Teddy Riley Talks Honing New Jack Swing, Learning From Michael Jackson

The “New Jack Swing” label is commonly used to pigeonhole a specific strain of R&B – characterized by gun-shot snare drums, cluster bombs of hi-hat triplets and imperious singers like Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown – that was popularized in 1987 and peaked with the release of Michael Jackson‘s Dangerous album in 1991.

But Teddy Riley, an architect of the sound as a producer for Sweat, Brown and Jackson, will tell you that thinking of the term in such a way is both narrow-minded and short-sighted. It’s better to split pop music into two categories: the stuff that came out before New Jack Swing and the stuff released after it.

“All these people that are marrying singing with rap or making a song that’s a rap song into a singing song? That’s New Jack Swing,” Riley asserts, speaking on the phone earlier this week before a talk on Friday sponsored by the Red Bull Music Academy. “You have Bruno Mars; you have Drake; you hear Pitbull? That’s all considered New Jack Swing. A lot of people don’t know and don’t understand. That just feel like it’s their sound.”

In other words, the impulse behind Riley’s work – and that of other producers who were exploring a similar meld in the 1980s, notably Jam & Lewis and Babyface and L.A. Reid – ultimately turned out to be even more important than the sound of the initial fusion. Blending hip-hop and R&B to varying degrees has been a constant fixture of both genres ever since; everyone who engages in this practice is to some degree indebted to the wave of producers who led the charge, including Riley.

Riley spoke with the writer Jeff Mao on Friday in front of a small but adulatory crowd in Manhattan. The legendary producer – who also spent time as a singer in several successful R&B groups, including Guy and Blackstreet – played many roles during the conversation: he was a vicious beat-boxer, a gleeful dancer and a gifted impressionist, especially when impersonating Sweat and Jackson. He was also a fan, happily listening to records he produced decades ago as if he had never heard them before.

But most of all, Riley was an enthusiastic, long-winded raconteur; in over two hours, he only made it from his days with Sweat in 1987 to the release of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” in 1996. Those hoping for stories about Riley’s other productions, his subsequent work as a talent scout and advocate for younger artists – he helped discover Pharrell – and his opinions on the recent rise of period-specific New Jack Swing homage from the likes of Bruno Mars will have to pick up the producer’s forthcoming book, possibly due out later this year.

Here are nine things we learned from Riley’s Red Bull Music Academy talk.

1. Always think about the dancers

“When I came up with [Sweat’s “I Want Her” in 1987], I didn’t know what I was doing,” Riley remembered. “I just knew that it would be very interesting to see people dance to it. And it would be very exciting seeing them really get down, just doing what they want. That’s what New Jack Swing did to people. You didn’t have a certain dance you wanted to do. You just did what came to your mind because of the rhythm of the music.”

2. In a beat, detail is crucial

“All those voices are mine,” Riley proclaimed proudly. He was talking about – and reenacting – the “I Want Her” background vocals. “I didn’t want [Sweat] to keep any of those vocals,” Riley explained. “Back then we didn’t have autotune or pitch correction, and a lot of those vocals were kept from my 12-track [that we recorded on in my apartment].” But the shifting backdrop added excitement to “I Want Her”‘s streamlined, relentless thwack, which still succeeded in animating a room full of people on Friday – almost 30 years after it came out.

3. Never neglect the pre-hook

“What really hooks you in a song is not the chorus – it’s actually the pre-chorus that gets you wound up,” Riley asserted. “Then you sing the hook because you’ve already been hooked.”

“The one thing that I put in my songs a lot is something that’s gonna give people the beat instead of the lyrics,” he continued. “If you hear the song ‘New Jack Swing’ [by Wreckx-N-Effect in 1989] there’s a high sound that goes [makes noise like squeaking windshield wipers]. That’s what keeps people going.”

4. Just because you use a drum machine, doesn’t mean you have to program a beat

“I never programmed ‘I Want Her;’ I played it straight down. I played everything straight down. The Guy album [Guy from 1988] – straight down. That’s why it took so long for a lot of these records to come out, ’cause I didn’t have a sequencer, and when I finally got a sequencer, I didn’t work right for me. It didn’t have the off and on swing that I wanted.”

5. “Hurt the people, shock the world”

Riley spent a large portion of his talk holding the crowd rapt with stories about his time working with Michael Jackson. “Getting with Michael, he showed me how to turn music up,” Riley recalled. “He’d always say, ‘I want to hurt ’em.’ He always would go, ‘OK Teddy, turn up the snare. I want you to really turn it up. The most important thing is the backgrounds – it’s gotta be loud. That’s what I want people to remember.’ So I’m playing the music, and he was just going, ‘hurt me!'”

“I don’t know what that means,” Riley quipped. “But I turned that shit up.”

“Bobby [Brown was the] same thing,” the producer continued. “He just wanted to hear the music like it’s gonna sound in the club. Michael would say, ‘we gotta hurt the people, shock the world.’ I’m just so for that.”

6. When it comes to recording vocals, think about your angles

“One thing about Michael: his pitch is amazing. This is what he’s singing? Everything is the same, each stack; what he would do is move around the mic. It’s almost like a photographer – I want to get different angles of you. Michael would go behind the mic and sing the same stack. He would stack five, six, seven, 10 times. Then do the next note. And everything was the same. It was almost like a sampler.

Doing this with him taught me how to get with other singers and show them how to do their own backgrounds and not sound the same. It sounds like people, instead of that’s just you. It’s about your angles, about your dynamics.”

“Melody is king; do not write your lyrics first. Write your melody and get everything out of that melody to make it do what you want it do. Then write your lyrics on top of it.”

7. Singers should always be practicing

“A lot of people don’t know that Michael had a really deep voice, and a lot of people don’t know why he talks light. Well, the voice is a muscle. The only way you gonna get the muscles is you gotta keep workin’ ’em out. Him talkin’ high is working his voice every day to stay that high. That’s why his voice is so clear when it’s high, and his falsetto is so silky and pure. It’s because he’s working out every day.”

8. Melody is king

“Melody is king; do not write your lyrics first,” Riley said. “Write your melody and get everything out of that melody to make it do what you want it do. Then write your lyrics on top of it.”

Riley singled out Leon Sylvers – a member of the family vocal group the Sylvers in the ’70s who then went on to a highly successful, if still under-appreciated, production career at the L.A. studio SOLAR Records – for being exceptionally gifted in this area. “[He] is probably the best guy that can curve his lyrics to a melody,” Riley asserted.

9. The producer and the artist are fundamentally at odds

Working with strong personalities – Sweat, Brown, Jackson – helped Riley hone a zen persona in the studio. “I’m always the calm one,” he explained.

But really his mood is dictated by the temperament of the singer he’s working with. “That’s the job of the producer: you gotta be the opposite of your artist,” Riley declared. “If your artist is shy, you gotta get their ass up – come on now! Scream at ’em – What!? Make ’em scared, get ’em nervous. They start sweating, their voice gets moist, then they go in the booth.” 

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