CeeLo Looks Back on the Dungeon Family in ‘Music to My Soul’

By Brian Ives 

CeeLo Green has just released his first album in five years (not including a holiday record), Heart Blanche. He’s got a lot on his mind these days; in his interview with Radio.com, we discussed his new song “Robin Williams,” which is about the actor of the same name, but also about depression in general. We also discussed his roots as part of the extended Dungeon Family, the ’90s hip-hop/R&B collective from Atlanta that spawned CeeLo’s group Goodie Mob, Outkast, and others.

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One song that really stood out to me when I first listened to the album was “Robin Williams,” and I can see why that — a song about depression — would be more appropriate for a solo album than for one of your group albums.

Yeah, I agree, and I think the point of the song is humanity, but specifically about what degree of depression caused someone so great, who brought so much joy to each and every one of us [to commit suicide].

So I took it really personally, and I just thought that it was an extension of his art, because it intrigued me so deeply about how is that possible, the contradiction of the character, someone who’s so convincingly and so consistently gave of himself with the most sincere smile, tireless energy and animation and is just like… He’s just one of my all-time favorites, and he’s pure genius, and he’s deeply missed because they do not make them like that anymore.

So I wanted his legacy to be celebrated in song, and also it’s an opportunity, as music often is for me, to be cathartic, and I can address my own empathy about it, you know what I’m saying? Because it was very sobering; you reflect on your own mortality as well and the different things that have brought us close to a break, and that’s how you get to discover how close you may or may not have been to it, and you question things: what could actually happen in my life that could possibly drive me [to that]? It becomes you own inner dialogue about it, and it becomes something that you have to kind of acknowledge with reverence.

I think a lot of people don’t take depression seriously enough.

You know, sometimes I don’t think people realize that they’re hurting, because more often we just kind of react to life; it’s not that we’re making life happen to us. So we’re just trying to be strong, trying to be brave. Because I think that faint whisper in the back of everybody’s mind is that the inevitable is written in stone. And all I can say to that is, as you embrace and accept that, also make a valiant attempt to live life to the fullest and immortalize yourself an ideal in some kind of way.
Everyone does not have the artistic or creative capacity or outlet, if you will, to say it in song or a painting or something that can be shared. I would like to open up a dialogue where we can share ourselves, because we are original works of art as people and personalities.

Have you heard any reaction from Robin Williams’ family?

Not directly. I’m sure they’ve heard of the record. They don’t have to do anything. They’ve given all that anybody could ask for.

But in all of my heart I would hope that they sincerely could appreciate the message that we were trying to convey, because it wasn’t meant to ever cheapen him. Which I have heard on occasion, not from them, but… you can’t please everybody, right? Even in the most sincerest fashion, as this song was done, you still have people who feel like it’s something inappropriate, but I would never disgrace his legacy in any kind of way, or any of those wonderful individuals or icons that were mentioned. [Editor’s note: Richard Pryor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Phil Hartman and John Belushi are also referenced in the song.]

And ultimately, the song ended up being about everyone, and not just Robin Williams. Life in general reminded me of Robin Williams, because we have our own adversities to smile in the face of on a daily basis, so I want us to be strengthened by all of his success and his life and death.

Tell me about the song “Sign of the Times.” I know it’s not “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” but it still feels very Prince-like.

You can’t help but reference it and make the association that I’m so like Prince, in my own personal opinion, in so many ways. I don’t mind that association. But no, it wasn’t directly or deliberately built off of his song.

Quite frankly, more people should go back and listen to that and discover Prince for themselves, because right now, years later, that song is vintage. A lot of people don’t know Prince, who he was and what he did, what he contributed. He definitely inspired me a great deal.

You name drop the Dungeon Family in “Music to My Soul.”

In “Music to My Soul,” I take the liberty of being introspective and going back into time and just reflecting on the virtues and the vices of my path and journey and life’s work and experience… and those are the humble beginnings. I just wanted to go home and be a child again, a child in the presence of something that I’ll always be looking up to, and that’s that initial opportunity to be expressive.

That opportunity was given to me by Rico Wade, Ray Murray, and Patrick Sleepy Brown of Organized Noize, who were saviors to a lot of young men in Atlanta, Georgia, who were displaced, had raw talent and potential, just no place to be, and no tools to work with. And so this family, this band of brothers, and sisters, were my saving grace. So I just wanted to acknowledge them as my equals, and as my elders.

What do you think about when you look back at that time, when all of those acts were coming out of Atlanta? It was a great musical era.

I look back at it, and I’m very pleased. I don’t think I would’ve changed anything. I probably would’ve worked even harder, although we worked exceptionally hard and came a very long way. So twenty years later I’m like, yeah, man. I can live with that.

I like the line, “Look at me know, I’m everything I’ve ever wanted to be.” That’s a great line to write about oneself.

I quoted Will Smith from an interview. And he said the basic fundamentals that attracted him to acting was the one need to be somebody else. We all come from that identity crisis early on, so you just don’t know; you hadn’t taken shape, you hadn’t taken form yet.

So I’m able to do Gnarls Barkley, I’m able to be CeeLo Green, I’m able to be one-fourth of a quartet, Goodie Mob, because I would’ve been anybody else but myself at one time. Once I embraced myself and I became whole due to a lot of trial and error, the first thing I wanted to do was shine that light and guide somebody a lot safer, like this way, and salvage as many people as I can and share, because I just feel like I should, I feel like I can. That’s just my purpose in life as well, not to just merely entertain.

So I am what I wanna be; I’m a beacon, and I’m a student and a teacher, a fan, a friend and an extended family, to many people. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Your performance on Jimmy Fallon a few weeks ago made me think that you have a visual concept in mind for a tour: your red veil, and the Watson Twins on either side of you.

Since you noticed that, can I tell you what it means to me? It’s definitely about being rediscovered, like being reintroduced as new and becoming new. And you’re right, my “little big brother” Prince, short in stature but big in heart… he’s the first to do that with the veil. He’s the first I saw do it, and he did it at a point in his career where he was revolting, you know what I’m saying? When he wanted out of his Warner Brothers agreement. And he did it in the “My Name is Prince” video, and he had the admiral’s hat with the chains in the front. And I’d always thought that was so dope.

Read the full interview and see what he thinks about a new tour on Radio.com.

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