After a 14-year hiatus of the legendary rap group’s original lineup, and CeeLo’s explosion as a pop-culture icon, the originators of smart, righteously indignant Southern hip-hop are back to claim their legacy, right the ship and venture boldly into new territory.
In some ways, the conversation nowadays is a lot like it was when Goodie Mob burst on the scene back in the mid ’90s. Southern hip-hop is vapid and mindless—at its best, fun, flash-in-the-club party music to shake your ass to; at its worst, a bunch of poseur emcees cashing in on a violent trap-house culture they know only from story-song. The first time around, Goodie Mob was a huge part of the antidote, shattering stereotypes with cutting-edge music that was smart and grimy in equal measure. As they exploded from the gates full of angst and urgency, the four-man group of CeeLo, Khujo, T-Mo and Big Gipp made two brilliant, critically acclaimed albums—1995’s Soul Food and 1998’s Still Standing—and coined the phrase “The Dirty South,” rapping about both the brutal and beautiful truths of ’hood life in Southwest Atlanta. Along with friends and collaborators OutKast, the Dungeon Family and producers Organized Noize, Goodie Mob started a bona-fide ATL-based musical revolution. But after several years of endless touring and a misunderstood third album with sales that failed to meet expectations, the group was dropped from label Arista and began to unravel, first with the departure of creative powerhouse CeeLo in 2000 and then Gipp in 2004.
For more than a decade fans clamored in vain for a reunion of Goodie Mob’s game-changing original lineup. In the meantime, CeeLo’s star was rising—first as a solo artist, and then as half of indie-soul duo Gnarls Barkley, a collaboration with producer Danger Mouse that yielded breakthrough international megahit, “Crazy” in 2006. Eventually, as his solo career continued to thrive, CeeLo even wound up an unlikely TV star, judging reality talent show The Voice alongside pop stars like Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine and becoming a household name in the process. But while CeeLo had the lion’s share of the limelight, all of of Goodie Mob was keeping busy. Gipp released a solo album and and guested frequently on records by platinum-selling rappers like Nelly, Ali and Grillz, and Khujo and T-Mo revived their pre-Goodie Mob collaboration Lumberjacks for two LPs, including one with Pastor Troy.
Still, the Mob found themselves missing each other, both on a musical and family level. By 2008, time and maturity had healed any wounds from the group’s breakup enough to where a surprise performance at Atlanta venue The Tabernacle became the spark that set the current reunion in motion. “All four of us got on stage with Nelly,” T-Mo recalls, “and that was the first time we had been on stage together in probably 10 years. It meant a lot to the fans, it meant a lot to Atlanta, and it meant a lot to us. It gave us confirmation that it was time to get back together.”
“These are my brothers,” CeeLo explains. “We go all the way back to early childhood. Music brought us together in a formal fashion but first and foremost, our families are only streets over from each other. T-Mo’s family and the home he grew up in is only one street over from my grandmother’s house that I grew up in. We have been together our entire lives. And, yes, we did have a public dispute—family matters spilled over into the street. But it was not anger. It was some inconvenience, irritability and some artistic difference, but we were never enemies. And I’m glad we’re able to [reunite now] because it shows the bond of blood and the power of forgiveness and the maturity of moving on.”
That same year, Goodie Mob began working on what would become the classic lineup’s first album in 14 years. The aptly titled Age Against the Machine is an independent affair produced almost entirely by CeeLo, whose new fans are suddenly taking an interest in his more humble beginnings with Goodie Mob. “I wanted to express that ambitious side of myself in terms of hip hop,” CeeLo says. “I never wanted it to appear like that part of myself had been abandoned, which would mean that family and community and home would have been abandoned for commercial success. I thought, both of these things [my solo career and my rap roots] are co-inhabitants and can coexist conceptually and thematically inside of me—I’m all of these things, you just can’t do them all at the same time.”
The reason Age Against the Machine took so long to finish was mainly because of the busy group’s scheduling conflicts, but it also took some time for the music to gel and for them to figure out a new direction. Goodie Mob has always prided itself on carefully thought-out concept records, and had no desire to fall back on the safety net of old, familiar sounds. “We legendary trendsetters,” Khujo says, “and it’s about time for Southern hip-hop culture to take a fresh turn going into the 21st century. It’s all about new ideas, new sounds, presenting it in a whole different way. … We want to be that window in the smoking section—a breath of fresh air, an option to the people out here who really take hip-hop as a culture and not just something to sell.
“I think the mixtape era messed up a lot of stuff,” Khujo continues. “People just thought, ‘Oh, they rappin’—I can do it.’ Back in the day, you really had to go through something to say something. But some of these artists haven’t been through anything. Their senses haven’t been exercised, and to even have the mental capacity to want to sit down and strategically plan out an album—that’s how all our records work, we planned out all of ’em. So much of this [current] music is not well thought-out—they duplicating stuff that’s already been done. You gotta take the time do your homework so you won’t be saying the same thing somebody else is saying.”
When Goodie Mob’s debut Soul Food hit in 1995, it was a powerful, soulful, unapologetically Southern statement, as you’d expect from the title. The music, provided by Organized Noize, was live and organic, referencing the past while looking ahead to future, and the lyrics were angsty, anti-authoritarian diatribes speaking truth to power in the most poetic way. In tandem with follow-up Still Standing, it captured the frustration, alienation and desperation of black youth at that particular time and place in America. Goodie Mob’s name itself was social commentary, standing for the Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit—“over a coat, a necklace round your throat”—a painful reality of life where they grew up.
It was clear in songs like “Thought Process,” “Cell Therapy,” “Fighting,” “Black Ice” and “They Don’t Dance No Mo” that the group understood its roots, both cultural and musical, in a very deep way. They were from the center of the Civil Rights movement, the home of Martin Luther King, Jr., and their home state was the birthplace of legendary artists from Ray Charles and Little Richard to Gladys Knight and James Brown. “Coming from that kind of stock, [you want] to reach the heights they did, to mean as much to music as they did,” Gipp says. “Acts like that gave people real music, real emotion and that’s why their music will last forever. … We recorded our first Goodie Mob record in Curtis Mayfield’s house. To be able to walk into his bedroom and see actual reels, and the way he would sit down and talk to us about publishing and what was important and not important, when you had these kind of conversations with these icons before you even come out, it makes you want to do more than just rap.”
So their songs did not accept the status quo, they did not turn a blind eye—they asked tough questions, they decried illegal searches and seizures, called out what they saw as a biased justice system and its prisons that failed to rehabilitate. They even pondered classic conspiracy theories about black helicopters and a New World Order. But they did it all in a very personal, relatable way. “The truth, man, is always there, ready,” Khujo says. “All you have to do is shine a light on it. [Really, those albums] weren’t about a New World Order and The Illuminati, they were about the everyday Southern life of four different—yet same—guys coming from Atlanta, Ga. And with that, I think the people really felt that we understood them and their experiences. … So we put all that together and really let the whole world know that the South does have something to say.”
During this period, the group was constantly on the road, performing in support of their Arista Records releases. They ventured far beyond their ATL home, all over the country and eventually around the world. In 1999, Goodie Mob released its notorious third album, World Party. Organized Noize—the team that had played such an important role in the group’s first two records—produced only a handful of tracks on the album, the sound was noticeably more slick and the vibe was decidedly festive. Many diehard fans at the time saw it as a conscious move toward the mainstream. While, to this day, it’s Goodie Mob’s biggest-selling record, it failed to meet Arista’s lofty commercial expectations, and the group was dropped from the label. What’s worse, the sessions brought to a head creative differences between the lifelong friends, resulting in CeeLo’s departure. In hindsight, though, Goodie Mob maintains that the record was not a misstep.
“I think it was misunderstood,” Gipp says. Everything we did on that album became popular a year later. Again, it was us being ahead of the times. Doesn’t getting rich signify what the 2000s were for the rap community? That’s when Eminem, Nelly and Fifty Cent came. Everybody was getting rich in 2000. People looked at it as being uncool that we were saying it, but we was just giving people what was being related back through the shows and us out there traveling.”
“It was a record that had cuts that were jammin’ and also cuts that were real deep,” says Khujo. “I don’t know if our fans were ready for us to evolve that quick.”
Two years later, tragedy struck Goodie Mob when Khujo was in a serious car accident that resulted in the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Still, the group pressed on, releasing an album without CeeLo in 2004, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show. The title has often been mistaken as a dig at CeeLo, but it was never intended as such. “It was something Khujo’s grandmother used to say,” Gipp explains. “One monkey don’t stop no show. That was Khujo putting it on himself—’even though I may have had an accident, even though I may have lost part of my leg, that don’t mean the show stops.’”
After One Monkey, though, Gipp left the group to focus on his work with Ali and Nelly and the St. Lunatics crew, who were having wild success, Khujo & T-Mo carried on as Lumberjacks, and for the time being, Goodie Mob was officially over.
Meanwhile, CeeLo had released a string of brilliant, whimsical records that reflected his endearingly eccentric personality—Cee-Lo Green and his Perfect Imperfections, Cee-Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine, and The Lady Killer; as well as Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere and The Odd Couple. As his fame grew, Lo continued following his vibrant muse, exploring the diverse sounds that would eventually inform the new Goodie Mob record.
For a minute, the opening interlude of Age Against the Machine engages in a little musical misdirection, as if Goodie Mob might actually be playing it safe with a throwback record reminiscent of their understated soul, funk and gospel-influenced classics. But as soon as the first full track, “State of the Art (Radio Killa)” explodes with its aggressive, proggy beats, blaring sirens and dissonant orchestral hooks, you know that—for better or worse—this is a bold new chapter in the group’s history. “Power” opens with an acoustic strum reminiscent of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” but instead of Keith Moon, a triumphant high-speed breakbeat/soul-funk groove propels the song, during which CeeLo playfully engages his newfound fame with mainstream white audiences—“See when I wouldn’t be your stereotype, the door kept being shut / But now that everybody’s gotten to know me, am I a great guy or what?!” and “If you take a spoonful of sugar, it makes the medicine go down.” Of course, all this candid talk is wrapped in candy-sweet pop hooks—the kind that were far more scarce on the band’s bar-heavy early records.
Age Against the Machine is big, busy, loud and layered. It’s futuristic, frenetic, urgent and musically restless—occasionally in a bombastic way, but much more often in an intriguing way. It hops genres from song to song, within the same song, sometimes all at once—to the point where it can be difficult to tell what you’re actually listening to. Is this pop, soul, hip-hop, punk, gospel, rock & roll? All of the above? And yet it remains conceptually focused, anchored at all times by the titular theme and the group’s desire to challenge pop convention and save Southern hip hop. “The South has been really influenced by The Beast, by The Machine,” T-Mo says. “It’s been processed to believe it can run after the commercial get-rich-quick schemes—you know, take everything and dumb it down so everybody can understand it. But we do the exact opposite. We do it our way.”
And he ain’t kidding. On Age, we get radio revenge fantasies with their sights set on stations with playlists that are “destroying the children.” We get cattle-prod, electro-shock, car-rattling speaker-blown keyboard riffs and Robert Plant “Immigrant Song”-style wails. We get Sun Tzu, tongue-in-cheek commercial jingles and a meditation on the Boston Marathon bomber. America in a cubicle, racial-tension manipulated for profit, trip hop clashing with industrial stadium rock and intergalactic Gloria Gaynor space disco. But it’s all still got an undeniable pop sensibility. And rhymes, of course—dope-ass rhymes.
“Quite frankly, though,” says CeeLo, “the music that we do, I’m not sure I even want to hear it in the club. I mean, I love women, I love wine and I love to have a good time—after a hard day’s work that is. Life is not a party for me. And I don’t appreciate radio perpetuating that it’s a 24-hour party 365 days a year. When we gonna deal with these real-life issues? At least address them. At least acknowledge them. Don’t ignore them.”
“If you look around,” Gipp says, “everything we talked about on that song ‘Cell Therapy’ is still going on in today’s society. Really, if you look at it, we got put in a position to tell the future. So for me, when you have something like that happen to you, as far as the artist is concerned, it makes you believe and it reinforces that you are here for something more than just to make people dance. So the sentiments are still the same because if you look at it, life and civil liberties are being taken away every day, and I think that life itself is a dangerous place. It’s a dangerous place in this world right now for people who don’t pay attention to what’s going on. Only those that want to live blind, deaf and dumb ignore where the world really is at this moment. So even though you’re hearing this new Goodie Mob, we still have the same sentiments as the first albums. I just feel like we don’t have to harp and be as heavy on the subject matter at hand as we were in our younger days.”
It’s the difference, CeeLo says, between civil war and civil service. “Now, our [music] is for all who seek truth and who seek for a better balance. It’s not a war of words, it’s where wisdom is the weapon of choice. And it’s not about black or white … it’s about the color of transparency, which is clear, so basically the music should be a moment of clarity for anyone who wants a clearer path to a better place.”