In the storied pantheon of Atlanta’s hip-hop history, Outkast has always been heralded as the Beatles-style artistic innovators of the “Dirty South” sound, whereas Goodie Mob was seen more like Rolling Stones-style journeymen, giving a soulful, streetwise voice to the concerns of the common man. But Outkast blew up and became consistent chart-toppers, while Goodie Mob fell apart just three albums into their careers after failing to measure up to commercial and creative expectations. For fans old enough to remember the group’s groundbreaking 1995 debut, Soul Food, the Goodie Mob story has always seemed maddeningly incomplete. Big Gipp, CeeLo, Khujo and T-Mo were like nothing hip-hop had heard before, blessing the soul- and gospel-infused sounds of Organized Noize with rhymes that covered topics ranging from gentrification and geo-politics to discrimination and racism. Hit songs like “Cell Therapy” and “Soul Food” proved the quartet had mainstream appeal, and 1998’s Still Standing—which, like their debut album, went Gold—revealed CeeLo’s impressive singing abilities. But all was not well behind the scenes: The group felt increasing pressure to rival the success of their Dungeon Family brethren in Outkast, who hit #2 on the pop charts with Aquemini. Goodie Mob signed to Arista Records for their third album, World Party, but the blatantly mainstream sound didn’t go down well—not with fans, not with the label and not within the band itself. CeeLo left the group during the album’s production, Goodie Mob was soon dropped from the label and, for 14 years, fans were left to contemplate what could’ve been.
THE ROAD TO REUNION
A lot can change in 14 years, particularly in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of hip-hop. With Outkast on extended hiatus, icons such as Public Enemy relatively silent, and few up-and-coming MCs willing to grab hold of the conscious hip-hop banner, there’s a gaping hole in an increasingly vacuous market desperately in need of leadership. And, while Goodie Mob went the way of the dodo after attempting to release one post-CeeLo album, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, their unofficial frontman found mainstream success with Gnarls Barkley, his solo career and his role as a judge on The Voice. As CeeLo recalled during our 2010 interview, “Goodie Mob came along at the right time in my life, because I needed that structure to preserve my sanity.” Now he’s returning the favor, using the stardom he’s gained to bring Goodie Mob back into the spotlight, right when hip-hop seems to need them most. According to Khujo, the “Four Horsemen” never stopped communicating, even when the media assumed there was bad blood. “We’ve been talking ever since CeeLo left,” he insists. “One Monkey was really about [LaFace Records]. They tried to stunt our growth by not allowing us to record any music, and then the label folded and left the artists trying to figure out what to do. We had to keep pushing, whether it was with the label or whether our brother had to go through his thing. We still had to continue to make music.” Rumors that the band would reunite have been swirling since 2006, when all four members appeared on stage together after a Gnarls Barkley concert. They officially announced plans for a Goodie Mob reunion album on V-103 back in 2007, and performed at the Tabernacle in 2008 and the Masquerade in 2009. Yet still, there was no album to show for it.
“CeeLo was doing the second record with Danger Mouse,” Khujo explains of the long and winding road to Goodie Mob’s reunion project, Age Against the Machine. “But he always said, ‘When I come back, we’re going to do the album.’ We’ve been recording this album for five years. It took us four years to get the type of songs that we wanted to do. It’s like, now we’ve come of age, and we can continue.”
Though it went through a labored birth that included numerous false starts and a rumored signing with Elektra Records, Age Against the Machine finally came together last year when the quartet convened at Geejam Studios in remote Portland, Jamaica. “It was like a day hadn’t gone by,” CeeLo says of reuniting with his childhood friends. “There’s a kinetic energy that connects us. Goodie Mob was always very overt and outspoken as far as social agenda and politics. We’re all bonded by the banner that we wave, and even my own individual successes could not sever my association with Goodie Mob.” The album’s title pays homage to the influence of Rage Against the Machine, both lyrically and musically, while also making a statement about Goodie Mob’s status as iconic veterans—several of whom are in their forties—hungry to regain their rightful place on a hip-hop scene that’s currently dominated by celebrations of sex, drugs and violence. “Wisdom is the weapon of choice here,” Khujo says of the album’s central theme. “We’ve got to let these young guys know that they don’t have to do our type of music, but they need to do something different to uplift the culture. These days people look at hip-hop and think you’ve got to have a security team and insurance, because somebody is going to get into a fight, or somebody is going to get shot. We want to change that.” CeeLo—who speaks in eloquently poetic puzzles that, like an oratory Rubik’s Cube, must be twisted and turned in order to be fully understood—waxes rhapsodically when asked about the state of hip-hop today.
“I’ve often described the state of the art as like Lord of the Flies,” he says. “It’s about children without adult supervision who run amuck. They have no guidance, no direction, no aspiration. They have no couth. Because of the spoils—the successes that we fought, slaved and died for—these are wealthy kids wallowing in their inheritance. I’m not saying that we can’t change. It’s a frame of mind, and it can be healed.”
Numerous tracks on the album address Goodie Mob’s mission to get hip-hop culture back on track, and to remind listeners that sociopolitical consciousness was once regarded as an asset rather than a liability. On the intro, “U Don’t Know What You Got,” Dungeon Family member Big Rube intones, “Music’s almost dead as we know it/But, flowing like poetry, the prodigal sons return.” On the confrontational “State of the Art (Radio Killa),” they paint commercial radio as a form of mind control, declaring a state of emergency that necessitated Goodie Mob’s return. On the closing track, “Father Time,” the group presents themselves as hip-hop’s “patriarch, the founder, the forefather, initiator, the forbearer, the predecessor, the architect,” reminding the genre how “we gave you food for your soul and nourished your brain.” Most of the reviews and interviews surrounding Age Against the Machine focus on how CeeLo’s genre-hopping has come to redefine the Goodie Mob sound; how they address controversial racial issues on “Power” (which centers on CeeLo’s newfound influence over the white audience) and “Amy” (which deals with interracial relationships); and how fellow Atlanta hip-hop icons T.I. (“Pinstripes”) and Janelle Monáe (“Special Education”) guest on two of the album’s most potent tracks. But the real story of the album, and of Goodie Mob’s return, can be found in CeeLo’s final verse on “Father Time,” where the son he refers to is all that’s wrong with the current state of hip-hop:I contemplated completely killing my son/ If I can’t cut the cancer out that’s stealing my son
To lay down my own life, I am willing, my son/ I remember smiling when I caught him stealing my gun
Before I started building my son, I would still leave a crumb
Couldn’t tell the difference in how I was feeling from numb/ The four walls, the floor and the ceiling were slum
And right outside the front door, kids were killing for fun… But let’s be clear/ I’m not your peer, listen here
I am harder, I’m smarter, I’m Sparta/ I am your father.Not every song on the uneven album works quite so well. But when the Four Horsemen click with such a perfectly produced track, the results will give you goosebumps.
Only time will tell if Age Against The Machine will perform as well as Soul Food; if young hip-hop fans will embrace 40-year-old MCs telling them that their music is void of soulfulness and meaning; and if CeeLo can remain devoted to the Goodie Mob cause with Gnarls Barkley’s third album and the next season of The Voice vying for his attention. But, for now, the quartet seems incredibly excited to be working together again, with Big Gipp telling Rolling Stone that they already have enough material recorded for another album. In addition to being inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in October, the group is slated to star in a reality show, The Good Life, next year, focusing on Goodie Mob becoming the first hip-hop group to have their own show on the Vegas Strip. As the band approaches the 20th anniversary of their debut album, they clearly have reason to look forward to a brighter future. “Rage Against the Machine is a super rock group,” says Khujo. “Hopefully Goodie Mob will have that kind of impact on history. We just got inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and they don’t just put rappers in there like that. We got nominated for a Grammy, and the album wasn’t even out yet! It’s long overdue. But I’m glad that it’s happening now, in the midst of all that we’ve got going on, so we can stand up and be recognized. It shows that it’s not just our people listening to this music: it’s everybody.”