Randi Hernandez
Posted by

Journey Into Sound: Harlem New Jack Swing

Funky Expedition: New Jack Swing

Funky Expeditions: New Jack Swing

When you think of big producers, you may think about Quincy Jones, Pharrell Williams, or Timbaland. But these days, people don’t really mention Teddy Riley. Teddy Riley was the Pharrell of his day, and basically created the genre that is known as New Jack Swing. He started out as a producer and performer at a young age, in a lil’ old place called HARLEM.

So, what exactly IS New Jack Swing? Although the music was featured in the film New Jack City, it is NOT just music from the soundtrack. The genre started out in the late 80’s, and featured mostly ORIGINAL MUSIC (aka no samples), which is rare for most of the tracks on the radio now. The term “New Jack Swing” was created by writer/filmmaker Barry Michael Cooper in a 1988 Village Voice article about Teddy Riley called “Teddy Riley Groove Master: Harlem Gangsters Raise a Genius”. The “new jack” title for Teddy is related to the movie though, as Cooper was additionally the screenwriter for New Jack City and movies such as Above the Rim and Sugar Hill. (wikipedia) (Actually, lots of soundtracks from the time of the late 80’s/early 90’s were swinging to the New Jack). Teddy described the term New Jack Swing for himself, saying in a 1991 New York Times article that NJS could be defined as “a new kid on the block who’s swingin’ it.” He also said that the music, to him, was more like “sophisticated bubblegum music”, because it was fresh and young. (BET video)

Funky Expedition: New Jack Swing

Even before Uptown and Guy, Teddy worked first with rappers, producing Kool Moe Dee’s “Go See the Doctor” and Heavy D’s “Mr. Big Stuff.”

The sound of New Jack Swing, also called “swingbeat” or simply NJS, utilized the ever-popular Roland 808 drum machines, the then-new SP-1200, and was chock full of corny drum machine sounds and big vocal riffs. The genre was new specifically because in the late 80’s, you were either soft R&B, or hard gangsta rap, but never, EVER both. Teddy brought rap into R&B tracks, and gave rhythm and blues a street edge. There were a lot of haters of NJS, because the seductive, catchy raps usually placed into the songs went against the message that gangsta rap was trying to hard to promote. The raps became less about the struggle against oppression and harder acts felt that NJS was a sellout. Ice Cube explained his feelings on the topic, when on “Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit”, he rapped “It ain’t no pop cause that sucks/And you can new jack swing on my nuts”. Dem’s fighting words!

Although Teddy is credited as creating this sound, other popular producers using that New Jack sound included Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Janet’s producers), Babyface and L.A. Reid (who produced the Boomerang soundtrack, which was mostly NJS songs), and Dallas Austin. But Teddy is definitely the originator, and made his first album as a member of Guy when he was just a 20-year-old living in a Harlem housing project (New York Times). The record was put out by Uptown, even though it had already been rejected by Jive records. (BET video). He had already been around for a while working with Andre Harrell at Uptown Records when Diddy was just an intern there! (BET video) In fact, Diddy claimed his first job at Uptown was “carrying Teddy Riley’s keyboard for a show at WBLS” (BET video). Even before Uptown and Guy, Teddy worked first with rappers, producing Kool Moe Dee’s “Go See the Doctor” and Heavy D’s “Mr. Big Stuff.” Teddy faced some hardship when in 1989 his manager, Gene Griffin, stole at least 2 million dollars of his publishing money. Teddy got so depressed, that he even contemplated quitting the industry. The one song that made him stay on the grind was the production of Jane Child’s “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love” (yes, the Jane Child with the nosering/earring combo and crazy hairstyle). Teddy sued his former manager and settled out of court, and as a result, Guy was allowed to be released from their contract and start anew before they broke up for good in 1991.

Funky Expedition: New Jack Swing

Teddy was groundbreaking specifically for working with so many acts, and for following a particular formula.

Teddy was groundbreaking specifically for working with so many acts, and for following a particular formula. He produced (amongst others) Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show”, Hi-Five’s “I Like the Way (Kissing Game”, Guy’s “Groove Me”, Wreckz-n-Effect’s “Rumpshaker”, and Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” (although he said that Bobby wasn’t into the song and style of singing at first!) (video). One of his grandest production moments was when Michael Jackson parted ways with Qunicy Jones and hooked up with Teddy for the creation of Michael’s album Dangerous. The album featured production from Teddy on such notable hits as “Remember the Time”, “Jam”, “and “In the Closet”.

Teddy gained much success from his group Guy, his involvement with Wreckz-n-Effect, and later, with the the infamous group Blackstreet. Their first single “Baby Be Mine” was on the CB4 soundtrack, and throughout the years, they had numerous (4-5?) personnel changes (Dave Hollister and Aaron Hall were among the most famous members). In 1997, Blackstreet won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo for “No Diggity”, which sampled the Bill Withers’ song “Grandma’s Hands” (BET video).

Throughout all the years and all the groups, Teddy Riley has never done a solo album. In fact, when asked in interviews whether he wants to go solo, Teddy always seems like an exasperated stepfather that just can’t get the kids to get along. It seems that everyone in Blackstreet who left, left to pursue a solo career, and Teddy never wanted to do anything but a group. One of the reasons for the departures may have also been the strict rules he upheld for Blackstreet members, including no smoking, drinking, or drugs – a regimen which is hard to follow for those in the limelight. Teddy seemed like a humble and quiet genius. Watch some Teddy videos on Youtube – you might even catch the faint whiff of loneliness that also plagued the late, great Michael Jackson.

Fun New Jack facts:
*Fades and Salt n’ Pepa “Bobs” were the hot haircuts during the NJS time period
*Slang of the era: “Yep-Yep” (as in the song “Rumpshaker”), “Sympin'”, “It’s All Good”, “Homie Don’t Play That” (which had origins from the show In Living Color), “Things That Make you go Hmmmm” (www.njswest.com)
*Popular movie featuring NJS: Class Act, Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Money, House Party, Boomerang, Ghostbusters, Juice, New Jack City.
*Bobby Brown was known as “The King of New Jack Swing”
*NJS came back in 2004 – but in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and BBD member Michaek Bivins portrayed a fictional DJ named Philip “P.M.” Michaels. Then in 2007, VH-1’s Hip Hop Honors featured New Jack Swing (although very shakily, in my opinion)

Here are some popular videos with the New Jack Swing sound:


Tony! Toni! Toné!

Check out the playlist and download some tracks!

Similar Posts:

Comments are closed.

Facebook Twitter Flickr Flickr