'We Gave R&B a New Lifeline': How Teddy Riley Invented New Jack Swing
By Chris Williams Nov 23, 2012
By the mid 1980s, R&B was at a generational crossroads and rap was on the rise. An amalgamation of the two genres was being made in the St. Nicholas Projects in Harlem, New York, where a prodigious music talent named Teddy Riley joined with an up-and-coming artist named Keith Sweat. The result brought a seismic shift in urban and pop music when Make It Last Forever was released on November 24, 1987. The New Jack Swing movement was born, and it proceeded to dominate much of pop for the remainder of the decade into the early 1990s.
Make It Last Forever went on to sell more than three-million copies and left an indelible mark worldwide. On the occasion of Make It Last Forever's 25th anniversary, I spoke with Teddy Riley about crafting an album that served as a launch pad for a hugely successful genre.
How did you become involved with Keith Sweat and crafting his debut album?
My music career started with a band called Total Climax. We competed in a band competition in New York, New York. Keith Sweat was in another group called Jamilah. His group was one of the top bands out there that everyone loved because they had singers with different ranges. He was a falsetto singer and then he would come down to the Jeffrey Osborne-type of singing voice. I was like, "Wow" when I first saw him perform. I was the keyboardist for my band and when we performed in the Big Apple band contest, we actually beat Keith's band. I was very excited about that when it happened. From that day on, I would always say, "What's up?" to him and he would say, "What's up, shorty?" He didn't really know my name and I didn't know his at that time. I just knew his band was amazing.
How Keith and I became music partners is when he came to my block looking for me. He wanted the sound I had. He liked the songs I did for Doug E. Fresh and Classical Two. When he saw me on the block, I was actually shooting dice with my friends. He said he wanted to get in on the game so we started gambling and he took everyone else's money except mine. I was wondering why he came around our block because he never left his block. You couldn't just come around our block unless you knew someone from our block. After we left the game and took everyone's money, he said, "I'm here to see you because I want some of the music you're doing. "I told him I don't do R&B.' He said, "You can take a shot at my music. Just give me the hip hop and learn some chords." I told him, "All right, I know a few chords." I knew some chords because I was doing some stuff for rap and not for R&B.
He said, "I want to come over, and let's listen to some things and see what you got. Then we can make the stuff sound like R&B. I'll write to it and do what I do to it. And, if it works, let's put it on the album. I'm doing my album now because I just got a record deal." I said, "Bet." I told him to give me a few days and then he came back to the house. I already had the beats made for "I Want Her" and "Make It Last Forever." I put all of the backgrounds down on "I Want Her." It is actually me that you hear saying "I Want Her" on the backgrounds of that song. He didn't change it because he wanted that sound. This is how we started doing music together and how I started doing R&B music.
Can you describe the process of working on music with Keith during the making of the album?
It was a really organic process. I had no formula. I had no plans to do R&B music. New Jack Swing would've been just rap if I didn't get with Keith Sweat. While working on Keith Sweat's album, I was in a studio in New Jersey and that's where we worked with Patrick Adams. Patrick Adams helped us with "Don't Stop the Love" along with Fred McFarland. Keith Sweat was the reason I got into R&B music and continuing with it after we finished his album. He is really responsible for me taking a chance on R&B music.
How did you and Keith come up with the melodies and arrangements for the songs?
We worked together on the melodies and arrangements. I was the one that made him take the chance of keeping his voice with that nasal sound. He didn't want to do it. He walked out on me in the studio because he didn't want to sing that way. He said, "I don't sing that way, baby. That's not how I sing."I was like, "You should try it because it's a new sound. People won't say you sound like this person or that person. They will say that's his voice and that's his style."
What was it like working in the studio together?
When I was there working with him, it was cool, but when I would leave, he would be in that recording room recording stuff over and over again. Keith is the one that will keep on singing and singing until he gets it the way he likes it. He is an over perfectionist. We would be in the studio all day long. We would work on five to six songs in one day. He was quick in getting the songs done, but when he heard certain things, he would go back in and just keep recording. We completed 16 or 17 tracks for the album. It took us about six months to finish the whole album.
How were some of the songs constructed during the making of the album?
When I did the track for "Something Just Ain't Right," everything just started to sync together. We were doing the song in my house and he started writing the words to the music. I think he was going through something during that time with his girlfriend. This is how he came up with the direction of it. He was basically talking about life with his girl.
For "Make It Last Forever" I had the track and we were at my house. He started humming and singing melodies on top of the tracks that I had. To tell you the truth, I really didn't understand it when he was doing it. He did it a little different than how I was taught back then. I was taught that you would go to your side and write, and I'll stay on my side and the music would be playing. And, you would sit there and write. But he would just go right there on the spot and come up with the lyrics from the top of his head. This is how Keith was in the studio.
On "I Want Her" I had the actual hook and music already done. He came in the studio and sung over top of the track. With the verses for "I Want Her," I heard him the sing the verses the way they appeared on the album, but he would always think about what would the people think. So, when he had that nasal sound, he was just playing around, but I didn't think he was playing around. I told him this is what we were going to do. He wasn't for it at first, but then he came around to the idea.
"Right and a Wrong Way" came together in the same way. I worked on the music and most of the time when Keith would have another keyboard player there; I would come up with the foundation of the music. He would sing over top of it. We would have Fred McFarland come in and play different parts. We would have Rahiem LeBlanc from the group GQ come in and play some parts. A lot of people played on the album, but the most authentic we did on the album like the saxophone solo on the beginning of "Something Just Ain't Right" came from me because we couldn't get a saxophone player to play on it.
"How Deep Is Your Love" was basically me doing the production work and Keith singing over it. This song was unorthodox when it came to the melody matching the music. Keith was jammin' over the track and just singing whatever came into his head. I did the vocoder part to create the hook. The vocoder became the bass line for the track. We did the whole album in the projects in New York and then we took it to the studio and made it bigger. A lot of the stuff we kept on the AKAI 12 track recorder and transferred it to the board so we could replay it because we weren't getting the sound we wanted.
What specific instruments did you use in creating the sounds?
I used the B50, which is now called the B550 and it has the same exact sounds. I used the W30 made by Roland and the S30 that was made by Yamaha. I used the SV 350 vocoder, which is an old vocoder that had the actual equalizer switches and equalizer fades. The drum machine I used was an Alesis drum machine. I also used the Alesis sequencer.
How do you feel about the impact the album made on popular culture 25 years later?
Let me tell you something. When "I Want Her" came out, Frankie Crocker played it on a segment of his show called "Make It or Break It." And when he put it on "Make It or Break It," the people chose to break it. They thought it was wack. I was really sad when it happened. I didn't really like Frankie Crocker because he would just diss people. So—this was the first time I liked Frankie Crocker. He told the audience on the radio, "You all may have chosen to break the record, but I'm going to play this record because this record is a smash. We need something new and I'm going to make this record." That is what made people start loving the record. We didn't have anything new because people were settling for the same thing just like now. Music is recyclable. People do the same thing and the next thing you know it's going to change. It just takes someone to change it, and that's what Keith did with R&B. We gave R&B a new lifeline. New Jack Swing was the first genre to have a singer on a rap track. You can still see the effect of it in today's music from rap to R&B.
Teddy Riley Talks Michael Jackson, New Jack Swing & 20th Anniversary of 'No Diggity'
11/23/2016 by Gail Mitchell
From new jack swing to collaborating with a symphony?
That might sound like a major leap, but not for Teddy Riley. Music fans can hear why when his Grammy-winning, boundary-pushing career is saluted this weekend as he accepts the Legend Award ("I'm so grateful") during the 2016 Soul Train Awards (Nov. 27 via Centric/BET, 8 p.m. ET).
“I’ve always dreamed of doing a symphony performance,” Riley says of just one of several projects on his plate. “And I always try to go after my dreams.”
Riley’s career itself reads like a dream list. A founding member of pivotal R&B groups Guy and BLACKstreet, the songwriter/producer/artist also spearheaded the R&B fusion offshoot new jack swing in the late '80s. And he’s racked up a who’s who of credits, stretching from Michael Jackson and his Dangerous album (including the hit “Remember the Time”) to Kool Moe Dee, MC Hammer, Doug E. Fresh, Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Snoop Dogg, Wreckx-N-Effect and Lady Gaga (co-writing “Teeth” on The Fame Monster EP).
Now the Harlem, New York, native and recent Las Vegas transplant is gearing up for a New Year’s Day concert with Guy and Anthony Hamilton at Georgia’s Columbus Civic Center. Then it’s back to such additional projects as finishing his long-anticipated book Remember the Time (which Riley says will be accompanied by a soundtrack). Between ongoing tour gigs with Guy and BLACKstreet, he’s also been collaborating on outside projects from Mary J. Blige and former Mindless Behavior member Prodigy.
Of late, Riley -- who notes, “I never sit on my butt” -- also has been conducting K-pop camps in Korea. Out of those have come hits by Exo (“Call Me Baby”) and Super Junior (“Mamacita”). Currently building a studio in his house, Riley says he’s also scoping out the musical talent in Sin City.
“Las Vegas is becoming more of a music industry town,” he explains. “There’s a lot of talent but no outlet for that talent as there aren’t many studios here.”
During the course of the interview, Riley name-checked his key mentors: Jackson, music executive/manager Gene Griffin, composer Benjamin Wright (Justin Timberlake, OutKast, Aretha Franklin), Stevie Wonder and Zapp’s Roger Troutman. Then he went on to list the game-changing musical moments in his career:
“Remember the Time” by Michael Jackson:
It took new jack swing and my style of music to the next level. After Michael, my whole career just got turned up. Michael gave me a new life and a new perspective on my career. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be the performer that I am today. Learning from him was like going to college. His lessons about staying power, learning how to cope and sustain with the direction of the business as it changes … it all rubbed off on me.
“No Diggity” by BLACKstreet:
This year is the 20th anniversary of the song, and it’s still among people’s favorites. I looked online recently and saw an artist doing a country version of “No Diggity.” It’s been a part of so many things like the film Pitch Perfect and the Beck’s Sapphire commercial. It’s a twist on new jack swing by implementing blues into the style. The other members of Guy [who Riley offered the song to before BLACKstreet] didn’t understand it. That’s the reason why I’m singing the first verse. They thought, "This is Teddy experimenting again and it may fail." But it wound up doing so well.
“My Prerogative” by Bobby Brown:
He didn’t want to sing it the way I suggested and walked out of the studio. Louil Silas Jr. [former promotion executive at MCA Records], God bless, said, "Man, if you don’t get back in that studio, listen to the man and sing that song …" It was some major come-to-Jesus talk. Bobby came back to the studio and sang the record. But he still had to put his two cents in there: "If it doesn’t go right this way, we’re going to do it my way." I’m like, "OK." And it wound up going my way. He gave me five and walked out. After that, Bobby and I became really good friends.
“I Want Her” by Keith Sweat; “The Show” by Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew:
That was the birth of R&B and new jack swing. That’s when we started that sound. I’m just this kid from Harlem who was taking a chance on experimenting. The new jack swing name was coined by writer Barry Michael Cooper. He told me, "You have to give it a name so people can follow it." Barry later co-wrote the screenplay for the film New Jack City. I didn’t know what Barry meant until people started saying new jack swing. Us people who take chances, we’re just following our dreams and don’t know where we’re going to end up. I ended up having a genre. That’s crazy.
“Groove Me,” “I Like” and My Fantasy,” among other hits by Guy:
This was the start of my career as a singer. I can’t exclude that. There are so many records I’ve done that have taken me in different directions and become game-changers for others.