INTERVIEW: Charmingly Ghetto
by Dan Rys
It’s a Friday night on the upper floors of a plush high-rise apartment building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the man they call Charmingly Ghetto is going to work. The room is silent, the only sound leaking from his headphones as the beat pumps through the system. Producer Alex Healy (AKA Alex The Great, or just ATG) stares at the ProTools sound waves flying by on his monitor, and singer Katrina relaxes on a couch across the room, ready for the rapper to unveil his craft.
It’s a laid-back setup, and a rather paradoxical one for the task at hand; a bed occupies one section of the room, the walls are a muted color, and only a solitary microphone in the corner and the myriad guitars and basses scattered around the room give any indication that this is anything more than a bedroom, that it’s a laboratory set up with the sole purpose of pumping out high-quality hip-hop. CG rips through a verse in one take before ATG stops him.
“The biggest pain in the ass with working with this dude,” ATG says, turning away from the microphone and grimacing across the room, “is that he’s so passionate that his levels always peak.” He turns back to his computer, adjusting his settings. “You fucking asshole.”
CG laughs and attacks the beat again – it’s an 80s-era piano vamp with a reverb-soaked guitar, something straight out of a Cool Jazz mixtape, but which ATG says he sampled from an artist in Japan. Reading the lyrics off the Blackberry in his hand, CG rolls through three verses of a track the two agree to call “Dreams Are,” with Katrina laying down a pitch-perfect hook in between that she had written on a post-it note at work that day.
The duo then move on to another track, a far more sinister and ominous beat than anything that has shown up on his debut album, Overstanding, which dropped last June (and was produced by frequent collaborators Introspective Minds, the moniker of Atlanta-based production duo Stephen Jones and Winston Lord), or his internationally-produced recent mixtape Study A’Broad, which came out on his younger brother’s 21st birthday in November. Picking up on the vibe of the beat, CG ups the intensity, but trips himself up in his initial attempts.
“Bring it back,” he says into the mic without stopping for a breath.
“You feeling it now?” asks ATG, looping back to the beginning.
“Just bring it back,” he says, before flowing straight through to the end, not stopping until both verses are glued to the tape. Only then does he look up and acknowledge anything else in the room besides the microphone and the beat.
The concept of paradox is not foreign to the Boston-bred MC from Dorchester; rather, it imbues everything he does. Even his moniker, Charmingly Ghetto, developed after his years in college at UMass-Amherst, acknowledges how deeply that permeates his life. It’s a throwaway line from the Method Man and Redman movie How High, directed at the duo when they are goofing off in a Harvard classroom, but it means more than just a line in a movie to CG.
“I was thinking about the duality of black people in America… I kind of feel like we live between two worlds a little bit, racially, socially, economically, all that,” he says. “And I just applied that to what I wanted to stand for musically – a little bit of everything. A little bit of the finer things, a little bit of the bad things, all of that. That’s who I am as a person.”
But with CG, as with many artists dedicated to their craft, it’s impossible to separate the person from the persona, the rapper on his grind from the 24-year-old kid taking property management classes to try to pay the bills if the music doesn’t work out. He’s prepared for whatever may come in life, and he filters it all back through hip-hop.
CG is also a lyricist of remarkable consistency, spinning real-life stories with the eye, accuracy, and attention to detail of someone who double majored in journalism and economics while at Amherst. His words bring to mind all the best bits and pieces that made Nas such an enduring storyteller, spinning tales about his outlook on life, society, and everything around him. “I’m definitely influenced by the storytelling, the first person-type, the street journalist-type shit, and Nas is definitely a street journalist,” he says. “All those guys that speak their mind, talk about what’s going on, what people don’t think about.”
On “Dreams Are,” the first track he tackles with ATG (the initials are strong with this duo), he even drops the Queensboro MC’s name, but uses it to highlight another aspect of his personality – his dedication to those who show love for what he’s doing: “Nas tryin’ to be the Don this year / I came this close to shaking his hand / then I made the choice of a man and stayed with the fam.” It’s a line that conveys loyalty to the people that have helped him along the way, though it quickly becomes apparent that his loyalty is not as geographically-centered as Nas’ is around the housing projects where he grew up in Queens.
That’s not to say he isn’t proud of his Boston roots – he’s almost never seen without some form of Beantown paraphernalia, whether it be a Red Sox hat or, as on Friday night, a black sweater that spells out the word BOSTON in red and white lettering. But for CG, it’s not about where his breakthrough happens, just that it does. “I grew up [in Boston] and everything, but at the same time I just rap about life,” he says. “I could have been born anywhere, but I was born in Boston. It doesn’t matter that much.”
Instead, he’s looking all over the world to try to make his mark. OverStanding was a collaboration with Introspective Minds, who he found on the Internet and got in touch with, resulting in the ten track album. Then on Study A’Broad, he stretched even further, reaching out to producers from as far away as the U.K., Luxembourg, Spain, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, and Iceland, in addition to two tracks from Introspective Minds, contacting producers and responding to requests to collaborate from others.
“I look globally with my stuff, I’m trying to go around the world with it,” he says. “It could happen anywhere for me, I don’t really care where. Wherever the love is. You go where the love is.”
For CG right now, the love is in the studio – any studio, whether it be ATG’s bedroom in Manhattan or a friend’s place in Brookline, MA, where he cut much of Study A’Broad – since he’s been holed up in one or another for the better part of the last year pumping out project after project. In addition to his first two releases, he’s been featured on the OTTN mixtape (his track “Dope”), dropped in on Sacramento rapper Chuuwee’s April 24th tape Crown Me King (“Rule The World”), just dropped another track with Introspective Minds (“The Shot Heard Round The World”), and has mixtapes coming up with Atlanta hip hop crew ThumbsUp (SuavHaus, set to drop at the end of May, right around his 25th birthday) and U.K. producer Cypria (Scotland Yahd, due out in mid summer). He just dropped a video for “Glory,” one of the IM-produced tracks off Study A’Broad, and has even more guest spots and collaborative tracks on the horizon, including this project with ATG.
He’s not perfect (“This dude raps so nice, but he doesn’t write hooks,” bemoaned ATG in the studio, producing a laugh from CG and promises to get better) but he doesn’t claim to be, either; instead, he just seems to enjoy working harder than anybody else (“Dedication to my craft is true, and so my n—a I am askin’ you / Is you seein’ what you should be? If not then look hard / I’m a student of the game, you’d rather study abroad” he raps on “I.C.G.”). And despite his highly-productive past year and the individual sound and style he’s come to embody, he’s still trying to push the limits.
“I’m trying to find different ways to flow creatively, change it up, change the flow up,” he says. “I think [the project with ATG] is a challenge. I just want to make it work… keep being creative, that’s the focus. Keep trying new things, and keep it stress-free. Keep it stress-free.”
It’s the ethos that keeps him going, keeps him pushing to pursue new projects, and is part of the backbone of what brought his particular brand of Boston street journalism into a classy New York City high rise on a particular Friday night.
Charmingly Ghetto is doing more than just rapping his way around the world. No – he’s feeling it now.