At every critical moment in early House Music history, Robert Williams was there. As the owner of the original Warehouse to the Music Box to the parties he continues to throw today, Robert Williams has become an icon, a treasure of the Chicago House Music scene. He was honored at last year’s Chosen Few Picnic and… well, as Mike Dunn once told me, “Who is Robert Williams? If you have to ask, you don’t even know…”
So when we heard that Robert was kicking around the idea of writing a memoir – a true, real history, as he saw it, of Back in the Day – we wanted to do everything possible to help.
Robert, as everyone who knows him can tell you, is a great talker. So one balmy day this Autumn, 5 Magazine’s Czarina Mirani, Terry Matthew and Carlos Morris got together with Robert at a downtown cafe and, with minimal prompting from us, just let him talk. Three hours later, we had enough, we thought, for several articles on a wide range of topics, from Richard Long and the mechanics of good sound to the duty and responsibilities of a real DJ to a maestro’s understanding of the ingredients that make a party not just good but legendary. Much of what we talked about had to do with the issues swirling around the Chicago House Music scene today, but all of it is informed by his experience running two of the seminal House Music spots and having a hand in creating this thing we love.
Over the next few months, we’ll be printing excerpts from our chat with Robert from this and more conversations to come.
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… THE SCENE
When I was at an event recently, I don’t know what to say but I thought the music was just dreadful. In New York back in the day, with Larry Levan, there was the view that the customers’ opinions did not count. Let me make that clear: we knew that the customers would enjoy our music because we knew what to play to them. We were the masters, we were the puppeteers. We kind of programmed them.
Good music is good music. It doesn’t matter if it’s new or old. If you don’t know the difference between good music and bad music – whether it’s Beethoven or whatever – then you’re doing something wrong and maybe this is the wrong line of work for you.
So when I hear people say that the Southside is “all classics” and the Northside is “all about new music”, I think that’s the fault of the DJs. If that’s what I expect to hear when I go North or South, well, that’s all I’ve been programmed to hear. We’ve dropped the ball.
The venues are another story. These aren’t clubs and they’re not even bars! They’re taverns. What kind of an environment is that? What kind of experience is that for someone to get into when you need to go into a dive to hear House Music? The culture hasn’t been upgraded. I feel like when I go in some places on the Southside, I should take my aunt with me and have an old cocktail or something! They’re taverns.
The music scene in Chicago just plain sucks. I can go up north and feel a little bit energized, but I think that’s just because it’s new to me.
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… PROMOTERS
First of all, the people that are calling themselves promoters, a lot of them should cut their wrists! [laughs] What are they promoting? Let’s ask that question as an audience. What incentive do you have to go out tonight? You don’t feel like there’s a place that you must go to. If I go out with you to a terrible place, I can still enjoy myself because of your company. But if I feel terrorized when I walk into the room, next time we’ll go out somewhere else.
What can they do differently? The right presentation is a start – the right marketing. This goes from the music to the bartenders all the way to the people at the door. People want to feel welcomed, loved. If you’re in a situation in which you’re alienated from the time you walk in, why would you ever go back? I’ll say this about Ron [Watkins of Da House Spot’s] parties: you will never, ever feel intimidated there. You’re in the back, having a good time, and you’re able to do your own thing and express yourself within the context of the party. You feel welcomed. Ron does what a promoter should do – he’s a host. He’s trying to give people a place to go. It’s not a tavern, and he tries to change it around a little to make it look more clubbish.
At a party, every person is a part of the ensemble. Everyone effects everyone else there. That’s why I mention the right marketing. You can’t have a good party when you just have a big cattle car and invite everyone and their mother indiscriminately. You have to pick and choose. You have to decide who you’re really looking for. You have to have intelligent and correct marketing for your event, whether it’s a big club or a lounge.
Advance promotion is a science. If you’re going to charge people anything, you need to come correct. Just because you say you’re a promoter – that means nothing. Everyone can be a promoter just by calling themselves one.
You can go into the bathroom, put in a CD and stand at the door and say, “Five dollars!” And I think that’s what some of these folks are doing! And for what? What are you giving these people that they can’t get anywhere else?
A part of selecting the right crowd is the music. Let’s give up the idea that we can appeal to everyone in one night.
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… TODAY’S DJS
If I had to pick a DJ to book right now for a party… even if you ask me to name three to five, I know five to ten that I’m acquainted with. That doesn’t mean they’re good DJs. They’re my friends, but I think they’re stuck. And I have enough experience that I can tell them that they’re stuck. I can tell them as a friend.
A lot of DJs are playing to their friends, their ole’ boys. They need to play to the women. Their ole’ boys will follow the women to the floor – the women won’t follow the men.
I like the guys who have integrity – the guys who aren’t playing at Lucy’s Bar and Grill in the basement. You can’t hire Ron Trent to play at a little tavern – he won’t just take a gig for the sake of having something to do. I like that. I think he’ll compromise for the right person and will play for people he respects, but he won’t just crash the party to have something to do for a few hours or a few more dollars in his pocket.
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… AFTER THE BOX
Let’s say you went to the Music Box and you heard Ron Hardy. You experienced that wonderful crowd, that wonderful music and experienced that audio system. Let’s say some years later, you decide that you want to be a promoter of that same music. Now I want to ask you: what did you learn? You say that you are continuing the tradition but it’s as far from the Music Box as anything.
The “Black Box” set-up didn’t come from the Paradise Garage. My initial inspirations were the places that I went to in New York, places like The Gallery. Things are I think a little too commercial these days. We’ve lost the personal touch. I still believe in putting a personal touch on a place. If you’re a promoter, put your personal touch on a spot. You can have the same old club and make it vibrant and most importantly your own spot with just a few decorations.
Things fell apart. If I had to pinpoint a moment it would have to be after Ron Hardy died and Frankie went back to New York and a lot of the brilliant people began going to Europe. The people who came after tried to copy their success, but it fell flat. They missed the essence.
And I think it’s sad. Go to New York now. Just because Larry Levan died, they didn’t drop the ball. They’re up to date musically. Here they became stagnant.
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… CHICAGO HOUSE
The Warehouse, the Paradise Garage, that whole segment of New York that came here – that was underground music. It had more of an R&B influence and a few other things. House Music was more your generation. Chicago developed House Music with the drum machines with Farley and Ron Trent and all of that.
Some people thought they would make a few dollars and take it abroad, and that’s where the music got messed up.
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… POLITICS
The police were there sometimes to harass a little. Sometimes they’d come four or five times in a night and I’d have to stop them. I got tired of that. I had to say, “Okay, fellas… are you on lunch? Because you know there’s a cafeteria in front of the building where you can go get yourself a sandwich instead of coming here.” They’d say that they were just doing their job and checking things out. “Okay,” I said. “Then I’ll just have to talk to the district commander about this.”
You have to remember, when I opened the Warehouse, old Mayor Daley was still there. There was a lot of politics. In fact, Jane Byrne’s campaign office was right there by us. Clubs on the Northside were fine, clubs on the Southside were fine, but we were right in the Loop. They didn’t like that and you had to deal with a lot of politics because of it.
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… THE CROWD
The Warehouse was a gay club. Period. It remained a gay club throughout its existence. The straight people that came were either relatives or really close friends.
The Music Box was not a gay club. The reason is that Frankie opened the PowerPlant and that clientele from the Warehouse had followed their DJ while we were in the process of trying to re-open our club and rename it for Ron Hardy. So I had to make a new clientele for this new space. Ron had a certain segment as well that was following him, from Den One and the Ritz.
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… COUTURE
It’s true that people did dress up more then. They did. But they were very preppy and had all of the designer stuff – the Guess? jeans, Armani…
I remember one night, there was a long line outside and all of the men were dressed in tuxedos and women in long gowns. I asked Ron Hardy what was going on and he said that it was prom night. “Let’s let them in and give them a real experience!” he said. “Let them in for free!” So we let them in. About three hours later I saw them again. It looked like someone had chased them for about four miles! The boys had come out of the shirts, the girls were carrying their shoes… What a sight!
ROBERT WILLIAMS ON… MEDUSA’S
Dave Medusa was a student of the Warehouse. He came there and saw the atmosphere and then went off on his own.
There’s this one story that I always think of and laugh at when I think of Medusa in the early days. Medusa had a club called 161. Frankie was playing for him one night and had a singer there. Have you ever heard of Geraldine Hunt? Well the club was kind of a loft and they had this scaffolding there. Geraldine Hunt was up on this scaffolding. Now… have you ever seen Geraldine Hunt? Most people hadn’t. And let’s just say it was most entertaining. She wasn’t trying to be funny, but it was funny. All I could think was, “My eyes!” It was a really great party! And I know it’s not nice to say this, but she was so ugly and elevated up there like an angel. This was back in the late 1970s. All of us were younger and more beautiful but it still didn’t help her. People were hollering for help because their eyesight was being impaired… But seriously, I’m sorry, it was just one of the funniest moments I remember at Medusa’s 161.