RC Williams Opens Up About His Wild Ride as Erykah Badu's Musical Director
RC Williams (far left) with his band, the Gritz.
For the past 15 years, RC Williams has been a musical director, producer and keyboardist for Erykah Badu. He's also become an avatar for the music scene in Dallas.
In November he released his sophomore record, called The Feel, with his band the Gritz. With the album, Williams meant to capsulize "the Dallas sound," the amorphous blend of jazz, R&B, neo-soul and hip-hop. It's a sound which he himself has been instrumental in shaping, with some help from virtually every major player he's ever worked with.
Williams is surrounded by vintage instruments which are still posed artistically from an earlier photo shoot. He's in the smoky Klearlight studio in Mesquite, working on post-production while both the album, and a presidential debate, play in the background.
"This record was open to more than just the Gritz members," Williams says. "I would call it the Monday night jam sessions." Those recording sessions included artists such as -topic, Sam Lao, Sarah Jaffe and Bobby Sessions, as well as Badu, who each contributed their own lines.
With The Feel, Williams meant to harness the sounds of a diverse city. "The sound is more than one genre," Williams says. "Each song puts you in a different mode, where we're at with our sound here in Dallas." While the 13-track album also features Shaun Martin, Mark Lettieri, Jason Davis, Shelly Carroll and seemingly every majorly respected artist in the city, Williams was particularly honored to work with renowned keyboardist Bernard Wright.
"I've been studying him since high school," Williams says of the opportunity. "Bernard told me he had a song for me and I just sat back and relaxed. I mean, he's played with Miles Davis, and written Grammy-winning records."
Professionally speaking, the word "Grammy" precedes the name of nearly every artist associated with the Gritz. "There's a lot of Grammys in this record," Williams admits. One such recipient is songstress Jaffe, who collaborated on the single "Good Day to You, Sir." Jaffee says that during a studio visit, one of Williams' lines stood out to her, so she asked him to keep playing it while she wrote the song's hook, later inviting rapper Lao to join in.
"I'm always stoked to work with RC. I just love going into any studio where there's no precious precautions," Jaffee says. "I think RC and the Gritz are the epitome of playing what feels good superbly. That's easy to write for." Lao echoes the sentiment, adding: "RC is just musical magic. He's so free and effortless in the studio that it's easy to create with him."
Williams comes from a family of church musicians, and while his extended family hails from Memphis, Mississippi, Chicago and Detroit (coincidentally every musical area in the country), Williams was born and raised in Oak Cliff. "My mom's brothers are all pastors, they all had their own churches," he says, laughing while recalling the many family children waiting in line for their turn to play: "We'd be fighting in church because there'd be so many of us trying to play the drums."
His mother is a missionary, and his father has sung and played bass as a member of the gospel group the Sensational Harmonizers, for the last 50 years. "I actually produced their last record a couple of years ago," Williams says. "I had all the top players. He's already bugging me now to do the next record."
Williams shares a birthday with his father, as well as the same name, simply the letters "RC," which he says are not initials. "He used to tell me stories how they'd be in a band touring in the '60s and '70s," he says of RC Sr., "and they would get stopped and pulled over on tour, and they would explain they're in a quartet group, and the cops would make them sing right there."
Williams first started playing drums and piano in church. It was his mother, and fate, which made him choose between sports and music when he kept missing piano lessons due to football practice. He broke his leg during the 10th grade playoffs, spent six months in crutches, and decided to attend the arts magnet school Booker T. Washington on a part-time basis. There, he met fellow alumni Shaun Martin and Norah Jones, with whom he still stays in touch.
"It was so much freedom and I was surrounded by all this talent," Williams recalls. He decided to transfer to the school full time, and joined Kirk Franklin's choir, God's Property, a group of about 25 members, with whom he began touring around age 19. The gospel group had a Grammy-winning hit, called "Stomp," which sold 4 million records.
"That choir changed the boundaries of gospel music," he says. "We were the first choir to actually have dance moves. Back in the mid '90s it was considered bad to dance in church, but now they have praise dances. I can honestly say we started a trend."
With the group, Williams did the rounds of the major late-night shows: Leno, Letterman, Arsenio. In 1997, the choir was invited to the Soul Train Awards. "I remember meeting Erykah. She was hosting, and she was pregnant," Williams says. "Kirk Franklin was taking us around to meet Puffy and Erykah, and I took a picture with her. She'd be tripping every time I show her this picture; she had no idea."
When he left the group around the year 2000, he got a call to do some session work with Badu, who was looking for a Dallas band. "And ever since then I've been pretty much affiliated with Erykah," Williams says. He says he first took on the role of producer for Badu's Worldwide Underground record, which was nominated for three Grammys.
"But Luther won everything that year because he just died," he says. "I couldn't hate. There were paying tribute to him." With Badu, Williams has had a chance to tour the world with artists like the Roots and Snoop Dog, but he's most proud of the memory of releasing his own first album. "To me, the Grammy nominations, of course you're gonna love those accolades. But for me to have my music all over the world, have fans reach out to me, that's different."
For the last 11 years, the Gritz — who were named by their vocalist Claudia Melton — have run the Wednesday night open jam at the Prophet Bar. Williams felt that Dallas lacked an outlet for talent, a unifying jam like he'd seen other cities host. It first started at a restaurant by the aquarium called The Walrus, with DJ Jay Clipp.
"We didn't have a stage so we put a rope, a little circle. It was an intimate concert," he says. When the club canceled the jam for a Thanksgiving party, the event was moved to the Prophet Bar and never returned to The Walrus. "Back then it was just artists I would call up, real exclusive. Now I have the sign-up list. It's corporate now," he jokes.
Many well-known artists have attended the open jam. "You never know who will be in the building," he says. "Even if they perform in a different spot, if they're here on Wednesday they're gonna end up at the Prophet Bar. Everybody knows Erykah stops by all the time." He also lists George Clinton, Mos Def, Anthony Hamilton, Common, James Poyser and Chrisette Michelle as guests. "Just like Leon Bridges; on his birthday he did a whole concert."
Williams has seen many artists, such as Grammy-winning Snarky Puppy, take off from the open mic, and remembers meeting Bridges (a Grammy nominee), when he was first starting out. "The first time I met him, he was sitting outside at the Prophet Bar playing his guitar on the curb. He didn't even have the money to get in," Williams recalls, adding that they invited the Fort Worth singer in.
"Long story short, by the time I called him up and he sang, we thought that it was soulful, and Jah Born goes, 'Y'all need to sign that brother right now.'" Williams believes that it was at one of the open jams that Bridges was scouted by representatives of Columbia Records, who went on to sign him.
While the Gritz will be touring Europe this upcoming year, Williams is already starting the process of recording because he's "in the zone with creation." He's also working on the music for Badu's cartoon series and has projects with Grammy-winning producer S1. Through it all, he plans to continue running the open mic.
"It's exciting to see bands coming back, the musicianship is really coming back from the drum machine area," Williams says, praising the newer generations of musicians he sees coming up: "Now another generation came, I know most of the musicians in the city, so I know when somebody's not from here."
While Williams concedes that some hopeful musicians pay the admission price just to meet him and get connected, he isn't bothered by the endless handling of demos, He seems to follow Wright's tradition as a mentor in the scene. "They're just trying to show me their tapes," Williams says. "I want to be available. I've never been a stuck-up person; I want people to want to work with me. "
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