In mid-2005, the hip-hop crew Goodie Mob holed up in a studio to begin work on their first album with original member Cee Lo Green since 1999's World Party. But just as they were getting into a groove, Green backed out. When Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, the producer with whom the soulful singer would form the avant-pop duo Gnarls Barkley, sent over the music for the soon-to-be chart-topping song "Crazy," Green had no choice but to move forward with that project. The result? Goodie Mob's comeback album was put on hold.
Now Green has never been more popular. He followed up his Gnarls work with the infectious single "Fuck You" off his 2010 solo album, The Lady Killer, and a high-profile judging gig on NBC's The Voice. Yet he felt it only right to return to his roots.
"It's definitely coming back around full circle," Green tells Rolling Stone of recording Age Against the Machine, the first Goodie Mob album with the original lineup in over a decade, due next week. "It's truly completing a thought."
Goodie Mob came of age in the mid-Nineties as part of the Dungeon Family, a diverse collective of Atlanta-based hip-hop and soul artists including Outkast. "I knew always that we were gonna do another Goodie Mob album. I just didn't know when," adds group member Big Gipp. "But isn't it a beautiful story? [Cee Lo] reaching the success that he's reached and to come back and get his brothers?"
Rumors of internal feuding within the group were common in the years following Green's departure. But Gipp insists the group (which also includes Khujo and T-Mo) have always remained close. "We talked the entire time that we weren't together," he says. "People just didn't know that."
Writing for Age Against the Machine began in earnest in late 2009. But Green's solo success, and particularly the longevity of "Fuck You," made recording a slow process.
"The one thing that I've always tried to master is being able to multitask," Green says of popping in and out of Goodie Mob sessions while touring behind his solo album. "You just try not to stretch yourself too thin." The bulk of the album, though, was recorded last winter at Geejam Studios in Portland, Jamaica, an isolated studio southeast of Kingston accessible by chartered flight over the Blue Mountains.
"We really got in a groove when we were in Jamaica," says Green. Adds Gipp, "It was just us and the music."
Age Against the Machine is a return to form for Goodie Mob, who made their name as socially conscious rappers mixing funk and soul, never afraid to push the lyrical envelope. They primed and polished an amalgamation of genres on their acclaimed debut album, 1995's Soul Food, and its 1998 follow-up, Still Standing.
"Anyone knowing Goodie Mob knows our stance has been civil service and social service," Green says. The singer points to a new track, "Power" – one of the first they recorded for the album, sampling the Moody Blues' "Question" – as one of the new LP's most poignant pieces. The track explores Green attaining unexpected popularity and his influence among Caucasians. "I have literally acquired the white power," he says. "It's making a bold statement. It's a provocative song."
Another boundary-pushing cut is "Amy," about Green's first interracial relationship. "To do a record like 'Amy,' you know our balls are gonna be on the line," says Gipp.
On "Special Education," featuring Janelle Monae, the group rails against bullying. Green says recruiting Monae for the track was "more of a formality," as he considers their fellow Atlanta native "extended family." The cutthroat "Pinstripes" features T.I., who has a deep history with Goodie Mob: the rapper's first TV appearance was with the group in the late Nineties on BET's Rap City, and they share a mutual friend and business acquaintance in Ghet-O-Vision CEO Kawan "KP" Prather.
"T.I. is our family," says Green. "He's a serious MC, and it was his voluntary action about being part of the Goodie Mob album."
Green is also looking ahead to another Gnarls Barkley album, though with Danger Mouse producing the forthcoming U2 album, linking up with his former partner has been tough. "We've been talking," he says. "A lot of the way that we worked anyway was he would send me something and he won't send it unless he really thinks it's good, you know? And I won't write a song for it unless it really relates to me in a real way.
"With that being said, I still had a few things that we hadn't finished. We only planned to do one album (St. Elsewhere). We ended up doing two. Maybe they were released a little too close to each other. But there are a few songs from that moment in time that have had a lot of staying power in me. I never lose sight of it. I'm going in and starting right there and reintroducing him to the way that we were."
Meanwhile, Goodie Mob are just getting started in their calculated reentry onto the pop-culture landscape. The group, headed out on tour through mid-September, are the subject of a reality show, The Good Life, airing on TBS this February. They return to Las Vegas next year for a show at the Rio, feauring music from Cee Lo, Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley, a follow-up to this past year's "CeeLo Green Is Loberace" at Planet Hollywood. And according to Gipp, another new album is on the way in the not-so-distant future.
"We have a whole other album already ready to go," he says. "We recorded that much material."