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On Charles Hamilton, Joe Budden, Asher Roth, and the Perils of Internet Oversharing

With his pink wardrobe, adoption of retro video-game character Sonic the Hedgehog as a spirit animal, and languid verses, Charles Hamilton was a newcomer built to thrive in a rap environment that has learned to tolerate a splash of DayGlo whimsy. The 21-year-old was cute and contempo and sensitive, but retained enough Harlem arrogance to escape being ostracized as a total pussy. After signing with Interscope Records in the summer of 2008, Hamilton spent the next year exuberantly building a reputation as an underdog smartass: He released several mixtapes, blogged with regularity, Twittered 50-some times a day, and reveled in the real-time furor he was able to create as a hip-hop fameball.

Despite Hamilton’s enthusiasm, missteps accumulated. He was busted for pilfering a beat from an underground producer. He came out the loser after exchanging disparaging video clips with kiddie-rapper Soulja Boy. He was punched in the face by a female spoken-word poet after insinuating that she had aborted their unborn child during a videotaped “battle.” And in a climactic faux pas in June, he weirdly credited deceased beatmaker J-Dilla with “executive producing” his forthcoming LP A Perfect Life—a sin that earned self-righteous rebuttals from protectionist Detroiters and a refutation from Dilla’s mother. Within a week’s time, Hamilton vanished from the Internet: no blogs, no Tweets, no videos. (His last Twitter update, dated June 10: “Good morning sunshine!!!”) According to industry rumormongers, Interscope honcho Jimmy Iovine himself issued the gag order: Shut your pie-hole, or lose your deal. (Hamilton declined an interview request for this story.) A life and death done digitally, this was the rap version of a Tamagotchi pocket pet.

Whether this online exile was self-imposed or commanded from on high, his rise and fail are indicative of the alternative outcomes that can occur when an artist dives headlong into the virtual fishbowl. As record sales wither and labels strain to monetize artists as shampoo-shilling “personal brands,” online outlets such as blogs, Twitter, and video channels like Vlad TV and World Star Hip-Hop have taken on increased importance. Seldom inclined to shy away from attention, rappers have discovered that these are ideal mediums for beefing with rivals, griping about the music business, threatening retirement, and otherwise piling firewood onto the roaring bonfire of their egos. Once muzzled by publicists, promoters, and management intermediaries, they’re now free to grouse, giggle, and emote in real-time. “Artists are feeling more empowered with the technology,” says Elliott Wilson, former editor-in-chief of XXL magazine who currently runs the Rap Radar site. “You can tell people not to do XYZ, but it’s so easy to get your message out there. It just takes you a second to type a couple thoughts.” As a fuchsia-clad Harlemite can attest, the ever-thinning membrane between celebrities and the public can be a gift and a curse.

Hip-hop artists immersed themselves in social networking just like everyone else: A few pioneers recognized the potential, and the clueless masses blundered in later. ?uestlove, El-P, and Prodigy of Mobb Deep were prescient enough to become active on their own websites or message boards early on, but a digital wall manned by label sentinels usually separated artists from the general public. MySpace, a site expressly created to splinter such barriers, was the next major step: Those clunky pages (excellent as they were for aggregating groupies) have given way to an environment in which an independent artist with a strong online presence can compete for face-time with acts on major labels.

Consider New Jersey rapper Joe Budden, a former Def Jam signee who now wedges himself into the news cycle with remarkable consistency without that association. He indulges in feuds with other artists, uploads video of his buxom girlfriend to the Joe Budden TV site, and is part of Slaughterhouse, a group that includes several other artists (Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, Royce Da 5’9″) more popular in the blogosphere than on the radio. He even briefly crossed into the world of basketball after streaming footage of an expletive-laced phone conversation with Milwaukee Bucks draft pick Brandon Jennings. To Budden, the key to captivating an online audience is simply authenticity: “Over the years, the fans have gotten a lot wiser,” he says. “They can tell when it’s not the actual artist or it’s just someone doing it for the sake of doing it. When it’s genuine, it’s way better.”

Assuming their digital incarnations aren’t bored interns or multitasking weed-carriers crumbling Kush on a MacBook, artists take divergent approaches to promoting their music and interacting with fans. Diddy, who survived a #unfollowdiddy campaign on Twitter in May, has corralled over 1.6 million people intrigued by his exclamation-point-spiked exhortations for positivity and praise for Ciroc Vodka. He’s not sending out tweets while dodging Basij bullets on the frontline of the Iranian protest, but for Diddy, it fits.

Even artists less prone to taking bubble baths with their Grammys can complement an on-record image by being interesting online. “Personality goes a long way,” says Phonte, a rapper in the group Little Brother who posts on Twitter and the Okayplayer message board. “There is nothing more boring than a PC milquetoast-ass nigga. A little well-placed snark and humor can help people see you in a new light—it shows you are capable of critical thought and enjoy spending time among the commoners in the peanut gallery.”

A personal touch is attractive, but not when it veers into inappropriate humor or cringe-worthy oversharing. Earlier this year, white frat-rapper Asher Roth was demonized for making an ill-advised tweet about “hanging out with nappy headed hoes,” while Kid Cudi penned a blog post claiming that the toll of celebrity was forcing him into premature retirement (unsurprisingly, he walked it back). The ease of blogging or Twittering begets a flippancy that may look even cheaper under scrutiny. “Rappers will make a bad joke or just have a bad day and express their frustration, and it becomes a heavily circulated story,” says Wilson. “If you write some Twitters where you’re just like, ‘I’m feeling real depressed today,’ then everybody has you on suicide watch. Sometimes, artists don’t realize that everything they say on their Twitter page is on the record.”

As blustery and sensitive a breed as they might be, rappers are not the only celebrities who have found social networking a mixed bag. In July, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor deleted his Twitter account after he and his girlfriend were repeatedly harassed by, as he put it, “unattractive plump females who publicly fantasize about having sex with guys in bands.” Outside of music, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $25,000 for criticizing NBA officials on Twitter, while Pete Hoekstra, a U.S. Representative from Michigan, inadvertently revealed his location while traveling through Iraq and Afghanistan. Rule of thumb: Think first, post second. “Arrogance, negativity, and emotional rants where artists are complaining about private and confidential matters can cause issues,” says Tracy Nguyen, a publicist who has worked with Nick Cannon, Kelis, and Ice Cube. “It can result in the type of press attention that perhaps they aren’t seeking.” Of course, if you live by the adage that all publicity is good publicity, you have nothing to fear—except maybe Jimmy Iovine.

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GUITAR-LESS BROOKLYN

Get out your Ecstasy and glow sticks. It’s time for the second annual Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival! In truly endemic Brooklyn style, the festival will be held in a big, old warehouse—the historic Old American Can Factory, to be exact. Two stages, one inside and one out, will feature headliner The Juan MacLean, acts like Young Love and Jupiter One, and dozens of emerging DJs and other young whippersnappers that dig only the most synthetic of music. A “Very Special Surprise Guest Headliner” will be announced via Twitter (sigh) the day of the show. Technology! If 12 hours of sweaty, sleazy Brooklyn electro seems like a bit much for you, then free PBR is a good incentive to show up early.

Sat., Aug. 8, 4 p.m., 2009

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In Defense of Michael Jackson’s Magic

A year ago, I tried to convince a stranger that, yes, magic does indeed exist. I wasn’t talking about David Blaine, Criss Angel, or street magic—no. I meant the magic in creativity, in manifesting things at will, in . . . in . . . aggh! I was so frustrated that I couldn’t explain it to her, but then I realized that she would never just believe, wouldn’t even attempt to understand it. It made me so sad for her, to be missing out on the beauty in the world around her.

I say this because in the wake of Michael Jackson’s passing, I’ve seen too many people comment on their indifference toward it. Now, it’s not the indifference that bothers me—it’s the failure to comprehend the grief others are feeling on a mass, worldwide level. “How can you miss something you never had?” read one dispatch on Twitter. I jokingly told my friend to respond back with: “Forget it—you won’t understand because you’re dead inside.” What could it be in a human that doesn’t recognize, or can so easily dismiss, clear and announced magic incarnate? Even if there is something in you, your soul, your fiber, that is impervious to it—how can you deny its existence if it affects the rest of the world on a deeply profound level? To feel something as basic as thanks and compassion for receiving a touch of magic from the universe, grieving over the loss of its creator . . . to not understand the void people felt, to just not get it.

I cried, man. I cried HARD. I cry just remembering the feeling of reading the first online headlines, of waking my boyfriend to tell him the developing news. I cried harder because I saw his own tears well up. Then I Tweeted, re-Tweeted . . . felt the energy and outpouring of love from others. It helped to be a part of a real-time community at that moment—it truly did.

When his death was officially announced, we stared at the TV in awe. We each got up and wandered out of the room to cry alone, then wandered back in to have a shoulder. Back and forth with that for a bit. My mom called, and, at first, I couldn’t even speak. My mom is 72, so there’s a definite generational gap, but she expressed how much she had grown up WITH us, grown up with us loving him. She sounded heartbroken.

I didn’t want to watch what started almost immediately afterward on the news: the talk of controversy in his life, in his finances, regarding his estate. Hell, no. It was disparaging and indecent. Turn the damn TV off. All that made sense was to avoid ruining the magic. To turn the music on. To dance and celebrate the gift we’d been given. To feel every note, every signature ad lib, every musical breakdown and crescendo, every line. To recall the memory that corresponded with each moment, and, oh, there were so many. Weakly smiling and shouting things like, “But remember when he broke out that new walk? Maaaan!”

I made a playlist, opened the windows, lit a candle, and just zoned out. I wished I was at the Apollo and contemplated throwing an impromptu house party. No. I just wanted to dance. I spun like a whirling dervish to a blasting sound system. I wondered why I was the only one in Bed-Stuy blaring Mike out the windows. I cried while I was dancing—I remembered every moment I had with every song. I loved the suggestions of gatherings that started to spring up. The memories hanging in the air, thick. I could dance in it, breathe it in, unable to pinpoint the physicality, but recognizing its existence.

I believe in magic, so much that I rely on it to live. I know that I’m capable of creating it, but I bow in the presence of those who are way more powerful than I. I’m lucky and blessed to have been one of the millions who received Michael’s magical, awesome, immortal presents/presence.

I also believe in the fragility of the human soul. I think there’s only so much battering and shielding (that contrast is so interesting) it can take. I think there is always a place in us that escapes and flies freely, even if you, yourself, are prevented from doing so.

I’m not going to speculate on any of the controversy, the darkness—we all have, all of us. I can’t judge anyone, and I won’t. I can only say that magic is the most important, the most real, the most unifying tool I’ve ever known. I’ve watched people all over the world react, seen them dance in celebration, emulate in flattery and remembrance, struggle to express their gratitude and love for the . . . ahhh, dammit . . . everything he was to us: our brother, our first boyfriend, our little prince transformed into a king. The force unstoppable and perfect, with every imperfection. The immortal beloved forever.

I remember clinging to the Thriller cover (after making out with it, of course) and feeling comfort, feeling love, like the scent you’d get from a T-shirt your lover had left behind. No, I never met Michael Jackson. No, never even got close. But if he wasn’t the most brilliant sliver of magic alive, I don’t know what is or ever will be.

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STATUS AM I

Perhaps in years past (before, say, 2005), a person could be measured by the content of one’s character. Now, thanks to websites like Twitter, your worthiness is based on the wittiness of your status updates. The Shorty Awards Ceremony honors this tradition by rewarding 26 people for their clever and addictive banter limited to 140 characters. The categories include “Advertising,” “Humor,” “Personal,” “Science,” and “Travel,” among others. All acceptance speeches are also—thank God—limited to 140 characters. Martinsargent, a winner in the “Weird” category, recently posted this update: “I cannot believe that I, a Shorty Award winner, just committed such an awful grammatical error in my last tweet. I am horrified.” These folks must be a hoot to hang out with.

Wed., Feb. 11, 7 p.m., 2009