'We Gave R&B a New Lifeline': How Teddy Riley Invented New Jack Swing

The back story on Keith Sweat's seminal Make It Last Forever, for its 25th birthday

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Elektra

By the mid 1980s, R&B was at a generational crossroads and rap was on the rise. An amalgamation of the two genres was being made in the St. Nicholas Projects in Harlem, New York, where a prodigious music talent named Teddy Riley joined with an up-and-coming artist named Keith Sweat. The result brought a seismic shift in urban and pop music when Make It Last Forever was released on November 24, 1987. The New Jack Swing movement was born, and it proceeded to dominate much of pop for the remainder of the decade into the early 1990s.

Make It Last Forever went on to sell more than three-million copies and left an indelible mark worldwide. On the occasion of Make It Last Forever's 25th anniversary, I spoke with Teddy Riley about crafting an album that served as a launch pad for a hugely successful genre.


How did you become involved with Keith Sweat and crafting his debut album?

My music career started with a band called Total Climax. We competed in a band competition in New York, New York. Keith Sweat was in another group called Jamilah. His group was one of the top bands out there that everyone loved because they had singers with different ranges. He was a falsetto singer and then he would come down to the Jeffrey Osborne-type of singing voice. I was like, "Wow" when I first saw him perform. I was the keyboardist for my band and when we performed in the Big Apple band contest, we actually beat Keith's band. I was very excited about that when it happened. From that day on, I would always say, "What's up?" to him and he would say, "What's up, shorty?" He didn't really know my name and I didn't know his at that time. I just knew his band was amazing.

"Music is recyclable. It just takes someone to change it, and that's what Keith did with R&B. We gave R&B a new lifeline."

How Keith and I became music partners is when he came to my block looking for me. He wanted the sound I had. He liked the songs I did for Doug E. Fresh and Classical Two. When he saw me on the block, I was actually shooting dice with my friends. He said he wanted to get in on the game so we started gambling and he took everyone else's money except mine. I was wondering why he came around our block because he never left his block. You couldn't just come around our block unless you knew someone from our block. After we left the game and took everyone's money, he said, "I'm here to see you because I want some of the music you're doing. "I told him I don't do R&B.' He said, "You can take a shot at my music. Just give me the hip hop and learn some chords." I told him, "All right, I know a few chords." I knew some chords because I was doing some stuff for rap and not for R&B.

He said, "I want to come over, and let's listen to some things and see what you got. Then we can make the stuff sound like R&B. I'll write to it and do what I do to it. And, if it works, let's put it on the album. I'm doing my album now because I just got a record deal." I said, "Bet." I told him to give me a few days and then he came back to the house. I already had the beats made for "I Want Her" and "Make It Last Forever." I put all of the backgrounds down on "I Want Her." It is actually me that you hear saying "I Want Her" on the backgrounds of that song. He didn't change it because he wanted that sound. This is how we started doing music together and how I started doing R&B music.

Can you describe the process of working on music with Keith during the making of the album?

It was a really organic process. I had no formula. I had no plans to do R&B music. New Jack Swing would've been just rap if I didn't get with Keith Sweat. While working on Keith Sweat's album, I was in a studio in New Jersey and that's where we worked with Patrick Adams. Patrick Adams helped us with "Don't Stop the Love" along with Fred McFarland. Keith Sweat was the reason I got into R&B music and continuing with it after we finished his album. He is really responsible for me taking a chance on R&B music.

How did you and Keith come up with the melodies and arrangements for the songs?

We worked together on the melodies and arrangements. I was the one that made him take the chance of keeping his voice with that nasal sound. He didn't want to do it. He walked out on me in the studio because he didn't want to sing that way. He said, "I don't sing that way, baby. That's not how I sing."I was like, "You should try it because it's a new sound. People won't say you sound like this person or that person. They will say that's his voice and that's his style."

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Chris Williams has written for EBONY, PopMatters, and The Huffington Post.

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