How Charlamagne Became Tha God of Hip-Hop Radio

Charlamagne Tha God. Photo: Jessica Lehrman
Tha God of Radio
What do Hillary Clinton, Martin Shkreli, and Kanye West have in common?They’ve all been interrogated by Charlemagne, hip-hop’s puckish Howard Stern.
Photographs by Jessica Lehrman

It was 5 a.m. on a chilly early-sprıng morning, and Charlamagne Tha God was piloting his regal Jaguar across the George Washington Bridge from the wilds of Jersey. As if by Old Testament decree, the Manhattan skies lightened to welcome the King of the Hip-Hop Morning. Another day was dawning, and Charlamagne, co-host of “The Breakfast Club,” the hot-shot urban-contemporary wake-up call, was doing what he does best, which is run his mouth.  

It was the mouth that had elevated the slightly stocky, slightly short former Lenard McKelvey from Moncks Corner, South Carolina (pop. 9,460), to his current exalted state. It was the Charlamagne mouth that asked the elephant-in-the-room questions, that went in on the haughty high and the mighty.

A major reason for the success of the nationally syndicated “Breakfast Club,” heard in these humble precincts over Power 105.1 FM from 6 to 10 a.m., is the program’s ability to get the genre’s biggest names to drag their behinds to the studio in the old AT&T building on Sixth Avenue at the crack of dawn so Charlamagne and his co-hosts, DJ Envy and Angela Yee, can give them the business. Everyone from Jay Z on down has put in time in that hot seat. There’s no way out of it. As the rapper, singer, and philanthropist Akon, a recent guest, put it, “Who gets up this early? But if you’re anybody who wants to stay somebody, you better be here.” After all, “The Breakfast Club” was in 54 national markets at the end of 2015, with an average growth of 33 percent in “measured metros.” Last year in New York alone, the show’s numbers rose 25 percent in the crucial 18-to-34 demo and 42 percent among the 25-to-54 graybeards. 2 Chainz, the Atlanta rapper who recently appeared on the show, seconded Akon, explaining, “It is our Johnny Carson show. Leno. Can’t blow that off.” Still, even for “The Breakfast Club,” Kanye West, a god in his own right, was considered a major get when he entered the studio in November 2013.

“When Kanye first came on, people were wondering if I was going to be me,” recalled Charlamagne, who dispelled his fans’ fear of a celebrity kowtow with his introduction of the touchy West as “Kanye Kardashian.” Tha God followed this up by saying that “as a Kanye West fan” it pained him to say so, but the star’s most recent record — Yeezus, at the time was, alas, “wack.” (West’s only rejoinder was a nonplussed double take.) Not to play favorites among rap moguls, Tha God was not so long afterward heard asking a resplendent Puff Daddy about nasty rumors implicating him in the death of Tupac Shakur. This seemed a risky gambit considering that Puffy owns the Revolt TV network, which carries the video version of “The Breakfast Club” in markets around the country. But Combs took it. It was just a case of Charlamagne being Charlamagne, as pure a thing as pineapple-flavored Cîroc.

Driving through the dawn’s early light on the West Side Highway, Charlamagne said this sort of acting up, which includes using more words for female genitalia than Eskimos have for snow and rarely going light on the fart jokes, is “just good media.” As precedent, he cites a pantheon of shit-stirring personalities like Joan Rivers, Wendy Williams, Bill O’Reilly (if you can believe that), and his abiding radio idol, Howard Stern. “Rolling Stone called me the hip-hop Howard!” kvells Tha God. Still, at the end of the day, Charlamagne said with a furrow of his shaven-headed brow, if you wanted to stay on top of the morning during the social-media era, there were only two things you needed to know. These were: “How to keep a conversation going and when to change it.”

That was the problem, Charlamagne said. The conversation was stuck on Donald Trump. It had been for months. This was bugging Charlamagne, who was growing weary of naming Trump the Donkey of the Day, a “Breakfast Club” egregious-achievement award, signaled by a loud, braying hee-haw.

“The only people who want to vote for Trump are poor white niggas,” Tha God exclaimed, employing the N-word to characterize those who showed up at the real-estate baron’s “make-America-hate-again Klan rallies.” Trump election paraphernalia was nothing but “the new Confederate flag,” Charlamagne said, familiar with the situation from having Stars-and-Bars-decaled pickups dog his rearview through the Carolina lowlands. A son of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charlamagne decided that Trump wasn’t a candidate for president after all. The job he was really running for was “the Antichrist.”

We were downtown now, threading through early-morning traffic. The city was stirring, a few stray workers making their way to the subway. One 30-ish African-American man in a postal uniform recognized the “Breakfast Club” host, gave a shout.

“I’m still sleeping, Charlamagne; you going to wake me up?” the postman asked.

Charlamagne getting a preshow shave in the studio. Photo: Jessica Lehrman

Once upon a time, radio — African-American radio in particular — was dominated by magisterial disk jockeys like Frankie “Hollywood!” Crocker, who held sway over sainted call letters like WWRL, WMCA, and WBLS. Crocker, who once rode up to Studio 54 on a snow-white charger, was the nonpareil, but most cities had a star DJ, heroes of the drive time and late night who delivered the musical 411. Hip-hop, though, was a different beast. Too dirty, violent, and flat-out anti-social to get much mainstream airplay, the form developed its own underground regionalism: East Coast versus West; the Dirty South; Detroit; and New York with its housing-project immortals like Jay Z, Nas, and Mobb Deep, who surfaced on the hometown-touting Hot 97. Gangsta turf wars got heavy enough that the Three 6 Mafia out of Memphis felt the need to record “Who Gives a Fuck Where You From.” This hard, ultramale street style began to melt in the current decade with the advent of neurotics like Kanye and “sensitive” men like Drake, who hearken back to the days of Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” period. This was a Blood-and-Crip-free hip-hop that almost anyone could listen to. The sound, not rooted in any particular place, time, or mind-set, fit the 21st-century internet model. 

But hip-hop has long since ceased being basically about the music, if it ever was. The subterranean scratchings of Kool Herc have morphed into a Pan-Zeitgeist, Pan-racial (the audience of “The Breakfast Club” is 60 percent African-American, 40 percent everyone else) outlook that extends to big-time sports, reality shows, stand-up comedy, conspiracy theories, unending celebrity gossip, Twitter, and Instagram. It’s a super-commodified world of cyber-neologisms where rap battles are not waged in verbal flame fights on stages in dank warehouses but via 140-character bursts. And so it has long since ceased to be possible for latter-day Tipper Gores to typecast the genre as hat-backward black street culture in which artists thought it was a sharp career move to name themselves “Murder.” Hip-hop is simply culture, in many ways — language, fashion, etc. — the culture, as mainstreamed as Elvis ever was.

This is something that Charlamagne Tha God and everyone else involved with “The Breakfast Club” knows well. An accomplished master of the three- (or four-) screen experience who tweets his own horn as “the prince of pissing people off, the ruler of rubbing you the wrong way, the architect of aggravation,” he will be the first to tell you that the current state of affairs is a very different ballgame. After all, back in the DMX era, what were the chances that someone like him who did an obligatory bid in the county jail would wind up interviewing Hillary Clinton just before the crucial New York State primary?

Yet that was what happened the other week, as Charlamagne, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee worked over the former First Lady about the bottle of hot sauce she claims to carry around wherever she goes, because the spicy stuff is good for her immune system. Charlamagne and his colleagues weren’t going for that (though it turned out she’s been referencing this habit for years in interviews). Hillary was only talking about the hot sauce because she was “pandering to black people,” Tha God charged with mock outrage. Gamely, HRC came back with what has to be her best line of the campaign, asking, “Is it working?”

This won over “The Breakfast Club” crew. Later, Charlamagne said, “You see, we brought out the best in her.” Not that he was taking full credit. For Tha God, the Hillary interview, which got picked up all over the country, was important for hip-hop, where it had come from, where it was going.

“America used to say that hip-hop was a cancer,” he reflected. “Then it embraced that cancer and realized, Hey, this isn’t a bad thing. It is part of us, just more America.

Hillary Clinton on “The Breakfast Club” last month. Photo: Courtesy of Charlamagne Tha God

There’s always something in a hip-hop name, and Charlamagne’s is no different. As he tells it, the dirt road from being Lenard McKelvey to Charlamagne Tha God, Hip-Hop King of the Morning, was not always smooth.

“Fade in on me when I was about 9,” the DJ said, setting the stage. “I was that little kid with the glasses and the fanny pack, in the house with my sisters and cousins. They were watching Michael Bivins, who was in New Edition at the time, dancing on TV. ‘Oh, Michael is mad cute,’ they said. I didn’t know any better, so I said, ‘Yeah, Michael is mad cute.’ Wrong! My cousins told my dad what I said and that was it. You see, my father, Larry McKelvey, he was the man in Moncks Corner. He ran illegal nightclubs where everyone went, ran around in red leather pants, claimed he partied with Rick James. If you needed anything in Moncks Corner, you saw Larry McKelvey. There was no way he was going to have a son who thought Michael Bivins was mad cute.

“The word went out to toughen that boy up. It was like my daddy took out a hit on me. My cousins were pushing on me, bullying me. I was in the advanced classes in school, and now the white kids wouldn’t hang out with me anymore. One day I got beat up and my glasses, which were crooked already, got shattered on the ground. That’s when I said, ‘Okay, enough.’ I became like Batman. I decided to thug myself out, all the way.”

’Nard, as he was called, began to be disruptive, got left back. By his late teens, he was in the street, selling crack. “We had this little crew, the Infamous Buddhaheads. I started to call myself Charles, or Charlie, which I thought would hide what I was doing. One night these guys rolled up on us, shit happened, and suddenly I’m in the county jail with a felony charge, assault with intent to kill,” he said. “I thought I’d be out in a couple of days, at least in time for the homecoming game. But then it was like a week, a month, a few months. My dad told my mother it was best for me to stay in there a while. He thought it would teach me a lesson.”

This sort of tough love was kind of a joke, Charlamagne said, recalling another occasion he was in jail for selling. “Who’s right there, sitting in the same cell? Pops. On the same charges.”

When he got out, “people still knew me as Charles, so when I came across Charlemagne in a history book, that sounded good: Charles the Great, a warrior who used his power to spread religion and education. He was the head of the Carolingian dynasty, and with me being from South Carolina, that clicked. I got his name tattooed on my forearm. But I didn’t like the e in Charlemagne. The a looked better.”

As for Tha God part, that came from the Five Percenters, an offshoot of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which said out of 100 percent of the people, only 5 percent, the “poor righteous teachers,” could be trusted to do the right thing. “The 5 percent, the nation of gods and earths, those who try to change the world for the better. That’s how I saw myself,” explained Charlamagne Tha God.

Growing up in the 1990s, the golden era of rap, it would have been next to impossible for Charlamagne — who says he’s 35, though public records have him a couple of years older — not to be a hip-hop fan, partial to items like Raekwon’s “purple tape” Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Like everyone else, he thought he’d be a rapper. “I got a tattoo of Wolverine holding a mike on my arm, practiced my shit. There was a local station, 100.9 in Walterboro, where you could go on the air and freestyle,” he remembered. That’s when he learned that not everyone can rap.

Radio, though, that was something he could do. Coming from a family where you’d better be quick and loud if you wanted to be heard at all, he already had the essential training. To learn the ropes, he worked at several stations in Charleston and Columbia, developing signature features like “Hate O’Clock.” Listeners were invited to call in at eight and start hating on whatever. Never fated to be “a time-and-temperature guy,” Charlamagne didn’t see himself as a DJ, even back then, but rather “a personality,” someone like the Washington, D.C., street savant Petey Greene, who began his broadcasting career over a prison-yard loudspeaker. Sometimes, Charlamagne would show up “drunk or stoned and just saying what was on my mind.” His apprenticeship followed a pattern. “I’d get hired, raise the station’s ratings like from No. 14 to No. 2, and then get fired for one reason or another.” No matter. His bumpy work history taught him “how to sound like me.” This was paramount because radio, Tha God says, “is totally personal.”

His career path really began to look good after he got with the Gucci-bedecked Queen of Radio, Wendy Williams. “First time Wendy ever spoke to me was when I came into the studio where she was working to give her a mixtape and she told me to get the fuck away from her,” Charlamagne recalled, not without fondness. Williams (who now answers questions about Charlamagne by saying “Who?”) recognized a kindred provocateur spirit and eventually offered Tha God a co-host gig when she ruled the roost at WBLS. He lasted two and a half years before getting fired, but six months after losing that gig, Charlamagne had his own show, on 100.3 in Philly. As always, he bumped up the numbers for his time slot, but it didn’t stop him from getting fired again, for a fourth time — as the legend goes, at the behest of Jay Z, who was mad that Charlamagne had allowed the Philly rapper Beanie Sigel to dis him on the program. Approaching 30, out of a job, Tha God found himself back in Moncks Corner, living with his mother. He’d stay down there for an entire year. “I knew I’d be back, but it was a little like being the kid with the glasses again. It really hurt.”

“The Breakfast Club” saved Charlamagne. The corporate suits at the recently renamed iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), owners of the Power 105.1, were looking to overthrow Hot 97, long the default voice of New York hip-hop, and its star hit enabler, DJ Funkmaster Flex. “We needed to be strong in the morning,” said Geoff Gamere, a.k.a. Geespin, a well-known Boston DJ brought in by iHeart to develop its Power product. “We needed someone to push the envelope. That was Charlamagne. It didn’t matter how many times he’d been fired. He was a solid radio guy. He knew how to get to the edge and not go over it, too much.”

Everyone involved says they knew “The Breakfast Club” was major when it showed up on Google ahead of the John Hughes movie of the same name, but no one, Charlamagne included, ever guessed how culturally significant the show would get. Much of this success is based on what “Breakfast Club” fans call the “deep ecology” of the program, an evolutionary adaptation suited to continually fuel the insatiable social-media fire. This means the real-time, traffic-jam incarnation of “The Breakfast Club,” larded with the interminable commercial blocks and a single-digit song playlist of the Auto-Tuned, Joy Division–vibed R&B that has primarily replaced traditional rap, is merely the first take of the package. The rest of “The Breakfast Club” lives on the web, its various segments posted and reposted by fans, ad infinitum.

Key to the endless morning is “The Breakfast Club” interview, the parade of rappers, TV stars, and political figures that is easily the best Q&A in the business. Often running as long as an hour, the interviews are edited to fit the radio mode, but the video versions are posted in their full, unadulterated form on the website. Lo and behold: The sheer length of the interviews, the way they morph from sound-bite-as-usual to actual personality-revealing conversations, has become the most resonant iteration of “Breakfast Club” product. In an era where sites like Shade Room, Baller Alert, and half a million blogs are scouring the retweet bins to report Amber Rose items, “The Breakfast Club” comes on like a breaking-news juggernaut. For instance, recently, Birdman, the Cash Money CEO and onetime Lil Wayne mentor, walked out of his “Breakfast Club” interview within two minutes (a record) after shouting that the hosts had been “fucking with my name.” That was big news: He’d come on, seemingly, just to tell them off. When, the next day, DJ Envy reported on air that a more compos mentis Birdman had apologized for his outburst, that was news, too.

The standard “Breakfast Club” interview goes like this: After obligatory honorifics and product-placement opportunities for the star of the day, the three hosts get in their lanes and rev their role-play engines. DJ Envy, a.k.a. 38-year-old Raashaun Casey, plays the man of experience, the genius mixtape-maker, the steady hand at the tiller, the cool dad (he’s got four children, another on the way). Yee, quite raunchy in her SiriusXM satellite days, now embodies the feminine moral compass, an isle of empathetic sanity in testosterone-filled seas. This is both offset and augmented by Charlamagne’s profane Peck’s Bad Boy truth-teller. When the dance is working, like the 75-minute Rorschach test with an eminently addled Dame Dash, who kept shouting “Pause!” every time the hosts tried to interrupt his on-air meltdown, these encounters can rise to museum-quality exemplars of lyric and flow.

Everyone has their favorite “Breakfast Club” interview moments, like the time rapper-actor Ray J called in, sounding possibly unhinged and/or inebriated, to provide a highly prejudicial account of a dust-up with “that bitch-ass” Fabolous, or when Charlamagne opened the interview with AIDS profiteer and Wu-Tang memorabilia collector Martin Shkreli by saying, “First question: Are you a privileged, entitled prick?” But it was that Clinton interview — when she, like Cardi B., Dick Gregory, Master P, Rick Ross, and Yo Gotti before her, came to sit before “The Breakfast Club” microphone — that made Charlamagne reflect on how far they’d come.

“We came in with the mind-set not to ask her anything she could respond to with a talking point, like on CNN, to just talk some [N-word] shit with her,” explained Charlamagne, who still couldn’t quite resist asking Hillary if she was really going to open the UFO files (a firm believer, he thinks he might have been abducted “at least once”). 

The next day, Charlamagne was still jazzed about the encounter, noting that the candidate “came to us, we didn’t go to her.” Like every other rapper, Clinton knew she better play “The Breakfast Club.” “Five years ago you’d have seen her with some black congressman, possibly Al Sharpton,” Charlamagne said. “For sure we couldn’t have talked to her like that. If we did, how would she have taken it? Would she have rolled with it like that?” It was a case of hip-hop and the supposed dominant culture meeting each other halfway, Tha God said.

It was a point Charlamagne had been making since I started talking to him: Hip-hop had “some age” on it. “If you grow up with Run-DMC, you’re not going to stop because you’re older.” You respected hip-hop’s history, took pride that it not only survived but triumphed, even if “The Breakfast Club” plays endless commercials for Home Depot and Scotts lawn products. Asked about the corporate influence of iHeart — which as Clear Channel had sought to repress certain songs following the 9/11 attacks — Charlamagne said, “We interviewed Minister Louis Farrakhan, and no one said a word about it.”

The grown-up version of hip-hop was apparent just the other day when 2 Chainz, who used to perform under the name Tity Boi, came in for his interview. Fifteen minutes in, his phone rang. It was the rapper’s kid, upset that the dog had eaten a beloved basketball. None of the “Breakfast Club” trio blinked at this domestic moment. Not so long ago, groupies were still posting bits about Charlamagne getting frisky in various clubs, but now he was settled down, married with two kids, tweeting a lot about this season of Girls. Of “the 168 hours in my week, 95 percent of that is work and family,” he said. As if to demonstrate his larger outlook, he prostrates himself in prayer before every show. Asked if he was facing Mecca, he said, “No, man.” He faces a different direction every day. That was how his “spiritual geography” worked.     

Charlamagne. Photo: Jessica Lehrman

Getting off work at noon gives you plenty of time for other avenues of potential commerce. Charlamagne is a busy bee that way, so today he’s making the rounds accompanied by Wax, his decades-long homeboy, who at six-four and 250 pounds cuts a formidable figure. Wax’s employment became necessary shortly after the infamous “Can I get a drop?” incident. To wit: A dude on the street came over to ask Tha God for “a drop” — a recorded celebrity shout-out. But it turned out to be a ruse, as Tha God was soon sucker-punched and surrounded. Surveying the five-to-one odds, Charlamagne, a student of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, decided he had “no interest whatsoever in keeping it real” in such circumstances and beat a retreat up Sixth Avenue.

A video of the incident soon appeared on, causing people to wonder who had jumped Charlamagne. There were any number of suspects. He’d made Lil Momma cry on the air, needling her even after she talked about her mom’s passing. He’d razzed Lil’ Kim on the plastic-surgery issue. Then there was Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex, supposedly still seething over his rival’s rise to the top. No one was ever charged in the case, but never one to miss an opportunity to build his brand, Charlamagne soon started marketing can i get a drop? T-shirts.

Nothing like that transpired today, as Charlamagne was greeted with universal good vibes up at the offices of Marvel comics, where he was given the royal tour and talked to “Powerman and Iron Fist” artist (and fellow South Carolinian) Sanford Greene about doing the cover for his autobiography. Then it was downtown to do a session of the podcast “Brilliant Idiots,” an ongoing discussion of race circa now he does along with white comic Andrew Schulz. This was followed by a stop at MTV, where his show Uncommon Sense With Charlamagne recently had its season premiere. You could never have too many platforms in today’s uncertain times, Tha God remarked, before heading to the West Side to meet the Rockefeller in his life, Ryan. The two were collaborating on Liyo, a new music-streaming app. Identifying himself as, yes, indeed, “a real Rockefeller,” the 28-year-old Ryan demonstrated the workings of the app, how it allowed users to “sync up with other people’s playlists instantaneously.” For such a project, the participation of “tastemakers” like Charlamagne was essential, Rockefeller said.

It was crazy, Charlamagne mused as he sat wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt in the greenroom for The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, his last stop of the day. Imagine all the different ways his life could have gone, considering where it started. “Check this,” Tha God said, bringing up a September 2011 Daily News article on his phone.

Under the headline “Cowboys Fan Uses Taser Gun on Jets Crowd at MetLife Stadium Despite Security on 9/11 Anniversary,” the story told how “Leroy” McKelvey, 59, of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, “wildly fired a stun gun in a crowd at MetLife Stadium ... injuring three people, including a Marine.” The mêlée “erupted after a Marine became annoyed at McKelvey and his friends for not taking their hats off or standing during the national anthem and speaking loudly during ‘Taps.’ ”

“Can you believe that,” Charlamagne said with a half-loving, half-exasperated smile. “He brings the Taser in even though George W. Bush was at the damn game, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11! I had to go down to the jail and bail him out.” Yes, Charlamagne had to agree, the USA had its faults, but where else could the son of Larry McKelvey find himself in business with a Rockefeller?

Later, in front of the Nightly Show studio, a 50-ish guy in a leather Kangol hat, looking very much like a ghost of hip-hop past, snuck up behind Tha God. “Can I get a drop?” he asked, to which Charlamagne laughingly said, “I get a lot of that.” The guy said he’d cut a couple of tracks back in the day, worked with good people. Maybe Charlamagne would play his stuff on “The Breakfast Club.”

Charlamagne smiled gently. That wasn’t going to happen, but the guy knew that. “Okay,” he said to Charlamagne. “I’ll check you out tomorrow morning. Try not to say nothing wicked.”

To this Charlamagne Tha God smiled. “Now, that’s a lot of pressure.”

*This article appears in the May 2, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.