Happy Birthday MJ: How ‘Remember The Time’ Reminds Us Of Michael Jackson’s Greatness

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Michael Jackson would have turned 56 today. Since his 2009 death, the otherworldly music icon’s ever-evolving legend has taken an even more surreal turn: his peerless mystique a study in how the afterlife of music’s highest selling solo act has skyrocketed into an unprecedented fourth act. Jackson’s estate has raked in more than $700 million through such projects as his recent posthumous album Xscape; his critically acclaimed Cirque du Soleil shows based on his hit songs; and the well-received concert film This Is It, which according to Forbes has grossed over $260 million across the globe.

But when discussing the impact and accomplishments of the larger-than-life entertainer who proudly embraced his chest-beating title as the undisputed King of Pop to at times remarkable excess, one era for Michael Jackson is often times eclipsed by the post-disco genius of Off The Wall (1979); the world-beating, record breaking hysteria that is Thriller (1982); and the obsessive pop craftsmanship of Bad (1987). 1991’s Dangerous is largely viewed as Jackson’s not so subtle attempt to recapture his R&B base after years of ruling the pop universe. But MJ ‘s musical alliance with New Jack Swing visionary Teddy Riley should be viewed in another important context: It ignited R&B’s next great run. And the primary song we have to thank for that is “Remember The Time.”

In the early ’90s, rhythm and blues was king as the Billboard Hot 100 charts saw a dominating streak of African-American artists crossing over on their own terms. In 1993 alone (arguably R&B’s last great commercial run before hip-hop’s complete cultural takeover), 23 of the 25 top pop singles of the year came straight from the Hot R&B Songs charts as the likes of R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton and MJ’s baby sister Janet ruled the top 10. However, it could be said that this impressive streak was not only sparked by the emergence of SoundScan in 1991—which finally gave a more accurate figure for music sales over the retail counter—but Jackson’s full embrace of Riley’s sound.

Before Dangerous’ “Remember The Time,” New Jack Swing had enjoyed a hugely successful run as America’s coolest trend-setting youthful soundtrack. Riley produced statements by Keith Sweat and Teddy’s own groundbreaking supergroup Guy sold millions of albums and managed to impact the pop charts without ever having to water down its signature sound that boldly merged gospel, soul and hip-hop. Bobby Brown became the biggest R&B star on the planet selling over 7 million copies of his sophomore 1988 solo work Don’t Be Cruel, an album propelled by the Riley orchestrated monster anthem “My Prerogative,” a game-changing No. 1 pop single that showed the music industry that New Jack Swing was more than ready for its mainstream close up.

Everyone it seems wanted that Teddy Riley magic, including the biggest entertainer on the planet—Michael Jackson. After meeting with the Harlem-born producer, the unlikely pair discussed some of the demoed tracks that would later make the cut on Jackson’s fourth adult solo effort. One track in particular caught MJ’s ears.

“When I played my demos for Michael he stopped me at the fifth song, which was ‘Remember The Time,’” Riley once told me of his early meetings with Jackson. “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.”

It was indeed a gamble for Jackson. Yes, Off The Wall (arguably his most potent pure artistic statement) was straight-no-chaser R&B; a nearly flawless dance floor boogie foot stomper that often time bubbled over with swaggering funk despite its pop chart success. But after Thriller and Bad, MJ’s fans had come to expect a more universal sheen to his work than the unfiltered church-inflected soul of “Remember The Time,” which seemed worlds apart from the pure pop confections of say “Beat It,” I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Smooth Criminal.” And yet the results proved to be stunning.

While Dangerous’ sugary first single “Black Or White” was savvy business-as-usual for the criminally underrated songwriter (Jackson gift for melody had few peers), “Remember The Time” exploded out the speakers. “Do you remember/Us holding hands/In each other’s eyes we would stare,” a heartfelt Jackson sung. “Remember The Time’s” ancient Egyptian-theme video, which featured an all-black cast, was telling. From it’s visuals to its gospel-rooted groove, “Remember The Time” was unapologetically black.

Maybe a little too black.

“Remember The Time” peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 on March 7, 1992, but topped the R&B charts as Jackson’s first no. 1 single since Bad’s “Another Part of Me.” Yet the track’s overall reach was clear as it hit the top 10 in more than 11 countries. Jackson had taken Riley’s New Jack Swing to new global heights making the newest era of rhythm and blues into the go-to pop sound.

“Working with Michael was like going to college,” Riley said of the experience. “He basically gave me the map. He navigated me on how to actually compose. 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.”

Thank the Music Gods for Michael Jackson. —Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)