Charlie Wilson is in high-demand. Which is news to the 57-year-old singer-songwriter who was a platinum star as a member of the late ‘70s and early 80’s R&B-funk trio The Gap Band. Three plus decades later, Wilson has enjoyed an artistic and commercial rebirth following collaborations with Snoop Dogg (“Beautiful”), Snoop and Justine Timberlake (“Signs”) and R. Kelly (“Charlie, Last Name Wilson”). Now after experiencing Billboard chart success with his comeback albums Charlie, Last Name Wilson (2005) and Uncle Charlie (2009), the heavily influential vocalist is again making his presence felt in the hip-hop world, appearing on Kanye West’s upcoming work Dark Twisted Fantasy. VIBE talked to the re-energized Uncle Wilson about his thoughts on his unlikely reinvention, his early connection with the rap world, the recent death of his Gap Band brother and why Kanye is the best producer on the planet. —Keith Murphy
VIBE: You are set to release a new single (“You Are”) going into nearly 40 years in the music business both as a member of the Gap Band and as a solo artist? Are you amazed that a new generation of hip-hop artists and R&B fans have embraced you?
Charlie Wilson: It’s been amazing to know that I’m still wanted. I’ve been in the studio with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Kanye West. This particular single, “You Are,” is basically about a strong man who has the support of a stronger woman. It’s going to be the wedding song of the millennium. When we were writing that song I was thinking about Michelle Obama and how she stuck by her man from their college days all the way to the Senate and all the way to the White House. She’s just a strong woman. I feel the same way about my wife. She’s the one who told me when we got married 15 years ago, “Hey, I’m going to show you that we are going back to the top.” She did not let up on me when I didn’t have the belief in myself to [make a comeback.] She’s my anchor. Sometimes she tells me what licks to sing on my songs. She’s all in my damn business [laughs]. You want to have someone like that in your corner.
Your brother Robert recently passed away. People are finally starting to acknowledge his influence as a songwriter and a bassist. What did he mean to the legacy of the Gap Band?
When you listen to all those Gap Band hits like “Burn Rubber” and “Outstanding” you hear that bottom. He was the anchor of all those songs. My brother was a true showman. I had to duck his bass just about every live show we did because he was so energetic; he would spin on you in a minute. He was the other frontman who was just as powerful. My brother used to tune his four-string bass down so low and go deep on the songs. You can hear it on “Yearning For Your Love.” Everybody was trying to figure out how he played those low notes, but he played his bass like it was a guitar with a lot of vibrato. To lose a brother is just crazy. I watched the Jacksons lose Michael a year ago and I was one of millions of people witnessing that tragic loss. But now I can understand what Janet, Randy, Tito and all those guys were going through. Before my brother passed, we were talking about doing a Gap Band reunion. It’s still hard for me to talk about. My brother was incredible.
During the height of the Gap Band in the early 80s, rap groups were starting to tour with R&B and funk acts. Did you guys share the perception of the majority of your peers that hip-hop was just a fad?
I remember going on the road with Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. Let me tell you something about Doug…when they released [“The Show”], it was a wrap after that! But we had a good time with those guys. They actually picked up a lot from being on the road with Gap, Zapp, and Parliament. Doug just took it all in and absorbed all the things we were doing onstage. They learned how to take hold of a crowd and not just use the song to entertain.
A lot of the R&B bands back then were dismissive of hip-hop acts because they didn’t play instruments. How shocking was it to see these young rap artists show up onstage with just a pair of turntables and a microphone?
[Laughs] Actually that’s what a lot of the guys around me used to point out… that the rappers didn’t play instruments. But I never used those words. I didn’t care that they were using turntables because when I saw hip-hop first come in, I would just watch those guys do their thing. It was a new form of expression and that’s how they came in the game. I respected that. Some of them even started getting bands to back them up. They were advancing hip-hop.
You talked briefly about your staying power. Why do you think the hip-hop world has gravitated towards Charlie Wilson?
Wow. I really don’t know the answer to that. But I think it may be because I can still sing [laughs]. I have to blow my whistle a little bit. These young artists trust in what it is I’m going to deliver. The generation is getting younger. I just got finished doing a song with The New Boyz. Uncle Charlie with the New Boyz?! That’s crazy. Those guys were not even alive when we were releasing the third Gap Band album. It’s just been incredible. The stars are aligning for me. I’m truly blessed. I was just in New York for a week with Kanye.
One of the new Kanye West songs you appear on is “See Me Now.” How did that collaboration come about?