Channel Tres puts a lot of stake in the unseen. Tres refers to the Holy Trinity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — and he’s particularly fixated on the number 333, which when seen out in the world, according to numerology, is a sign of encouragement from divine beings, a confirmation that one is on the right path.
It’s a number the musician sees often these days. Still, while he observes the world for divine guidance, he refuses to let life just happen to him. He needs to be the controller.
“Where I grew up, people just talk a lot,” he says. Channel — who was born Sheldon Young but prefers to be called by his adopted name — used to just talk, too, when he was younger. He’s of the mind that sharing plans with others creates a false sense of achievement, which can lead to compromised execution of those plans — assuming they get executed at all. Now, he manifests his dreams by making mood boards, writing down new goals every month and executing the steps to achieve them. Talk is easy. Doing is hard.
Almost a decade of doing has led the 28-year-old artist here, to a house in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village, where he sits down with Billboard on the patio in the shade of a backhouse turned studio. From the front, the residence looks like any other in the neighborhood: plain, blocky, inconspicuous. Inside is the headquarters of Godmode, the label and artist development company that turned artists like Shamir and Yaeji into indie darlings. Channel Tres could be the next addition to this track record.
In the last two years, he’s gone from a behind-the-scenes beatmaker to a star on the rise, using his baritone to give dance music a fresh, distinctly West Coast spin. So far, he’s already won over two taste-making territories in the UK and Australia, been named Elton John’s new favorite artist and toured with marquee acts including Robyn and Vince Staples.
On Friday (Aug. 16), he’s releasing his new EP, Black Moses. Any nerves surrounding the record are long dissolved, because he’s been performing it to enthusiastic crowds during live shows, including multiple nights opening for Childish Gambino in Australia last month. A longtime Childish fan, Channel last saw him in 2013, when the crowd was only “decent” instead of sold-out, and he was only a spectator instead of support. How’s that for manifesting?
“The universe is cool,” he concludes.
There’s a world in which most people wouldn’t know Channel’s name. He initially planned to be a social worker so he could help kids who, like him, grew up in the system and risked falling between the cracks. Student-teaching in the field, however, was draining. Maybe there was another way for him to help people.
Music had always been a source of personal salvation. Growing up in southern Los Angeles, between Compton and Lynwood, Channel was raised by his great-grandparents and spent most days at church, where he played drums for the choir. The songs they sang, he recalls, made him cry out of sheer emotion. It was his first experience with the healing power of sound. Outside of the pulpit, listening to artists like Outkast, Pharrell and Kanye West helped Channel better understand himself, a self-described “weird kid” who in his Sunday-best suits and loafers felt he didn’t fit in among his community.
“Their sound, their fashion style… when they came out, they were the most different thing at the time, and that had the most impact because they shifted the culture forward, especially for black people,” Channel says of his influences. “The imagery we’re given sometimes doesn’t match up, because not everybody’s the same. Having different images of black men doing different things really helped me.”
When he decided to “give [his] life to music” at age 20, he didn’t just write down his commitment — he inked it on his forearm in the form of a microphone, piano and treble clef. After hearing Kendrick Lamar give a radio interview about how traveling helped him grow as a person, an inspired Channel left home to study music at a private Christian university in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The new surroundings gave him the time and space he needed to experiment.
Upon his return to Los Angeles, a childhood friend (now known as 88rising artist August 08) brought him along to studio sessions, where he rose to making beats for Duckwrth, Wale, Kehlani and others. Some of his work made their records, but a lot of it didn’t. Getting chopped used to make Channel sad, but he now likens the experience to a lightbulb: “When you’re screwing it in, it blinks and flickers, but once it gets all the way in the light is on. So all those things gave me hope; that I even had the chance to be in a room with the people I’ve been studying all my life.”
And once that light was on, he wanted more of it.
After this interview, he’s headed to a photo shoot, where he’ll put on designer outfits carefully picked out for him, but in his present garb he’s already someone a fashion photographer would stop on the street: a white graphic shirt with aqua and peach accents, bright aqua pants, a tan fisherman beanie, gold rings adorning his left hand. His eyes pierce through the lens of his sunglasses, which stay on even in the shade.
Talya Elitzer, who co-runs Godmode with producer Nick Sylvester, was doing A&R for Capitol Records when she first met Channel through August 08 in March 2013. “I walked into the studio and was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He has such a different energy than what you usually see in LA writing sessions,” she recalls. “He just presented as an artist.”
Over the next few years, they kept in touch as Channel continued to produce, both for others and himself, and toured with Duckwrth as his DJ. In September 2017, he sent Elitzer an email with some of his music. The next month, Elitzer and Sylvester brought him in for five days to work in their studio. On day two, Channel (with Sylvester’s help) created what would become his first single, “Controller,” which was officially released in April 2018. His self-titled debut EP followed in July, marrying smooth house grooves with laidback raps and breezy West Coast whistle synths. Before this project, Channel had never put his voice on a track, but imagine it: rich depth with the fullness of Barry White and the unbothered drawl of Moodymann, on a record that’s as fit for the dancefloor as it is for late-night cruising.
“I remember the day they made [“Controller”]; I heard it and was like, ‘We’ve got something here,’” Elitzer says. “It was very unusual to get something that quickly.”
For Channel, it was the first time he felt truly listened to as an artist. “From there I was like, ‘Well, they believe in me, f**k it.’ So we worked hard… s**t just started happening.”
His music started gaining traction overseas, so he started taking dance classes and performed his first live shows in London in October, where “Controller” received major airplay on BBC Radio 1 and an Essential New Tune call-out from Pete Tong. Over in Australia, triple j added “Controller” to their A-list rotation and called it “one of 2018’s biggest cult hits.” Only this past May did he play his first headline shows in the US.
No matter where he goes, all paths lead back to Compton. The city lives in his music, like in the recorded chatter from the local barbershop, St. Julian, for which one of his tracks is named. It’s also where he films his music videos, which double as reasons for his friends to meet up at old stomping grounds like the skatepark and have fun on camera, like they used to do back in high school — though now without the skinny jeans and the jerking.
Some people might have a rigid perception of Compton that they’ve received from film and television, but Channel wants you to see his Compton: the swag, the skate parks, the joyrides, the backyard parties. More than just visual supplements to his songs, these videos are moving postcards for his friends and family, like his incarcerated little brother, who sometimes calls him to excitedly point out a scene’s location and the memories that come with it. “It gives them a good feeling of being at home,” says Channel.
For all the fun and effortless cool that saturates Channel’s art, it’s also important to him to have a message. Black Moses has a few. Its lead single, “Sexy Black Timberlake,” addresses his experiences being sexually objectified as a black man. Meanwhile, the flute-filled “Brilliant N***a” repeats its titular phrase like an affirmation, oozing self-confidence in a way that initially comes off as braggadocious. But as Channel elaborates on the EP’s racial themes, it feels more personal when he shares that he used to “not love” his skin color growing up because of the often negative social connotations it carries.
The EP’s booming title track, which features rapper JPEGMAFIA, widens the scope as Channel pledges to use his fame for good in his community. It’s a nod to soul musician Isaac Hayes, whose biblical figure-referencing nickname became a symbol of black pride during a period of turbulent race relations. Channel felt inspired watching film footage of Hayes’ 1972 performance at Wattstax, a benefit concert thrown in South LA by Hayes’ label, Stax Records, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. At the time, Hayes had just come off of scoring the iconic 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft. “He just came out looking like a god. The people were cheering for him, Jesse Jackson was announcing him. It was crazy,” Channel says of the performance.
“That’s what I feel now,” he says. “If I do get any success and continue to do this at a higher level, I want to be able to bring my people, my neighborhood and the people I’ve connected to to their own promised land.”
When you believe in concepts like numerology, it can be easy to sit back and let life play out from the passenger’s seat, accepting that whatever happens was already written in the stars. If Channel had stuck to his social work plans, he wouldn’t be working in his life’s true passion. If he hadn’t bet on himself as a solo artist, he’d be just another name buried in the credits of other people’s records. As the philosopher Seneca once said, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and Channel Tres has been preparing for this moment for a long time.
“Everything that happens now,” he says, “I’m ready for it.”