From local DJ to major record label executive to producer of one of the world’s largest house events, music is the story of Wayne Williams’ life. Wayne quickly became an in-demand DJ as a teenager, playing a different party every night. Beginning in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, a group of popular teen DJs from Chicago’s south side — Wayne Williams, Jesse Saunders, Alan King, Tony Hatchett and Andre Hatchett — played their unique brand of soulful dance music to huge crowds in packed basements, high school cafeterias and legendary night spots, including Sauer’s, the Tree of Life, First Impressions, the Playground and the Loft. Wayne Williams formalized a DJ collective, originally named “Chosen Few Disco Corp.” in 1977 to meet the high demand for the sound, eventually adding Saunders, King and the Hatchett brothers. In 2006, the group added its first new member in nearly 30 years, legendary DJ and producer Terry Hunter, and in 2012 welcomed DJ and producer Mike Dunn into the ranks.
As Wayne grew with the music, he started working for Trax Records in Chicago, the first house music record label. There, he recorded his first track, “Undercover”, under the alias Dr. Derelict. His work attracted the attention of London-based Jive Records, where he became an A&R executive in charge of the label’s Chicago studio. From day one, Wayne had a knack for developing hit-makers, from guiding the career of house music star Mr. Lee to transforming Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s sound with hits like “Summer Time” to signing and developing Chicago crooner R. Kelly. He has worked with a host of R&B, pop and hip hop artists, including Jennifer Hudson, Aretha Franklin, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Aaliyah, Mystikal, Joe, and Raheem DeVaughn. As Senior Vice President of A&R at RCA Records, Wayne has most recently helped orchestrate the musical comeback of former GAP Band front man, Charlie Wilson. He has been featured and profiled in print and broadcast media outlets, books and films, including Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life; Jonathan Fleming’s “what Kind of House Party Is This?: History of a Music Revolution; and documentaries such as “Hands to the Sky” and “The Unusual Suspects: Once Upon a Time in House Music”. In 2012, He and the members of the Chosen Few DJs also were recognized at a celebration honoring the 100 Most Influential DJs in Chicago House Music history.
Wayne has continued to keep his finger on the pulse of house music, playing at clubs and events around the world. Wayne also continues to produce new dance classics, including the chart-topping “There is a Place”, “You’re The Feeling”, “Acid House” and “Music Saved My Life”. In October that year, he was named as a Top 10 DJ by New York’s award winning Robbi Promoter. Wayne also earned a 2014 GRAMMY nomination for his work on Jennifer Hudson’s hit “It’s Your World”, and in 2015, was honored with the Outstanding Album award for his work on Aretha Franklin’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics album at the 46th NAACP Image Awards.
Today I chat with Chosen Few Founder and President, Wayne Williams about the evolution of the Chosen Few DJs and the upcoming Chosen Few Festival and Picnic happening, Saturday, July 7th.
Black Widow: Give us an overview of the picnic, its beginnings and what your vision was when you formed the Chosen Few DJs.
Wayne Williams: We started the picnic in 1990; a couple of us were DJs in Chicago in 1975. We were DJing together for about 15/20 years at the time, but as we got older, we started to move away. When we would come back home around the holidays, people would ask us, “When are you guys DJing together?” We decided to do a party around Christmas. The party was packed but it was cold!!! We all moved to warmer weather and got quite used to it! [LAUGHTER] Tony (Hatchett) was in Houston, Jesse (Saunders) was in Vegas…etc. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, we decided to do it on July 4th after that year. Tony and Andre (Hatchett) had a family reunion behind the museum every year so we decided to do it then. The first year, we did it, we had about 50 people who came. After that year, it just grew and grew, and we haven’t stopped since!
Black Widow: So you never planned for it to become what it is now. How have you had to adjust to its growth? Starting with 50 people to tens of thousands?
Wayne Williams: Oh no…we never planned for any of this at all! We just wanted to play our music. We had to adjust because we wanted to take care of our people but the costs were no longer the same. For 19 years we did this out of our pockets and never charged a fee. We would pass a bucket for donations but once the city started to charge us and the park district started charging us; it was just growing so fast. The more people that came, the more money it required; more toilets, insurance, security, equipment, you name it. Every year, we needed more of it. That’s why we started charging and to be totally honest, our general admission tickets are still extremely affordable at $40.
Black Widow: It’s amazing to me that people still complain about $40 for a full day of music where you can bring your own food and drinks! [LAUGHTER] There literally is no other music festival in the city that's less than that!
Wayne Williams: Crazy right? We even had them on sale for $25 for two entire months as part of our Early Bird promotion.
"To this day, we are the lowest cost music festival in the world".
I think most festivals will charge $150-$400. It’s about playing for our people but still being able to pay the bills associated with putting on a quality event.
Black Widow: What made you decide to actually create this collective of DJs (The Chosen Few)?
Wayne Williams: At the time, I was the only DJ playing disco for my community on the Southside in the 70s. During that time, urban disco music was only played in the gay clubs. I remember going to a party and hearing Ron Hardy. I said, “What the hell is that?” It was amazing! I heard disco on the radio but it was more of the pop disco. When I heard the stuff Ron was playing, it affected my soul. I remember saying THIS is what I want to play. I was Djing in 1974 but was playing R&B and funk. I wanted to be different and decided to play this disco music at parties. I became popular really quick. It was so many parties and I couldn’t’ do them all. I said I have to get some help!
Black Widow: You guys were all friends back then right?
Wayne Williams: Yes, I was at Mendel in 1975 and my sister was dating a guy who went to DeLaSalle. He was the one with the turntables. Robert Ellis, at the time built speakers and Jamie Shelton did the flyers. When I first got started that was my crew. My stepbrother is Jesse Saunders. I remember telling him I needed help and I was going to teach him. I left my equipment and crates at this house. We were doing pause/button edits back then. From there, he would come to parties with me and practice at home and then I’d let him play with me. Then Tony Hatchett came into the group. Everyone was playing out of my crates. [Laughter] I had to find a DJ that had his own records! That was around 1980. I was at a party at LAB (University of Chicago Lab School) and I saw Alan (King) DJing, and he had his own records too! He had seen me DJ at some of my parties as well. So I had to have him in my crew! After I added Alan, Andre (Hatchett) came into the fold. I would take my records to Tony’s house but while Tony was at basketball, Andre was practicing and learning the music too! He started to come to parties with us to see what it was all about. One day at the Loft, we let him play and he killed it and the rest is history! We added Terry Hunter in 2006, then Mike Dunn in 2012.
Black Widow: What can people expect this year at the picnic?
Wayne Williams: Gates open at 7 am and the music starts at 8 am. We go all day until 9 pm. You can look forward to a day full of great house music, top-notch DJs, and amazing performances! This year we have three Chicago Artists performing. We have Sheree Hicks, who we are super excited about. She’s from Chicago and is an amazing singer. We have Terisa Griffin, who has been in Chicago for many years and is an amazing talent and then we have Chuck Roberts, who was born and raised here! He will be closing out the night! We also have some surprises too!
Black Widow: Of course you do! [Laughter]
Wayne Williams: You know we have to! [Laughter] We actually have surprises throughout the entire day! We are also doing a Wakanda theme this year as well, which we are excited about. You can dress up and support the theme or not. It's not mandatory. We are just proud of our heritage and want to show support for it. I thought the movie was so influential and it made me so proud. We just want to embrace that theme and carry it throughout the festival.
Black Widow: I love that! I think the Wakanda Theme this year is so appropriate, that's why my friends and I are doing a Wakanda Themed Tent. It’s about embracing the spirit of that movie. It was great to see us come out in support in such large groups celebrating ourselves, our culture and heritage!
Wayne Williams: Absolutely and ain’t nothing wrong with that!
Black Widow: Can we expect anything different logistically from last year? Any advice for festival goers?
Wayne Williams: Everything is the same as last year. I’ll say to get there early! Parking can be difficult the later it gets. That’s my #1 piece of advice. Come and have a great time! We are excited. Tickets sales are going great! We are expecting the same thing we’ve had for the past 28 years. We are about love, unity and the spirit of house music.
Black Widow: Last year the criticism was that there were too many local artists and no one would pay to see people they could see for free. Obviously, last year's attendance shattered that myth! [Laughter] This year, the criticism is that it’s not enough local artists. How do you deal with these types of criticisms and how do attempt to please the masses?
Wayne Williams: You aren’t going to win that. You can’t please everyone. We’ve always shown off our Chicago talent. Our guest DJs, local performers and such. Of course, we will have guests from outside of Chicago, but make no mistake we have always been about showcasing the incredible talent that exists right here in Chicago. There’s so much of it. We still haven’t gotten to all of the Chicago talent!
Black Widow: You guys are all so different and have different strengths and skill sets, yet you operate as a collective, as one unit. That can be difficult, especially with an artist of your caliber. How do you all stay connected as a unit in spite of the gossip, rumors and divisive comments that seek to separate all of you? How do you remain a brotherhood with strong bonds?
Wayne Williams: Each DJ is here because they all had the talent and personality. Not to mention we are great friends. We love each other to death. We’ve been together for so long, know one another and trust each other. Nothing could come between that!
Black Widow: I got to be honest. That’s very rare, especially as members begin experiencing different degrees of growth and success. The human ego is a powerful thing.
Wayne Williams: Oh absolutely and we all have egos, make no mistake and that can be a good thing! It pushes you towards greatness. Every great DJ thinks they are the best. The difference is we all recognize one another’s talent. I mean, we are all great! We give each other records, we cross promote each other's projects, we share, and we collaborate. We want each other to be successful and do well. I want my brother to have the right tools, music, etc. to succeed and vice versa. We aren’t jealous of one another and each of us has our own style. We are great at what we do individually and collectively and it just works!
Black Widow: Indeed it does! Thanks for taking time to chat with me! I know you guys are super busy with Chosen Few Activities! I’ll see you at the picnic in my Wakanda themed tent!
Wayne Williams: You’re welcome! Thank you and see you this weekend!
I hope you enjoyed the finale of my Chicago Spotlight series for The Chosen Few Picnic & Festival. I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible on Saturday (look for the Black Widow's Web Tent) or at any of the pre and post parties. Check out the Dance Floor for all the latest information on Chosen Few and other House related Events this weekend!
See you at the PICNIC!