“Redemption season is upon us,” says Charles Hamilton, sitting at a piano inside Los Angeles’ Sayers Club on Feb. 18, the rapper’s first public performance in three years. The crowd — filled with record executives and fans, including one in a “Charles Hamilton Saved My Life” T-shirt — is excited, and so is Hamilton. “Thanks for all the love,” he adds. “I just feel so good.”
To hear Hamilton, 27, utter those last five words was unimaginable a few years ago, when the prodigiously talented rapper, producer and multi-instrumentalist hit bottom after one of the most massive flame-outs music has ever seen, one that took him from stardom to homelessness, incarceration and institutionalization in little more than year.
In 2008 Hamilton blew up the blogosphere with a prolific series of dozens of out-there mixtapes that led to a seven-figure deal with Interscope, personally brokered by Jimmy Iovine. During the months that followed, the Harlem native would record with Eminem; grace the cover of XXL magazine’s “Freshmen” issue with Wale, B.o.B and Kid Cudi; and land a management contract with late powerbroker Chris Lighty. But behind it all, things were unraveling. Hamilton suffered from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder; he was starting to act erratically, cutting himself off from friends and family. “I just didn’t trust anybody,” says Hamilton now, sitting in the Hollywood offices of his new management company, Turn First Artists, whose roster includes Iggy Azalea, Ellie Goulding and Rita Ora. “I shut myself in.”
“Something wasn’t jelling,” says Hamilton’s mother, Talise Moorer, 55. “He wasn’t keeping himself up physically; he wasn’t grooming.”
His strange behavior didn’t stay secret for long. Hamilton became a juicy punchline on social media and blogs after a series of bizarre incidents: He began blogging obsessively about Rihanna and dedicated an entire mixtape to an imaginary relationship with her; he named late producer J. Dilla, who died in 2006, as executive producer of his album, much to the ire of Dilla’s family; he was videotaped losing numerous rap battles; and, worst of all, in May 2009, a humiliating clip surfaced showing his then-girlfriend punching him in the face after he freestyled about “hitting it raw” and an abortion. That September, Interscope released him. Hamilton says no one even bothered telling him. “I was at a girlfriend’s house,” he recalls. “She was online on her computer, and said, ‘Charles, you got dropped.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
Hamilton retreated from the public eye, his life in a tailspin. “I wanted to commit career suicide, physical suicide, spiritual suicide — I didn’t care anymore,” says Hamilton, who’s wearing a black varsity jacket and black jeans. His former signature color — pink — is nowhere to be seen. “I locked myself in my house with the lights out and a turntable turning with no record on it. I was depressed, paranoid and confused.”
In 2010, his mother discovered that he was living in an abandoned building in Staten Island and telling friends he was going to jump off Macomb’s Dam Bridge in Harlem. At one point, Hamilton says he tried to overdose on lithium. “I thought my son was going to die,” says Moorer. “He didn’t look like my child. He looked like an alien. He was just not there.”
Moorer had Hamilton institutionalized against his will at a series of New York-area hospitals, where he says he was misdiagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In December 2010, after his release, Hamilton took a bus to Cleveland to reconnect with his father, a former lawyer, and “try to get some perspective on who I am.” The trip didn’t go as planned: After totaling his father’s girlfriend’s car, he wandered over to Gund Arena, where he says he began playing imaginary basketball with exiting Cavalier fans. “This cop walks over and was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” recalls Hamilton. “I said, ‘Basketball.’ He puts his arms out to guard me, so I crossed him and he slipped. His partner came over like, ‘What’s going on?’ He grabbed my arm and I punched him.” Hamilton was charged with felony assault of a police officer and spent the next eight months between jails and mental health facilities, where doctors finally began to narrow in on a bipolar disorder diagnosis. The charge was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor and he was released.
Hamilton moved in with Moorer and began seeking treatment on his own intermittently and eyeing a return to music. The seed for his comeback was planted in 2012 at S.O.B.’s in New York, an epic five-hour show that included a DJ set, making beats live onstage and a solo piano set. Turn First’s Nadia Khan was in the crowd. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she says. The next day she told Turn First CEO Sarah Stennett about him, and an introduction was arranged. “The first time I met Charles,” says Stennett, “it was clear he wasn’t being properly treated.” But after flying Hamilton to London for a session with the Invisible Men, the producers behind Azalea’s “Fancy,” in 2013 left her even more impressed with his talents, she made him a unique offer. “I told him, ‘I really want to help you: We want to pay for your care.’ “
Turn First laid out a recovery plan that included psychiatric and medical treatment, a strict adherence to his medication schedule (a monthly shot of Haldol, an antipsychotic) and ensuring a network of family and friends is always nearby for support (he now lives with his mother in Irvington, N.J.). The plan already seems to be paying off. In February, Republic announced it had signed Hamilton, and on March 18 he’ll appear on the season finale of Fox’s hit show Empire with Rita Ora to perform his new single, “New York Raining.” An album produced by the Invisible Men is due later this year.
Hamilton’s team is transparent about his condition. “I’m not going to name them, but I have artists who aren’t medicated and are far worse off,” says Republic senior vp urban A&R Wendy Goldstein. “At least with Charles we know what it is.”
Hamilton is soft-spoken and stoic while recounting the past seven years, although fleeting eye contact and nervous knee bounces hint he’s aware he has a ways to go. He still talks about bizarre conspiracy theories, “human shape-shifters” and the time “I met Sonic the Hedgehog,” a reference to the vintage Sega video-game character. But he finally gets emotional when asked about his new team and the push behind him. “They’re like family,” he says. “They care about the music, but they care a lot more about me.”