Teddy Riley Talks the History of New Jack Swing, Returning to Apollo & What Michael Jackson Taught Him About Music
Photo Credit: Vickey Ford of Sneakshot for Okayplayer
We spoke to Teddy Riley about his life and his music, growing up in Harlem, his legacy as the creator of New Jack Swing, and why returning to the Apollo Theater after 20 years is so significant.
When we see Teddy Riley posting pictures of himself and Al B. Sure! working on a new R&B song for Trey Songz, we’re not surprised. Trey Songz knows what most singers in the music business should know: the R&B that we enjoy today was birthed from the music that Teddy Riley pioneered and created 30 years ago: New Jack Swing. (The term "New Jack Swing" was coined by writer Barry Michael Cooper in a famous Villiage Voice article.)
Before Riley, hip-hop and R&B kept a healthy distance; those lines blurred as Riley's status started to rise. During Teddy Riley's prime, he spawned hits with acts like Guy, Blackstreet, Wreckx-n-Effect, Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, and, The King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson.
Riley has paid his dues and is at an interesting place in his life and career; he’s like that wise uncle you see at family gatherings who you can’t wait to sit down next to so you can experience him waxing poetic about his life and adventures.
On Sunday, December 9, 2018, Riley will be heading home. He is doing the Kings and Queens of New Jack Swing at the world-famous Apollo Theater. He will be performing at the Apollo stage for the first time in over 20 years. He'll be joined by iconic acts of the Golden Age: like Al B. Sure!,Doug E. Fresh, Keith Sweat, and more.
Before his show this weekend, we spoke to Riley about his life and his music, growing up in Harlem, his legacy as the creator of New Jack Swing, and why returning to the Apollo Theater to perform after over 20 years is so significant.
In your own words, tell me what is “New Jack Swing?”
New Jack Swing is a movement. That movement stems from all sorts of vibes and synergies and genres of music. You put it all in one bag and you got New Jack Swing. People are doing New Jack Swing today, and they don’t know the technology of music. When you’re doing New Jack Swing, you’re doing a singer and a rapper together – that’s New Jack Swing. It’s a mixture of music and a mixture of synergy. It’s a style. It’s a culture. It’s dressing, it’s fashion. When New Jack Swing came out, you weren’t afraid to wear purple gators. And guys were dancing and grooving with the girls.
What lessons did you learn growing up in Harlem that has served you in your life and in your music even today?
I was a nerd in school, so let’s take it from that. Growing up, I was the guy who suffered from domestic problems with my family. My mom and my dad fought all the time, so I had this imaginary friend called “The Music Man.” The Music Man got me away when my mother and my father [faught].
Me and my brother never had an argument, and I got him off the streets. Because I was in the streets he wanted to do the same thing, and when I got off the streets I made him get off the streets and become Wreckx-n-Effect. So those are the experiences of growing up in Harlem. I had to go through it all in order to make it to where I’m at today. I had to go to jail. I was on the streets, but I also played in church on Sunday.
I went to a church where the pastor was a drug dealer. I never knew it! I was just so accustomed to my pastor as my mentor, but he was a drug dealer. And guess what? Red Alert was the DJ of the church. We went with Afrika Bambaataa and Red Alert became the famous DJ, and I became the producer. It was called Universal Temple.
My goal was on music because I didn’t make it in the streets. I got busted. I got hit by a cop, so after that I said no more.
Let’s talk about Michael Jackson, who you worked closely with. What did he teach you specifically about music?
From Michael, I learned how not to settle for nothing less than great. That’s the reason why I didn’t work with a singer that was a non-singer or someone that was just trying. I was working with singers that I knew had something, and I pulled it out of them, so it made them greater than they thought. I pulled it out of everybody – Keith Sweat can tell you. He walked out of the studio on me when we did “I Want Her.” He said, I don’t want to sing like this. Now you know him and you know who he is when he sings, and you know that’s a Keith Sweat voice and nobody else has it.
Like Bobby Brown with “My Prerogative” – he didn’t want to do those words like that. He walked out of the studio on me, and they don’t even have that in the movie! He walked out of the studio on me, and I said cool, I’m going to give my record to somebody else. “My Prerogative” was supposed to have been for the Guy album, but it was too late, so we let it go to Bobby. We had the record available, just like we had “Just Got Paid” available, because that was supposed to have been on the Keith Sweat album, because Keith wrote it, so… But that’s how New Jack Swing was. I took records from Wreckx-N-Effect and gave it to Heavy D. Michael taught me how to get away from the drum machine, and get away from all of the machines and get to a piano and play your melodies – get those melodies out – because melody is king. That was Michael’s famous line – melody is king. So that’s how I treat my songs.
At least my hooks were strong, even if my words were not, because a hook can carry a song, because everybody’s trying to get to the hook. So, that’s how I get to my songs – I make the hooks first, then you go off the hook and you vibe off of it. And that’s what Michael taught me. But he also taught me how to just have nothing, and that’s how he became a beatboxer, from his mouth. He sings everything from his mouth and he mumbles it first, because it’s about the melody. He mumbles it all the way to the end, and then if a writer comes in who’s gonna pen it, or he’ll pen it, and they’ll try to fill the words in because he doesn’t want it to come out of the curve of the melody, he don’t want it to fall off of the melody. That’s why in “Remember the Time” a few words are just mumbled – we were you and [mumble]. But he was saying we were young and innocent! But he had to make it stretch to keep that melody going! That’s the name of the game.
And what’s one of your most vivid or fondest memories of Michael?
Michael gave me my first [Digital Audio Tape] player. You know what he made us do? He made us go to his zoo with his animals and tape them with the digital recorder. And we had to get the lions and tigers… and we were like, OK, "who is gonna agitate [the lion]?" And I’m like, “I’m not gonna agitate him!” And we call Michael, and Michael says, “Just do something. Just run into the fence or throw something.” So we agitated him and the growl was so huge on that digital player, we got it.
I have it in a song called “Monster” on the album after Michael passed. It’s on that album, and we got that lion there. We have the sample that’s from his DATs, because he keeps a bag full of DATs and that’s his references.
Of all the songs that you’ve done – what would say are your Top 3, and why?
Let’s start with “Remember the Time.” It was about my first love. I was hurt with this one. It was the first time I ever got my heart broken. But you know, I forgave, and I still talk to her today.
It’s kind of crazy how songs become your life. Like “Let’s Chill" – that’s my second [Top 3 song]. “Let’s Chill” was about my second love, the mother of my four children – and that’s Donna [Roberts]. I was doing a lot of cheating… I was in my twenties… and I caught myself and I wrote this song, and it was basically about her, because we had our beautiful first daughter, who is now 31 years old, and she’s married and happy and she’s making a lot of money, and she’s a workaholic just like myself.
And then there’s “No Diggity” because that’s the biggest song that I’ve ever sang in my life that I’m on, and everybody’s remaking it. It’s a classic. You’re gonna hear “No Diggity” again in 10 years on the moon, just like you will hear “Rock With You” and “Lady in My Life” – you’re gonna hear these classics… I know my children’s children and their children are going to enjoy that. I’m just trying to pave that way for them. I work for my children. It’s expensive. I feel sorry for P. Diddy.
Speaking of P. Diddy, did you have any interactions with the now late Kim Porter?
I have a lot of memories – she’s my spiritual sister. In fact, I was the producer to work with Kim Porter to surprise Diddy with her music, and we were going after the style of Donna Summer because that’s who she reminded me of, and I said I want to paint that picture with the music for you. She would be ready to do it, and then the next thing you know she would feel like it wouldn’t be pleasing enough to Diddy, and then I said you know, “Well you let me know if you really want to do it, because I would really love to surprise my brother with your talents, because you got something. You got something.” And she really wanted to explore that and do it for Diddy, and I was going to be there to help. It was a surprise… That was like a sister to me, and that was one girl that stood behind her man, no matter what.
That’s one thing – she was so in love. I mean, beyond love. That’s the understatement. And she wrote songs about him, and they were so incredible. She was a beautiful soul.
You launched some wonderful talent throughout your career – Aaron Hall, Dave Hollister, Chauncey Black. Where do you stand now with these guys personally and professionally?
Right now, for me, it has to start with me. I’ve given my life and my all to everybody, and now it’s time for me to get my just due with my crew, because I put them all on. So, all of them are my brothers, and I love them dearly. The ones that I choose to stay away from [are] the ones that I still forgave, and I still have love for them. I just gotta stay on the other side. So, Dave Hollister and I are like two peas in a pod. That’s my big brother. That’s my spiritual adviser, and I’m his spiritual adviser. He’ll call me if he has to make another decision, and I’ll call him if I have to make a decision. We’re still Blackstreet, we’re still doing it, and we’re still successful doing what we do and what we love. Dave still preach[es] on Sunday, he’s still successful there, and we’re still doing what we love, you know. And if you can’t continue this with us, then we have to continue it ourselves.
Samantha Hunter resides in Westchester, New York and has written entertainment and lifestyle features for BET.com, Essence, SoulBounce, Inspirer, Haute d’ Vie, Black Westchester, DELUX, and VH1.com. Her family and friends say she’s always going somewhere, but you can find her on Instagram at @Sapodillic.