How did a kid from Moncks Corner, South Carolina, grow up to be a hip-hop arbiter and self-described “super jock?” Charlamagne Tha God credits both God and The Secret-style positive thinking for his radio personality superstardom. After all, when your chosen name evokes a divine medieval emperor, mediocrity isn’t really an option.
“I just remember saying to myself ‘I want to be a super jock,’” Charlamagne tells me—someone like Howard Stern, or his former employer Wendy Williams. “I don’t want to be just some radio personality in some town somewhere doing the time and temperature and the latest song. If I’m gonna do this, I want to be on their level.”
We’re talking in the Power 105.1 studios, surrounded by pie debris and a roving cast of Charlamagne’s friends and co-workers. It’s immediately clear that Charlamagne’s charm—the gregariousness that transformed him from a South Carolina radio intern into a personality in his own right—isn’t an act. Of course, you don’t need to sit down with Charlamagne to feel like you know him. For dedicated listeners of The Breakfast Club, the wildly popular morning radio show he co-hosts alongside DJ Envy and Angela Yee, Charlamagne comes across as equal parts candid, hilarious friend and hip-hop insider. It’s a potent combination, and a relatively novel one.
Charlamagne knows that his candor isn’t for everyone—he’s been fired four times (once by his mentor, Wendy Williams, who famously pretended she didn’t know him). Still, by some process of mutual selection, Charlamagne managed to land the perfect gig.
In an age of celebrity sycophants and puff pieces, Charlamagne has a fearless interview style and more than a few enemies to show for it. This is the man who called Drake “an emotional 12-year-old girl” on air, and opined that the Canadian artist “looks like a thumb with eyebrows” (for the record, Charlamagne doesn’t think that Drake will be appearing on The Breakfast Club any time soon). He asked Amber Rose about Kyga and (arguably) set Birdman off. At the same time, Charlamagne isn’t just an instigator, and The Breakfast Club is much more than clickbait. The radio show is a testament to the powers of the long-form interview. It’s the first place a rapper goes to promote music or clear the air. It’s a rite of passage and a social media machine. And as The Breakfast Club continues to cement its status, Charlamagne is making moves to his expand his empire.
On Friday, he’s premiering the third season of his MTV2 talk show Uncommon Sense Live. His first book, Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It, is now available for pre-order. In the future, he sees himself executive producing, writing movies and TV shows, and making a name for himself in late-night. According to Charlamagne, “I’m just getting started.”
Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up, and how you got into radio?
I’m from Moncks Corner, South Carolina. I basically got into the radio game cause I was looking to do something positive with my life. I was in and out of trouble, in and out of jail, and I just made a conscious decision one day to say: in order to change my life, I need to change my lifestyle. I did a bunch of odd jobs, I worked at Taco Bell, I worked at a flower garden, a clothing store at the mall, I did telemarketing. I did anything I could do other than go sell dope. I used to rap, like most brothers in the hood, and I was at the studio one night and I met this dude named Willy Will, and Willy Will was a radio personality in Charleston and I just asked him. I just asked him straight up, Yo, how’d you get into radio? And he was like I went down there and got an internship. So I went down there, filled out the internship papers, and they hired me. So that’s how I got my foot in the radio game.
So the third season of Uncommon Sense is premiering live on Friday—what are you looking forward to tackling this season?
I feel like we’re in the era now where politics is pop culture. Everybody has an opinion that’s politically based. We see what the Trump administration has done, and I’ve never seen my culture this engaged in the political process. So I’m not saying we’re going to be a strictly politics-driven show, but we’re gonna be a very socially conscious show. The first episode we’re doing on Friday we’re talking about something I call PTSD, which is Post-Trump Stress Disorder. Because everyone’s feeling a type of way—we’re living in the United States of Apprehension right now. We don’t know what to expect. So I’m basically going to be giving people solutions on how to deal with that, and giving people tips on what we can be doing right now to move forward as a country. This isn’t just a liberal, left-leaning thing, cause I don’t have no directions. If conservatives have something they can add to the conversation, then cool. But I need the kind of conservatives that can admit that there’s a problem. Cause you have a lot of people out here delusional, acting like what Donald Trump does is normal. Nah. There’s no way you can sit back and see what’s going on out here and say that kind of behavior is normal. So I just want people who got common sense.
Some people think there’s a risk that we’re going to start seeing every pop culture moment as a huge political showdown—a recent example being Beyoncé’s snub at the Grammys.
I don’t give a fuck about the Grammys. I don’t give a fuck about the Oscars. And the reason I don’t care about that kind of stuff is because I don’t think that we need any of those culturally clueless people to validate us. Think about all the great hip-hop artists who don’t have a Grammy. Biggie don’t have a Grammy, Tupac don’t have a Grammy, Nas don’t have a Grammy. Some of our greatest MCs of all-time don’t have Grammys, so why should we give a fuck about the Grammys?
I don’t even know if that’s a racial thing. See, the thing with racism is it’s rare you can really prove racism. When it’s blatant it’s blatant, when it’s not it’s just us being like, “Ok that’s covert racism or it’s subtle.” But I can honestly say that clearly the Grammys are some culturally clueless motherfuckers. Like the people that they have on these committees and they have on this board clearly don’t know what’s going on, don’t know what’s hot. And I think that they should be very embarrassed after this year, because when you give somebody an album of the year and they get on stage and say, “No, y’all got it wrong,” that should make whoever’s in charge of that shit reevaluate their whole committee. Fire everybody! Like, seriously! Why do y’all keep consistently getting this wrong? It’s one thing when the court of public opinion is saying, “Beyoncé should have won,” but when the person who actually won, Adele, is giving it up, breaking that shit in half. She even said, “What does Beyoncé have to do to win album of the year?”
So I personally, I don’t give a fuck about the Grammys or the Oscars. When I do watch those things I’m watching because I want to see those political stands, I want to see who’s really going to take a stand. Beyoncé used her privilege at the Grammys in the right way when she went up there and she said her speech. I feel like Adele didn’t use her privilege in the right way. Especially when she said, “Beyoncé makes my black friends want to stand up for themselves.” I would rather hear her say, “Beyoncé makes me want to stand up for my black friends, makes me want to stand up for women.” That would have went farther to me.
As someone who’s spoken in the past about how much you respect women, with an emphasis on black women, do you feel the need to elevate the conversation? Because there is still that issue of misogyny in hip-hop. Do you actively confront artists when you feel like they’re out of line?
Anything I don’t agree with an artist on, I’m going to confront them on. I think that’s pretty much proven at this point. One of the best examples was the last time Kevin Gates was here. And I remember when they first came to me and was like, “Yo Kevin Gates is on the schedule, he wants to come to The Breakfast Club,” I was like nah. When I met Kev, I thought he was a very smart dude, very intelligent, but when I started seeing some of his behavior online, when he was like, “I had to kick the girl out of my house cause she won’t suck my dog’s dick,” or when he kicked the girl in the chest, I was like I don’t want to even be around him. I don’t want to be around that. But then I’m thinking to myself, number one, I don’t ever want to be one of those industry guys that’s blocking somebody. Number two, if I got an issue, I’d rather just say it to him. Cause we need things that’s going to counter what he’s put into the world. Somebody’s got to say this is wrong. So I brought him up here just to tell him, “I didn’t like that. I know you’re smarter than that.” And he had to explain a lot of those things. It is our job to elevate the conversation. I am getting old, I’m a husband, I’m a father. There are a lot of things that I believed five years ago that I don’t believe now. I do feel like we have a duty, but I’ve always felt that way. I’ve always liked to bring people on The Breakfast Club that can raise the conversation…when you misuse your platforms, god will take them away.
Do you feel like it’s gotten to the point in the hip-hop community at large where people are judged for saying something blatantly misogynistic or blatantly homophobic? Or are we not there yet?
I can remember when I was a certain age, I wasn’t always accepting of certain things, because you have a learned behavior—your perspective is based on what you’re around. But the first person who ever hired me in radio was a gay person. So he was the person who I guess primed me for New York, for working with someone like Wendy who’s surrounded by gay people. It didn’t bother me. He’s gay? So what? I don’t give a damn. And that’s really my mentality about everything. So I don’t want to say I judge people or I chastise them, I’d rather just tell them, “Yo that’s wrong, and you need to grow up out of that.” Especially being a black man. When you a black man in America, as much prejudice as we experience, why would you cast that energy on to somebody else?
Discrimination is discrimination. I saw an article about [Sean Spicer] saying we’re going to leave it up to the state on whether or not to discriminate against the LGBT community when it comes to bathroom laws, and I posted that on my Instagram and somebody said to me, “Out of all the issues that you’d be upset about, this is the one you’re going to pick?” And I said to him, “You fucking digital dickhead.” You’re a digital dickhead, because if you see how they treat the Muslims, and you see what they’re doing to the LGBT community, it’s only a matter of time before they do that to your black ass.
I have to ask you about the Tomi Lahren controversy, where you got a lot of backlash for meeting with Tomi and for tweeting, “Would be dope if a young black or Hispanic ‘WOKE’ woman used social media to create a Platform to be a voice like Tomi Lahren did.”
It’s honestly just one of those things where it was taken out of context. In my mind, I had every intention of saying something positive. I honestly thought I was riding for women of color. The tweet was like, “It would be dope if a woman of color created a platform to control our narratives the way Tomi Lahren did.” Because let’s be real: Tomi Lahren is going to be a young voice of the conservative right for at least as long as the Trump administration is in The White House. So where are our voices on the left that can combat a lot of that bullshit? Not necessarily just from her, but in general.
I love when I turn on CNN and I see Symone Sanders and Angela Rye. But I just feel like we need somebody in our space, that online news pundit that can constantly, every day put out the information that we need. I specifically kept saying online news pundit, but you know Twitter’s like a bad chain letter, by the time it gets to the tenth person it’s like: “Charlamagne says we need to be more like Tomi Lahren.” No…I’m talking infrastructure. Cause Tomi can get fired from The Blaze tomorrow, and still stand in front of a computer, make two-minute clips and put them on her Facebook and have a voice. And so everybody was coming at me, but even the people that they were saying was in this news space, why aren’t we helping to lift their voices up? Because the other thing I was telling everybody was the same energy we give hating Tomi, we should be loving one of our own. We do it when Insecure is on, we’re tweeting about how good it is, number one trending topic. Why can’t we do that all the time for all of these different people you’re sending me? You’re sending me all of these names. Why don’t we constantly talk about these people the way we talk about people that we hate?
That was actually a great night though. And the reason it was a great night was because my point was proven, and my point was there’s nobody more powerful on social media than women of color. I’ve trended on Facebook before, but I’ve never trended number one on Facebook for two days. And it’s because they were talking about me so much. And I met Angela Rye through all of that. Because she was one of the names people were tweeting at me, being like you need to check out this woman Angela Rye on CNN, and me and her actually started a DM conversation and have become really great friends. She’s honestly like a family member I never had. So it’s like whatever I can do to help her lift her voice, I’m doing it. You see her as a regular on The Breakfast Club now, we’re gonna get her podcast popping, TV opportunities in the future. I think she has a really powerful voice, and she’s exactly what I was talking about when I made that tweet.
What made you want to reach out to Tomi in the first place?
I never even heard about Tomi before black Twitter was talking about Tomi. And this was back in February of 2016, everybody was sending me links and being like, “You gotta go in on this girl, you need to give her Donkey of the Day.” She was talking about Beyoncé and the Super Bowl, and I went to watch it. And I’m a Pinkett-Smith-Winfrey-Knowles-Carter. That’s my last name. I’m a Beyoncé stan. But it wasn’t necessarily just what she was saying about Beyoncé and Jay Z, it was what she was saying about the Black Panthers. She was calling the Black Panthers a hate group and comparing them to the KKK and I’m like…no. Those are the moments we got to use to teach. Cause she’s a 23-year-old white girl from South Dakota, maybe she really thinks that! So I did give her a Donkey of the Day. Her network reached out and asked me to go on the show and I’m like yea, I would love to. Cause I would love to go and poke holes in that narrative. And that’s exactly what I did when we debated about the Black Panthers and Beyoncé and Jay Z, back in February. And from that point on, we always would communicate via email, and we’d have conversations, because she is a young-ass girl who don’t know shit!
But then I started paying her more attention, because everyone was like, “She’s always going in on black people.” Which is true, but then if you listen to her all the time, she goes in on everybody. And it sounds just as ridiculous as it does when she goes in on black people. So when the whole Trevor Noah thing came, she was already scheduled to come on The Breakfast Club that week. But I guess after the Trevor situation went down the way it did, they cancelled. All I did was get on the air and talk about how Tomi was supposed to come but she cancelled. And Envy was like you need to go have a conversation with her, that’s your people. You need to kick it with her, see where her head is at. But also what people don’t realize about that situation was that was a meeting at Viacom. You gotta think: Viacom’s a TV network, I work for MTV and MTV2, so they were interested in doing something with her. They saw the debate that me and her did, so they was like hmm…that could be a show. And I never was pressed to do that. I didn’t think that was something that I would want to do, but you know, I’ll have a conversation with Tomi. So that’s what that was—when you saw us coming out of the building, that was the Viacom building, walking to the other Viacom building.
We ended up having a conversation not just about television, but also about why her rhetoric is dangerous for my people. Some things she understood, some things she didn’t. But I also got a better understanding of why she feels a certain way. She looks at the Black Lives Matter movement as like, a video of Black Lives Matter protestors saying, “What do we want? We want to kill all cops” or something like that. So she has that perspective. And she was in Dallas that night when that guy shot those police officers, and she was getting death threats to her phone, somebody put her parents’ address out there. So I understood—don’t agree—but I understood why she had the perspective she has against BLM. But what I was trying to explain to her, and this is the conversation we had in that meeting, was I said, “You’re a Trump supporter. Do you think all Trump supporters are racist?” She was like, “No, absolutely not, because I’m not racist. But when you go to those rallies, I’ve been to Trump rallies where I can honestly say yea, some of those people are just straight-up racist. They hate black people.” But she said, “That’s not the majority of us. A lot of us just are tired of government and we want somebody to go in there and shake up the government.” And I go, “Well that’s the same way you got to look at BLM. Everybody in BLM does not want to kill cops. That’s not the mission statement of BLM, that’s not the foundation BLM was built on.” So those are the kinds of conversations that she and I had.
As someone who’s experienced all that backlash, do you think that it has the potential to stymie conversation? I’m thinking specifically about when you had black celebrities like Kanye West meeting with Donald Trump, only to be immediately canceled on social media.
Look, throughout the history of the Civil Rights Movement, you’ve had engagers and you’ve had resistors. You’ve had people who choose to engage—Martin Luther King Jr. chose to engage, he sat down with John F. Kennedy, he sat down with Lyndon B. Johnson, cause he was actually trying to get policies changed. But then you got your resistors like Malcolm X who are like “fuck that, we not talking to these people.” Malcolm’s not wrong, Martin’s not wrong. The problems start coming into play when Malcolm starts calling Martin Luther King Jr. a coon and an Uncle Tom, which he did, and we’re infighting amongst each other when we all want the same goal. You should work together. Because if I’m Martin Luther King Jr. and I go sit down with these politicians and they put certain policies on paper, when these politicians don’t enforce these policies and don’t hold up their end of the bargain…Malcolm! Black Panthers! Go in and tear that shit up. So you need engagers and you need resistors.
There’s only two people I can vouch for in that situation, and that’s Steve Harvey and Jim Brown. Jim Brown has been helping brothers out in the inner cities, he’s got a program called Amer-I-Can and he’s presented that program to different presidents. He presented that program to Barack Obama, Barack Obama didn’t do anything with it, so he went and presented it to the next president—which was Donald Trump. I don’t know what Trump’s going to do with it. But I can’t be mad at a brother who has made that his life’s work and has always done that. You can’t shit on Jim Brown, man! Steve Harvey’s a black man who employs so many black people at his various business, I have donated to Steve Harvey’s charities that he does for young, black, fatherless kids. I’ve actually volunteered my time and went down to Georgia and went to one of his ranches where he had 200 fatherless kids there for the week, giving them classes and courses. I’ve seen firsthand what he does for black people and the black community. So to call that man an Uncle Tom and a coon because he’s really doing what Barack Obama said to do in his last speech, which is reach across the aisle and go talk to people who have differences from you? I didn’t like that at all. I can’t co-sign for nobody else, not no Kanye, not no Ray Lewis, but Jim Brown and Steve Harvey? They didn’t deserve the backlash they got. And it does discourage people from having conversations with that administration. And at this point, I don’t even know if those conversations are worth having. In light of everything that we’ve seen, I don’t even know if a conversation is beneficial.
So you wouldn’t be spotted at Trump Tower.
I’m on record as saying this: the only way I would go is if I could bring somebody way smarter than me. If I could bring someone who’s a social justice warrior, who’s been fighting for our causes for years. Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, representative John Lewis. Somebody who could break down policy. Bring a DeRay, cause DeRay has a plan for the Black Lives Matter movement. I’d bring people like that to put in front of Trump. What the hell am I going to talk to Donald Trump about?
You famously had Hillary Clinton on The Breakfast Club. Politics aside, were you even more devastated by the election results knowing her personally?
Absolutely. The first time I met her, we was in Harlem, and I was like, “Yo…Hillary is like really presidential.” I’ve got two daughters. I’m all about—and people was bugging when I said this like years ago—but I like novelty in my presidents. I’m tired of that old, pale, white male authority. We know what that’s about. They’re showing it to us right now! It’s just more white supremacy, more prejudice. They don’t care about anything except for themselves and their money. So I like the energy that Barack Obama gave to the country. I thought that Hillary could have come and contributed to that energy, took the baton. Like yea, finally…My daughter’s eight, all she knows is Barack Obama, now all she’s going to know is a woman, by the time she’s thirteen she’s going to feel like she can do anything. So when I met Hillary I’m like, “Yo she’s really dope, she’s real presidential.” And I was never one of those people who feel like women can’t be in control. Cause women have been the CEO’s of our lives since day one.
I just thought she was the best candidate for the job, the most qualified. She fit all of my criteria. And it was devastating. I took my daughter to the Javits center that night, I was in the VIP, I’m waiting for the coronation. And then I had to go do the Colbert show after that, so I’m thinking we’re going to be celebrating the first female president, and then…America threw us for a loop. But I felt more hurt for women then anything. Because I saw women crying. Like that glass ceiling still wasn’t shattered for them. America would vote the executive producer of Celebrity Apprentice, somebody who’s shown us nothing but hate and bigotry for eighteen months, who has never held any political office, you’d vote for that over a woman? It just showed us where America was at.