Charlie Wilson: The Idolator Interview
If pop music feels like one big family — and it often does, with its over-emoting and petty rivalries — then it’s high time to pay respect to our favorite uncle. Charlie Wilson is a living legend — the former lead singer of 70s funk group The Gap Band, the hustler-approved voice behind hits like Pharrell’s “Beautiful” and most recently, as the fiery, soulful singer on several of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Friday jams. No matter how you came to know him, “Uncle” Charlie (a nickname given by Snoop Dogg) deserves credit for keeping the dance floor filled now more than ever. Good thing he’s got a new album, Just Charlie.
Check out our exclusive interview with the timeless artist below and find out about his collaborations with Kanye, his friendship with Fantasia, and why he’s not trying to take the pimp out of the game — he’s trying to be just Charlie.
On his new album, the distinctive singer — with some encouragement from his wife — stripped away everything you thought you knew before, and presented himself without pretense. His current single “You Are” has already risen to #14 on Billboard‘s R & B/Hip Hop chart, which comes as no surprise, seeing as the refreshingly romantic tune has to rank as the best new wedding anthem of the year. But Just Charlie is much more than a standard R&B album — it’s full of surprises, just like its creator. Our interview follows:
With the help of your wife you were able to overcome not only alcoholism, but prostate cancer. Has being a survivor changed your creative process as an artist?
Oh, oh definitely my sobriety. I was an alcoholic and a drug addict so my sobriety has definitely made me a better person. My wife has been by my side the whole time this whole process of taking this thing one day at a time. I say I’m doing a pretty good job at it because all we have is today, you know, because I’ve been practicing for 16 years without a relapse. So I’ve been pretty much successful just drinking water. I thank God for that and it’s definitely made me a better person, knowing what my surroundings are all the time—my surroundings are definitely sweet like angels. And it’s just been wonderful for me. I can open up my mind and write about things about relationships and put it in many kind of songs and sing it in several different kinds of ways because I’m clear headed about everything.
So your songwriting has benefitted from your clear headedness? Oh for sure, most definitely. I wouldn’t be where i’m at if i was still getting high or drinking or using drugs… As a matter of fact I’d probably be dead right now.
I hear your wife Mahin was not only instrumental in your fight against cancer (by encouraging you to get tested) but in your song writing process as well. Is Just Charlie the first time you’ve collaborated with your wife?
Well, she has been influencial writing coming up with ideas before. And [later] she would say, “Where’s my name [in the credits]?” And I would just be like, “Relax, it’s all going to the same house.” She used to poke that lip out, you know? This was like a couple of times on the last couple of albums, because she was having ideas she would tell me, “Why don’t you write a song like this?” or “This is good concept. Why don’t you give this to the writers?” So, this time when she had something, some input, we definitely made sure that she got the credit that she definitely deserved. She’s a real writer at ASCAP so she was definitely involved this time a lot more and a lot more than the last [album]. I was teasing her about it saying “I guess you’re gonna be singing it for me next time. You wanna be a part of this show? Okay, here’s the microphone.”
I’m happy that I’m married and that she has been influential in my life that’s helped me in a lot of things. I would be very much incomplete if I hadn’t had this woman by my side. She’s a very strong, strong minded woman and so all my friends—there are a lot of guys are like “C’mon man. You write these songs, man. You’re taking the pimp out of the game. You’re making us all turn into wimps.” I just think these songs are relationship-minded. I think we should learn how to treat the women, you know? We’re not treating them right. And, of course, my woman, she has been here helping me correct the conversation in the house.
What was the motivation to making an album devoted to teaching men how women deserve to be treated?
In my house all the cliches go out. And my woman is such a strong, strong force in the home. She’s always like, “ You shouldn’t write about that—not this time anyway.” Because we see a lot of things…We’ve watched a lot of young men talk to young women versus [the way] an older guy talks to an older woman. And we’ve just been misguided—some of us…And so we just need to take back—just like people say we’re gonna take back our children, we’re gonna take back our homes. We’re gonna take back cause we’ve lost them to drugs and alcohol. So we need to take back the conversation in the home. Let’s take it back and let’s learn how to talk to the woman and let’s learn how to purpose the right way instead of—you don’t have a hood rat. I mean, who came up with that? Where did that come from? Women are not hood rats. And the “B word”. We’ve gotten so locked into that…Nobody’s neighborly no more. And so the common, camaraderie and the lusciousness of great conversation is gone out. And respect for the woman is gone out…And so we forgot how to talk to women. So definitely, my album is the relationship and every song is that. I quickly want to go and write something else and [my wife] was like, “No, not yet not this time, let’s continue to stay on that path like the record ‘You Are’. Let’s continue to write records like that.” So, that’s the reason why my record is like it is.
Charlie Wilson’s “You Are”
On the other side of the lyrical spectrum, you’ve been working with Kanye West on his G.O.O.D Friday tracks. Now, there’s somebody who, for example in his song “Runaway” lyrically admits to not treating women right. What was the process like collaborating with Kanye?
Basically, I was contacted by Kanye. I was supposed to do a record with Young Jeezy but I went to the studio and that session was cancelled, but the next day I got a call from Kanye. He was like, “Would you come and sing with me on this song I have? I said, “Sure.” So I got [to the studio] and he was there before I got there, which was very unusual. I’ve been in sessions with superstars (I’m not gonna say names) and they were like an hour or two late, you know. But this guy was there before I got there. Just when I was turning to ask the engineer, “So where’s Kanye?” He’s tapping me on my shoulder. And of course the studio was empty. He didn’t have anyone in there. There was no entourage or any of that stuff. We went right to work. He let me hear a song he wanted me to work on…and that lead into as I got warmed up as I started working on that song, I’d come out and take a break. And he was like, “Put this other song up.” He’d put another song up—I think that was “See Me Now” and I’d put vocal on that.
When I got through with that title he said, “Put another song on.” I ended up doing two or three songs that day—which was only supposed to be one . As he was walking us to our car and I said, “So that’s day one. I got a little hoarse we can come back and do another.” And he said, “Would you come back? You’d come back?” I was like, “Yeah we can do day two somewhere else.” The week that my brother passed [Kanye] called and said, “Do you want to come in to New York?” To get my mind off of all of that, I went to New York and we did day two, which turned out to be day two, day four, five, six, seven and eight. We ended up being there the whole week and singing. It was great. It was just a great time.
Now his lyrics and what he writes about is quite different from my album. It has nothing to do with me how I roll with them. I just put the hooks on and did some ad libs. Of course, he was working on some verses while I was there so I didn’t know how much—how the verses would pan out, you know? He rewrote a lot of stuff. You know these guys say what they want to say, you know?
Charlie in the studio with Kanye:
How was working on G.O.O.D. Friday different from your other collaborations? How did the processes compare?
You know Pharrell is a great producer and another friend, another great, great friend of mine too. And the process was definitely was the same of doing the music part of it the singing part and by him being excited I was there. It was the same excitement that Kanye showed [me] because I was there. He was very excited that I was there to sing. Pharrell was so excited that I was there, in between breaks he would come in there and just start singing songs—like some of my older songs. He would come in and say, “Remember this song?” And he would start singing some Gap Band songs he would be on the piano and we would be there so he would be taping [but] I didn’t know he was taping. So I would be saying, “Oh, you remember this Donny Hathaway song?” And I would start singing it and playing it on the piano and he would just be recording all that. So he got all kinds of footage of me.
So it was the same enthusiasm was shared between [Kanye and Pharrell] they were both excited that I was in the room. And then, of course, anybody who came in that room as far as Kanye’s session from Nicki Minaj to Swizz Beats, Mos Def—all of these people that came in the room were very excited to meet me. I had a great time meeting all of these young artist that are really hot right now it was wonderful.
How did you team up with Fantasia on “I Wanna Be Your Man”?
Me and Fantasia had done some shows together. She had been on the road with me and doing some shows and we had a great time. She’s got a lot of energy like me. She’s just a ball of energy and the show’s just incredible when she’s there with me. She doesn’t leave nothing she puts it all out there. And I’m like that too. so we’re sort of the same. so she’s always said, “I wanna sing with you one day.” So I was cutting this record, of course, “I Wanna Be Your Man” because I love Roger [of Roger and Zapp] so much. And then…I was like, maybe I should turn it into a duet because the record not a duet. And, and they said, “Who you wanna get?” And we started naming names. And I got to her name and was like “Fantasia” and they said “Oh, Fantasia!” And I said “Yeah, let’s get Fantasia!” And since we’ve been doing shows together, it would be easy when we do shows together to do it live.
So we called her and she was in Los Angeles at the time when we called her and she was getting ready to catch a flight in four hours . So was in a session finishing up a session on her album and she said, I’ll be there as soon as I finish.” She came in, knocked the thing out one take and she asked me could she do it again. “Could I do that again?” (done in his Fantasia voice) And I was like, “Yeah do whatever you want to do.” She had already knocked it out…It was just great. She was only there like an hour. She came there and we sat and talked for 40 minutes. Then I played her the record and she said take the girl part out and we took the girl part out and another 10-20 minutes and she went out there and like I said knocked it out in the last 20 minutes. And she asked me could she do it again in the last 20 minutes, she knocked the whole thing out. Incredible. She’s was just incredible. And then we listened to it and she says, “Oh, I gotta go catch a flight.” She’s just an incredible person. I love Fantasia. She’s great.
What are you most excited for fans to hear on this album? Oh, I just want them to hear the album period. This is like a relationship album and I just want them to hear it. I love and appreciate it. And I hope they love it as much as I love making it. I tried to stay—these three albums it’s like I’ve been trying to be lyrically correct and respectful—just having an adult good time with it. And I love music. I love all kinds of music and I know I can make any kind of record that I want, but this time like I said I was politically and lyrically correct and lyrically conscious of who I wanted to sing to….I didn’t get too edgy this time. I tried to not break the rules—which I knew I can and I’m able to and I probably could do it easy, but I’m not trying to be something that I’m not. I think that I can sing any kind of music and do any kind of music, any kind of beats, any kind of whatever. I just stayed, like I said, lyrically correct and for my core fans and some of the younger fans that really love “Uncle Charlie” this is just Charlie. I’m just being me. And that’s it.
While preparing for this interview, I went back revisited some of your Gap Band performances. You’re an incredible dancer. What have you been dancing to lately?
I like “Bottoms Up” *laughs* I like a lot of stuff. People say, “Oh, you’re just being a political. Liar. You’re just naming names that are hot right now.” No, I just like these records. And I like these records, I like the vibe of these records… cause I’m not alienating myself, pigeonholing myself into any genre…will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas, I always loved listening to and stuff like that and Train. And, you know, then I’ll flip it and then go to some Reba McEntire something like that or Taylor Swift. Because I love all kinds of music. And then I’ll flip back to some Jaheim or Jazmine Sullivan or some Lalah Hathaway or some Kanye or Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Definitely flip back through the Beyonce world and Arthea Franklin. Listening to some Chaka Khan and things like that. Keep it old and new, new and old. Jazz and big band swing and classical. And just continue to listen to every kind of music that people make, even some bluegrass. Elton John. Leon Russell. Eurythmics—I used to play with them I used to sing back up for Annie Lennox. And so it’s just I’ve done so much and in so many different genres and some of the different kinds of music.
Best album of 2010? Wow. (pauses) Oh man. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Jaheim’s new album, Another Round.
Just Charlie is available now on iTunes.
PHOTO via Nabil Elderkin