IN THE SUMMER OF 2006, MORE THAN 5,000 Househeads from around the world gathered behind the Museum of Science and Industry to hear five old friends and selected guests spin House Music all day and all night, until someone finally pulled the plug and signalled the start of the exodus to the afterparty. From early in the morning, they pitched tents, barbequed, taught their kids how to dance and caught up with acquaintances old and new. There were no gates, no charge to get in, and outside of a very small and generally ignored space roped off behind the stage, no VIP area to speak of. Corporate sponsorship and merchandising were nowhere to be seen. House Music industry legends rubbed shoulder-to-shoulder with those of us who were still nursing when House Music was born.
The vibe was, in a word, electrifying. People everywhere were filled with the unbridled joy of experiencing something wholly pure, unadulterated. And the Chosen Few Picnic and Old Skool Reunion – an event created on a shoestring budget but more love than any woman or man alone is capable of giving – had become, hands down, the House Music event for Chicago, the United States, and beyond.
The picnic, like the Chosen Few DJ Crew itself, was the brainchild of Wayne Williams: the man who brought House Music – or the embryo of what would become House Music – from the gay clubs to a straight audience in the mid- to late-1970s, and who continues to build on a legendary reputation. I could try to summarize the story he told me over a two-hour interview in a few words, but 33 years as a DJ, two decades in A&R, and a life dedicated to showing you your new favorite song isn’t something you can carry across so easily. Instead, I’ll let the foremost ambassador for House Music culture tell it to you in his own words.
This is our Old Skool Reunion issue, so first I wanted to talk a bit about the Chosen Few and this year’s Picnic. You recently added Terry Hunter to the original Chosen Few roster of yourself, Alan King, Jesse Saunders and Tony and Andre Hatchett. How did this come about?
You have to earn your stripes to be a Chosen Few member. Once a year we get together and talk about two or three people that we nominate to join the Chosen Few. Last year, Terry Hunter was selected as a proven and consistent DJ. To be a Chosen Few member, you have to consistently play good music.
This year you have Jamie 3:26, Brian Reaves, Greg Gray and Willie Wills as openers. Opening at the picnic is definitely one of the most sought after gigs in the city. How do you pick the guests?
It’s funny, but the reason we started including other DJs was because none of us wanted to play early! But since people always ask us to play, and no one would want to play at 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we’ll have guests. So we said we’d have some guests come in, some friends of ours, and have them play early. But honestly, the picnic really isn’t about hearing other DJs play. It’s about us playing for our people.
I’ll tell you, Terry, there are a lot of reasons why we decided to do the picnic. The first is that a lot of us had moved out of town. The second was that even those that still lived here – Alan and Andre – weren’t getting asked to DJ at other people’s clubs, and they weren’t DJing consistently. They were doing a party here and a party there but you can’t wait for people to ask you to DJ, you just have to do your own party.
So we’d all come here around the 4th of July and all of us would be in town and the first thing people would say is “Where y’all DJing?” Well, no one’s asked us to play anywhere! That’s when I said we should do a picnic, and me and Alan kind of put it together from that point.
The first time we had a picnic, I’d say maybe 75 to 150 people were out there and it kept growing and growing and growing. Seventeen years later, there’s over 5,000 people.
Alan told us in an interview a year ago that the thing he’s most proud of is that you’re all still friends, 25 years later. What keeps you guys together like that?
I started the Chosen Few, and the reason we existed at all is because we really did get along. Jesse, Alan King, Tony and I were great friends, and Andre Hatchett was easy to add to the mix since he was Tony’s brother. Don’t get me wrong – there were a lot of other people I could have chosen to play at that time, and a lot of DJs asked me to join the Chosen Few back then, too. But I picked the DJs not just on how good they were musically, but on their character too. I think that’s a big part of it. We don’t share all of the same characteristics but we do all still have one thing in common that unifies us, and that’s the love of music.
Selecting Terry to join us – that was a big part of it. He had to be someone that could fit in with all of us and be really close too. Terry was a really good pick up like that.
Just through word of mouth and passing the hat, you guys were probably able to draw more people than all of SummerDance and the other summer festivals last year. Why do you think that is?
We’re all pretty laid back. Even as DJs, we’re like DJs of the people. The Southside is really our home – we’re constantly DJing in clubs and lounges on the Southside, at house parties. People know we’re not like these untouchable characters – DJs that you can’t come up and say hi to. We’re all very friendly and interested in what people on our dancefloor are into and want to hear, but we also still have the ability to lead them somewhere and take them someplace with new music. We have a bond with our fans, a bond with the people we play for. That bond is something that isn’t taken for granted. When we come together, it becomes a big event, a big lovefest.
I’ve picked up the “Wayne Williams Story” in bits and pieces from people we’ve interviewed in the past year – Jesse, Alan, Jere McAllister and Chip E. – but never the whole thing. When did you start DJing?
I started playing House Music before anybody. What I mean by that is that I was the first straight DJ to play House Music and bring it back to the Southside. Of course, back then there was disco, but disco was only heard in gay clubs. I wasn’t homophobic – I would go to gay clubs, hear the music, find the music, and bring it back to the Southside by playing it.
Because I was the only one playing that music, I became popular. I was doing so many parties and, being greedy, I wanted to do more. So I said I’d teach Jesse how to DJ and he can help me do some of these parties. The problem was that Jesse back then was homophobic and would never go to these gay clubs with me, so he wound up playing out of my crate. It kind of defeated the purpose! But I got more parties and needed another DJ and Tony came on board. But it was the same thing – he was homophobic too, so now he was playing out of my crate too. I’d leave my crate over at his house so he could learn how to play, and Andre would put on the records and that’s how he learned.
That’s how it started – I was the first one to play this kind of music for straight people on the Southside of Chicago.
Don’t get me wrong – the first time I played it, people walked off the dancefloor. You better believe that! But I kept on because I loved that music and I knew they’d eventually get into it.
Before seeing The UnUsual Suspects, I had no idea how far back you went. You’re featured in almost the first segment in the movie – I think it’s called “Before the Warehouse.”
I started DJing in 1974. I was playing way before the Warehouse came about. The first time I went to the Warehouse, Robert Williams was DJing. Frankie [Knuckles] wasn’t even in Chicago yet. There weren’t a lot of people there, the music wasn’t that good and I wasn’t really impressed.
But prior to that, I went to this club called Den One. That’s the first time I experienced House Music. The DJ was Ron Hardy. That was the first time I was around people who were gay – I didn’t even know what it was all about. And I didn’t care either because when I heard that music I lost my mind! And to hear it mixed together… You see, back then, straight DJs were just spinning one record after another.
I lived on the South Shore at the time, and there was this place called the Jeffrey Pub. I asked the DJ if he could teach me how to DJ and play that way. His name was Michael Ezebukwu. It was Michael and Gene Wyatt. Michael was really cool, really laid back, and said sure. So I’d go up there when he was spinning. He’s the one who taught me how to DJ.
So I started throwing parties on the Southside – Tree of Life, the Loft, places like that. The Loft I think was really popular before the Warehouse even got started. The parties were unbelievable – crazy, amazing parties.
What was the high point of that “first wave” of House Music? the early ’80s?
I’d say it was more like 1979. The hottest thing was definitely the Loft years, although the Tree of Life was good too, and that was around 1976. We’d do the Loft, we’d do Sauer’s, we’d do the Penthouse, but the Loft… I’ve been to a lot of parties in my life, from the Warehouse on down, but the Loft at its peak? That was the best party I’ve ever been to. I would be so much into the music DJing that I’d actually leave the table and go dance and then come back and mix. That was how hot that party was. People were going crazy at that place. There’s no telling what would happen – people were getting high, having sex on the dancefloor… It was incredible. There was just a hot sexual dance spirit about that place. A lot of pretty girls, a lot of good looking guys, and it was so positive. Mind you, we played 90 to 95% vocals and the lyrics were always uplifting. People came there for one thing, and that was to dance. They didn’t come there to meet anybody. You wouldn’t see girls in high heels in there. Girls came to dance. It got to the point where it got so crowded that people couldn’t get in.
Weren’t you in high school when this was going on?
In 1974 I was a freshman in high school. At the Loft, we’d get there around midnight and play until ten, eleven, twelve o’clock the next day. I didn’t grow up rich or anything – far from it. So even though I was 14 or 15, DJing was bringing some extra money into the house. I think that’s how my mom looked at it. I’m sure she was thinking, “You’re so young, what are you doing staying out on the streets this late when you’re 15 years old?” But when she saw that money, she calmed down a little.
I’ve always been curious: did you realize at the time that you were creating a scene and a culture that would go on for not just years but decades?
Absolutely. Anytime you turn a whole new group of people on to a whole new kind of music, you know something is happening. They weren’t used to that kind of music. They were used to Parliament and Earth Wind and Fire. Like I said, at the time I was the only one with this music because I had the records. I knew it was something different and I knew it was something big.
The fact that people would one day make their own House Music records? Now that I didn’t see coming. I didn’t see that far into the future. But I did know that this was something that was going to be here from now on. I knew from the community and the way people reacted. It’s like the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight”. I said “Okay, hip-hop – this is going to be a mainstay.”
And House Music never goes away. People think “Oh, y’know, it died…” It never died – you just have to find it. I think that’s one of my greatest attributes: finding new music and playing it for my crowd. In House Music’s longest slumps, I’ve been able to find that hot record. When I found “Heartbeat,” and when I found “Quartz Beyond the Clouds,” and when I found “Haunted”… And when I say “found” – I’m sure someone was playing it before me, but I brought it back to the Southside playing it, and then got other people to play it. I’ve always been able to find those records and through our DJs bring it to the people.
From talking to people that were around then, it sounds like a new DJ wouldn’t spin publicly if he didn’t know what he was doing. You wouldn’t play out to get better. You’d master DJing at home, and then play out. Is it a change for the worse today?
It is. Andre for instance wanted to spin long before we let him. We had to feel he was ready, and then we gave him opening gigs to give him a shot. I don’t see that done anymore.
You’ve got to take this music seriously. We took this music seriously. The stuff we did to get that right record and play that right record and have it come out sounding right? We take it as seriously today as we did thirty years ago. I don’t think – well, I know the young DJs don’t do that, because how can you be so young and beat those old records? That’s a lost art. It’s a lost art. You’ve got to find that new music. It’s easier today because you have the internet, but it’s harder too because it’s so fragmented. But I still go to the record store. You know, some DJs tell me they don’t do that anymore. I’m always going to find that new hot record before they do because they’ve stopped looking!
Of all the DJs in the Chosen Few, I’m probably the best at that, and Alan would be next, but then we pass them on to the other people in our crew. The thing we can all do is hear the right record and the right mix to play. You’ve got to have a good ear to hear to do that, and all of the Chosen Few have a good ear. Terry’s good at finding new music too.
You mentioned earlier that you didn’t see people making House Music records. Is that why you never got involved in production?
I probably did the second House record produced, which was “Undercover”. Jesse obviously did the first one, and I did the second. I think the experience of doing that session knocked me out. Plus, I just went in a different direction with my life and my career. I knew that one of my greatest attributes was picking music rather than making it. I never really dove off into it like a lot of other DJs.
See, I’m a DJ first. It kills me sometimes when these musicians wind up becoming DJs. Obviously, they make good records, but that doesn’t mean they’re a good DJ. And when people go to see them at a party, they might walk away disappointed.
Any good DJ thinks he’s the best DJ in the world. I think I’m the best DJ in the world. I think any good DJ, when that’s his craft, is going to feel that way. You should be competitive, but not cocky. I don’t think I’m the best DJ in the world and no one else is at my level or anything. I love to hear other DJs play. I always go out to hear other DJs play.
Here’s an example of what I’m saying. Frankie Knuckles – he’s a good friend of mine, and he’s an excellent DJ. When he got to the Warehouse and started drawing the crowds, I’d go down there and listen to him play all the time. If he was playing something, I’d always ask him what record it was if I hadn’t heard it. He’d tell me, and also tell me where to get it.
Now when I first met Frankie, he had no idea I was even a DJ or knew the kind of crowds I was DJing for. As just an ordinary person to him, he treated me with respect, not even knowing who I was or what I did. That’s something that shows you his character and what kind of a person he is. He came from New York and spun at a lot of big clubs there before he came to Chicago. I imagine he could have come with an attitude. But he was very nice and was always very approachable, and to this day we’re good friends and I love him. When I find DJs who are cocky and don’t want to talk to people who might ask them about a record – well, to me they’re just losers.
I know I’m a legendary DJ from the length of time I’ve been around and what I’ve done throughout the years. But don’t treat me one way and someone that’s just trying to get into the game another way. You need to treat all people with respect. I treat every DJ, new or old, the same way. You never know who’s going to be that new hot kid. Right now for instance I have a great relationship with Quentin Harris. He came into my office and I had no idea who he was. He said he wanted to do some House Music. We have a great relationship. If I would have treated him like dirt, I wouldn’t have that relationship with him right now. You never know who that person might be.
So let’s talk about your second career and rising through the ranks of the music industry. I assume your first job in A&R wasn’t as Senior Vice President for A&R at Jive Records.
No, it was a long road. But House Music has gotten me into everything, and it got me into Jive Records. Before I was with Jive I was at Trax Records with Larry Sherman. I picked a lot of their classic songs like Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body,” Adonis’ “Too Far Gone” – stuff like that. At the time these were hot records over here but the were like pop records overseas. Jive wanted to find out who was picking all of these popular House records out of Chicago and came and met me. At the time I was managing Adonis and he had a hot record, and I knew Marshall and we had a hot record over there. They wanted me to come work over there. I brought Mr. Lee with me and did the Get Busy record.
Then they had this rapper named Will Smith, the Fresh Prince, who was coming off a record that bombed – I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson. They were doing a new record, so I said “Send him to Chicago, I’ll see if I can get some of my guys, some House Music producers, to work with him.” He came here and did the Summertime record, which wound up being a huge record for Will Smith – I think he was the first rapper to win a Grammy. Then we did Boom Shake the Room and Ring My Bell, which were both huge records, especially overseas, for Will Smith. So we kind of brought him back from the dead.
Then Jive told me they wanted to get into R&B. I said all right, there’s someone in Chicago who might be a good R&B person for you guys. So I turned them on to R. Kelly, and the rest is history.
What’s your official role right now?
I’ve been with Jive for eighteen years. I’ve proven myself throughout the years, because as an A&R person, you’re only as good as your last record. I’ve had a lot of success with a lot of projects with the label.
I deal with all of the acts to some degree, picking what songs should go, what songs shouldn’t go, give them advice on what deals we should do, if we should do videos, what singles we should do – things like that. So I’ve worked… from Britney Spears to Justin Timberlake to whatever. Our label’s very big and very popular so we have to make major decisions every day with some of the major stars we have. You have to be on top of your game.
And R. Kelly – he hasn’t stopped yet. I talk to him every day and we’re very close. R. Kelly is someone I love very much and probably one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met.
The other day when we were setting up the interview, you mentioned that he’s a househead.
Oh yeah, Robert’s a big househead. He used to go to the Playground, take his shirt off, be up on top of the speakers…
I saw a picture of him at the picnic a few years back with his entourage.
Yeah, it’s unfortunate because he’s so big now that when he goes out in public people want autographs and pictures and he can’t enjoy himself the way normal people do. If he could, believe me, he’d be walking around there just listening to the music too.
When I work with Robert, we’re like peas in a pod. That’s why people are like, “You sure you don’t live in Chicago?” because I’m constantly coming to Chicago to work with Robert. We’re very close and we’re working on stuff all the time together. I’m really excited about the new record called Double Up which is coming out on May 29.
I’m also doing a House Music project. R. Kelly has a beautiful song called “Africa” and I thought it’d work good in House Music. He said sure and gave me the record. So I got Terry Hunter, Maurice Joshua, Emanuel – we’re all doing House mixes with it.
I also do House mixes on some of our records, like Terry Hunter’s doing House mixes of a Justin Timberlake song. Any artist on our label that needs dance mixes, I always take it to my guys in Chicago – Maurice, Craig Loftis, Terry. That helps keep dance music alive too. A lot of people hear R&B records and might not really be into House Music, but then they hear the dance mix of it and they get into it.
Who among the younger DJs do you like?
I love Chicago DJs. I even love the DJs I don’t like! I know it sounds kind of crazy but there’s a reason for it. Some DJs play b-side records and I don’t get it – but, in doing that, they’ve created their own audience, and I love the courage when they tried and gave it a shot.
As far as Chicago DJs, I think they’re the best DJs in the world because of the energy and the soulfulness. Most Chicago DJs are going to have both elements – they’re going to have energy but they’re also going to have soul. Especially Southside DJs – I’m not saying Northside DJs don’t, but Southside DJs are the ones I hear the most. I love to go out and hear Chicago DJs play, and I can’t say that in other cities that I’ve been do. I get disappointed a lot. But in Chicago, at a lot of spots I go to, I can have a drink and just listen to the damn music.
Sometimes Chicago DJs play a little too much old school and get too caught up in that. You might as well just play a ’70s night if you’re just going to play old school. The ones who play both, I can definitely appreciate and get with. There are a lot of talented young DJs in Chicago. A lot. I can give you names, but I know I’d be missing somebody, because there are a lot of talented Chicago DJs.
I want to ask a cliché question but I think you’re better qualified to answer it than most. You not only have that underground credibility, but you’re also making decisions at a multimillion dollar record company. Say a young kid is just starting out: what advice would you give him?
Work hard. You can’t work hard enough. Work your ass off. Hard work is going to pay off, I guarantee it. It sounds like a cliché but it’s the truth. And be around your craft. Just being around places, I’ve gotten gigs. I love the music. I’ll go out to hear Frankie play, hear Emanuel play, and I’ll get invited to spin just by being around. You want to be around your craft. Go out a lot, be around your craft and work hard.
What would you say to the heads?
to think positive and talk positively. it’s easy to dis people and talk negative about them. it’s hard to talk positively about people. it should be the opposite, but unfortunately it’s not. i’d say that to my house people and my djs that i have nothing but love for – it’s something we should all try to do.