harlem, rapper, music

Watch Charles Hamiliton in his new documentary “Faultlines”

Words: Cole Louison
Photography: David Clancy

Harlem rapper Charles Hamilton has been given a second chance in the music industry and must battle his internal demons to balance commercial success and personal happiness.

New Red Bull TV documentary Let it Play…Faultlines featuring artist Charles Hamilton drops this month. And it’s been a long time in the making.

Charles was born in Cleveland, grew up in New York, and was raised in his local Abestolic Pencostal Church. He played drums, guitar, piano, the church organ, and especially Sonic the Hedgehog—a video game to which Charles has devoted mixtapes, countless Tweets, and an elaborate life philosophy. At 28, he’s been an artist, writer, musician, and rapper. He’s been famous, homeless, almost rich, poor, abused, imprisoned, diagnosed as bipolar, and now is about to reenter the music world that loved, embraced, signed, then dumped him so many years ago. In other words, he’s a very good subject for a documentary.

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© Fred Scott

Music documentaries often follow this rise-fall-rise-again narrative arch, both to keep an audience’s attention and give order to the life and work of a person who has suffered from the utter disorder that afflicts so many great artists. Shaping the story can backfire. The result can be compelling, but it can also produce a story that feels more forced than an accurate rendering of someone’s journey.

Not so with Charles Hamilton, who now can look back and tell a story that’s both hopeful and heart-breaking, one that both fits this narrative and remains unique in the over-saturated world of rags-to-riches documentaries afflicting hip-hop today.

The second coming in this case is a new lyricly-based record, released on a new label and managed by a new team of careful people who understand their client’s work and history, and act accordingly.

© Fred Scott

Charles appears in the plastic-walled foyer that restaurants erect every fall, then enters the room wearing padded headphones, a weatherproof winter coat, and a button-down shirt patterned with the White Castle logo. His text-savvy project manager introduces us. We shake hands, he requests a margarita, and then he said: “If you want to ask me about being raped, you can ask.”

The manager gives a nice-weather-we’re having smile. We haven’t even sat down.

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© Fred Scott

So, yes: This is the “Fall” part of the story, one of those preposterously unfair, no-one-deserves-this sequence of events that leaves viewers amazed there was any kind of a person at all left in their aftermath, let alone someone who could still create.

“The cousin who raped me still dwells inside me,” he says, “That’s why I smoke cigarettes.”

Charles speaks like this. He makes statements less than he answers questions, tying together music, numerology, and Sonic theory. This can take some getting used-to, especially if you’ve been assigned to interview the guy. Follow-up questions don’t necessarily get you anywhere.

“That’s why you smoke cigarettes?”

“I look like James Dean with a cigarette in my hand, so it’s like holla at cowboy.”

“Mom and I had always talked about how we going to present the story…”

He’s seated now with his coat unzipped, his big eyes following servers carrying stacked towers of ice trays adorn with all manor of shellfish. For all his manic conversation, he exudes a calmness much older than himself—his teachers always remarked on Charles’ mature ability and his fragileness—a meta-sense that he’s aware that he’s aware of this chapter in the story.

“Mom and I had always talked about how we going to present the story,” he says when pressed about the movie. “And since you want to walk in my shoes creatively,” he says, “I might as well explain that this walk will cost you your soul, because I haven’t gotten mine back, fully.”

© Fred Scott

The filmmakers didn’t know about Charles’ ongoing abusive relationship with his cousin (and maybe his father). They’d planned on relaying other low points of Charles’ life: his less-popular, unspinable obsessions with Satan, the paranormal, and Shadow (Sonic’s arch rival), erratic behavior that ended up on social media, and Interscope terminating his $1 million contract but not telling him. Then there’s the nomadic period that followed, where Charles was homeless, or at least houseless, “living” around Cleveland and Staten Island.

He never stopped creating. Even when he had no home, coat or socks, Charles would walk to Best Buy and freestyle for his YouTube Channel. Being locked up didn’t stop him. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“I wrote hella songs in prison,” he says, now spooning horseradish into a half-shell.

“One of my COs [correctional officers] threw them away. An envelope with like 200 songs.”

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© David Clancy

Charles’ creative output is both legendary and the “Rise” part of the movie, that of a teenage wunderkind who posted endless mixtapes accompanied by blog posts that delved into everything from his third eye to “the white and blue” (SEGA). Their creator was a chubby-cheeked adolescent who often wore a tie, and got signed when he was only 18 years old. Charles was still living with his Mom, but now found himself in the studio with Eminem, his idol. This is all portrayed in such a way that somehow invites disaster. There was more to come.

Creativity is also at the heart of Charles’ redemption. “I’m creating. The big bang theory. ‘Bang’ is a sound. Sonic is sound,” he says. After his arrest, he attended rehab, therapy, AA meetings and moved home to Harlem.

© Fred Scott

 What followed soon after was a bombastic return to social media, a series of mixtape and an output people recognized. He says he met his current manager after a performance, and they clicked instantly “on the four planes of thought.” Soon after, he met his new publicity team.

“There’s a lot more care,” he says, “Management now, in comparison to before, wants me to be happy,” he says.

Happiness was never his forte, but being the guy that he is, Charles is ready to venture into that unknown and leave his old life behind.

“Once you find your third eye,” he says, “there’s no stopping you.”

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