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"She had her times," he says, laughing. "Sometimes it was cool, sometimes it wasn't. But ultimately there was no hiding me from it, because I am it."
Encouraged early on by a musically inclined aunt, Cee-Lo became a singer and aspiring MC while still a teenager. The pursuit gave him some focus in his life. "I was headed in the wrong direction," he says. "It was obvious. I was doing the exact opposite of what people knew me as. That's the reason why I offer so much praise and so much homage [to music]: I was spared because of music."
Fortunately, things began to coalesce for Cee-Lo when he attended a local alternative high school where André Benjamin, a.k.a. Dré from OutKast, was also enrolled. The two, who had known each other as kids, began to collaborate musically and continued to do so after graduation. At one point, Cee-Lo was set to become the third member of OutKast; when that didn't pan out, he hooked up with three area hip-hop heads Khujo, T-Mo and Big Gipp and formed Goodie Mob. Soon after, OutKast and Goodie Mob aligned themselves with the Organized Noize production team and began to record tracks in a basement studio known as the Dungeon. Along the way, the two groups generated a regional buzz for creating articulate, bumping, socially aware rap. By the mid-'90s, that buzz had spread nationwide. OutKast's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik put Atlanta on the rap map after it was released in 1994; Goodie Mob followed in 1995 with Soul Food, issued on the La Face label.
In the midst of Cee-Lo's new creative success, things took a grim turn in his personal life: His mom passed away around the time of Soul Food's release. Her influence remained strong in his art and taught him to respect women, even while working in a genre that often suggested doing otherwise. This theme runs throughout Perfect Imperfections, especially on the track "Young Man (Sierra's Song)," which he wrote for his daughter. The song can be read as a missive to young men who feel inclined to dis women but might also have daughters of their own one day: "Hey there, young man/Why degrade your only sister/And call them bitches and whores?/What if one day someone feels the same way about that daughter of yours?" Cee-Lo asks on the cut.
"I have daughters," he says, explaining his reason for writing the tune. "Our music has become overly misogynistic, and it's not fair. I love my mother. I love all women. We cannot continue and live on without our women. I just want men to take responsibility for that."
Personal responsibility is a concept that guides Cee-Lo, a guy who's got the word "Revolution" tattooed across the width of his back. But one wishes he would have stuck to his guns when making a couple of recent career choices, most notably Goodie Mob's critically panned last album World Party. With tracks like "Get Rich to This," the release reflected a materialism that the Mob has always railed against; sonically, it sounded tailor-made for the club set. The inexplicable decision to sample Lionel Richie's insipid "All Night Long" implied that the group had hit a creative dry spell.
"I believe we failed morally with that album. I was ashamed of that album," Cee-Lo says. "We suffered from temporary insanity, like, even when we were doing it. I was just like, 'We are going to disappoint a lot of people with this album, dude. This is not signature Goodie Mob. It's definitely not progression it's regression.' I opted not to argue, because I was more or less the odd man out as far as that was concerned. Nobody saw it like that at the time."
Despite the giant World Party misstep, Cee-Lo says that Goodie Mob is still intact, though "in all honesty, this is a trying time." The Mob regrouped last year to record tracks for the Dungeon Family release, which featured OutKast and other Southern artists in a kind of supergroup setting. For the most part, though, the Mob members are in separate corners, at least for the moment. Big Gipp is working on a solo album of his own, while Cee-Lo tours in support of Perfect Imperfections.
"[The album] is one of those things that I had to do alone. I'll bring it to the table, and I'll share it with the family," he says. "I feel like I'm the caveman out there, killing the deer and bringing it back it to the cave. I don't feel like I'm upstaging or outshining anyone. This album is going to take me on a journey. It's going to take [Gipp] on a journey. And what I do and what he does is all going to creep right back to the Goodie Mob big body of work."
So far, Cee-Lo's solo sojourn has taken him many interesting places. He collaborated with Lauryn Hill on "Do You Like the Way," a track from Carlos Santana's multiplatinum smash Supernatural. On the song, Cee-Lo sounds like a hip-hop descendant of Otis Redding, a quality that led Santana to describe him as "the voice of a thousand generations."