Two legends of the music biz, Teddy Riley and Andre Harrell, sit down for a fascinating chat about producing for Michael Jackson, Heavy D stealing songs and more for SXSW 2018.
Q-Tip once said that “Don’t you know things move in cycles, the way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael, it’s all expected.” The current cycle, due equal parts to Bruno Mars and a general affinity for all things ‘80s and ‘90s, has reinvigorated a nexus point between Bobby and Michael [Jackson]. That sound of course is New Jack Swing. The soundtrack to your auntie’s childhood, which was laid down by the production and songwriting mastery of Teddy Riley and the executive acumen of Andre Harrell during the heyday of Uptown Records.
Coined by New Jack City screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper, the sound was defined by the slick and funky production of Riley, hyper-kinetic dance moves from its listeners and a bright and bold fashion sense (shoulder pads, so many shoulder pads). In a wide-ranging discussion hosted by Forbes Magazine, the duo talked about the early and often dangerous days of Uptown Records, group tensions within Guy and a myriad of fascinating tidbits, Teddy Riley and Andre Harrell eventually settled on the infamous 13-month production of Michael Jackson’s Bad follow-up, Dangerous. Dangerous was Michael’s foray into the New Jack Swing sound and in many ways, captured the best of the sound, in the way that Off The Wall encapsulated the last days of disco.
The Dangerous recording sessions were completed in a studio Jackson built specifically for Riley to his exact specifications, which he would re-create for himself in Virginia a year later. In what could be described as the world’s most luxurious and expensive kidnapping, Teddy told the audience about how Michael had a small apartment built onto the studio, so that he “wouldn’t have to leave, for anything.” As recording slowed to a drag, Riley missed his family and wanted to go home. Jackson pleaded, “Don’t go! Not like the other guys. Not like Dallas.” Jackson told his assistants to fly the entire Riley clan to California to keep him from leaving. Michael put the lot of them in the Niko Hotel, Riley staying in the “Indecent Proposal” suite for weeks as they finished what would be one of Michael’s most classic albums.
Beyond the production, Michael insisted that “Theodore” be present for every single meeting with the Sony Records execs regarding the release of Dangerous. Michael, a notorious control freak and perfectionist, insisted on Teddy’s input on every minute detail of the album, from marketing and promotion, to videos, to cover art—Teddy’s input was required. Teddy spoke and Michael listened.
Teddy told Michael that “you should show your form more. We don’t know what you look like under all those coats and jackets.” So, Micheal Jackson, the biggest pop star on the planet, pulled his hair back into a ponytail, put on a pair of jeans, a tank top and made “Keep It In The Closet”. All told, Dangerous sold over 35 million units with 7 million in the United States alone during its original pressing. The album cemented Riley as an A-list producer with crossover appeal, crafting one of the most successful New Jack Swing album of all time.
Not everything was Jackson family related though. Riley shared a secret he had kept for over 30 years. Unbeknownst to the public, Guy, the first group that put Teddy and his sound on the map, had a previously unknown fourth member. No, not Timmy Gaitling, who sang on most of the first album. This voice can be heard on the second verse of the last song recorded for the debut Guy album. While the first verse of “You Can Call Me Crazy” was sung by Timmy Gaitling, the second verse was actually sung by Uptown Records labelmate Al B. Sure. The song was meant for Sure’s album but wasn’t quite finished yet. Al sang the demo track and after Gaitling left the group, Teddy never removed his vocals. So, the fourth member of Guy was in fact, Al B Sure.
(That is the sound of your auntie’s minds being blown.)
Other fun tidbits include: Heavy D stealing three Wrecks-N-Effect songs for himself. “My Prerogative” originally was produced-and-crafted as a Guy song. Andre remembering watching Teddy playing keyboards at 12-years-old at the Apollo Theater and making these now classic beats in his mother’s living room while friends watched and bobbed their heads along. Andre Harrell playing “Groove Me” for other executives and them not getting it. “Oh, ya’ll gonna be two years behind. This is a hit!”
As The Abstract said, these things move in cycles, folding back in on themselves over time, but continuously rolling. From Bobby to Michael to Janet and now to Bruno, the sound has moved, changed, evolved and come back on itself, and yet remains indelibly linked to its originator, Theodore Riley.
Micah Young can be found weekly with his inebriated cohorts holding your hand through the foolishness and fuckery of your timeline on The Brown Liquor Report.