Rapper mixes soul, rock for a sound all his own

Starting out with the Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo branches out with a solo album

April 25, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA - Cee-Lo is a proud church boy who made his profes- sional debut in a rap group, occasionally could pass for a punk rocker and on his solo debut, in stores now, sings a lot of old soul.

So where do we begin?

Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections is an often dynamic mix of sprawling P-Funk, sweet Otis Redding R&B, fuzzy guitar rock and whip-smart rap topped off with an endearing Hallmark paean to his wife of two years - all written, arranged and produced by the artist.

It is a remarkable achievement for a man whose personal life has been touched by tragedy and whose professional life was recently roiled by a battle of words between the rapper and a Goodie Mob partner.

But that's skipping ahead. You can't really understand the fire with which Cee-Lo approaches his music - and the intensity that seethes through it - unless you know what stokes it: his upbringing. His family.

After Thomas Burton was born 26 years ago, his minister parents brought him home to a cramped four-bedroom brick house in southwest Atlanta that he shared with his sister Shedonna, two cousins, two uncles, a grandmother and a great-grandmother.

His musical influences were just as numerous: Elton John's performance of the pop classic "Bennie and the Jets" on The Muppet Show made him an early fan. The first secular record he bought was heavy metal - Motley Crue's Shout at the Devil. And, of course, he sang gospel at the family church at the time, Grace Covenant Baptist Church.

"But the first artist that really caught my eye," Cee-Lo says with all seriousness, leaning in over his dining room table, "was Dirty Dan from Sha Na Na. I wanted to be him."

Cee-Lo is a 5-foot-6, 298-pound, Buddha kind of guy - with 50 tattoos. Sha Na Na was a '70s doo-wop nostalgia group of guys with cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeves of their T-shirts.

In other words, the comparison is a stretch.

"But hey, me thinking I could be in Sha Na Na just goes to show I knew no boundaries, even then," he explains.

He lost his father when he was 2, and he spent his childhood in trouble. "I was getting put out of school as long as I could remember," recalls Cee-Lo, who lives in Fayetteville, south of Atlanta, with his wife, Christina, two stepdaughters and a son.

"Kindergarten, nursery school, Sunday school, everything. See, I've always been an artist," he says with a flash of that impish smile.

Truancy had a bright spot: It was at Open Campus, a last resort for dropouts to get their GED, that he caught back up with an elementary school friend named Andre Benjamin, who grew up to be Dre in the hip-hop group OutKast.

Dre, Big Boi, Cee-Lo and a basement full of other aspiring artists joined forces in a makeshift studio and formed the Dungeon Family, which eventually produced acclaimed albums for both OutKast, now rap superstars, and Cee-Lo's group, christened the Goodie Mob.

While Cee-Lo and his fellow Mob members - Big Gipp, T-Mo and Khujo - were recording their first CD, Cee-Lo's mother was in a car accident that left her a quadriplegic.

Suddenly, Cee-Lo looked at life differently. "I was compelled to write all that I felt," he says. "Moments like that make you feel like you shouldn't hold anything back. It made me real serious. Real honest. And unashamed to incorporate my feelings about God and the world into my music."

Soul Food, the Goodie Mob's first album, was the result. Goodie Mob followed in 1998 with Still Standing, another smart record built on the instrumental funk of fellow Dungeon Family members Organized Noize. Both albums went gold, but a half-million in sales is not impressive, these days.

The third time out Mob-member Gipp, who along with Cee-Lo steered Goodie Mob thematically, decided that Goodie Mob should step out into the less righteous waters of cash, women and cars that so many of their peers were finding true platinum success with. Critics panned the band members for turning their back on their spiritual core, and the folks who actually paid for the World Party CD only seconded that emotion. No platinum record.

Cee-Lo affirms he willingly went on the material journey, but says he hated World Party. And in interviews he's done lately he's made a point of blaming Gipp for the debacle, which hasn't made for happy times between the two.

Still, frequent Dungeon Family spokesman Rico Wade maintains the Cee-Lo-Gipp thing is a temporary impasse, already on its way to repair. "We're too important together," he says. "And we've already made it through so much."

Labels were courting Cee-Lo to be a solo artist from the early days of the Goodie Mob. More recently, legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana heard Cee-Lo's growl and was blown away. "I grew up in the '60s with Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway, and his voice is right in there with them," Santana says. "It's like a mountain."

Next thing you know, Cee-Lo is collaborating with Santana on the single "Do You Like the Way" on Santana's Grammy-grabbing Supernatural, and the royalty checks plus the impending birth of his son made it easy for him to take a pass on promoting World Party overseas with his group.

That further splintered relations with his friends in the Goodie Mob, and clearly the misunderstandings bother Cee-Lo. "See ... the thing is ... they don't really want me to ..."

"The thing that I love about Lo is he has a beautiful heart," says wife Christina. "He's not afraid to be vulnerable."

Now that's an adjective you don't hear often to describe rappers. Then again, "rapper" is only one of a series of colors that illustrates Cee-Lo.

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