Charlie Wilson is on his way to Iraq today (Feb. 18) to perform for the troops for the third year in a row. But the former The Gap Band member, who is mostly known to this generation for his collaborations with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Kanye West, among others, made sure to take time out to send a message to his friend El DeBarge, who recently checked himself into rehab for substance abuse.
Wilson himself was once addicted to drugs and alcohol but has been clean for 17 years now, thanks to the support of his close family and friends as well as a couple of steps he says are pertinent to living a clean life.
“[El] is going to have to take some time after rehab to not go back into the spotlight because that’s just going to be another banana peel that can make you slip and fall. You have to first and foremost change the people, the places and the things you used to see and do and get a support system. You have to learn how to live and not just exist.”
Just hours before boarding his flight, Wilson chatted with Billboard.com’s The Juice about his own recovery, what other advice he would give his friend DeBarge, his trip to Iraq and the music he has in the works.
First off, tell us about your trip to Iraq. How’d you get involved and was is it all about?
This will be my third trip and I feel very fortunate to be able to go there and give those soldiers some morale. When I was a kid I used to watch Bob Hope perform for the troops and I always wanted to go and perform too. My management found a private organization that allows me to go every year. At first the kids didn’t know who I was, mainly the white kids (laughs). But we performed, and towards the end they were on their feet.
So now these soldiers are familiar with you, being your third year and all?
Yes. Kids come up to me and tell me, ‘I know who you are now. It’s such an honor to meet you. We appreciate what you do.’ They stay in line for hours to get an autograph. The crowds tripled in size since the first year, from a couple of hundreds to thousands. I’m really proud to be able to say I’m one of those they’ve asked to come back the past couple of years.
There’s also a micro site you’ve created for this trip that allows people to leave messages for the soldiers, right?
The micro site will allow people to log on to Jiverecords.com/youareforthetroops and send a message of encouragement and hope and show the military men and women some love. I will bring that with me this time and I will read some of those messages to them. It’ll mean a lot to the soldiers.
Aside from performing in Iraq, you also have a couple of festivals lined up. Tell me about those.
I’m very fortunate to be returning to Essence Festival this year. It’s my third trip in a row. There are also some European festivals coming up. I’m really excited.
And, don’t forget the Teena Marie mother’s day celebration in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Yeah, that was a show me and her were suppose to do together. We had been planning it for a long time. We should’ve already done it, but there were conflicts. But this show here I definitely can’t wait to be a part of that and to tribute her. She was such a white chocolate queen. I loved her. She will never be forgotten.
Another one of your close friends is El DeBarge, who recently checked himself into rehab. As someone that comes from a past of substance abuse, what do you make of all this?
I’m glad he’s getting some help. Sometimes we hide from the truth and then it’s too late. But, he needs the time to gather himself. My prayers go out to him.
What piece of advice would you give him?
In recovery, you have to understand one thing: you’re going to have to take time for yourself because life is more important to live than a record, you see. I took time. When I got myself clean and sober, it took a long time to get where I’m at, but I had to turn it down a notch to live, relive, learn and not just exist. He’s going to have to take some time after rehab and not go back to the spotlight. That’s just another banana peel that can make you slip and fall. You have to change people, places and things. When I came out I had to get rid of everybody I knew that wasn’t sober, the places I used to go I couldn’t go anymore, and the things I did I couldn’t do anymore. You have to change all three of those things and get a support system. I have my manager and my wife.
I know you guys are good friends. Have you spoken to him lately?
Yes. He knows I’m here for him. I talk to him a lot and if he needs me to be a sponsor, anything, I’m in. I’ve been clean 17 years and every single day is a struggle. I take it one day at a time and that’s helped me not to relapse. It’s hard but you have to want to do it and you can’t push people away that love and appreciate you. He’s gifted and has the ability to write music. God gave him that gift and no one can take it from him. So it’s ok to take time and live for a second. Live, not exist.
What was the first step for you in wanting to recover?
First, I didn’t think I had a problem. So, I had to admit it. Now I’m not afraid to say, ‘I’m Charlie Wilson and I’m a recovering addict.’ You have to admit you have this problem before you can start the next day of your life. I don’t take no New Years drink, no birthday drink. I don’t get that luxury. I’ve been clean 17 years and for those 17 years I haven’t had the luxury of toasting champagne. If I have a glass up in the air it’s probably club soda with some lime in it.
What was your lowest point? Highest?
My lowest point was when I was homeless. I had nowhere to go. I was dirt, garbage. It was terrible to sleep under some truck at night or behind some bushes. I hated looking at myself. I asked God not to let me die out there. I knew I had a problem and I liked to do that mess, but asked, ‘Please don’t let me die out here on this curb. Don’t let nobody find me in an alley somewhere.’
My highest point is being able to pave a way for adult R&B. People think I make it look easy, but it’s been a hard road and worth it. My hightest point is living, loving and respecting the game. It’s so fun right now. I started my solo career way past the age, but I didn’t want to be a pin-up doll, just wanted to be uncle Charlie. I’ve had eight no. 1 records. That’s incredible for me. It’s such a blessing and if I don’t live past a couple more days, I thank God for what he’s done for me
And hip-hop has embraced you along the way. Why do you think that is?
That’s a hard one. Maybe because I can sing? (laughs) It started with Snoop, then Mystikal, No Limit, Tupac, Biggie and kept going until now to Lil Kim, Mos Def, Kanye and Nicki Minaj. For them to ask me to get on their hooks, I almost want to freeze up. I don’t know why, other than that they probably like the sound of my voice, my style of singing. Some singers were time-locked. I don’t think I got time-locked I just didn’t get the chance to get a huge record back in the day that won. I’m just in awe.
You are also in remission from prostate cancer. Tell about that tough road?
I’m still cancer-free. It definitely took me for a side swipe. I’m thankful that I’ve survived. Men and doctors don’t mix – we don’t like to go to the doctor and get examined. We fall apart quicker than women. It was actually my wife that insisted I find out if I had prostate cancer. I’m just glad we caught it early enough — that’s the key. I got myself treated and now I’m the spokesperson for the prostate cancer foundation.
You must’ve affected/inspired many people this way?
I was in Atlanta, Georgia, in my dressing room, and this guy came in. He said, ‘Uncle Charlie, I heard you saying you had prostate cancer and you urged us to go get checked. So me, my brothers and about ten of our friends, we all went and do you know we all had prostrate cancer?’ He said his brother’s was advanced but the rest were in the early stage so they got treatment. He said, ‘thank you, man, on behalf of all of us.’ You have to get checked. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for Uncle Charlie.
What other projects do you have on the horizon?
I have a new record out now called ‘You Are.’ It’s from the album ‘Just Charlie.’ I also have a new single with me and Fantasia called ‘I Wanna Be Your Man.’
And lastly, I think I read you recently celebrated a birthday. Happy belated!
Thank you. Yes, it was Jan. 29. I had my club soda and lime in the air. It was wonderful.