Gnarls Barkley - Biography

By David Downs


              American experimental pop duo Gnarls Barkley, composed of auteur/producer Brian Burton ( DJ Danger Mouse) and former Goodie Mob rapper/singer Thomas Callaway (Cee-Lo Green), dominated international radio waves beginning in 2005 with the single “Crazy” from their debut album, St. Elsewhere (2006 Warner Music). The success arrived amid strong careers for both Burton and Callaway. Burton had been nominated for a ‘Producer Of The Year’ Grammy for his work with Blur’s Damon Albarn on Gorillaz’s Demon Days (2005 Virgin). He’d also gained attention after producing the landmark Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up, The Black-White Album, more widely known as The Grey Album (2004 no label). As a member of Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo and his cohorts coined the term “Dirty South” and helped shift attention away from the then-dominant West Coast and East Coasts. His distinctive voice led to him being a sought-after collaborator. As Gnarls Barkley, the duo’s deft, humorous and costumed live shows fueled chart-topping exposure throughout 2007 and helped St. Elsewhere go platinum.  The follow-up, The Odd Couple (2008 Downtown), was leaked online weeks before its release date and went on to sell more than 200,000 copies in the first months. A third album will supposedly conclude the collaboration.


            Gnarls Barkley resulted from Burton and Callaway crossing paths in 2003. Burton was an up-and-coming producer looking for a leading man to star in his personal music vision. Callaway was a respected, eclectic rapper and singer looking for a project that would expand his horizons past his work. Though the two came from different backgrounds, they shared a sense of musical adventurousness.


            Burton was born July 29, 1977 in White Plains, NY and was a groundbreaking, internationally known, rogue producer by 2004. Burton spent his childhood in predominately white neighborhoods listening to acts like Poison. By the time he went to college in Athens, Georgia, he was deeply into In High School he got into Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Portishead and hip-hop. These seemingly disparate strains would be reconciled by St. Elsewhere. His career began with him producing electronica under the name Pelican City, who released The Chilling Effect (1999 December First), Rhode Island (2000-December First), and Pelican City vs. Scanner (2002 Box Space).  He also remixed the Athens-based Neutral Milk Hotel and deejayed on local radio WUOG. 


            Burton then moved to the UK, where he sent a demo to Lex Records and got signed. As “Danger Mouse” he appeared in 2002 with rapper Jemini on Take Care of Business (2002 Lex Records) followed by Conceited Bastard (2003 Lex) and Ghetto Pop Life (2003-Lex Records). Critically championed, Burton's fame took off immensely with his next project The Grey Album (2004 No label). Conceived out of sheer linguistic enjoyment, he combined Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003 Rock-A-Fella) with the Beatles’ The Beatles (commonly referred to as The White Album). Burton worked for twenty days straight, sixteen hours a day, reconstructing the two works into a piece that mixed hip-hop, rock, psychedelia and electronica. Illegally created and distributed with the new tools of the time, it was a smash success, seen as combining two mutually exclusive cultures, like Burton himself.


            The Grey Album caught the attention of Damon Albarn, the frontman of Blur and Gorillaz. He brought Burton in to produce the follow-up to Gorillaz’s platinum debut. Burton helped craft a dark, complex, utterly captivating sonic environment for Albarn’s bleating and the album was a critical and commercial success. Burton followed the project with the MF DOOM and Cartoon Network collaboration The Mouse and the Mask (2005 Epitaph), which contains the seeds of Gnarls Barkley in track “Benzie Box” where Cee-Lo sings the chorus.


            Thomas Callaway, born May, 30, 1974 defied the odds to become one of the preeminent vocalists of the 2000s. After surviving the death of both parents and wrestling with demons as part of southern rap pioneers Goodie Mob, he embarked on a solo career. Born in Atlanta, Callaway's father was a preacher and died when Thomas was two years old. His mother, also a minister, died when he was eighteen. By high school he was associated with members of the Bloods and has spoken of a streak of teenage pyromania. His battles with aggression and grief would later provide some of the material for St. Elsewhere.


            In 1995 he debuted nationally with Big Gipp, Khujo Goodie and T-Mo in the group Goodie Mob on the single “Cell Therapy” (1995 La Face). It was followed by gold-certified debut LP, Soul Food (1995 La Face). With follow-ups Still Standing (1998 La Face) and World Party (1999 La Face), Goodie Mob added depth to Dirty South's usual uptempo, simplistic, party anthems. Callaway felt sonically constricted, however, and pursued a solo career debuting with Cee-Lo Green And His Perfect Imperfections (2002 Arista) followed by Cee-Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine (2004 Arista). During this period, the unknown Burton placed second in a University of Georgia talent contest. At a Cee-Lo concert that Burton was deejaying, he slipped Cee-Lo a copy of his demo. Two years later, the two began work on St. Elsewhere, in the Fall of 2003.


            Burton has stated in interviews that he conceived of St. Elsewhere like a director would a film, searching for the right actor to play the lead. Cee-Lo’s response to Burton’s initial instrumentals for “Crazy” inspired hours of discussion. The two agreed the act could be more convincing if the audience thought the artist was truly crazy. Cee-Lo used the conversation as a starting point and penned the lyrics for “Crazy.” The rest of the album re-examined the post-Beatles period of experimental rock and pop and Callaway proved a capable actor. The album would be released first with “Crazy” April 3, 2006 available only as a download. The eyes of the British press had firmly fixed on Burton’s output and “Crazy” topped UK charts based on download sales alone. BBC Radio fueled the craze and the single spent nine weeks at number one in the UK before being deleted on May 28, 2006 to prevent its overexposure.


            The song is driven by what Burton calls a rip-off of renowned spaghetti western director Ennio Morricone’s style and Cee-Lo’s instantly catchy lyrics of mental breakdown. St. Elsewhere went platinum in the US, won multiple international awards and topped charts across the globe by speaking both to urban and alternative radio demographics.


            Cee-Lo and Burton did not initially intend to tour, but their live shows became things of note. They made their American television debut on Late Night with Conan O'Brien May 24, 2006 where they performed “Crazy.”  For their MTV Movie Awards performance they dressed as Star Wars characters. Their summer included memorable tour dates with Red Hot Chili Peppers around the U.S. The band played a set featuring their entire album as well as a few covers, with Cee-Lo frequently commenting jovially on the nascent project’s lack of material. In October 2006 Gnarls Barkley recorded a live set for the documentary series, Live from Abbey Road, and released a limited edition deluxe package of St. Elsewhere (2006 Warner) on November 7. They also toured internationally into 2007, releasing a short film with the TV series Kung Faux, on Channel V.


            After another recording session, Gnarls Barkley proved St. Elsewhere wasn’t a fluke with the follow-up, The Odd Couple­ (2008 Downtown). The album leaked weeks prior its scheduled April 8 release date. It became available on iTunes on March 18 and CDs were in stores on March 25. The stand-out track, “Surprised,” opens with surf rock percussion and vocal section, before Cee-Lo’s lyrics of stoicism in the face of inevitable loss and destruction. Though incredibly poppy and upbeat, the album is really quite dark, with “Would Be Killer” fantasizing homicide similar to the prior album’s “Necromancer” and “Just a Thought”. The album received high marks, and the subsequent tour dates were highly coveted.


            Cee-Lo has spoken of a third album as concluding the collaboration, but fans can satisfy themselves with other work from both artists. Burton is producing Beck’s latest record. His work on The Grey Album and Danger Doom as well as his Jemini collaborations are not to be missed. Similarly Cee-Lo has worked with De La Soul, Kelis, Common, Carlos Santana, Nas, OutKast, Sean Combs and TLC. He also produced and co-wrote (with Sir Mix A Lot) the 2005 hit single “Don’t Cha” (A&M) for The Pussycat Dolls as well as Kelis’s single, Lil Star (2007 Virgin.)


            It wasn’t inevitable that aspiring producer and college student Brian Burton would find such a fruitful relationship in the troubled, yet brilliant Thomas Callaway. Yet the two’s love of experimental music united them. Burton’s cross-cultural experiences growing up in New York in the '80s and the Dirty South in the '90s provided the eclectic bedrock for Callaway’s vocal cathedral. It echoes with his gospel upbringing, personal loss and gangster proclivities -- a ferocious yet sweet beast the world adores. Combined with a keen sense of public relations, Gnarls Barkley’s resultant theatrics and reputation only drove their fan’s mania, searing their work into the musical consciousness of the time.


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