The architect of the New Jack Swing sound was Edward “Teddy” Riley. While growing up in Harlem, Riley was a prodigious talent playing a multitude of different instruments. By the time he was a teenager, Riley was producing for a number of local hip-hop acts. He received his big break when he produced “Go See the Doctor” by Kool Moe Dee in 1986. The demand for his production talents grew exponentially and he was able to leave his fingerprints over the eardrums of mainstream audiences worldwide.
Riley’s creation of New Jack Swing music was best described by West: “I remember listening to records in 1985 and the drum sounds were very poppy and had a lot of reverb,” says West. “The records had a 2/4 beat structure to them. They were popular in the music you would hear at clubs during that time. When the New Jack Swing sound came in, it kicked up the BPMs from 94 to about 105. It was much faster and there was more rhythm, percussion, and movements within the drum tracks. Keyboard-wise, it was very busy and we would call it organized noise. It was like chaos, but organized. It showcased the backbeat in music and a lot of the percussion shuffles. These were the types of things we didn’t have in the mid-1980s.”
Before New Jack Swing transpired, R&B music was at a crossroads and looking for a new youthful direction. New Jack Swing revitalized a classic genre while staking its claim in hip-hop. The trailblazing genre introduced the format of having an R&B and hip-hop artist on the same song together. This formidable combination resulted in a seismic shift for urban and pop music. By the late 1980s, music was dominated by this union and pop culture audiences gravitated to it en masse.
Legendary music video director Lionel C. Martin remembers how he had to change his methodology in producing videos once New Jack Swing became prominent on the musical landscape. “When I directed hip-hop videos, there wasn’t a formula, you just went with the flow,” says Martin. “The hip-hop guys dressed a certain way and they had a lot of street credibility. As a result, the videos were more edgy. When I directed R&B videos they had a more smooth, nightclub type of vibe. The artists would dress very sharp and more grown up. hip-hop felt younger and R&B felt older to me. So when this marriage with the music happened, it forced me to change the way I directed videos.”
These videos were an amalgamation of these different styles and it helped to cultivate another movement in television and motion pictures. The early 1990s ushered in a plethora of new talent and some of the top stars in the industry took advantage of the opportunities presented to them, which expanded New Jack Swing into the homes of urban and suburban audiences. The Arsenio Hall Show hit the airwaves in 1989 and it showcased performances by numerous New Jack Swing artists, thus giving credence to the genre.
TV sitcoms were given to urban artists in prime-time slots such as Will Smith (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and Queen Latifah (Living Single). With Andre Harrell as its Executive Producer, the police drama New York Undercover was an offspring of the New Jack Swing era. Movies as varied in style and theme as House Party, Do the Right Thing, Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, and Boomerangproved to be viable hits at the box office. This ultimately led to more films being made by prominent filmmakers about urban culture.
Angela Hunte-Wisner was the first African American stylist for urban music videos during New Jack Swing’s heyday. She was the mastermind behind many of the fashion designs in urban videos, such as artists wearing Starter jackets and jerseys, Hi-Tec boots, one shoe and one boot, graffiti jackets, backward jeans, multicolored Nike shoes, Air Jordans, and baggy clothing. She also coined the term Alexvanderpool Era when referring to Boyz II Men’s hip-hop / couture outfits, which consisted of Ralph Lauren jean shirts, Tommy Hilfiger sweaters, jean shorts, and a tie.
Hunte-Wisner shares some of her insight for her designs and her feelings about the New Jack Swing era. “I dressed Boyz II Men, Hi-Five, Jodeci, New Edition, Robert Kelly before he became R. Kelly, among many others for these videos,” says Hunte-Wisner. “I was the first young, black stylist to change the way we dressed and the way we thought about fashion by mixing hip-hop with couture. I never sought credit for it because I thought it was something I shouldn’t take credit for. I was doing what I did every day when I dressed myself. I was basically incorporating my everyday style with the artists I was working with back then.
“We were a movement and a culture. The budgets that we had were very limited. No one could have done what we did back then with the budgets we had. By the time we started doing R&B videos, we finally started to move up to $100,000 budgets, but before then our budgets were between $10,000 and $30,000. We had to make a dollar out of 15 cents during those days. Improvisation was the key to our success.”
The New Jack Swing era tapped into the heartbeat of America and beyond, making use of all media available at the time. From the high top fades, to the Cross Colors apparel, to the popular dance moves fans would perform in nightclubs and at school dances alike, nothing could touch the core of the movement. Looking back twenty years later on New Jack Swing’s impact on popular culture, the music sent shockwaves across the globe forcing audiences to become enraptured with the burgeoning genre. The fashion matched the youthful exuberance in the music by incorporating styles the artists were influenced by in their respective cities. New Jack Swing, in its sound and look, defined an era and its relevance to the recent history of pop music remains unquestioned.