Three years ago this month, I got a phone call from CeeLo.
I remember the date because he'd just released a new mixtape (Cee-Lo & Greg Street Present Stray Bullets) of mostly solo material as a precursor to his next major-label LP, The Lady Killer. Lo was in rare form on this release. There was even a song with the B-52s called "Cho Cha the Cat." He had his '60s lounge singer shtick so down pat it was almost sickening.
"But tell me, what do you think about it?" he asked me. It was a surprising question considering I was supposed to be the one conducting the interview. Though I'd set up our conversation through his publicist under the premise of talking about his new release, I was really trying to sneak in some questions about his old stuff.
"How's the reunion with Goodie Mob coming?" I asked, desperate to change the subject. Quite well, he replied. In fact, he informed me he was sitting next to Big Gipp in the limo as we spoke. I instantly pictured CeeLo rocking an ascot and smoking jacket while flashing his Cheshire cat grin. He and Gipp were laughing about something. Maybe the joke was on me.
I had forgotten about that conversation until two weeks ago, when I found myself standing before all four members of Goodie Mob at an invite-only listening session at the Westside's Patchwerk Studios for the group's long-awaited reunion album, Age Against the Machine, out Aug. 27. The implied meaning of the title was highlighted by the fact that the clique's youngest member, CeeLo, was celebrating his 38th birthday, an age once considered ancient in rapper years.
About 50 journalists, photographers, tastemakers, DJs, and industry insiders stood crowded into a room with the Mob. Before the session even started, a member of the media took the opportunity to present CeeLo with a gift. This wasn't one of those listening parties where people show up out of obligation to rub industry elbows. We'd been salivating six years to hear the results of the once-groundbreaking group's public reconciliation and 14 years for a new album featuring all four members. This was personal. When it comes to Goodie Mob, there is no such thing as an unbiased hip-hop journalist — not in Atlanta. Either you love them or you have a hole in your soul.
Like everyone else in the room, I'd come to hear if the same cat who found his voice in Vegas and donned peacock feathers at the Grammys with Gwyneth Paltrow and the Muppets was still capable of slinging soul food with the Mob.
Over the course of the next two hours, we would hear samples of songs that would exceed our expectations and others that would confirm our worst fears. While it's way too early to tell, from the sounds of it, Goodie Mob might finally have a shot at the kind of mainstream success that has long eluded it. Unfortunately, it also sounds like the group might be prepared to jump the shark to get it.
But the story of Goodie Mob's return is about more than the group's evolution or the potential impact of CeeLo's over-the-top success. It's about us, the fans, and whether our own nostalgia for the Goodie Mob that was will keep us from embracing the Goodie Mob that has come to be.
"Stop cuffing the mic like a rapper," CeeLo jokes with Gipp after handing him the mic so he can explain the meaning behind the album title. They'd just returned to Atlanta from New York, where they'd held a listening event the night before. Unlike most of the group's public engagements since first announcing its intention to reunite on V-103 in 2007, CeeLo seems to have broken the agreed upon color scheme for the day. While T-Mo, Khujo, and Gipp look subdued in all black, he's rocking a white tank that sets off his bulky tattooed arms.
"All we ever wanted to do was make a stance for the South," Gipp says. "To show people that we were intelligent, to show people that we were gonna advance the music. And at the end of the day, the machine is the one that controls the information to the people. So Age Against the Machine is really us saying that we're still here, we're still brand-new, and we are still fighting the machine."
The album intro is cued up. The music fills the studio, CeeLo's voice commandeering the track. Sonically, it's progressive with a nod to the group's provocative roots. That much is confirmed by CeeLo, who draws a connection between it and the classic intro, "The Experience," from the group's second album, Still Standing. Next comes "Pinstripes," a straight rap track, featuring T.I., with CeeLo seemingly taking aim at a generation of fake gangstas: "I know you/You tofu/You ain't real meat/This ain't real beef." "Special Education," the recently leaked song featuring Janelle Monáe, gets heads bobbing. And "Colors," a song about gang life, with a slick, spoken word flow, turns into a deeper metaphor about the strength of bloodlines and family pedigree.
There are some undeniably funny moments on the album, too — most intended, others, not so much. Take, for instance, the tracks on which the group can be heard embracing '80s arena rock.
"I'm a fan of Rush and Queen and all this big arena rock," CeeLo explains. "I wanna take hip-hop, if we can, to those big arenas. You have to envision the song you want to do by the venue you want play in. I want to go bigger, man." While performers such as Kanye and Jay-Z have already achieved arena-levels of success, CeeLo's comment is surprising considering Goodie Mob's history.
Upon dropping its Soul Food debut in 1995, Goodie Mob became the South's definitive answer to the East Coast's Public Enemy and the West Coast's N.W.A. Goodie Mob was socially conscious, streetwise, and sanctified. I prided myself on being able to rap every line of that record from front to back — every bit of Big Gipp's rhythmic rumination and Khujo's real-nigga rebellion, T-Mo's everyman frustrations, and CeeLo's Buddha-like proverbs.
The thing that made Goodie Mob different from the beginning was the group's raw street conscience. They didn't care about pissing off the wrong people or questioning the right authority figure, whether it was Atlanta's black mayor (Bill Campbell) or Georgia's white governor (Zell Miller). When the group debuted, rap as a genre wasn't married to the mainstream yet. Like any long-term relationship, that would take concessions on both sides. White America would have to warm up to the idea of being entertained en masse by Negroes With Attitudes. And hip-hop would have to learn to direct more of its hatred inward. In the next decade, both became all too eager to acquiesce.
Goodie Mob's demise over creative differences after the overly commercial World Party in 1999 brought new relevance to the meaning of the group's name: the GOOd DIE Mostly Over Bullshit. It's no secret that Atlanta rap suffered with the takeover of snap and trap rap. Even in the midst of earning its title as the hip-hop capital and sparking an industry that seems magically to reinvent itself every year with a new class of trappers-turned-rappers, the heart and soul of Atlanta rap has been on life support for at least a decade, with the South repeatedly shouldering blame for the genre's lost vitality.
Of course, the irony is that CeeLo originally left Goodie Mob because he felt like the group had abandoned its core values in a failed attempt to chase after commercial success.
"I was morally disappointed in World Party because I believe I have a responsibility with my music," CeeLo said in the 2007 book Third Coast. "I plead temporary insanity, because of what we went through, being the one who helped kick down the door and not reaped the same benefits as the rest of Southern music and culture. It was as if we were ahead of our time and turned our space ship around to come back to earth to simply fit in."
Now that he's returned as the recognized leader and creative force of the group, some of the risks he's pushing the group to take on Age Against the Machine could easily be interpreted the same way by fans. Again and again at the listening party, CeeLo and Gipp address those unasked questions and criticisms.
"When we sat down to do this album," says Gipp, "[CeeLo] said, 'We're gonna push the envelope on this, Gipp. We're gonna stretch out.' They're not gonna come back and be like, 'Oh, Goodie Mob done put out 1995 Soul Food.' Why we gonna put out the old when it's 2013?"
About eight songs into the listening session, they show us just how far they're willing to stretch out when a hook features CeeLo singing at the top of his lungs about his appreciation for his "very first white girl." He sings, "thanks for the memories." It's a humorous, radio-friendly song with a message that could have the Internets claiming Goodie Mob is down with the Illuminati. And that's deep for a group that came out forewarning listeners of Illuminati and gentrification a decade before either became all the rage. CeeLo signals to cut off the song and breaks the silence with laughter before gauging the response.
"Now let me ask all you core Goodie Mob fans, does this shock anybody? Cause if it does, it's working."
One audience member speaks up: "It kinda shocked me .... On the first album, y'all was talking to the people and shit like that. So to me it's kinda—"
"Are you a racist, sir?" CeeLo asks with a half-joking tone.
"I ain't racist. I understand what y'all are doing, but it's like, a little shocking."
While CeeLo tries to convince the room it's going to be a hit, Gipp backs him up with a speech about how his daughter, who goes to school with kids of all races and sexual orientations, has challenged him to open up his worldview. But it's a stark contrast from the late-'90s Goodie Mob that tended to paint white America with a wide brush. "Now if we don't speak on stuff like that, then we not being the Goodie Mob," Gipp says. Still, it's an admittedly stark contrast from the '90s-era Goodie Mob that rapped about the legacy of racist "crackers" in a state that still flew the Confederate battle flag.
In an industry that has a history of turning its antagonists into accomplices, music fans tend to fear that the rebels of our youth will age out or sell out. But being grown men with families to support and legacies to leave has given Goodie Mob's members a different perspective on life than they had in their teens and early 20s. It's funny how we as fans grow and change but don't always allow our cultural heroes that freedom. The acknowledged struggle for Goodie Mob will be gaining broader acceptance without looking like it's compromising too much.
"We're trying to appropriate and accommodate and make it more palatable, because it's not easy to make four large black men not be intimidating," CeeLo says to a room full of knowing laughter. "They be scared of me by myself, you know what I mean? So, I've had to smile real bright and let 'em know I was smart and I was savvy. But it's all for the sake of the advancement of our culture. Because it's still black music; I'm still a black artist, no matter how you slice it. My commercial success is critical success as well. So I don't want y'all to think I'm out there shucking and jiving for no goddamn body. That ain't even what I do, that's not how I play with it."
They're also eager to redeem Southern rap, and Atlanta's hip-hop legacy, in particular. "Look at Atlanta," says Gipp. "We built this city on intelligence and pushing the envelope. But when we gave it to the drug dealers, what happened?"
"Niggas got high," Goodie's A&R director Kawan "KP" Prather chimes in on cue.
"And our kids are suffering from it, not us," Gipp continues. "That's why we have to be smart about the way we present our music. We can't just throw it in people's face; it'll scare 'em. We don't want to run off the money."
Gipp also goes out of his way to give CeeLo credit as the creative force behind the group's best choices, from conceptualizing and sequencing the group's first two albums to coming up with the cover photo and title for Soul Food.
"Nobody in music right now would've gained this kind of success and come back and fucked with the brothers like he did," he says. "So man, if he can't be commended for that — if we can't be commended for what we're trying to do — then fuck it then, man. Put your money into that other shit. I hope you live good tomorrow."
As his words settled in later on, I recalled that phone interview with CeeLo from three years ago and how I'd hesitated to tell him what I really thought of his solo music. I wondered what I would say if we had that conversation today. I'd probably say that I want to see them win, regardless. Because at this point, hip-hop needs Goodie Mob more than Goodie Mob needs hip-hop. And if Age Against the Machine succeeds in giving the group the commercial lift it's long deserved, that could be food for the soul as well. If not, at least I still have the original recipe on CD.
LOL. Get off my lawn you crazy kids!!!
Phoenix though! LOL. That's aiight though Kwanza; you're still good with me.
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