Between the years of 1986 and 1991, the pulse of young black America was soundtracked by a rhythmic explosion that rippled dance floors, Kenwood speakers, and Cross Colours colorways. It was called “New Jack Swing,” a term coined by esteemed journalist, author and screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper. In a 1987 Village Voice cover story, titled “Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing: Harlem Gangsters Raise a Genius,” Cooper framed a pivotal cultural moment as he saw it, similar to how writer Alain Locke did before him in 1925 with “The New Negro.” But where the latter delivered a compilation of works demonstrating the intellectual advancement of African Americans during Harlem’s renaissance, Cooper’s piece captured the rumbling before the eruption — courtesy of Teddy Riley.
As progenitor behind the gold-tinted sound, Riley’s trailblazing production rose out of Harlem’s cracked concrete to eventually become the yellow brick road of pop music. With the help of Andre Harrell and Uptown Records, including the talents of Keith Sweat, Al B Sure!, Guy and Michael Jackson, Teddy’s jam united a generation under one groove.
In an attempt to chronicle the rise of the genre, REVOLT presents "Groove Me: The Story of New Jack Swing."
Andre Harrell: founder of Uptown Records
Teddy Riley: godfather of New Jack Swing, producer
Edward "DJ Eddie F" Ferrell: producer
Keith Sweat: singer
Al B. Sure!: singer, producer
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson: leader, producer, drummer of The Roots
Kelly Griffin: longtime DJ, Head of Music Programming at REVOLT
Round & Round, I Go…
In 1987, Barry Michael Cooper profiled a young Teddy Riley for the Village Voice and christened his musical style: “New Jack Swing.” But prior to this induction, producers like Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Antonio "L.A." Reid, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis had explored a similar strain of melded R&B in the 1980s. Albums like Janet Jackson’s Control and Babyface’s own Tender Lover had provided the perfect precursor. But while quietstorm-y, soft ballads stood as the essential ingredients for rhythm and blues at the time, the elements planted by Jam, Lewis, Babyface, and L.A. Reid would soon cultivate into a fusion for the ages.
DJ Eddie F: The term “New Jack Swing” came from… I don’t know if it was Teddy Riley or Andre Harrell that coined the phrase.
Andre Harrell: Barry Michael Cooper coined [the name]. He is synonymous with the whole New Jack Swing, ghetto fabulous, and understanding in movement. He, I guess, is the Hemingway of that era.
Al B. Sure!: Barry Michael Cooper was one of the authors for most of the major iconic urban films in all history from the ‘90s (“New Jack City,” “Sugar Hill”). He understood what the terminology was. New Jack Swing was the expression of a culture that was affected by whatever was surrounding us, just like with hip-hop. Hip-hop was a language of the street. New Jack Swing was another version of the language of the street and all the things that was going on surrounding our generation.
Eddie F: Theres’s different musical components of New Jack Swing. [It’s] the first iteration of what I call “hip-hop mixed with R&B.”
Andre Harrell: It sounds like a combination of funk meets go-go meets hip-hop.
Eddie F: It’s really the beginning of mixing hip-hop and R&B music together.
Keith Sweat: It’s harder beats mixed with some real music — just real R&B with 808s and them drums and snares. [These elements] made it feel like more urban than just soft [R&B].
Kelly Griffin: It had a shuffle to it and that shuffle was different. The R&B was there. The melody was there.
Al B. Sure!: It was the beginning of an era of this youth movement musically that birthed so many different genres.
Eddie F: A lot of times, when you hear New Jack Swing you think of the swing beat, the snares, but that’s not truly just what New Jack Swing is. [It’s] the foundation of everything you hear today, where you have mixing hip-hop and R&B, singers being featured with rappers, rappers being featured with singers — that’s the whole movement of what was created.
Harrell: I don’t think there’s any difference between R&B-New Jack Swing or hip-hop-New Jack Swing when you talk about [artists] like Heavy D, Guy or Bobby Brown. It all made you hit the dance floor and start dancing hard and sweaty.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson: I heard breakbeats in there. I heard samples in there. It was almost like I had to scientifically break it down like, “Wait, are singers allowed to sing over tracks like that?”
Eddie F: There was a formula to [it] and as producers, we didn’t use like a whole bunch of equipment. It was stuff that was affordable. The most expensive piece of equipment back then was the SP-1200. Then as we advanced it was the AKAI, the S-900, the S-1000, the MPC-60.
Questlove: It [was] such a conflicting feeling, but it felt so new and so fresh at the time.
Eddie F: Picture this — at this time, hip-hop wasn’t integrated into R&B because [it] was a young music form and most of the R&B artists were older. The only R&B artists that I knew of that were like younger were New Edition.
Michael Bivins of New Edition: Back then hip-hop couldn’t get licenses to go into the buildings. So all of the Run-DMC’s, Whodini’s and the Fat Boy’s, they had to come on tour with us because that was the only way they were gonna get around the country.
Eddie F: This is coming from a time when you had to make rap versions and no rap version of records. There were no cursing on records, no cursing on the radio, barely in the club. Some rap versions wouldn’t play on the radio, so that’s where we coming from. You had to make rap versions and no rap versions because some of these [records] wouldn’t play on the radio.
Sweat: [Labels] also didn’t usually let artists write their own material. They always called in people like Paul Laurence, who were writing stuff for people, just to name a few. So this new sound, it wasn’t what everybody else was doing.
Eddie F: You would hear elements of hip-hop records, whether it be a horn hit, whether it be the snare drum, whether it be a little piece of a loop, but it was incorporated in a real authentic way. You would hear scratching and things beforehand, but it wasn’t like authentic, it was computerized before New Jack Swing came.
Sweat: When we came out with this sound, it was like a breath of fresh air for everybody. And people was gravitating towards [it] because it was totally different and so on point.
Harrell: New Jack Swing was hipster music.
A$AP Ferg: It was jiggy.
Harrell: Cover outfits and haircuts —
Ferg: It was silk outfits. It was the Rooftop, gumby haircuts.
Harrell: Dances like Kid ’n Play or like Bobby Brown “My Prerogative.”
Ferg: It was “New Jack City,” the one scene when Flavor Flav daps Wesley Snipes in the club. That’s the vibe.
Harrell: And it got invented by Teddy Riley.
As the crack plague swept through the five boroughs, emerging out of the billowing debris was Edward Theodore Riley. Hailing out of Harlem’s infamous St. Nicholas projects, or the St. Nick, Riley put his focus on the groove and in turn saw his stock rise. Prior to his profile in the Village Voice, he had Pirelli tires and car stereos rattling around Harlem to the first hints of New Jack Swing, which appeared on songs like Classical Two “Rap’s New Generation,” Kool Moe Dee’s “Go See the Doctor” and Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick’s “The Show.”
Al B. Sure!: New Jack Swing is a rhythm birthed and created by Theodore a.k.a Mr. Teddy Riley, but influenced from gospel and a culmination of all the different genres of music that came before us.
Teddy Riley: New Jack Swing had no color line, meaning it didn’t have a style. It’s a music style that dresses for the occasion. The same way Janet Jackson, who did New Jack Swing with Rhythm Nation and the album before that, that’s their interpretation of them being inspired. So for me to be the one to start this eclectic style, which before New Jack Swing was called heavy R&B, we took it to the next level. We added rap to singing because it was just singing.
Sweat: Teddy became the producer of producers because at that time, you couldn’t find a producer that could do hip-hop and R&B and do it as good as he did it, or as well as he did it.
Riley: I had this dream of putting Michael Jackson and James Brown together, Michael [Jackson] and Prince together, or Marvin Gaye and Luther [Vandross] and mixing that shit up. That's what I dreamt and I had to make my dream come true by putting it in my music.
Al B. Sure!: If you listen to most of the sound, it was almost like Teddy Riley was a street orchestra all by himself.
Riley: From Mighty Clouds of Joy to the Winans, go-go, funk, blues on a song like “No Diggity,” I was just mixing that shit up. You can’t threshold the music because it’s so much more. Music is a universal language and it speaks to everyone. The notes, the theory speaks to everyone and that’s the one thing that this music will do for you. It’s just plain and simple. Heavy R&B, you put all styles of music into one bag and that’s what you’re going to get. That’s what I always did.
Al B Sure!: It was almost like a combination of — it could be from hip-hop to Quincy Jones to Beethoven. What's incredible is that Teddy, just also having extremely rugged beats, he was melodic and musical. So this is a cat who could make a church move and get in the club and cut up.
Eddie F: It was more musically correct and you would replay music over because you had a person, Teddy Riley, that was an actual musician and keyboardist that was playing.
Riley: It all started when my father bought a Telstar keyboard. From there I later graduated to a Fender Rhodes. Every time I got a new piece of equipment, I created a piece of music. I got my influences in church. At the time, nobody was coming with the authentic, eclectic, off beat fusion styles. It was just so much in me. People just didn’t understand it. I don’t go by format. I don’t play chess by the book, I play street chess.
Harrell: Teddy Riley is the king of New Jack Swing, because he invented it.
Riley: I really thank Andre for giving me the credit, but I give the credit to all of us. Babyface and LA Reid, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, we all just seperately collaborated on building this genre. I [also] have to give it up to Quincy (Jones), who’s my mentor and idol, Prince, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Roger Trottman, Benjamin Wright, and then I would say band-wise Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s the theory of music. I was a sponge. I soaked the theories and playings of Larry Dunn and Greg Phillinganes, all of those guys.
Sweat: That’s what created that sound because we were blessed to be able to enjoy the Stevie Wonder’s of the world, the Lionel Richie’s, the Rick James’, the O’Jays, the Quincy Jones’ — to the point that we could take so many genres of the music that we had already and take that and introduce it new, younger at that time to what we already were listening to as kids growing up.
Harrell: I knew Teddy [Riley] since he was 12 years old playing keyboards at Amateur Night at the Apollo for different artists. [He's] always been nice and easy going, like a gifted young person. Had that glow, that personable charm. I remember he used to play for his brother-in-law, Omar Chandler, and that’s where I really knew him. I met him backstage at the Apollo.
Al B. Sure!: It's extremely hard to describe a Teddy Riley outside of saying the word prodigy. Teddy's a prodigy. He's a very unique individual.
Sweat: Teddy grew up in the St. Nicholas Houses and I grew up in the Grant Houses. Teddy was on 127th-131st and 7th and I was 125th on Morningside and Amsterdam.
Riley: Keith was in a band called Jamilah and I was in a band called Total Climax.
Sweat: Before we even had a hit record, we were in different groups back in the day.
Riley: We competed against each other in the Big Apple Band Contest and we won, we actually beat Keith Sweat’s band and Johnny Kemp’s band and we won the whole New York Big Apple contest.
Sweat: I wouldn’t say competed [Laughs]. We would do the club scene. We would do different clubs, so one weekend they might be performing at a certain club on 7th Avenue, 8th Avenue, Red Rooster, whatever and everybody would just play different venues. It might be us one weekend, it might be them the next. Kinky Fox, who had Johnny Kemp (“Just Got Paid”) in it, that was a group back in the day that would play different venues. That’s what we would do. Club hop with different settings.
Riley: We were in Harlem World. I was there when Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee had the battle raps. Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J. I was there in the flesh. When Doug E. Fresh and Larry Love, when everybody was rap battling, beat battling; that was the movement, the time.
Kelly G: Little do people know, Teddy Riley produced “The Show” by Doug E Fresh.
Doug E. Fresh (via): We used to cut school to do music and then we just started making stuff up and then one day, I had a friend of mine named Slick Rick, who I was doing a record with and I came up with an idea called “The Show.”
Harrell: Doug E. Fresh lived a couple blocks from Teddy.
Riley: I used to go see Doug E. at the real Harlem World, 116th and Lenox Ave. Doug E. used to always rip it up because he was the human beatbox. We ended up going to the same high school — I had just got transferred to that high school — and he was the well known guy there. I actually got to meet him [a few months later], and a neighbor brought him to my house. I got to meet him and we just got right down to making music. I had my Oberheim DX, tuned down the shaker and the Tom-Tom. What was on my mind was I just wanted to be on and however way I could get on, I got on.
Harrell: “The Show” was the first New Jack Swing record in my opinion.
Riley: I think it’s Doug E. Fresh, but I also did a record called “Raps New Generation” by Classical Two. That was another people’s favorite. Look that up and look up “The Show” and tell me the dates of what came first, because I was just doing records.
Harrell: “The Show” was my favorite rap record at the time. I remember me and Russell (Simmons) were doing a show at Madison Square Garden and it was Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Whodunit, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Doug E. Fresh. I remember sitting in the meeting and we were going over the lineup and I kept saying, “Doug E. Fresh when he comes up with ‘The Show’ that’s gonna be a big moment. You better figure out exactly where he goes.” Everybody kept saying “Doug E. Fresh, Doug E. Fresh?” like it was no big deal. That record started [and] it was ridiculous.
Kelly G: It was just so disruptive. It was like, “What is this record?” This was back in the day when you were listening to the radio with your recorder trying to tape things off the radio. Even “The Show” had a little bit of a “shuffle” to it. The swing wasn’t as defined as a Run-DMC “My Adidas,” but it was just fascinating to get that swing. That record, it was just monumental.
Doug E Fresh: From that point, you knew he had to knack to really cultivate your ideas and really get them out there the way you wanted them to be out there.
Riley: See, I never realized we were on to something. I just kept going.**
Moneyearnin' Mount Vernon
While Teddy’s Jam had the people talking, a couple of boys up in Mount Vernon were also up to something. After hitting the golden ears of Andre Harrell, Heavy D would join the mogul at Uptown Records (via MCA Music Entertainment) in 1986. The fold was founded after Harrell left his former post at Def Jam Recordings. As the story goes, Harrell originally wanted to sign Heavy D to Def Jam. After talks with the label went left, Harrell took his laurels to MCA and secured a joint venture deal for Uptown, where he signed his first act Heavy D. As frontman of Heavy D & the Boyz, Hev brought along a few of Mount Vernon’s finest into the limelight: DJ Eddie F, Al B. Sure!, Pete Rock, “Trouble” T. Roy, and Glen "G Whiz" Parrish, among others. Collectively, Heavy D & the Boyz were a winning formula and they’d help further New Jack Swing’s reach. But a key to this recipe was none other than the production stylings of Edward Ferrell, better known as DJ Eddie F, who would produce a bulk of timeless gems. In addition, the camp would also produce Uptown Records' biggest star: Al B. Sure!
Eddie F: I equate this whole thing to Motown — the original Motown. When you go back and listen to the sounds of Motown, in the beginning they had all these records where it was more tambourine-based, high-pitch. Then in the middle [of that era], it kind of switched over to disco when you had Diana Ross and she did the Upside Down album and then you have Lionel Richie and the Commodores, the sound progressed. That to me was what happened to New Jack Swing.
Al B. Sure!: The key to this entire conversation is about the sound, sonically. So when we were in the projects in New York creating this, our sound had to be tight and had to be big, the kicks had to be grimy, and the snare had to be popping. Let's say with the Minneapolis sound, they prided themselves on using that very specific sound. In New York, we were doing more sampling and filtering it and making it punch, adding blaring sounds. So the sound represented the region.
Kelly G: Sort of the soldier that didn’t get his due respect is definitely Eddie F. Eddie F played a vital role. Teddy Riley was the known, but Eddie F was the one underneath making a lot of that happen.
Eddie F: When I was coming up, I started as a DJ, but you kind of pick whether you’re gonna be a DJ or a rapper. You kind of picked one. Everybody who came up in hip-hop, if you a fan, you picked whether you were gonna be DJ or a rapper, and you might be a dancer, but not too many people got too serious into the dancing. You would dance, but there was a couple of crews that [had] that as their main thing. If I broke it into percentages: 45% of people wanted to be a DJ, 45% wanted to be a rapper and then maybe 10% wanted to be dancers. That’s how it was and that’s what you were doing. So you in East Coast, New York area, any of the boroughs and then Mount Vernon is bordered on two sides by the Bronx, so things that were happening in the Bronx, they were happening in Mount Vernon too.
Al B. Sure!: Teddy Riley was able to bring it to life to his artists. So with myself, Kyle West, Pete Rock, and the whole Mount Vernon team as producers, we all took that influence, just like we were influenced by the music before us, and then branched off into our own version [with] our own expression.
Harrell: Only a handful of people did it well. Teddy Riley did it well. Al B. Sure! did it well. Eddie F did it well. Those the three people that I can remember that definitely did it well.
Kelly G: Just think of the whole Heavy D & the Boyz were so influential. So you had Eddie F as a producer that was part of the Boyz. You had Heavy D who ended up on every record. He was your go-to guy for friendly, radio-driven rap.
Harrell: Eddie F was really solid and good with it.
Eddie F: I was a person that was the bridge, because I was involved in the beginning. I got taught by Teddy [Riley] and Marley [Marl], had my own production crew The Untouchables.
Al B. Sure! I remember making that phone call to Def Jam and saying "Hey we have this artist named Heavy D." They were like, 'What, the Fat Boys?' I was like, "Nah, it's completely different. This cat is brilliant. DJ Eddie F, Trouble T. Roy, G Whiz. It's a lifestyle group that's gonna say something." I think at one point we wanted to speak to Russell Simmons, so we asked who was on the phone and that person was Andre Harrell. We didn't know back then, but just having no fear, we had a product that we wanted to get out there.
Harrell: Eddie was also accessible. Being that I had his group (Heavy D & the Boyz), being that I was the manager, I could always go to Eddie F for a record.
Al B. Sure!: Eddie was probably one of the main reasons on planet Earth how Al B. Sure! was released to the globe. [He] kept my cassette tape in his arsenal of music, so anytime he was out making moves, he was always introducing it to whoever was there.
Harrell: Al B. Sure! was a producer from Mount Vernon, Heavy D's neighborhood. The first record he made in the studio was when Heavy missed studio time — he was working with Heavy as a roadie — and he said to me, "Heavy's not coming, can I use the studio?" I said, "I got to pay for it, go ahead." He came back and produced "On Your Own." I was listening to it and was like, this is a hit. Light-skinned people is back [Laughs].
Al B. Sure!: We're grateful things worked out the way they did.
Harrell:I signed him, made a deal over at Warner Bros. with Benny Medina and he became the Sony innovator, which Quincy Jones picked. He was our first really big star that really brought us out to Hollywood and had us moving around at the American Music Awards, he was nominated for Soul Train Awards (he won), he was just a huge star.
Al B. Sure!: I believe I'm the first platinum artist on the label. Me and Andre had nicknames for each other. He would call me "Baby Quincy Jones" and I would call him "Baby Barry Gordy." But our mindset was that we were creating, and Eddie being the glue, a boutique version of what Motown represented. Motown Records was such a massive entity worldwide and it covered every genre, but it was focused in its delivery of what the message was. We very specifically would pride ourselves on creating experiences on each record.
Make It Last Forever
By 1987, R&B and hip-hop were beginning to merge, which set the dawn of New Jack Swing in motion. Heavy D & the Boyz stretched its appeal, pulling it from Harlem to the Billboard charts, but for Riley, there was still much work to be done. Despite his invented sound being such a hot commodity — acquiring production credits for everyone from Doug E. Fresh to Heavy D & the Boyz — Teddy’s invented sound remained a localized sensation. Contemplating on the potential of his sound, Riley would soon crystallize things forever with a fellow Harlemite.
Sweat: Once I got my deal with Vintertainment/Elektra Records, I went to Teddy because I already knew he was phenomenal on the keyboards and he was a phenomenal young producer.
Riley: I was shooting dice with my brothers and Keith came around the block after work — Keith was a broker on Wall Street — and he came to my block and [joined] the game with us and took everybody’s money. I became partners with him and we took everybody’s money and left the game — we left everybody with a little throwaway so that they didn’t say we left them with nothing — and we talked about doing R&B.
Sweat: I got my deal off of “Don’t Stop Your Love,” and I knew Teddy had also did hip-hop beats. So I went to him like, “I got a deal and “Don’t Stop Your Love” was supposed to be the first single, so I want you to work with me on my new album.”
Riley: Then I gave him my whole vision of me doing music and that wasn’t what I was into until he just said, “Yo just try some of those church chords and chords that you did with the band.”
Sweat: We were already friends and it wasn’t like I just met him. It was like boom. He knew what I did, I knew what he did, so we already knew from that point that the collaboration would be crazy. He already knew that I could write, I was in another group and he was in another group. Everybody who knew me at the point knew that I could sing and write.
Riley: He was like, “Man just do what you did with Total Climax and do what you did in church. Put that all together and we could probably come out with the whole album. I want you on this album man. I think it’s going to be incredible and be a big thing for you, for me, two Harlem kids going hard.” And that’s how we went in.
Sweat: A lot of the pre-production was done at Teddy’s house in St. Nick, the projects. So we already had the pre-production done and going in the studio, we already knew what we was going to do. So we would go ahead and lay the tracks down.
Riley: The first song we did was “Make It Last Forever.” It was [that song] and he was like, “Yeah, I like that. This is what I would do on it.”
Sweat: I was like, “Yo it would be kind of dope to put a female on this joint.” So I sung the whole song first and then came up with the idea to go put a female on the joint. After Ted heard what I did, he was like, “That’s incredible.”
Riley: Then he came the next day and I had “I Want Her.” That’s when it turned to, “Let’s take this shit to the studio.” He was like, “You doing this in your apartment and I want to make sure it sound the same in the studio.” So we went to the studio and we just started cutting tracks and it became something. I had just got my new vocoder, a SV 350 Rolling Vocoder, and that’s how I made “How Deep Is Your Love.” He was like, “Yo let’s just do another one.”
Sweat: With “Something Just Ain’t Right” it was like, “Yo Ted I got this idea.” For “In the Rain” it was, “Yo, I used to always love this song by the Dramatics.” So the collaboration alone and how we were working [on the album] was insane. What he didn’t do, I did. What I didn’t do, he did. If he laid the track and walked, when he came back he realized the song was done complete with hook, melody, lyric and verse.
Riley: We just kept cranking. That’s how it went.
Sweat: We were doing a song a night, a song a day, a song a week. [Plus] it was only eight songs, so we finished that album in about maybe two to three months. “Don’t Stop Your Love” was only done, so it was just seven songs to do. We just did the seven songs in about a matter of maybe a month the most.
Harrell: With Make it Last Forever, I just remember hearing Keith Sweat records on the radio and being moved by them and feeling like I was a part of it.
Sweat: When the album dropped, people went crazy. It was climbing up the charts, flew off the shelves, and DJs were playing two, three cuts off the album. It was one of those things that you could only dream about. This was my first album and it sold four million albums, that’s unheard of for a new artist. Being unknown, from Harlem, from Grant Projects [Laughs]. That was unheard of. Right there in itself speaks volumes.
Riley: Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” was supposed to be on that album, but it was too late because the album was mastered.
Harrell: I remember I went to Keith Sweat’s triple platinum party and I felt like it was my party because I had Al B. Sure!, Heavy D, eventually Guy and I felt like we were in the same family. I probably felt like it was my party because I had three Keith Sweat’s. Well, I can’t say I had three Keith Sweat’s because Keith Sweat sold three million albums off that first album. So maybe my three was one Keith Sweat. I met my son’s mother at that Keith Sweat’s party. [Laughs]
Don't Clap, Just Dance...
In 1987, following the mega success of Make It Last Forever, Teddy aligns with Andre Harrell, the architect of “ghetto fabulous,” at Uptown Records. In addition to inking a deal with the master exec, the hitmaker brought along a singing group that comprised of himself, lead crooner Aaron Hall III and singer-songwriter Timmy Gatling. The trio would be called Guy and, through Harrell’s guidance, they delivered a new flavor to R&B.
Riley: One day, Andre Harrell came Uptown to actually put everything together to get me to work with Heavy D and all the stuff that he had going on. When I was forming Guy and Timmy Gatling brought Aaron Hall to me, I basically took it to [my manager] Gene [Griffin] and we took it to Andre, who put this whole thing together and got it signed to Uptown Records. That was the start of everything.
Al B. Sure!: When I first started rocking with Andre Harrell, he was like, "Listen I need you to go sit with this cat Teddy Riley, he's in the projects over here on this street. Go down here, listen and learn." Andre saw that I and Kyle West (producer) had come up with a unique and interesting sound, but what Teddy was also unique. He was infusing that type of production with a real gritty, rugged, but still melodic and orchestrated.
Harrell: I think I already had Heavy D a hit, Al B. Sure! already had a hit, so Guy being my next group, when I got that kind of heat, me being that excited about Guy, I had already said that [they] was getting ready to change the game. When I like something, I’m kind of like a preacher on a national tour just talking about evangelizing it. And I would evangelize Teddy, New Jack Swing and Guy. I would play the record for you one time and look at you like, “Do you like it?” If you didn’t know if you liked it, I was looking at you like you might be lost forever or we’ll get to you when we come back. I wasn’t trying to sell it to you, I knew you were just out of beat and off-step.
Sweat: When Teddy dropped Guy and it happened for Guy, it was like, a statement is being made that we weren’t just one-single, one-record people. We made the kind of great albums that you can get four, five hits from.
Harrell: [They] culturally just brought back feelings you had when you first heard Charlie Wilson with Aaron Hall’s vocals.
Questlove: When I first heard Guy’s “Groove Me,” they were on Soul Train when I first heard that song, the first thing I said was, “Wait, I didn’t know that R&B singers could sing over hip-hop stuff that I listen to.”
Harrell: Whenever I think about “Groove Me,” I see the Gucci girls in the video in the red just coming out there, that’s what I think about “Groove Me.” When I had “Groove Me” and I’m riding around in my Jeep and I’m sitting there with “Groove Me” and I’m like, I got the change the world on this tape. It was like discovering light or water. It was something that was going to be amazing.
Kelly G: Back in college we used to be like “I think Teddy Riley did a deal with the devil.” And that’s because he had every record on the radio and he was producing everything.
Riley: I did Schoolly D, DJ Hollywood, I did [records for] everybody. I was working with everybody, I was going from studio to studio. I felt like a doctor. I can make it, mix it, master it and get it out. That’s the thing everybody saw in me. Gene used to call me “Midas,” and I didn’t know what that meant until I saw the commercial for “Midas touch.”
Harrell: “My Prerogative” probably capsulizes the whole idea of New Jack Swing. New Jack Swing was music for young people by young people and when Bobby Brown came with “My Prerogative,” he had the attitude to go with it and it was kind of making a statement that it’s our time.
Kelly G: It was such a great moment. It was just the sound. The track was just like, ‘What is that?!’ No disrespect to Bobby Brown, but anybody could have killed that record. That was a time when the producer sat down and lived with the artist. There was that, ‘Hey man, I know we supposed to work on this project, come live with me for a while.’ That’s what created that magic. That’s what made these classic albums. People took the time to vibe and create something so personal [and] so real that it transcends and connects with people on a different level.
Harrell: Teddy Riley used to make them in his house so fast, it was ridiculous. I remember I was in his house when he made “Him or Me” from Today. He would just start off with the drum machine and be watching you. He does it in the living room of his house in the projects and he’d be watching people who are in the house. So if there’s three of us and if he drops the beat and we going like this, he looks at us and drops the bassline. So once you get the drumline and the baseline, that’s damn near the record. Then he throws the hi-hat in to keep the energy up and then he finds the hook and you off to the races. You go from “Him on Me” to “My Prerogative,” sometimes he would just change the baselines.
Riley: Bobby Brown came to the projects and when he came, me and Aaron [Hall], we were just writing records and creating songs. We didn’t know who it would be for because we had already finished the Guy album. “My Prerogative” could’ve been on the Guy album and it could’ve been, people said it should’ve been, but everything happens for a reason.
Harrell: We already had funk. We already had groups like Cameo. But “My Prerogative” and Bobby Brown coming from New Edition with all that fame and all that swag, he set the tone for New Jack Swing to be an international affair.
Riley: Bobby Brown, he deserved it. People were hating on [Bobby] because he left New Edition and they didn’t think he was gonna do it. He just busted out with Babyface, LA Reid and myself and it came with this total crazy album and did so well. It was a big record for him and such a big impact on New Jack Swing. My thing was, let’s take it to another level. Every time we did something, we took it to another level.
Kelly G: Anything that becomes really successful and touches people in a such an emotional way always starts with: why. I think that’s what fans connected with. That indescribable “why.” Like, it was about Bobby’s “why.” It’s “My Prerogative.” And It worked for him because that’s him. It started with that “why.” All of these albums that are classics are centered on a “why.”
Harrell: Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid" might be the biggest New Jack record. If we look at the charts, "My Prerogative" and "Just Got Paid" might've been the two big pop records.
Questlove: It was definitely one of those periods where you just had to be there to see the excitement of it to go clubbing and to see people’s responses to New Jack Swing.
Remember the Time
By the end of 1989, New Jack Swing had impacted over 11 albums and a flurry of Billboard charted singles. Whether interpolated by other producers (Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison”) or soundtracking films and television series (“House Party,” In Living Color), Riley’s sonic gumbo had everyone calling. Artists like Stevie Wonder, Soul II Soul, James Ingram, Stephanie Mills, the Winans’ and even Boy George reached out. By 1990, it seemed as if there wasn't a music star left that Riley hadn’t worked with. That was until Michael Jackson enlisted his duties for the 1991 album Dangerous. As Jackson’s eighth studio album, Dangerous would be the pop star’s first release without Quincy Jones, who executive produced his dazzling trifecta of Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. Partnering to create a new tier of innovation, the team-up culminated in Jackson’s most socially conscious and inventive album to date. The tandem of Riley and Jackson produced three Top 50 pop hits (“Jam,” “In the Closet,” “Remember the Time”). “Remember the Time,” the album’s second single, quickly became a standout as it peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 and received a primetime video premiere on BET, MTV, and FOX. As a single, “Remember the Time” reached the Top 5 in nine different countries, including the United States, Canada, the U.K., Spain, France, Ireland and New Zealand. The single also won an American Music Award for Favorite Soul Single and a Soul Train Award for Best Single.
Riley: Music like a time bomb. If you do not detonate it at the right time, it’s not going to blow up. That’s what New Jack Swing was about. You got pick your timing. Like I picked the timing of when I dropped Wreckx-n-Effect “Rumpshaker” or “New Jack Swing.” It was about timing. MCA/Universal we always had that timing when it came to dropping a record. I always say to people that you’re not a star until the music becomes one. Fall back and let the music shine. Back in the day, that’s what New Jack Swing did. It created styles, it created a movement. It created dress codes when you came to club.
Ferg: We had our own sound. That was Harlem, that was New York. That was jiggy. And I love the fact that during that time Teddy Riley was so popping that he got the chance to work with Michael Jackson on his album.
Harrell: When Teddy worked with Michael Jackson, it was like a major statement for Teddy, a major statement for new jack swing, and a major statement for Uptown Records. It was like the greatest star in the world is paying attention to what we doing.
Riley: So one day, Michael called me and basically said he [originally] wanted me on the Bad album. He said to me, “Who is this guy with the bald head that was your manager. You still work with him?” I said, “Who you talking about?” He said, “I'm talking about this guy named Gene [Griffin]... we were supposed to have you on the Bad album and he gave us so many conditions that we had to pass.” So that was the reason why I didn't make it on the Bad album. Quincy [Jones] had introduced my music back then and who I am to Michael and Michael basically was like, “Man if we would've had you on that Bad album, it would've been amazing.” But when he said it, he said, “Everything happens for a reason and you’re here now and I’m so happy.”
Kelly G: In my humble opinion, I think Michael, obviously just the outlier of any type of artist we’ve seen in the last 100 years, but he was also a guy that was a student of entertainment, culture, and art. So he was always challenging himself and as a result, he always challenged other people he worked with.
Riley: Before I even thought about pressure, shoot, I was nervous as heck. At one point during the session, Michael just checked me and said, “I don’t want you to be afraid to tell me that I’m off key. I don’t want you to be afraid to tell me anything. I want you to take control of this session, I want you to take control and be like how you are with Guy or [everyone else you worked with]. Just check me.” So I had to do that.
Kelly G: When he decided to part away from Quincy for Dangerous, I don’t think it was a ‘Quincy, I ain’t rocking with you know more.’ He was probably like, ‘We did Thriller, we did Off The Wall and Bad, we made amazing history. What’s the next phase?’ And Michael, who was always listening to all types of music, was [probably] like, this kid Teddy is doing some crazy stuff.
Ferg: That just goes to show you that Michael was paying attention.
Harrell: Not only was [Michael] paying attention, he wanted to get down with it and take it to another level. That whole thing was affirmation of the best kind.
Sweat: When something hot comes out, everybody likes to follow suit. That’s the way it is. So it wasn’t no surprise that MJ and other people would follow suit because you do, or you try to do what people want to hear right now at this moment.
Riley: At one point, during the beginning of the whole thing, I didn’t do no interviews or nothing and Michael checked me again. He was like, “Can I ask you a question? You don’t want to be a part of this project?” I said, “Of course, something wrong?” He said, “Yeah, you’re not talking about it.” I said, “Well, you had me sign a nondisclosure agreement.” And then he started laughing. I thought I wasn’t supposed to talk about it, but he was like, “You’re different, you can talk about this project. I want it out there because you have a fanbase and I need that fanbase. I need people to know you’re working on this record.”
Kelly G: If you ever talk to Teddy, he would be like, Michael pushed him.
Riley: Early in the sessions, he pulled out this board, called the “Projects Board,” which I always have in my studios now, of all the songs and the songs that we like and the songs we so-so like and the songs we don’t like at all. He pulled it out and I see my songs at the top of the list. It’s about 40 songs and I see “Black and White,” “In the Closet,” we didn’t even do the music and he was like, “[These] are the songs you’re doing.” He makes the titles before he makes the songs.
Kelly G: If you listen sonically to what Michael was doing, the sounds on there was just nuts. His “why” was very clear and very defined.
Riley: He came up with “In the Closet,” I came up with “Can’t Let Her Get Away.” I had did the track and everything and he was like, “This is going to make the album.” He didn’t even have the words. He gets excited when it comes to doing records. He makes it an event, every record is an event. We’d spend the time to get it to that point where it blows people up when it comes on.
Al B. Sure!: I give an enormous amount of credit to Teddy Riley for maintaining who he is as a producer when you're working with artists. Teddy maintained being Teddy while working with arguably the biggest artists on planet Earth and he delivered. He stuck to Teddy Riley and that was the brilliance in the entire project.
The Party's Not Over...
At the tailend of its streak, following a grand stamp from Michael Jackson, New Jack Swing quietly transitioned into a new amalgamation: hip-hop soul. Like New Jack, Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records was the hub of this soundtrack, thanks in large part to the vision of newcomer Sean “Puffy” Combs. From the introduction of singing sensations like Mary J. Blige and Jodeci to the rise of producers like Trackmasters and The Hitmen, the traditional elements of New Jack Swing transformed into a new phase. Between this new induction and Harrell’s Uptown fold scoring a whopping $50 million multimedia deal with MCA — a deal that included music, television, and movies — New Jack Swing had effectively evolved from a hit genre to one ever-evolving cultural movement.
Harrell: New Jack Swing was a sound that combined the go-go feel, the funk, and hip-hop all in one. It made history and [it] made me a lot of money [Laughs]
Riley: I did this coming from the projects and all we have coming from the projects is a buck and a dream. When you have a buck and a dream, trust me — Diddy, Pharrell, everybody — had a buck and a dream and that dream came true for everyone. That’s basically my take on it and on why the music is impactful still to people like it was to people before.
Questlove: Watching music kind of aimlessly find the next portal that it would challenge creativity through at that time, to live through the New Jack Swing period was an amazing thing to observe and to be a part of.
Al B. Sure!: This music birthed so many different genres in the industry. What people don't realize, they have to recognize. We went from the streets to Wall Street.
Questlove: For me, having been around in 1987, 1988, New Jack Swing was, for me, one of the great wonders of the hip-hop period of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Riley: I don’t even think, any of my guys who followed me, thought about [the impact]. We street guys, there’s no tomorrow and that’s how we act. So the realization was never in my whole journey. I realize today, the impact. Being on that stage, made me realize and people will remind you. One guy came up to me and said, “Yo you owe me child support.” [Laughs]. He was like, “I made too many babies on your records.” When we did shows, we’d see guys in the audience crying because they remember where they’d been. They lost their love, like the love of their life was there when that music was there. So that’s the impact I realized later on.
Harrell: New Jack Swing had the shortest run I ever seen in music. It basically hit from 1987 to 1991. It had the highest impact and shortest run I've ever seen. I don’t know why it was so short.
Riley: We started it, the pop bands and the white boy bands, they took it to the next level. You know why? Because we did something, we hold on to it and then we let it drop or we let somebody come in, take it and run with it. That’s all it’s been since the beginning of the music business — music period. We start it, they finish it.
Al B. Sure!: The genre had a run, but it was a massive run. Now, that R&B and New Jack sound, is the global digital footprint all over the world right now. I don't like calling it a genre, I call it the soundtrack to our generation. It's so prevalent all over the world.
Eddie F: If you want to say New Jack Swing as the Teddy Riley era, or the first phase, you can say that. But really, New Jack Swing was also the foundation and the root of what ended up becoming hip-hop soul. It was the next step in the foundation.
Riley: I can remember when Puff gave me my first Mary J. Blige remix to do and I knocked that joint out of the park. Not only was he inspired by me, but I was inspired by him for doing what he did and taking it to the next level.
Eddie F: Puff was living at my house right down the street from Andre [Harrell]. It was Puff’s vision to crossover to hip-hop soul. I just helped him facilitate it. Puff purposely said, “I want to use loops but I don’t want it to be perfect. I don’t want it to be like too polished.” He was basically like, “I want it to sound like hip-hop.” [And] that’s how hip-hop sounded.
Riley: He came with his own style and that was the thing. We came from New York and New York, we’re the type of people that learn how to appreciate and be inspired and do it to the next level. We always take the challenge and that’s what this music was about. It was completely a challenge because people did it, but they didn’t stay with it. They did it and left it and then some stick on the wall and some will fall. So if you stay with this music and implement other things with it, that’s how you take it to the next level. It’s like a domino effect. So New Jack Swing is that music that you don’t just think one way. You think outside the box. That’s how everybody did it.
Eddie F: Like Bryson Tiller’s TrapSoul, when I hear that, I’m hype because he’s right there. That’s what we supposed to be doing right now. This is New Jack Swing, this is hip-hop and R&B. Now we in trap, so trapsoul is hip-hop of today mixed with R&B. Same concept and it’s fire.
Riley: Again, it’s a music style that dresses for the occasion. So when Bruno Mars and The Weeknd and all these guys come with their interpretation of New Jack Swing or funk, it comes — everybody has their own way. I can give you the same sound that I have the same, and you’re gonna do it different than I am. This music has no age. It’s classic. If you’re a classic, you’re gonna be around for a long time.