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CeeLo Green and The Magical Musical Mystery Machine

CeeLo Green, Justin Stephens

How a troubled kid from Atlanta became not just part of our musical households, but—with a hit TV show, multiple albums, a Vegas show and maybe even a sitcom—the engine of an entire musical industry.

Photos by Justin Stephens

Take a moment to imagine the music industry as a Rube Goldberg contraption, maybe a combination of the whimsical alarm clock/toaster that Marty McFly sets in motion in Back to the Future and the imposing thingamajig in Modern Times that skewers Charlie Chaplin between its steely gears. Picture the chute at the top of the machine where you feed it the raw material: young talent found in its usual habitat, whether it’s the Mickey Mouse Club, Hollywood High School or some mall in Orlando. The raw material goes through the belts, is ground and polished and conveyed and then dropped into a bin. The final product is something easily identifiable by timbre and hair extension and tattoo, something that can be slotted neatly into the presets on your iPod, whether it’s country or dance or rock or R & B. Sleek, glossy, perfectly formed and marketable—and maybe a bit predictable: top-of-the-line pop stars such as Blake Shelton and Britney Spears.

Now, the big machine sputters and pauses, and with one final emphysemic wheeze, hacks up something called CeeLo Green. Are you seeing this? Is this a plausible output? You double-check the inputs. And yes, it turns out that in today’s global pop music supply chain, The Dungeon is just as likely a source of grade A raw pop material as the Mickey Mouse Club or some mall in Orlando. The Dungeon is an unfinished red clay basement in the Little Five Points neighborhood in Atlanta where CeeLo got his start, rapping and singing over his buddy Rico Wade’s drum-machined beats. It was the birthplace of the “Dirty South” and the very same pin drop on the Google Map where Outkast’s André 3000 and Big Boi got it together.


But CeeLo, with his smooth, perfectly round head attached to his powerful bullet-shaped body, doesn’t look anything like a conventional R & B star. Whether he’s singing with the Muppets on the Grammys or on MTV in a full Darth Vader costume, performing with Chewbacca on drums or perched in his red Klingon Captain’s chair on The Voice with a pink cockatoo on his shoulder . . . CeeLo Green’s raw material seems like it comes from outer space.

Of course, it’s easier for me to picture CeeLo as a product of the magical music industry machine, because right now he’s on a couch on a West Hollywood sound stage directly in front of me. Moments before, a chauffeur had driven a champagne brown Porsche Cayenne right into this hangar-sized photo set and CeeLo had emerged in a fresh white T-shirt, purple basketball shorts and Elton John-scale sunglasses. His posse includes two buddies from back home: Big Gipp from Goodie Mob (The Dungeon family rap crew in which he came up) and Lou, a friend from military school who’s been running his security for the past few years. There are also two 20-something girls, Kerri and Kelsey, wearing “Benays Bird and Animal Rentals” T-shirts, who say they’re just there to look after Lady, CeeLo’s pink cockatoo.

The singer seems delighted by the scene, and in fact his smile projects a brilliance that could be measured by a professional jewelry appraiser’s refractometer: CeeLo has a tiny diamond stud embedded in each veneer. The only snag in the entire operation is the missing gold lamé suit. He was fitted for it this morning, but it got lost somewhere between the stylist’s office and the set, so somebody punches up the Prince station on Spotify and CeeLo proclaims that “Shake Your Pants” by Cameo is his jam. He knows every word. It’s at this point that I’m summoned to the couch.

First I’m introduced to Larry Mestel, the CEO of Primary Wave, CeeLo’s “marketing, branding, PR and talent management” business, of which, CeeLo informs me, he’s “recently been appointed CCO.” Everyone sits down and CeeLo vaults into an expansive explanation of Primary Wave’s “underground railroad” of genre tripping. “We’re going back and forth freeing people, you dig?” I’m not sure that I do, so he continues. “I believe we’ve been paving a two-way street. My varied listening palette is all-inclusive of all walks of life. No one individual is exempt from the human experience, so it is that intangible that is a universal truth. In that regard, I’ve had success in encapsulating something cosmic. You know what I’m saying?” I nod, but he can tell he has me on the ropes. He lets up on the gas a little and flashes that appraisable smile. “I’m not trying to sound hippie on ya!”


But CeeLo does seem to be asking for a little peace, love and understanding. Not just because of the way he looks and sounds. Although he’s aware of that, too: “I’m drawn to the unconventional, because I’ve been drawn unconventionally,” he says. “I believe that I’m supposed to topple over these false images of what’s idealistically beautiful. Because, of course, these intangible qualities are very attractive to women. Sincerity. Sense of humor. Success.” But he differs from the traditional pop stars in more than appearance.

CeeLo started making music about a place where people don’t expect to be heard, and he was rapping about these things at a time when rap fans didn’t necessarily want to hear it. They wanted to hear about getting crunk on syrup over music that was less about raising consciousness and more about making booties drop. Goodie Mob stands for GOOD DIE (M)ostly (O)ver (B)ull**** and they rapped about a conspiracy by the “New World Order” to kill young black people in the ghetto with everything from crack to sex to fast food.

CeeLo’s older-brother figure in Goodie Mob, Big Gipp, says he first met CeeLo when he heard him rap-battling another future member of the Mob, Khujo, at a party, but that his reputation had preceded him. “He was an a**-kicker,” Gipp remembers. “He had a lot of street cred.” CeeLo’s mother had sent him away to military school, but it was another incident that reformed his way of looking at the world. “Busta Rhymes came to The Dungeon and gave us a copy of Behold a Pale Horse by Milton William Cooper,” Gipps says. “The Illuminati is real and there’s really a New World Order? We OD’d on that.” It was 1995, the year of the Million Man March, and the men in Goodie Mob were in their 20s and it was time to consider their contribution. “Atlanta was the home of Martin Luther King and [civil rights leader] Ralph Abernathy and [Black Muslim leader] Elijah Muhammad,” Gipp says. “We wanted to add to that conversation.” Goodie Mob joined the march.

CeeLo followed his innovative work with Goodie Mob with two songs—“Crazy” with Gnarls Barkley and “F*** You” (released in nonprofane versions as “Forget You” or “FU”), both of which achieved total world domination while sounding as if they were written for people who only listened to pop music ironically. And then he got cast in The Voice, alongside Shelton, Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine, as the one-stop avatar for all the weirdos out there who don’t identify with Shelton, Aguilera or Levine. CeeLo may be on the top of a sine wave that’s approaching inevitable backlash-—if he hasn’t caught a whiff of it already. Nevertheless, his plans are grander than ever.


On The Voice, CeeLo has proclaimed, “I’m making the best soul music in the world right now.” And he reiterates this in our conversation. “I’m not trying to emulate or imitate,” he says. “But I do believe that I embody that spirit from Robert Johnson on up.” Goodie Mob will release a new album this Christmas, the first since 2005. “It will be the best hip-hop album you’ve heard in 20 years,” CeeLo predicts. “It’s called Age Against the Machine.” He lets it sink in. “Got a ring to it, don’t it?” CeeLo believes the time is right for Goodie Mob again, because rap is tired. “I don’t even know if hip-hop is music anymore. It’s definitely rhythm. It’s definitely tempo. It’s definitely beats per minute. But it’s product. And television is product placement for the most part. It’s not passion.”

This is where CeeLo loses me a little bit, because he was the star of a show that debuted after the Super Bowl (he’s taking a break from The Voice this season, along with Aguilera—Usher and Shakira are filling in). He has a sitcom pilot in development. He put out a Christmas album. He’s currently the star of a one-man show in Vegas. And has a memoir and a new solo album coming out later this year, both titled Girl Power. He’s a soul-singing contradiction, and maybe with all the fragmentation and stratified marketing in the world, it’s hard not to be. But still, I have to ask, “Aren’t you guilty of pushing product yourself, CeeLo?”

“There’s a difference between art and product,” he says. “Maybe I can help make art product again. You know what I’m saying? It once was. Is Rush’s Moving Pictures not art? You feeling me? Where are those progressive bands anymore? Why isn’t it allowed? It’s almost a conspiracy, if you ask me.”

Call it the swag conspiracy. “Now music is so swag. Swag means to stand still,” he says. “And standing still is playing it safe. Nothing dangerous about having swag, you feel me? There’s something dangerous about putting on a wedding dress. I can inform you and educate you at the same time. I want to disturb you. So if anything, I feel like I do rock ’n’ roll music. Maybe a more fitting hybrid would be rock and soul. Because I am the best at soul music at the moment.” //

Video: CeeLo Green Cover Shoot
Spotify playlist: CeeLo Sampler
Slideshow: More CeeLo Green Images

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

I am deeply distressed at Delta's cover showing a Moluccan cockatoo as a celebrity's prop. This an endangered species, and the number #1 bird in parrot rescues. Please visit mytoos.com for an education on the parrot crisis. Celebrity photo's with these creatures will add to the problem.
4/5/2013 10:02:27 AM

and what era is STEVE MARSH from? 4th paragraph "20*something girls" If they were male would CeeLo be accompanied by two 20-something BOYS? Get with it, at TWENTY SOMETHING we ain't "girls" we are all grown up!!!!!!!!!
5/5/2013 9:26:13 PM

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