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Southern Comfort

Goodie Mob Throws a World Party

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/16/2000

When African-Americans protest the presence of the Confederate flag over state-government buildings in the South, they are often accused of being anti-Southern. According to the members of Atlanta-based Goodie Mob, nothing could be further from the truth.

"We've been part of the campaign to abolish the Confederate flag since our first album," Thomas "Cee-Lo" Burton says from his hometown, where a state banner that's half Confederate battle flag flies over the Georgia Capitol. "We want to bring it down not because we hate the South but because we love it. We fought and died and made the same sacrifices as everyone else in building the South. How can the state be flying a flag that doesn't credit that?"

"We're down with the South," Willie "Khujo" Knighton agrees, "because that's where the roots are; that's where everybody started. You ask someone from the West Coast or someone from the East Coast, and they'll tell you they have relatives in the South. I've seen how they portray us in the movies and I've heard how they talk about us, but they can't ignore that they all come from here."

You can hear the South in Goodie Mob's vocals—in the way they hold out their rounded vowels with humming pleasure. You can hear the region's influence in the group's slinky, soul-flavored rhythm tracks. You can especially hear the South in a rap style that owes a lot to the Baptist church's approach to pulpit oratory, a tradition of which Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. is merely the most famous example.

"I have it in my blood because both of my parents are ministers," Cee-Lo says. "It's the way you accent what you're saying; it's your mannerisms that makes it like preaching. People say I have the disposition and the rasp of a preacher. I think hip-hop—in fact all music—comes from the gospel. Growing up in church made us want to add morals to the story."

As hip-hop plunged into a battle between East Coast and West Coast, the Atlanta style provided an attractive alternative. As perfected by Goodie Mob on its second album, 1998's Still Standing, this approach combined the thick, throbbing funk of Georgia's James Brown with the call-and-response patterns of the Southern Baptist Church's preachers and congregations.

Goodie Mob (which also includes Robert "T-Mo" Barnett and Cameron "Big Gipp" Gipp) is signed to LaFace Records, home to such fellow Atlanta acts as TLC and OutKast and local producers like Dallas Austin and Organized Noize. The Mob got its start by supplying guest raps to OutKast's 1994 album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and dropped its own debut disc, Soul Food, in 1995.

That album and Still Standing established Goodie Mob as the most political and innovative of the Atlanta hip-hop acts. Both records went gold, but the Mob couldn't match the platinum success of TLC and OutKast. So Goodie Mob is in a radio-friendly mode on its recently released third effort, World Party, on the BMG/Arista/LaFace label. The album's first single was "Chain Swang," an old-school rap celebration of gold jewelry with an ear-grabbing hook.

The current single is "What It Ain't (Ghetto Enuff)," a collaboration with TLC and their producer, Austin. It's a natural partnership, as all four members of Goodie Mob went to Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta with TLC's Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas. Nonetheless, some hip-hop purists have criticized this political, edgy group for cutting a single full of party chants, chirpy female vocals, and cheesy synth riffs.

"We felt we had established an open-minded audience," Cee-Lo says. "We thought they would accept a lighthearted album from us. Plus, we didn't want to fall victim to predictability. I'm a consumer and I want my favorites to surprise me and to reinvent themselves.

"We have many sides and we do all kinds of music. We party sometimes too. This is a weekend album, but we accept the responsibility that we have to go back to work on Monday. You need balance in all things."

That balance is evident in "Wha t It Ain't," which is more complex than its simple hooks would suggest. Goodie Mob and TLC take the roles of a man and a woman arguing about what it means to be from the ghetto. The woman complains that the man is too lazy to get a job, while the man complains the woman is too bourgie to have a good time. The song reflects the deep ambivalence Goodie Mob's members have about the black neighborhoods of southwest Atlanta where they still live.

"A long time ago, people were ashamed of the ghetto and they'd only say bad things about it," Khujo notes. "Now you have a lot of people glorifying the ghetto, and they only say good things about it. But you don't change anything that way. We're saying that you can be proud of where you come from and still criticize it. On our last album, we had a song, 'Ghetto-ology,' where we said, 'One foot in, one foot out.'

"We're saying, 'Yeah, I come from the ghetto, and a lot of people I love are from the ghetto, and a lot of good things come from the ghetto, but I don't have to glorify everything about it. I don't have to glorify that some of my friends have died in the ghetto. I don't have to glorify all this trash on the streets and all these drug dealers on the corner.' It's because I love the ghetto that I want to change it."

World Party is a terrific hip-hop album, full of fat, hip-moving bass lines, infectious hooks, and a real give-and-take among the rappers. The Latin-tinged, War-flavored title tune makes its plea for universal brotherhood by issuing an irresistible invitation to dance in the street. "Street Corner" paints a picture of curbside drug dealing that's bleak and harrowing in its realism. "I.C.U." re-creates both the anticipation and tension of would-be lovers checking each other out.

The album's achievement is marred, however, by an ugly example of homophobia on the cut "All A's." Rapping about problems in the ghetto, Khujo declares, "The world would be a better place to live if there was less queers." He has since acknowledged it was a mistake to include the line in the song, but he hasn't disowned the sentiment.

"I didn't like it," Cee-Lo says, "but I didn't want to censor another member of the group. I told him he had the right to be honest, but he didn't have the right to judge. I don't want anyone to hate me for the way I am and I don't hate anyone else for the way they are. I want to apologize for that line and step away from it."

He feels a lot better about his contribution to Santana's recent chart-topping album, Supernatural. Cee-Lo has been friends with Lauryn Hill ever since Goodie Mob and the Fugees traveled together as part of the Ready or Not Tour in 1996. When Hill wrote and produced "Do You Like the Way" for Santana, she wanted a male vocalist who could inject both a hip-hop and a Southern-soul feel into the song and tapped Cee-Lo for the job.

"I'd like to do a full album of singing," he confesses. "I'm into emotion and sometimes I feel hip-hop doesn't have enough emotion. It's so physical. With singing and soul music, you can explore those emotions. I'm not into being stressed and uptight all the time. Maybe that's part of being from the South."

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