WHO IS THE MAN with the glasses, the one you see at certain House parties? Those who know him revere him, and for those of you who don’t, it’s time to brush up on your homework.
This man is responsible for opening The Warehouse and the Music Box, the first afterhours clubs in Chicago that were a pivotal point in dance music history. He is also responsible for bringing in the legendary Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy as resident DJs. Here Robert gives a brief history lesson on how one man changed the course of house and forever put Chicago on the map.
Clubkid, Dancer, Juvenile Officer
Robert Williams was born in Queens, New York, attended high school in Illinois and graduated college in Iowa. While attending law school at Columbia, Robert was a regular fixture of the New York club scene, frequenting spots such as Studio 54 and David Mancuso’s famous loft parties on Saturdays. After one semester at Columbia, “I was dropped… I was partying too much.”
After being introduced to the world-renown dance company of Alvin Ailey, Robert fell in love with dance. He began training and soon joined the prestigious company Dance Theater of Harlem. When he realized that dancing was not quite paying the bills, he began working for the New York Department of Probations. It was during this time that he found himself face to face with the then-teenage Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles. Being the wild and truant kids that they were back in the day, Robert (not much older than them) found himself acting as counselor to the boys. Then one fateful night at an afterhours called Tamberlane, Robert was on the dancefloor next to Larry and Frankie (“Mr. Williams! What are you doing here?”) From then on, their relationship became that of equals.
Chicago is Dreadful
After his mother became sick, Robert moved back to his Chicago home in 1975. “When I came here there was just absolutely nothing going on. When I returned to New York I told my buddies that Chicago was dreadful. So some of my fraternity brothers said ‘Why don’t we give parties in Chicago like we do in New York?’ So at the advice of David Mancuso (The Loft) who was a long term friend of mine, along with other fraternal organizations, we decided to form a social club called ‘US’.”
Robert threw his first party at 116 S. Clinton. “We charged a dollar and there were over 800 people attending.” All the elements for a fantastic party were there: booming speakers, balloons, spiked punch and of course the music. US Studios (which the kids later dubbed “The Warehouse”) was born.
What most people don’t know is that The Warehouse had several homes: 116 S. Clinton, 1400 S. Michigan, 555 W. Adams, and its final residence at 206 S. Jefferson. The Warehouse was the first afterhours club in Chicago (began in ’76) and even preceded New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, which didn’t open its doors until early ’78.
Another interesting thing is that Robert himself was DJing in the Warehouse’s early days. When he realized that DJing and promoting were too much of a hassle, he asked his New York counterparts to aid him with the club. “I went to New York and asked Larry would he come and play. And Larry was like, ‘You must be out of your mind! You already told me that the place was tired when you went there last summer.'” Not only that, but the Paradise Garage was getting ready to open with Larry as resident DJ. Tee Scott was the next DJ to turn down the offer to move to Chicago. Frankie Knuckles was negotiating between clubs, and when Robert turned to him with the offer, he took it reluctantly.
When Frankie began at The Warehouse, the reception was lukewarm at best. Chicago wasn’t quite used to the new sounds from this New York transplant. It wasn’t long however before they warmed up to him, and soon the words “Frankie”, “The Warehouse” and “jacking” were all synonymous with Chicago’s place on the dance map.
Eventually Robert and Frankie parted ways, and each opened up his own club in 1983: Frankie at the Powerplant and Robert at the Music Box. Robert recounts that both Frankie and Robert wanted the legendary Ron Hardy to play at their venues.
“I believe Frankie offered Ron a position with him at the Powerplant, but Ron was lured by the fact that he would have his own club.” A healthy rivalry between both clubs ensued. Frankie’s Powerplant had a more refined, dressed up crowd and the majority were gay; the Music Box had a wilder, more experimental crowd. The majority were heterosexual, reveling in a late night atmosphere that up until then had not been available to them. Both nights became the stuff of legends, pushing the course of House Music ahead of any other city in the world. The Powerplant eventually shut its doors in ’86 and the Music Box followed in ’88.
How to Be a Host
Robert has continued to throw parties throughout the years, but it’s only been in the past two years that he has been back in full force. Aside from the occasional loft party, he helped start up (though is no longer a part of) Saturdays at Da House Spot, probably the best afterhours party in the city today.
At one time I had heard that Robert was planning to create an organization for all Chicago promoters to join under one umbrella and plan out ways to share and support each other’s club nights. “I’ve since abandoned that idea. Because of a lot of them being fickle in a sense, it would be hard to bring them together. Because of egos.” He has since changed the idea to that of sponsorship. “We would help sponsor each other’s parties. Now I feel people should co-sponsor each other in Chicago. It doesn’t have to be with money, just support. That way we can help each other out and have a way of locking that party down to know that people are all going to that party.”
When I first met Robert Williams, he was handing out envelopes with invites inside of them. “One of my promotion techniques is putting the flyers in envelopes. They take them away from being just flyers and make them actual invitations. It’s more personal. And while they’re looking at your flyer, you can’t walk away. You have to explain to people what this event is about and warmly invite them.”
Almost every person who had been to the earlier parties talk about how they were so much better then. Robert explains that it was because then “they were warmer and there was more thought into putting these events together. People took their time to plan an event. People now think you can just open a door and give a party which is just not true. Music and people do not make a party. What makes a party is harmonious relationships between the people there. As a promoter and host, your job is to cater to people. Especially people who are paying to come to your event.”
DJs are Teachers
An interesting observation Robert made is that in House Music women love vocals. Why? Because vocals are romantic, you can sing along with them and are ultimately more feminine. When vocals are played women will dance. Whereas men will dance anyway because their boy may be playing or they’re just more apt to dance anyway, it takes a little more sonic persuasion to get women on the floor. And when women dance, more men will dance.
For all his kindness, Robert did have a few words about today’s DJs. “I think personally, today, that most every DJ I encounter is lazy. Because they do not want to take chances musically, they do not do their homework musically, they do not take the people into consideration. Because if they did, they would not only play old school music, they can integrate new music along with hip-hop; all the music that encompasses people’s evening. Take them on a musical journey. You cannot do that if you’re mixing 5 DJs in one evening, because it’s so humble jumble. You get too many personalities, people talking at once. One or two DJs who are on the same musical plane would be better. DJs are teachers.”
Robert remembers how Ron Hardy used to turn it out at the Music Box. “He was a musical rebel. His music was sort of like a sexual experience. If one position didn’t work, let’s try another one. It was about pleasing the audience because they were his concern.” With today’s DJs, “They just don’t get it. And they all have egos.”
Don’t let these harsh words fool you; Robert is an incredibly warm and funny person, always cracking a joke. His personality is what has made him known for being an amazing host, one who throws the best parties. At this point in time, he has just wrapped up a party (co-sponsored by 5 Magazine) on the southside with DJs Alan King and JMJ. There are plans for many more parties to come. I know I’ll be there, because he is truly the veteran of clublife and parties, and I know I’ll be guaranteed a good time.