God Loves Hip-Hop: Goodie Mob’s Dirty South Spirituality
CeeLo, Big Gipp, Khujo, and T-Mo are now in a unique position, straddling two dimensions—that of Goodie Mob’s soulful power, and of the commercial entities who hold the purse strings.
Words: Adria Bani / August 29, 2013
In 1994, Atlanta wasn’t a tastemaker for hip-hop music. Biggie and Tupac were becoming icons, Nas was making waves with Illmatic, Snoop was blowing up in the west after the success of Dr. Dre’s Chronic. It was a beautiful time for hip-hop on the coasts, but the flow of influence to Atlanta was still a one-way street.
Then the era of the Dirty South began.
In ‘94 and ‘95, two groups from Atlanta’s Dungeon Family, Outkast and Goodie Mob, released large-scale records through native label LaFace and made a name for the South that would forever impact hip-hop. Though their brethren Outkast received more of the attention and acclaim, Goodie Mob was instrumental in the development of this region’s style. In fact, the entire concept of the “Dirty South” was originated on their debut album Soul Food, and it immediately struck a chord.
The South is a region with a lot of troubled history, and even in modern times it can be a dangerous place for a Black man. The Mob rapped on Soul Food about the history of Southern oppression, and the present-day realities of corruption and violence in their Atlanta communities. From their intro spiritual “Free,” through the hard-hitting revelations about their lives in Atlanta, the Mob were crusaders for the civil rights of rap and the people it speaks for. They nurtured a deeper spiritual connection with rap music in their listeners, even inspiring fellow rapper Bun-B to teach a course at Rice University called “Religion and Hip-Hop.” Throughout the dirty and shameful history of racism and oppression in the South, faith in God has helped Black folks survive. And the Mob brought this intention into their music, creating a sound that changed the way many people felt about rap. Now almost 20 years later, T-Mo, Khujo, Big Gipp, and CeeLo Green have reunited to create Age Against the Machine. And while cleanliness may be next to Godliness, the dirty south rap of the Bible Belt may once again feed hip-hop’s soul.
CeeLo Green, enigmatic face of the Mob and the child of two ordained ministers, calls his music God’s work…but that work has taken contrasting forms, testing the faith of the Mob and its fans. CeeLo started out making music that was honest, painful, and tied to the underground. But when he and the Mob released two more albums after the initial success ofSoul Food, they struggled to achieve real reach. After Goodie Mob’s eventual separation in 2002, CeeLo began an epic journey in music making that is quite unlike his dirty south beginnings. But an unrelenting talent and willingness to be different has brought him to a level of fame reached by very few southern rappers. He has called this experience, “God using [him] to do something very unorthodox…”
We’ve all heard religious references in rap music, and when rappers get a grammy they often give it up to God in their acceptance speech. But what if the trajectory of Goodie Mob really is being guided by a higher power? Spirituality and hip-hop are usually framed by the powers-that-be as opposite. Extremists who see themselves as “truly” religious see hip-hop as the embodiment of all that is wrong with society, and mainstream folks will take it in only small and discreet doses for fear of its questionable moral status. But as an encompassing culture and an evolving social movement, hip-hop IS a religion in and of itself. It’s a pathway by which racial inequities have been challenged and unconscious minds changed. It is beautiful and righteous in so many ways, but is rarely seen as a positive productive culture. CeeLo and the Mob believe in hip-hop’s positive power, but feel modern mainstream artists have highjacked its sound. As members of the Mob have alluded to during their radio interviews about the new album, they want to set a higher bar and bring a balance to the art form: they want to help hip-hop be righteous again. For as people have lost touch with hip-hop’s inherent goodness, they have lost respect for it. And when folks don’t have respect, they take without giving back. So many have gotten rich off a culture born of struggle and given no thought to what might be owed to the culture itself. Just like a girl you’d sleep with but not answer her calls, hip-hop has been used.
The disrespecting and demonization of hip-hop is no new game. Dominant cultures often make a name for themselves by portraying other ways of life as the work of the devil. But hip-hop’s status as “bad kid” music, the taboo rock and roll of the pre and early Internet generations, has also made it provocative and exciting, an amazingly absorbent cultural sponge for all the off-beat among us (and by off-beat I mean EXACTLY ON BEAT). Its culture and art forms have expanded our consciousness, connected us, healed us, revived us. We have held our church in smoky rooms late nights, slept in through service Sundays, and still been guided by righteousness. For many, hip-hop has been a communion with God. And politics notwithstanding, religion changes the world.
CeeLo is now in a unique position to enact such change, straddling two dimensions: that of his music’s soulful power, and of the commercial entities who hold the purse strings. He pulls no punches about his guidance from God to get where he is, and wants to prove his commitment to the deep spirituality and revolutionary message expressed by the Mob decades ago. “I had to do a little espionage…change my name and my I.D…they know me as Gnarls Barkley…”, revealed CeeLo during Goodie Mob’s recent interview with radio station Power 105. This ‘undercover mission’ has secured CeeLo a fan base in the millions and a multi-media platform for the message that he wants to invest his fame in. But neither he nor his crew want to be pegged as sell-outs in the process. They are focused on re-establishing a fearless-in-the-face-of-power cred, releasing the first video from Age Against the Machine, “I’m Set”, that is over-the-top–almost comically–aggressive and unsettling. The hope for this album, it would seem, is to flip back and forth from commercial to hardcore. But can it be two things? Goodie Mob may be poised to send ripples of pure hip-hop throughout the hearts and souls of the masses and unite disparate audiences in the name of the beat. But the fear remains that a revolutionary message can’t reach a mainstream audience without compromises that render it powerless. CeeLo believes he’s cracked the code, and trusts God’s plan, “I’ve seen stranger things happen than the things I’ve been able to do…We CAN do what we’re doing. It is possible to bring the balance.” CeeLo hopes not just to get a pop audience to listen to Goodie Mob’s hip-hop, but to help them respect it, and the people and culture it speaks for. As their new album drops and tour dates approach, we wait with baited breath to see if this legendary quartet can practice what they preach.