One night in 2003, after recording vocals for a remix of underground Brooklyn, New York, MC Jemini’s “What U Sittin On,” an unproven producer known as Danger Mouse asked guest singer Cee-Lo if he could play him some tracks.
The two had met once before, when Danger slipped Cee-Lo a tape after his college group opened for Goodie Mob at the University of Georgia in 1998, but the rapper/singer only “vaguely” remembers (i.e. he doesn’t remember).
This time, however, would be different. “I was blown away,” Cee-Lo recalled. “I felt like he had made them just for me.”
And in many ways, Danger Mouse did.
“I was looking for somebody who could do something with these particular songs, because I knew a rapper wouldn’t quite do it and the traditional kind of singer wasn’t really what I was looking for either,” the producer explained. “But I knew he was really versatile, and really, I was just happy to be working with somebody I was a big fan of.”
Of those tracks, some of which dated back to the ’90s, five went on to become songs on St. Elsewhere, the Grammy-nominated debut from Gnarls Barkley (see “Mary J. Blige, Chili Peppers Top Grammy Nominations List” ). It took three years for the duo to finish the Album of the Year nominee (see “Gnarls Barkley Gear Up For An Even Crazier ’07: Peppers Tour, New LP” ), beginning with the first session, booked shortly after Cee-Lo first heard the tracks.
“I was still pretty skeptical because, to me, it was too good to be true,” recalled Danger Mouse, who is also nominated for Producer of the Year for the second consecutive year. “I remember going into the studio to work with him for the first time, and he was really late. And when he did get there, we sat down and played the song that we were going to maybe do, and then we just talked. We didn’t know each other that well at all at that point, and I remember just talking and talking and talking.”
In the end, the artists talked so much they never had time to record, but when Cee-Lo returned for their second session, he had written a song called “Storm Coming” about the topics they discussed their first night. “And that ended up being the case for a good majority of the songs after that,” Danger said.
As Danger Mouse finished tracks, he would give them to Cee-Lo to digest, which meant driving around Atlanta with the instrumentals blaring. And while that might normally be the makings of a party album, this was far from the case.
“The tone and feel of a lot of the production was very tortured and very graphic and melancholy — not completely dark, but ’serious moonlight’ is what I like to call it,” said Cee-Lo, who ended up penning very personal lyrics about the darkest times of his life growing up in the Atlanta ghetto. “It made me feel very retrospective, and I didn’t realize until long afterwards that I had been as honest as I was.
“I think any other project would be considered a Cee-Lo Green solo record, but the reason it’s a duet is that the production itself makes such a statement,” he continued. “Pain is pain, and I felt like there was a shared experience in the production. It was aggravated and aggressive and pushed into a corner. He didn’t have to say so: I knew I had company.”
The duo — not yet named Gnarls Barkley — were enjoying the self-funded studio sessions but were still unsure what would become of the music. Then came a series of chord progressions Danger Mouse tracked that he knew was something special.
“When I played it for Cee-Lo in the studio, he instantly understood what I liked so much about the [chord] changes,” recalled Danger, who had also lifted an obscure sample of Gianfranco Reverberi’s “Nel Cimitero del Tucson” from the 1968 spaghetti western “Preparati la Bara!” for the track. “I had started talking to him about how to be an artist, how the public or the people listening have to think you’re crazy in order to take you really seriously. You can’t really expose how normal you are as a person because that’s not what I think people look up to or fantasize about. I remember we talked about a lot of rock star dudes and people who basically died too young or killed themselves or whatever. We talked about a lot of that stuff for hours and hours and hours.”
Eventually, Cee-Lo, who had been jotting down lyrics, went into the vocal booth. On his first take, he nailed “Crazy,” the genre-bending, ubiquitous single of 2006.
“In all honesty, a lot of the record was [done in one take],” Cee-Lo said. “It’s not as genuine as it is the first time. So hopefully my heart isn’t beating so fast that I can’t concentrate or function or enunciate. Hopefully it’s not too flawed that I have to do it again. So I just remember doing my thing with one eye on the paper and one eye looking at Danger’s reaction.”
After that, Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo decided to become an official band and finish an album. In between their various other projects — including Danger’s name-making The Grey Album (see “Grey Album Producer Danger Mouse Explains How He Did It” ) and production work for the Gorillaz (see “Gorillaz Pick Up A Mouse For Next Album” ) — the duo recorded 14 songs, 12 of which made St. Elsewhere.
“Our success ratio was pretty good because he’s highly critical of himself, and we were each other’s audience,” Cee-Lo explained. “I was highly impressed immediately with the production, so I wanted to compliment and impress him as well.”
Sometime during the production, Danger Mouse was listening to the Violent Femmes and instantly got an idea of how to redo “Gone Daddy Gone.” He and Cee-Lo had never talked about doing a cover, but he brought it to him anyway. “He wasn’t super familiar with that song, but he really liked it and gave it a shot,” Danger Mouse said.
The album was eventually named by Cee-Lo after the song “St. Elsewhere,” but for much of the recording it was titled Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green: Who Cares?
“It was kind of like, ’Look, we don’t think that you guys are gonna get this music,’ ” Danger Mouse said. “That’s where it came from, both of our — I don’t want to say insecurities, but I just think we knew we really liked it, but there are things we could have done differently if we were trying to get other people to like it more, which we didn’t do. We just kept it the way we wanted it.”
“It was anti-establishment initially, a true independent venture,” Cee-Lo added. “So it’s just awesome that something so genuinely raw and innocent has been so commercially celebrated. It truly surpassed all of our expectations.”
Get the story behind the other Album of the Year nominees:
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- Dixie Chicks Had ’Nothing To Lose,’ Took Long Way
- John Mayer Shifts From Pop Idol To Bluesman On Continuum
- Chili Peppers Experiment With Sounds, Wu-Tang Beats On Stadium Arcadium
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