Teddy Riley on New Jack Origins, Discovering The Neptunes and Studying The Times [Exclusive]
Teddy Riley, a New York native with well-earned stripes in hip-hop's first guard, returned to his hometown last week to chop it up with the venerable Chairman Mao. Their Red Bull Music Academy Festival lecture is part of a month-long program that ensures the preservation and continued celebration of music's most influential sub-cultures and legacies. As one of hip-hop's childhood caretakers and a notable force in r&b from the mid-eighties onward, few are better qualified to speak on the behemoth synthesis that is New Jack Swing than its pioneering producer.
But if you ask Riley -- we did -- how he sculpted seminal records for Michael Jackson, Big Daddy Kane, Patti LaBelle, Bobby Brown and Jay Z, he holds to academic standards of dedication and study. For the New Jack sensei, a song is merely an organism of the moment; no two are alike and they demand respective approaches. Stick him in the room with anything from a vintage synth to a toilet paper roll and he'll strut out with a gem in his pocket. Versatility is key, and his reverence for the masters -- James Brown, Prince, George Clinton and Quincy Jones -- is on his sleeve. But like any great bridge between generations or geography, he'll pull a little from each end to make the connection. And it's almost always to dazzling levels of success.
His presence has been felt throughout three decades of music, itself a rare feet. His studio, however, was home to arrangements of another sort entirely. Amongst a mile-long mantel of trophies, his discovering and mentoring of The Neptunes is paramount to the era of music directly proceeding New Jack's reign; when Pharrell, Chad, Shay and Mike perfected their sound, took hip-hop by storm and began their assault on pop from a slightly weirder angle. Riley graced us with a few moments to recount his years in NYC, his discovery of one of hip-hop's most cherished production teams and how a call from Q changed his life for good. Hear how Teddy Riley's sound evolved with the times in the first installment of our Primer playlist and click through to read our discussion with the legend.
OKP: I know the focus of your time here is New Jack Swing. To me, it feels like New Jack is frequently associated with your time in Virginia, but since we're in New York and you're from New York, do you mind if we start with your hip-hop origins? What was it was like being on the frontline in the '80s?
Teddy Riley: Man, it's such an honor looking back on being in hip hop and really making some of the greatest hip hop records. I can only say that it really helps a lot today because a lot of people don't know me as a rap producer, but I did my time doing hip hop and R&B. What makes it even bigger is morphing it together and merging it together. That's the biggest thing.
OKP: And that's New Jack.
OKP: How did you come to music in the first place?
TR: Oh man, my father bought me every instrument. Starting at the age of three, he bought me a guitar just because I said, "I want a guitar."
OKP: But you gravitated towards the keys?
TR: Yeah, that was later, like four or five or something like that. But at three, I was just messing around with the guitar and just messing around with technology in general. Technology then was 8-track tapes, cassette decks, and record players. So I used to explore how to get my music to that until I finally got it. I went to a mastering lab and a studio where I was able to make music and see it get pressed. But only to cassette tape. I got to see how they make it.
OKP: Cover to cover. Interesting. What was your particular approach to recording and producing in a studio setting? Would you start with the track? Would you start with the talent and then bring in the track?
TR: There's no special way of producing. It's how I feel that particular time and day. To a producer, our creative attention span is this short. If we don't have it right then and there, we don't have it. But if you're really, really pushing for that song to be made, you will find every sound that could make the song come to life. When I first started producing, calling myself a producer, I was making records with a roll of toilet tissue, and inside the hole, I was able to fit my 57 Shore mic. A microphone would be the bass drum (drops a beat) and that's what I did. I used a toilet tissue because I didn't have a drum machine. I didn't have a metronome, so my music was like speed up, slow down, speed it up, slow it down. And we didn't have a sequencer, so it was all made on Sound Tools, the program that came before Pro Tools.
TR: And I can only remember just doing everything to my put-together drum machine until I made the money to actually make real beats. I never really got to make the money so I was going to studios or I would borrow a drum machine from someone. I can remember my friend loaning me his DX, which is where I made the song "The Show" for Dougie Fresh. He came to my home and was like, "Man, how can we make this song really, really come out? How could we do this? I need it to really flow and bounce." And I said, "This is the way you do it." I took the drum machine apart. There's two screws on the front and you open it up and you can tune down the shaker. And I tuned down the shaker, I tuned down the tom so I can get that boom boom, and the shaker so I can get that shh shh and that's what made the song, besides the rap and the message.
TR: If you play that by itself, you will still dance.
OKP: So for you, the song is an organism of the moment.
TR: Exactly. You can set a bunch of instruments in a studio and leave me in there. I'm going to come out with something that you're going to definitely bounce to. That's the difference between a producer and a reducer. And most of the guys that are beat makers, they're beat makers. They're not producers. You're a producer when you're able to take a song from A to Z and know that you got it to the finish line. Most producers don't know that.
OKP: Are there any contemporaries or disciples of yours that you consider worthy of that lineage?
TR: Yeah, Pharrell.
OKP: At what point were you first aware of Pharrell and Chad?
TR: They were going to the school across the street from my recording studio in Virginia Beach, Princess Anne High School. I gave the very first talent show that Princess Anne, real talent show that Princess Anne ever had, I gave there at the school. And all these kids came up to audition, and Pharrell and those guys came. Their whole crew came and auditioned. They didn't have anything conceptual. They was just flowing, ciphering, and creating on the spot. That's what I was looking for. I wasn't looking for the Whitney Houston singer or somebody who sung a Luther Vandross song or George Benson's "Greatest Love." Wasn't looking for any of that. I specifically was looking for creative people, and that was the first talent show where I had to overrule the judge and say, "Those guys are the winners, Pharrell and Chad." And Mike Etheridge, Shay, all those guys were a part of The Neptunes.
OKP: They had that same level of resourcefulness. Like whatever is in the room. Whatever the toy is, you're going to figure out what makes it work and run with it.
TR: I call music toys. Having a new instrument is like Christmas because we're going to make so many toys with it. That's what music and the art were about for us. Pharrell and those guys, they were on the Motif. That's all they had. But they were making lots of music. Almost like when mom couldn't afford to get us a hamburger from McDonald's she made us a Wonder loaf burger with Wonder Bread. We had to do with what we got. So that's how my life was. When I didn't have it, I used what I had.
OKP: Was there a definitive moment when you realized these kids were the real deal?
TR: Yeah, but they were always intriguing to me. They were way ahead of their time.
OKP: Pharrell and Chad almost feel like apprentices in the Riley system. Did you have a mentor that brought you into the game the way you did for the two of them?
TR: I'm so delighted you asked. I wouldn't be where I'm at today and know all of the things that I know had I not got with them. That's Royal Bayyan, Adele Bayyan, and Emil Bayyan. Robert Bell, who's Kool from Kool and the Gang. Mtume. Patrick Adams, who's the famous club, disco and dance music guy. He was back in the day before they changed it to club. It was disco. He was the guy who made "Disco Heat" and "Jump."
TR: He made all of these records, and I seen him remixing "Somebody Else's Guy."Fred McFarlane and Allen George made the record. Patrick Adams put the mix on it and added his flavor. And he did The Aleems, "Release Yourself."
OKP: What did he impart to you in the studio?
TR: He really didn't. He just showed me and always told me, "Stay innovative, kid. Stay innovative because if you do stuff that people never heard before, just know that if you're not the first, there's going to be a second and you are able to reap the benefits of that." That's what I learned from Patrick and The Aleems and Black Ivory and the guys who I grew up with.
OKP: So you were staying with the times and studying them.
TR: Yes indeed.
OKP: When did you and Quincy first cross paths? How did you land in that seat for Dangerous?
TR: That's a good question. Never been asked before.
OKP: He and Michael were done.
TR: He was done with Michael ... but he wasn't done. Quincy actually passed it to me when he did my documentary. Quincy gave his whole rendition and testimony about it, and he said, "This kid is different. This kid is the sound, the way he plays his vocals, he does his vocal arrangements and how he plays the four quarter with it to make it blossom even more. And I think he deserves Michael."
When he said that, I was actually on the verge of departing from my ex-manager. I actually called Quincy and he sent me to meet with Clarence Avant, who's the godfather of the business.He's the guy you go to when you've made it in the music industry. If you haven't been through Clarence, you ain't getting too far. So that's how Quincy actually was one of the saviors of my career.
TR: And he don't even know it. With one phone call he connected me. I had wanted Quincy to manage me, but Quincy was like, "Man, I'm too busy. I want to give you a phone number to call," and he put me in touch with Clarence, and that took my life to the next level. Then I started working on Michael.
OKP: And then Blackstreet wasn't too far down the line.
TR: Blackstreet was maybe two years later. 1993. I did Michael in '91, stayed with him for a year and three months.
OKP: As far as Michael's work is concerned, that's the first time you see him talking politics and social justice head-on.
TR: That's right.
OKP: Are you writing to or around those themes to amplify them?
TR: Well, like I said, there's different ways. I'm writing around it. I write to it. I can take a song, the lyrics, the vocals, and I can create so many things to that one lyric. I can give you soca. I can give you dance hall. I can give you funk. I can give you club. I can give you dubstep. I can give you every genre, just because I know all the styles of music because I need to know all the styles of music to put it all in one bag because that's the form of new jack swing. It's like martial arts. You've got karate, jiu-jitsu, you've got grappling, you've got judo. You've got all these different styles. My security, he knows them all and he used them all in a unique way, putting it all together to formulate a style called swamp. Same thing with new jack swing.
I just wanted to see Marvin Gaye and Michael and James Brown and everybody get together and make songs together, and it didn't happen. But I made the dream happen in my music and just took their styles. Took James Brown, which is the first record I sampled.
OKP: Ground zero.
TR: Took Prince and his style and I took Michael and then Johnny "Guitar" Watson and George Clinton and I made this jump-up. It's like gumbo. That was what my music was. It's just a heavy R&B, taking every style and just putting it all in one.
OKP: That's very true to Quincy's theory about finding your voice by grabbing from all of your favorites.
OKP: How about we cap off with a little rundown of what you're listening to these days.
TR: Well, first of all, Bruno Mars. I love what he's done.
OKP: He's tapping right back into that sound.
TR: Oh yeah. And that's the thing that keeps me alive. I also listen to H.E.R. Only because it's a produced by DJ Camper. He produced most of the stuff and he's actually a cousin of Rodney Jerkins, first cousin. He's like the protégé of my protégé. He has a sound that is going to transcend. I listen to unique things. Oh, and NAO. Now that was really a breath of fresh air.