B&S MAGAZINE August 16-29th 2005
"ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE"
Robert Kelly is one of the most productive and innovative music makers around today. Despite the ongoing tabloid spotlight on those under age sex allegations, and the shambolic US tour with Jay-Z, the singer/songwriter/producer has maintained a high level of productivity including a new album, and the “In The Closet” series. The Chicago hitman elects to talk to B&S about his current state of play.
R. Kelly isn’t leaving anything to chance. After being strictly prohibited from mentioning any of the two ongoing legal cases he is involved in (one for alleged sex with a minor, the other for last year’s shambolic tour with Jay-Z which left the two former friends at loggerheads), I was ushered into R. Kelly’s room/interview suite at the plush Peninsula Hotel in the Windy City that is Chicago. Any hopes of an intimate tete-a-tete with Mr. Kelly were dashed when I realized his retinue of industry personnel would also be in attendance. These included a personal assistant/manager, two record company publicist, a “legal publicist” (?), a videographer and two bodyguards. As if being videotaped wasn’t security enough, Kelly himself produced his own audio cassette recorder. Suffice to say, I made a mental note not to misquote him.
Okay, let’s get the messy stuff out of the way first: The court cases. Despite being indicted over three years ago for allegedly videotaping sexual acts with a minor, the State’s case against R. Kelly appears to be somewhat in limbo because of the prosecutions inability to pin-point a specific time period during which the alleged offence(s) occurred. They have offered a window of 33 months. Kelly’s defense wants it narrowed down to 2 days, otherwise they contend the case should be dismissed. Though that hasn’t happened, little else has, either. So it’s a kinda uneasy stalemate scenario.
With regards to Jigga, the Def Jam president’s case against Kelly was dismissed which leaves him (Kelly), apparently in the driver’s seat (a pepper spray incident in New York is at the centre of the case). A journalist after me who ventured to bring up the thorny issue was met with a simple, “Man, you know I cant speak on that. That’s in the hands of the lawyers but we’re getting it worked out”.
There’s little denying that Robert Kelly is a sensitive, emotional man. Like many artists he’s given to erratic behaviour and there’s much about him that the media will probably never know. His celebrity is not of the Tom Cruise variety, jumping on couches, kissing in public, arguing with journalists. In fact, just the opposite. In person he’s a talkative, funny and genuinely likable guy, if somewhat guarded, understandably perhaps, about his private life.
This is what we do know about Kelly’s lifestyle: he spends 16 hours a day in the studio, which is know located in the house he shares with his wife ( a former back-up dancer), their three children, and he plays midnight games of basketball several times a week. When we met he was sporting a prominent plaster over his right eye, the result of an elbow in the face during a basketball game and resulting in five stitches.
If any of the tumultuous events outside the studio have caused him and his entourage to be extra skeptical of the press it certainly doesn’t seem to have affected his creativity or success. At the time of writing, his latest release, “TP.3 Reloaded” sits at the top of the US Billboard Charts for the second week in succession, having already notched up an impressive half a million in sales. Unlike its predecessor “Happy People/U Saved Me” a double header of old school soul and contemporary gosepel, “TP.3 Reloaded” spurred on by the musical soap opera, “Trapped in the Closet” heads back to familiar Kelly terrain – the bedroom. It’s a sex laden hip hop soul fest that would have you believe Kelly’s playa life is one constantly revolving cycle of night clubs, parties and illicit encounters with other men’s women. It’s his winning ticket. This is what his core audience loves him for and what causes his albums to sell in the numbers they do. But doesn’t he get a little tired re-treading all the playa lifestyle, riding on chrome, smoking, drinking, sex-talk time and time again?
“I don’t do’em because I feel I owe it to my fans” he responds. “I actually love the songs I do. I LOVE the “TP.3 Reloaded” album; its just that you grow up and you see that the vegetables are good for you. When you’re a kid you just want the meat and the dessert. When you grow up you start thinking differently. “I Believe I Can Fly” is like my vegetables. It brings a balance to my career, to my image, to me as a man. I just wanted people to see that u wasn’t one dimensional, that I could make people come up out of the hospital and feel better, make a preacher preach about flying, make people want to graduate to my music and make something of their life.”
“TP-3” however, is noticeably bereft of Kelly’s “vegetables”. In the culinary sense,”TP-3” unlike “Happy People/U Saved Me” which was in his world, like a trip to an organic health market, is conversely like sitting down to a McDonald’s Happy Meal, large thick shake and a couple of apple pies for dessert.
It has, though, proved the correct antidote to the negative publicity he received after leaving the Jay-Z tour. If his ghetto pass was in danger of being revoked on account of reportedly failing to show up for shows and crying tantrums after being outdone on stage by Hov, “TP-3” has given him a lifetime membership. His trump card has to be the totally original and hugely entertaining “Trapped in the Closet”. There are currently 12 chapters with parts 1-5 on his current CD, and 6-12 with videos already shot and due to appear on a yet to be determined release. He has currently finished writing up to chapter 16! A sordid tale of cheating spouses, guns, cops, and gay preachers all set to music with no chorus, that’s proved a huge water-cooler conversation piece and radio and video hit in the currently barren US urban arena. It could only come from the furtive mind of one Robert Kelly.
“I certainly wasn’t thinking about going into the studio writing a soap opera” says Kelly. “It was just a normal day going into the studio and working on the “TP.3 Reloaded” album. Once I went in I had mad songs recorded for it but I had this one particular track that stood out like a sore thumb. I thought to myself, ‘man, I gotta make this song different’ because the music was so different from everything else. The music just drew you in. It kind of felt like a novel or book to me. I don’t know how that feels when it comes to music but when I came up with the lyric, ‘7 o clock in the morning and they rays from the sun wakes me’, it had such a ‘what next?’ feel about it. So here I am two and a half minutes into the song and I still didn’t have a hook. At first it scared me because, R. Kelly with no hook? C’mon! Then I showed other people around the studio what their reactions would be, everyone loved it, but kept saying, ‘what’s next?’”
What makes Kelly’s prolific penmanship all the more interesting is that he never writes any lyrics down (he has previously confessed to a literacy problem) before stepping up to the mic. He freestyles everything, like a rapper, from the top of his head. True, cynics could say that his numerous audio sexcapades are hardly high art but considering the amount of success he has had, it’s quite a feat.
“I never write anything down, since I’ve been in the song writing business – 20 years, I never write anything on paper, everything comes off the top of my head. I get in there, do the track, and whatever the track feels like, that’s what I do. There’s something magical about that. I think that’s part of the R. Kelly producer/songwriting secret.
Also interesting is the fact that unlike many of today’s upstarts, R. Kelly produces all his own music. That means laying down the beats, playing the chords, etc. Though, he admits he’s no Prince, it’s probably the reason he’s had the longevity he has. He’s not reliant on the Neptunes, Scott Storch (who produced the track “Playa’s Only” on “TP.3”, Timbaland and the like to make time in their schedules.
“I don’t read music and I don’t necessarily know a lot of chords, but when I hear something in my head I know how to eventually get it on to the keyboard” he says. “I play most of my stuff in the studio, I lay down the beats and the whole nine. If it’s something really difficult, I’ll call in one of my keyboard players. I’ve got 2 or 3 keyboard players, 3 or 4 guitar players and bass players if its that hard.”
Now pushing 40 (38 to be exact) Kelly could be considered to be approaching veteran status. However, his career had been a clever juggling act of working with new and upcoming rappers (The Game, Twista, Snoopa and Elephant Man are just some of the featured artists on the new collection), singing about youth orientates subject matter, while carefully expanding his base with the older demographic through cross over ballads and working with legendary artists like Ronald Isley and Charlie Wilson (Kelly is the executive producer of the former Gap Band lead singer’s new album on Jive Records). In the States, Kelly has never really crossed over into a mainstream white audience – he’s merely expanded his black one. A feat no one from his generation – rapper or singer, has managed to accomplish.
“I try to tell young artists that what keeps you in the game is that you gotta have love in your heart for people” he murmers reflectively. “I love being around people. I think globally when I write my songs. It doesn’t matter what colour. I know that’s what’s kept R. Kelly around. He’s not afraid to express his inner child in a song. He’s not afraid to cry in a song, get dramatic, write things like “Trapped in the Closet” – whereas another artist might shy away from that because its out of their element. Its not a usual song format.
But isn’t that the luxury of being R. Kelly, that he can come to his label with anything wacky or off the wall and is guaranteed promotional dollars to make it happen? Had another, new artist written “Trapped in the Closet”, surely they would have been laughed out of the building.
“I give a lot of thought to anything I write” responds Kelly. “Before I put out “Trapped in the Closet” I gave it a lot of thought to make sure it was hate proof! That it was undeniable. It comes from my heart and my mum always told me, ‘what comes from the heart reaches the heart’. That what I do when I go in the studio; to say, ‘okay this will work because it actually happenes out here in the streets’. Im gonna write what people actually go through in their lives.”
Continues Kelly: “One thing I definitely paid attention to from there (older) artists is that you cant ever take people that are older in the business for granted. You have to ask yourself, ‘why are people who are older still in the business?’ Ronald Isley is Mr Biggs now and he’s still doin it..Charlie Wilson as well. They got a respect for the gift. They’ve still got that hunger. If you stay hungry you gonna eat. They’re survivors. They’re hustlers in a positive way. That’s where I want to be in years from now. They’ve mastered the game. Still doing hits, movies, producing people. Still fresh, still coming up with unbelievable ideas. That’s what being an innovator is about. Ronald Isley was once that innovator. When they did “Between the Sheets” there wasn’t anything around like it on the radio. Charlie Wilson too. He’s still got that voice and that explosive energy on stage. That’s what being a scientist of this business is all about. What I want to have in years to come is to still be able to shock people and have that explosive fire when it comes to being creative”.
Winding up the interview I ask Kelly what he would consider to be the highs and lows in his career thus far. He tells me the following, which I think is a fairly telling portrayal of the roller coaster that his life has been.
“Its kind of hard because sometimes your highs run dead smack into your lows and vice versa. At one point I was feeling really down and had got writer’s block for 2 days because I was really missing my mum. A few years after she has passed I was going through a really personal thing within myself. A couple of doctors had come to talk to me and the whole nine. Big time depression. Michael Jordan had called for me to do a song for Space Jam. I just didn’t have it in me. I wasn’t in the studio at the time. I was in a hotel in Detroit. I was on tour with Biggie. It was 4 in the morning, I did the show and was asleep in bed, even though there was still a lot of after party going on in the hotel lobby. People running through the hallway, so I was tossin’ and turnin’. In the midst of all that I came up with “I Believe I Can Fly”. I called up the people downstairs and begged them to unlock the piano, so I could come down there and mess with it. So I did and Biggie came down and sat next to me on the piano and I told hi, ‘Man, I got this song, it ain't no rap’. I played him the chorus I had and he kept saying, ‘Man, that’s big, that’s gonna be big, ain't gotta be no rap’.
In the midst of writing that song and finishing it, if lifted me up and made me realize I could move on. My mum’s dying became my reason for living. That was the most down point in my life leading up to the highest point because through “I Believe I Can Fly” it opened me up to the other areas of the world, gave me a larger audience and made people see that I wasn’t just a “Sex Me” song guy. I’ve always has these songs in me I just needed a vehicle to take me there.”