It's 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday and I'm sitting in hip-hop artist Walter Brown's studio, listening to tracks off of his new EP. His producer, Matt Tuton, is with us too, pausing the music occasionally to discuss the tracks. "People I thought were cool, were actually wicked," says Brown, explaining track three, "Wicked." "Now I'm staying in my own lane."
We listen for a few more minutes before he plays "Concrete Rose." The titular track off of Brown's EP, it's more melodic than "Wicked," if only for its nostalgia. Brown raps, "All my friends are drowning in the same way. This is how we grow where I'm from."
It's heavy stuff from a guy who grew up in Mt. Pleasant's Old Village, but as I discover there are two worlds within that neighborhood — the privileged and the impoverished — and Brown's navigated both.
At 25-years-old, Brown has enough material to create an album inspired by his life, one that's seen its fair share of ups and downs. Just five years ago he was sentenced to four years and three months in prison for an armed robbery he committed at age 17.
Now, he's out, and preparing to share how he got here and where he hopes to take his art in the future with a debut EP release this weekend at PURE Theater.
Track 1. Ambition
Born on January 16, 1991, Walter Brown grew up in Mt. Pleasant's Old Village, but not the one of million dollar waterfront homes and oak-lined streets. On the other side of Royall Avenue, near H&R Sweet Shop, is an area of lower-income housing.
Brown didn't go to school in the neighborhood, though. His parents wanted to challenge their children both academically and creatively, so they sent Brown and his sister to Buist Academy in downtown Charleston, a school for advanced studies. But for all the benefits the school offered, attending Buist had its drawbacks.
"I was made fun of a lot," Brown says of the kids in his neighborhood who didn't attend Buist. "I had opportunities they didn't have."
The pressure to be two people in two places weighed on Brown, but music offered an outlet. By 2004, when Kanye West released The College Dropout Brown knew, at the ripe age of 13, that he wanted to be a musician. He started writing, penning poems on his bedroom wall, trying to figure his way around the problems of both adolescence, and of his neighborhood. "I was tired of not fitting in," he says.
By high school, he'd drifted. "I lost touch with people from childhood," he says. These people included Tripp Hamilton, a friend from Buist and the son of Sharon Graci, founder of PURE Theater.
"They were a product of a natural friendship and affinity," says Graci of her son's connection with Brown. Even as they grew up and out of Buist, Brown and Hamilton kept in touch in the beginning of high school, when their schools' basketball teams played against one another.
That all started to change in 2007, when Brown dropped out of First Baptist School, where he was on a basketball scholarship. "I didn't want to be associated with a good school like FB. It wasn't a 'gangsta thing' to do," says Brown. So Brown did what he considered gangsta — committing crimes, getting in fights, what he calls, "making a name for myself."
"When I started to commit crimes I was committing them with kids from the neighborhood, but not the ones who were picking on me — more like the other kids who didn't fit in either," says Brown. He pushed his luck everyday, living as if he were, as he says, "engulfed in the dark side of life."
Track 2. Concrete Rose
How do you go from attending prestigious schools, writing poetry, and planning for your future, to committing crimes? Brown's trajectory — from neighborhood misfit to armed robber — is the product of his own choices, of his surrounding influences — and a mindset he couldn't escape.
"Robbery, in a sense, was the easiest way to get money. When you're in a low income neighborhood selling drugs isn't always the easiest because you have to compete with others for clientele, so we decided to rob the people selling drugs or people or businesses with money. We figured robbing was a lot easier because all you needed was a gun. Selling drugs is much more complicated," says Brown.
His knack for crime allowed him to make a name for himself. Brown became know as the guy who always had a gun and who robbed. "I mean you can go from being broke to having $500 to $1,000 in a couple minutes. That's how I looked at it," he says.
And so it was with this mindset that Brown robbed Mt. Pleasant's Kangaroo convenience store on Ben Sawyer Boulevard in 2008. At the age of 17, Brown was arrested for attempted armed robbery and weapons violations. He posted bond and waited for sentencing. But that waiting lasted longer than anyone could have imagined — three years.
For three years, Brown continued to live his life, not knowing when or how he would be sentenced. "It was like walking around with a very gray cloud over your head, knowing that it would rain, but not knowing when or for how long," says Brown.
Brown lived an in-between kind of existence, trying to forge ahead. He got his GED in 2009 and enrolled in the Art Institute for culinary arts in 2011. He started to record music, too.
And then, on Oct. 3, 2011, Brown was sentenced to five years in prison.
Sharon Graci remembers that day. "Tripp biked by and I said, 'Where are you going?'" she says. "He said, 'I'm going to court. Walter's sentencing is today.'" When Tripp returned, he was sobbing.
Brown's five year sentence was doled out at 85 percent, which translated to Brown serving four years and three months in several state prisons, starting with Tyger River in Enoree, S.C., with his last nine months on community supervision. That supervision ended last month, on Sept. 16.
Track 3. Wicked
"I realized I could change, or I could learn how to be a better criminal," says Brown of his first year in prison. Straddling both worlds, Brown questioned his life and his purpose. "I thought to myself, 'Why are you here? What am I here to do?'" he says.
The answer, Brown realized, was that he was an artist who wanted to share his story.
He began preparing himself for his future, finding a mentor and supportive friends. He credits his Christian faith with helping him get through those four years and three months. "I got to sit still," says Brown. "I think of that Bible quote, 'Be still and know that I am God.'"
Brown picked up where he left off so many years before, writing while biding his time in prison. "I wrote a plan for how to express myself," he says. It was during these writing sessions that Brown started to focus on the idea of a concrete rose, something that represents both growth and stagnation. "It represents my story and being in trouble," he says. "A lot of people would consider it negative, but it made me into a person that a lot of people love."
Those people who loved Brown never strayed from his side, even when there were walls between them. Graci and Hamilton corresponded with Brown while he was in jail, sending him books and encouragement. "Sharon told me, 'Don't be ashamed of your story,'" says Brown.
Track 4. King's Road
"My story isn't necessarily special," says Brown. "I took a step in seeking help and finding ways to express myself artistically." When Brown was released from prison last December he started to think about those artistic expressions, making good on the plans he'd outlined for the past four years.
First, though, he reconnected with his family. He says he was surprised by the size of his younger cousins; they'd grown almost as tall as him in the past four years. He noticed changes in his grandmother, too. "I'll never get those years back. I cherish it," he says of time with his family.
Brown doesn't have it all figured out, though. Most 25-year-olds don't. "Nowadays it's hard to be still and spend time," he says. He's constantly trying to balance his time, spent both with himself, and with his family and friends. "Time is something you can't control."
Post-prison choices are seemingly endless, starting with, "Where do I go from here?" and moving along to specifics like, "Do I get a job or do I go to school?" Brown decided that he wasn't as passionate about the culinary arts as he may have previously assumed. Instead of returning to college he has been working as a foreman at North Charleston's Nocs Group, and spending time on his artistic projects.
Concrete Rose, Brown's first record, is his story, sung out loud. His hope is for someone to hear his music and be inspired. The EP, though, is just the beginning. Brown is also starting to work on a one-man play with Rodney Lee Rogers. "It's still very much in the exploration stage," says Rogers, who will be writing the play based on Brown's songs and the journals he kept while in prison, and performed by Brown.
"The rhythm of poetry and verse is like hip-hop," says Rogers. He compares the lyrical movement to Shakespeare. "If you look at Hamilton, we're getting back to purist theater," he says.
Track 5. Toast to Us
While Rogers sees the artistic side of Brown's projects, Brown is more concerned with their real life application. He talks about the music scene in Charleston today, and how he sees a divide between people who go to shows downtown, and those who go to shows in North Charleston or Moncks Corner. "Not many people get to see both sides," says Brown, referencing audiences that are either primarily white or primarily black, but rarely equally representative of the city's diversity.
Brown realizes that he is one of many musicians trying to tell his story in Charleston. "There are like thousands of rappers," he laughs. But that doesn't dissuade him from making music. He thinks progress for one person is progress for the whole city. "A lot of kids just don't know how to navigate and make it happen," he says. "So when they see it happen in their city, it's good for everybody."
And now it's happening for Brown, well at least the first part: the show. Brown and his audience can decide its impact for themselves; they're writing the next chapter together. Rogers says, "He's remarkably ready to tell his story. And that's important."
Brown will have some friends on stage with him at PURE this weekend, along with a special guest, who sings with him on the track, "Toast to Us," — his mom. "She's actually going to be a part of it," says Brown. "She can say she's proud of me."
Tickets to the EP release of Concrete Rose are $10. Doors will open at 7:15 p.m. and the show will begin at 8:00 p.m. Josh Illmortal will begin the show, followed by Melodik Tonez, and headlined by Walter Brown.