Roughly 20 years ago was the popular apex of new jack swing, a subgenre of R&B that was the conclusion of the path that the musical form had explored for much of the 1980s. Hands down my favorite style of R&B, new jack swing marked the point when the genre began to fully acknowledge hip-hop, working its rhythms and raps into tight, well-oiled pop-funk compositions that valued high-stepping energy and intricate production above all else; the now thoroughly-blurred overlap between R&B and hip-hop in mainstream music is the style’s enduring legacy. New jack swing was club music—while certainly Bobby Brown or Guy would be wooing the ladies with every lyrical opportunity, it wasn’t the bedroom but the promise of a vibrant dancefloor that was the destination of choice—that was a much as feast for the discerning ear as it was fuel for a weekend out party-hopping.
A large part of new jack swing’s appeal is its irresistible energy, achieved through busy arrangements that incorporated stuttering grooves, swooping synth stabs, and confident, self-assured rap interludes. Mainstream R&B of the 1980s was by and large upbeat and uptempo, and new jack swing maxed out those qualities as much as possible, making extended 12” vinyl remixes mandatory to keep the dancefloors happy. Part of what drew me to the genre as a kid which I only recognize now was its modernist nature: here was pop music that sounded daring in its slick construction and incorporation of (new to me then) sounds, not at all as dinky as technologically inferior synth-based efforts from earlier in the decade. The artists look the part, too—decked out in flattops and colorful outfits, they looked urban and urbane, the hip embodiment of the age.
There are those who would point to the start of new jack swing as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ work on Janet Jackson’s 1986 album Control, but one man above all others deserves credit for envisioning the genre: Teddy Riley. The mastermind behind the genre-defining New York City trio Guy, Riley proliferated the sound he created quickly by employing his skills as a songwriter and producer for other R&B upstarts. In short enough order though Riley found himself vexed by copycats hoping to score similar commercial success, even telling The New York Times in 1991 that he was building his new studio in Virginia because he was afraid of having his ideas stolen by visiting hometown musicians. By the early 1990s new jack swing so embodied cutting-edge R&B that none other than the world’s foremost pop superstar Michael Jackson picked Riley to produce his 1991 album Dangerous, an underrated record that balances out its flaws with great moments like “Remember the Time” and “In the Closet”. While Riley’s work with Jackson is probably the one thing he will be remembered for above all others, it’s important not to overlook the Guy hits that formed basis for it all, particularly the pivotal early new jack swing cut “Groove Me”.
The most eager adopters of the new jack swing sound appear to have been the members of boy band New Edition, who all elected to immerse themselves in the genre for their late ‘80s/early ‘90s solo work. New jack swing functioned as an ideal progression from their teenybopper roots, sounding “street” and more adult without forsaking pop sheen. Bad boy Bobby Brown came out first and reached the highest heights with his 1988 solo debut Don’t Be Cruel (featuring behind-the-board work by the ubiquitous Teddy Riley, as well as L.A. Reid and Babyface). Of all the monster hits from that record, it’s the title track that’s the crowning achievement, arranged like a true pop single epic with its tension-building ascending sections that climax with sing-along choruses. Brown’s former bandmates could also pump out their own new jack masterpieces: Brown’s replacement Johnny Gill delivers a performance akin to a sheer force of nature in the brazen, bombastic “Rub You the Right Way”, while New Edition frontman Ralph Tresvant opted for a smoother approach with the appropriately-titled “Sensitivity”. Yet it was the conglomeration of “the other guys in New Edition”—Bell Biv Devoe—that in 1990 crafted the genre’s equivalent to “Stairway to Heaven” in “Poison”, hands down the best song released that year. A perfect single, “Poison” is the absolute pinnacle of the genre’s output, a fantastic record that owes it potency primarily to its soulful three-part leads, its jazzy bass runs, and its signature hook—that stuttering, stop-and-start drum pattern that’s so recognizable you can tell what song it belongs to instantly.
Two other major new jack swing songs from the style’s heyday deserve special notice. First is the genre’s first major hit, Keith Sweat’s 1987 single “I Want Her”. Another Teddy Riley production, the bouncing “I Want Her” focuses on laying down the confident groove before Sweat enters the spotlight with his relaxed, jazz-tinged delivery, coolly enunciating the title as if it were one word until it’s time to sing “Iwan, Iwan, Iwan, Iwan, I want!” with yearning, percussive emphasis.
The other is the “Screw work, it’s the weekend” club-hopping anthem “Just Got Paid” by Johnny Kemp. From that overzealously zigzagging synth string intro onward, “Just Got Paid” just sounds like the coolest jam in the world when it comes on, so exuberant and lively it’s hard not to move a muscle listening to it. I don’t even like going out to clubs, but whenever I hear this song it makes wish I was immediately at one.
As the 1990s wore on, new jack swing became passé, losing its novelty as R&B and hip hop overlapped more and more, and losing its allure of cool as gangsta rap and the more sedate sexmusic of R. Kelly gained ground. Leave it to Teddy Riley to provide the genre’s last great song. After Guy disbanded, Riley formed Blackstreet, and in 1996 the group released its signature hit, the slickly cool “No Diggity”, featuring a classic piano fill as memorable as those drums on “Poison” from the new jack swing’s golden era.
// Notes from the Road
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