Charles HAMILTON sits back on a couch at a Los Angeles recording studio, marveling at the pink security wristband he received earlier in the evening while backstage at "Jimmy Kimmel Live," where he accompanied Pharrell Williams and his band, N.E.R.D. It's impressive company for the 20-year-old performer, who's been hailed as one of the most important new rappers to emerge in years.
But Hamilton, who loves the color pink and video game character Sonic the Hedgehog, says he doesn't lay claim to any particular genre. "Don't call me a pianist. Don't call me a guitarist . . . a bass player," Hamilton says. "Call me a musician because I communicate via music. And if there's a word for somebody that communicates with sound, I'd be that."
Hamilton's progressive production style, mixed with witty compound punch-line raps, is earning him a following in the music industry. Executives at Interscope Records not only signed Hamilton to a deal in March but also gave the performer his own imprint, Demevolist Music Group. Super-producer Williams, in a May radio appearance on New York's Hot 97, gave a shout-out to Hamilton, calling him a "monster."
The term might have something to do with Hamilton's ability to free-associate rhyme for what seems like an endless amount of time, as he did as a guest on L.A.'s Power 106 radio station recently. A popular Internet video shows him holding his own in a cipher -- a circle in which rappers test one another's rhyming ability -- with Kanye West and the Game at the Record Plant recording studio near Hollywood.
"He's the best artist I've found in five years," says Joe "3H" Weinberger, the Warner Music executive who helped usher in the careers of 50 Cent and Soulja Boy. "Charles excited me because he's sincere, extremely talented and doesn't do anything but be himself."
Hamilton has spent the last few years building up a fan base, regularly blogging on MySpace, which he says is a great deal like rapping in terms of telling stories in as few lines as possible. He's also released the same sort of self-produced mix-tapes that helped Lil Wayne cultivate the kind of following that can propel an artist to platinum status.
"Even if it's just 12 people [downloading the music], those 12 are big mouths, and they go spread it to other people, so a lot more people hear the music than people in the industry would believe," Hamilton says.
Hamilton was perhaps an unlikely candidate to became rap's hottest rising star. Born in Cleveland, he moved to Harlem with his mother, a former music journalist, at the age of 5 and began playing piano at his local church as a child. Growing up, he learned guitar and found creative inspiration in the work of his third cousin, rapper MC Lyte.
"He's been in the mix at a very early age, and I think I started to really notice it, maybe when he was between 9 and 12," Lyte says.
But his adolescence was fraught with turmoil. At age 16, he began using drugs, including a two-week heroin binge. "It was like a healthy escape, ironically enough," Hamilton says. "Once I tried [heroin] a few times, I saw how I could easily get caught up in that. It got to a point where I was denying reality."
For two years he was essentially homeless, sleeping on friends' couches, the train, in his high school gym. His song "My Wonderful Pink Polo" is about his favorite piece of clothing during that time. "That's all I used to have was a pink Polo, my jeans and my sneakers. I used to huddle myself under my Polo with a big coat on the train," Hamilton recalls.
He's unwilling to go into much more detail about that period -- "I want people to get to know me before they know about all the dark stuff in my life," Hamilton says -- but it unquestionably shaped a part of his identity and informs his music still.
"Kids are looking for that authentic depth that I think Charles brings," says Interscope marketing chief Chris Clancy. "Now more than ever, as the genre's slowly molding and rearranging itself, that's very attractive."
Back in that recording studio just off Santa Monica Boulevard, he demonstrates his facility with the popular Fruity Loops music production program. He spent minutes sampling TV on the Radio's "Staring at the Sun," speeding it up, playing it on the studio's speakers and formulating lyrics in his head and on his BlackBerry. Then he stepped into the recording booth and unleashed catchy raps with the sample as the hook.
Hamilton's already completed two mix-tapes here -- one compiled and mixed by Power 106's DJ Skee, who gave Hamilton his first radio appearance, and DJ Green Lantern, formerly the mix-tape DJ for Eminem's camp and the touring DJ for Jay-Z.
"He just has all the intangibles that make a great MC: lyrics, delivery, style, charisma, presence on a track," DJ Skee says. "Beyond [that], he's not a gangster, drug dealer . . . or any of the typical traits people give to a hip-hop artist."
Both compilations are available free on the Internet and showcase the myriad influences on Hamilton's style, including heavy sampling from the soundtrack to Sega's original 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog video game.
"I always felt like there was no life without sound," Hamilton says. "And Sonic obviously means sound, and hedgehog is buried underground. Which means that I'm buried into sound, music and it comes full circle, like a Sonic the Hedgehog loop."
Hamilton's full-length debut doesn't have a release date yet, but he's planning more straight-to-Web offerings in the coming months in the hopes of replicating some of Lil Wayne's commercial success.
"The mad scramble to replicate what Wayne has done, it absolutely puts pressure on everybody," says Interscope's Clancy, though he's quick to add that Hamilton's career will live and die by his creative output, not just clever marketing.
"You can't make somebody else Lil Wayne by copying what he did."