New Jack Swing: The Story of a Musical Revolution

New Jack Swing: The Story of a Musical Revolution

Chances are that the words New Jack Swing ring a bell with you — but there’s no doubt that you’ve heard the music. Back in the late 80’s, a new musical movement was emerging: the previously separate worlds of R&B and hip hop were fusing together, and this would go on to create a whole new sound that went on to define the early 90’s musically and culturally — the genre of New Jack Swing.

The Origins

During the early and mid 80’s, R&B was all soft, silky, smooth — it was wonderful, but not daring. Think Whitney Houston’s ballads as a classic example. And hip hop, on the other hand, was an emerging force, becoming more and more aggressive in the late 80’s. The two genres seemed incompatible. But Janet Jackson didn’t want to do things the way they used to be. So came to be Control, Janet’s 1986 seminal breakthrough album which combined her silky R&B vocals and soul singer’s soul with aggressive, percussive, hard funky beats, reminiscent of hip hop sounds. She created the sound in collaboration with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Many see this as the first incarnation of New Jack Swing, the new sound.

But this was just the ignition. In Harlem, New York, there was a young man named Edward Theodore “Teddy” Riley, playing piano at church and doing beats for rappers. He had a knack for new sounds and new ways. Singer Keith Sweat saw the potential in his sound and asked Teddy to add his touch to Keith’s R&B music. Initially, Teddy was hesitant, but eventually agreed, and they created Keith Sweat’s album Make It Last Forever, released in 1987. The album spawned the New Jack Swing hit single I Want Her, which popularized the genre. New Jack Swing had come to stay.

Teddy went on to produce for a host of artists such as Johnny Kemp (I Just Got Paid) and Al B. Sure!, and he created his own group Guy, which would become perhaps the most defining New Jack Swing act of all time — after all, it was the brainchild of the genre’s mastermind. Guy’s eponymous debut album released in 1988 featuring the hit singles Groove Me and Teddy’s Jam and introduced the most evolved New Jack Swing sound so far. The sound was harsh in a way, as the production budget was tiny and the tools limited, but this didn’t stop Teddy from breaking new ground. The sound became futuristic: it was punchy, aggressive, even hard, yet simultaneously smooth and sexy; it was funky, groovy, and swinging like a moose.

Other producers picked up the new sound. L.A. Reid and Babyface together with Teddy helped Bobby Brown create his debut album, which featured five hit singles, including the number one New Jack Swing, hit My Prerogative (later covered by Britney Spears). The hard sound of My Prerogative was combined on the album with sweet ballads like Roni, further showing how New Jack Swing was bringing genres together. The album went on to become the best selling album of 1989: by now, New Jack Swing was the thing. But it was far from dwindling down.

The Golden Years

New Jack Swing had become big, but it was about to get bigger — the biggest. In 1990, Teddy Riley was contacted by none other than Michael Jackson himself. Michael was working on a new album and he was looking for a new sound — something to shake things up profoundly. When he came upon New Jack Swing, he knew this was what he was looking for. Teddy naturally took to the task, got to Michael’s studio and they began to work together. This was the ultimate fusion of genres: Teddy brought in his accented beats and his rattling and clattering percussive sounds, while Michael made sure that melody remained at the forefront and that everything was refined to perfection. Teddy recalls that Michael’s slogan was: “melody is king”.

The result was Dangerous, a record-breaking hit album that went on to sell over 30 million copies and to become the best selling New Jack Swing album of all time. About half of Dangerous’ tracks feature Riley’s fingerprints, including the New Jack Swing classic jams, Remember the Time and Dangerous.

In 1991, a crime movie entitled New Jack City was released. The film was a critical and commercial success, and its soundtrack was heavily influenced by New Jack Swing, featuring artists like Keith Sweat, Ice-T, and Guy. New Jack Swing was infiltrating every corner of culture.

Fashion was not left without a mark either. The 80’s had featured many extremes in fashion, and the early 90’s continued the trend but added more colors and delightful craziness to the mix — just like New Jack Swing. It is worth noting that just like everything else in the 80’s and 90’s, some instances of New Jack Swing haven’t aged so well: there are songs that sound just too silly nowadays, and fashion trends that just make us laugh. To my ears, many of the Johnny Kemp’s and Al B. Sure!’s early New Jack Swing hits sound just too noisy and random — music without sense. Yet many others still sound and look brilliant.

A major moment in the heydays of New Jack Swing was the release of TLC’s debut album, Ooooooh… on the TLC Tip, in 1992. The album featured a lot of the New Jack Swing sound but mixed in its own style. The album was notable for its themes of women’s empowerment as well: it was not just new sounds, but new attitudes too, and this continued what Janet Jackson had started with Control. Thus, New Jack Swing never was just music: it was a movement, of fusing the old with the new, in an unabashed, at times crazy-sounding and excessive-looking manner.

TLC’s music videos showed the colorful fashion of the early 90’s that went hand in hand with New Jack Swing.

Other artists followed suit: Madonna flirted with the genre on her album Erotica, Paula Abdul’s hit Straight Up had a New Jack Swing influence on it, and overseas Kylie Minogue tried the sound on her track The Word is Out.

Of course, it wouldn’t last forever. In the mid 90’s the genre started to decline in popularity. New sounds were emerging; as always, music and culture were moving on. In a way, it’s not surprising that New Jack Swing didn’t remain at the top of the charts for a very long time: a sound so overpowering, so excessive was eventually to tire out ears. But it wasn’t a fad. It didn’t go away like some silly trend. It had shown a new way of doing music that you can still hear today.

New Jack Swing brought together hip hop and RnB. It brought together the streets and the soft sounds. And this came to stay, as we can see in today’s culture and music, the two worlds are seamlessly working together, with artists collaborating and mixing sounds like it’s nothing.

New Jack Swing, Personally

Reflecting on the genre’s history personally, a few records stand out for me. Janet Jackson’s Control is a beautiful creation, a great start for the movement. Keith Sweat’s I Want Her is a rough, kind of a primitive incarnation of the genre — of course, it was among the first — but it’s got a delightful groove. Guy’s first album Guy has a rough sound, but if you listen closely, the beats are ingenious, showing Teddy’s knack for the punchy swing and complex, detailed percussion tracks. The tracks Teddy’s Jam and I Like stand out on the album.

Michael Jackson’s Dangerous is the most musically advanced creation within New Jack Swing. Michael and Teddy were the perfect pair for creating a new sound and taking it to the next level. To my ears, Dangerous remains the most futuristic sounding album of all time: you can’t tell it’s from the 90’s in terms of the quality and purity of the sound!

And finally, TLC’s debut Ooooooh… on the TLC Tip is just the funniest record of them all. It’s guaranteed to give you a big smile. A beautiful work of music that added one more memorable moment to the history of New Jack Swing. I’ll surely be listening to this and all these other jams in the future too, no matter what decade we’re living in!

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