Dyana Williams wanted details about the strip club.
Huddled in a windowless room at the historic hip-hop label Def Jam, Williams, a 64-year-old communications coach and artist development specialist, pressed rapper Fetty Luciano, an energetic new signee fresh from a stint in prison, on the finer points of his future aspirations.
The rookie artist, who was arrested in the 2014 gun-and-gang conspiracy case that paused the rise of the Brooklyn rappers Bobby Shmurda and Rowdy Rebel, Fetty’s older brother. He told his new adviser that he planned to make $100 million before he died. (“Kylie Jenner money!” Williams noted. “Forbes money!”) To get there, he hoped to start a clothing line. (“Men or women?” Williams asked. “It does matter.”) He could model, especially for durags and stocking caps. (“That’s kind of dope — I’m writing that down,” Williams said.) And he shared his plan to oversee a chain of strip clubs, for yet another revenue source not tied to music.
Williams pressed for more. “I’m assuming Brooklyn?” she said.
No, the rapper responded, growing more engaged and animated with each follow-up: “Maybe somewhere in Manhattan or Queens, where there’s a lot of traffic,” he said. “It’s nasty in Brooklyn. A lot of cops and a lot of enemies.” She added the information to her growing dossier.
For four hours, Williams coaxed Fetty, 23, into outlining his goals and biography — from a promising high school basketball player approaching his senior prom to three years in prison and a turn toward rapping — while monitoring his body language, eye contact, speech patterns and focus. She held up magazines like flashcards, quizzing him on each title’s target demographic, and encouraged him to keep up with interviews by his competitors.
The intensive session, like so many before it for Williams, was aimed at prepping the rapper for his first full day of glad-handing media outlets. The record label had brought in its secret weapon: a well-connected industry veteran with a voice like aloe vera and a maternal mien.
Summing up Williams’ bona fides, Gabe Tesoriero, Def Jam’s executive vice president of media and a longtime publicist for Kanye West and Justin Bieber, cited a line about the Grateful Dead: “They’re not the best at what they do,” he said, “they’re the only ones who do what they do.”
A throwback to the days of Berry Gordy’s Motown and its etiquette coach Maxine Powell, Williams, who said she was paid hourly “like a lawyer — a high-end lawyer,” has spent more than two decades as a freelance media adviser and strategist for just about every prominent label and artist management team. From the embryonic stages of Rihanna’s and Bieber’s careers to the ups and downs of D’Angelo, Williams has been in the background with tips, encouragement and, when necessary a dose of, “What the hell are you doing?”
She has testified on behalf of Meek Mill, had an unfruitful meeting with West after his Taylor Swift VMAs moment (“I don’t need any coaching,” he told her), and warmed up T.I. for his 2010 post-prison tell-all interview on “Larry King Live.” Beyond the record business, there have been CEO clients and athletes like Michael Vick and Allen Iverson, but music has remained Williams’ core.
And while her students have spanned genres (members of the Dave Matthews Band, Pete Wentz, Pitbull), young black artists have been a focus, with more and more neophytes coming to Williams as the industry doubles down on rap and R&B, much of it emerging raw from the depths of the internet.
“The new babies, they’re clueless,” Williams said at breakfast before her session at Def Jam. “They have talent, but many of them don’t know how to talk about the talent.” Her goal, she explained, was to warm up these musicians for their turns in the public eye, arming them with surefire charm and communication tactics while lodging potential pitfalls in the back of their minds.
“You’re talking about people who come into acclaim, notoriety and money, sometimes on top of each other, and they’re coming from disadvantaged circumstances,” Williams said, detailing the culture shock that can occur for some new stars. “Come on now!”
Her résumé, knowledge base and upbringing have helped make Williams the go-to artist whisperer — a disarming presence amid a parade of demanding executives and business associates. “I’m part analyst, I’m a champion, I’m a critic, I’m a mother, I’m a sister, I’m a sister-girlfriend,” Williams said. “Some artists are guarded, but I penetrate super fast.”
She continued: “When they see me on their schedule, they think I’m going to be an old white woman with a ruler — strict and mean,” Williams said. “But very early in the session, I may say” — she let loose a string of empathetic obscenities. “I’m world-traveled, I’ve met with presidents in the Oval Office, but I grew up in the hood — the Bronx and Harlem,” she said. “I’m not prissy.”
Born in New York to a black father and Puerto Rican mother who worked as a college professor, Williams spent her formative years uptown in what she called the “post-civil rights, ‘I’m black and I’m proud’” era. Taken from a young age with jazz and soul music, she found her path as a teenager upon entering the radio station at City College of New York — “love at first sight,” she said.
A year later, much to her mother’s chagrin, Williams dropped out of school and became Ebony Moonbeams, a sultry, late-night disc jockey at 96.3 WHUR, a Washington, D.C., station owned by Howard University. She was paid $6,000 a year.
As one of the few on-air women in radio at the time — and all before her 21st birthday — Williams became a sought-after talent, taken under the wings of black radio legends like Rob Crocker, Van Jay McDuffey and Frankie Crocker, with increasingly prominent jobs at storied urban adult contemporary stations like New York’s WBLS and Philadelphia’s WDAS.
Cathy Hughes, the creator of the Quiet Storm urban format who went on to found Radio One, said Williams had always been “very committed to the preservation of black music,” and called her “the best natural talent” she had encountered in the business.
Williams went on to have three children with her now-ex-husband, the songwriter and producer Kenny Gamble, throughout the 1980s, and as she was preparing to re-enter the workforce, the hip-hop age was dawning.
“She was already at the top of the game, so I was like, ‘Why don’t you teach other people how to get to the top of their game?’” Hughes recalled. “Particularly with these hip-hoppers, they were making great songs and great amounts of money, but please don’t ask them anything past hello,” she said. “They didn’t have any artist development.”
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Gamble credited Williams with being “able to change with the industry and re-create herself,” combining her personality (reliable, “full of life”) with her connections and passion for black music and “social consciousness.” (The couple successfully lobbied for the designation of June as Black Music Month under President Jimmy Carter, an effort that Williams pushed to make official under President Bill Clinton.)
Along with imploring D’Angelo not to chain-smoke during interviews for his 1995 debut album, “Brown Sugar,” Williams would put in time with artists from Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records, L.A. Reid’s LaFace and Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def, setting a foundation for her company, Influence Entertainment.
“People call it media training, but what she does is share tools on how to communicate,” said Jana Fleishman, the head of communications at Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. “She doesn’t come in and say, ‘OK, let’s make up a life that others will think is interesting.’ She sits and listens and says, ‘You are interesting, special and amazing just the way you are — and now we’re going to communicate that to the world.’”
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Artists, of course, are not always immediately receptive. T.I., who has worked with Williams for nearly a decade, through arrests and tabloid tremors, said that when his label first set up a session, “I very vehemently denied that I needed any media training.” However, “She’s a great listener,” he soon learned. “She’s an incredible judge of character and she finds ways to understand where you’re coming from. That allows her to communicate in a way impactful enough to get more out of you.”
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Williams said she had very rarely failed to connect with an artist, though she did recall walking out of a session with the troubled young rapper Kodak Black at his mother’s house in Florida. “I don’t tolerate foolishness,” she said. “At the end of the day, I’m a professional, a mother, a grandmother, a black woman who is striving for improvement in my community and with my youth, especially with my young men.”
But with the ever-shrinking timeline between being discovered and surging to international fame, Williams knows her window can be limited. “The internet is a whole new factor,” she said.
With the runaway superstar Cardi B, for instance, there simply wasn’t time to schedule a session amid the attention deluge, though Williams noted that, for once, she might have been useless: “She’s that artist that you don’t want to tamper with too much because people are captured by the realness.” (Young Thug, too, has proved too slippery for a sit-down.)
For others, it’s the basics — “how to go to a restaurant and order, how to talk to somebody when you’re checking into a hotel, how to meet your fans” — along with articulating a “prime-time message — who, what, where, when, why and how?” Williams said.
These days, in addition to familiarizing herself with an artist’s catalog, she will do a deep dive on their social media accounts, looking for both personal insights and red flags. “I have artists who have drug addictions, mental health issues, sex addiction, other women, other men,” Williams said. “It’s not just media coaching — it’s human concern, and I keep up with them long beyond the physical session.”
Bri Steves, a rising singer and rapper from Philadelphia, said she spoke with Williams “every other day.” “I don’t view it as a working relationship,” Steves said. “She’s really a friend, she’s really a mentor.” And she credited Williams with encouraging her to finish college, even after signing with Atlantic Records. (Williams eventually finished her own degree at Temple University.)
At Def Jam with Fetty Luciano, Williams commanded the room with grace, combining a therapy session with a job interview.
She presented the rapper with a book, “The Big Payback,” which chronicled Def Jam’s founding and the beginning of hip-hop as big business, reminded him to study the glossary of insidery industry terms she had provided and advised him to use the topic of his prison sentence as a pivot toward discussing what’s to come.
“I firmly believe that you got this,” Williams told the rapper, adding that she would be FaceTiming him before his interviews to review what they’d discussed. “I’m not going away, I’m telling you now,” she said.
Fetty mirrored her confidence: “Now I know how to handle these cameras and these microphones,” he said.
Williams beamed. “Shine on these people,” she said.