Why Charlamagne Is Radio’s New God
In nine years, Charlamagne Tha God has gone from Wendy Williams’ unpaid sidekick to the co-host of a top-rated syndicated morning show in the country’s no. 1 marker. Now, the man with cites Bill O’Reilly and David Stern as his inspirations is ready for his close-up
STORY: Gregory Johnson | ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Aliya S. King and Shydel James
PHOTOGRAPHS: Seher Sikandar
IT’S 5 AM. Charlamagne tha God’s brand new Jaguar glides across the George Washington Bridge as tracks from Mobb Deep’s 1995 classic The Infamous thump through the speakers. Wax, his homeboy of 13 years, sighs and recites the daily playlist: “every morning…Mobb Deep, Hov, Beans.”
A native of tiny Moncks Corner South Carolina, a football-crazy community, Charlamagne is getting his head together before the big game. In this case, the game is Power 105’s frenzied The Breakfast Club radio show with his co-hosts Angela Yee and DJ Envy. Charlamagne is the linchpin in a program with major reach: syndication in over 30 cities, a healthy 2.4% market share, exposure to iHeartradio’s more than 20 million registered users and the audience garnered from the show’s double-duty as programming for Revolt TV, beaming into 40 of the top 50 markets nationwide.
And when he hops off the mic at 10 AM, his day is just beginning. He has not one but two shows on MTV and MTV2. His Brilliant Idiots podcast has been a Top 20 hit on iTunes. He has sponsorship deals with Rémy Martin and Fila and there’s even talk of a starring role in a major motion picture.
Next stop? Daytime television. Yes, daytime. Hip-hop’s Howard Stern has plans that will eventually have him on both airwaves. Industry insiders dismiss it as a lofty goal. But for a man raised on a dirt road in a city with a poverty rate of 30%, mere survival was a lofty goal. And it’s the memory of that doublewide trailer that keeps Charlamagne laser-focused.
“I feel like a glorified intern every day of my life,” says Charlamagne, navigating the security desk as he makes his way up to the studio. “I’m still that wide-eyed kid who don’t know what’s next. I’m just working, letting my thoughts become things, having that positive vision and motivation.”
That positive vision and motivation wasn’t always there. Nothing like looking at some serious jail time to make a man reevaluate.
The man born Lenard McKelvey has a hefty file in the Berkeley County criminal records room, with charges going back to 1998. There are drug arrests, traffic incidents and in 2001, he was charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minor. After volunteering blood and DNA samples to exonerate himself, he pled the charge down to Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor. “I quit the `hood that same day,” says Charlamagne. “I’m done! I’m out!'”
After swearing off the streets, a chance meeting with an old friend working in radio piqued Charlamagne’s interest. Soon after, he was interning at South Carolina’s Z93 Jamz. And although it would mean going from street-money to no money, he never considered not going for it. “These millennials? They don’t recognize opportunity if it don’t got a dollar amount attached to it,” says Charlamagne. “I never lived my life like that. Ever. Let me get my foot in the door and Imma rock this. That’s always been my mentality.”
101.3 Program Director, Mike Love saw the spark right way. “He was always soaking up knowledge, supremely prepared, and he certainly had an opinion about anything and everything.” Charlamagne quickly developed his interview technique for his radio persona–which is identical to his real-life persona. “These are regular conversations that I’m having in the barbershops, in the `hood, in the radio station. All I do–if anything–is organize my thoughts. I’m just a fan who actually gets an opportunity to talk to celebrities.”
For the next few years, he honed his craft and obsessively studied the greats before him: the `60s and `70s black radio icon Petey Greene, Moncks Corner natives Doug and Ryan Stewart aka ESPN’s 2 Live Stews, mainstream figures like Bill O’Reilly and Howard Stern, hip-hop/R&B jocks like Big Boy and Sway. And of course, his hero, Wendy Williams.
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