Charles Hamilton may be the only rapper to have an unfortunate verb named after him. After the 23-year-old was punched in the face by a woman during a freestyle rap battle, blog commentators began to refer to being "Hamiltoned" — meaning to suffer an unfortunate blow. The incident was one of many in quick succession that left him stripped of a recording contract with Interscope, cast as hip-hop's calamitous whipping boy, and forced to check into a mental health institution. As befit the times, Hamilton's plight played out via YouTube videos and blog posts. And now, for Internet phenomenon rappers like Berkeley's Lil B and Los Angeles collective Odd Future, Hamilton's career serves as both a template and a warning.
When Hamilton first came to prominence in 2008, he was championed as a leading "Internet rapper" — one of those artists whose online ubiquity and success doesn't necessarily further the traditional goal of big-time physical album sales. The Ohio native's ascent started brightly: He claimed a backstory that had him briefly homeless, during which period he hung out at a 24-hour Apple store in Manhattan. Later, he claimed to have used his high school recording studio in Harlem to record gimmicky songs, whose common theme was the Sonic the Hedgehog videogame series. (The plot of Sonic, Hamilton claimed, was his own religious code.) He released a stream of free music that was more extensive than most: Hamilton's ultimately scrapped debut album, The Pink Lavalamp, was promoted via a website that counted down the seconds before seven different mixtapes were released, each on a separate blog.
The Internet offered an unhindered playing field for Hamilton to express himself through music and communicate directly with fans. He soon gained a reputation for blogging (and then tweeting) prolifically, and without much consideration for how his words would be interpreted. When I interviewed him for a now-defunct English publication in 2008, he claimed, among other wildly entertaining soundbites, that his Sonic-themed theology should be held in as high regard as the Jewish and Baptist faiths. His demeanor brought to mind the ego of Kanye West on the cusp of breaking out as a solo artist: utterly self-confident, with a penchant for pushing buttons. You sensed that, with some gentle guidance, he could become a star.
But as quickly as Hamilton found himself on national magazine covers (XXL and style mag The Fader), his career unraveled, serving as a warning of the dangers of Internet-fueled stardom. He was accused of releasing too much music, blogging nonstop gibberish, and disrespecting deceased Detroit production legend J Dilla (whom Hamilton anointed, without permission, as "executive producer" of his album). He was later punched by a female rapper with whom he'd been intimate after he suggested in a video widely circulated online that she needed an abortion.
The downfall was public and symptomatic of the times. In an other era, a label would have played a forceful hand in selecting which of Hamilton's songs to release. Today, young artists tend to offer up every sketch of a new song and see what sticks.
Hamilton's fall from fleeting grace landed him back where he'd started — in the Sonic-themed online sandbox he'd created for himself. It's a world he still inhabits, filling it with ever-more-impenetrable song titles, lots of free music (last year he released six mixtapes on the same day), and in-jokes not meant to be understood by those on the outside. It's a precursor to the online playgrounds Odd Future and Lil B have built. Odd Future's Tumblr account gives off a darkly comic vibe: It's full of random photos, old school exam papers, captions always written in title case, disses of rap blogs, and fliers and mixtape covers that have often been digitally cut and pasted together. (Unsurprisingly, a Los Angeles Times article from 2008 has group leader Tyler the Creator attending the "experimental education" institution Media Arts and making a magazine, which he titled Odd Future.) Lil B's 150,000-strong online army is kept abreast of his moves via a barrage of tweets that include (possibly metaphorical) threats to rape Kanye West, and references to B's cat eating his plants.
Now, Odd Future and Lil B face the challenge of graduating from their online domains — of which they're self-anointed kings — to the larger music industry outside. Tyler has signed to XL Recordings, while his group appeared on the cover of Billboard, and recently played headline-grabbing (and largely well-received) shows at SXSW. Lil B seeks to benefit from snagging a spot on XXL's annual Freshman list of up-and-coming rappers and releasing increasingly more familiar-sounding singles. Both have loyal, sizable fan bases. But as Hamilton demonstrated, casual fans are fleeting, the record industry is a very unsentimental place, and snarky online gawkers love to see rappers make fools of themselves. It might seem strange to cast the down-and-out Hamilton as a modern rap trailblazer, but these days, any rising Internet rap star is only one YouTube video away from someone quipping that they just Odd Futured themselves.