Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo uses dark music as therapy

Jeremy & Claire Weiss

Sure, Gnarls Barkley want you to think they're weird. It's not every day that you see a pudgy, pioneering rapper dressed up as Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, after all, as Cee-Lo Green has done in promotional photos for the duo.

But there are more layers to Gnarls Barkley's genre-hopping, pop-culture referencing, mash-up shtick. There's also the part where Green speaks about killing folks (including himself), about existential despair, about unrequited love, and about other dark subjects The Dude was too carefree (and stoned) to consider much. "Did you know I could be/A would-be killer/If suddenly I should be/I would be killer," he sings on their latest CD, The Odd Couple.

"I guess I wouldn't call it dark," insists Green of the work, after a moment of contemplation. "Because that would insinuate that you can't see your way through it. I will just say there's a full moon out tonight. I don't think it's hopeless, I think it's actually very optimistic."

Speaking by phone from Burbank, Green seems very sincere. In fact, it's probably not surprising that a man who penned a dance-floor-friendly ode to insanity, "Crazy"—ubiquitous upon the release of the group's debut album St. Elsewhere in 2006—would see light in such bleak subjects. Like its predecessor, The Odd Couple has a "dancing on the shrink's couch" mood to it, seemingly therapeutic in its moroseness.

Such is the environment in which Gnarls Barkley thrive. Their creative process, Green says, involves producer Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) first crafting beats that blend soul, hip hop, disco, and rock. Green then uses the result to channel the hurt and pain inside of him, much of it resulting from both of his parents having died by the time he was 18. "I can relive certain situations, because music tends to be a reenactment of an experience or an emotion," he says. "So, some of the things I chose to address aren't present day for me, but they are cathartic. [The music] is very hopeful for me."

He admits that pairing with nerdy studio maestro Burton was a bit counter-intuitive, as Green was formerly known for the grittier sounds and 'hood subject matter of his Atlanta group Goodie Mob. Though the two are not yet best friends in the world, they are "working on becoming closer," and their chemistry is sizable. They have a tendency to bring out the best in one another, Green notes, adding that he pushes Burton's boundaries and that Burton reins him in.

While Green says he will soon get back into the studio for a reunion album with Goodie Mob, and promises another Gnarls Barkley project is inevitable, he resists being characterized by either act's sound: "I'm in no rush to be summed up. I will have done so much more by the time my book is done, there will be so many more pictures to look at." In the meantime, just call him the first MC of mental health. 



Nine Degrees of Gnarls Barkley

How Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse connect to every corner of the pop world

DANGER MOUSE. Cee-Lo was so impressed by the skills of this Athens, Georgia, native producer that in 2001 he asked him to submit tracks for one of his solo projects. "I don't make tracks, I make albums," Danger Mouse responded, and thus Gnarls Barkley was born.

• JAY-Z. Danger Mouse made his name as a technical wizard in 2004 by remixing Jay's The Black Album with The Beatles' The White Album to create the haunting, copyright-infringing mash-up The Grey Album.

• MF DOOM. In 2005, Danger Mouse went legal by joining forces with MF Doom, an indie-rap god rarely seen publicly without his gladiator mask. Their Adult Swim-sponsored collaboration The Mouse and the Mask is a masterpiece.

• THAT GUY WHO IMPERSONATED MF DOOM. Doom has lost some of his luster in recent years, as rap fans from coast to coast have accused him of sending in a skinny imposter wearing his mask to perform in his place at concerts. Doom denies the charges.

CEE-LO. The Atlanta native sang hooks and rapped with rap trailblazers Goodie Mob before indulging his new-agey, emotional side with Gnarls Barkley.

• GOODIE MOB. Along with Outkast, the group helped popularize Atlanta's dirty-South sound in the mid-to-late '90s with classic albums such as Soul Food and Still Standing. Cee-Lo later left the group, but says that a reunion album is imminent.

• BIG GIPP, ALI, PAUL WALL, NELLY. Goodie Mob member Big Gipp found success on his own by joining forces with Houston white boy Paul Wall and St. Lunatics member Ali on Nelly's monster 2005 hit "Grillz." Ali & Gipp also released an underrated 2007 album Kinfolk.

• TUCKER MAX. Most famous as the author of the best-selling I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell—a blow-by-blow account of his numerous drunken hook-ups—Max is currently collaborating with Wall on his autobiography. Comedian Michael Ian Black recently called Max a "misogynistic motherfucker" and challenged him to a fight, which Max has accepted.

• CEE-LO'S STEPDAUGHTER SIERRA. "Bow Wow, you should be begging me to come to this party," says Green's stepdaughter Sierra near the beginning of her My Super Sweet 16 episode on MTV. She only gets brattier from there.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >