homas “CeeLo Green” Callaway and producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton were musical soulmates long before they even knew it. In 1998, Danger Mouse placed second in a talent show at the University of Georgia, where he had the opportunity to open for OutKast and Goodie Mob at a campus concert.
After the show, he gave Goodie Mob member CeeLo a CD full of instrumentals that he had produced. There was a reason he went after CeeLo. He knew they shared a similar taste in music that extended beyond the realm of hip-hop. CeeLo made it more evident on his 2002 solo debut album, Cee-Lo Green and His Imperfections, which drew from genres such as rap, soul, gospel, and rock.
In 2003, Danger Mouse reconnected with CeeLo when he asked to appear on his “What U Sittin’ On?” remix from Ghetto Pop Life, his joint album with rapper Jemini the Gifted One. This collaboration led to more creative work between CeeLo and Danger Mouse. Like Danger Mouse did in 1998, he sent CeeLo instrumental tracks that he had been working on. Impressed by his work, CeeLo was interested in using a few of them. However, Danger Mouse made it clear that he prefers to do albums, not individual tracks.
“I don’t really like to do single tracks,” Danger Mouse told Entertainment Weekly in 2006. “I meet people, and if I get along with them I want to do a project… I am a producer, but I’m definitely an artist first.”
Even though Danger Mouse is a music producer, he pulls a lot of inspiration from the film industry. In fact, he approaches projects as if he is a movie director, which explains why he prefers not to create one-off songs.
CeeLo and Danger Mouse started working on the project in fall 2003, just months ahead of CeeLo’s final solo album on Artista Records (CeeLo Green… Is the Soul Machine).
“It was something that was stumbled upon but still on the same path of self-discovery,” CeeLo tells Rated R&B, when asked about forming a musical relationship with Danger Mouse.
The pair continued to work on-and-off over the next couple of years, as they juggled other projects. Following Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album (2004), his critically-acclaimed, yet controversial free project that sampled vocals from JAY-Z’s The Black Album with instrumentation from The Beatles’ self-titled album (a.k.a. The White Album), he produced Gorillaz’s 2005 LP Demon Days.
Meanwhile, CeeLo lent his writing production talents to The Pussycat Doll’s debut single “Don’t Cha” featuring Busta Rhymes. He also contributed his vocals to DANGERDOOM’s (Danger Mouse and MF DOOM) track “Benzi Box,” lifted from their collaborative 2005 album, The Mouse and the Mask.
CeeLo and Danger Mouse’s musical friendship continued to blossom as they created the project that would be called St. Elsewhere, the debut album of their duo Gnarls Barkley. They recorded most of the album together. However, there were a few songs that were recorded in separate places.
The process, for the most part, was simple. Danger Mouse would give CeeLo tracks and he would write to them. The tracks were fairly short, something that CeeLo wasn’t accustomed to at the time.
“We didn’t talk about method,” CeeLo reveals to Rated R&B. “To identify with his intention, I said to myself, ‘Let me see how quickly I can get to my point within a minute or so’s time.’ The CD that he gave me were just these snippets. The lengths of the songs you hear on [St. Elsewhere], I wrote into the length of the loops that he gave me.”
Since they didn’t know each other that well at the time, they spent a lot of time talking. Their conversations helped inspire a lot of the songs that CeeLo wrote for the album.
About three-quarters of St. Elsewhere was recorded out-of-pocket since they had intentions to release it independently (they ultimately landed a deal with Downtown/Atlantic.) By taking an independent approach, it gave the pair free rein to make music on their own terms.
“I have to be in control of the project I’m doing. I can create different kinds of musical worlds, but the artist needs the desire to go into that world,” Danger Mouse told The New York Times.
Fortunately for Danger Mouse, CeeLo was willing to go into that world. He reveals to Rated R&B that he used Gnarls Barkley “as a scapegoat” that allowed him to be comfortable with being vulnerable.
CeeLo reveals that before they settled on the name Gnarls Barkley, he wanted to call it Scarlet Fever because of Danger Mouse’s somber production. “I felt like there was a rare sickness. That sounded a little darker, a little bit, more detached and disturbed. I wanted it to sound like because that’s what the music sounded.”
Sonically, St. Elsewhere is rooted in psychedelic soul with a progressive mix of gospel, hip-hop and punk rock. For 37-minutes, CeeLo takes listeners on an ominous journey that explores themes of loneliness (“St. Elsewhere”), paranoia (“Crazy”), suicide (“Just A Thought”) and even necrophilia (“Necromancer”).
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of St. Elsewhere, Rated R&B spoke with CeeLo to unpack a few tracks from the album.
“Go-Go Gadget Gospel”
The sound of a film projector being flicked on is heard at the beginning of “Go-Go Gadget Gospel,” the opening track on St. Elsewhere.
“I’m freeee! Look at me! Freedom in hi-fidelity,” CeeLo belts over churchy handclaps and a horn-filled production that samples “Goin’ Down to Freedom’s Land” by Nicolas Flagello. CeeLo’s vocals sound pristine on this spirited tune, as he welcomes in listeners to St. Elsewhere.
The video for “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” is a bit bizarre, though. Human bodies with sock puppet heads are seen dancing around in a parking lot.
“It’s absurd in the most affectionate way,” CeeLo says with a chuckle. “There’s an irony that rings true of when you don’t give a f*ck is when you ultimately care the most. The video is to showcase the hypocrisy of how some people feel like just your individuality alone is your opinion of them.”
He adds, “Your individual accounts are your disconnect from the herd. You’re going against the grain just to be yourself but that’s not the case. What everybody else was doing had very little to do with what we wanted to do for ourselves as ourselves.”
“Crazy,” the undeniable standout track on St. Elsewhere, was the world’s introduction to Gnarls Barkley. Danger Mouse’s production style is an ode to Spaghetti Western films. The puzzling tune, which CeeLo recorded in one take, includes a sample of Gianfranco Reverberi and Gian Piero Reverberi’s 1968 “Last Men Standing.”
Before “Crazy” was issued as the lead single, it was leaked online in late 2005. Unknown at the time, Gnarls Barkley quickly became favored by fans and critics online.
CeeLo describes the leak as a miracle. “It didn’t give me enough time to be disappointed or panicked. That shit got leaked and before you know it, that shit went BOOM,” he says.
It made an explosive impact, too. It garnered heavy radio play in the UK ahead of its official release. It made history as the first song to reach No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart from digital downloads alone. It remained atop the chart for nine consecutive weeks.
Gnarls Barkley didn’t expect an overwhelming response to “Crazy” because commercial success wasn’t their intention. Oddly enough, they decided to remove it from digital stores in fear of the song being overexposed — a similar move rock band Wet Wet Wet did in 1994 for the same reason.
“We were trying to contribute, not really compete,” CeeLo explains. There was no stopping “Crazy,” though. In the United States, it reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The certified platinum hit also was nominated for Record of the Year and Best Urban/Alternative Performance at the 49th Grammy Awards. It won the latter category.
“Smiley Faces” was the second official single released from St. Elsewhere. Though, CeeLo admits that at one point it was his “least favorite” song on the album. “I thought ‘Smiley Faces’ was too simple to the point at first,” he explains. “I felt like that space was covered with ‘Go-Go Gadget Gospel,’ as far as the tempo was concerned.”
Fortunately, Danger Mouse was able to convince CeeLo to finish the song. “Danger Mouse told me, ‘Listen. I promise if you write and complete the song, this will be one of those ones,” CeeLo recalls. “For some reason, I trusted him. I trusted him, the friend I never had. I was down to go all the way to the death, figuratively, for him and with him.”
Like “Crazy,” “Smiley Faces” toys with the idea of celebrity. When describing the lyrics, CeeLo compares the approach to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star.”
He recites the lyrics in the middle of his explanation, “Ever catch a falling star?/ Ain’t no stopping ’til it’s in the ground.”
“That’s some hellified shit to say,” CeeLo says with a grin. “I wanted to say something like that, that would give you the chills. I figured out a scenario that was vague, but visceral,” CeeLo explains. He adds that he wrote the song from a fan’s perspective. “I always get comments about my smile, so I pulled from that.”
As he renders lyrics from the first verse, he gets visibly emotional. He takes a few seconds to reflect in silence. “The lyrics mean a lot to me,” he says with a tear in his eye. “Now that I’m saying them, I can’t believe I wrote it. Awesome music. Awesome time in my life.”
“Just A Thought”
On the inward-looking “Just A Thought,” CeeLo contemplates suicide. He utters “But I’m fine” at the end of the track, leaving listeners with a sense of optimism.
“You can’t be held in contempt for something that fosters a mind,” he says. “I was more powerful than the thought itself. We’re given our thoughts. We’re given our emotions. Something has to make you happy. Something has to make you sad. I just want to share perspective because it’s how I made it. And it’s probably how I didn’t commit. I am a committed person and maybe if I felt that broken that it was that irreversible, maybe I would’ve used that gun.”
15 Years Later
St. Elsewhere certainly was the wildcard blockbuster album of 2006 that struck gold ( well, platinum, according to the RIAA.) It also foreshadowed trends that would occur in the music industry years.
The success of “Crazy,” which also has over 580 million streams on Spotify as of now, was only confirmation that the industry was shifting to a digital landscape. In fact, global digital music sales doubled in 2006 to $2 billion from 2005.
The marketing strategy behind Gnarls Barkley, particularly their mysterious digital presence to keep the focus on their music, would become trendy in years to come. R&B artists The Weeknd and H.E.R. used anonymity to generate buzz behind their projects.
Today, CeeLo isn’t feeling as lugubrious as he did when recording St. Elsewhere. “I’m just very happy I got that shit out of me,” he says. “That shit was cathartic. I exorcised those demons. I am born again on the other side of it now.”
He concludes, “We can look back and reflect. I don’t mind. It’s amazing. There’s no testimony without the test, so I’m glad I passed.”
Revisit Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere album below.