Alexander Charles | photo Ian Hirst-Hermans | courtesy of the artist | instagram.com/ihhphila
Alexander Charles is a Philly bred musical renaissance man
The first time I encountered the music of Alexander Charles, it popped up on my Instagram feed. The post was a promotion for the “Lost It” video from his 52 Weeks project. I was impressed with the clever use of strings and bass in the production, which makes the song equally chill and dance friendly. The music video was fun and interesting to watch, showcasing various elements of his style a la The Brady Bunch. When I listened to the song again, Charles’ lyrics left a deep impression on me. He was being honest and relatable without the unnecessary flex, cheap use of shock value, or being offensive, and still managed to make a damn good rap song. So naturally, I wanted to know more about him.
Alexander Charles, formally Azar from hip hop trio Ground Up, has been building his career and honing his craft for about ten years now. A proud North Philly native, he blends honesty, fun, and audacity into his lyricism, creating a fresh perspective that’s authentic to himself. I recently got the chance to sit down and ask him about his 52 Weeks project, his love for Philly, his creative process, and more.
The Key: If you could just introduce yourself and your music for those who might not know you?
Alexander Charles: My name is Alexander Charles. I grew up right outside Philadelphia, I moved here when I was 17. I’ve been living in Philly for ten years, now. I was born outside of Philly, but I was raised in Philly. I’ve been devoting my time to making a video every week this year, and dropping an EP at the end of every month that goes with these videos.
TK: How did you come up with the idea for the 52 Weeks project, and what made you want to go through with it, since it is kind of an intense endeavor.
AC: I’ve always been drawn to content that was released in a weekly manner, whether it’s TV shows, or Supreme releasing clothes every Thursday, and I kind of wanted to challenge myself. And also challenge my fans to a certain extent, and just put something out at a scheduled time every week. I’m basically releasing music for people on my Instagram for free, and then they’re able to download it for free later on. So, really the reasoning behind it was to give people as much content as possible and to challenge myself as an artist and as a person. I really relish in doing things that are different, or seem unbelievable, or farfetched.
TK: So when you say “a challenge for the fans”, can you just expand on that?
AC: I just wanted to give my fans an opportunity to listen to as much music as they wanted but at the same time, to engage with them in a way I haven’t done previously, whether it’s asking them to comment a certain emoji on a song if it means something to them, or to tag a certain person that means something to them because it’s a love song. I just want my fans to feel like I’m a real person, and I’m present. I wanted the songs to feel almost like journal entries, chronicling life as we’re going through it.
I felt like the fans might be able to resonate with that because they’re seeing the same things that I’m writing about on a weekly basis. It’s not like all these things happened a year ago, and then an album comes out. It’s cool because I can really talk about…anything, whether it be a school shooting that recently took place, or anything I feel strongly about politically, or just things in my personal life. I can kind of vent about that, and I think that resonates with the fans. So yeah, I just want to engage with the fans more than I have in the past.
TK: What are your overall goals for this project? What do you hope to get out of it in the end?
AC: More than anything, I want to gain confidence in myself. I keep using the word ‘challenge’, but I wanted to really commit to something that was a long-term project and truly follow through with it. I want to prove to myself that I’m capable of doing something like this. Even in my own head, I kind of felt like it was far-fetched or daunting or overwhelming. But I like to think that I thrive in those situations. So my overall goal is just a sense of accomplishment in myself, and hopefully if more people get a glimpse of who Alexander Charles is in the process, then even better. I just want to challenge myself day in and day out. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, so I’m always trying to take steps forward.
TK: So are you writing every day, on the go? How does all this work?
AC: Writing is my first love and my biggest passion. I try to keep a notebook with me or I’m writing notes on my phone. I try to write every single day. It kind of works as a bit of meditation for me if I can sit down in quiet place and reflect on how I’m feeling. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing about, as long as I’m writing.
Up until this point we’ve just been writing songs as we go and filming the video that same week. So usually I’ll have the song written by Monday or Tuesday, and we’ll film Tuesday or Wednesday, hopefully have an edit by Thursday, and then we release it on Friday. I really wanted to treat the music almost like a TV show, and force myself outside my comfort zone and put stuff out even if I feel like it’s not ready. I think about guys like Matt Stone and Trey Parker who make South Park, who if they’re not ready, there’s not choice, they still have to put out an episode. I’ve always admired those kinds of people.
TK: Do you find yourself in that spot often? Caught between wanting it to be perfect and meeting the deadline?
AC: I’d be lying if I said everything was always well planned out. It’s part of the fun, to be honest. Being a little bit spontaneous, and not having to be so calculated in everything that we do. I’ve made music videos in the past, and I take pride in the fact that me and my team are very detail oriented people like that. While doing these videos, not to say that we’re paying less attention to details, but it allows me to let go and be a bit less of a control freak, and say “You know what? It’s Thursday, we’re winging it, it still turned out great and we have to put it out.” It’s a good exercise for myself, because I’m the type of person that could work on a piece of art for forever. To me, art is something that could never be finished. It’s a constantly evolving thing and you just choose to release it whenever it feels right.
TK: So can you tell me more about the music videos?
AC: For the most part, they’re all done in house. My friend Ian here, and my friend Mike, they’ve directed all of them so far. Again, I take a lot of pride in being in house and being able to talk to my friends about what our visions are and finding a common ground, then executing something that’s cool and fun and also conveys the music in a different way. Visuals to me are almost as important as the music, so it’s something that we pay extreme close attention to. But like I said before, this project has allowed us to be a little bit more spontaneous and more free firing so to speak. We usually think of ideas as we’re making the songs, and by Wednesday or Thursday, we have to shoot it or else we’re not going to be able to put it out.
Alexander Charles | photo by Ian Hirst-Hermans | instagram.com/ihhphila | courtesy of the artist
TK: You mentioned that you mostly work in house, and with your friends. Do you find that that works better for you? I know from experience that sometimes that’s the exact opposite of what you need.
AC: I think it’s really important to have a strong team. Regardless of who those people are, I think it’s next to impossible to make it without that. I’m really blessed to have people around me that definitely have my best interest in mind, and who’ve made so much sacrifice to make things happen. So I understand that opinion, but for me, I’ve never found anyone who supports me and my vision more than my friends that I’ve grown up with. We’ve become men together, so there’s a strong bond there.
TK: I wanted to ask more about your lyrics. I find that they’re often really personal in a striking way, or just very bold. Was that part of the intention with this project? I know you mentioned that you were challenging yourself and your fans to have more of a personal connection.
AC: It definitely is more of a purposeful thing. People have heard a million love songs, a million songs about being sad, or being happy, or partying, but they haven’t heard my story. If I can be personal in my music, maybe even to the point of it being a little uncomfortable for myself, maybe I can expose myself and peel away these layers, which I feel like is the only way that people can hear something they haven’t already heard before. My perspective is new as far as I’m concerned. It’s really important for me to have that personal side to my music and really be able to share my perspective, because if I wasn’t doing that, then I would just be making music to sound like other people’s. Or music that I like. But I think I gravitate towards music that speaks to the artist’s soul, as corny as that sounds. That’s the type of art that inspires me, so what am I doing if I’m not making that kind of art as well?
TK: Going off of that, I like hearing people’s perspective on this, so do you think music should always be meaningful or personal, or do you think music can just be music for music’s sake?
AC: That’s a great debate. Me and my mother have this talk every time I go home. She’s an activist, so she’s like “If your songs aren’t changing the world, then what are you doing?” But for me, I think music can be so many different things. Music is a great tool for escapism. Some of the best music we have and that we love to listen to are songs about nothing. That side has to be there as well. I think for people to say that music has to be this revolutionary, life changing, mind altering experience, I don’t think that’s fair necessarily. It’s dismissive to music that’s just about having fun. Particularly in hip-hop. Like, the Sugar Hill Gang wasn’t talking about world peace, they were talking about watching basketball. They were having fun with words and it sounded cool, and people were dancing. I think that’s just as important as the super conscious, socio-political music as well. I’d like to think that if I can touch on both of those, then I’m doing my job well.
TK: You’re signed to Warner Brothers, correct?
AC: Yeah, I have a partnership with them.
TK: So why stay in Philly? I feel like most people would’ve gone to New York or LA once they got the resources.
AC: Philadelphia is where I feel most at home, most comfortable. The people I love are in or around this city. I’m inspired by the things that happen here. There’s a certain personality or swag that people have up here that they don’t necessarily have in LA, no disrespect. And my parents are a little older, so I like that they’re close by. You know, I could always hop on an airplane and go anywhere I want, but Philly is always going to be home for me. There might be multiple home bases one day, but there will always be a place in Philadelphia for me to rest my head because I just need it for my own sanity. We’ve been on nationwide tours, and we’ve seen almost every state in this country, but Philadelphia and the Northeast just has a certain way about it that’s just really important to me and my process. I’m definitely open to a little transplant but definitely not forever. I need the winters too, as weird as that sounds. It grounds you, and that’s important.
TK: Yeah, I’m from South Florida so…I completely disagree, but that’s valid!
TK: So what else can people look forward to from you?
AC: Obviously, the week to week videos for the rest of 2018, and there’s mini albums that come out at the end of each month with those songs. I want to continue telling my story in as personal a way as I know how to. I think that particularly with the turbulent times we’re going through, I think people need to hear voices that resonate with them and voices that feel representative of people who don’t have a voice right now. If I could be that for people, that would be amazing.
Alexander Charles is a voice for the people. He’s talented, gimmick free, and has a clear vision. Add in his home court advantage, intelligence and creativity, and the support of good friends, and you’ve got a star in the making. His music sinks into your bones, memorable, relatable, and fresh. If it’s really him versus the world, we know where to place our bets.
Check out a playlist of Alexander Charles’ 52 Weeks project down below, and catch him headlining Benifest 3 at the Trocadero on April 5th. More info on that show here.