After Years in the Wilderness, Charles Hamilton Is Finally Back
There was a time not too long ago when hip-hop looked at Charles Hamilton as the next great lyricist poised to take over the game. An insane mixtape grind in 2008 landed him a deal with Interscope, a spot on XXL's 2009 Freshmen cover and the status and pressure that comes with being the anointed one sent to save the genre from its more narcissistic and ostentatious vanity. This Perfect Life, his major label debut, was scheduled for the summer of 2009. The table was set; all Charles Hamilton had to do was deliver.
The unraveling of Charles Hamilton is, at this point, a well-known story even if it's still not fully understood. A high-profile dustup with J Dilla's estate over executive production credits raised the ire of many, a well-publicized video of him losing poorly in a rap battle at Penn State dented his momentum and a video of his girlfriend punching him in the face after he rapped about her abortion were the sticking points in a period of erratic behavior that resulted in him getting dropped from Interscope before 2009 was over. A hellish descent into drug addiction and mental illness caused him to all but disappear from the public view.
This Perfect Life leaked online in 2009 and Interscope cut ties before releasing any of his music. His mother found him living in an abandoned home in Staten Island. Hamilton wound up in a mental institution with a bipolar diagnosis; in late 2010 he was arrested and charged with assault for punching a police officer in Cleveland. "I wanted to commit career suicide, physical suicide, spiritual suicide—I didn't care anymore," Hamilton told Billboard earlier this month in his first extended interview in three years. Almost as quickly as he had arrived, Charles Hamilton had disappeared.
Late last year, Charles Hamilton popped back up with a blog post talking about a return to music. This January he appeared on social media, tweeting out a link to an official Facebook account and posting an Instagram of himself in the studio with Rita Ora. The following month Republic Records swooped in with a brand new record deal and just last week he released his first full comeback track, "New York Raining," a powerful cut featuring Rita Ora that is his strongest musical statement in years and has landed a placement on the runaway hit ABC show Empire.
With his personal and professional lives back on track, the only piece left in the puzzle is the music. As delicate as his comeback may seem—the parallels to D'Angelo are valid to a point—2015 could be the year that Charles Hamilton finally reaches the levels of success that were placed upon him as a 20-year-old MC straight off the streets of Harlem in 2008. Not everyone gets a second chance in life. Charles Hamilton intends to take full advantage of this one. —Dan Rys
XXL: You posted a photo with Rita Ora in the studio working on a song, "New York Raining," that will be on the ABC show Empire. How did you guys get together?
Charles Hamilton: Originally it was a beat I had made at the top of the year and I sent it to management and they sent it to The Invisible Men. And The Invisible Men made a remix of it, and I learned what they did on the remix on the piano and I played the chords for the entire song and wrote rhymes around all the chords. Then I requested that Rita Ora be on it—I like her voice—and the rest is history.
I know that Timbaland is doing the music for Empire. Did he reach out to you about putting the song on the show?
I'm not exactly sure how the song got on Empire. I'm just honored at the opportunity.
Who have you been collaborating with lately?
A majority of the production has been handled by me and The Invisible Men. The Invisible Men had worked a lot with Iggy [Azalea] ("Fancy," "Work") and I think their sound is a real throwback. But the sound we've been producing in the studio isn't like anything I'm sure they've produced before.
I've also been working with Ray Angry from The Roots; he's an awesome keyboardist and pianist. So working with him I was able to flex my piano muscles. Plus I've been working with a bass player named Brian Cockerham, I wanna give him full props, and he's definitely one of the best bass players I've ever played with in my entire life. So we would do impromptu jam sessions and those jam sessions would turn into beats that I would record to.
So you've been making a lot of beats from scratch?
A lot of instrumentation.
Do you feel like that's kind of missing in the game?
I don't really want to talk about what's missing in the game, I want to talk about what I can bring to the game. You know what I mean? I'm very proud of Common and John Legend, so obviously there's a soulful angle that's still in hip-hop.
Have you tweaked how you work in the studio?
No; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The way I record, I would rather you see how I work in the studio rather than talk about it, but my technique has stayed the same. The only thing I do more of is play the piano.
Are you looking at any specific time frame for the album?
That's out of my hands. I couldn't speak on that right now; we're busy trying to make sure the music is locked down. But we have enough music for an album, we just don't want any fillers. We just want straight gut punches when it comes to music.
What's your day to day work process?
I don't have any down time. All I do is make music. I just make beats all the time. But it's a very casual setting; they book a session, I go there, we lock in for about 10 or 12 hours. But it's more relaxed than before.
Are you nervous at all about the reception to your new music?
There is a certain nervous edge that comes with putting out any new music. I have been nervous about the Hamiltonization process. Thankfully, I have the type of fans and fan base that will stand by me because they know I'm trying to take things elsewhere as opposed to staying stagnant.