Charlie Wilson has a proven record of overcoming the odds, and his latest album is a testament to his perseverance.
The 64-year-old R&B-funk veteran landed on the top of the charts in February with the release of his eighth solo album, “In It To Win It.” Featuring collaborations from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Robin Thicke, Lalah Hathaway, Pitbull and Wiz Khalifa, the project debuted at No. 1 on the R&B Album chart, No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and No. 2 on the Billboard Top Album Sales chart. Adding to Wilson’s list of current achievements, the album’s lead single, “I’m Blessed,” featuring T.I., is currently this year’s fastest-growing single on the Billboard Adult R&B chart.
The former Gap Band member spoke to The Huffington Post about recording “In It To Win It,” and shared some of his secrets to maintaining relevancy for decades and his thoughts on Bruno Mars recapturing the essence of funk music.
Congratulations on the success of your new album, “In It To Win It.” How does it feel to land chart-topping success at this stage in your career?
It’s what I’ve always wanted. I wanted to make sure that I had a record that would make a statement. I’m excited to have the look of the pop thing going with it. I think that anything that I have on my album has that appeal, and I hope that everybody can look at this record and understand that it’s a special piece. This is a time where people are digitally downloading the one song, and for me to have an album of great records and features, it’s just so beautiful and so fresh, and I’m going for the whole thing. I think it speaks in volumes, what I’m doing. So I’m happy.
How important was it for you to tap a new circle of collaborators, who typically would fall outside of your core adult contemporary demographic?
I think my fans need to go along with where I’m going. If they gonna connect with me and stay with me, then I need to take them along for this journey that I’m on. I’ve been tapping lightly for so many years, trying to stay loyal to the close fans. But I also have fans that are so very, very young. And so, I have fans from 10 to 20 and they always tell me, “Uncle Charlie, [the only song we know] is ‘Charlie, Last Name Wilson.’” And I was like, OK, so I need to continue to reach out and make records that all of my fans can understand and love and appreciate.
So I just thought that I would get some of these artists that I know would love and appreciate me now, get them on my record and bring their fans along with me on my journey. And my younger fans can appreciate some of the things that I’m doing this time around. And my older fans can just understand that you gotta stay young and fresh. So I have to keep everybody active, and go on this journey and party like a rock star.
On the album’s title track, you talk about your experiences overcoming racism, homelessness and substance abuse. What prompted you to record the track?
I thought people needed to hear it. There’s a lot of people still doing the same things I did, even when I was a young man. A lot of people that I still know that was getting high with me when I was in my 20s and 30s, they’re still getting high. I’m like, “Are you serious? You haven’t moved on? You’re still sitting on that same front porch?” That’s not good at all. What baton are you passing, and who are you passing it to? Because if that’s all you’re doing then you’re teaching your kids and your grandkids to be an alcoholic and a dope head. And so, I have to continue to give a message of self-hope and next-level hope.
People always told me that I was too old to get to where I’m at now. They said I wouldn’t ever do this, and I wouldn’t ever do that. It used to hurt me so much to have people tell me that, but until I did not listen to what they were saying and got up to make a difference and do something about it, I didn’t get to where I wanted until I started believing in myself. I started making No. 1 records. And so, I just wanna continue to inspire people and make them understand, no matter what people say about you ― you could be 30, 40, 50, 60 years old ― you could go do whatever you wanna do and be bossin’ at it. But you gotta believe you can do it.
So many veteran artists often find challenges appealing to today’s generation of listeners. But yet, you’ve managed to net success while staying true to your core sound. What’s your secret to longevity and remaining relevant in music?
I’m a leader, and I’m not copying anybody. You see everybody out here listening to music and just trying to copy that music. I’m not copying any of that. If you listen to some of the biggest records in the world, you’re gonna hear some Charlie Wilson riffs in it. I’m not trying to make a record for another genre, I’m just making great records and I’m staying fresh. I know what’s out there, but I’m not gonna make a record like that. I’m just gonna make sure that my records stay fresh for the time we’re in. And I make timeless records. I always have.
In recent years, popular artists like Bruno Mars have landed success with funk-driven singles like [Mark Ronson’s] “Uptown Funk” and “24K Magic.” What are your thoughts on the resurgence of funk music coming full circle to popular music?
It’s great. For him to use “Oops Upside Your Head” as a template for [”Uptown Funk”], I thought it was great. If people like myself or the genre that I came from started making funk records, you know what [listeners] gonna say, right? “It sounds dated.” So, hey, man, sometimes it takes other people to make the record to wake up the funk world. And so it’s great, man. I’m happy and I love Bruno Mars. He’s one of the biggest artists we got out there in the pop world and he’s doing it really well.
I’m glad that he’s funking, and he sounds really, really good. I’ve seen him several times and we’ve talked. He understands the stage. And he’s going hard.