Virginia-born R&B star CHRIS BROWN sits down with JOE YOGERST for an exclusive interview to talk about his upcoming tour, doing some good and crying on set
Even after eight years in the spotlight, it’s difficult to say with any certainty what makes Chris Brown tick. He’s granted few long-form interviews and his press coverage tends to be ruled by tabloid headlines rather than probing questions about what really goes on in the head of this 23-year-old musical superstar. Brown plays his cards so close to his chest that we can’t tell if the ambiguity is intentional – part of a carefully crafted public persona – or his bona fide self.
Anyone who follows music knows that Brown is one of the great talents of his generation, someone who doesn’t just cross genres but one of those rare artists who is actually capable of bending them. R&B, hip hop, techno and pop all fall within his purview. Anyone attuned to the flow of gossip that now passes for mainstream media has heard all the rumours of Brown’s love life, but that’s about all we know, because everything else – the heart and soul of Chris Brown – gets steamrollered by the shock and awe.
Born and raised in small-town Virginia, Brown showed an aptitude for showbiz from the get-go. Heavily influenced by the multitalented Michael Jackson, who ruled both the music charts and airwaves when Brown was a kid, young Chris took an interest in both music and dance. He also studied other masters – Stevie Wonder, 1970s R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass and 1950s pioneering pop star Sam Cooke. By age 13 Brown had been “discovered”, and by 16 he had recorded and released his first album. The self-titled Chris Brown came in at number two on the Billboard charts, almost unheard of for someone so young and virtually unknown prior to a debut disc.
It wasn’t just raw talent. There was personality, too. Even as a teenager, Brown flaunted a blend of swagger, smarts and charisma that revealed that he was more than a run-of-the-mill crooner. His second album (Exclusive) spawned several hit singles and earned him Billboard Artist of the Year honours in 2008. His third album (Graffiti) proved that Brown could switch genres – and dance steps – just as deftly as his bygone idols. His fourth album (F.A.M.E.) came in at number one on the Billboard charts and landed a Grammy for Best R&B Album of 2011.
His latest effort (Fortune) was released in June, another crossover tour de force that runs the gamut from the soft R&B ballad “Don’t Judge Me” and the techno-pop dance tune “Don’t Wake Me Up” to the classic hip hop “Till I Die”, which also blends in arcade-game noises and cadet-corps drumming. Many of the tracks are complemented by emblematic Chris Brown videos, visually mesmerising mini movies that tell a story rather than just shout a song. Brown kicks off the promo tour (dubbed Carpe Diem) this month with a concert in Copenhagen followed by other European gigs.
Brown is also busy on the acting front, after testing the waters in 2007 in the hit dance film Stomp the Yard. Spreading his wings in much the same way as he does with music, he crossed genres to play an LA bank robber in Takers. He’s also guest starred in several hit American television shows, including The O.C. Up next September is his biggest role yet – a starring turn in Battle of the Year: The Dream Team, a big-budget dance film directed by Korean-American Benson Lee.
Breaking from his reticence to meet the press, Brown agreed to sit down for an hour-long chat with Prestige Hong Kong in Hollywood – his first major press interview in nearly four years.
What do you want the world to know about who you are and what you stand for?
As a 23-year-old young entertainer, I want the world to see my art and hopefully be inspired by it, promote positivity with what I do now – with painting, with fashion, with directing, with creativity as far as videos and cinema. I want to have people admire that and hopefully have people follow in my footsteps.
What are you having the most fun at right now?
Honestly, my day-to-day life is the most fun right now because I get a chance to not focus on “the artist” Chris Brown. Going through the regular things, like going to the grocery store. I’m also running a label right now, so I have different artists, four or five different acts, shooting videos that I’m directing and coming together.
Do you ever get time off?
I kind of have that luxury of being able to hand off my schedule and say, “I need a day off. I don’t want to do this, let’s cancel, reschedule.” I’m more of a CEO with my team. My days off, I hang out with my homeboys and play basketball. I paint, go to parties, listen to music, dance. I just bought a bike, so I like to ride. The cardio is good. Just to ride on the street on the bike, beating the traffic.
You can actually do that without getting hassled?
[Laughs] Yeah, I do. Then maybe a couple of minutes later someone in a car turns around and realises it’s me. “Hey, that’s Chris Brown. What’s Chris Brown doing on a bike?”
Turning to your music: your range is amazing. So many different genres. That’s kind of been your MO from the beginning, right?
Definitely with Fortune that’s the direction I wanted to go, but even with the F.A.M.E. album. What I wanted to do was not set the bar with a certain kind of style. I didn’t want people to say. “He’s just R&B.” Yes, I will sing an R&B song. But then I’ll do a pop song, then I’ll do a song with a country kind of feel, a reggae feel. I always want to be eclectic with my music. I don’t think music has a race. I think music has a soul and it’s just a feeling. What evokes the set of emotions from you is what I try to bring out...whatever flows, whatever I feel, I just write.
Whether they’re fun or super serious, the videos for Fortune are all mesmerising. How involved do you get in the developing the stories and visuals, and the production?
With the comedy videos like “Till I Die” – which I did with Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean – it was like, cool. Let’s have fun with it. Make a crazy video. Being able to direct by myself and have full creative focus and being able to know the cameras – that was the easiest part. The vision is the hard part. Whenever you’re sleeping, you have that dream or that nightmare and that’s your video. That’s how I kind of interpret it. Or whatever I see when I hear the music, whatever vision I see, I put it right onto paper and put it out on the video. Like the video for “Don’t Judge Me” – it was me going into a spaceship. Not to be arrogant when I say it, but I want to be the Steven Spielberg of music videos, to be innovative and young, not to put a bar on it just because of budgetary issues or certain capabilities.
All of them are like mini movies. The music and dance are great, but they also tell a story.
Back in the day, what inspired me as a teenager growing up was Fred Astaire, James Brown, Michael Jackson. Not their personal life or what they do when they go home, but the movies they made that took you to a land they made up when you saw them. Gene Kelly, too. A lot of different people. And a crazy, crazy amount of Broadway-like theatre stuff. When you can incorporate that, it intrigues the mind, lets you focus in on another place like when you watch a movie. It takes you somewhere where it’s not real life. That’s what I focus on in all my videos, why they’re like mini movies.
Tell me about your painting.
I’ve been painting secretly since I was a kid. A lot of people didn’t know that it was my hobby. I focused on doing the bad stuff at first with graffiti and vandalising as a kid. But as you get older, you start studying art books and sketchbooks in the libraries. I started getting better, like maybe three or four years ago. I met Ron English and Kid Zoom [Ian Strange] and they were just teaching me different techniques for painting. So my art started growing and I started doing it on my own. I finally got people to recognise it and I did a couple of art galleries – one in LA and one in New York – and I sold four out of my seven paintings. You know, I’m new. But my feet are in the water and that’s all it takes. I don’t think I want to conquer painting. It’s just something I love to do.
Acting is something else you do well. Was that something you discovered later in life?
Acting is just something that comes natural. I used to look in the mirror all the time, make funny faces, trying get my face right. Looking at Jim Carrey, looking at a lot of different movies. The key is that you pick up what you see all the time. That’s kind of where I got my Michael Jackson inspiration, my charisma. I did a couple of acting lessons, but when it comes down to it, I learned more from the actors on set, their energy and timing.
Much like in music, you’re also branching out in acting rather than getting typecast. Your roles have been very eclectic.
I really want to get into more action and sci-fi because that’s where I do a lot of my own music videos. And seeing as how I do most of my stunts, people get to see my capabilities. For me it’s like, “Hey, whatever movie you’ve got, let’s go!” I really want to be able to pull my weight and when you see the movie – the part when I cry – that you believe me. I really want you to know who the character is and really take that seriously.
What’s been your best acting experience so far?
My best acting experience? I can’t say. Every movie, I’ve learned something, whether it be directing, whether it being editing, even learning the lines. Learning from different people. But I can definitely say one of my favourite movies is the one I just did – Battle of the Year. I had a crying scene. Most of the guys on the set were goofballs. Everyone was like 23 or younger. So they were sitting around and laughing the whole time the camera was not on them and they were trying to make you laugh the whole time. But you’ve got to stay in character, so that was probably the most challenging thing I had to do, and also being able to do more serious scenes with more established actors. You want to show them that you’re serious, don’t want to come off like, this is fake.
Tell me a little about Battle of the Year.
It’s not just your average dance movie. You’ve got basically 10 to 15 of the best guys in America competing to be on one team and this is an actual contest that happens, called BC. We actually go and battle for real against teams from Russia, Germany and other places. So it’s like a sports movie. It’s really technical moves. People can get hurt. I remember being super ripped on stage and super in shape. That’s the best shape I’ve ever been in.
Like your painting, something that seems to be more on the quiet side is your charity work, like St Jude’s Children’s Hospital and Best Buddies.
I’ve been involved with [those] since I was 15, 16. It’s not about recognition, because that’s not what satisfies me. The satisfaction is people that are getting helped or are benefitting from whatever I donate, whatever I contribute to their lives. I don’t like it to be publicised. If there are cameras around, it’s cool. But I do it from the heart. When I go on TV and do my videos, that’s the artist Chris Brown. But when I go and do [charity work] it’s just me – it’s just Christopher.
A lot of it seems to be working with kids.
Absolutely! My nostalgic feeling of working with kids is because of my mom working in day care. I was in day care when I was three weeks old. Growing up in day care with the kids coming in and out, when I turned 13, 14, 15 I was doing the same job as her. It’s easy! I used to watch them in day care and they’d all be asleep. Someone would say to me, “Man, what did you do?” And I’d say I just ran them outside and I have just as much energy as them. It’s just being a kid and having that free spirit with them. They see me having just as much fun with all the responsibilities I have, with all the life stuff that I deal with every day, still taking time out to just smile and play around.
What’s Symphonic Love all about?
Symphonic Love does programmes in schools, like with my school back home. Musical programmes and helping kids with disabilities. I do a lot of stuff with Best Buddies that coexists with that. The name comes from a tattoo that I’ve got [runs hand across his chest] – something that’s over my heart right now. So my heart is where it’s at. The tattoo “symphonic love” encompasses the positivity of what I’m trying to do – uplifting humanity.
And then there’s your lifestyle and fashion side, things like mechanicaldummy.com. That’s a wild website.
“Mechanicaldummy” meaning “brain washing”, like when we watch TV. The news will tell us we need everybody to move to this spot because of whatever and we all do it because the TV tells us to. So we are brainwashed, so to speak. The site is my way of brainwashing my viewers. You can see whatever you want, from fashion to art houses to lifestyle, culture and music, everything in my everyday life. And my clothing line, Black Pyramid. The brainwashing is my choice. But it’s brainwashing in a good way. Not to facilitate anything negative with hate or racism or anything. All fashion-forward lifestyle.
How much of small-town Virginia is left in you?
Ha! I’m still country. Sometimes when I talk the twang will come out. But I feel humbled by my upbringing. I still live in Virginia. I have a house there. I go back and forth. Most of my family is based out of there. And I always go back to get my aunt’s cooking. That’s a must.
But you like LA too?
I love LA. It’s more fast-paced and you can get a lot of work done. But when I want to relax, I get to go home [to Virginia].
How do you get around town? What do you drive?
I got a couple of cars. The nice one I love right now is the [Lamborghini] Aventador.
You’ve touched a little bit on this already, but who were your early showbiz influences?
The whole ’90s era shaped who I am, from MTV to Kris Kross to Vanilla Ice to MC Hammer to Hootie & The Blowfish and TLC. Also people like Michael Jackson – you can even say he’s the reason why there is a Chris Brown. A lot of different artists growing up shaped me because I don’t listen to one form of music.
Were you really discovered in a gas station?
The gas station thing [laughs]...It’s kind of like when you line everybody up and whisper something and by the time it gets to the end it’s a different story. A guy came to the gas station [in Virginia] where my father worked, who knew a guy who happened to know a guy who worked for the guy who knew a guy who knew a production team.
I have a picture in my mind of you bursting out in song in a gas station.
[Laughs] Oh, never, never, never. I used to do it at the malls, though. I definitely used to sing in the malls and walk up to a group of girls. And they’d say, “Hey! Who’s that boy?” And all my friends would talk to all the girls. It was a good chick magnet back in the day.
Is there something that fans would be surprised to learn about you?
Just how involved I am with everything. I think a lot of people, a lot of artists, they get the glamour and glitz and everything else is already set for them. You see it and you say, “Oh man, it’s perfect.” But everything is already written. For me, it’s all just straight from thin air. I hear a song [claps his hands] – that’s my concept. When you hear my records, it’s really me writing. It’s really my emotions. It’s really me behind the cameras, directing those videos. It’s me making the decision on what singles we put out. Being the CEO. A real businessman at 23. That’s what I want to show my audience. The generation that we’re in – we’re a lazy generation. The kids in my generation are not as hyper. The work ethic isn’t there. The attention span is short. But I think if they can see me do it at 23 and have all this stuff going on – and still have fun while I’m doing it – who’s to say they can’t?
PHOTOGRAPHY / GIULIANO BEKOR
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING / PARIS LIBBY
MAKE-UP / SARAH B HALL
BARBER / EDDIE INDA
SET DESIGN / SMOEK
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS/ ANTHONY ALTMORE AND KURT LINDER
STYLING ASSISTANTS / KATHY LAM AND MICHELLE WILLIAMSON