Teddy Riley is one of the most influential artists in R&B and pop. In the late 1980s he created new jack swing, a fusion genre that filtered from New York’s black club scene into the mainstream, changing the face of popular music forever. Ahead of his lecture at Red Bull Music Academy Festival, Claire Lobenfeld speaks to the legend about his biggest hits, working with Michael Jackson, and the story behind legendary ‘90s hit ‘No Diggity’.
Teddy Riley is one of the most influential artists in contemporary R&B, whether you know his name or not. He’s a songwriter, producer, keyboardist and performer who has collaborated with Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston, Jay Z, Mya, Mase, Keith Sweat, SWV and Montell Jordan. He helped Michael Jackson reinvent his sound in the early ‘90s on Dangerous, gave Pharrell his first professional music gig, and wrote the 1996 classic ‘No Diggity’. He is also the creator of new jack swing, an offshoot of R&B that fuses gospel, soul, jazz, disco, hip-hop and electro. The genre got its name from writer Barry Michael Cooper whose 1987 Village Voice cover story “Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing: Harlem Gangsters Raise a Genius” went from a clever headline to a permanent neologism.
Riley began cultivating this new sound when he was just a teen growing up in Harlem. His father was eager to equip Riley with Casio and Telstar keyboards, fascinated by his young son’s ability to create. “People had their Nintendo games and Atari games and all that? For me, it was the keyboard,” he says. The only other musical member of his family was his mother, who sung in the church choir; her interest in gospel and his uncle’s connections to Harlem club The Rooftop would inspire Riley to change R&B.
Riley’s work has always been informed by collaboration. “Back when I first started, everything was separated. Everybody had their own style and everybody was selfish about their style, their sound,” he says. “James Brown kept his sound to himself, and back then there wasn’t really a whole lot of collaborations going on, unless they were a part of [the same scene]. The Emotions would work with Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye with Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell. Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. Those collaborations were big and I wanted to see more. I wanted to see more collaborations, more mixtures of style and because I didn’t see it, I did it in my music. I took renditions of their sounds and mixed it with my sound – gospel, jazz and disco. Just put it all together and made gumbo.”
As an artist, he was a member of Guy with Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling (although Gatling left the group and was replaced by Hall’s brother Damion before their first album was released); the group put out three albums and appeared in the film New Jack City. Riley had been refining his signature sound with his work producing for singers like Keith Sweat and Al. B Sure!, but Guy’s self-titled debut is what solidified it as a movement. “It turned into a phenomenon,” Riley says.
In 1991, Guy split up and Riley formed Blackstreet, his most successful project to date. Their self-titled album generated a top 10 hit in ‘Before I Let You Go’, but it was their sophomore effort, Another Level, that helped usher in a crossover period for R&B from urban contemporary radio to the top 40. Tracks like ‘Fix’, ‘Don’t Leave’ and, of course, ‘No Diggity’, helped bring in this new era. Few artists have left their mark on both the pop and R&B spheres in the way that Riley has.
In the three decades that Riley has been working, he’s gone from budding hip-hop producer to an era-defining R&B influencer. Most recently, he’s taken new jack swing to the other side of the world as a producer for massive K-pop groups like Girls’ Generation and Shinee. Riley spoke to FACT about his 30 years in music and shared some of the stories behind his songs across many genre.
Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew – ‘The Show’ (1985)
Doug E. Fresh’s Inspector Gadget-sampling debut single ‘The Show’ is a cornerstone of hip-hop history. The A-side to Slick Rick’s ‘La Di Da Di’, ‘The Show’ has influenced a slew of artists over the years, from De La Soul and Snoop Dogg to the Roots and Eminem. It was even the genesis for failed diss track ‘The Show Stoppa’ by Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor, who recruited the female rap group that ultimately became Salt-n-Pepa to perform it with him. ‘The Show’ was formative for Riley, and one of his earliest co-productions.
“I was a local fan of Doug E. Fresh from when I used to see him at this club Harlem World,” Riley says. “That’s where Puffy and Mase and all those guys got the name from. There was an actual club called Harlem World on 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. That’s how we all met.”
Riley’s connection to Harlem World and uptown club The Rooftop, where his uncle worked, is what moved Riley from a keyboard luminary to someone with a budding influence on culture. He also met and worked with rap legend Kool Moe Dee during this time, whose ‘Wild Wild West’ Riley produced. (Yes, the song Will Smith remade in 1999.)
Heavy D & the Boys Feat. Aaron Hall – ‘Now That We’ve Found Love’ (1991)
Heavy D’s biggest hit is one of music’s ultimate games of telephone. Originally performed by soul icons The O’Jays, ‘Now That We Found Love’ was covered by Martha Reeves and reggae fusion group Third World before becoming a new jack swing classic. But the track was originally intended for the group Wreckx-n-Effect, of which Riley’s brother Markell was a member.
“When Heavy D would come round and get a song from me, he was usually stealing from my artists like Wreckx-n-Effect or [rapper] Redhead Kingpin,” Riley says. “I’d say, ‘Man, you’re a bully’, but I’d be the first to give up tracks to him because I knew he was gonna make them big.”
Michael Jackson – ‘Remember The Time’ (1991)
Teddy Riley became one of the main producers, writers and collaborators on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous after being recommended to the King of Pop by super-producer Quincy Jones. The album’s reception was mixed, but it peaked at number one on the Billboard charts where it spent 119 weeks and won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical), which Riley shared with Jones collaborator Bruce Swedien.
Dangerous was some of Jackson’s more daring work, largely due to Riley’s commitment to ignoring the boundaries of genre. But as much of a game-changer as it was for Jackson, it was equally transformative for Riley. “Working with Michael Jackson is like beginning college and finishing with him is getting your masters,” he says. “He would just take the drum machines and everything out of my hands and all I had was the piano to write songs. We were at an upright piano and he and I would sit there and write and we would record it with a little digital recorder and that was it. That’s how we created songs like ‘In the Closet’ and ‘Remember the Time’.”
Wreckx-N-Effect – ‘Rump Shaker’ (1992)
‘Rump Shaker’ isn’t just one of the most memorable booty anthems of the ‘90s, it also has Pharrell Williams’s first professional writing credit. Riley discovered him at a talent show in Virginia Beach and gave him a shot writing lyrics, including Riley’s ‘Rump Shaker’ rap. However, a lyricist employed before Pharrell is one of the track’s true masterminds: “That song was made about eight times. We had it so many different ways. I took the record and stripped it down because originally ‘all I wanna do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom’ wasn’t the hook, it was part of my verse,” Riley says.
The original chorus interpolated Parliament’s ‘Rumpofsteelskin’ but Riley thought it would wear on listeners. “I got tired of it,” he admits. “I said,‘Let’s take ‘all I wanna do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom’ out of my verse and make that the hook.” It’s one of the things that makes the song so memorable. He also credits Sony’s Madeline Nelson (mother of Riley’s oldest son) for keeping the song bass-heavy: “She told me, ‘Don’t do too much, it’s the bass that girls wanna hear.’”
MC Hammer – ‘Pumps and a Bump’ (1994)’
MC Hammer’s ‘Pumps and a Bump’ is about a “girl in high heels with a fat ass,” Riley says, in case you couldn’t decipher the title. “MC Hammer and I came up with it just messing around. He said, ‘We always have to make a record about a girl with a big ass’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t always have to say ‘ass’.” And he came up with his own slang. I didn’t think it was going to be it as big as Hammer made it,” Riley says.
“When it comes to vision, and getting a record from A to Z, from recording to being a number one record, that’s Hammer. When he did ‘U Can’t Touch This’, it was Hammer behind everything and what he wanted done with his music and what he wanted to make it about – the celebration of that particular song. He succeeded in it every time,” he adds.
Nearly 30 years after the release of ‘U Can’t Touch This’, Hammer seems like he’s never been anything but the butt of a joke. But even though ‘Pumps and a Bump’ is essentially just a song about the how great someone’s butt looks while they’re wearing high heels, its combination of new jack swing and G-Funk is musically complex and still goes hard in 2017.
Blackstreet Feat. Dr. Dre & Queen Pen – ‘No Diggity’ (1996)
The legend goes that the rest of Blackstreet were incredulous that ‘No Diggity’ could be a hit, despite co-signs from Heavy D and Dr. Dre, who not only lends vocals to the track but pushed it on Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine, according to Riley.
“They always pushed me in the front. When they don’t understand something and the song is not understood, they gonna stick somebody else to the front line. That’s how I ended up singing the first verse on ‘No Diggity’ and it became a hit,” he says. “Now everybody wants to be responsible. But I’m gonna take the full responsibility of the group for ‘No Diggity’.” He also gives credit to the late songwriter William “Stylez” Stewart, who suggested they sample Bill Withers’ ‘Grandma’s Hands’ for the track.
“If he hadn’t played that sample for me, there would never be a ‘No Diggity’. And if he didn’t write it according to the melody I gave him so it would sound that way because I wanted it to sound funky,” he says. “I wanted it to be appealing to everyone, but mostly to women. I wanted every woman to feel like they were the ‘No Diggity’ girl and that song was about them and it came across. And now, still, today, that song plays and people are on that dancefloor.”
Queen Pen – ‘Party Ain’t a Party’ (1997)
Brooklyn rapper Queen Pen got her start after approaching Riley in an IHOP. “She said, ‘I want to rap for you, I want to spit for you right here.’ I said ‘Cool, but this is not the right place to do that’. I asked her to come to my studio and told her I’d listen to what she’s got.” There, he was impressed by her talent. He didn’t have anything for her at the time, but he promised her a guest spot of the first track he had available. (That was, of course, ‘No Diggity’.)
She is, however, a star in her own right. Tracks like the Luther Vandross-sampling ‘All My Love’, the Lost Boyz-featuring club cut ‘Party Ain’t a Party’ and ode to Teddy Riley ‘Man Behind the Music’ all charted in the Billboard Hot 100 and her debut album My Melody played with sexuality in a different way than her contemporaries Lil Kim and Foxy Brown by exploring sex same relationships. Using Meshell Ndegeocello’s ‘Boyfriend’ as a backbone, Queen Pen’s ‘Girlfriend’ made her one of the first MCs to openly rap about homosexuality.
Girls’ Generation – ‘The Boys’ (2013)
Riley still hasn’t lost his affinity for melding genre and has taken new jack swing to K-pop, where he has worked with groups like Shinee, Exo, f(x) and Girls’ Generation, including their first international single ‘The Boys’.
“I was introduced to K-pop back in 2008. When I went to check out the scene, the vibes, the whole feel of Korea and Korean music – it’s amazing to me,” he says. “All I did was bring new jack swing and merged it together [with K-pop] and that’s how we got 10 number ones.”
Claire Lobenfeld is on Twitter
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