Truth be told, Teddy Riley’s career was finished. Actually, there were a few sobering moments when the Harlem-bred child prodigy keyboardist turned super producer was viewed as an afterthought amongst music industry tastemakers. First, let’s talk the highs. The 44-year-old creator of the groundbreaking style known as New Jack Swing—a sweat-inducing amalgamation of gospel, R&B, funk and hip-hop—dominated the late ‘80s and ‘90s, orchestrating gold and platinum anthems for such names as Kool Moe Dee, Guy, Keith Sweat, Heavy D, Bobby Brown, and Blackstreet. His era-defining sound represented a cultural touchstone—so much so that the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, requested Riley’s gifted vision for his gloriously soulful 1991 return-to-form Dangerous. This was the life.
But the lows were just as epic. The volatile break-up of his three-man group Guy; the murders of his brother Brandon as well as the shooting death of his best friend sparked by a touring feud with New Edition; bankruptcy. The hits would dry up for Riley. “But I never let anyone say I was underrated…I never let anyone say I was over,” a defiant Riley states today. “When you go to Twitter and Facebook people still say, ‘My favorite producer is Teddy Riley.’ And that’s only because I fight and I push. That’s what I want people to know.” It’s because of Riley’s pugilistic spirit that he remains a viable force in the music industry over 25 years after he first broke in the biz. It’s why he is equally in-demand by hip-hop royalty (Snoop Dogg) as he is by modern day, censor-igniting pop icons (Lady Gaga).
And his latest stroke of genius? Late last year, Riley turned his attention to the Korean pop market, finding global acclaim as a producer for cutesy K-pop chick clique Girl’s Generation. Riley’s resolve remains unshaken. Perhaps Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am said it best after choosing Riley as his favorite producer of all-time back in 2010 for VIBE’s Best Producer contest. “That’s who I patterned myself after because Teddy is not just a hip-hop producer,” he said in his praise of Riley. “That’s how I try to approach music.” This is Full Clip.—Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
Me and Keith were just going along with the game; going along with what was going to make us famous. I took a chance with a group called Kids At Work. We had a record that later turned into ‘Don’t You Know’ for Heavy D & The Boyz because our original version failed. So all I did was applied my skills and what I learned from being a part of two groups and from my mentor Royal Bayyan (cousin of Kool & The Gang leader Kool Bell. He took me to all the different Kool & The Gang sessions, and Kashif, Freddie Jackson, and Mtume. I was there when it was taking them eight hours just to tune the drums. Everything I had experienced can be heard on [Sweat’s Make It Last Forever].
Me and Keith didn’t know we were making a classic album. That main hook you hear on ‘I Want Her’ is all me. That’s my voice. And that song was huge! But it didn’t start off that way. I remember when Frankie Crocker played ‘I Want Her’ on ‘Jam It Or Slam It’ on WBLS. And the people slammed it! Frankie would rarely play new school R&B…he would only play the older stuff until Keith Sweat came with ‘I Want Her.’ Frankie said, ‘I know ya’ll slammed this record, but I’m going to jam it.’ I wanted to meet Mr. Crocker after that because he was responsible for my first R&B produced record being played on the radio. He took the chance. He knew that record was a classic. People started requesting it like crazy. And the same thing happened with Guy.
Another thing that stood out for me is that I made most of the Make It Last Forever songs on an Akai 12-track. I had the first one. And I did all of those Keith Sweat songs as well as the whole Guy album on that 12-track! I was recording and engineering my own sessions. I had trouble re-producing that sound when I went to the professional studios. We had to take the music from the 12-track, take the 12-track to the studio and duplicate each track from stereo. And we had to put it all together and try to synch it. Then we had the [slow jams] like ‘Make It Last Forever’ and ‘How Deep Is Your Love’. We did not know we were making history with that music. We were taking a chance. This was the start of New Jack Swing. I think it was only a few years later when me and Keith realized how big of an album Make It Last Forever would become.”
I transferred to another school, and that’s where I met Doug E. Fresh. We would walk by each other because we didn’t know who each other was [laughs]. Then we finally got introduced over the phone and we put two and two together and found out, ‘Hey, we go to the same school!’ So they were getting help fixing this one record called ‘The Show.’ And my friend told Doug E. and them, ‘Man, I have the perfect person to help fix this record.’ That’s when we got introduced. This was all in the same time span I was starting to produce for Classical Two and Kool Moe Dee.
We did everything at my house in the projects—225 West. 129th St. I lived on the first floor and Doug E. Fresh came over with Chill Will. Doug was asking me what I would do to the song? I told them to take out all of the commercials on the track because they had these mock commercials every 16 bars. I told them to make the commercial the bridge. I restructured the whole song and that’s how it came out. And then they came back with Slick Rick! The thing about it is I didn’t know anything about credits back then. I never knew anything about putting my name on a record. All I wanted was to hear something that I was a part of on the radio. I was proud of being involved with “The Show.” It’s a classic song. We even got the chance to perform it at Doug’s graduation, and that’s how people knew I was a part of the song. That was a big moment for me.”
I was there when Brooklyn used to come and shoot up the whole front door when Manhattan wasn’t taking it anymore. So I knew about the battles [between Moe Dee and LL Cool J]. That’s why Moe Dee [recorded] ‘How Ya Like Me Now.’ That record was so big. I felt like I was a part of history in the making. I mean, me and Moe Dee were kind of messing around when we were making ‘Do You Know What Time It Is’ and ‘Go See The Doctor’. But with ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ everything changed.
This is when our record company (Jive/RCA) started really backing our music. I got signed to Zomba publishing and I was living in London for about six or seven months working on Moe Dee’s album and with other rappers. Between me and Marley Marl we were the first to sample James Brown and really get away with it. The sample clearance laws were not in affect yet. I was even making James Brown sounds with my own voice [laughs]. That’s me saying, ‘Get on up!’ But James Brown and his team started to put a trademark on everything. Everything was changing. Hip-hop was changing.”
So every time Heavy would come over he would be like, ‘Teddy, I gotta have that song.’ And ‘We Got Our Own Thang’ was one of the songs he picked. That song became a huge hit for them. And it was so different than what was going on in hip-hop. Heavy’s death hit me hard because we were really close. We basically came up together in this industry. We go so deep back that when I used to go to New Rochelle to see my kid’s mother, I used to roll through Heavy’s block in Mount Vernon to see him. Heavy was on the Uptown label with me. And I can’t forget about DJ Eddie F, who was a member of the Heavy D & The Boyz. Him, myself and Kyle West were the Uptown producers.”
When they saw him there was a whole swamp of people around him asking for autographs. Bobby was telling them, ‘I’m looking for Teddy Riley.’ And they pointed right to my building. And he knocks on my door. How incredible is that? Me and Aaron was there writing songs. Aaron started singing that hook, ‘Everybody’s talking all this stuff about me, why don’t they just let me live?’ I was like, ‘This is it!’ That’s all Aaron’s words. Because he really was crazy just like the lyrics said [laughs]. Him and Bobby! That’s why they are still cool til’ this day.”
Let me tell you something. I was so scared to do ‘Teddy’s Jam.’ I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want no record with my name in the title.’ [laughs] But Aaron and them were pushing me to do it. I was always the shy one. If you look at the ‘Groove Me’ video you could tell I was shy. I would do my thing and you would see my head go right down to my keyboard. I didn’t even want to do the Guy record…and I definitely didn’t want to be a singer. It was Gene Griffin (late manager of Riley and Guy) who pushed me out there. He told me, ‘Teddy, in order for you to be visually seen you have to go out there and sing.’ Gene got me voice lessons. He got me with some great guys. I just kind of put myself in the category of George Clinton and Johnny Guitar Watson…not a [traditional] singer. I grabbed the Vocoder like I did for Keith Sweat and then I started using the talk box. I studied Roger Troutman. That’s how ‘Teddy’s Jam’ came about.
Looking back, that first Guy album took a year and half later to go platinum. I was just thinking, ‘Dag, it takes this long to get famous?’ [laughs] But that’s how God works. It’s never on your time…it’s on his time. God made us a successful group. When you look at the guys that came after us—like Jodeci and Boyz II Men—they were coming to our shows wanting us to sign them. We didn’t have egos or anything. Gene would just take us away after every show and put us in a car to leave. And this is when Boys II Men were just trying to sing for us. I remember Wanya (Boyz II Men member) crying and saying, ‘Man, they didn’t give us a chance.’ They later got their deal with Michael Bivins. And Jodeci signed with Andre Harrell (head of Uptown Records, which boasted such star acts as Guy, Heavy D, and Mary J. Blige). He was like, ‘I don’t want to do this to Guy, but this is another hot group…so we are going to make them sound different.’ But how much more different can you make gospel trained singers sound [laughs]? K-Ci and JoJo were the next level of singers. So was R. Kelly. They all were influenced by Guy. We was the group that made it cool for street dudes to dance. Dudes were not afraid to dance with their gators on.”
We were going through a long litigation and lawsuits. Gene was suing us, so we told him we were going to strike. Gene was very hardcore. I can’t tell you everything I went through with him…that’s a conversation for you and me in a room. All I can tell you is that I basically feared for my life. There were things being left at my door. There were messages and threats being targeted towards me. I had my brothers and spiritual brothers with me all the time. Most of my guys who were security was staying with me. But after a little while I stopped caring. I just thought, ‘You know what? If I go today it’s going to be God taking me home. So I’m not going to be afraid anymore.’ I had meetings with Quincy Jones, Clarence Avant, and LA Reid…they were all behind me. I was able to get my own deal. It was Lou Silas who helped me launch Future Records.
There was a lot of pressure doing that Future album. ‘I was singing lead again on ‘Wanna Get With U’. We thought that we had to start taking responsibility for ourselves and stop depending on people. We didn’t want anything taken from us; and we didn’t want our talents to be taken for granted. We knew we wanted to still do our love songs, but now we wanted to tell the truth about our lives. That’s when we did songs like ‘Let’s Chill,’ ‘D-O-G Me Out,’ and ‘Long Gone,’ which was about me losing my younger brother Brandon to violence. I also lost my best friend to violence for what I call the first music industry beef. This happened during the New Edition/Guy tour. And it wasn’t a beef between us and New Edition. It was a beef amongst our backline and the people that worked for us. So I lost my friend. I can only remember doing our last show at Madison Square Garden announcing my leave of Guy. We did ‘Groove Me’ like it was our last day on earth. People in the audience were crying. I ran off the stage and got out of there really quick. There were issues in the group. We couldn’t even be in the same dressing room. I no longer wanted to be a part of Guy.”
Like I said, I lost both my brother and best friend. So, right after that Guy show I’m driving in my Ferrari. I had gone through so much and all I wanted to do was produce. So I get a call on my cell phone from Michael Jackson! He’s telling me that he wants to work with me! Michael was like, ‘Can you be here next week?’ That was the transition between Guy and me taking my career to the next level. I was struggling. I had moved back to the projects. I was going from hotel to hotel. And you know what saved me on my way to working with Michael? It was doing the remix to Jane Child’s ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love’. I can remember being in a hotel and Benny Medina (influential label executive) called me. He’s like, ‘I really want you to do this Jane Child remix because I want it to go urban…it’s too white’ Now, I already loved ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love’. It’s a record that I had wished I produced. And then Benny calls me! Funny how the universe works. I knew I was going to tear that remix up.
That song saved my life. I’m thinking $20,000 for that remix. I thought it would help me pay off my credit card because that’s all I had. I was on the outs with Zomba, so I wasn’t getting any money from publishing. They thought I was stocking songs away. But Benny got me $75,000! That money got my family back to New York. I was ready to move everyone to New Jersey to a three flat condo. But my mom told me she wasn’t going to move in with us until I brought her a house. And then my brother Brandon was shot. This was all in my mind going into Dangerous.
Bringing back Michael to his R&B roots is something that I stood for. I didn’t just want to go the pop route because that’s not what he called me for. He called me for that New Jack Swing. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he got. When I was working on ‘Remember The Time’ this was at the same time I was doing a remix for ‘D-O-G Me Out’ in one room, ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love’ in another room, and all of the other tracks I was presenting to Michael. I was at Sound Works studio in New York. I was using Q-Tip’s (lead MC and producer of A Tribe Called Quest) little studio he was renting out. When I told him I needed a studio to work on Michael Jackson songs he was like, ‘Oh, hell yeah!’
Working with Michael was like going to college. He basically gave me the map. He navigated me on how to actually compose. He taught me all the different ways of working with Quincy Jones and Greg Phillinganes. When I played my demos for Michael he stopped me at the fifth song, which was ‘Remember The Time.’ He took me to the back room and I thought I was going to get fired. I thought I had done something wrong, but it was a chord that he couldn’t get around. He didn’t know the church chords. The first chord you hear on ‘Remember The Time’ started off that song in a very church way. He never started off his songs in that way, and that’s why he pulled me in the back because it was so unusual for him.
Michael was testing me to see what the chord really was and what it meant to me. And he wanted me to play it right in front of him on this piano he had in his room. He was used to the straight C majors. He wasn’t used to the C augmented chords. I could say I introduced the New Jack Swing chords to him. All of those songs were great to work on: ‘In The Closet’; ‘Jam’; ‘Can’t Let Her Get Away’…that’s history for me. It was a great feeling to be a part of a huge selling album like that…over 30 million records of Dangerous.”
After I finished making the track, Will came in and was like, ‘This record is a smash. But what do you want to write to it?’ I gave him the melody for ‘No Diggity.’ I wanted the song to start with ‘Shorty get down…’ And then I thought, ‘Well, can we add the words Good Lord to the track?’ I’m like, ‘Man, it’s sounding like a gospel record.’ [laughs] So we came up with, ‘Shorty get down, good Lord, she got it working all over town…’ And Will also came up with that game by the pound line. And we took the I like the way you work it line from a LL Cool J song we did. But the truth is no one in the group liked ‘No Diggity.’ That’s the reason why I was singing the first verse. Them dudes were looking at me like, ‘This nigga is crazy.’ That’s when I told Eric, ‘I need you to try the second verse.’ And it worked!
The record company didn’t get ‘No Diggity’ either. You know who had to call Jimmy Iovine to say, ‘Teddy Riley has a smash record?’ That was Heavy D, my best friend. And that was also Dr. Dre who told Jimmy, ‘I want to be in this video when Teddy does this video! Because I missed ‘Rump Shaker’ and I know Teddy is going to have some hot girls in that video.’ So Jimmy calls me back and says, ‘No Diggity’ is going to be a big record. Dre wants to be in the video.’ And I’m telling him, ‘Well, Dre can’t be in my video unless he raps on the song.’ Because I had been trying to get a Death Row artist on one of my songs for a long time. But Suge Knight (former notorious Death Row head) would not let a Death Row artists be on my album unless we paid him $50,000 and joined his label. And that’s how Dre got on ‘No Diggity.’ He even got a piece of the publishing. ‘No Diggity’ turned out to be the biggest record I’ve ever been associated with as a singer.”
I wanted to do a record with him, but Chauncey didn’t want to go solo. He wanted to do a group. He was like, ‘I think you should be in the group.’ But I just told him after Guy I didn’t want to go through that anymore. I was having flashbacks [laughs]. And Guy wasn’t truly divorced. There was a meeting between me and Aaron, but it never happened. Then I saw an interview where Damian and Aaron were saying, ‘Yeah, we are going to do a Hall album…we finished with Guy.’ That’s when I knew it was time to put together Blackstreet. Then we found Joeseph Stonestreet. It was Leon Sylvers that brought Joseph to us. I told Leon, ‘Man, I want us to do some writing together.’ Leon wrote ‘Before I Let You Go.’ I called Chauncey black because he was dark skinned and then we had Joseph Stonestreet, so it all clicked: Blackstreet. But after we did out first song ‘Baby Be Mine,’ Joseph Stonestreet started going wild. He was acting like Eddie Kane from The Five Heartbeats [laughs].
We ended up getting a record deal with John McClain (former Interscope A&R Executive) and Jimmy Iovine (founder of Interscope). So here it is. We had to make that transition really fast because Jimmy was used to seeing Stonestreet with us. But we are telling him, ‘Well, Joseph Stonestreet is no longer in the group. We have to find another singer.’ Jimmy just told us, ‘I don’t care…I just want your sound.’ So I remember in my head this guy at the Hilton Universal Hotel who kept handing me a CD. He kept asking me to listen to his music. And that singer was Dave Hollister. I thought he was incredible. I knew with or without me he was going to make it. It was God and timing that made me call Dave and us getting that perfect replacement.
I had Chauncey trying to sing ‘Before I Let You Go.’…but he was like, ‘This song was meant for Joseph Stonestreet.’ I told him, ‘Well, we should put the new singer in.’ As soon as Dave Hollister came out to Virginia, he signed to Blackstreet, and he sang on ‘Before I Let You Go.’ Dave came in—first take—and killed that song. He was great. When that first Blackstreet album went platinum I proved to the industry and to Aaron and Damian that you could not block God’s talent.”
I think the problem is a lot of people know Aaron is a special singer in this business. He just needs to stop being his own worst enemy. When you show people that you are your own worst enemy that’s when they underrate you. I still break down walls. I still do what I do. I just really think this could be Aaron’s time like when Charlie Wilson came back. Charlie Wilson came back and said, ‘I’m the baddest singer in the world!’ And he is. And I feel Aaron Hall can do the same thing. I’m so ready to do another Guy record. I think Aaron is ready. I just have to keep telling him not to give up on me and give up on himself. If Aaron wants to do this I’m ready.”
I felt the same way when I heard Michael singing on those two Neff-U songs (‘(I Like) The Way You Love Me’ and ‘Best of Joy’).’ Those songs made me feel like Michael was in the room with me. Talking about Michael at this day and time is really bringing back so many memories…things that make me wish he was still here. At one point when I was working on that last Michael album I couldn’t move forward. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because he wasn’t there with me. But I had to complete it as if he was there. It was always about Michael’s legacy.”
I was so jumpy…I just wanted to work. I was the one that was pushing the album to get done until one day I just took a drank of wine [laughs]. I had to calm down. But we finally finished that album, and everyone loved it. It was both of our idea to have Charlie Wilson singing on ‘SD Is Out.’ Charlie is like our uncle…our mentor. Charlie is one of the greatest singers of all time. Being where he came from I can only take his map and pass it on to someone else. I felt good being a part of Snoop’s history because he is a legend. I felt good to be a part of his life. I was there when he was doing his reality show with his wife and kids. I was there when they renewed their marriage vows. That was a fun time.”
I wanted ‘Whatever Happens’ to be special. But we had a problem. Santana didn’t want to leave the house at that time. He told us, ‘This is family time.’ He takes time out, for months, to spend with his family. So anything that would have to be done would be done at his home, so we went to his home studio. Santana was such a good guy…very spiritual. And he is a very big fan of my idol Miles Davis. This dude had a Miles Davis guitar and all these performances on video. During the guitar track to ‘Whatever Happens’ Santana was doing the whistling that you hear. And Michael loved it. I remember his excitement over the record. He said, ‘Let’s keep it!’ So we are working on the Invincible album and around the same time I invited Michael to Virginia. That was moment Virginia had a real respect for me. They were like, ‘If he could bring Michael Jackson to Virginia as well as Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, he’s bringing revenue to the state. So we have to respect him.’ And I’m talking about getting respect from the political side.
I was in so much mess with this album [laughs]. Michael had me responsible for so many things. I remember Tommy Motolla (one-time head of Sony Music Entertainment) cursing me out telling me, ‘This will be the end of your career if you don’t turn over those masters!’ I had no idea that Michael had told him I had the masters [laughs]. I called him up and said, ‘My God Michael…you put me in trouble with Tommy Motolla. Do you know who Tommy Motolla is? But I ended up helping Michael. I took the masters and I held them for him. Michael was upset with the marketing plans for the Invincible record. I was going to stand behind Michael and that’s what I did. To me it was an album that was going to do the big numbers. But when Michael saw the marketing plans he told me, ‘I’ll be surprised if this album does only two million.’ They took money from his budget, too. I didn’t care about anything else. I just believed in Michael.”
So I had to learn how the Korean music business was and how it rolled. The record company took us to see the other labels like YG Entertainment and Cube Entertainment and KYP. My friend took us to go meet SM Entertainment. My friend from California had told me all about them. He was like, ‘Man, when you go to Korea make sure you meet SM Entertainment. They are great people and they are spiritual people…very honorable people.’ So we are about to leave, but the people at SM asked us to stay a few days more. They put us in a five-star hotel. It was an amazing hotel called the Park Hyatt in Seoul Korea. I’m talking about having a remote from the bed…you can control everything in the room. Beautiful bathrooms and a staff room. I’m like, ‘Wow, this is God.’ SM Entertainment gave us a studio to work out of and we came up with 25 tracks within one week to play for them.
So we were about to leave again and they asked us to stay even longer. We ended up staying three to four months. I told my team, ‘I’m moving here.’ Until America gets it together and stops all the music piracy, I want to be in Seoul Korea and make a lot of money. And I did that. I had my first single with Girl’s Generation, which became a huge record that got them up to 35 million views and sales of up to 400,000. They got to perform on The David Letterman Show and on Live! With Kelly. Girl’s Generation has a presence here in America. I’m proud to say I’m the first African-American to get K-Pop music and Girl’s Generation notice with my music here in the US.
What am I working on now? I’m doing a few TV shows…myself and my friend JoJo. He’s one of the senior presidents of approval at Viacom. He is pushing me to get my story out there. So I’m doing a reality TV show. And then I’m doing a TV drama about my life called The Life of Riley. And I’m also working on the Backstreet album and a few groups that I signed to my new label situation. I’m funding my own projects. I haven’t taken the Backstreet music to a label yet. I’m going to take it to whoever fits what we are doing. It’s not about the money. It’s about making history. I’ve also been called to do a Guy tour with Aaron and Damian. But it has to be myself and Aaron that has to make this thing work. Because at the end of the day, it’s about Aaron Hall, who is the lead singer and myself, who composes the music of Guy. Not anyone else…I’m keeping it straight 100. It has to be right. I’m a team player. When I spoke to Aaron three weeks ago, he showed me the Aaron Hall I knew when we were together making music. I believe Guy will happen again. I’m still doing records. I had a hit with Jacob Latimore last year. I’ve had hits in Asia…worldwide…not just America. I thank God that I’m still here and that people recognize my music and still appreciate it.”