It was like being struck by lightning. It was 1990, maybe 1991, and a music-loving adolescent named Randy Williams had just moved from Los Angeles to Orlando, Fla. Homesick and already enamored of so-called "Daisy Age" rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, he was fiddling around with the radio dial when he happened upon a local urban station and found his calling.
"The very night I moved to Orlando, I had my little alarm clock radio that I cherished (it had been a recent birthday gift)," he recalls. "I took it everywhere and that's how I listened to music. The first station I hit (in Orlando) was called 102 Jams and they were playing the quiet storm or what is otherwise known as a slow-jam show. The very first song that was on, and I remember it to this day, was called 'All I Do Is Think of You,' by Troop. It was a song about a kid who couldn't wait to get to school the next day to see this girl in class." Williams didn't understand how Troop could know him and write a song about his innermost thoughts. "I remember thinking, 'How do they know that's exactly what I'm going through?' That was a pivotal moment in my life. When I fell in love with the slow jam, the rest of my life was never the same." Although his family and friends still call him Randy, on that night R Dub! was delivered.
"I was born right outside of Chicago and lived there until I was 3. My parents split up. Dad moved to Florida; Mom moved to L.A. I spent the next 10 years growing up in L.A. with my mom. She got remarried and moved back to Chicago. I, in turn, moved to Florida to hang with my dad for a few years. I missed the West Coast horribly. I didn't realize what the difference between the East and West was. When you're a kid you think that where you live is like every other place in America.
"I absolutely hated central Florida. I hated Orlando; I didn't like living there at all. So when my mom and my stepdad decided to retire and leave Chicago, I remembered them looking at different cities and they mentioned Tucson. Tucson is where they landed and I raised my hand to come live with them. For me, it was just a way to get somewhat closer to California, to all my friends in L.A. Little did I know that all of my dreams were to quickly come true in succession that first summer I moved to Tucson, Arizona. The rest is history, which is why no matter where I go and whatever I do, I have so much love for Tucson and I almost feel like I'm cheating on the city itself—not that anyone's missing me there. I think, as corny as it sounds, the soul, the ghost of Tucson, is shaking its fist at me, 'I did so much for you and now you're gone!'"
A slow jam, in short, is typically a smooth, emotional, romantic R&B ballad. But that is an extremely loose definition; it's actually more of a guideline. Though the genre is rooted in the silky mid-'70s work of R&B artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, by 1983, the soul group Midnight Star had recorded a song called "Slow Jam," and a new format of radio was well under way. Legendary West Coast DJ Art Laboe had been doing oldies-dedication shows for at least a decade at that point, possibly making him the grandfather of the slow jam format.
Not that any of this was helpful to Randy Williams. Ever since he'd experienced his first night of slow jams, he was obsessed with music, and broke. "I'd spend all of my allowance on CDs. When birthdays would come up, I'd ask for gift certificates to the local music store. I knew when all the releases came out."
He also talked—a lot. But teenagers with the gift of gab are disruptive at school, and Williams had two problems. Or, as he puts it, "it clicked one day. I knew that I liked two things. I knew that I loved music but I was spending all my money on it. I always loved to talk and I loved attention—making people laugh, flirting with girls. That wasn't getting me anywhere except to detention. As I got more into music I started to wonder who are these guys who, A, get to talk; B, get to play music; and C, get a paycheck for doing both? It just clicked. Boom! 'I wanna be a DJ.'"
With the help of his mother, Williams landed a wedding DJ gig, but his next move proved to be more crucial in his career path. "Somebody told me there was a community radio station in Tucson called KXCI, and that I could go over there and get my own shift. I enrolled in a DJ class there. They taught us how to operate a transmitter and a microphone, really basic stuff.
"It was during that time that I was brought on KXCI by a gentleman named Larry Watkins, who was hosting an all-night, five-times-a-week slow jams show called Nyte Flyte. He needed the day off and said, 'Would you like to do this one day a week?' It was another dream come true. But I was so nervous I couldn't put the needle on the record, my hands were shaking so much. I would sleep the entire next day in school. That was KXCI.
"I believe I was a junior when I got the job at Power 1490," which was a short-lived Tucson hip-hop/R&B AM station in the mid-'90s. "I knocked on the door and gave the program director a tape of me on KXCI, my audition tape, and I was hired." It was here that he officially renamed himself R Dub! and premiered the very first edition of Sunday Nite Slow Jams, on Sunday, July 24, 1994.
Williams' school days were numbered at Amphitheater High School, where, as a fellow classmate, I would try to wake him up before the teacher would notice. He wasn't excited about graduating. "I remember at Amphi they had a graduation countdown (sign) in the hallway: 22 days until graduation, 21 days ... I was bitter every time I saw that. I'm not gonna lie, I enjoyed the attention. It was better than being the captain of the football team. When graduation came I was really depressed; I didn't go to any parties. One month after graduation, Power 1490 changed formats to an alternative rock station. I had nowhere to go. I thought it was over and I got a job at a bank.
"The only radio job I could get was a horrible job at a horrible station, WKGN 1340 AM in Knoxville, Tennessee. Worst six months of my life. It was a very cold city and I had no friends. I dreamed about the day I could return to Tucson. (The other employees) weren't too nice to me there. It was long hours, minuscule pay. I was poor."
The breaking point came in the form of a telemarketer's call to the radio station. "I was extremely lonely. I love Latin women and of course Tucson has an endless supply of beautiful Latina ladies. In Knoxville, in 1995, there were two Latinos in the entire town and they were both men. So, the hotline at the station rang, I answered the phone and it was a telemarketer from the Knoxville News Sentinel and her name was Angelica and she had a beautiful Mexican accent. She's trying to sell me the paper, and I'm thinking 'I just hit pay dirt! I finally met the one Hispanic woman in Knoxville!' She got done with her spiel. I gave her my spiel and told her, 'I'm from Tucson and I just moved here. I'm a great guy and I work for the radio! Would you like to go out sometime?' And she informs me that she's not located in Knoxville. She's actually calling from San Antonio, Texas, from a telemarketing company. And I was just crushed."
Williams decided Knoxville was not for him. He finished out his lease and planned a return to Tucson. He thought he'd be working at Fry's. It didn't matter. He says he "had begged and pleaded the folks at Hot 98.3 FM (in Tucson), 'Can I please just get a weekend or overnight job, anything?' I was four days away from leaving Knoxville. I checked my answering machine. ...(the program director at Hot 98.3) offers me the full-time, midday position. I couldn't believe it! The first thing I did was call my mom. 'Mom, you'll never believe who the new midday guy is at Hot 98 FM! Randy Williams!' She said, 'Someone else is using your name!'"
"So I came home to Tucson and that drive was the best drive ever. That morning I woke up, and my U-Haul was packed, and I said goodbye. Crossing that border from Tennessee into Arkansas—I had a boom box with me and I had a song cued up for every border I'd pass. It was a celebratory drive."
Once settled in at Hot 98.3, Williams had a fantastic experience, but it was not to last: Six months into his employment, the station was bought by none other than Art Laboe, one of Williams' idols. Although the two are friendly now, at the time Laboe and Williams (along with numerous other Hot 98.3 employees) didn't get along too well.
"Art Laboe had come in and made our lives miserable. So there's two things you can do: You can complain or you can choose to do something about it. We (Williams and a fellow Hot 98.3 DJ) chose to do something about it.
"We tried to find a radio station in Tucson with a good signal that was not performing well (ratings-wise) to pitch the hip-hop format to them. 97.5 FM was a country format and wasn't performing well. ...We literally ambushed the station owner's office. We came in with easels and pointers, charts and graphs. He was about to call security and we must have said something that piqued his interest. ... He calls his associates in and we have a three-hour meeting. He gave it the green light and probably a quarter of the staff from 98.3 followed us over. We turned on a station called Power 97.5, which ran up directly against Hot 98.3 FM. Within six to nine months, we were beating them (in ratings). It was complete guerilla warfare."
Despite Power 97.5's ratings and intentions, the station was bought out and switched to a light-jazz format within a year. Williams signed on with Tucson's top pop station, 93.7 KRQQ FM.
"I took a step backwards, doing promotions for KRQ. I was setting up tables and tents at events for other DJs, driving the van. But I had a part-time show. They let me bring Sunday Nite Slow Jams over. The most exciting part of my Tucson career was doing the night show at KRQ. We did a couple of regular bits. One was called 'The Roll Call' and it was just a silly song (a caller) would do with me and the other DJ in the studio. Looking back, it was such a silly, novelty thing to do, but people loved it. It was all about fun and I think it was something everyone in the car could sing along to, and to this day people who are now in their 30s will stop me and sing the Roll Call.
"We had huge ratings and I don't think that was because of my talent. It was because of a few silly and fun things we did that people enjoyed. That was a really awesome time because that was probably the last time when radio was still the star, the centerpiece of musical entertainment."
KRQ owner Clear Channel Entertainment soon bought Hot 98.3 FM. And Williams soon found himself back in that area of the dial and moving up once again.
"They moved me over there to do afternoons and shortly after that I got my first job as a program director. That was a whole other learning experience. I made some mistakes and had some victories as well."
He would remain program director of various Clear Channel-owned Tucson radio stations until 2007. That year, he moved to Los Angeles, where he would be program director at KHHT FM until 2009. He took some time off for himself in the following two years—an extended stay in South America; returning to college; and producing the award-winning documentary A.M. Mayhem, about his days at Power 1490.
In 2011, Williams moved to San Diego, where he currently resides, working as program director for both XHRM FM and XHTZ FM. His true calling, however, remains clear.
"Sunday Nite Slow Jams is my life; it's my passion. It's everything to me. It's not about money—I want my slow jams show to be in every market of the country. Being in a tiny market like New London, Connecticut, or Yuma, Arizona, is just as important to me as being on in New York City or Chicago. Making some money from the show is certainly a benefit and I love it, but if the money went away tomorrow would I still do the show? Absolutely. I get excited every time a new city signs on and I'm able to debut Sunday Nite Slow Jams in a new market.
"I enjoy it but I truly see the joy that it brings others who are listening to it. I think it's great music, but even more than that it gives people a real emotional connection. It helps connect them with others, with their loved ones, makes them feel good, makes them reminisce. I get joy knowing that something I do evokes feelings from others. That's just so rewarding, more rewarding than any paycheck could ever be. I'd like to this until I'm old and gray, until the day I die.
"(Sunday Nite Slow Jams) started on a little AM station in Tucson, Arizona, and today we are up to 64 radio stations across America. There's hundreds of different markets and my goal is to be on in every single city and bring slow jams to everybody. I know we have a listenership of over a million every Sunday night when you combine all the different stations together. My hope is that it makes a difference in people's lives.
"Today, in 2013, radio for most people is simply a convenience. People might tune in when they have a chance, for a few songs. I think the most successful shows in radio today are actually destinations or appointments, like a good TV show is. Kind of like how someone would say, 'I have to watch Breaking Bad or I have to watch Shark Tank on Friday night.' I would hope that Sunday Nite Slow Jams falls into that category or close to that. It's actually a destination where a large group of listeners make it a point to say, 'Hey, whatever I'm doing or wherever I'm at, I need to have the radio on between 8 and midnight to listen to Sunday Nite Slow Jams.' From the feedback I've gotten, in person, on the phone, and from social media, it seems like the show has that effect on some folks. If that's the case, I'm certainly humbled and very appreciative of that.
"There's a lot to compete with these days, between TV and social media and the millions of apps people have on their iPhone alone. What room do people have in their lives for a simple 'love songs and dedications' show on Sunday? The fact that they're tuning in gets me superexcited and leads me to believe that I think we're on to something and we have a good formula.
"What I love about Sunday Nite Slow Jams is the range of ages and genders and ethnicities that the show has. A lot of radio shows cater to one specific demographic, whether by design or not. Most specialty radio shows have a target audience and it's either one gender or ethnicity or one age group. The interesting thing about Sunday Nite Slow Jams is that I have yet to be ... (pauses) I'm surprised every time. I've met people of all nationalities, of all ages, and of all races that appreciate the show. We're talking about listeners in their 50s and 60s down to 7, 8, 9 years old. ... I'd like to hope it's a generational thing where someone's mother grew up playing slow jams in the house, so that child grew up with Sunday Nite Slow Jams, and one day will share the show with their daughter or son. I just hope it can go on forever and people stay interested.
"I do my best every Sunday, just delivering a great product for people and remembering two very important things. My creed and my motto inside my studio walls are that there are two stars of the show, and neither are me. The two stars of the show are the music and the listeners. Those are the most important factors. The day that a DJ forgets that is the day that he or she fails. It is all about the listener. That's what I live by ... I don't do personal or relationship advice. The listeners are not tuning in to hear about me. They're tuning in to hear about themselves—to hear dedications from them and to them; to hear a song that makes them reminisce, or have a special memory, or cry, or think of good times, or get over somebody, or remember somebody who may have passed away. It's all about them. I'm a curator, if you will, of slow jams."
On Friday, Oct. 11, Williams appeared on the ABC television show Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs throw investment pitches at five real-life mega-successful business owners. The proposal was simple: a $75,000 loan, to be returned with interest, so Williams could employ a full-time advertising salesperson to land Sunday Nite Slow Jams in more markets. The presentation was astonishing, featuring R&B artist Brian McKnight serenading the "Sharks," along with Williams' instant-classic line, "Let me ask you a question—have you ever been in love?" For whatever reasons, all five "Sharks" declined to invest in Sunday Nite Slow Jams.
Williams' thoughts: "What can I say? Being on the show was a dream come true. Just when I think I've done just about every exciting thing imaginable, I'm invited to appear on my favorite show in the whole world and sell Slow Jams not only to the Sharks, but to 7.5 million viewers. Although I didn't get a deal, there are no sour grapes at all. Not even a little bit. You have to understand that Shark Tank is my absolute favorite show. Imagine your favorite show in the whole world. Now imagine getting to guest star on an episode, where the whole segment is centered around you. I mean, it was simply surreal. After watching Shark Tank for years, I simply couldn't believe that I was now standing face to face with the Sharks. Is this even happening? I wanted it to last forever. I wanted to hang out with them longer. Tell jokes, get to know them. I pitched and was grilled for a whopping 46 minutes; six of which made it to TV. The editing they do to those segments is bananas. After the show, so many were quick to be that Monday morning quarterback, saying, 'You should have said this, you should have said that.' But I did say it. It was just edited out for time. I knew it would go down that way, and that's OK. My two goals were to, one, publicize Slow Jams. And, two, not get made fun of by the Sharks. They can be downright cruel to people. Mission accomplished! I'm so glad I did it, even if I didn't get a deal. Forty-thousand entrepreneurs apply to the show, I was one of 100 to get chosen. Simply amazing. It was a dream come true."
But the story didn't end there; it actually just began. By the following Monday, a few markets had picked up the show. More important, Williams got a surprising phone call from California law firm Jackson & Associates.
"This company contacts me on Monday and they're a legal defense firm and were looking for a creative way to advertise nationally and regionally. They had seen me on Shark Tank; they visited my website, contacted me asking questions, and by day's end we had a contract signed and a $75,000 deal. It's a better deal than I would've gotten on Shark Tank and I lost no equity in the company."
Jackson & Associates gave Williams an annual sponsorship that includes advertising and paying for the digital end of Sunday Nite Slow Jams: the official website, streaming, mobile apps, the web dedication/request submission form, as well as the phone request line.
Even when R Dub! loses, he wins. And after 20 years, it's still all in the name of the almighty slow jam.