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 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.”