Teddy Riley Performs At 2018 Essence Festival On Day 3
Teddy Riley performs onstage during the 2018 Essence Festival presented by Coca-Cola - Day 3 at Louisiana Superdome on July 7, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence

Teddy Riley Breaks Down Iconic Songs That Made Him The King Of New Jack Swing, Plans To Battle Babyface

A look back at VIBE's 2012 "Full Clip" interview with the celebrated man behind the keyboards.

Teddy Riley performed a medley of his greatest hits last night (April 2nd) in a well-promoted livestream mini-concert from his home studio on his teddyrileylive.com site. Flanked by his band: a drummer, a DJ on the wheels, a keyboard guy, his old Blackstreet crooning cohort Dave Hollister and two vocalists, Riley ran through his jam session like renditions of classic tunes from over 30 years of hit-making. After an hour and a half of giving the people that Riley rhythm, he closed out with an impromptu speech drumming up charity funds for the Coronavirus emergency, as well as shouting out his music industry colleagues and somehow squeezing in that he would be taking on the challenge in the popular social media music battle against another producing/writing legend in Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds this Sunday, April 5th on Instagram Live. The musical bout set up by producing wizards Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, scheduled for 6 pm EST, will consist of Riley and Edmonds playing 20 tracks a piece to not only see who has the stronger hit song catalogue, but more interestingly, also the better song selection counter skills. A day we are sure will live up to its high standards of anticipation.

And just think, nearly a decade ago, Teddy Riley couldn’t stop talking. This is a paradox in itself considering that the groundbreaking producer and architect of the fast-paced synth-gospel-hip-hop hybrid dubbed New Jack Swing, is a soft-spoken man who is much more at ease with playing the background. But here we were, back in March of 2012 running down some of the Harlem native’s greatest musical moments in a wild and at times turbulent career that spans over 30 years for VIBE’s Full Clip series.

To understand Riley’s impact you have to meticulously connect the dots to a long list of producers and artists who have worshipped at the altar of the genius one-man-band. Without the Guy and Blackstreet leader’s blueprint, there would be no Mary J. Blige, Jermaine Dupri, Jodeci, Usher, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Dru Hill, the Neptunes, Chris Brown, The-Dream, or Bruno Mars. He was merging rap and soul before Roddy Ricch was literally conceived.

And so, after the glow of Riley’s live-streamed, multi-song set performance from his home studio to the masses, here is a look back at our Full Clip sit down with the celebrated man behind the keyboards whose reach extends beyond R&B to lace Lady Gaga and K-Pop with his golden touch. Here are the songs that made Teddy Riley an icon from Kool Moe Dee to Michael Jackson.

“The Show”—Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick & The Get Fresh Crew (1986)

“Before ‘The Show,’ I was playing in the church at age nine. My mother made me go up there to play the piano because the piano player was absent. When I was 11, I moved to another church, Universal Temple, where Red Alert was the DJ when we had certain gatherings. A few years later, as a kid growing up in Harlem, I was fortunate enough to have an uncle named Willie. He actually took me under his wing, performing in his nightclubs. He allowed me to make money and stay off the streets because I was getting in a lot of trouble. I got busted when I was 16-years-old for selling drugs. I got kicked out of Martin Luther King high school. This all changed my life.

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.’ 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.”

“How Ya Like Me Now”—Kool Moe Dee (1987)

“Yes, I knew ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ was a diss track. I was there. I was at Harlem World. I don’t think Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs ever went to Harlem World, which was on 116th St. on Lenox Ave, two blocks from where I used to hustle. I don’t think any of the rappers that call out Harlem World ever went to Harlem World. So this is where all the shows and battles were happening. You had Busy Bee, Lovebug Starski, Crash Crew, Fearless Four, and Kool Moe Dee all there performing.

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 [there was beef 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 effect 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.”

Make It Last Forever—Keith Sweat (1987)

“I was doing R&B with a band called Total Climax. We were competing with groups like Jamilah, which Keith Sweat was a part of. And that’s how we met. I didn’t realize what we were doing when we were making Make It Last Forever. So where did New Jack Swing come from? Church played a huge role. I actually played piano at Universal Temple and the organ player was my teacher. He took me to the next level of making different grooves and tempos and swinging. I learned pretty much everything about syncopation. My pastor was the most incredible piano player that I ever heard. He just blew me away…that’s when I started learning church chords. And that’s when I figured out that’s where R&B came from. I’m studying jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Reed. And I was a huge Kid Creole fan…all the different swing beats he did. At the same time, I was learning that soulful funk from George Clinton, Parliament, Sly Stone, Prince, and Roger Troutman. You combine all that with hip-hop and you get New Jack Swing.

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 apply 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 Robert ‘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 y'all 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.”

Guy—GUY (1988)

“Guy recorded our first single ‘Groove Me’ in the bathroom. Aaron Hall (lead Guy vocalist) stayed over my house because we didn’t have the money to make the record at a professional studio. And Aaron did all his vocals in the bathroom. We put towels over the shower curtains so we didn’t have too much of an echo. That was a special time for Guy. Aaron would always sleep on my couch. I would get up out of the bed, come to the living room and he would still be there writing lyrics. In the beginning, it was me, Aaron and Timmy Gatling. This was before Timmy left the group and Aaron’s brother Damian Hall joined. Aaron is so underrated as a vocalist. There was some great singing on that first Guy album. ‘Groove Me’ took a year for people to really get Guy. The first show we did—a show we performed with Johnny Kemp—we got booed. And we only got booed because the crowd didn’t know what we looked like. All they knew is that the ‘Groove Me’ song was playing on 98.7 Kiss and KTU. People were requesting that song every day, but when Kemp introduced us after he just performed ‘Just Got Paid’—a huge song I produced that was supposed to be on Keith Sweat’s first album—people were like, ‘Get them off the stage!’ Next thing you know our record came on, ‘Groove me…baby…tonight!’ Everybody went ‘Oh, my God…that’s them!’

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. 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 talkbox. I studied Roger Troutman. That’s how ‘Teddy’s Jam’ came about.

Looking back, that first Guy album took a year and a half later to go platinum. I was just thinking, ‘Dag, it takes this long to get famous?’ 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 [artists] 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 Marley Marl, 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? K-Ci and JoJo were the next level of singers. They all were influenced by Guy. We [were] the group that made it cool for street dudes to dance. Dudes were not afraid to dance with their gators on.”

"My Prerogative"—Bobby Brown (1988)

“A lot of people don’t know that ‘My Prerogative’ was originally written for Guy. We wrote it and gave it to Gene. We thought he would stop the Guy album and put it on there, but it was too late. The album was already mastered, so we decided to give it to Bobby. That song took Don’t Be Cruel to the next level. It made Bobby a superstar. I remember when I was working on the music for ‘My Prerogative’ and Bobby Brown actually came to my projects. And nobody would just walk up in our projects thinking they could get through the whole thing without being harassed. But Bobby did!

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 were 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.”

“We Got Our Own Thang”—Heavy D & The Boyz (1989)

“We changed the speed of radio with ‘We Got Our Own Thang.’ Actually, it went back to those Keith Sweat records. I changed the tempo and everybody followed…even groups like Tony! Toni! Toné! You know I made ‘We Got Our Own Thang’ for Wrecks-N-Effect. I had a few songs for them, but I knew they were more harder than Heavy, even though Heavy could pull off being hard and still be a dancer. I was living up in Riverdale and Heavy came to my house. Heavy was like my big brother even though I was one year older than him.

So every time Heavy would come over he would be like, ‘Teddy, I gotta have [a] 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.”

The Future—Guy (1990)

“Going into The Future album, all three members of Guy were being pulled different ways. We all had too many people in our corners. But I thought it was best if I got everybody out of their contracts. And I suffered the consequences. I gave up a lot of money and I gave up my rights. But to me it was all about getting that freedom for Aaron Hall, Damian Hall, Tammy Lucas, Today, Wrecks-N-Effect…everybody. Most of the money I was making was through my production company, TR Productions, from the records I was doing with Boy George and Bobby Brown. So when all of my issues came about with wanting to leave Gene Griffin, that was pressure for all of us because we lost everything. I was down to $20 in the bank. I had a TR Productions credit card. And it was over the limit! I’m going back to Atlanta after I had a meeting with Aaron and everyone. And my card declined. We had called Gene, who came to the house and sat at my conference table. It was me, Gene and my mother. We knew Gene could do something wild, so I had my brothers upstairs just in case. So I tell Gene, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ That was part of the pressure of The Future album.

We were going through 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 [were] 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 was 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.”

“Don’t Wanna Fall In Love” (Remix)—Jane Child (1990)

“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 whose life became the basis for the iconic Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) 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 [Michael Jackson’s] Dangerous album."

Dangerous—Michael Jackson (1991)

“I was the scariest person on earth when I met Michael Jackson (Laughs). He scared the crap out of me…literally. I was at his compound in a room that housed all his accomplishments. I saw his humanitarian awards…all of that stuff. And there was also a chessboard there in the middle of the room. So I’m touching it because it’s gold and platinum. And when I put my hand on the first piece Michael had his hand on my shoulder. And all I could do was fall to the ground. All I saw was Michael laughing. That put me at ease because usually when you are touching somebody’s stuff in their house they look at you funny, but Michael just laughed. My heart was calmed down until it was time for us to go into the studio to work on Dangerous. But I was going through a big transition in my life.

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. 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 (legendary 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.”

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Kirk Franklin And Fred Hammond's 'The Healing' Was More Than A Verzuz Event

Verzuz has been helping fill the void for live musical entertainment and, to an extent, live sports for two months now. On Sunday (May 31), the newly launched platform provided us with a digital worship service by way of gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

As the online music battle has grown from producers to artists, Swizz and Tim have been transparent about their efforts to make Verzuz musically inclusive, starting first with giving women some much-needed representation and now expanding into different genres — because Black music is more than rap and R&B.

In April, contemporary gospel greats John P. Kee and Hezikiah Walker organized their own matchup that Timbaland (a COGIC kid himself) and Swizz cosigned and promoted, proving the desire and demand for a Gospel Verzuz outing. Fans have also requested to see Kirk participate because of his hip-hop based productions and his mainstream familiarity. But Sunday’s Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond pairing, while full of the progressive gospel sound both men are famous for, was straight-up church.

Between the time Timbaland and Swizz announced the special event earlier this week—billed as “The Healing” and featuring opening words of prayer from Bishop TD Jakes—and Sunday, escalation of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has literally spread like fire to cities across the country and world. Video and news reports are coming in with furious speed. Peaceful protests are morphing into violence at the hands of agitators. People are furious and scared.

Franklin and Hammond had a large responsibility on their hands yesterday; a delicate balance to maintain. These are moments when even the churched don’t necessarily believe the church can help. But the men of God met the task, setting the tone from the very beginning by appearing in shirts that said: “I Can’t Breathe” (Franklin) and “I Can’t Breathe - Again” (Hammond). Over the course of the event, they mixed straight talk, spiritual encouragement, prayer, and proper acknowledgment of the chaos waiting for us all after we eventually clicked out of the Instagram Live.

Even though Kirk came with and maintained a good-natured “battle” energy, this was ministry and fellowship, not a match. So instead we’re going to review each round with an “and” instead of a “vs.” These two brothers in music ministry were building on and adding to each other’s energy over the course of 2.5 hours. Much like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's session, this was more a concert than a competition. And the spirit in the room (plus the anointed sound quality) blessed our souls so much that we were willing to forgive the slight social distancing infractions. Even Instagram (allegedly) sent a message for them to ignore the 90-second copyright restrictions and let the spirit move.

ROUND 1: Fred Hammond's “I Am Persuaded” and Kirk Franklin's “He’s Able”

Both Fred and Kirk pulled out early signature songs to set the tone; Fred with the title track from his first solo album, and Kirk with one of the singles from the Kirk Franklin and the Family album. Both songs highlighted how each artist were trendsetters in the contemporary Gospel sound with their music’s early ‘90s New Jack Swing influence.

ROUND 2: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ's “When the Spirit of the Lord” and Kirk Franklin's “Brighter Day”

Everyone knows Kirk Franklin has jams, but Hammond’s music is mostly known by those who put in years in the youth and young adult choirs, and those who came up in strict households with no secular music. But on Sunday, everybody learned that Frederick also has jams that will make you “dance like David danced.”

Kirk followed with another classic Family joint, and the tenors watching from home stepped up in their collective living rooms to hit that “brighter day” with their chest.

ROUND 3: Fred Hammond's “Awesome God” and Kirk Franklin's “He Reigns/Awesome God”

Kirk and Fred were working from a list, which suggested they coordinated at least parts of their lineups, leaving room for head-to-head rounds like this. If this was a scored match, however, Franklin would get this point. “He Reigns/Awesome God” isn’t his original work, but he flipped and updated it as only he can, and it instantly inspires whatever choreography listeners learned in the afore-mentioned choir 20 years ago.

ROUND 4: Commissioned's “Strange Land” and Kirk Franklin & Georgia Mass Choir's “Joy”

Again, this Verzuz wasn’t just about music, it was about music ministry, and both Franklin and Hammond wove moments of preaching, proclamation, and encouragement throughout. As Kirk had acknowledged at the beginning of the event that some people didn’t even want to hear about Jesus right now, Fred addressed the thought that Christians are just waiting on a “kumbaya moment.” He “(took) it back to Detroit” and played the first song of the night by Commissioned—his former gospel group—“How Can We Sing (In a Strange Land),” which spoke to the seeming futility of something like today’s Verzuz: singing for help in the midst of crisis.

If you're asking How can we sing When we're in a strange land How can we face adversity whoa whoa How can we stand in the midst of trouble When the enemy laughs at our beliefs Won't you take some time to realize You're His own that's why He died

Kirk also reached back to a foundational record; the first song he ever wrote as the young music director of the Georgia Mass Choir. “Joy” is probably the most traditional song in Kirk’s catalog, prompting him to declare that folks probably wouldn’t know it “if your grandmama ain't got peppermint wrapped up in pieces of toilet paper in her purse.” (If you didn’t get that reference, he’s right.) “Joy” is also one of the few songs Kirk actually sings lead on, which is probably why he didn’t play more than a short clip.

ROUND 5: Fred Hammond's "Prelude" (from Love Unstoppable) and Kirk Franklin's “More Than I Can Bear”

Hammond, who provided most of the afternoon’s solemn notes while Kirk mostly kept the energy up, chose a prelude his son and daughter recorded to open his 2009 album as an avenue to share his concern about his own son, a 6’2”, 22-year-old Black man. Kirk picked up the acknowledgment of pain, fear, and uncertainty with The Family’s “More Than I Can Bear,” and then jumped on the keyboard to follow it up with a reprise. This was the first shouting moment of the day.

ROUND 6: Commissioned's “King of Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Looking for You”

When Franklin and Hammond announced surprises at the top of the first hour, it was a safe assumption that some collaborators were spread out throughout Franklin’s house. First up; Hammond’s former Commissioned group member Marvin Sapp. When the group was already well established, Sapp joined the Commissioned in 1990 and his voice fit right in. The two shared the first single, featuring the then-22-year old, which is now one of Commissioned's signature songs.

This was a turn-up round, so Franklin followed up with the high energy, Patrice Rushen sampled “Looking for You,” but first...

BONUS: Marvin Sapp's “Never Would Have Made It”

Marvin ain’t break social distancing just to sing over the radio track for “King of Glory.” Franklin introduced him with a quick note of “Never Would Have Made It,” Sapp’s powerful 2007 testimonial praise and worship anthem. Sapp feigned reluctance to sing the whole song, but we all know that’s what he was there for. That was the second shout of the day.

ROUND 7: Fred Hammond's “Glory to Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Hosanna”

This was the praise & worship round: songs with relatively simple and repetitive lyrics that are often used to set the tone in worship. Gospel music contains and or reflects scripture; praise & worship is exactly what the description says and what the lyrics of Hammond and Franklin’s respective selections express:

Let the people praise Him, rejoice in all His goodness, and be thankful for all He has done. - "Glory to Glory"

Hosanna forever, we worship you - "Hosanna"

ROUND 8: Fred Hammond's “Please Don’t Pass Me By” and Kirk Franklin's “Something About the Name Jesus”

Kirk and Fred were a perfect pairing for this Verzuz edition because they both bridged gospel and secular music in groundbreaking—and at times controversial—ways. Fred and former group Commissioned are credited with influencing a generation of male R&B singers; he mentioned later how church elders and gospel traditionalists wouldn’t support Commissioned because they wore jeans on the album cover. Similar to Kirk, Fred’s been known for music that sounded more like something you’d hear on mainstream radio than anything you’d hear in church. Case in point: the music bed for “Please Don’t Pass Me By” brings R&B group 112’s “Cupid” to mind.

In contrast, Kirk responded with the old-school-styled “Something About the Name Jesus” featuring gospel OG Rance Allen and gospel Men of Standard from Franklin's 1998 The Nu Nation Project.

ROUND 9: Fred Hammond's “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and Kirk Franklin's “Love Theory”

Rounds 8 and 9 illustrated how this was more of a digital concert than battle; selections that felt more like a well-curated playlist than a back and forth of comparative tracks.

Perhaps taking a cue from Kirk and “Something About the Name Jesus,” Fred shared some of his influences before offering his rendition of gospel standard “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me.” Even though the song is now a standard for church elders, the singers who first popularized it—original writer Sam Cooke with legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, soul crooner Lou Rawls with The Pilgrim Travelers (the version closest to Fred’s), and Supreme’s influences The Meditation Singers—were all known for toeing the line between R&B and pop and traditional gospel in their time.

Kirk followed with the lead single from his most recent album, 2019’s Long, Live, Love, a bop (a whole bop) that sounds a million miles away from “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and in fact complements Fred’s choice; It’s also about Jesus being a protector. And Kirk blessed us with a little choreography.

ROUND 10: Commissioned's “Love is the Key” and  Kirk Franklin & The Family's “Now Behold the Lamb”

Even if Kirk hadn’t announced what song he was about to play, hands would have shot up in preparatory praise as soon as he played the opening keys of “Now Behold the Lamb.” Originally on The Family’s 1995 Christmas album (Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas) and featuring vocals of original members-turned- TV-stars David and Tamela Mann, the song still has the power to quickly bring listeners to tears, 25 years later.

ROUND 11: Kirk Franklin's “Revolution” and Fred Hammond's “Let the Praise Begin” 

Before starting this round, Fred and Kirk took a minute to say the names of the Black men whose lives have been unjustly cut down by police or self-appointed vigilantes. (They took a moment later to add the Black women they neglected to initially include.) As protests rapidly grow across the country with many having morphed into riots, Kirk Franklin's Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution” hit even harder than usual.

On Fred’s turn, he demonstrated his secular influence again with “Let the Praise Begin”—which Chance the Rapper sampled on his Coloring Book mixtape, “Blessings”—a track the rapper used for an unofficial altar call at the end of his live performances.

ROUND 12: Kirk Franklin's “Silver and Gold” and Fred Hammond's “All Things are Working”

As mentioned earlier, the primary difference between traditional gospel songs and praise & worship songs is the lyrics. “Gospel” is, by definition, from the actual gospel: scripture. Kirk and Fred are both part of a generation of contemporary gospel singers that have been somewhat chided for gospel music’s transition into more of a praise & worship space, but both also have deep foundational gospel roots. These two songs are each prime examples, both taken directly from scriptural influence:

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” - Acts 3:6

“And we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28

ROUND 13: Kirk Franklin's “Imagine Me” and Commissioned's “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”

If these rounds were themed (I’d love to see their notes), Round 13 was about finding unconditional love and trust in God.

Imagine me, being free, trusting you totally, finally, I can Imagine me I admit it was hard to see You being in love with someone like me But finally I can Imagine me - "Imagine Me"

The ordinary just won’t do I need a love that's pure and true I can always find it in you Jesus The ordinary just won’t do I gotta have a touch from you I can always find it in you, Jesus - "Ordinary Just Won’t Do"

ROUND 14: Kirk Franklin on Kanye West's “Ultralight Beam” and Fred Hammond on Kanye West's “Hands On”

Some collective digital groans went up amongst those in the house solely for Fred and Kirk jams during the round devoted to tracks each done with Kanye West. For Kirk, the rousing “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, which also featured Chance the Rapper and R&B/gospel singer Kelly Price. For Hammond, a track from West’s hotly debated “gospel album” Jesus is King. It did make sense: Verzuz started as a hip-hop-leaning platform. Fortunately, though, both seemed to know this round would change the energy if they let it and kept the moment brief.

ROUND 15: Kirk Franklin's “The Reason Why I Sing” and Fred Hammond's “Running Back to You”

Heading into the home stretch, the men each offered their break-out hits. Franklin’s “The Reason Why I Sing” broke records on gospel, Christian, and R&B radio and set him on the path for mainstream crossover. Commission’s “Running Back to You” is one of many templates the groups inadvertently created for male R&B groups that came along a few years later, having come of age singing and studying the Detroit vocalists’ music. Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey even ad-libbed part of the chorus, “(My) arms are open wide, and I don’t have to cry no more…” on the torch 1992 track “I’m Still Waiting” from the group’s debut album, 5 years later.

ROUND 16: God's Property's  “My Life is in Your Hands” and Fred Hammond's “They That Wait” feat. John P. Kee

“My Life is in Your Hands” by Kirk's gospel choir, God's Property, feels like a sequel of “The Reason Why I Sing,” so it made sense as Franklin’s next choice.

Hammond’s selection was a collaboration with contemporary gospel great John P. Kee. Even though Kee already had his own Instagram Live match, it was plagued with a muffled sound, so he deserved a moment.

ROUND 17: Kirk Franklin's “I Smile” and Fred Hammond's “You are the Living Word”

Before playing the bouncy “Smile,” Kirk acknowledged that in a week that feels like we’re in a civil war, the idea of smiling is likely difficult (the guys did a solid job of reading the room.)

Hammond in turn played fan-favorite “You are the Living Word” but cut it off just as listeners at home were getting into their parts of the three-part harmony. Kirk knew it was too soon and jumped on the piano keys again so Fred could get to the bridge and we could properly get our sing-along on at home.

ROUND 18: Tamela Mann's “Take me to the King” and Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ's “This is the Day”

Tamela Mann just casually strolling into the studio from making the potato salad for post-battle repast in Kirk’s kitchen or wherever she was didn’t fool anybody. Real ones have known what’s up since we were introduced to her voice over 25 years ago as an original member of Franklin’s Family. I knew she was about to make us cry when memes hit our Twitter timelines before she even opened her mouth. Her live rendition of “Take Me to the King,” a song about those moments when prayer just doesn’t feel effective enough, was so powerful and resonated with the times of right now. If you listened carefully, you could hear her shouting for minutes after she left the room.

ROUND 19: Kirk Franklin's “Melodies from Heaven” and Fred Hammond's “No Weapon”

Kirk had a sense of humor about his reputation as a “secular” gospel artist and called his gorgeous wife Tammy into the room to dance as he played “Melodies from Heaven,” a song that’s been played in many a club and has been remixed with Junior Mafia’s “Crush on You,” a mashup that Kirk himself performs in concert.

Hammond used 2007’s “No Weapon” to bring the tempo down as they prepared to close. After Franklin took a minute to call Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmad Aubrey, Hammond extended a prayer of invitation and salvation for listeners. If there’s one moment that defines this Verzuz event as a ministry rather than just musical exchanges, that prayer is the moment.

ROUND 20: Kirk Franklin's “Stomp (Remix)" and Fred Hammond's “We’re Blessed”

The men held their strongest jams for last: Kirk with his 1997 career-defining and genre-changing “Stomp (Remix)" (again, former choir members watching the live stream broke out their choreography without even thinking), and Hammond with 1995’s “We’re Blessed,” a track that runs almost six minutes in length that almost all of us would have been happy for him to play in full.

BENEDICTION SELECTIONS: Kirk Franklin's “Strong God,” Fred Hammond's “Alright” and "My Desire"

As everyone filed out of the digital church and tried to figure out where to go for dinner, Franklin and Hammond each offered one last song.

Kirk played “Strong God” another single from his latest album and announced the video’s Monday release (see below). Hammond also rendered a selection from his most recent album, the title track from 2019’s Alright.

To close it out, the men played their first collaboration "My Desire," off Franklin's The Nu Nation Project.

THE WINNER: While The Healing drew fewer numbers than most of the Verzus of the last month, peaking around 277K, the positive responses were overwhelming. Viewers shared that they felt lifted, renewed, and energized. Some expressed that they felt hopeful for the first time in several days. We all won. But if we have to list specific winners, that run down includes Black folks, church kids, music lovers, the audio, and our collective and communal spirits. And Tamela Mann.

Watch Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin's The Healing over on Verzuz's official Instagram account.  

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Courtesy of DubShot Records

Boomshots: The Unstoppable Rise Of Dre Island

"We rise to the top," Dre Island sings on "We Pray," his massive collab with Popcaan, "cause we know what it takes."

Building on that theme of musical and spiritual elevation, the multi-talented musician—singer, deejay, songwriter, producer, and pianist—has just released his debut album Now I Rise. The project features the aforementioned "We Pray" as well as crucial collaborations with the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx. "Ah mi family dem deh," says Dre Island, who has toured Europe backed by Chronixx's band Zincfence Redemption. A graduate of Kingston’s Calabar high school—alma mater of both Jr. Gong and Vybz Kartel—Andre Johnson aka Dre Island is a living link between the vaunted “roots revival” movement and the sound of the Jamaican streets.

“The revival is really within the people," he says. "Reggae music never stop. Reggae artists always been touring. So it’s just the people’s awareness.” During a time when reggae and dancehall stand at a crossroads, Dre Island has emerged as one of the few artists capable of bringing together dancehall vibes and the ancient roots traditions—not to mention outernational connections like "People" his collaboration with UK talents Cadenza and Jorja Smith. “An island is a small land mass surrounded by water,” the artist told Boomshots correspondent Reshma B in their first interview. “But if you read further it’s also a place where you go to find yourself.”

Released through a joint-venture partnership with New York-based DubShot Records and the artist's own Kingston Hills Entertainment imprint, Now I Rise is a 13-track set that includes the hit single “We Pray” featuring Popcaan, “My City,” as well as the recently released “Be Okay” feat Jesse Royal. Never-before-heard tracks include “Days of Stone” featuring Chronixx and “Run to Me” featuring Alandon as well as tracks produced by the likes of Jam2, Anju Blaxx, Teetimus, Winta James, Dretegs Music and Barkley Productions. The artist is now managed by Sharon Burke, founder of the Solid Agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Earlier this month, Dre Island premiered the official music video (directed by Fernando Hevetia) for the last song on the album, “Still Remain.”

“This album speaks of arising, growth, new beginnings and emerging from the ashes," Dre Island states. "At this time, these are all the things we need based on what is happening right now. The truth is, since 2015 I have been advertising that the album is coming. It has been five years and the time is right. As an artist and person Dre Island move different. I embrace Rasta and this way of life, but I am not part of any group like Boboshanti or Twelve Tribes. Everything I do is inspired by the father. I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so. When you look at a song like “We Pray” I can take no credit for a song like that. Yes I wrote the lyrics and built the rhythm and I voice the track, but it's a prayer, not just a song so how a man fi tek credit for something that come from above.”

Dre Island and Boomshots have been linking up from early in his musical journey. During a recent trip to New York City, he sat down with Reshma B to speak about the new project and his unstoppable rise. Check the reasoning:

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Carlos Perez

Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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