Listen to Charles Hamilton’s song “November 10th,” and you’ll be greeted by the familiar sounds of Sonic the Hedgehog background music and the chime of rings being collected. You’ll note the lyrics which are rich in puns involving the Genesis and Atari, and lines like “I broke the start button / We can hardly pause.” It’s clear that a gamer (or a talent with an understanding of gamer culture) has written and produced this song. But you’ll also hear references to Rihanna, marijuana and shopping. The song goes beyond the realm of videogames; its slang is recent and Hamilton’s flow that of a professional, showing an ear for beat and the influences of the larger tradition of African-American music. Hamilton is an original, a rapper on the brink of mainstream success, who is as comfortable referencing the golden age of videogame culture as he is musing on the qualities of NYC borough girls in his breakout single “Brooklyn Girls.” He is, as reflected in both his lyrics and production, an artist that views the entirety of pop culture as one big melting pot of references at his disposal to illuminate his larger points about life.
To view Hamilton alone as an Athena birthed fully formed from hip hop’s metaphorical head is to fall prey to a frequently ignored truth – the hip hop world has never been at odds with geek culture. In fact, it’s been something of a love affair for most of hip hop’s existence. You can draw early parallels between Afrika Bambaataa and his love of electronic music and ridiculous sci-fi costumes, but the link to Charles Hamilton begins in earnest in the ’90s, when the cross pollination of these two cultures came to a head.
One of the best examples of this phenomenon was the Wu-Tang Clan. On their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang, the group rapped about the usual topics of sex, drugs and violence, but blanketed it all in a deep and unironic love of obscure kung fu movies from the ’70s. The ethos of the group itself was no less geek inspired, as each rapper took on an alias and equated his style of rapping with a different style of martial arts. Almost a concept album, the songs themselves used extensive sampling from kung fu movies in the creation of the beats. The Wu-Tang side projects are no less devoted to exploring genres: Wu-Tang subgroup The Gravdiggaz created, in one album, a genre of rap called horrorcore, with lyrics and production inspired by bad horror movies. Their incorporation of fantasy, obsession with obscure canon and fearless attitude toward roleplaying all suggest the Wu-Tang Clan are geeks of the most serious intent.
Three years after Enter the Wu-Tang, the fantasy rap album hit a peak with Dr. Octoganecologyst. The product of producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, rapper Kool Keith and a few others, it was a record defined by its concept of an extraterrestrial, time-traveling gynecologist and surgeon. Kool Keith took on the persona Dr. Octagon, the first of his many aliases that also included Dr. Doom and Black Elvis. The album is littered with strange references to Chewbacca, Star Trek, samples from pornography and background beats inspired by the music of old sci-fi films. It’s an album that is perhaps more interested in being a trippy scrapbook of cultural ephemera than a pillar of geek devotion to a particular subject, but there’s clearly a comfort and familiarity with geek culture as Kool Keith effortlessly raps about being an alien: “You may not believe, living on the Earth planet / My skin is green and silver, warhead looking mean / Astronauts get played, tough like the ukelele.” The worlds of comic books, sci-fi, horror and kung fu movies have been mined for years by hip hop’s most innovative practitioners, so it only makes sense that the latest great contribution to geek culture, videogames, find their own hip hop champion.
Charles Hamilton arrives as both an interpreter of videogame culture but also as an observer of more general 21st-century digital culture. As a visual representation of his particular take on the world, it’s worth examining his blog. It is a striking combination of alternately fuchsia or blue font on an all-black background with countless references to Sonic and Sega littering the borders. It’s not unusual to see a post with photos of every Sega console ever produced, along with numerous references to Hamilton’s Super Sonic philosophy. It’s a highly personal space where readers can follow along with the ups and downs of his internet feuds, his thoughts on all aspects of pop culture and the progress of his upcoming album. There are videos of old Saturn commercials and even an MP3 player widget shaped like a Nintendo controller. The posts are extensive, and it’s clear that this isn’t an aging rockstar being forced to write a few sentences at his agent’s behest. This is a natural way of communicating for him.
Getting to know Hamilton in this way, it’s impossible to miss his love for Sega and his Super Sonic philosophy. Hamilton is not in any way being ironic about the passion for both the brand and its famous mascot. Like the Wu-Tang Clan before him, he has taken a piece of geek culture and built an artistic philosophy upon it. In a YouTube discussion about his Super Sonic philosophy, Hamilton says that Sonic the Hedgehog is emblematic of his desire to literally bury himself, like a hedgehog, into sound, referencing Sonic. He finds meaning in the rings Sonic collects, which for him signify the cycle of life. He goes on to describe Zones, which for Hamilton are states of mind necessary to guide a person through the game (life). Of course, there’s a place for robots as well. As in the game, robots are the obstacles and challenges a person faces. Or, as Hamilton sums it up at the end, “I’m Sonic, so I can either stand there and let you (robots) attack me; I can run from you, hit the spikes and lose all that I have; I can fall into a pit and die, or I can just go to the end of the Zone and free the mind.”
At times, Hamilton’s obsession with Sonic threatens to overwhelm the diversity of the rest of his catalog. As much as he focuses on one iconic videogame character, his concerns as an artist are much wider than simple brand worship. His first album, The Pink Lava Lamp, relies heavily on soul music samples and addresses a dark period in his life dealing with depression and drug addiction. The song “Shinin‘,” with lyrics culled from a suicide note he wrote, exemplifies the thematic content of this album. In these more mainstream-friendly tracks he sometimes incorporates references to technology or science fiction, as in the song “She’s So High“: “Left from the rave / Hopped in a spaceship / Off to the hard drive west of the matrix.” But just as often, he’ll sound like the proud inheritor to the tradition of understated introspective rap that can be traced to his fellow New Yorkers, The Native Tongues.
Fortunately for Hamilton, the internet’s flexibility when it comes to distributing free music has allowed him to keep one foot in the experimental and the other in the mainstream. While he has been working on his major label debut, This Perfect Life, Hamilton has released no fewer than 17 mixtapes, many of which are the lengths of full albums and contain wholly original production. The best of these mixtapes blend together concept and form into something that might not be radio ready, but instead serves as a meditation on a particular topic. The song “Windows Media Player” is one of the better examples of this. Featuring a beat made solely from the sounds associated with the Windows OS, the song is, at its heart, a rapper’s boast. It’s loaded with puns like “When I yawn, ya’ll get more / Not feeling how I Explore? Alt+F4” and “No one can tell me what I can and cannot do / Tell me be quiet and I’ll holler like Yahoo / Pause / Just in case you got bloggers / who wanna sit behind the keys and start problems.” Naturally, the refrains in the song are chants of Hamilton’s blog addresses.
Rappers like Hamilton can be cultural archivists in a way that other forms of music have yet to embrace. A song’s density of cultural references and the ability of the rapper to play with them lyrically simply has no equivalent. The same holds true for the production: With very few exceptions, the sample-driven style of production allows rappers to provide secondary references and create a literal sound collage around the topics they address. With this in mind, geek subcultures, with their colorful characters, dense mythologies and low-cost accessibility, have been a low-hanging fruit for rappers to pluck and incorporate in their work. But most rappers seem to use it in two ways: either as a brief piece of color in a more general song, or as a starting point upon which they can build their own contribution to the subculture. Certainly that’s what the Wu-Tang Clan graduated into when member RZA produced the music for the martial arts homage films Kill Bill and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
Charles Hamilton is something different. Just as Nas was the introspective observer of New York City project life in Illmatic, rather than an overblown mythmaker that would later define a lot of rapper personas, so too is Hamilton an observer of digital life in the early 21st century. That he releases albums exclusively online and blogs about almost every stray thought that enters his mind isn’t news, nor is his love for Sonic and Sega. These are all taken for granted in Hamilton’s world; they’re novelty, not a selling point or a sign of innovation. What is genuinely original is that Hamilton artistically engages with these aspects of his life. Hamilton isn’t interested in just namedropping Sonic; instead, he makes a concept album called Sonic the Hamilton that cuts up sound samples from the games into beats, and references the series’ tropes liberally in making his overall point in each song. In using geek culture so liberally and nonchalantly, Hamilton has become both a herald of the vanishing line between geek and mainstream cultures, and one of the more promising talents in hip hop.
Tom Endo is deep in the Labyrinth Zone of his life.