Throwback Thursday: R. Kelly Talks Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson & Being Illiterate
Grammy Award winning R&B star R. Kelly has more number hits in his catalog than tabloid sensation “Octomom” Nadya Suleman has children!
The former member of the R&B group Public Announcement had breakout success with his 1993 solo debut, “12 Play,” which spawned the hits “Bump N’ Grind”, “Your Body’s Callin'” and “Sex Me.”
He would go on to release 11 solo albums; pen anthems like “I Believe I Can Fly,” “The World’s Greatest” and “Step in the Name of Love;” produce chart-topping singles for the likes of Michael Jackson (“You Are Not Alone”), Celine Dion (“I’m Your Angel”), Maxwell (“Fortunate”) and Whitney Houston (“I Look To Yo”); and personally resurrected the careers of R&B veterans The Isley Brothers and Charlie Wilson by overseeing their comeback albums.
In 2002, R. Kelly made headlines with a sex tape was released that allegedly depicted the Chicago-bred singer having sex with multiple woman, including an underage girl that was urinated on. He was indicted on 21 counts of having sex with a minor—later reduced to soliciting a minor for child pornography, seven counts of videotaping the acts, and seven counts of producing child pornography.
After many delays and postponements, Kelly’s trial officially started six years later on May 20, 2008. On June 13, 2008, a Chicago jury found Kelly not guilty of all 14 counts.
His legal troubles made him press shy and rarely did Kelly grant interviews to anyone other than Chicago radio personalities and select media that the singer knew personally. Imagine my surprise when I got a call in August of 2009 to fly to Chicago to visit the singer’s home for an intimate listening party for his “Untitled” CD.
During my visit, I was able to talk to Kelly about his work with Houston and Jackson, the one artist he’s dying to work with that he hasn’t, the one who hated working with him, and his battle with illiteracy. Read the feature interview below.
After 20 years in the music business, Kelly has seen a lot of artists come and go. It’s for that reason, the Chicago native said, that he doesn’t concern himself with the newcomers in the business who look to challenge him and take his spot as the “King of R&B.”
“If you a true King, you don’t get into challenges,” he offered, pausing from playing his keyboard for emphasis. “I don’t get into the challenges anymore. I’ve passed that. You know, it’s like Muhammad Ali. You get to a certain status in your life, and you don’t have to throw another punch. You are who you are, and people are pretty much going to recognize that if you walk that way. It’s like, what is an elephant going do when an ant or a fly lands on him? You know what I’m saying? You not gonna go out your way to swat an ant. These guys got some growing up to do. I’m past that. That’s something that maybe I would have answered 20 years ago.”
While many artists were influenced by the genius of Michael Jackson, R&B star R. Kelly had the pleasure of creating one of the “King of Pop’s” biggest hits, “You Are Not Alone.”
The platinum-selling single was the first record to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 when it bowed in August of 1995. After their previous success, it’s no wonder Jackson was eager to work with Kelly again on his upcoming album before his death.
“I recorded five joints for Michael Jackson,” Kelly said, as we sat in the intimate recording studio nestled in the basement of his Chicago mansion. “This studio here is where Michael recorded. And we had been talking on the phone about his new album, and I was going to finish what Michael was doing at the time. We’re going to get it out though. Michael liked the way I would try to sing the songs just like him.”
The three-time Grammy winner, who has won everything from Grammys to Billboard Awards, penned the title track for Whitney Houston’s new CD, “I Look to You.”
“Whitney, that’s like my sister. We get into it all the time, but she didn’t understand the process, and Toni Braxton didn’t understand the process. You have to talk about them and crack on them. I’m a mama jokes specialist. Sometimes you got to get to cracking and ribbing on people to let them know how real yo ass is and how ghetto you is,” he said.
Kelly then re-enacted his conversation in the studio with Houston.
Kelly: Now say this. [Begins playing keyboard and singing Houston’s “I Look to You”] “As I lay me down…”
Then mimicking Houston’s voice, he said, “What the f—k you mean say that? That’s all you got?”
Kelly: “Hell yeah, that’s all I got! But just say that for right now. You gonna have to trust me some [continues singing ‘I Look to You’]. Then now when it all starts to come together halfway through the song, now yo ass wants to believe me! Yeah whatever.”
Kelly said he admonished Houston, urging her to get herself together before returning to the studio, because he wanted her in mint condition when they cut his songs.
“I told her to go get clean and refreshed, and sing my song like ‘I’ll Will Always Love You,’ and we gonna be alright,” he laughed.
The singer wasn’t laughing, though, when it came to producing the soundtrack for the movie “Life.” Kelly confessed that he begrudgingly gave up his song “Fortunate” for that CD.
“I hated giving ‘Fortunate’ to Maxwell! But I’m not selfish,” he giggled, before adding, “Just say catalog!”
Having written hits for the likes of Celine Dion, Syleena Johnson, the Isley Brothers, Britney Spears, Charlie Wilson and Ruben Studdard, Kelly confessed there is only one other artist he’s itching to get into the studio with.
“I want to get in with Stevie Wonder, man,” he shared. “I want to get in with Stevie because Stevie continues my legacy, and then I can continue his legacy. And then Stevie, of course, he’s done so many hits. It’s like sometimes it’s hard to get with somebody else that’s going to continue your legacy. It was pretty hard for me, and I understand I got to go to Atlanta to work with these new and younger producers and stuff if I want to stay current. I realize that I got something to give them, too. I got something to feed to them, but I got to realize they can feed me, too. So it’s hard to let your ego down, and you’ve written so many hits for yourself and did everything — keyboard, production, everything yourself. It’s hard to all of a sudden say, ‘Hold on, Kells.’ So I think it was pretty hard for Stevie to just say, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I got to do this with another younger guy.'”
Kelly said he originally wrote his song “Happy People” for Wonder, who passed on recording it. The track ultimately ended up on Kelly’s “Happy People/U Saved Me” double CD.
For the first time that I could remember, Kelly acknowledged his challenges with reading and writing while we talked in the studio.
“I have to be honest. The reason I don’t write down lyrics to songs is because I don’t spell too well,” he addressed.
After being asked what song from his massive catalog was his favorite, Kelly broke into an a capella rendition of his sexually charged “12 Play” before concluding: “I had all three of my kids off that record.”
Most recently, R. Kelly released a new CD titled “Write Me Back,” a continuation of the retro-inspired sound he first introduced on 2010’s “Love Letter” CD.
Earlier this year it was reported that Kelly owes the IRS a whopping $4.85 million in unpaid taxes.
The singer owes money for every year between 2005 and 2010. In 2005, he failed to pay nearly $1.5 million.