Published Oct 29, 2009To many who watched MuchMusic in the late '80s and early '90s, Michael Williams was a familiar face. The Cleveland, Ohio- born VJ was most prominently known for hosting the shows Soul in the City and Rap City, playing soul, R&B and hip-hop videos, a critical role given the paucity of radio stations across the country regularly playing the music. Since he left the TV station back in 1993, Williams has kept a relatively low profile, but these days he's definitely ready to re-emerge with the aim of promoting soul music in Canada. He is on the air through a syndicated weekly soul radio show and recently hosted a set of shows across Ontario featuring former Sting collaborator Vinx, under the banner Michael Williams Presents "Soul in the City Live." He will be DJing on October 29 at the Polish Combatants Hall in Toronto as part of Stay Gold, a monthly club night that will launch with the eyebrow-raising DJ line-up of CBC's host of The Hour, George Stroumboulopoulos, hip-hop star K-OS and DJ Your Boy Brian as well as Williams on the decks, an event that takes him back to his musical roots as a DJ in Cleveland and Montreal. We caught up with the former MuchMusic VJ by phone while he was hanging out in a Roots store in downtown Toronto.
I heard the Vinx show was good last night.
It was nice last night, Saidah [Baba Talibah] got up and this other kid I think, Alexander Duncan is his name. He was really quite interesting. Saidah was great, I've been knowing and watching her ever since she was a child you know and I know her mom [respected jazz and blues singer Salome Bey] and all that. She's just phenomenal and has this incredible talent. But this other kid really sort of surprised me. There's a lot of interesting things going on that aren't necessarily considered "urban" but it's being done by black kids. I was just talking to this fellow over here at the Roots store and this kid Rich London he's been nominated for a Juno and he's got a rock'n'roll band as well as the other things that you might expect from him, but he's got a lot of things that you wouldn't expect. There's this kid Shawn Hewitt, there's a lot of interesting stuff that's looking for a way to get out and the Flow [93.5 FM in Toronto] obviously isn't that way and the rock'n'roll market is only marginally that way… I think there's a lot of things that's looking for a ways to get out. So I think that's gonna revitalize the black end of the business for sure if not the business in whole in general. Cos if you're playing music you're looking for converts from everywhere, man. It's always been very easy for them to say "urban" and push it aside and then the other side doesn't have to look at it, but if you are a musician you want everybody to see what you are doing. More the British model as opposed to the Canadian or American model and I think the Canadian model, it didn't stop when MuchMusic stopped playing videos, or when MTV stopped playing videos, so I think the Canadian model is still yet to be created.
Can you talk a little bit about your early DJing days?
When I came to Montreal, when I was in university I was DJing there when I was playing all the stuff there that people think you would play. The Average White band and James Brown, but they really weren't making mixers with cues and stuff. Then we had two turntables and it was kind of an extension of the radio thing of the radio station at Loyola University. Then I started designing systems with cues and people started coming out with mixers that folks could use. In Montreal, the standard was the TASCAM mixer because it had cues and stuff because it was a larger mixer. The mixers we first used were for to make music not to mix music and later on people got into making other types of mixer, but I still have my old TASCAM mixer, my old 8 channel mixer because that way we have a cue. So it was like we were dropping needles on records and bringing them up and hoping we were in the right space. But when we got cues, that was a whole different thing and DJ science has always been raised to a fine art in Montreal. Because in Montreal you had people, like... the most incredible was Robert Ouimet at the Limelight, he was the man. There was the great Michel Simard, who did the "Fantasy" remix for Earth, Wind and Fire. Living in Montreal, all that stuff changed and I was DJing, I was a mobile DJ in Montreal as well as working at places. I was the lighting guy at [club] Twelve Thirty-Four [12-34]. I'd go in and do that and I'd play early on in the night. We helped to break records and stuff. It's just something that I always did before MuchMusic and during, it's kind of fun to get back doing it again, because there's no place you can really go and here really great music. There's all this house, mixing this beat and that beat ― no man it's about the music for me. That's my main concern ― the music. So I'm playing everything from Pharaoh Sanders to John Coltrane to Santana to Area Code 615 to old soul. I think it's time for soul music to be brought back. A lot of people want to dance to soul, to move to soul. Not what's considered urban. Not Usher, not Ne-Yo but soul music you know. I had a show equivalent to what Ron Nelson was doing here up in Montreal called Club 980 and that was the original version of Soul in the City. And it was called club 980, Soul in the City on CKJM. It was on an AM station and we were jamming six hours from six to midnight every Saturday and I was producing hip-hop sessions out of that. [Ice-T producer] Afrika Islam made me a long standing member of the Zulu Nation, an African prince you know so I go back to the days and it's wonderful to be affiliated with Afrika Islam, Ice-T, Afrika Bambaataa and all that stuff and Rap City was really an outgrowth of all that. Out of all the stuff, it just came naturally, so I'm just going back to the roots of the situation and that's what I'm gonna play. I'm just gonna play some great tunes for about 45 minutes and for about an hour and I think I'll be doing a couple of more DJ dates and hopefully I'll be doing a lot more. And I like doing them with bands and you want to get a vibe, you want people to hear the great music, but you also want to give musicians the chance to play live.
I noticed the Vinx show was billed as Michael Williams Presents "Soul in the City Live" and I was wondering what you thought the outlets were like for soul artists playing live in Canada and how much that has changed over the years?
There aren't a lot and a lot of the artists are older or they are younger and actually have a knowledge of music, like Jason John who is the son of Prakash John, a bass player for the Parliament and Funkadelic and Alice Cooper and Lou Reed. George Clinton took him when he came across the border [into Canada] years ago and taught him the funk and he's a foundation member of that band and always will be. It's kinda sad, man. I go to George Clinton [shows] and I don't see a lot of black people at the George Clinton, Parliament and Funkadelic show. So I'm going "What's that?" And I run into young black folks and they say we don't know anything about this music, because "We don't have anybody directing us. We don't have anybody telling us, we don't have a radio station we can go to get it. We don't have anybody that we trust." So what I decided to do was to do Soul in the City again but what we're going to do is we are starting it with the live thing, as well as a telephone thing as well as an internet thing and then we're going to take it back to television. It will be less of a video show and more of a show that if you play live you can be on the show. If you play videos you can't be on the show. You have to be able to inspire people by playing an instrument and if you are a rapper, you are a poet. And people have told me over the years, no matter where I have been whether it's Paris or L.A. or in places where they shouldn't even know about Soul in the City. People have told me that they miss the show; they wish the show was back and this, that and the other and I don't see anybody leading the way or leading the charge. We're not going back to do the same thing, that would be redundant. We're going to go back and do something in a little bit more grown up fashion and see if we can capture the hearts and minds of people and like Eric B. and Rakim said, we're coming to "move the crowd." You have to move the crowd live and you have to move it on television and we're currently talking to folks to see… y'know we're building our army back up and we have a bunch of ex-Much people and stuff like that and I think Master T is also going to try and build his thing back too. Because we leave these things for one thing or another, and it normally seems to be business as well as politics to a certain extent. But then you come back. And you go, well nobody's done it. And I thought well I wasn't needed anymore when they got the Flow [93.5 FM in Toronto] I thought it was going to be something it has yet to turn out to be. And now there's a new station coming up and we'll see what happens with that. That's more concerned with African and Caribbean music and cricket. Then who plays the George Clinton? Who schools the past on the present and the future you know? 'Cos there's a lot of new music out and I'm doing some music. I was doing music for the last year and a half the Bahamas on Kool 96. I was doing the show from here. And now I do a weekly show, which is going into syndication, I'm into Wasaga Beach, Goderich. We're playing the EZ dub all stars, Sergeant Peppers Lonely Dub Club Band. We play people from here [We Will Rock You cast member] Alana Bridgwater, past present and future and the shit is off the hook. I'm very proud and pleased with the radio show we just need a convert here in Toronto and in other cities across Canada because it's for everybody and so we make it economically available because I get to play the music I need to play, I want to play and the music that needs to be heard and we make it economically available to the radio stations to do that. We bring a new face to the Canadian model and my problem was that no one has yet to bring a face like Soul in the City did. We looked at the world from the outside and brought it in here. We looked at it from our eyes, through Canadian eyes and made sense of it. And you have to build Canadian models. We're not American and we're not British we have to be what we are.