An old-school playa from way back, R&B/funk legend Charlie Wilson is the first to admit that his current success is sweeter than the late-'70s/early-'80s boom period he experienced with the Gap Band. In the past year, Kanye West joined a running list of contemporary collaborators (Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly) who've asked Wilson to bless their tracks with his smooth vocals, making him relevant to a generation prone to think funk was invented by Dr. Dre. Silly rabbits.
When we talked in anticipation of his two-night stop in Atlanta for New Year's weekend, Wilson revealed some little known facts about what it's like to record with Kanye West, discussed his long battle with drug addiction and how it almost kept him from making a comeback, and reminisced over the time he almost got to record with Tupac shortly before the rapper's death.
Charlie Wilson performs with Kem. 8 p.m. Fri., Dec. 30 (SOLD OUT). 7 p.m. Sun., Jan. 1. $60-$100. Atlanta Civic Center, 395 Piedmont Ave. 404-523-6275. www.atlantaciviccenter.com.
You’d already become relevant to a whole new generation through your work with Snoop Dogg and R. Kelly. But were you surprised when Kanye reached out to work on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the Good Friday releases last year?
You know, it was supposed to have been a Young Jeezy project [but] when I got [to the studio], nobody had alerted us that it had been postponed or canceled. So my manager finally got the label [Def Jam] on the line and said, “Hey man, what’s up with that? Charlie traveled a long way. And they said, “Oh, I’m sorry, somebody missed the flight with the files.”
Three days later, I got another call: “Can Charlie come back to L.A.?” And I was like, I don’t think so. And they said this one’s for Kanye. So my manager called and asked me did I want to do another session. And I said, “Another postponed session? Another canceled session? What kind of session you talking about?” And he said, “Well this one’s for Kanye.” And I said, well for Kanye I’ll come down there. Cause I know Kanye’s got a track record for showing up. Not that Jeezy doesn’t, you know….
I got there maybe 45 minutes before I was supposed to be there. So I went to the control room and tapped the engineer on the shoulder and said, ‘So where’s my boy, Kanye?’ And he tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around, and he was already there. Like, wow you’re early man. He’s like, “Man I’m always early. This is music.”
He said, “I got this idea,” and he pulled up the music. It was “All of the Lights.” So I just started singing on that, and then he turned on another one, and then another one. He kept saying, “I got this idea.” I was supposed to be doing one song, ended up doing like four, till I got hoarse on the fourth one.
As he was walking me to my car, we were talking and I said, “So since I’m hoarse, man, can we do a day two? He said, “Yeah, yeah! Day two for real? Aww man, that’s great if we can do a day two.” So two ended up being three, four, five, six, seven, eight. He flew me out to New York and we just went crazy. I sung on like 14 songs; I don’t know what he was cutting them for….
What's the vibe like in the studio with Kanye compared to when you’re there for your solo recordings?
Let me tell you how cool and Cotton Club-ish it is when you’re in the studio with Kanye: When you walk in the door, everybody from the doorman to the runner to the engineer to anybody that’s walking in that studio is suited and booted. They got on brand new shoes and they got on suits and they got on ties. Man, lemme tell you something, you think you’re getting ready to go into the Cotton Club or somewhere. I’m telling you everybody, Monday through Friday, is suited up. Even the runners, the guys going to get the food. Kanye’s got on brand new black shoes, brand new shirt, brand new tie, and he’s looking like he’s getting ready to go to the Grammy Awards and the Oscars.
Why do you think he does that?
I can’t speak for why he does it but he says he’s a businessman and everybody in there’s taking care of business. So if a businessman wears suits, then everybody needs to wear one. Cause we’re taking care of business up in here.
Do you consider yourself a bigger success in this phase of your career or the first phase with the Gap Band?
Oh, this definitely would have to be the biggest phase.
Yeah, I would think so. The reason why is because nobody’s ever done it. Smokey [Robinson] left the Miracles when he was in his late teens or 20s. Chaka Khan left [Rufus and Chaka] when she was in her 20s. Lionel Richie [left the Commodores] when he was in his 20s. So everybody left at the top of their game from their groups and still had a solo career. Well, I didn’t take off in my 20s. I stayed with the Gap Band all the way till it rode all the way off the tracks. So when I started trying to do my thing, I was way passed that — at least that’s what everybody told me.
For 10 years I looked for a record company and everybody told me, no, man. We love you man, we appreciate you, you need to go on and retire though. They were trying to be nice about it, but they were telling me, “Hell naw!” And I didn’t like that. It was really upsetting me. I was like, I can still sing.
That’s just like if Dr. J said he wanted to come back. And they said, Doc you ain’t got the knees for that, you know that. That’s basically what they were telling me, and they didn’t know anything about my knees. (laughs)
So I’m the only one that came out of a group at this late stage in the game, and have been very successful — the only one.
You went through a period of drug addiction and being homeless for awhile between those two phases, but it seems like the one thing that remained intact was your voice. How did you keep it intact through those rough years?
Well, you know, I was smoking dope like a broke stove or a ’57 Chevy … (laughs). I was smoking pretty bad. Besides that, I just stayed prayerful and asked God if you just help me get out of this, I know it’s something else I can do. And I’m watching a whole generation come up and go right past me. And while that generation was coming up, I saw most of them go up and go away. And I said, man I know I can still do it…. I just kept that in my head and I kept clearing my throat a lot. And when I would be up against a wall at three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning, I’d holler out a note: “Yeah, I still got this.” You know, I’d do whatever. Them streets are dark; but I’d hit [a note] and be like, “Wow, that’s strong, I ain’t been to sleep in four days but that’s still kinda strong” (laughs). That’s where I was at mentally.
Did you expect for your comeback to be the result of you associating with these younger acts like Snoop? Was that your plan or did that just happen?
It wasn’t my plan at all. When I first got sober, Snoop [Dogg] was the first one to call for me, cause he’d seen me one time on the street. And he said he started crying when he saw me. But he had some family members that were on drugs, so he was like, “Man, you were torn up. I wanted to give you thousands and thousands from my pocket, but I figured that you were probably doing drugs. So I didn’t want to do it that way. I just said man look at Charlie Wilson, that’s Charlie Wilson right there.”
I was almost a year clean, and he was the first to call for me because somebody told him I’d sobered up. He called me and when I went up in [the studio], Tupac was still living then. And Tupac was just jumping all up and down, ’cause when I walked up in the door, Tupac said he’d said my name just 10 seconds ago — “If I had Charlie Wilson up in here doing some of that Gap Band stuff” — ’cause they were doing this groove. He said: “This is a Godsend. Play the track again.” He said, “Mr. Wilson, I just said your name 10 seconds ago and you walk in the room; it’s supposed to be!” And I said, “Ok, I can’t do it right now, ’cause I’m here to do a record with Snoop. As soon as I finish doing this record with Snoop I’m coming to do this record.”…
So long story short, I didn’t get to record with Tupac. He got killed not too long later. Snoop wouldn’t let him up in the room (laughs). He was upset cause he asked me to do the session with him and everybody was banging on the door: “Uncle Charlie! Fuck with Uncle Charlie!” And he just turned the music up. (laughs)
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