Motown meets modern on Cee Lo Green's The Lady Killer
By Tony Ware
The eccentric soul known as Cee Lo Green was born Thomas Callaway to ministers of the Baptist church, but he came into his own within a far more flamboyant congregation. As part of the Dungeon Family musical collective (including OutKast, the Goodie Mob, Sleepy Brown, and Organized Noize), Green helped put the closet freaks of Atlanta, Ga.’s mid-’90s hip-hop/R&B scene into the national consciousness.
After several albums of Dirty South slang and social commentary, Green broke off to explore his Perfect Imperfections, a throaty hybrid of crooning and MCing as captured on the 2002 solo album bearing that phrase. In 2004 he further consolidated his avant-garde approach to urban formats with The Soul Machine, working with stellar New South producers such as Timbaland, the Neptunes, and Jazze Pha before getting caught in label shutterings and personal frustrations. It was the next year, however, when Green would see his most high-profile, and in a way, indirect, recognition.
Green would produce the song “Don’t Cha,” a massive hit for the Pussycat Dolls, and would record an independent album under the playful guise of Gnarls Barkley. Providing vocals for the ruddy funk shui of producer Danger Mouse, finding lyrics came quickly, “like some kind of hieroglyphics . . . like writing on the wall . . . something already there just waiting ’til the right music helped reveal it.” Green co-scored the international Internet sensation and hit single “Crazy.”
Finding it hard to maintain a shroud of mystique, Gnarls Barkley would release one more “sobering” album, 2008’s The Odd Couple. But it was definitely the transatlantic success of that neo-soul, ’60s soundtrack-influenced project that set the stage for the 2010 return of Cee Lo Green as The Lady Killer. Releasing in a market primed by Motown-through-a-British-filter artists such as Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, The Lady Killer flips the formula, embodying a theoretical world where Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra collaborates with Burt Bacharach and John Barry in a concept that Green himself sums up in four words: Big, Black James Bond.
Soliciting contributors to compose with that persona in mind, Green assembled tracks from a list of producers including Fraser T. Smith, Jack Splash, Paul Epworth, and the Smeezingtons. When asked if he has an overriding aesthetic song approach, Green holds true to motifs he says he has long preferred, both physically and emotionally. “Flow and curve . . . sure, those are still the physics, those are the laws that don’t change.”
The first indication of how all of the influences of the past coalesced into a direction for the future was “Fuck You!,” a viral single released to YouTube in August 2010. Produced by production trio the Smeezingtons, featuring Green’s fellow Atlantic/Elektra recording artist Bruno Mars, “Fuck You!” is a retro-modern groove that maintains subtle grit, a song about the complex pursuit of pleasure that thrives on the interplay of authoritative percussion and creative spatial manipulation. The widespread embrace of “Fuck You!” resulted in The Lady Killer’s release date being bumped up from 2011 to November 2010. But this adversity-has-its-smoothsilver- lining pop tune is actually one of the last pieces of seated a work that was more than two years in the making.
Green’s dozens of tracks, ultimately about the frustration/salvation in chasing the ladies, were conceived throughout studio sessions in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, London, Paris, a tour bus, and a Georgia country ranch, according to Green’s longtime engineer, Graham Marsh. Many initial, improvisational home sessions began on a Pro Tools HD3 rig, playing with everything from a Yamaha Motif workstation and an Akai MPC to Native Instruments’ Komplete software suite. Scrolling through sounds, Green and Marsh might veer a track from an urban to a more country feel. Halfway through the creative process, Green set out to reboot under a more proactive, nigh-neurotic work ethic, and sat down with Rick Nowels for a few weeks and generated several tracks, including “Satisfied” and “Cry Baby.”
Contributions came from many directions, but with its sensitive-with-a-sense-of-humor, International Man of Mystery vibe, the 14 final tracks selected for The Lady Killer certainly drew plenty from an obvious U.K. sensibility. It’s another city, however, that provides a key to understanding Green’s aspirations here. “It can sound like vintage Las Vegas for me. What I mean is, what I wanted from this album is not to offer a tour [of styles]; instead, it’s like a residency, piecing together a performance with a consistency throughout,” says Green.
At the heart of this coherence is Green’s voice, of course, and to reproduce it with consistency, Marsh set up a customized chain that accompanied them throughout the album’s tracking. “Cee Lo can be very nasal when singing—which is his signature— and is extremely dynamic,” says the engineer, who performed vocal production, mixing, and additional programming duties on TheLady Killer. “The Telefunken ELAM 251 re-issue [cardioid] smoothed out a lot of that 2k, midrange harshness and stood up to the loudest scream he could muster, while still sounding present, warm, crisp.”
“I find the John Hardy M-1 pre to be very present and transparent,” Marsh continues. “I get more ‘vibe’ out of [running it into] the Universal Audio 1176. As a rule, I don’t compress Cee Lo’s vocals hard to tape, doing –5dB of compression at the most, but I have in certain instances when I wanted a particular sound [by setting four fingers in ‘nuke’ mode on the 1176]. And I use the Manley Pultec EQ at the end [of the chain] just to bump a very small amount of 10k ‘air’ to tape. I find this EQ gives me the sparkle I’m looking for.”
A relaxed but involved delivery is indeed one of the vocal strengths on The Lady Killer, which Green says was conceptualized to showcase his sensitive, sexy, and sociable sides, and this balance of outand- about and intimate energy was captured by whatever means necessary. One standout, “Satisfied,” was tracked within the control room on headphones and with monitors muted, as the vocal booth felt too isolating. When describing the immediacy he intended to achieve, Green visually leans forward, gesturing as if singing to a Shure 55S cupped in his hand (what he describes as a “curl on the forehead . . . Dewey Cox mic”). The mic actually used was a Heil PR 40 (to avoid the nightmares of manhandling a 251, among other reasons), but the anticipated effect, to deliver a dynamic country-soul croon, is fully achieved.
Another successful era-bridging, soul-bolstering technique applied throughout The Lady Killer is the use of delay/reverb trails at the end of vocal phrases, applied on top of a good deal of spring reverb already on the lead vocal. “I would automate a send in Pro Tools to a delay on the last word of a particular phrase,” says Marsh. “Nine-tenths of the time, I would be using [SoundToys] EchoBoy for an analog delay emulator—usually a fast, 16th note delay, with a pretty high frequency, so that the delay is long. I would then automate a send on the delay track back to a reverb, so that with every delay hit, the reverb of the delay grows larger, as if it is descending down a large hall. Sometimes, I will automate the room size parameter on [Digidesign’s] ReVibe to make the room grow larger as the delay gets longer.”
While most instruments were treated either at the source while tracking or later in the box, Marsh says reamping experiments were applied to vocals cut throughout the process. “I would run sessions later through a vintage Victoria amp, or this little Orange toy amp,” he says. “You can hear this on the girl vocals on ‘Bodies,’ ‘Red Hot Lover,’ and ‘It’s OK.’” Additional studio routing for these tracks included Apogee Rosetta 200/800 and AD-16 DA- 16 converters, UA 610s, Distressors, Tube Tech CL- 1B, Neve 1079/1073/33114 pres/EQs, and Manley Pultec-style EQ.
The final thread that secures the seams, and a “Live at the Sands” vibe, on The Lady Killer is the presence of strings (as well as horns) on the lion’s share of tracks—produced with the help of Salaam Remi, known for his work on the Fugees’ The Score, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and releases by Nas, among many other productions. “I’m an album specialist . . . the whole idea was for me to score [The Lady Killer], and really make it feel like the movie that it is,” Remi says.
To achieve this vision, Remi, who also co-wrote the album track “Bodies,” called on his relationship with the Czech Film Orchestra, a partnership originally developed during scoring duties alongside composer Lalo Schifrin for Rush Hour 3. Putting together scratch tracks in Logic Pro, Remi collaborated with arrangers Stephen Coleman, Tim Davies, and Nicholas Dodd for “getting whatever was necessary . . . and steering it back in the pocket.” Working over Skype and Source-Connect, Remi monitored the Prague sessions, which were recorded at 96K and returned via Digidelivery to the States. Once back in Remi’s hands, compression and plug-ins, as well as hits of tonally competitive panning, were applied in order to balance high fidelity with intentional edge. Once the ratio of rub-to-ride was achieved, the orchestration was comped to the tracks, where sometimes synths would have to be dropped an octave, or even removed, to cede some necessary sonic real estate.
“Strings, that sophistication, it insinuates the ‘scenic route,’” says Green on the quest for consistency without complacency. “So much of today’s music can sound so local, dedicated to where it’s made at. It hasn’t been anywhere, and often doesn’t want to go new places. At the heart of the best music will always be pots and pans, making something out of nothing. But it should be a success story, not stories about success. Those just all start sounding the same. That’s why for The Lady Killer, we had to tear down walls . . . make tangible a savvy, grand production that was as much ’60s personality as ’80s English pop as an independent spirit where modern music can go again, and bringing it all together so it’s very palatable. These songs are traveled!”
The Lady Killer embodies a quest to recapture Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown and Gamble & Huff Philadelphia International, to craft something that could have sat compelling among the Four Seasons, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Solomon Burke on episodes of Soul Train or Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special variety show. But it also adds the club-friendly, 808 low-end of roughened hip-hop to soul, bringing in the nicely choppy, negative spacerich influence of drum programming like that of Gorillaz, and it makes recognition of and concessions to modern reproduction.
For instance, Marsh discusses the use of light “distortion” on certain bass parts, such as those on the song “Cry Baby,” to give tracks more presence on computer speakers. “I run the bass through two concurrent Neve 1079s [mic pres/EQs], turning the gain all of the way up on the first channel, achieving some tasty analog distortion, then using the second channel to control my level to Pro Tools. I will do this with my amp channel and blend it with my DI signal.”
Ben H. Allen is a longtime Green associate who engineered Gnarls Barkley sessions, helped assemble Green’s Solitaire Studios, and produced “Bright Lights, Bigger City,” the most synth-heavy track on The Lady Killer. He also mentions using Neve mic pres on live drums for a distinct crunchiness, as well as Eventide’s H3000 Factory plug-ins on bassist Tony Reyes’ “Billie Jean”-like strut to give a “percussion sizzle.”
“What I try to generate, which worked great for this album, is a lift and a pull, some resistance, rather than the energy being linear,” Allen says. “It isn’t Logic fairy dust that makes the tracks great, it’s the arrangements. Cee Lo had [‘Bright Lights, Bigger City’] for over a year, and added vocals, horns, and strings, when the label called to ask if I could take it and finish it. I printed stereo stems of all the parts and on my way to California, on a plane, did a new version of the song on my laptop, half mixing and half adding some [soft-synth] production, but mostly taking things out. I did it all on $150 Altec-Lansing earbuds, because you don’t have to worry about the tools as much when you can establish flow.”
Ultimately, all this activity—not just vocals and strings, but snares, claps, shakers, casabas, even vinyl crackles on the album’s emotional summation, a melancholy, yet bracing cover of indie rockers Band of Horses’ ethereal “No One’s Gonna Love You”—resulted in an album of punchy, clustered midrange. This was an area that many involved agree was constantly being carved and compartmentalized to maintain both timeless groove and contemporary pressure. For Marsh, it was the melodic phase shifts of Dave Fridmann on MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular and restless edges of Tchad Blake on Los Lobos’ Colossal Head that stood as an inspiration for how to wrangle textural shifts. Marsh would maintain 4dB to 5dB of headroom on 48kHz/24-bit files, in order to give the mastering engineers room to augment the dynamics.
For Grammy-winning Manny Marroquin, who helmed a vast majority of the post-production mix engineering duties at his Los Angeles board, it was a conversation with Green about the spacing, depth, and crinkled reverbs of Portishead that gave the green light to playfully fray the fringes. Also on deck for the Bruno Mars album, so familiar with the style of pronounced that glide Green went after, Marroquin used “a lot of [Universal Audio] 1176 compression going to RCA BA-6A, while EQwise, it was mainly [K-series 9000XL ‘Super Analogue’ SSL console] and some Pultec EQs to warm it up, with a lot of Fairchild parallel compression on the drums.” Spreading out the stems, using those EQs with spring, tape, and Bricasti Design reverbs to apply the last wash of continuity, Marroquin maintained Green’s cool in a world of albums printing hot.
Even with so many hands pushing faders, The Lady Killer comes across as an album that resonates with dapper confidence, through tracks aimed at both the back row and the bedroom. “I never had to share creative space until Gnarls,” reflects Green. “And with this album everyone had an opinion on how it could or should go, so this was an opportunity for me to have a theme but not be overly insistent on anything. If my approach didn’t nail it, I could give a second thought and ask people their take, see if I could feel it, if the logic would come to life for me. And we all came together on the way it should play out, without resorting to one formula. I have a very analog approach to my own music. I like it live, I like it lush, and I like it to have a mystique, even if it has to bend a rule or two. People can not live off standard pop alone. I’m an album artist, and with Lady Killer I have an entire album at a time that I feel it’s possible to turn people’s ears and make this sincere sound commercially viable again.”
Want more? Read interview extras with Cee Lo, Marsh and Marroquin HERE.
Read about Le Castle Vania's remix of "Fuck You" HERE.