“Redemption season is upon us,” says Charles Hamilton. He’s sitting at a grand piano inside Los Angeles’ Sayers Club on Feb. 18, the rapper’s first public performance in three years. The at-capacity crowd — filled with record executives and fans, including one in a “Charles Hamilton Saved My Life” T-shirt — is excited, and so is Hamilton. He closes his set with a soaring new single, “New York Raining” featuring Rita Ora, which will be featured on the season finale of Empire. “Thanks for all the love,” he says. “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 a year.
“I wanted to commit career suicide, physical suicide, spiritual suicide — I didn’t care anymore,” says Hamilton in his first major interview since 2012, sitting in the Hollywood offices of his new management company, Turn First Artists, whose roster includes Iggy Azalea, Ellie Goulding and Rita Ora. Hamilton’s signature look used to be pink polo shirts, pink headphones and a baby-face smile. On this day, he’s wearing a black varsity jacket, black jeans and a serious, well-worn look befitting both the years and traumas that have passed.
In 2008-2009, Hamilton blew up the blogosphere with a prolific series of more than a hundred out-there and sometimes brilliant mixtapes. This was fueled by an initiative called the “Hamiltonization Process” conceived by former manager Leroy Benros in which every other week for three months the rapper/producer dropped a new mixtape on a different rap blog. The intense buzz led to a bidding war and eventually a seven-figure deal with Interscope personally brokered by Jimmy Iovine. During the heady 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; land a management contract with late powerbroker Chris Lighty and hold his own in a freestyle cypher with Kanye West and the Game in the lounge of L.A.’s Power Plant.
Behind the scenes, however, things were unraveling. Hamilton was suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder and was starting to act erratically, cutting himself off from friends and family. “I just didn’t trust anybody,” he says. “I didn’t leave my house, I just made music all the time. I was fighting depression — I shut myself in.”
“A mother always knows when something is wrong with their child,” says Hamilton’s mother, Talise Moorer, 55, a few days later, in the apartment near Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile where she’s currently staying with her son while he works on new music. “Something wasn’t jelling. He wasn’t keeping himself up physically; he wasn’t grooming. There was bizarre behavior.”
His strange actions didn’t stay secret for long. Hamilton became a punchline on social media and blogs after a series of bizarre incidents: He began blogging obsessively about Rihanna and dedicated an entire mixtape, Isn‘t This Awkward, 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; 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.
Meanwhile, relations with Interscope were becoming increasingly tense. “They never said the music was bad — it was never about the music,” he says. “It was about everything else.” There were “clashes,” Hamilton explains, over his unwillingness to include his most popular song, “Brooklyn Girls,” on his new album. “They might have seen me as an uncooperative artist,” he admits. (Interscope didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
That September, the label released him without ever releasing a note of his music. 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 locked myself in my house with the lights out and a turntable turning with no record on it,” he says. “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 set out on a bus to Los Angeles, where he hoped to re-establish himself in the music business. En route he made the spontaneous decision to get off the bus in Cleveland to reconnect with his estranged father, a former lawyer, to “try to get some perspective on who I am.” The trip didn’t go as planned.
“I knew better than to punch a cop,” says Hamilton. He had just crashed his father’s girlfriend’s car, which he took without permission or a drivers license. Unharmed, he wandered to Gund Arena where he began playing what he says was an 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 temporarily moved in with Moorer and began seeking treatment intermittently while once again 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 get well. We want to be a part of that. We want to pay for your medical care and support you to be the best you can be.’ “
Mental illness among musicians is as old as music itself. Artists from Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Sinead O’Connor to Kurt Cobain, Britney Spears and DMX are just a few of the most visible faces of a wide-spread disease that disproportionally afflicts creative types. “There are more artists, writers and musicians who have bipolar disorder then there would be by chance — the literature is pretty strong about this,” says Dr. Robert D. Post, a bipolar disorder expert and former researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. He estimates that between 3 to 5 percent of all Americans are afflicted with the disease. “With treatment,” Dr. Post explains, “one can keep the disease at abeyance and function quite well, especially if it is caught early and treated.”
Taking this message to heart, Turn First laid out a recovery plan that included psychiatric and medical treatment, a strict adherence to his medication schedule (a monthly shot of antipsychotic drug Haldol) 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 runaway hit show Empire with Rita Ora performing 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 in a way rarely seen in the music business or elsewhere. “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 conspiracy theories, “human shape-shifters,” aliens and the time “I met Sonic the Hedgehog,” a reference to the vintage Sega video-game character he’s closely identified with. But he becomes more 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.”