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—by Rashad D. Grove
In 1987, Bobby Brown’s career was in a precarious place. He was a co-founding member of the widely popular, multi-platinum R&B/teen-pop group New Edition, but Brown was perturbed by the lack of financial success in comparison to the group’s record sales and sold-out tours. Additionally, Brown grew increasingly frustrated at not being more prominently featured as a lead vocalist. Undoubtedly, this birthed tremendous tension within the group. Facing pressure from executives at MCA and their management, Brown was terminated for insubordination by his bandmates in December of 1985.
Although the ambitiously tilted King of the Stage was a solid debut from Brown and featured the hit single “Girlfriend,” which went to No.1 on the R&B charts, the album failed to garner any lasting success.
Brown was eager to fully detach himself from the carefully contrived, squeaky-clean image of New Edition that cast a looming shadow over his debut album. Ever the defiant one, Brown wanted his next album to be better than his last and even bigger than New Edition’s (who were still enjoying chart success as a quartet in his absence). He desired to take his fledgling career in a new direction, on his own terms. To achieve this vision, he needed to adopt a new musical style that would speak to his new identity as a burgeoning solo artist. As he embraced New Jack Swing, Bobby Brown introduced to the world his “bad boy” persona and would help usher a new genre of Black music that is still influential today.
As Bobby Brown immersed himself into the waters of New Jack Swing, he emerged as the “King” of the genre. With “Don’t Be Cruel” (releasing on June 20, 1988), the album was a runaway success, reaching No.1 on the Billboard album charts, spawning five Top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—including Brown’s sole No.1 hit “My Prerogative” (produced and co-written by the New Jack Swing curator Teddy Riley and Aaron Hall—and was the highest selling album of 1989. Because of critical and commercial acclaim of Don’t Be Cruel, New Jack Swing transcended the confines of the New York club scene and launched into the world.
As The Bobby Brown Story, a sequel to the highly successful The New Edition Story biographical miniseries biopic, hits small screens, we now get to reexamine Bobby Brown’s role in shaping modern music with his version of New Jack Swing. We’ve longed tuned in to the salacious details of Brown’s life—his turbulent 14-year marriage, struggles with drugs and alcohol addiction, stints in prison, breakups and makeups with New Edition, and the tragic losses of both his ex-wife Whitney Houston and daughter Bobbi Kristina. But what often gets ignored is Bobby Brown’s contributions to the landscape of modern music. Lost in the plethora of controversies is his legacy as an R&B entertainer that has bequeathed to us the likes of Usher, Chris Brown, Trey Songz, Omarion, and more. More than just R&B however, New Jack Swing is essential to his story, as he was the embodiment of the genre’s brash, bold, and sonically iconoclastic motif. His sound, a fusion of New Jack Swing, still reverberates on today’s music scene. With the release of The Bobby Brown Story, we’ll briefly revisit the impact of the genre.
In 1987, the now-defunct Village Voice featured a profile of a young Teddy Riley written by journalist and screenwriter Barry Cooper—he later gained fame upon authoring the screenplay for New Jack City—who framed this cultural and musical happening as “New Jack Swing,” a description that would encapsulate the hybrid of R&B-style vocals with gospel-influenced harmonies, sung over hip-hop, funk and dance instrumentations. The innovative approach of infusing various elements of hip-hop along dance pop into contemporary R&B marked a generational shift in Black music.
Andre Harrell, founder of Uptown Records, argues that the first New Jack Swing song was the classic “The Show” by Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew featuring MC Ricky D (later known as Slick Rick), produced by a 17-year-old Riley. Other producers, including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who worked on Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation), Babyface and L.A Reid (who wrote and produced the majority of Don’t Be Cruel), and Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy (via their contributions on En Vogue’s Born to Sing), all crafted their own versions of the New Jack Swing sound selling millions of records in the process, and making New Jack Swing the dominant sound in Black popular music from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.
Last year, at the 2017 Grammy Awards, after sweeping all categories (and on the heels of accusations of “cultural appropriation”), Bruno Mars gave an acceptance speech where he intentionally mentioned the music of Teddy Riley, Babyface and L.A. Reid, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as the greatest influences behind his multi-platinum album 24K Magic. The LP is almost a curriculum in the Bobby Brown School of New Jack Swing, with Bruno Mars as the star pupil. (The undeniable example of this being his Cardi B-assisted hit “Finesse (Remix).”)
He may be the most obvious example of the genre’s influence on today’s music but Beyoncé’s “Party” and “Love on Top,” Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been,” The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face,” Drake’s “In My Feelings,” Ne-Yo’s “Champagne Life,” Usher’s “Scream,” Chris Brown’s “Party,” and countless others have utilized aspects of the genre, melding R&B vocals with funk rhythms, dance-pop foundations, and electronic production techniques. The foundational aspects of New Jack Swing are deeply rooted in mainstream music today. While Brown nor Riley may not at the forefront of the music scene, the New Jack Swing template that they both created remains in an integral component of today’s music.
With the reemergence of the late 1980s and 90s style on the modern musical and cultural landscape, it’s as if New Jack Swing never left. Variations are crucial components in the sound of contemporary popular music. The lineage of the New Jack Swing sound that can be heard in productions by Pharrell, Timbaland and Rodney “Darkchild” Jenkins—who are all mentees of Riley—have kept the essence of the genre at the core of popular music as it has evolved into our current moment. Whenever we hear Puff Daddy’s “Finna Get Loose,” “Lemon” by Pharrell, or “Take Back the Night” by Justin Timberlake, we are connecting with spirit of New Jack Swing. Much of today’s music owes its very existence to groundwork previously laid. The “Bobby Brown sound,” that New Jack Swing groove, is alive and well.
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