Slouched regally in a hotel suite, Jay King is, as always, eager to deliver his rap about the revolutionary new force in popular music: himself. King and his band, Club Nouveau, will soon make the world forget, he says, all who came before. “Thanks to us there is a new thing, a new vibe,” he proclaims. “Most acts, especially black acts that established themselves in the ’60s and ’70s, are ready to get their asses kicked out. It is a new day.” While Lionel Richie rolls over to tell Michael Jackson the news, King crows on: “Prince is the Prince, but I am the King.”
Don King, maybe. A brash entrepreneur who seems to have learned modesty at the knee of Muhammad AN, Jay King jokingly tops off a self-rhapsodizing soliloquy with the phrase “Am I a stud or what!?” Even Warner Bros., the record company that released Club Nouveau’s debut LP, Life, Love & Pain, reportedly tired of his nonstop self-promotion one day and had him removed from the company’s Los Angeles offices. That the ban hasn’t been permanent may be attributable to a couple of large, profitable facts: Life, Love & Pain has sold more than 1 million copies, and the band’s single, Lean on Me—a funked-up remake of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit—more than 6 million. Not bad for a bunch of anonymities. In addition to background singer King, 24, Club Nouveau includes vocalists Valerie Watson, 23, and Samuelle Prater, 20, and producer-musicians Thomas McElroy, 23, and Denzil Foster, 24—who hail from Northern California.
“Jay has as long a line of BS as anybody I’ve ever known,” says Benny Medina, a Warner’s executive who fell for King’s line, signed him up and agreed to let King have his own label, King Jay Records. “He can be a nuisance, but he has never failed to do a single thing he promised. He even promised us a platinum album, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t deliver that, too.”
Although King sings and dances with the group, his principal roles seem to be that of guiding spirit and chief tub-thumper. “Jay isn’t always there for all of the recording,” says Watson, a Stanford University graduate in mathematics who doubles as the Club’s bookkeeper. Yet he has final say over the band’s music because she says, “he is very in touch with the sounds on the street.”
By his own account King has spent a lot of time on the street. The son of a city worker and a registered nurse, he grew up in rural Oroville, Calif., ran away from home at 14 and dropped out of school in 11th grade. “Kids used to laugh at me in high school, and I was voted ‘Most Unlikely To Succeed,’ ” he says. “After I dropped out, I lived on the streets or in shelters or just stayed with friends. I panhandled to get money for food.” At 18, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Anchorage, where, he says, he was discharged in 1982 after scuffling with an officer. Unlikely jobs as a “political consultant” and Alaskan legislative page followed, as well as work as a concert promoter and robotic dancer in his own troupe, Close Encounters of the Funkiest Kind.
Back in the Bay Area by 1985, King connected with a local rap group called the Timex Social Club, whose song, Rumors, would become a surprise hit of 1986. “I sold my furniture and car to finance the recording and pressing,” says King, whose indefatigable promotional efforts—King can name dozens of major-market radio stations by their call letters—helped Rumors become a Top 10 million-seller. When King and the band parted company, Watson, a Timex singer, followed him. “It was clear to me that the success of Timex was due mainly to Jay,” she says. “I don’t think they saw all the promo work he did to make it happen. They were dumb.”
After forming Club Nouveau last spring and recording a Rumors sound-alike single, Jealousy, King shopped the tape to a dozen record companies. “I thought I was somebody,” he says. “They said I wasn’t. They thought I was too young, too black, and they didn’t like the way I talked. They laughed at me. They treated me like a chump. They said there was no way what I was doing would ever happen. Well, I proved them wrong, didn’t I?”
For an encore King hopes to make a film, tentatively titled Just Watch the Movie. He also plans to develop acts for his King Jay label, tour with Club Nouveau, which is booked as the opening act for Madonna‘s summer tour, and produce some cuts on LaToya Jackson’s next LP. He says he isn’t daunted by the challenge to repeat his initial success. “Some people don’t know how to win,” he says. “I don’t know how to lose. I’m here and I ain’t leaving.”