Friday, January 9, 2009

We Owned The 80's: New Jack Swing.

By the mid-80's, R&B music was at a crossroads. Traditional early 80's style "sangers" like Evelyn Champagne King, Freddie Jackson, and Jeffrey Osborne were getting old in the teeth. Eurosoul outfits like Loose Ends and Soul II Soul invaded the airwaves. Having a fullblown "group" like Cameo, or The Gap Band was no longer financially wise. Computers were replacing musicians, and rap music was entering it's golden age (86'-89'). Rhythm and blues was about to go the way of the dinosaur, until something magical happened that changed black music forever. Whether this change was good or bad is a matter of personal opinion.

A young, unheralded producer from Virginia Beach named Teddy Riley coined the phrase "New Jack Swing". A mashup of synth heavy R&B music with hip hop beats, it was a unique (and arguably waaay overproduced) sound for the time. It's hard to say what song first exemplified this union, but Riley is more or less considered The King Of NJS.

I'd normally throw in all sorts of biographical stuff about Riley and the genre here, but thankfully this is one aspect of 80's black culture that was actually given it's proper due. Peep the extensive four part BET documentary below over lunch. Fascinating stuff.

Much like current superproducers Kanye West, The Neptunes, and Timbaland, there wasn't a record that dropped in the mid-late 80's that didn't have at least one Riley track on it. I could go down the list for days, but here's just a sampling.

Keith Sweat - "I Want Her"

Guy - "Groove Me"

Bobby Brown - "Don't Be Cruel"

Wreckx-n-Effect - "New Jack Swing"

Bell Biv Devoe - "Poison"

The genre is also typified by some less heralded, but still memorable songs. Peep these.

EnTouch - "2 Hype"

Samuelle - "So You Like What You See."

Today - "Why You Gettin' Funky On Me?"

Damian Dame - "Exclusivity"

The Boys - "Dial My Heart"

Prior to New Jack Swing, R&B singers and rappers seldom co-existed. When Jodi Whatley was joined by Rakim for the groundbreaking 1989 hit "Friends" an unholy alliance was formed.

I remember my Dad expressing his shock at such a development.

"A singer and a rapper on the same song? This is like oil and water."

Pops was right. NJS and the whole concept of the "guest rapper" took some time to completely take root, but today the genres of R&B and rap music are virtually interchangable. An underground rapper once famously said the only difference between the two is "in an R&B song, the b*tch sings more". Sure, that's not the most politically correct of statements, but that don't make it untrue. While it was a refreshing change of pace back in 87', it's more or less the reason why I don't listen to terrestrial "urban" radio today. Thanks a lot, Teddy.

Sadly, like most other editions of WOT8's, the New Jack Swing sound saw it's popularity wane by the mid 90's. Riley's trio Guy[1] unceremoniously broke up in the early 90's and Riley went on to form a more successful, albeit far less talented group called Blackstreet. Popular artists like Al B. Sure, Bobby Brown, and Aaron Hall (of Guy) failed to make the transition and saw their once promising careers ethered. Riley is perhaps best known of late for a grizzly bankruptcy/foreclosure, and the subsequent burning down of his Virginia Beach studio. He still produces, albeit on a far smaller scale, but let's respect the architect.

For better or for worse, New Jack Swing changed the history of black music. Yup yup.

Question: What was your favorite song/group/album/video of the New Jack Swing era?

New Jack Swing Wiki [wikipedia]

[1] Oddly, Guy's debut album cover featured a guy who was only a member of the group through the photoshoot of note. Can you name the "guy" who Damion Hall replaced? 10 Cyber CapriSuns™ to the winner. This is a tough one. Don't cheat and Google it either.

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