B(l)ack on the Street . . . under the Sheets
He was “at the center of a swirl of events”, as the late Larry Neal would put it. No, the Harlem born native Teddy Riley was not the heir apparent to the Harlem icon “Detroit Red”, but Riley’s signature post-soul sound—the new jack swing—was the mystic move that finally wedded the disparate worlds of 1980s R&B and the burgeoning hip-hop movement. Not nearly earth shattering—more common sense—Riley simply took the gyrating rhythms of hip-hop and layered them below old-school soul melodies and old-school soul shouts. Now, 15 years later, such a sound literally defines the scope and range of contemporary R&B or hip-hop soul (as the folks at Corporate describe it).
Though Riley was an in-demand producer in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, his musical vision was primarily represented by his group Guy, whose debut self-titled release in 1988 contained new-jack anthems like “Groove Me” and “Teddy’s Jam”. After their second release The Future (1990), Riley and his partners, lead vocalist Aaron Hall and his brother Damien, went their separate ways. Riley emerged in 1994 with a second group Blackstreet, which included co-founder Chauncey Hannibal, Levi Little, and Dave Hollister. Their debut captured the classic Riley sound, with an even more pronounced nod to classic soul. As fellow critic Franklin Paul Jr. has always maintained, Blackstreet was always the better Riley product and most audiences agreed when the group had its commercial breakthrough with Another Level (1996), despite the fact that Little and Hollister, who went on to become one of the signature soul voices of his generation, were replaced by Eric Williams and Mark Middleton. The group’s follow-up Finally was doomed by a dis-interested label (at the time Interscope). By 2000, Riley and Hannibal were suing and counter-suing each other, continuing Riley’s on-going legal problems dating back to his relationship with mentor Gene Griffin in the late ‘80s. Having watched producers he helped put in the game like Timbaland and the Neptunes become the very center of a world he helped create, Riley and Blackstreet return with Level II, their first release for Dreamworks.
Riley has a wide ranging musical palette and with the assistance of fellow producers Leroy Burgess (of Riley’s production house Blackrock) and Eugene Peoples, he draws upon the legacy of post-‘70s R&B with an archivist’s precision, bringing his work in line with that of other “re-constitutionists” like MAW (Masters at Work), King Britt, and Vikter Duplaix. Riley’s Blackstreet oeuvre includes reworkings of Bill Withers’s “Grandma’s Hands” (the now classic “No Diggity”), TS Monk’s classic “Bon, Bon, Vie” (“The Good Life”), Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (the hard-to-find remix of “No Diggity”), the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” (“Money Can’t Buy Me Love”), and a straight jack of the Jackson’s “Can You Feel It” (“Can You Feel Me”); and he continues the trend on Level II, which references the Commodore’s “Brick House” (“Don’t Touch”), Biggie (“She’s Hot”), Simply Red (“Look in the Water”), and Rolls Royce (“Ooh Girl”).
Facing the daunting task of trying to compete with the B2Ks and Dru Hills of the world, Blackstreet understandably attempt to establish a viable place in the market by coming off as more hard-core and carnal than some of their competition. It is a strategy that has kept contemporaries like Silk in the game and was part of the appeal of Blackstreet’s best-selling single “No Diggity”. But Riley hasn’t been attuned to dancefloor R&B since his early heydays when he laced the likes of Johnny Kemp (“Just Got Paid”), James Ingram (“I’m Real”), Keith Sweat (“I Want Her”), Boy George (“Don’t Take My Mind on a Trip”) and Guy.
In fact the clunky computerized new-jack clatter that so revolutionized R&B in the late ‘80s was one of the first aspects of that sound that become dated and passé as producers like Diddy (then Puff Daddy), Devante Degrate (of Jodeci), Jermaine Dupri and later Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins began to push past Riley’s innovations. The up-tempo tunes on Another Level either fall flat, like “Wizzy Wow” which features Mystikal or contain lyrics that are so sexually overcharged that they border on insipidness. A good example is “She’s Hot”, where Chyna, in her obligatory rap cameo utters the not coy enough ditty “Like Madonna I’m like a virgin, get facials like I got a spa in the Bourbon”. The one exception is “Don’t Touch” which is an obvious stab at recreating the magic of “No Diggity” including employing the talents of Mr. Cheeks and appropriating “Brick House”.
The bright moments (if grimy sex can ever be described that way) on Level II are the ballads where lead vocalists Chancy Hannibal and Erick Williams are in good form throughout. Beginning with the over-the-top sexual innuendo of the lead single “Deep”, where Riley takes lead via vocoder, the ballads on Level II comprise a classic pre-coital mixtape. Drawing on the work of underground soul artist Bat, Alexander Weheliye suggest in his provocative essay “Feenin’: Post-Human Voices in Black Popular Music” that the use of vocal distortion apparatuses like vocoders (revolutionized in R&B by the late Roger Trautman) moves contemporary R&B past the traditional invocations religious spirituality. Riley of course is one of the figures who challenges this theory in that he weds this technology with his own training and upbringing in the Black church. “Deep” for all of its problematic allusions to graphic sex, taps into a carnal spirituality that few artists have consistently drawn on other than standard bearer soul men like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Prince, and most recently R. Kelly.
The oh, so sweet, “Look in the Water”, samples the melody of Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years” (Picture Book, 1985). Featuring Erick Williams (who never gets enough credit for his vocal talents) and Chauncey Hannibal (who most folks also slept until he sang opposite Ms. Jackson on the Blackstreet remix of “I Get So Lonely”) on lead vocals, is yet another “tribute” to the Mick Hucknall classic. Versions of the song have been recorded by the Isleys, Randy Crawford, and Angie Stone, who contributed a particularly soulful version of the song for the Love and Basketball (2000) soundtrack. The song has been “appropriated” as a contemporary R&B standard. Hucknall and his group Simply Red took a lot of heat in some circles (“I Stand Accused”) for their remake of Harold Melvin and the Blues Notes’ (with Teddy P on lead) “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” in 1988. Simply Red’s remake was perceived as a blasphemous “white cover” of the song (it was even discussed on an episode of A Different World). Blackstreet’s use of “Holding Back the Years” is a reminder that such appropriation goes both ways and given the number of folks who for all intents have given props to Hucknall’s songwriting skills, the white chocolate boy wonder needs to get props for what is one of the most exquisite voices to emerge in the last 20 years.
The standout ballads on Level II are “You Made Me” and “Bygones”. Produced by Leroy Burgess, “You Made Me” is the classic (soul) power ballad, again giving Hannibal a wide forum to show off his still maturing vocals. The song comes alive in the mid-section when Hannibal’s pimp-stagger vocal delivery is cradled by the group’s best harmonic performance. The music is stripped down on the acoustic “Bygones”, which begins as an obvious crossover attempt, in the vein of Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry”. But the group puts a distinct Blackstreet spin on the recording, including a cameo by original lead Dave Hollister. Also of note is the sugary ditty “Ooh Girl”, where Riley and company give a new coat of paint to the Roll Royce classic “Ooh Boy” doing the obligatory gender inversion.
Now in the game 15 years, Teddy Riley is a veteran among contemporary R&B artists and producers. His ability to adapt to changing fashions and musical styles is only matched among his generation by R. Kelly. Blackstreet ‘s Level II is just a small reminder that Riley, unlike many of his peers, has always focused on longevity—the kind of longevity that only the consistent production of good music can guarantee.