Charlamagne Tha God, the shock-jock host of 105.1’s morning show, “The Breakfast Club,” has a penchant for making his guests squirm.
When Justin Bieber arrived to promote his Christmas album, “Under the Mistletoe,” in 2011, Charlamagne admonished him for the company he was beginning to keep, saying, “You can do records with the black rappers, but stop hanging around them because eventually they’re going to get you in trouble.”
When Lil’ Kim came on his program a year later, he told her she was “beautiful” and that he couldn’t understand why she had gotten so much plastic surgery. (On his Twitter feed, he compared her current look to the basketball player Jeremy Lin.)
And when Jay Z appeared earlier this year, Charlamagne wondered whether the rapper would have become a titan of industry if his close friend Christopher Wallace (better known as the Notorious B.I.G.) had not been shot and killed.
“I’m a slightly obnoxious person,” Charlamagne said, when asked why he always asks questions like this. “I don’t even think about it. You know what I’m saying? I just like to have conversations with people.”
Still, no interview he’s done in three years of hosting the program has garnered as much attention as the one he did a few weeks back with Kanye West.
West stopped by the show the morning after his Barclays Center concert and sat uncomfortably for 40 minutes as Charlamagne pummeled away at him.
He called West “Kanye Kardashian”; dismissed his new album, “Yeezus,” as “wack”; and basically accused him of being a hypocrite.
“You denounce corporations at the same time as you get onstage and need Nike and Adidas to back you,” he said.
Surprisingly, West, given his prickliness with the media, seemed to take Charlamagne’s criticisms in stride. When he sensed that one of Charlamagne’s colleagues, the DJ Envy, was taking too much airtime, West cut him off, saying: “They want to hear him talk, man. No offense. They want this man to throw them blows. They’re waiting for Charlamagne to tap these gloves and go at ‘Ye. So let’s go.”
In short order, a video of the interview went viral and Charlamagne found himself the subject of numerous blog posts that all but proclaimed him a hero.
“It was different than what you normally see,” said Vanessa Satten, the editor in chief of the hip-hop magazine XXL. “If you’re going to interview people on the air, it’s not usually antagonistic. In this community, everybody’s friends with everybody. Charlamagne wasn’t scared.”
Rich Juzwiak, a music writer for Gawker, went further.
“Charlamagne had an agenda,” he said. “He ended up looking really smart and Kanye ended up looking like he had no idea what he was doing.”
For sure, it was good timing, coming just as MTV2 was putting the finishing touches on an announcement that he is getting his own late-night talk show in January, “Charlamagne and Friends.”
Paul Ricci, a senior vice president for programming and development there, said the program is a chance for Charlamagne to “really own a half-hour of television” and bring his voice to the public in a bigger way.
“He’s a unique, honest, authentic individual,” Ricci added, “and they don’t come around that often.”
But who exactly is Charlamagne? For one, he’s a South Carolina native.
Born Lenard McKelvey, he was, according to his father, Larry Thomas McKelvey, a bad kid on the streets of Moncks Corner.
“I had to bust him upside his head a lot of times to get him back on the right track,” the elder McKelvey said. “He got in with the wrong crowd and did a lot of crazy stuff.”
Arrest records from Berkeley County show he wound up in and out of jail.
“I was in the back seat of a car and a shooting happened, and so all of us ended up going to jail for it,” said Charlamagne, adding that no one was killed. Two other times, he said, he was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana and cocaine with intent to distribute. (Though Charlamagne says he is 33, arrest records put his age at 35. “In the hip-hop culture, kids see age and automatically dismiss you,” he said, in responding to the discrepancy, not quite confirming which number was accurate.)
“The third time he got locked up, I let him sit there for approximately 41 days,” his father said. “That’s when he called my wife and asked her to please get him out of jail. That’s when I decided ‘Enough is enough. I’ll give him another chance.’”
Soon, Charlamagne said, he was back in night school and got an internship at a local radio station, where he ingratiated himself with one of the programmers, who began putting him on the air.
Getting a nom de hip-hop was a no-brainer.
“When I used to hustle,” he said, “I called myself Charles because I didn’t want the people who bought crack from me to know my real name. And then when I was in night school, I was reading in the history book about Charlemagne, which is French for Charles the Great.”
He added on “Tha God,” because it sounded cool.
There wasn’t any grand plan for why he goes by Charlamagne rather than Charlemagne, though.
“I think I just spelled it wrong,” he said with a shrug.
In 2005, Charlamagne met Wendy Williams, who was then best known as the radio host who repeatedly trash-talked Whitney Houston. She brought Charlamagne up to New Jersey and put him on her show as a co-host.
For the first year and a half, he said, there wasn’t even a paycheck.
“They told me they couldn’t pay me but they’d get me a place to stay,” he said. “I was like, ‘Cool,’ because I recognized the opportunity.”
In 2008, he was laid off. Much of the next year was spent collecting unemployment. (For reasons that are not entirely clear, he and Williams no longer speak. Efforts to reach her for this article were unsuccessful.)
One day, he went out to lunch with Gee Spin, a programmer with 105.1.
“At the time,” Gee Spin said, “we didn’t really have anything, but we always kept in the back of our heads that he would be a nice addition.”
In 2010, the station parted ways with its longtime morning host, Ed Lover, and brought in Charlamagne.
After about six months, said Gee Spin, things began to click.
Today, the show is one of the station’s top-rated programs, and is carried around the country by its parent company, Clear Channel.
Whether or not the celebrities who have been on the show like Charlamagne or consider him a nuisance to be managed is a matter of some debate. Efforts to reach Jay Z and Kanye West for this article were also unsuccessful. Lil’ Kim, reached on her cellphone, hung up about as soon as the words “Charlamagne Tha God” were mentioned.
But Marvet Britto, a public relations agent who has worked with celebrities like Mariah Carey and Foxy Brown, said Charlamagne’s fearlessness has given him authority, and that consequently, celebrities in the hip-hop world are eager to appear on his program to show they are tough, that they can handle it.
“They want to be interviewed by him,” she said.
Will Charlamagne go softer on his guests now that he’s moving into television?
He is aware that there’s a long history of that, comedians and talk show hosts getting friendlier as they get more famous. But he doesn’t want to box himself in to maintain his street cred, either.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take two steps back to take 10 steps forward,” he said. “I don’t want to be the guy who’s 50-something years old sitting in front of a microphone with my beard dyed black and my hat on backwards, yo yo yoing. You know what I mean? You have to grow and evolve and look towards the future.”