Wayne Williams on Signing R. Kelly and Why He's Playing 'Wait and See' on Latest Charges: Exclusive Q&A

Wayne Williams
Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

Records SVP Wayne Williams attends the 'CHI-RAQ' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on Dec. 1, 2015 in New York City. 

"I'm not the reason why he exists," says Williams in a rare interview about Kelly, whom he signed to Jive. "God's the reason why he exists."

Almost 30 years ago, a Chicago house music DJ from the Ida B. Wells projects went to a barbecue on the south side. While he fixed a plate, his ears picked up music in the backyard. A longtime musician, his ears were always open. But this was different. Normally, at an informal party, a musician would sing well-known songs to keep the audience engaged. But he could hear someone performing what sounded like original music—and the audience was all in. 

Wayne Williams stepped outside and watched a slim, brown-skinned singer with an electric energy performing on a makeshift stage. 

There was no doubt that the young man, though unpolished, was promising. As an A&R for Jive Records, Williams was ready to sign him before he even finished his show. After his performance, Williams asked him where he got the music. 

Robert Kelly, 22, looked Williams in the eye.

“Those are all my songs.”

Williams nodded.

“Do you have any more,” he asked.

Kelly laughed.

“I got nothing but songs.”

Like Brian Epstein and The Beatles, Maurice Starr and New Edition, Wayne Williams became the legendary launching pad for one of the music industry’s most celebrated acts. It took Williams over a year to get the check writers at Jive to see his vision. (At first, his bosses passed, saying that Kelly looked and sounded too much like Aaron Hall, lead singer of music group Guy.) 

It would be Neil Portnow, vp of Jive’s LA office, (and now outgoing president of the Recording Academy), to get the ball rolling. He told Wayne to arrange a showcase at Chicago’s Regal Theater after hearing the singer’s demo. Barry Weiss, then head of Jive’s New York office, went to Chicago to see this young man perform. Within a year, his first album would be released.

Over the next two decades, after that showcase, the singer known as R. Kelly, released ten consecutive platinum-certified albums.

And in those same two decades he accumulated dozens of criminal charges ranging from child pornography to aggravated criminal sexual assault. 

The dichotomy, a confirmed genius with an alleged criminal streak, will co-exist for decades, unless an overflow of new charges, the pull of social media and the confidence of women supported by the #metoo movement, collapses the house of R. Kelly.

But the man who discovered him is not ready to disavow him. The house of R. Kelly may barely stand but Williams will only acknowledge the facts and urges others to do the same.

In over 30 years, Wayne Williams has granted a scant handful of interviews, most centering on his own legendary career in house music. (Williams is largely credited for bringing house music from downtown bars to the Southside of Chicago in the seventies and early 80s as a young DJ.) 

Over a two hour interview that tracks his life with R. Kelly from the early days of his career, Williams speaks exclusively to Billboard about Kelly’s world. From the past acquittals and the latest federal charges.

Many creatives are now second-guessing their work with R. Kelly. Even projects they once valued as part of their career. What is the musical or creative moment you’re most proud of in terms of your work with R. Kelly?

In 1994, Robert played “You Are Not Alone” for me. He was thinking of sending it to Michael Jackson. The first time I heard it, I was in the studio with my cousin. My cousin didn’t like the song. He trashed it right in front of Robert. I said he was crazy. It was a smash. From that moment, Robert knew nothing would change my opinion if I knew I was right. I didn’t say, well maybe it’s just okay. Just because my cousin was sitting there saying it wasn't good didn’t change my opinion. It was a good song and I knew it. Robert knew I would be honest about music. And if I didn't like a song, I’d be honest about that too.

You were in the studio when Michael and Robert recorded “You Are Not Alone.” 

 I’ll never forget it. Robert wanted Michael to come to Chicago. Michael wanted Robert to come to LA. Robert said, if you want this song, you’re coming to Chicago. And sure enough, Michael came. When he came, he said I love this song. I’m ready to record this. They talk a bit more. And then Robert says, make yourself comfortable, I’ll be right back. I need to go to the restroom.  He walks out and then he motions for me to follow him out. In the studio, he’s ultra professional. But we meet in the bathroom and he starts screaming: Wayne, we working with Michael fucking Jackson! Can you believe this shit? This is crazy! We just some kids from Chicago! We jumping up and down. [laughs] And then we go back into the studio and went back to being super professional. It was Michael Jackson. So crazy.

Robert has always trusted your ear from day one. Does he trust your instincts personally as well? Do you keep it real even if he has yes-men in his inner circle?

Yes. I’ve always been my own man. I’m a Christian. I fear God. I don’t fear man. I’m known for being painfully honest. People know Wayne is going to saying exactly what he’s thinking.

You’re still heavily involved in the business, producing, managing and scouting talent. How does that process look different in 2019 than it did when you discovered Kelly?

Labels look for artists with numbers—often to their detriment. That leads to one-hit-wonders who don’t last. I look for self-contained artists that also write and produce. I don’t want one-trick ponies.

And you’re also interested in non-profit work in your hometown of Chicago. 

Absolutely, I’m working with non-profits to help the young people. Chicago is where I was born and raised. I lived there for 40 years. And God gave me another life through music. It can do that for young people. 

So you’re not worried about signing artists who already have numbers?

R. Kelly didn’t have numbers when I signed him. He turned out pretty okay. 

So let’s talk about the obvious when it comes to R. Kelly. You are connected to a man who is innocent until proven guilty but the potential evidence and charges are staggering in sheer volume. He seems to be guilty in the court of public opinion. Where do you stand?

I believe in law enforcement. I believe in the judicial process. I believe in the whole entire process. And so, I believe everyone deserves their day in court. Everyone deserves their day. The fact that a whole bunch of people may want him to be guilty or whatever—a whole bunch of people wanted the Central Park 5 to get the death penalty. And they were not guilty.

So, you think these cases against him could be false allegations?

In the 1980s in Chicago, they were torturing guys all the time trying to get confessions out of them. People didn't believe that the police were targeting black people till they started putting video cameras up and finally seeing it for themselves.

This latest indictment is about one woman from May 2017, which is later than any of the previous charges.

Yeah. Now, that I can't speak on, because unlike the other stuff where I've done research and homework on, I don't know anything about this, so I really can't speak on that, because I'm not going to be the person who says stuff that I don't know about. Because I'm not that dude, so I'll have to do homework on that and research and that sort of stuff. I know nothing about that.

How do you feel about those who might judge you because you’re pretty much the one responsible for his existence.

No, I'm not the reason why he exists. God's the reason why he exists.

You introduced him to the world.

Listen. A lot of people helped R. Kelly. Now, sure, I signed him. But a lot of people worked with R. Kelly. He's had mentors. People have come up to me and said, "Well, without you he never would have been who he's become," and I can't agree with that, because someone else would have signed him. Someone was trying to sign him when I signed him. I think that R. Kelly, because of his talent, would have been R. Kelly regardless of me. Now, sure, I helped in the process, and I worked with him. I also know what I can do because I've done this for other artists as well. But make no mistake. R. Kelly would have been R. Kelly.

Your name is still synonymous with his in the music business world.

So who is Chris Brown synonymous with?

I think of Tina Davis.

Right. So, do you think Tina approved of him assaulting Rihanna?

Of course not.

We're dealing with human beings. How they do in their personal life, that's on them. That's who they are. I'm not responsible for that. I'm not responsible for any of the artists I work with. I'm responsible for my kids. That's who I'm responsible for: my children.

People will say you’re really defending R. Kelly. He’s not getting much support right now. 

I just want to be clear, though, I'm not saying ... I'm just saying that there's a process and we'll see what happens with the outcome of the process, and see what happens. Maybe there's new evidence. Maybe there's new things that could change a lot of people's minds. But I do believe in the process, as long as it's done correctly, without prejudice. We just have to wait and see. I pray for everybody. I pray that, if there were victims, that those victims are all right in health and everything, and I pray for them. If Robert's a victim, then of course I pray for him if he's being set up or whatever. But, at the end of the day, none of us know. So, we have to wait and see. No. I think that, as a black man in America, being stopped by the police for no reason, early on in my life I made a point of not making assumptions.

But what about when it comes to gut feelings or instincts? That's not an issue for you either? As long as you've known him, I can't imagine that you don't have any feeling one way or another what this might lead to or what he might have been doing. I just can't imagine it that hat you could be neutral in your mind. The volume of charges is just so hard to ignore.

What’s the volume of convictions?

None. Zero.

Okay. Well, now we wait and see.