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.