When coping with the chaos of modern life, some people take weekly yoga classes or unwind with an hour of "American Idol." Others, like Charlie Custer '08, spin their frustration into original rap music.
Custer, known as "Sun Zoo" to his fans, said he has been writing and recording rap songs for nearly a decade. His latest album, "Can't See the Forest," will be released today on Sun-Zoo.com, where listeners can sample his fresh beats and lyrical dexterity free of charge.
"Basically, the idea is to get it out as far as it can go," Custer said of his decision to post his music online.
It's a method that has worked for him in the past. Despite limited publicity, Custer's web release of his 2006 album "Hope Flies" earned him a small following of fans and several positive reviews on various music blogs. Using non-traditional instruments such as cellos and Japanese flutes, Custer has crafted a distinctive sound that has elicited praise from underground rap enthusiasts.
Deriving his alias from the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, Custer strikes a combative tone on his most political album so far. In "Forest's" 14 tracks, he addresses issues such as government surveillance, political corruption and music piracy.
In the song "Aldous Huxley," Custer urges a nation "high off Prozac and PlayStation" to question the Bush administration's use of illegal wiretapping. "Huxley's" chorus asks listeners if they can hear "that FBI truck in the back?/ 'Cause we all know you're there/ Yo, it's nothing but fact."
In "Not for Sale," Custer shifts his focus to the war in Iraq and its impact on domestic programs like health care and poverty relief.
"It's old people dying 'cause they can't afford their medicine/ Paying for the war by taking benefits from veterans," he sings, charging that those in power "try to make us scared of homosexuals and Mexicans."
"For every minute that we fighting our brothers/ Another Halliburton bill goes to the Right undercover," he says of the greed he feels prompts decisions made by current government officials.
A few of the songs on "Forest" were reserved for more personal issues. The album's title track deals with his younger brother's chronic marijuana abuse, while "Leave the Rest Behind," written by Sarah Clark '09, meditates on the complexities of romantic relationships.
Custer said he made the album over January break using equipment hooked up to his personal computer. He recorded most of the songs at his home in Avon, Conn. and the private school where his parents teach.
Upon returning to Brown, Custer spent most of his free time mixing and perfecting "Forest's" tracks.
"I haven't done any reading in the last few weeks," he admitted. A few marathon editing sessions had him working until 5 or 6 a.m.
"Once the album's out, I'm going to pick my head up," he said.
Custer has also attracted some industry attention. A few record companies have approached him with development deals, he said. But the labels wanted more creative control than he was willing to relinquish, which means "Sun Zoo" remains an unsigned artist.
While he plans to continue creating music after graduation, Custer doesn't harbor dreams of rapping professionally.
"The industry's kind of in shambles now," he said. "I would love to make a career out of this, but there are already a ton of rappers out there."
In the meantime, he's content to perform live and put out the occasional album. He and Clark opened for singer Vienna Teng in Sayles Hall last November, and the duo has also performed for an on-campus Amnesty International benefit. Custer is considering performing songs from his new album at Faunce House's Underground in the coming months.
Custer, an East Asian Studies concentrator, will be abroad in China this summer, leaving him little time to work on his next album. However, he has "already started thinking of new things" and may release four or five additional songs by the semester's end.
Local producers have also approached Custer about the possibility of doing a "Can't See the Forest" music video.