'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


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.

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."

What was it like working in the studio together?

When I was there working with him, it was cool, but when I would leave, he would be in that recording room recording stuff over and over again. Keith is the one that will keep on singing and singing until he gets it the way he likes it. He is an over perfectionist. We would be in the studio all day long. We would work on five to six songs in one day. He was quick in getting the songs done, but when he heard certain things, he would go back in and just keep recording. We completed 16 or 17 tracks for the album. It took us about six months to finish the whole album.

How were some of the songs constructed during the making of the album?

When I did the track for "Something Just Ain't Right," everything just started to sync together. We were doing the song in my house and he started writing the words to the music. I think he was going through something during that time with his girlfriend. This is how he came up with the direction of it. He was basically talking about life with his girl.

For "Make It Last Forever" I had the track and we were at my house. He started humming and singing melodies on top of the tracks that I had. To tell you the truth, I really didn't understand it when he was doing it. He did it a little different than how I was taught back then. I was taught that you would go to your side and write, and I'll stay on my side and the music would be playing. And, you would sit there and write. But he would just go right there on the spot and come up with the lyrics from the top of his head. This is how Keith was in the studio.

On "I Want Her" I had the actual hook and music already done. He came in the studio and sung over top of the track. With the verses for "I Want Her," I heard him the sing the verses the way they appeared on the album, but he would always think about what would the people think. So, when he had that nasal sound, he was just playing around, but I didn't think he was playing around. I told him this is what we were going to do. He wasn't for it at first, but then he came around to the idea.

"Right and a Wrong Way" came together in the same way. I worked on the music and most of the time when Keith would have another keyboard player there; I would come up with the foundation of the music. He would sing over top of it. We would have Fred McFarland come in and play different parts. We would have Rahiem LeBlanc from the group GQ come in and play some parts. A lot of people played on the album, but the most authentic we did on the album like the saxophone solo on the beginning of "Something Just Ain't Right" came from me because we couldn't get a saxophone player to play on it.

"How Deep Is Your Love" was basically me doing the production work and Keith singing over it. This song was unorthodox when it came to the melody matching the music. Keith was jammin' over the track and just singing whatever came into his head. I did the vocoder part to create the hook. The vocoder became the bass line for the track. We did the whole album in the projects in New York and then we took it to the studio and made it bigger. A lot of the stuff we kept on the AKAI 12 track recorder and transferred it to the board so we could replay it because we weren't getting the sound we wanted.

What specific instruments did you use in creating the sounds?

I used the B50, which is now called the B550 and it has the same exact sounds. I used the W30 made by Roland and the S30 that was made by Yamaha. I used the SV 350 vocoder, which is an old vocoder that had the actual equalizer switches and equalizer fades. The drum machine I used was an Alesis drum machine. I also used the Alesis sequencer.

How do you feel about the impact the album made on popular culture 25 years later?

Let me tell you something. When "I Want Her" came out, Frankie Crocker played it on a segment of his show called "Make It or Break It." And when he put it on "Make It or Break It," the people chose to break it. They thought it was wack. I was really sad when it happened. I didn't really like Frankie Crocker because he would just diss people. So—this was the first time I liked Frankie Crocker. He told the audience on the radio, "You all may have chosen to break the record, but I'm going to play this record because this record is a smash. We need something new and I'm going to make this record." That is what made people start loving the record. We didn't have anything new because people were settling for the same thing just like now. Music is recyclable. People do the same thing and the next thing you know it's going to change. It just takes someone to change it, and that's what Keith did with R&B. We gave R&B a new lifeline. New Jack Swing was the first genre to have a singer on a rap track. You can still see the effect of it in today's music from rap to R&B.