Scene: the Vic theater, early last Friday evening. A video crew fiddles with its camera crane, a crowd of excited teens teems in front of the stage, and a platinum pop star from Chicago prepares to launch into his latest single. Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins shooting a new clip for Siamese Dream? No, it’s R & B star R. (for Robert) Kelly, and the song is “Bump n’ Grind,” from his new album, 12 Play. The song blasts out of a speaker system, the director yells action, and Kelly and a cohort of leather-clad female dancers put action to lip-synched words.
Kelly’s merely the most prominent figure in the black pop renaissance that’s emanating from the south side. Off to one side of the theater sits the man as responsible as anyone besides the artists themselves for that movement, 33-year-old Wayne Williams, A and R man for Jive records and chief of the label’s Chicago office and studio. Courtly and reserved but with a manic streak just below the surface, Williams has kept his profile low and concentrated on the business. As one of the original creators of house music, he’s been at least partly responsible for a couple of hundred thousand record sales. He’s worked for Trax Records, for a time a key international dance label, where he signed acts that sold at least a million records, perhaps two. And then there are his Jive signings: Mr. Lee, who’s had regular R&B hit singles, and Kelly, who’s in the process of scoring his second platinum album and just went gold with “Sex Me (Part 1).” Finally, there’s the work done by Jive’s staff producers: Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime,” recorded by Jive production team Hula and Fingers, was a worldwide smash and a rare platinum single. “Boom! Shake the Room,” another recent hit, was produced by Mr. Lee and cowritten by Williams. All told Williams has had his hands in the selling of somewhere between five and six million records, with more to come. If you’re looking for a Chicago king of pop, you’ve found him.
Not bad for a guy who was in the process of becoming a cop when Jive, the UK-based rap and R & B label, called to ask him to helm a new Chicago office. They knew about him because of his involvement in the house-music scene in the early 1980s; the music was a sensation in London, where Jive had its offices, even if it never really caught on in America. Williams grew up on the south side and got into the business DJ-ing and putting on underground dance parties. His stepbrother, Jesse Saunders, and a young producer named Vince Lawrence put out a single that Williams recalls only as “117” (for the beats per minute) but was actually called “On and On.” Williams says flatly that it was the first house record, though he notes cheerfully that they “damn near exactly copied” the beat from another track. Certainly the song was a key progenitor. Saunders also put out Williams’s debut single, “Undercover,” under the name Dr. Derelict. It sold a quick 10,000 singles.
The early years of house were fluid and lucrative: you could record, manufacture, and sell 10,000 or 20,000 records–at two bucks wholesale–in a matter of weeks. Williams eventually turned to the relatively established Trax Records “to learn about the business.” The owner of Trax, Williams recalls, kept asking him which records were good. “I started noticing that the ones he would press were the ones I liked. I didn’t know then that what I was doing was A and R. Finally I got wise. ‘Oh no, you have to pay me.'”
Wearying of the music business, Williams quit Trax and enrolled in the police academy. “When we were young, my mother, my sister, and I,” he recalls, “there was a guy in the house, in the basement, banging on the door to get to us. The police came and saved our lives, basically. I’ve always had a great deal of admiration for police, though my feelings have changed with time. I think I was very naive at that point.”
But even in police school Williams still did some business now and then, and it was in the process of getting an artist named Adonis signed to Jive that he hooked up with the respected label. “I didn’t know at the time they were feeling me out,” he says. He impressed them enough to score the Chicago gig and started keeping his ears peeled. He first saw R. Kelly at a barbecue; Williams was inside eating while a singer jammed outside. “At these parties, the guy singing is generally just doing the recent hits. I heard a song, I didn’t know it, but it sounded good. Then I heard another and that sounded really good, too. I went outside, and I see this guy has it all–choreography, the voice, everything. I asked him if he had any more songs. He said, ‘I got millions of songs, are you kidding?'” Singer-producer-arranger-multiinstrumentalist Kelly is indeed proven to be something of a sensation: 12 Play is at 600,000 units and selling fast. His not being known on the north side is mostly due to his unapologetically R & B sound: smooth and groovy bedroom pleas, lushly arranged and performed. “We don’t worry about crossing over,” Williams shrugs. “My thing is, they’ll accept you [eventually].” MTV dug the first-album single “Dedicated” but passed on the sultry “Sex Me.”
Williams’s key to success? He points to Kelly, bumping and grinding to the screams of the audience. “I always say, you have to perform excellently.” His acts have to deliver in the studio and onstage. “My thing is, you go up onstage, I’m not going to be embarrassed.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.