C+C Music Factory's fast footwork -- Everybody's dance band busts into the mainstream

There it was, plain as day. On Saturday Night Live two weeks ago, as musical guests C+C Music Factory performed ”MTV Medley” — with luck the only song we’ll ever hear with a in its title — the lithe, curvaceous, stunningly beautiful Zelma Davis belted out three words: ”Everybody dance now.” A little while later, she did it again. Then, still later — in case you’d just turned on the TV — Zelma Davis sang ”Everybody dance now” one more time. Coming after the not-yet-settled lawsuit filed last year by session singer Martha Wash, who originally sang those words on C+C’s hit record only to see her vocal mimed by Davis on the song’s video, it was proof positive. Zelma Davis, indisputably, can sing those three words — and has done so on national TV.

”I didn’t really feel the need to prove myself,” said Davis about an earlier performance, this time impromptu, at the podium of the American Music Awards show, at which C+C Music Factory received no fewer than five citations (it’s also nominated for a Grammy). ”Because if I couldn’t do what I could do, I would not be on Columbia, the largest label in the world. And they got that way because they know what they’re doing.”

If sheer record sales are any indication, C+C Music Factory knows what it’s doing, too. Worldwide, almost 5 million copies of its 1990 debut, Gonna Make You Sweat, have been sold, and even now it remains in the top 40 of the Billboard album chart. What’s the appeal? A musical approach to dance music the band itself defined best, printed on the back of the album: ”Rock + Soul + Funk + Pop + Techno = C+C Music Factory.” In short, it throws everything together, and — in hits like ”Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” ”Here We Go, Let’s Rock and Roll,” and ”Things That Make You Go Hmmmm….” — it works.

Critics who don’t like dance music — and dance music is the genre in which C+C Music Factory excels — often call it formulaic. But C+C not only provides its own formula, its members — who also include rapper Freedom Williams and, much more crucially, C+C’s creators, producers/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Robert Clivillés and David Cole — call themselves a factory to save anyone else the effort. ”The excuses you keep hearing about why record companies emphasize rock instead of dance stuff is that dance acts don’t sell albums, they don’t sustain careers, and they’re only as good as their last single,” says Ken Barnes, senior vice president and editor of the music trade magazine Radio & Records. ”Maybe we have an exception here.”

Of course, Clivillés and Cole have scored additional hits, with Mariah Carey, Seduction, Martika, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. Add to that C+C’s affiliation with the label that got so large because it knows what it’s doing, and what critics say has never meant less. C+C Music Factory = What America Wants. Now.

Item from Montreal’s Gazette, Aug. 27, 1991: ”Some 2,500 people were on hand at the Tucson Convention Centre when singer Freedom Williams keeled over onto his face on stage, out cold. His taped voice sang on. The crowd, thinking this was somehow part of the act, cheered for a minute, then caught on and began to murmur. When C+C’s Zelma Davis offered to finish the show without Williams, the crowd booed.”

So is C+C Music Factory really a band? Don’t ask Martha Wash. After the former member of Two Tons o’ Fun and the Weather Girls filed her lawsuit — alleging fraud, deceptive packaging, and commercialmisappropriation — perception was that Clivillés and Cole didn’t want an obese singer cluttering up their ”Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” video. Could the truth behind those claims — along with pressure from the suit — be one reason why the video ended up carrying the most intriguing credit in MTV’s history, ”Additional vocals by Martha Wash, visualized by Zelma Davis”?

Davis bristles at the suggestion that she’s C+C’s token sex object. ”I don’t really think that’s fair,” she says. ”I’ve earned everything that I’ve gotten, including my looks. I was not born just looking like this. I worked, I really did, from high school — I decided at a certain age I wanted to look a certain way, so I worked on it. I looked in magazines, I read articles in magazines…” She pauses for a second. ”I mean, all right, there were some features that were there, but I learned how to enhance it, and I realized that that’s hard work, too.”

Freedom Williams, former assistant engineer and now C+C Music Factory’s star rapper, can dig the sex-object thing. ”Hey, man, I go to the gym, I understand it,” he says. ”It’s part of what I do, you know what I mean? They used to call me a model — no one believed I was a rapper.” But he’s bugged about that other question: Is C+C Music Factory a band?

”When we go into the studio, no,” he says. ”We do not go into the studio and have a live drum kit set up, two bass players, a guitar player and horn player set up, all at the same time. You don’t make dance music that way anymore,” Williams continues. Michael Jackson’s new album wasn’t recorded by a ”band”; nor was the R&B group Guy’s. ”Somebody came in and played the bass part and somebody came in and played the guitar part,” Williams says. ”That’s how music has been done for the past 10 to 15 years. So in those terms, no, we’re not a band.

”But,” he adds — and here comes the good part — ”when we go to the stage, we reproduce our music through a live simulation which is called a ‘band.”’ Rarely has an era been so eloquently defined.

Clivillés, 27, grew up fatherless in New York City, the oldest of seven children; Cole, 29, born in Johnson City, Tenn., moved when he was 10 with his mother and three sisters to Passaic, N.J., where, as he sadly recalls, ”they teased me from the moment I stepped off the bus. I was probably one of the lightest black people they’d ever seen. I had red hair, and I had this reeeeaaal, reeeeaaaal slaaaaow accent. I was pitiful.”

In his teens, Cole would take the bus into New York, where he would hit a predominantly black and gay club called Better Days (which he chose partly, he says, because it was close to the bus terminal). ”I knew him,” says Clivillés, who sometimes substituted for the club’s regular DJ, ”as the nice little guy coming in — this weird guy saying ‘What’s up?”’

Soon they became a team, partly, Cole says, to support each other in an industry that can be difficult for minorities: Clivillés spun dance records; Cole improvised live keyboard accompaniment. In 1987 they produced their first song, ”Do It Properly,” an underground club hit on their own tiny record label. Later, with an eye on crossover appeal, Clivilles and Cole fashioned three pretty women — white, beige, and brown — into a C+C Music Factory prototype on Vendetta Records, the group Seduction, which scored four hit singles. In 1989, after Vendetta head Larry Yasgar took an A&R job at Columbia Records, he signed Clivillés and Cole to the label, and C+C Music Factory was born.

Cole is lanky, the one who seems more wholly haunted by music; Clivillés, the one with the biceps, studied business administration and management at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and is more likely to strike observers as having a career on his mind. ”It’s Clivillés and Cole from every lyric down to every lick,” he says emphatically. ”It was our decision to take Freedom’s shirt off, to have him choreographed like Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul instead of just another hip-hop rapper. Little things like that are important in creating an artist.”

Clivillés and Cole’s latest artistic creation may be their most intriguing yet: It’s the newly released album Clivellés + Cole’s Greatest Remixes Volume 1. Tucked among ”C+C Music Factory’s MTV Medley” and tracks by the Cover Girls, Seduction, Lisa Lisa (once Clivillés’ girlfriend) and Cult Jam, and Chaka Khan are three tracks by a brand-new duo-called Clivillés + Cole. You know, C+C. Without the other two.

The new record — sans Zelma and Freedom — hardly surprises people in the music business. ”The original concept of C+C Music Factory was that it was Robert and David, and each album would feature different singers and rappers,” says an industry source who has known C+C’s principals for some time. ”But there’s been this perception that because Freedom and Zelma have become very visible, they would become permanent members. My understanding, from talking to David — who I talk to somewhat often — is that that’s a fantasy on their part.”

Freedom Williams says he’s looking forward to his own stardom: ”I’m definitely gonna have a solo album,” he promises. Meanwhile, Clivillés and Cole’s lawyer, Jonathan Blank, cautions that both Williams and Davis just might have a future with the group: ”The success of the first album exceeded even our expectations so we are taking a look at the possibility of continuing with them.” Columbia Records, in a printed statement, would only say: ”Freedom Williams continues to be an exclusive recording artist for Columbia Records, and whether or not that will involve his working with C+C Music Factory or pursuing other projects is under discussion.”

”David and I always had dreams of performing,” says Clivillés. ”But we said, since we don’t have any time, let’s find people we can interpret our ideas through.” He looks back for a minute. ”We really get tired of working with groups we make successful. All of a sudden you’ve got to deal with these egos you’ve created.”

”Yeah,” says Cole, ”they forget what went down, what the process was.”

”And who it belongs to,” says Clivillés.

”So,” says Cole, ”there’s a big bright neon light shining, ‘I’m a star, I’m a star. Look at me.’ And that’s cool — but you should understand how you got there.

”And,” he adds, ”who’s got the control.”

Additional repporting by Diane Cardwell and Joanna Powell