." That Hollywood persona seems far away from the Atlanta scene where he got his real start, with a group called Goodie Mob. They helped put Southern hip-hop on the map in the mid-1990s.
Goodie Mob made its name with socially conscious rap music. And now, after 14 years, all four members, including Cee-Lo Green, are back together on a new album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SET")
GOODIE MOB: (Rapping) The good kind of law keep being. The mob keep it funky, keep being. Have mercy, holy war we believe in it. I'm set. What up...
GREENE: This track, "I'm Set," is off "Age Against the Machine," the new album out today. Cee-Lo Green says getting back to Goodie Mob was an opportunity to return something deeper to hip-hop.
CEE-LO GREEN: We felt like, you know, we could bring some maturity, bring some consciousness, bring some wisdom.
GREENE: Green joined us to talk about the album, along with fellow Goodie Mob member Big Gipp.
BIG GIPP: When you listen to the radio, it seems like everybody just lives in the club 24 hours a day, which - we all know that life isn't like that. So, you know, it's almost like it's a perpetuated scenario on just our community.
GREENE: You said living in the club as opposed to bringing in, you know, politics and then sort of social awareness and issues like that.
GIPP: Yeah, I mean because look at the times, and look at where our community is. You know what I mean? It's like some people say that it's what the people want. But I feel like it's what radio stations and then what program directors push onto the people - and especially young minds.
GREENE: And Goodie Mob wanted to speak to those young minds with their song "Special Education." In it, Cee-Lo Green reflects on his own youth as an awkward kid. He was called names like Chicken Head. "Special Education" features singer Janelle Monae, and it highlights Green's roots as a rapper.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPECIAL EDUCATION")
GOODIE MOB: (Rapping) Let me put something poetic into plain English: I'd rather die than to not be distinguished. The outsiders have no desire to be equal when V.I.P. stands for very insecure people.
JANELLE MONAE: (Singing) I don't wear the clothes you wear. I'm just different, and I don't care. It's kind of sad, and it's a shame. Everyone wants to be the same. If you are...
GREENE: Well, Cee-Lo, tell me what the message is, in this song.
GREEN: The message is originality, the bravery to be oneself, you know, to shed enough light to guide someone else to themselves as well; encouraging individuality, you know, which would ultimately classify as building the new leaders, you know?
GIPP: And it's really to champion those kids that may not be looked at as being cool right now. And, you know, we're just giving them a theme song, well, just to let them know that we understand how you feel, you know. And right now, it's like kids don't have that message. So I mean, for Goodie Mob to be able to give them that message - I mean, it's a great feeling.
GREENE: The new album also takes on Cee-Lo Green's rise to fame and his return to Goodie Mob, particularly in the song "Power."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POWER")
GOODIE MOB: (Rapping) Hey, well, now I've got the power, but I haven't had it long. And it wasn't until recently I realized that I had it wrong...
GREENE: You realized recently that you had it wrong - what are you talking about there?
GREEN: Hey, man, you're asking some good questions early in the morning.
GREENE: We try. We try. (Laughing)
GREEN: I'm so glad of that. "Now I've got the power, but I haven't had it long. And it wasn't until recently I realized that I had it wrong." You know? I guess I felt like I wasn't - to look back in the retrospect, I don't know if I was shooting my best shot, so to speak. And I had kind of just directed my energies at one demographic, trying to better the perception of black music and black entertainment, you know - and so much, in fact, that - you know, sometimes I'm not even considered a black entertainer anymore. Like, I'm just Cee-Lo Green.
And so this song here is just kind of going back to root and reclaiming, you know, my position right on the front line and in the middle of a fight in saying that no, I still have a very in-depth opinion of our overall state of the art - you know what I mean? - and state of society. You know what I mean - the state of mind. So "Power" is basically just saying I've acquired a higher platform, you know, to preach from.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POWER")
GOODIE MOB: (Rapping) So it's not about black or white. It's about Cee-Lo Green. Now I really understand what they mean when they say white power, white power, yeah, white power...
GREENE: Now, Green says the title of this album, "Age Against the Machine," is a nod to the '90s rock-rap group Rage Against the Machine, which helped inspire Goodie Mob to take on social themes in their music.
GREEN: When we classify ourselves as alternative, you have to reference Rage Against the Machine because they were socially and politically opinionated, rock and rap infused. So it was very different and unique. And so we, of course, are an extension, you know, of that eccentricity. And, of course, we aspire for that distinction ourselves.
And in literal terms, you know, we were a lot more vengeful, and I had a lot more rage, when we were younger. So "Age Against the Machine" is not where there is a war of words; it's where wisdom is the weapon of choice.
GREENE: These guys sing about the influence of earlier musicians, in their song "Father Time."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FATHER TIME")
GOODIE MOB: (Rapping) You have the patriarch, founder, the forefather, initiator, the forbearer, your predecessor, the architect and now author; expunged your son, informed your aunt and better yet, your clergyman...
GREENE: Tell me what we're hearing.
GIPP: "Father Time"? Just a written letter to the rap community to always remember your elders, and remember where you got it from. And never feel like the things that you're able to accomplish, you will be able to accomplish them if people didn't come before you. And I think a lot of artists forget the reason that they are able to reach the heights that they are reaching right now is because somebody fought the battle for them.
GREEN: No doubt.
GREENE: Well, Cee-Lo, Big Gipp, thank you guys so much for coming in and talking about this.
GIPP: Thank you.
GREEN: Oh, thank you so much, man. We really appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPECIAL EDUCATION")
MONAE: (Singing) I don't wear the clothes you wear. I'm just different and I don't care...
GREENE: Big Gipp and Cee-Lo Greene, from Goodie Mob. The group's new album, "Age Against the Machine," is out today. And you can hear from all four members of Goodie Mob at nprmusic.org. You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPECIAL EDUCATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.