New Jack Sexy: The Secret History Of New Jack City's Iconic Soundtrack
Gary Harris is a Record Man and a&r who has been shaping the sound of black radio since the early days of hip-hop's existence as an industry with the foundation of Def Jam as a label, ushering in a new era of soul with the signing of D'Angelo. In 1990-1991, he was instrumental in shaping the soundtrack to New Jack City, lending his golden ear to the services of Executive Producers George Jackson, Doug McHenry, Benny Medina and Cassandra Mills and producer/arranger Teddy Riley (of Guy) to make the music as timely, authentic and well, sexy, as the film itself. Mr. Harris was gracious enough to sit with Okayplayer to share an inside player's history of the soundtrack, the DVD extras, if you will. What follows is The Secret History of New Jack City's iconic soundtrack in Harris' own words, as told to OKP's editor-in-chief Eddie STATS. Read on, player:
I started with Def Jam in '84. Actually, I joined the company in '85 but I had been hanging out with Rick [Rubin] and Russell [Simmons]--well, certainly Russell--five out every seven days in the clubs in New York. Rick was hanging out with us three of every seven days and I saw the first Beastie Boys show at the Roxy with Russell. They gave us a limousine ride back to a drug dealer party in Queens. It was in October of '84 and by the winter of '85 George Jackson and Doug McHenry had decided to do a deal. Russell did a deal with them to do Krush Groove through Warner Brothers. I met Doug and George through Krush Groove.
The reason why I had to join Def Jam officially was because Russell was on the set everyday and Rick was producing records for the soundtrack, and they were both in the movie. There was no one to tend to the day-to-day business of Def Jam. By this time LL put out "Dangerous" and I was working "Party’s Getting Rough." I went on and left Def Jam and went with Andre [Harrell] to form Uptown Records and then I had a period of independent promotion. One of the records that I worked as an independent was Teddy Riley’s first credited production for Julie and Roy Rifkind, who had a label called Spring Records. I had become a force in in independent promotion where you were signing records cooler than you were capable of getting played. I could get you on KISS, Chuck Chillout, Red Alert. I’d give Mr. Magic and Marley Marl your record and then I could translate the energy from club retail and mix show, and I could articulate the need for a programmer to put your record on in regular rotation which at that time was called daytime. In my experience as a promotion guy I met Doug and George, I worked Teddy Riley’s records, and I met Andre Harrell when we were both working for Russell and he started Uptown. That was really the beginning of New Jack, because Andre Harrell was that label was the first best New Jack Swing label essentially.
It was music that was aimed at a very fast urban--and when I say urban I don’t mean like with Rush. Def Jam was a downtown art alternative sensibility that was exploited at college radio. College radio meaning white colleges. Whereas Uptown was a black sensibility that was aimed at more of the drug dealer shit; fast, champagne spilling, party music. Through Barry [Michael Cooper]'s article in the Village Voice, Teddy was identified as the progenitor of the New Jack sound, whereas Andre was the primary marketing force behind it. People were saying "New Jack" in the street but Barry came up with the idea of the New Jack Swing in his piece in the Voice on Teddy Riley.
In the street, New Jack was certainly about freshness and newness and a first time an emergence of post-Reagan clean era of upward mobility, to whatever extent that was possible. That was the soundtrack and the underpinning. It was hip-hop based, and hip-hop derived, but it was more about economic freedom, decadence, fun, party music.
I think it was in '88 [that] George had called me and asked me did I know who Barry Cooper was? I was like, “Yeah he wrote that dope shit in the voice, follows the crack beat, whatever. He’s hot.” I’d never met Barry but I had read his stuff. Then he sent me the script for New Jack City and I was like, “This is better.” Whatever the fuck it was. I had a promotion job as the East Coast director of promotion for Wing Records. Then one of Russell’s former paramours, a woman named Cassandra Mills, was named head of black music at Irving Azoff's start up label Giant Records. She knew me and brought me in the do a&r. At the interview, she flew me out to LA and in 20 minutes I got the job. So I said, “What’s our relationship with Warner Brothers?” This is the very beginning of '90, actually. He [Irving] says, "Well they are a part of it.” Giant was a joint venture with Warner Brothers. I said, “Look, there’s a film that they currently have in development and if we get control of the soundtrack, it will launch us in the black music business...”
Color Me Badd, ca. 1991
Irving knew something of the power of New Jack already. It was a business to them, it was a lifestyle to me. He was not aware that his corporate parent and he also had a film production deal at Warner Brothers. They were going to get a participation in the record one way or another but they didn’t really know what they had because Warners, to that point, had not really been in the contemporary r&b business. That post-Minneapolis sound of r&b was somewhat uncharted territory for them. Irving, on the other hand had been in business to some degree with all of those people [Teddy, Russell, Andre and Babyface]. He was familiar from a business perspective of the possibilities. When I was like, “Warner Brothers is controlling this film if we get the soundtrack we’ll be in the game.” He picked up the phone and called Mo Ostin right in front of me. My deal hadn’t even been done at the label and the company is going on my word!
I think he wanted to prove to me he was really a guy that could make things happen. He also wanted to prove that he was a guy who was responsive to his people. Which is all very true--more true than I would have imagined at the time. Anyway Benny Medina who was the head of black music at Warner Brothers heard the record but George and Doug were having trouble getting him on the phone. He would not return one phone call too many and so they brought the record to me and Cassandra.
We started working on it in the spring. The first thing that happened was Grandmaster Flash came to me, I knew him from Sugar Hill. We were meeting about several things and he brought me Essence "Lyrics To The Rhythm." Actually, that’s the second thing to happen. The first thing that happened was I did a deal with a guy named Jimmy "Love" Jenkins who is out of the Uptown crew, a good friend of mine. He brought me FS Effect ["Get It Together"]. Then that brought Al B. Sure and Eddy F. They were signed to Eddy’s production company and they put me in the Money Earnin' [Mount Vernon]. Mount Vernon was wildfire at the time so I signed FS Effect, I signed Essence and then Color Me Badd was contested--Teddy wanted to sign them. Another guy who was Working at Uptown, Kirk Woodley, had signed them to a production deal and sent the demo to us at Giant.
This is not so much about strategic anything as it is about tactics. The strategy was simple: to get hot! It was about making this look like the most exciting black urban compilation record possible. I envisioned a record where we would put our artists on the record and then surround them with stars, exciting music and that would give a platform to our artists as well as give us some billing very quickly. The other thing that was not going on was that the when I got to Giant was that the soundtrack business in and of itself was dormant. The soundtrack to New Jack City reignited the interest in the soundtrack...
Tracy Camilla Johns teaches Wesley Snipes the meaning of New Jack Sexy
I’m also an avid film fanatic. Superfly and Curtis Mayfield to me is the greatest--even more than Quincy Jones--the greatest black film composer in the history of Hollywood. Quincy had an orchestral and tremendous film scoring sensibility that resulted in classic scores for the Getaway, the Hard Rocks, Color Purple and on and on. Curtis, because of his lyrical sensibility was able to infuse the poetry of the street, and as well as aspiration, and to smash. The soundtrack Claudine: classic, the soundtrack for Let’s Do It Again classic. Sparkle. Sparkle and Superfly are to me still the two standards that have yet to be approached.
When you look at [movies like Krush Groove and Breakin' that first introduced hip-hop to Hollywood] The soundtracks tracks are all bullshit. They were sort of added on.
I was more interested in authenticity than I was in, Why don’t we put Prince on there, why don't we have Chaka Khan on there. I fully embraced the New Jack hustler aesthetic because I’d grown up in Englewood [NJ] right outside where Nicky Barnes held sway over Harlem. He was a core personality that was mentioned in whispers in my neighborhood, when I was a teenager. Not who Super fly was based on. That's Frank Lucas, who lived in the next town over from me. I knew about the Lucas brothers from the time I was 11 years old. I understood because I’m from north of 110th.
One of the questions that came up, that Doug asked me was, How are we going to get some adults on it? How are we going to get adult record buyers? Cassandra Mills wanted to put Lionel Richie. I fought to keep that from happening. I was the keep it real factor and nothing else. Then I got lucky. In October of '90, Doug and George showed me a working print of the film, a rough cut of New Jack City.
Later that night we went to Puffy's 25th birthday party and it was on a yacht. The plank was up. I saw Puff on the deck. I was like, “Yo, Puff, tell Andre I’m down here.” There were people who were on the deck and whatever. I’m like, “Tell Andre I’m down here.” They put the plank down for me. I brought my crew onboard, we celebrated his birthday.
Al B. Sure, Bobby Brown, whatever. Champagne was spilled, it was this fabulous New Jack high point of the New Jack Swing career. Later on, I left and I went to Roxbury, which was the hot spot in West Hollywood. I’m hanging out with Nile Rodgers and me and him, Benny Medina and a couple of girls I was with, wind up going to Herbie Hancock’s house after the club. We were hanging out by the pool blah, blah, blah, blah. I got to get up in the morning and take my guys to Oklahoma to see Color Me Badd, to hear them sing and begin work on their album. I’d been up all night in true record man fashion, Friday night. Saw a movie, went to the hot party, hang out with the hot musicians, get on the plane, go to the hot crossover r&b group, wildfire. I’m tired, I’m on this couch in Color Me Badd studio in Oklahoma City, or was it Tulsa? I think it was Oklahoma City, I can’t remember well which one they were from. It’s the only time I’ve ever been to Oklahoma! My guy Stanley is in the studio with them working out chords, whatever, and Freeze starts playing tracks. He plays a track that ironically, got a Chic loop from the Real People album.
My favorite track of the album was the instrumental called "Open Up" that begins the album. I say to Freeze, I say, “Yo. That’s a Chic joint, right?” he was like, “Yeah, you know your records." I was like, "Yeah, pretty much.” I’m halfway sleeping and he plays the intro to "I Want To Sex You Up." To the Tik Tok, You Don’t Stop, Stop / To the.... I was like, “Play that again.” Now I’m awake and I sit up, "Play that again." He plays a demo with the complete lyrics with Sam singing it. I’m like, “That sounds big to me.”
I can’t wait to get back to New York. Irving called you, I said, “Irving, I think I found a hit for the record and I know exactly where it’s supposed to play in the movie.” I called George, tell him the same thing. I send it to both of them. They both had the good sense to understand it. The reason why I heard it, was because the chord changes are the same as a record called "Grooving" by The Rascals. That was a big hit when I was 7 years old. Grooving on a Sunday afternoon...I want to love you down. I want to... Same shit, except in "Sex You Up," they’re talking about pussy!
I’d just seen the scene Friday on Warner Brothers lot, where Nino was coveting Tracy Camilla Johns, whatever the character’s name was, and it becomes a rift with him and G Money.
I’m looking at the movie but you know while you're doing it, you’re just doing your job. If you’re trained, it’s your job and you can do it reasonably well. Did I ever sense that "I Want To Sex You Up" was going to be top 5 in 12 different countries? Places that, to this day, I’ve never been? I don’t speak Swedish. Did I have a sense that I was going to tap into something historic? I knew the movie was good. I knew Barry could write. I loved Ice’s performance. I loved Chris’s performance--I knew Chris for sometime before that--but, was I aware that Wesley Snipes was going to just blow up off the...did I realize we were sitting on nitro? No. did I think I had collaborated in making a record of a professional quality? I was certain of that. Puff was interning at uptown. My office was down the street, and I was sending him early mixes of shit. He was like, “Oh, yeah, you’re going to be all right with this.” Quietly, he was my quality control.
I was confident but did I know "Sex You Up" was going to hit on so many different … In the street, on the radio. Were they going to get nominated for Best New Act? Were they going to go on tour with Paula Abdul, internationally. It played in fucking Asia. No, I had no idea. Did I know their shit was going to sell 6 million? Did I know New Jack City was going to do 5 million. Previous to my dad, my biggest involvement with anything was Beastie Boys when they sold 4 million of fucking Licensed To Ill. Nothing on Uptown did those numbers.
Color me Badd had been in André’s office for a year, looking for a deal and he wouldn’t sign them. I Want To Sex You Up had been written for three years. Everybody in the New Jack City business, in the New Jack Swing, had heard the record before I did. Keith Sweat heard it. BBD heard it. Everybody had heard it before I heard it. It was a perfect storm. It wasn't a product of strategic thinking so much as it was a product of intuition.
The whole early Hollywood goes hip hop or hip hop goes Hollywood thing, is really just awful until Spike does She’s Got To Have It. Then the Morris Blackmon character, is the illest B-boy you ever seen on screen. Not coincidentally, it was the success of Spike that opened up that whole wave of black filmmaking. It was more about following that than really getting anything else, to me. The records would have sold one way or the other but nobody was sitting around saying, "This hip hop explosion shit. I got to make stars out of Run DMC." They had to make their own movie. Nobody was sitting around saying, “I got to make a star out of Whodini.”
In terms of a serious film that spoke to the sociology of the moment, the scourge of crack, which is still being adjudicated in the current election cycle. Then out of that Boyz N The Hood, Deep Cover, shit got real after New Jack City. To me those previous endeavors were a toy, and treated the music and the fans. It was all disposable and it was all as though they were novelty records, novelty artists and it was novelty music.
But when you look at what's lasted. Michael Jackson made a couple of New Jack records. Wesley Snipes is still a viable star, Ice T is one of the most enduring television stars in the history of television. Chris Rock is the fucking comedic voice of this generation. These are all my peers. But the way we were being treated corporately was, This is all going to go away in a minute. In that time, we were able to do things that would last and stand the test of time.
Here we are, a quarter century later looking back. I didn’t think it was a toy I didn’t treat it as though it was novelty. Even though, systemically all around me, that's what they would have me believe. When questions arise like, Why don’t we put Lionel Richie on the record? That is indicative of a lack of belief in what was going on.
My only true regret is, I did play En Vogue early, for George and I played Jodeci for George and tried to get both of them on the soundtrack. But he wasn’t having it. Those are the ones that got away. Those are my only two regrets and who knows, had that happened? We might be talking about Saturday Night Fever.