ELL meets east London boy and founder of Shoreditch-based Run Dem Crew, Charlie Dark, to talk about life, depression and what got him running. Marking three days till runners fill the streets for the London Marathon.
He’s one of those people that know how to work a crowd. Applying apparently spontaneous jokes to break up his speech, waiting to see if the roar of laughter exceeds the last time he aired them.
Because hey! That’s just Charlie. Charlie Dark. Teacher by day, and Run Dem Crew founder by night.
Tuesday night, that is.
Standing on top of a plastic box, 5’7”, slim-figure, dark-skin, a short – almost shaved head, in his black Nike tights, Belgian style cycling cap, and running vest – all the latest collection. He doesn’t appear a day over 30, though he is in fact 43.
I am sitting among the crowd at 1948, the Nike-themed hipster-store, tucked away in a dark, almost alley-like, side street to Shoreditch High Street, in my running shoes and lycra, watching this alluring man, as he tells tales of exotic marathon destinations, people who have turned their lives around, defied the don’ts, and run, like only Forest (Gump) before them.
It is proper rags to riches, told through his story, and the story of his fellow runners. His hands vividly moving through the air, as he mesmerises his audience: “You go hard. Or you go home. Don’t come through my door with an ego, come here with an open mind. This is not a running club – it’s a family. Show respect, support each other – and be on time. Don’t come slobbing in thirty minutes late. It is disrespecting my time and the time of your crew members.”
He did in fact arrive late for our interview – or that is, he never actually turned up. After he is done with his speech, a weekly ritual known as housekeeping performed before his runners hit the streets of east London, I sneak up on him at 1948 to re-schedule for the day after.
“Shit. I’m sorry. Just so much going on. Come here tomorrow morning 10.30 – and we’ll sit down and talk.”
The following day I return to 1948. Now I am the one who’s late. Dark is waiting inside, on time, in his civilian non-running gear. I persuade him to have a cinnamon bun with me, freshly baked that morning, even though he is in fact on diet training for his next big run. He is calm, leaned back casually, his elbow resting on the next level of the elevated wooden boxes that we are sitting on.
But there is more depth to Dark than the timed jokes.
“I suffered from severe depression in the time when things went sour in my music career. Like most people I beat myself up. Blamed myself for suffering from this mental illness. I was Charlie Dark – super DJ. People didn’t want to hear me talk about mental health. So I didn’t tell anyone.”
Signed by Sony Records, after short love-affairs with London label Mo Wax and American A&M in the mid 90’s, Dark and his two fellow band-members of London hip-hop band, Attica Blues, were dropped by the global label in 2000. A ten-year routine of late nights and constant high-flying came to an end.
“I remember from the age of 16, all I wanted to do was play music, make big records, travel the world and perform massive concerts. And for years that was what I did. I was living the dream life, had three cars, burned money like it was nothing, and then one day it all stopped.”
He pauses, sits up straight and then – extends those vivid hands once again, palms open, towards me. “Basically. I took anti-depressants for a year, not telling anyone, yeah. Because who really wants to be associated with ‘the depressed guy’?”
By 2001 Dark began picking himself up. As he explains, it was – and still is – deeply embedded in his nature to keep on fighting. A skill, that a childhood of constantly having “all odds staked against him” taught him – the only black kid in the west London private school, he attended. He founded Blacktronica in 2001, a global series of events dedicated to push the black UK electronic scene, and started teaching poetry and creative writing.
Attempting to process the downfall of his musical career, Dark wrote an autobiographical one-man show, Have Box Will Travel, that received reasonable reviews in the Nationals, when put on at Lyric Studio in 2008.
It also broke the news of his depression to his Ghanaian mother, who raised Dark alone in south London. Dark’s father, to put it in his own words, “he didn’t have a relationship with” except for the occasional call and a letter or two.
Though Dark, his real surname Williams, “never held a gun in his life or wore a gold chain” as he puts it, growing up in East Dulwich in the 70’s and 80’s, he was no easy child.
“There was a time in my life when I was definitely on the verge. I was lucky to have people in my life that intervened.”
“It was always expected of me, as the only child, to pursue a respectable profession, like lawyer or doctor. And when all you want to do is play music, then there is bound to be a clash.”
The relationship with his mother seems to calm Dark, though you instantly sense that the relationship with the father, is an avenue he is not prune to venture down. So we change the subject to talk about what he believes really helped him move on from depression. Running.
A life after anti-depressants
“By the time of my show, I had quit the prescription drugs, which, I before, relied on to lift my moods, and started running. It changed my life.”
Dark founded Run Dem Crew with seven friends in a kitchen in 2007, which the Run Dems today refer to as “The Kitchen Crew”.
“At first it was instant highs of ‘hey, I ran 10K!’ but then it became something more. Other people started to come and run with us. And here we are – seven years later – with this family of runners that meet every week.”
Today around a hundred people congregate every Tuesday to run six miles, their voices resounding through the east London streets as they call out the obstacles to warn the crew-members in their trail: “Bollards!”. “Sign!”. “Rubbish!”.
“It’ magic”, beams Dark. “Run Dem changed my life. It has given me structure and purpose – a sense of control over my life. It also allowed me to build a new network in London that wasn’t just musicians, but people that actually go out in broad daylight. People that are passionate about running, but that come to Run Dem because it is something more than miles – it’s a community.”
This praise I have read before in other interviews, but looking at Dark as he moves those hands around in the air, I believe him “We support each other. Run Dem allows people to be people. You can come into this space and cry if you need to. It’s a free space.”
Accepting your role in life
Today Dark works as a teacher specialized in creative writing, tutoring kids around the UK – and even the world – about the power of words.
“I am an eccentric teacher, in a system where that is not really allowed. I have run lessons standing on a desk. Because kids will essentially be sitting there thinking, ‘I am gonna remember what he said because he spent the whole lesson standing on a desk.’”
He has put his depression behind him, and believes this past year has been a turning point in his life – finally accepting his role in life: “People find me an inspirational person and for many years I found that hard to deal with. But today instead of fighting against it, I am actually trying to embrace that role and see how I can inspire people more. Through running and writing. I guess on my card it should read ‘relations man’.”
The relations dominant in Dark’s private life are his girlfriend, London blogger Bangs, and his two children, a girl and a boy, aged nine and six, from a previous relationship. As Dark puts it, he has tried being the best father possible to compensate for not staying together with the mother of his children.
“In life when things don’t work out exactly as you want them, you just got to pick yourself up and keep going – leaning on the people around you to help you do that. Sometimes those people, are the people you run with.”
By now Dark has sat up straight, hands painting illuminations, for almost forty minutes. I ask him about weakness. About how letting someone in, to see the true you, is in fact the hardest thing in the world. I want to know if this man, so controlled, ever really shows weakness: “At Run Dem I am one-hundred per cent the person that I am. I embrace myself in it fully. I don’t get up in the morning and think ‘who am I going to be today?’ Running helps you learn how to show your weaknesses. It also made me fall in love with London again – a city that for a long time disillusioned me.”
Another straight A answer for Mr Dark.
So will he in fact share his best-kept secret?
“I talk to myself a large amount. Like have full-blown conversations. I am pretty smart. The person I talk to is Charles. Charlie Dark talks to Charles. Charles is this kind of more introverted, mindful person. A very nice guy – he gives me advice.”
Whether Charles or Charlie, one thing is certain. After one and a half hour, I remain enchanted, ready to put on my running shoes, but still somewhat left in the dark of who this truly inspirational man really is.
Since founding Run Dem Crew in 2007, Charlie Williams (stagename: Dark) has gone on to run numerous marathons around the world. He is currently working on a new charity project, hoping to run across Nigeria. Follow him and his crew on @rundemcrew