‘When I say ‘black,’ you say ‘street.’ . . . Black!”
Teddy Riley beams as he holds a microphone over the heads of the rapt, multicultural teen audience that he’s leading in this call-and-response cheer. The creator of the new jack swing sound that is the dominant urban pop style of the last decade--combining soul, gospel and hip-hop elements into chart-topping hits for artists including Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson--is obviously proud of the cultural borders his music has crossed.
As singer-songwriter-producer Riley orchestrates the scene at a Paramount Studios taping of “All That,” the weekly Nickelodeon cable channel variety show that attracts the biggest names in rap and R&B;, teens and preteens representing places ranging from Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks to Crenshaw Boulevard in South-Central bop their heads to the hypnotic rhythms.
It’s the kind of phenomenon that many record executives and artists have come to depend on when they need a sure-fire hit--or a sound to transform the direction of their careers. For more than a decade, Riley’s touch has been among the most consistent, and imitated, forces in pop, placing him alongside Babyface and Dr. Dre as the ultimate shapers of contemporary urban sounds.
And it’s also taken him a long way, from the Harlem projects where he grew up to his current spread, the multimillion-dollar Future Studios recording complex he owns in Virginia.
But this day is different. Riley’s not here on behalf of another artist. He’s here in his own right, as the leader of Blackstreet, the group he’s anchored for two years. Its hit, “No Diggity,” a raucous blend of harmonizing and pure hip-hop thump, has the distinction of finally ending the 13-week reign of Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” as the nation’s No. 1 pop song--a position it’s now held for three weeks. It’s a song that knows no boundaries, that seems in place in the mall or at a high school dance as much as it does at a street race or a gangsta party.
“Pleasing the kids, that’s all I want to do,” Riley, 30, says with a sheepish smile in the dressing room moments later.
“I just get joy from doing the music,” he continues as he and his group mates--Chauncey Hannibal, Mark Middleton and Eric Williams--watch other “All That” segments on monitors and munch on soul food from Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles. But as he speaks, it becomes clear that there’s more to it than that.
“I wrote ‘Remember the Time’ when Michael [Jackson] told me about falling in love with [Debbie Rowe], the woman he just married. I don’t know why he didn’t marry her the first time around. That’s why songs like that, and Bobby Brown’s ‘My Prerogative,’ are still relevant, ‘cause they speak about their lives and the lives of others. My songs are just a soundtrack for life.
“If it becomes a hit, I just become more famous. It’s not even about the money. I want to shine, to be a hero, to show people that your dreams really can come true.”
Riley’s own dreaming started in Harlem’s St. Nicholas projects before he even started school. He learned guitar by ear when he was just 3 years old and by 10 he was holding concerts in the courtyard with a Casio keyboard. By 19 he was producing records in his bedroom with such old-school rap stars as Kool Moe Dee and Doug E. Fresh.
In the last 10 years, Riley’s hands have touched hits that span the range from hip-hop classics (Fresh’s 1986 “The Show”) to more current works such as SWV’s “Right Here” and Jackson’s “Remember the Time.” When added up, the hit songs he’s produced for Jackson, Guy, Heavy D., Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Al B. Sure, Whitney Houston and others add up to some 54 million in worldwide sales of albums and singles.
He didn’t give up making his own records, though, forming the group Guy in 1987 with singing brothers Aaron and Damian Hall, producing the Top 10 hits “Groove Me,” “Let’s Chill” and “Teddy’s Jam.” The group split in 1992 because of friction between Riley and lead singer Aaron Hall. In 1993 he formed Blackstreet with Hannibal and singers David Hollister and Levi Little, scoring hits with “Booti Call” and “Before I Let You Go.” With the exception of Hannibal, the other singers left the Riley fold to go solo.
Riley’s seminal hits with Guy and subsequent hits for Brown, Sweat (“Make It Last Forever”) and Al B. Sure (“Night and Day”) were the foundations of what Village Voice critic Barry Michael Cooper called “new jack swing,” the amalgamation of classic, gospel-inspired vocals with hard-core beats and plenty of street attitude.
“I think I might have created a monster,” Riley says, leaning back on the couch in Blackstreet’s modest dressing room.
Current radio formats are dominated by R&B-flavored; hip-hop songs. With few exceptions, songs proliferating on video outlets such as BET and the Box are sorry, muddied compositions that have inspired a backlash reaction, with the Maxwells and D’Angelos of the world turning their backs on the new jack slickness and reintroducing pure instrumentation to R&B.; “Now you find a lot of people with the artificial new jack sound,” he continues, “and less of an emphasis on good music or good singing.”
They’re also not paying attention, Riley and his cohorts maintain, to the romance that’s the foundation of the music.
“There’s too much negativity in a lot of the music right now,” says Williams, 26. “We’re just trying to keep our music as straight-up R&B.; Sure, ‘No Diggity’ has attitude, and is sexual, but well-composed. Don’t get it twisted.”
Hannibal, 27, is even more disgusted with the tone of much music. “We’d be a straight-up gospel group if we could sell as many records in that genre,” he says. “We love stuff like the Mighty Clouds of Joy and other vocal quartets. Pretty soon, that’s all we’re going to do.”
“The thing about this current Blackstreet that wasn’t true about the old one, or Guy, is that we care about each other outside of the studio,” Riley says, looking at newer members Williams and Middleton with genuine affection. “And that’s not to say anything against Damian or Aaron, Levi or anybody else, but I learned from those experiences. We know how to work together, and we like working with each other. We have a good thing, and we’re glad to be together.”
It’s 5 a.m. in Virginia Beach, Va., and Teddy Riley is wide awake, continuing the conversation by phone. He’s just finished rehearsing for Blackstreet’s upcoming European promotional tour, and with the band’s album, “Another Level,” at No. 25 on the chart, his press and appearance schedule stateside is chock-full.
In addition, Riley just finished remixing a song for Whitney Houston’s “Preacher’s Wife” soundtrack, one that he transformed from a gospel song into a beat-basher ready for the dance floor. The soundtrack executives love his version. Riley, the perfectionist, wishes he had more time.
“I would have loved to work with Whitney from scratch on that one,” says Riley, who lives with his three children and their mother in Virginia Beach. “You can’t rush creativity.”
Riley’s recognition, too, hasn’t been rushed. Arguably, he’s yet to achieve the household-name status of Babyface and Dr. Dre. But now he seems on the brink, and he believes that the timing is perfect.
“If I had received the props that I deserved then instead of now, I wouldn’t still be around,” he says. “I just hope that they keep coming when it comes time for awards. It’s like people in the Olympics, trying to earn that gold medal. I’d like to get my medal too.
“ ‘No Diggity’ is just God giving me back my just due 20 times over,” Riley says, his voice weary with exhaustion after his all-nighter. “I’m just taking that success and spreading it with other people. I’m just building a future for my kids, so they won’t have to do what I did to make it in this world, so they can go to college. That’s all.”
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