R. Kelly was in trouble again, and it was really bad this time. It was 2002, and police were investigating a sex tape that appeared to show the R&B superstar with a 14-year-old girl. Of all the scandals that had stirred around Kelly in his decade of fame, this one felt especially dire.
But Kelly remained a potent talent, a hitmaker who suavely skipped from sexy make-out jams (“Bump n’ Grind”) to inspirational tear-jerkers (“I Believe I Can Fly”), and the industry wasn’t done with him yet. Even as bad publicity swirled, Kelly could always retreat to the studio, where he wrote No. 1 hits for some of the world’s biggest stars, including Michael Jackson and Celine Dion. And that’s just where David McPherson needed him.
A rising young executive at Epic Records, McPherson had made his name by signing the Backstreet Boys and Mandy Moore and was eager to launch the label’s new boy band, B2K, with Kelly’s behind-the-scenes guidance. He did, however, ask one question about the star’s offstage life.
Is this stuff true? he asked Rocky Bivens, a Kelly assistant, according to Bivens.
“Did you watch the tape?” Bivens recalls saying.
McPherson told him he had not. Bivens said he hadn’t either.
“Because, Dave, if I watch the tape and that’s him, I’m gone and you’re not getting those records,” Bivens said he told McPherson. “I’m glad you did not watch those tapes.”
In February 2003, B2K soared to No. 1 with “Bump, Bump, Bump,” a hip-hop earworm featuring P. Diddy, written and produced by Kelly. Two months later, McPherson soared to a new job, promoted to run the new urban music division for Epic’s parent company, Sony.
McPherson, who has since left Sony, did not respond to multiple interview requests. He is far from the only industry figure who worked with Kelly and benefited from the partnership, even as a cloud of allegations — mostly involving the sexual abuse of young women — began to grow around the star.
For more than two decades, the recording industry turned a blind eye to Kelly’s behavior as his career continued to thrive and he was afforded every luxury of a chart-topping superstar.