Cee-Lo Green: Would Be Killer
The Stool Pigeon
It’s hard to believe that Cee-Lo Green could be a killer. Not when he’s lounging on a sofa in slippers, speaking so gently that he seems downright huggable. Even when you hear him croon the lyrics of ‘Would Be Killer’ on the second Gnarls Barkley album, you don’t imagine it’s Cee-Lo at his most confessional. But when the 35-year-old shoots you a dead-eye stare, whispering, “I felt like I could kill and exterminate. To tell the truth, it kinda gives me the tingles,” you believe him.
Every sentence is executed slowly and carefully, carrying a conviction Cee-Lo no doubt picked up from his parents, who were both ministers in Atlanta, Georgia. His father died when he was two-years-old and his mother was paralysed after a car accident when he was 16.
Each of his musical projects — hip hop supergroup Goodie Mob, alt-pop sensations Gnarls Barkley and his erratic solo career — have drawn from a need to exorcise demons from an age most people wouldn’t even remember. “See, that’s the pain,” he says. “I don’t remember being a child. I just remember knowing.”
He imitates his Sunday school teacher scolding him about how he had more influence over the class than she did; how he could be special if only he could stop being bad.
“I was too enthralled with devilment,” he says. “And I enjoyed it, just like Damien [from The Omen]. I’ve always been an outcast — black sheep of the family. I felt peculiar, I looked peculiar. I knew it from the reaction that I felt. But it taught me to recognise that I wasn’t wanted. Maybe that’s a skill I needed to have. You’re exiled — that’s when you get a chance to spend time by yourself and say, ‘Well if I’m not wanted, who am I? They don’t know me.’ With people pre-judging you, you can become compelled to react. It takes a lot of strength to be an individual and to go it alone.”
After trouble with arson and assault led to a stint in military school, music was the only thing that could crack through Cee-Lo’s solitude. To him it was like acting: he would imitate his inspirations until people couldn’t tell the difference. Eventually he felt an affinity with punk, growing a Mohawk and listening to Rancid, but more for the identity than the music.
“It was a defence, a way of saying, ‘I’m not to be touched,’” he explains. “So I took pride in that punk attitude… and I wanted to destroy. I became volatile for a long time. I started taking it out on the squares. My behaviour…” He breaks off, stuttering quietly. “I became very violent. And it was Goodie Mob that came along and gave that anger a cause.” He whispers this last word intensely. “So it went from survival to soldier.”
As well as giving Cee-Lo a sense of belonging, Goodie Mob were rural outsiders whose social commentary established the Dirty South (a term they coined) as a hip hop presence. Along with Outkast, their intellectual substance offered an alternative to gangsta rap’s dominance in the mid-nineties. With his tongue-twisting flow changing on every track, ricocheting off the walls before soaring into gospel-like choruses, Cee-Lo stood out from the quartet and his career looked promising.
But when his mother died in 1993, his group-mates noticed that it became harder for him to control his emotions. “I think that was when they, as older brothers to me, became concerned, because I was already a volatile baby brother,” he says. “At one point I took pride in that. It was like having a dog, when somebody says, “Get ’em!” I would just get ’em because I could. I had felt so unloved and unwanted and misunderstood that I could be… unremorseful. That’s where the hit man thing came from. There was a point where I felt like, ‘Well, I’m not goin’ to be famous. I’m going to be infamous.’”
The “hit man thing” is something he touches on frequently, both to highlight the difference between his new R&B album The Lady Killer and his older “overly emotional” material, and as a symbol of what he would have become without music. His voice drops to a chilling tone. “If I happened to be a contract killer, you wouldn’t have known either way. Unless you hired me.
“Somebody was going to need me for who I thought I could be. If you were fortunate, you would much rather be a friend of mine than a name on the list. That sounds so sensationalised. It’s kind of cute. I almost hate to bring it up because it’s like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I don’t wish that kind of despair on anybody. But if they do [experience that], I can empathise. What’s beyond me is actually committing to it and becoming it completely.”
After three albums with Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo felt confined by hip hop and found it more gratifying to shape melody into “unbiased music” that could reach people the way he was touched by Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Culture Club. The rest of the group, however, didn’t see things that way.
“There was so much personal attachment and emotional entanglement that if we had let our differences enrage us, someone was definitely going to get hurt — and not walk away. So we all needed some space from each other. Not as brothers; I never stopped loving them. Whatever I felt was out there for me, I had to go to the ends of the earth to get it before I could come back. That’s punk rock to me. I trudged and I persevered. Apparently there was something out there for me.”
A solo deal with Arista produced Cee-Lo Green And His Perfect Imperfections in 2002, an album so unlike anything else that the label didn’t know how to package it. When 2004’s critically acclaimed Cee-Lo Green Is The Soul Machine suffered a similar fate, Cee-Lo’s contract was sub-leased to Jive, who gave him an ultimatum: make another record or be released.
He walked and, free of bureaucracy, welcomed an approach by beat-maker and producer Danger Mouse to collaborate as Gnarls Barkley. The resulting St. Elsewhere (2006) slipped by the industry’s gatekeepers on the strength of the songs alone, with lead-single ‘Crazy’ topping charts worldwide. But despite the mainstream breakthrough, Cee-Lo saw the project as an opportunity to bring closure to personal issues, particularly on its introspective follow-up, The Odd Couple.
“I have to use music as a vent,” he says. “My personal feelings raw and uncut… I don’t know how entertaining that would be; probably as entertaining as this interview. But you have to read this interview to see what’s caused all of this. I had to get it out of me. Can you imagine the magnitude of a song like ‘Crazy’ internalised with no constructive outlet? I was standing in the middle of Atlanta and you guys felt a tremor out here. That’s how big it was in my soul. It probably would have killed me...
“Now you can say, ‘Damn, that can’t be an exaggeration because I felt it.’ I’ve been fortunate, which causes me to believe that not only am I being spared but I’m being spared for something significant. I never looked at my life in terms of good and bad, but in terms of good and evil. That’s what that voice whispering ‘kill’ is. I gotta say, man, that stuff’s been puttin’ it real for me.”
Both of these superpowers have come to visit. I feel like I was going to have a special jewel in my heart, like Lord Of The Rings or something epic like that. Other than that it could just be madness. So I’ve had to take up that cross and make sense of my life. But they both recognise me as noble, as worthy. They come to visit to play on their sides, you know? That’s what ‘lady killer’ comes from — being a lover and a fighter.”
Such claims cannot be made lightly, especially given America’s history of high school massacres at the hands of similarly isolated figures. “I wish I could have talked to them,” he says of those killers. Asked what he could have said, he hesitates. “I guess it would depend on what they said to me. It’s a hard thing to play out without knowing exactly what was wrong. But one thing I can say… they weren’t pretendin’.”
There’s a heartbeat-length pause. “There was pride taken in it. But I was ashamed of how I felt. I wanted to be loved and I wanted to love, because I’m loving. If someone loves me, I love them right back. That’s me more so than the other thing. But the type of individual that could pre-judge and hate and alienate without knowing… they were expendable in my book. And I’m pretty sure I could have dealt with them as such. That’s as honest as I can be about that.”
It’s difficult to relate this to the Cee-Lo who, after the interview, excitedly points out a man wearing dungarees and a beret in the hotel lobby and says, beaming: “It’s Dexy’s Midnight Runner!” But perhaps such contrast is exactly what Cee-Lo wants to communicate: that he has veered toward some redemptive power, whether real or imagined.
Maybe that’s why he’s so confident that, with his new album, the timing is right for an “underdog” like him to win big; that people are ready to bestow benevolence on a song like ‘Fuck You’ in a way they weren’t last year.
“Understanding is alive,” he said during the interview. “You seek it out. It will find you. It knows who desires it the most. That’s what I believe. Each time I get a chance to commit to something like that in conversation, it becomes a testament. It’s willing it into existing. I’m all about positive energy. If I can be evidence of that type of behaviour working then maybe I can make some change in the world just by being little old me.”