C&C Music Factory's Robert Clivillés, Zelma Davis, Freedom Williams, and David Cole (Photo courtesy of Robert Clivillés)
In 1991, there were few musical groups hotter than C&C Music Factory. Launched into the stratosphere on the power of their breakout single "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," the New York-based act solidified their white-hot status when they won the 1991 Billboard Award for Best New Pop Artist, beating out Boyz II Men, Color Me Badd, EMF and others. After performing an elaborately choreographed medley of their hits, representatives from the group—co-founders Robert Clivillés and David Cole and vocalists Zelma Davis and Freedom Williams—assembled at the podium to accept their award.
Williams, who rapped the two verses on "Everybody Dance Now, appeared longhaired and shirtless onstage. His ripped abs glistened with sweat. He closed out the group's acceptance speech by pointing to himself and declaring, "This ain't the C&C Music Factory." He then pointed to the screaming audience. "That is the C&C Music Factory!"It was one of the last appearances C&C Music Factory would ever make together.
26 years after its release, everyone knows "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)." The song, which spent more than six months on the Billboard Hot 100 chart after being released in October 1990, helped solidify the post-disco, dance-pop era of the early 90s, joining a barrage of club-oriented Top Forty hits by artists like La Bouche, Haddaway, Technotronic and Black Box.With its instantly recognizable staccato guitar riff and soulful, core-rattling refrain—"Everybody dance now!," scream-sung by 90s vocalist Martha Wash—the song has become something of a pop music cliché. Today, it's still a go-to anthem for basketball games and wedding parties, and has soundtracked countless movies and TV shows over the years, including Space Jam, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Simpsons, and The Office; it even appeared on a 2013 compilation of dance music released by Ellen DeGeneres, and in a 2016 Applebee's commercial.
But the story of the song's rise to prominence—along with that of the group that made it—is a far less straightforward affair. Since the late-90s, "Everybody Dance Now" and the name "C&C Music Factory" have been the subject of a bitter battle between the group's co-founder, Clivillés, and the now 50-year-old Williams, who left the group shortly after C&C Music Factory's Billboard Awards appearance to pursue a solo career.Though he departed from the group in 1992, Williams legally trademarked the C&C Music Factory name in 2005. According to Clivillés, Williams has been performing shows under the C&C Music Factory moniker since the 90s, including recent shows in United States, Australia, and Brazil. Now, Clivillés is saying that Williams is profiting unfairly by positioning himself as the group's main (or only) member—when he was merely hired on contract as an ensemble player.
On July 2, 2016, Clivillés posted a 1,382-word, public open letter on his own Facebook page addressed to Williams, threatening legal action to get the C&C Music Factory name back. In the letter, Clivillés indicates that he's prepared to take Williams to court and asks, "Why must you profit/steal and distort from our hard worked & earned history? [sic]" The post racked up over a thousand likes and hundreds of shares, including hundreds of comments from friends and fans echoing Clivillés' outrage. But Clivillés told THUMP that Williams' responded by simply blocking him on Facebook. Williams has also repeatedly declined requests from THUMP to comment on this story, responding over Facebook message on August 29, "I'm way to [sic] busy at the moment to be bothered with that aspect of my business."
This is not the first C&C Music Factory-related controversy over how its members are credited. In 1991, Martha Wash, who sang the huge vocal hook in "Everybody Dance Now," sued the group after another C&C Music Factory vocalist, Zelma Davis, lip-synced her parts in the song's music video. The case was settled out of court, with Sony requesting that MTV add a disclaimer to the video crediting Wash for vocals and Davis for "visualization." According to Rolling Stone, Wash's fight for proper credit set an important precedent for artists' rights in intellectual property law; following her case, federal legislation was created to mandate vocal credits on all albums and music videos. Had this legislation been in place when Wash recorded her vocals for "Everybody Dance Now" she likely would have been properly credited in the video for her contribution to the song.
Clivillés and David Cole met in the mid 80s, when Clivillés was DJing at New York City club Better Days. Before they had their big break with "Everybody Dance Now," they worked behind-the-scenes, co-writing and producing songs for artists like Chaka Khan and Grace Jones, co-producing remixes, and acting as managers for various groups. Together, they wrote and produced four songs on Mariah Carey's 1991 album Emotions, including the smash hit title track.According to Clivillés, who spoke to THUMP on the phone from his home in New York this past August, he originally wrote "Everybody Dance Now" for Trilogy, a New York-based freestyle act he and Cole also managed. After Trilogy passed on it, Clivillés and Cole decided to use the track to launch their own collaborative project, C&C Music Factory. Clivillés said that when he presented the instrumental version of the track with Wash's vocals to Sony/Columbia execs Tommy Mottola and Donnie Ienner in 1990, they "immediately" signed the duo to a five-album deal. "Everybody Dance Now" would be the lead single from their 1990 debut LP, Gonna Make You Sweat.
Clivillés said he and Cole were "C&C," while the vocalists they recruited to sing on their productions were their "Factory." "It was a group created to feature new, unknown acts, or acts that maybe had a few hit records but were not known worldwide," Clivillés explained. Over the years, C&C Music Factory included, Clivillés said, more than a dozen singers, including Martha Wash, Deborah Cooper, Zelma Davis, members of Trilogy, and, of course, Freedom Williams.
Born in Brooklyn as Frederick Williams, Freedom Williams met Cole and Clivillés in 1989 at New York's Quad Recording Studios, where the pair were working on various tracks and remixes. According to Clivillés, Williams' had a job sweeping the hallways and cleaning the bathrooms at the studio, and was also going to school to become an audio engineer. Clivillés said he helped get Williams promoted to an engineering assistant position at Quad. It was during this time that he and David Cole also heard Williams rap for the first time.Then in his mid-20s, Williams had a rich, baritone timbre and a rhythmic flow that was at once deadpan and bombastic. "I thought he had a good, deep voice for the mic," said Clivillés, who recruited Williams to rap on "Everybody Dance Now." Williams has a writing credit on the song; according to Trilogy member Duran Ramos, Clivillés wrote the first two lines of the rap—"Here is the dome/back with the bass"—and Williams wrote the rest of the two rap verses. (According to Discogs, Williams also has writing credits on four other tracks from Gonna Make You Sweat. Wash was listed as a backup singer on the album, though not the lead singer). Clivillés claimed that's as far as Williams' contributions went. "He had nothing to do with the photo or video sessions, the creation of the music, or the rest of the songs in the [C&C Music Factory] catalog," Clivillés said.
A lot of the time, Robert would forget The Factory. It was like, 'Dude, we're the Factory. How does the Factory run without any workers?"—C&C Music Factory featured artist Duran Ramos
According to Clivillés, Williams signed a contract to become one of C&C Music Factory's featured artists. Under the terms of the contract, which was essentially an open-ended development deal, Cole and Clivillés would provide Williams with opportunities to record and perform with C&C Music Factory as well as other groups that Cole and Clivillés managed, like the female dance-pop trio Seduction. Speaking with THUMP, Clivillés stressed that the agreement framed Williams as one of C&C Music Factory's many featured artists, but not as a founder or owner of the group, a designation reserved exclusively for himself and Cole.
Ramos, who had a featured artist contract similar to Williams', explained in a phone call with THUMP that each person recruited to be a featured artist with C&C Music Factory had a similar contract. "Pretty much everyone had the exact same agreement," he said. "We were featured artists… it was like getting hired for a part.""C&C Music Factory was always clearly David Cole and Robert Clivillés," said Zelma Davis, who was one of C&C Music Factory's lead vocalists. "Freedom and I were told that we were featured members of the group, not owners of the band."
"Everybody Dance Now" skyrocketed the members of C&C Music Factory to fame, with the song getting major play on MTV and earning the group a number of accolades, including the aforementioned Billboard Award. Gonna Make You Sweat also generated a number of other hits, most notably "Here We Go (Let's Rock & Roll) and "Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…" In February of 1992, Clivillés, Cole, Williams and Davis appeared with actress Susan Dey in a commercial promoting their appearance as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
But shortly after this performance, Williams was gone. According to Clivillés, in 1992, Williams asked C&C to release him from their contract together so he could launch his own career. "We featured him on C&C Music Factory to establish him as an artist, so he could then take it solo," Clivillés said. "The group blew up so fast that by the third single, he was like, 'Yo, I'm good. I'm out.'" Clivillés and Cole let him go, recording their sophomore LP, Anything Goes!, without him. The album generated a few successful singles, although nothing would match the massive success of "Gonna Make You Sweat." Then, in 1995, David Cole passed away from spinal meningitis at the age of 32. After releasing a final album, 1995's C+C Music Factory, Clivillés dissolved the group.Williams' 1993 solo album, Freedom, had stalled on the charts, with its lead single—the synthesizer-laden "Voice of Freedom"—peaking at number 74 on the Billboard Hot 100. It remains his only solo album to date. Williams also tried acting, performing in a 1996 episode of the Showtime erotic drama The Red Shoe Diaries before eventually vanishing into obscurity. In a 2014 video interview, he talks about making income as a construction worker.But in the late 90s, Clivillés received an odd piece of news from his friends: Freedom Williams, he was told, was performing solo shows across the United States under the C&C Music Factory name, even though he had left the group years ago. Clivillés said he asked Williams to instead bill himself as "Freedom Williams formerly of C&C Music Factory" and that for a while, Williams did so. Clivillés said that it wasn't long, however, before he started seeing William playing shows in which he presented himself as a member of C&C Music Factory. Then, without notifying Clivillés, Williams legally trademarked "C&C Music Factory" under his birth name Frederick Williams in 2005. In 2015, he trademarked "C&C Music Factory" under his company Freedom Williams Entertainment LLC.
According to Colorado-based intellectual property lawyer Shirin Chahal, Williams was able to claim C&C Music Factory's trademark rights because he had toured with the name in the late 90s and early 2000s. "If Williams was touring nationally and his music under the C&C Music Factory name was getting national-wide play—radio, clubs, wherever—he would have a great position that he established common law trademark rights," Chahal explains.Williams has played at least eleven C&C Music Factory-related shows in 2016. On his most recent tour flyers, Williams sometimes positions himself as "Freedom Williams of C+C Music Factory" and "C+C Music Factory Feat: Freedom Williams." Another says "Freedom Williams, the original frontman, face and voice of C&C Music Factory"—with "the original frontman, face and voice" in almost comically tiny font. A few just say "C+C Music Factory." Williams often appears at clubs and casinos alongside other 90s nostalgia acts like Snap!, Corona, and Tone Loc, performing shows that are energetic, if somewhat disjointed. When he performs "Everybody Dance Now," he typically has a female performer singing over Wash's hook. Clivillés estimates that Williams makes between five and ten thousand dollars per booking.
"[Williams] is profiting from the name," says Clivillés, who notes that the name "C&C Music Factory" was never trademarked in the 90s. "He's intentionally telling people that he's the actual creator of the group… It's time that something is done about it."
Former C&C Music Factory-featured artist Ramos believes Williams' actions are motivated by issues deeper than money. According to Ramos, Williams and Clivillés often clashed back in the 90s, with Clivillés frequently reminding Williams that he wasn't anything without C&C."Freedom has strong disdain for Robert," said Ramos, who claimed he remains friendly with both sides. "He would tell you that Robert is controlling, manipulative—that Robert thinks he's the man and didn't see how everyone else made it happen, which I would agree with. A lot of the time, Robert would forget The Factory. It was like, 'Dude, we're the Factory. How does the Factory run without any workers?"Clivillés remembers the situation differently. "The only disagreement I ever had with Freedom was that he wasn't humble when the success came to him," he said. "He immediately thought he was the man, and that cost him his career overnight."Ramos believes Williams is now attempting to get back at Clivillés, and lining his pockets in the process. "It's revenge," Ramos said. "Absolutely."Still, Ramos thinks Clivillés is ultimately in the right. "By taking the name of C&C Music Factory," Ramos said, "[Williams] is taking bread from the table of people that were a part of it, like Trilogy, Zelma, Deborah Cooper and so many others. He's performing songs like 'Do You Wanna Get Funky?,' which he had nothing to do with. That was a song I wrote, and he's doing my rap."
"I think it's very arrogant, what Freedom is doing," Ramos concluded. "He'll say Robert is arrogant, but what he's doing [by performing as C&C Music Factory] is the same way."In June of this year, Williams performed "Everybody Dance Now" on longstanding Brazilian variety program Domingão do Faustão. In Portuguese, the show's host asks Williams about the history of the song. Williams replies that he wrote the song for a group he produced for back in the day—when it was actually Clivillés who wrote and produced the instrumental track and laid down Wash's vocals for Trilogy—and that he was homeless at the time of the song's creation. "He's really talking about me, which is weird," said Ramos, who himself was intermittently homeless between 1987 and 1990. "You've gotta be a little nuts to position yourself that way."
Though Williams declined to comment for this piece, he did make what appeared to be a public acknowledgement of the accusations leveled at him on Instagram, posting an apparent response shortly after Clivillés' open letter. Amongst selfies, travel photos, concert videos, and event flyers promoting C&C Music Factory shows, Williams shared a text image stating, "One of the most annoying things you could do is get into an argument on social media with a person who makes no sense and watch people agree with them."While Clivillés said that he and Williams are not in contact, a few months ago, Ramos claimed he attempted to broker peace between them in conjunction with a television show about C&C Music Factory he was planning to pitch to VH1. (Ramos said the show didn't pan out.) Meanwhile, Clivillés said he has requested all of the original C&C Music Factory contracts from Sony and is interviewing potential lawyers as he gets organized to sue. According to Chahal, his legal options for cancelling the trademark are narrow: because the original trademark was issued more than five years ago, Clivillés will likely have to sue for trademark infringement.Beyond his Instagram posts and performances, Williams remains silent. He doesn't have any current tour dates on the calendar as C&C Music Factory, but his most recent performance under that name happened on September 17, in Fresno, California.Despite the taste of worldwide fame C&C Music Factory experienced two and a half decades ago, it seems a judge will now decide who's free to get onstage and relive these past glories. Regardless of the legal outcome, this situation serves as a reminder that behind many of the enduring tracks in the pop culture canon, there are often small armies of artists and producers fighting over credit and money. Spotlights fade—often sooner than musicians hope—and everyone is left scrambling for a piece of the legacy.Follow Katie Bain on Twitter